I fell asleep early even for me–before 9, even—and slept long and hard. Nine hours, maybe. Was downloaded with dreams, dictation from the ancestors and guides, Kate Bush’s “The Dreaming” playing in my head when I opened my eyes, that’s how on the nose it all was. I could see tweaks that needed to be made to the book pages I’d written yesterday, the darkness I’d been tiptoeing around because, shit, with my Libra moon, I’m just not a fan of ugliness on any level. Yet there’s a thin line between dissociation and positivity. An even thinner one between danger and delight.
An inevitable byproduct of linear time, darkness always lives along with the light. It lurks in people’s selfishness and truculence. In how we dig at each other instead of digging deep. In our sanctimony and grandstanding rather than self-possession and self-speculation. In how we cater to fear and anger rather than using them as an opportunity for expansion and growth.
Yesterday my therapist asked if I’d always been able to climb inside others. When I nodded, she said, “All that sympathy must have been very hard to process when you were young.”
“Ah,” I said. “But I stopped sympathizing by age 7 or so. I never stopped feeling people’s feelings. But I stopped having feelings about their feelings.”
I woke knowing I’d only uttered half the truth.
The truth is I felt angry about what I perceived. I was pissed about the sanctimony and fear and fury lurking behind every crocodile smile, every question to which someone already knew the answer, every fradulent opinion, any false compliment. All that triangulating strategizing hedging campaigning double-talking. It’s like the whole world had the subtitles of that first date in Annie Hall—listen to me, I sound like FM Radio–and, yes, the Woody Allen analogy felt apt because I sensed the rot beneath the shtick and soaring skylines and it made me utterly hopeless about humanity. Sent me to speed and LSD and charismatic vicious men and the mad cocktail of lipstick and anorexia and Edie Sedgewick and any number of mind-numbing glamoramas before I found the balance provided by this revelation:
Beneath the rot is the seed, the soul, the sweet core of who we are when we pop out of woman’s womb; each of us are cogs in the great feminine divine and all the rest of it is just whistling in the dark while we find our way back.
That’s what I flash on now when members of our species are at their most specious.
The other day I ran into a man in the coffee shop whom I’d not seen for decades. He’d been in an Alphabet City punk band when I knew him in the 90s (I won’t say which one) and back then was newly sober but still stringy and greasy, still mawing dirty dishwater hamburgers and dollar coffee from the deli back when delis on every corner fed us only that. A friend had sent him my way because I needed new bookshelves built and one thing led to another and though I had a boyfriend and also a second boyfriend I let this man tell me all about the authenticity missing in my daily life and what hard work really was and how I was not sober though I was not drinking nor drugging (not doing anything but dramatizing who am I kidding). What he said was so true that I ignored his motivations for saying it (…also he had gorgeous dark eyes and this slash of a red mouth that just seemed like a really good idea at the time…)
And one rainy Tuesday when I was mad at my boyfriend and also my second boyfriend, this stringy newly sober man and I fell into bed.
I remember two things about that night. One was that he wore very stinky, very damp tube socks that he never took off while we fucked and this made me aware that his feet must have smelled even worse than those moldy towel-mat socks. The second was that he kept moaning with undisguised disappointment: You’re bigger than I thought. With his long skinny fingers and cock digging inside me he said: You look good in clothes but these big hips, you’re just everywhere…
He could barely get hard and his sliding deflating penis was in keeping with his wet-dog skinny-child body–the sort of bare-chested runt of the litter always getting into scrapes, tossing rocks at cars from the overpass, pedaling off on a dirtbike furiously when the cops showed up, that kid……
He was a small person, that’s what it was. But he needed to make me feel bad about not being small. About having height. About having heft.
And keep in mind I was 120 pounds then, though a legitimately tall woman.
Finally I said, You should go home. We’re not getting anywhere.
And he did, pulled on those baggy jeans with all the keychains people wore back then and those big black boots that a certain kind of hipster dude wears even now, and he and I studiously ignored each other for years on the streets of the East Village. Once I was on a date with a well-kempt, well-known journalist and when he and this guy nodded at each other silently at St Marks Books I knew without a shadow of a doubt that this journalist was sober; why else would he know a punkrock contractor who wasn’t good at either of his jobs? (For years I felt rage whenever a book slid off my shelves’ uneven shittiness.) Naturally this man did not nod at me.
But there he was the other day. In the coffee shop that is basically my Peach Pit, he was jiving two younger women, his legs and arms rubber-bandy the way they’d always been. Appealing and also ultimately unsubstantial. “Lisa!” he said. “I’ve been wondering if I’d run into you. I just bought a loft here.” I saw the grey in his cheek grizzle, the expensive jeans that middle-aged men in our neighborhood wear when they’re trying to fuck twentysomething girls.
“You look different,” he said, looking pointedly at my grownup lady figure. “Hey, I saw you on NY1 last year.” He leaned in to kiss me then, right on the mouth with the mercenary intimacy of a predator–the sort who pushes the envelope of every form of socially mandated physical contact. Just before he did I saw the open lesion on his lower lip. I have nothing against herpes–basically everyone has it even if they don’t know or admit it–but it takes mean stringy balls to kiss a woman you’ve already sexually humiliated on the mouth when you have a herpes lesion on your own.
I backed up before he could land the kiss. I am 47, not 27. “Wow, you haven’t changed at all,” I said, and left without ordering my coffee.
And I would have forgotten about all of it had my therapist not asked me about my distinction between sympathy and empathy.
Because when I was a psychic who also was sympathetic–when I was a walking open wound–I would have worried about hurting that guy’s feelings even though he was hurting my own. I would have let him slurp all over my mouth to avoid humiliating him (to avoid feeling his humiliation). But now I see his secret story–the neglected, sweet child angling for attention at any cost from a drunk mom; the 50something who has inflicted limitless pain because women looked like his mom and also because women did not look like his mom–I see all that without taking it on.
I can acknowledge his humanity without letting it bludgeon me.
That’s the gestalt of staying open but also aware, I guess. Of practicing radical empathy rather than codependent sympathy. You get the salty and the sweet. The boundaries that, ultimately, are constructs but still essential so long as we’re still floating through this mad, mud-luscious thing called life and, g-d help us, linear time. The shadows are necessary lines between dark and light.
The shadows teach us everything we need to know.