31 March 2009
What Are Words For
Several years ago, I was standing in a long line in the restroom at London, Heathrow when I started to lose my temper.
I was still overwhelmed by the sights and smells of India. Of escaping a riot, of a battered little boy in a GAP t-shirt teaching me how to hide butter from rats, of riding an elephant and throwing Halloween candy to the village children shrieking in glee below me, of dropping my used tampon down a gaping hole inside a moving train, watching it splat-land on the tracks beneath me (okay, that was for Robin McA), but most of all, lying prone on the floor on the spot where Gandhi had been shot, wondering how he got to the place where he could forgive his assassin before he was assassinated.
And I wanted to pee. On a toilet with real toilet paper. And there was this long, freaking line that wouldn’t end. When I heard a voice say: “Shut up. This is what you said you missed about being human. The smells, the lines, the realness of it all.”
I turned around, looking for the voice behind me only to see a foreign blend of chick batter standing impatiently, none looking my way. The voice was my own – but was it my soul or my delirium talking after the long flight home?
I remembered Gandhi’s quote: "I can neither say my theism is right nor your atheism is wrong. We are seekers after truth.” Who knows what those voices are – only that they contain truth in them. Even in our weariest, most broken down state, there is something glorious about being human.
One of my favorite films is After Life, a Japanese movie where upon your death, you enter a way station where you are given a bunk bed and a few days to contemplate your favorite memory. Once chosen, it will then be recreated and you can take it – and only it – with you. The rest of your life will be erased. Perhaps it’s just easier that way. All the words left unsaid will not haunt you. All the words said you didn’t mean, will be left in your past life baggage at the door so you can move on.
When I boarded a plane last week to visit my friend Elizabeth, it was the day after her surgery for breast cancer. I contemplated what to say. How to make it better for her. To remind her time heals all wounds – of the heart, the mind and the body. But when I got there, I realized there are no words really. Her experience is her own. I can’t fix it, erase it or make it better.
I can only laugh while Alyson’s kids play Twister and smile as Maggie fusses over Elizabeth’s blanket and hope that Amy slowed down long enough to taste the sake she drank at the sushi restaurant. When I said goodbye, I kissed Elizabeth on the forehead and said, "I love you." I know she will be okay.
When I got back to the hotel, Paul had had a similar experience. He had gone for a walk in the park with a friend whose relative had died. He told me: I didn’t know what to say. Everything sounded so inadequate. His long dark hair covered one eye as he sat down heavily on the bed.
It was then that I cried. For him, for Elizabeth, for the voice in the Heathrow bathroom, reminding me that long lines like realness are part of the extraordinary, sometimes irritating joy of being human.
It was through these pathos-seeking tears, that I realized that perhaps sometimes there is nothing to say. Perhaps the most powerful words were already spoken when we boarded a plane and flew across the country?
I had left behind my friend Steve and my friend Tom, two men I love dearly who had just experienced death, the news of their losses coming to me exactly one hour apart. Two different Mel & Rose’s baskets of wine and chocolate were delivered to two different houses that day. When I was on the phone placing the order, the woman said, “What do you want the first card to say?”
Well. One lost his brother to suicide. What can you say for that? And the other lost his father, by all accounts an extraordinary man, proven with just one look at the son. Some will say, well the father was older. It was to be expected. But does that make it easier? There will be no more words exchanged for any of them.
I said, give me a moment. And I hung up. Sitting with it all. When I called back, I had found some words for Steve. And for Tom. They weren’t enough. But they were something.
When I returned home to LA, I saw an old lover of mine for the first time in 15 years. I’ve loved many since then, have a satisfying career, a beautiful child, a stable blessed life – yet when face to face with this old memory, I realized that somehow, we return to the same place we were when we left them. Much like going to a high school reunion where you become the “16 year old theater geek who wrote Blondie lyrics on the bathroom wall,” or to your childhood home, where you become “the wayward daughter who left a promising career in criminal law to major in Shakespeare” or in this case, standing in Griffith Park, you simply become “the heartbroken.”
I had, rather coincidentally, just joined Facebook where I found Pete, my high school crush who was the first to chip away at my virginal heart. He kissed me once, I think, but I am not even sure of that anymore. It was the rejection that I remembered. We chatted, I asked about his father. Carlos was still alive. I felt giddy. But there was no pain here, only the excited wows of look at you, all grown up and out of your Burger King uniform.
But this one was different. This one still haunted me somewhere and I found myself shifting my feet, not knowing what to say. Until I heard: “I was a shit to you and I’m sorry.”
They were the simplest of words, but felt as powerful as a plane flight to New York. With those words, I was able to rewrite whatever feelings of inadequacy I had been carrying around, somewhere in some corner where such things hide. I also felt this rush of inner knowing, almost as if Fate’s loom was rapidly rewriting my story with this newer, brighter thread.
Four years ago, when I set out to have a child, I failed, attempt after attempt. It wasn’t until I shined a light inside and saw how crowded I was with bad memories, words unsaid and old childhood tapes that I realized I needed to clear out some emotional space if I wanted enough room to grow a child inside.
I dug through old address books. A few didn’t return my calls. Most did. I made appointments. I served tea and I said “I’m sorry” to friends, family and ex lovers that I had wronged. I apologized for not having the courage to pick up the phone sooner. That I can hear my daughter in the other room saying “Swiper, no swiping, oh man!” reminds me how powerful those apology teas really were.
And now, four years later, I had a cup of my own. My friend Jane said that Venus is in retrograde - first time in 6 or 7 years. It’s all about the personal right now. Maybe. Or maybe, we’re all getting to the age where we have to leave another chunk behind to grow up again. Only you know which ones those are.
On New Year’s Day, someone wrote the words “Life is Beautiful” on the side of a wall on La Brea Avenue. I took a picture with my cell phone. Months later, my friend Simone and I bundled up our daughters and headed off to Disneyland, when I saw the same words written across a garage door in an alley higher up on La Brea Avenue. I stopped the car and took another picture.
I have no idea if it was the same person, but someone in Los Angeles was picking up a spray can and choosing his or her words very carefully when he wrote: Life is Beautiful. Up and down the street.
If indeed, you too feel like time is speeding up and the merry-go-round is moving too fast and our friends are slipping off, then it’s just as important to remember that just as many of our friends are getting on for the ride.
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Because if we all do come back here, again and again, for the bathroom lines, the smells, the realness, the joy and pain of being human… then we must all ask ourselves, are we finding the time, finding the words to give ourselves everything we came back for?
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