Bertha's List: September Edition
I moved to New York ten years after September 11.
Not having lived here before the attack meant that the Manhattan I came to know was one without two proud towers at the edge of the small island. The dust had long since settled but for every New Yorker the memory was still fresh. I’ve read and heard survivors’ accounts attesting to the kindness people showed one another during that time. There was no shoving on the sidewalk traffic, no rush to get anywhere. People went out of their way to help. The undercurrent was a mutual understanding of solidarity, there was tremendous compassion amidst all the horror.
During my second week living here I developed a terrible tooth ache. Terrified because I didn’t know my way around the city, much less of a dentist’s office, and feeling vulnerable being so far away from home I called my friend Doug. He took me to the clinic where the good doctor recommended one of two options: root canal or extraction. I was in so much pain I didn’t want to add any more. I also had a wisdom tooth waiting to come in which I figured could easily take the place of the molar gone rogue. I decided to take the sucker out. The pain was instantly gone. In its place was a gaping hole of tender flesh. Out of habit I kept flicking my tongue over its absence until over time the gum healed and the wisdom tooth dropped.
This past September 11, riding on the Q train over the Brooklyn Bridge, I looked out the window as usual, admiring the skyline. I tried imagining what it must have looked like before. Looking at the absence of the Twin Towers, it occurred to me that this landscape will never again be the same. The same way my missing molar forever changed the mouth I’d known for 25 years, New York’s landscape was also forever changed. Wounds mold the landscape of your body into something else. The scar becomes part of it. And although eventually you grow accustomed to the empty space, it’s a new mouth altogether.
Things with RobotBoy had been slowly deteriorating. By Labor Day I was ready to cut my losses and move on. I understood we were not so good together. Or rather this half-in, half-out ambivalence was not so good for me. I thought the graceful way I let him go represented some sort of personal growth on my part. Comforted by the thought, I picked up the pieces by going to Tibet House to meditate and hear the great masters speak. I didn’t know if through this relationship I was learning about Buddhism or if Buddhism was helping me learn through this relationship. Still, I was grateful. I’d also started jogging again. Meditation cleared my mind and exercise took care of everything else. I went to places by myself. Like that night at the movies to watch Prisoners -a fantastic film that I cannot recommend enough- and Thích Nhất Hạnh’s Calligraphic Meditation- an exhibition running at ABC Home till December that I also cannot recommend enough. I even went on a date which I considered a huge success because I managed not to think of him for the full span of one hour. It really was such a great first date and yet…
I closed my OKCupid account the next day. What was the point of sitting through an unbearably long dinner when all the while I longed for somebody else? Just like clockwork RobotBoy resurfaced, extending a friendly invitation for Friday-night-drinks. Against my better judgment, I accepted. My gut screamed to go home instead but fate had other plans. In his non-committal ‘Hello’ I sensed something was off. He casually handed me a beer and casually introduced me to his friend. Later in the evening she casually re-introduced herself as his recent ex-lover. My lungs cut off all oxygen, my stomach dropped, and my chest wouldn’t let up its squeezing. I couldn't believe the amount of pain that kept crashing over me in waves. I felt so betrayed, so humiliated, so hurt. I made up some pathetic excuse about an early brunch and booked it out of there faster than my rapidly disappearing composure. I commanded my trembling legs to move but only made it half a block. Before even realizing it, I found myself dialing Ryan's number. His voice surprised me because I'd forgotten I was on the phone. "Hey, I don't want to bother you but-" my voice cracked. He instantly knew. "Come over," he said. At the train station the only available seat was across a guy on the saxophone playing the saddest little song the world had ever known. Or maybe that was just me. Against all restraint, two silent drifters made their escape, prickling my cheeks. You haven’t truly lived in New York until you’ve nursed a broken heart waiting for the F train. A creepy man kept offering advice "You're too beautiful to cry... If you need someone to talk to... The city can be a lonely place." I thought the sax was bad but now I was officially in hell. I finally made it past Ryan's threshold and, like a weary traveler unloading its burden, I opened the flood gates and collapsed on his couch. Which is exactly where I stayed for the next two days.
