Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Take Me Away

Last Wednesday, I surfaced to semi-consciousness at about 6.45 in the morning. My eyes felt grainy and my mouth dry. I’m sure, if there had been a mirror on the ceiling (we don’t have that kind of bedroom), I could have seen my hair resembling some creature out of a Jim Carrey daydream. I had worked late the previous evening, into the morning hours trying to finish some discovery responses that were due at the end of the week. Kevin had been in Chicago since Monday and wasn’t due back until late Wednesday evening. His side of the bed was strewn with files, and my laptop. The forty-four ounces of Diet Mountain Dew I had consumed at 1. 30 in the morning were pressing against my bladder. (It was one of those moments when I always wish that somebody could go to the bathroom for me.) I tried opening my eyes because I could hear the high schoolers up and moving around. The eyes didn’t want to open. With a groan, I rolled over and off the side of the bed and did the tight-hamstring shuffle towards the bathroom.

About two hours later, I returned home after having dropped off the elementary school boys. In those two hours, I had started and moved (but not folded) laundry, made breakfast (for two shifts), made school lunch, finished homework, practiced spelling words, researched Hod Saunders for the fifth grade Wax Museum, found clothes to wear, matched socks (or close enough), checked email, eaten breakfast, taken the garbage and recycling bins down the street for pick-up, read part of the newspaper. As I walked into the office to start again on the discovery responses, I realized it wasn’t Thursday like I thought it was. It was only Wednesday, and there were two more days of the week to go. Right then I was gripped with an overwhelming urge to read. . . . The thought of going back to bed with a book, and reading until the sun had made its way over the mountains behind us to shine through my kitchen windows was almost irresistible.

Ever since I was a child, books have been my escape, my way into another world. They still serve the same function for me. I suppose you could say books are my drug of choice. Some choose alcohol; others use prescription drugs; still another group goes shopping; and most of us eat. I choose books. You can measure the stress level in my life by the number of number of books I am reading and the size of the cold sore on my lip. The more stress I am under, the more books I read . . . a different one in every bathroom. Bathroom breaks turn into mini-vacations. (Certainly the twenty or so books I checked out of the library late Monday afternoon were a good indication I knew there was adrenalin ahead.) By the end of an evening, I long to read, to pick up the book, and to lie in bed, in the pool of light, darkness everywhere else in the house, other bodies breathing sleep, just me awake.

I can read for hours–if I can make it past that initial wave of sleep that threatens to overtake me. Somewhere past one in the morning, it becomes a guilty pleasure. I start promising myself that I will turn off the light at the end of the chapter, and then when I reach a round hundred numbered page, and then when I find out what happens to Bushrod at the Battle of Franklin. And then it’s so close to the end, it hardly seems fair to leave the characters where they are. So, I finish the book, at 2. 13 in the morning. Even then I am loathe to turn off the light. I don’t want to go to sleep because going to sleep means, inevitably, waking up.

I know my adult post-midnight need for narrative, for story, is less about appreciating the brilliant turn of phrase than about a need to postpone tomorrow. Not that tomorrow will be awful. It’s just that I know today; I don’t know tomorrow. I don’t know what it will bring. I don’t know its shape, its smell, or the rhythm that will develop as the day goes on. I don’t know what phone calls will come, what dogs will do, what children will forget and need, or what food will beg to be eaten. So, I read, late into the night, to put off the anxiety of the unknowable tomorrow. Yet, when I wake the next morning, it is always bearable, always familiar, the rhythms of the day well established and known to all of us in the house.

The unknowable tomorrow always seems that way–familiar and knowable when I come face to face with it, littered with people sent into my path, words and comments that make me smile, songs that cause my heart to swell, and a glimpse of early spring snows so smoothly white against a cerulean sky, my eyes can’t help but be pulled upwards. It’s my projection of the unknown that causes the anxiety which can rise up like bile to color even the present too dark. In a strange twist of too-vivid imagination, I retreat to books to escape the knowable present because I cannot face an unknowable, uncontrollable future.

In my first jury trial, I was gripped by a constant terror that filled me for days. I was completely out of my depth with little experience. I had no idea what the outcome would be, and spent the nights out of court reading books about what I should be doing the next day. When I woke in the morning, (the trial went for a week), I couldn’t quite believe I was still breathing. When I stood up to ask my first question during jury selection, I thought my heart would stop completely. But it didn’t. It kept beating, my lungs kept breathing, and I kept on living. The potential juror answered back. The world kept turning on its axis.

Through five days of jury selection, opening statements, direct and cross examination, I kept breathing and my heart kept beating–-much to my chagrin. I was so afraid I could not look up, look ahead, or beyond. It was all I could do show up in that court room. So I showed up (nicely dressed in Dutch courage) and let the day come at me. Through exhibits messed up, and failed attempts to enter items into evidence, and a very patient judge, and even more patient jury, I did my best . . . which was not very good. In the midst of my flailing, like a beached legal walrus, co-defendant’s counsel helped me get items into evidence, asked the questions I forgot to, and provided curative objections. I couldn’t have imagined such an outcome. It was beyond my imagination, beyond my power to conceive, but not beyond His.

Sometimes in our lives, it requires tremendous courage and nerve to simply show up, to be present in that particular day. To be completely and utterly present in the days in which you realize your business is failing and you will have to declare bankruptcy; in that particular day when it sinks in that he is leaving you and your children and you will be divorced; in that day and the days that follow when you realize that you cannot live with this man any longer and that you need to make a new life; in the days that you look at your children and their choices and weep for them and continue to love them; in the days after death; in the day where you take your beloved’s face between your hands and ask them about “us”; in the days where there is eleven dollars and fifty-seven cents in the bank and no milk until the end of the week; in the day you lose your job and the months of unemployment that follow. Those days that we never thought would be ours, that we could not have imagined--those are our most important days. We need to be in them, not floating in the unknowable tomorrow, or hiding from the knowable present.

We must be brave enough “to push against the hard edges of reality” that fill those very important days. We need to be fully present in those days, without books, drugs, drink, food or whatever you choose to dull your nerves and slow your responses. The sheer nerve it takes to allow the adrenalin and fear to rush through you, to sit in those feelings, is tremendous. But, if I don’t run, if I just stand, and allow it come at me (whatever it is), if I don’t fight it, I have experienced a sensation similar to standing in the ocean up to my neck in front of breaking waves. I can stand and fight the wave, choking on burning salt water. Or, I can accept that I will be moved, that the water will take me. So, I let go of my tiptoe tenuous hold on the ocean floor, and I am lifted up by that brute force in a motion surprisingly gentle and calming. Soon, I am back on the ground, and preparing for another wave. For that moment though, at the crest of the wave, I can see horizon, and the world is still.

As a new lawyer, I discovered, on the other side of the fear and anxiety, a world filled with helpers sent for one struggling attorney. They were my horizon and my moments of quiet. I could not have found them though if I hadn’t been in the courtroom, filled with fear and adrenalin coursing through every gland in my body. That was the day in which I needed to be present. Yes, it turned into five very long days, but each day was sufficient unto itself. The concept of tomorrow was too much for my inexperience; so I thought only about that day and what needed to be done for that day. In other words, I took “no thought for the morrow.” If I had, I would have been completely overwhelmed. I thought only about the next hour, or the next witness, or the next piece of evidence that I needed to get in. Not that I knew how to do much of what needed to be done. But, I learned, because I was fully present in those days, knocking against my hard reality, that there are those who know how to do what needs to be done, and if they don’t know, they know somebody who does. Invariably, those helpers show up.

(Title: Dixie Chicks, from “Cowboy Take Me Away”)

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