If Robyn got me through my first crash on this carousel, then Sara Bareilles got me through the second. I lied on the couch, Kaleidoscope Heart playing on repeat, Jasper's furry paws at my feet, as I stared into nothingness. The events from the previous night kept replaying over and over again, like a badly written movie. The silent tears had now made grooves, as if to make the path easier for their successors. The ache in my chest was so tender I could almost touch my heart. I kept waiting for anger to break through the numbness. It did, eventually, but not at him. I was angry at myself. How stupid was I to be here again, to come full circle and have learned nothing? Maybe the lesson wasn’t clear the first time. Maybe I needed a solid blow to understand that if you hit a dog long enough it will eventually learn to stay away. Did I really expect him to come running up the fire escape, flowers in hand, and save me? I know, I know. That’s only Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. But just like Vivian, I too wanted the fairy tale. I deserved someone who would chase me. Or at the very least, came after me as I’m leaving a bar.
By nightfall Ryan and JianCarlos had had enough moping around to emo music. We had a friend’s party that evening, after all, and nobody liked a sad girl. So they dragged me out dress shopping. Jian sat in the dressing room for twenty minutes while I unenthusiastically tried on several little numbers. I put on a smile because I realized that their way of cheering me up was to make me feel pretty. Their kindness touched me so deeply. Those boys are golden and just then I felt so goddamn lucky. Few things are harder than celebrating with a bunch of people when all you want to do is be alone and miserable but celebrate we did. The fine drizzle at the beginning of the night turned into a deluge by the time we had to leave the party. We made a run for it, hollering and laughing the entire way, but we still got soaked. I secretly hoped the rain had washed away some of my melancholy.
The next day I washed my salt-stained face and took Jasper for a walk in the park. Sitting on a bench I watched the kids on the playground, the squirrels scampering across the grass, and the birds nesting in branches. I took in all those things I don’t usually notice and I was grateful. The sun kissed my shoulders and I forgave myself. I’d done something brave- I’d dared to love. Pema Chödrön wrote “Feel what’s underneath the story line. Feel the wounded heart that’s underneath the addiction, self-loathing, or anger. If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart and to relate to that wound.” In turn, I also forgave him. I left my anger on that bench and took only my wounded heart. I went back to my trusty couch. I gave myself permission to unravel. I needed to come apart at the seams before I could re-stitch. I’ve now come to understand that as my modus operandi. I woke up a few hours later with still no desire to move. That’s when my head very kindly told my heart: thank you for guiding us so far but now it’s time I take over. It seemed like the perfect time for that long-contemplated social media sabbatical. I needed to deal with my emotions without any welcomed distractions. I needed to learn how to be with myself, how to be alone without being lonely. Coincidentally, it was the first day of autumn. The arrival of a new season signified the final page on this
There’s an installation at the Thích Nhất Hạnh exhibit that reads: be still and heal. The placard underneath explains that when an animal in the wild is wounded, it chooses a quiet place to rest and recuperate. I craved stillness. I kept meditating, jogging, and throwing myself into long hours at work. I sipped wine while cooking (which is in itself therapeutic) to Bossanova radio. Whenever my mind wandered to the sad story line I practiced mindfulness by bringing my attention back to my surroundings. If I was bored I let myself be bored. I noticed right away that I was much more invested in the conversation being had over dinner than the texts buzzing in my purse. Because I wasn’t staring down at a glaring screen I was open to the present moment. My acting will one day thank my Buddhist practice, I’m sure of it. I would indubitably return to Facebook one day but for now I was enjoying the freedom of digital detachment.
A week passed and I felt so much better. Having already dispelled the notion I was meant to be miserable forever and ever, I went out for another friend's birthday. We went bar hopping with the sole purpose of life in your 20's: getting drunk. I personally needed a big old drink and, since it doesn't take much to get me tipsy, I was certifiably drunk after an Amaretto Sour and a beer. An adorable, tattooed Italian boy kept putting on the moves with quite the heavy hand. At our friends' behest, I ended up making out with the guy whose name I didn't even know. Sure, it was fun, but it sure wasn't like me. I apologized for my behavior, which I guess he found either endearing or ridiculous because he laughingly called me “too cute,” and for the second time that week I left the bar. The old adage of getting over someone by getting under someone may prove true for some people but not for me. Yes, that makes me a boring prude. But I'm the kind of girl who makes the extraction, waits for the wisdom to drop, and gives the tenderness time to heal.
“The Buddha taught that all human suffering is rooted in desire,” Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Desiring another person is perhaps the most risky endeavor of all. As soon as you want somebody- really want him- it is as though you have taken a surgical needle and sutured your happiness to the skin of that person, so that any separation will now cause you lacerating injury.” Her words resonated. No matter what the attachment is, whether it's a great national tragedy heard round the world or the quiet heartbreak that only you can hear, pain is pain. Ultimately, what defines us is how we choose to let the wound scar. Do we allow it to close us off or do we allow it to open us up a little more each time. To make us more compassionate, more loving, more hopeful.