First came the dolphins, at the beach in Newport. M.was out in the water and I was on the sand on a towel reading a book because I didn’t like the big waves; and there were dolphins in the surf, and I knew looking at them that M. wouldn’t be able to see them from where he was and that I wouldn’t be able to swim out to him in time to draw them to his attention, and so I just sat, and watched the dolphins. For the first time in years I was simply exactly where I was: and the sun was warm and the breeze was cold and the sand was dry and dusty under my feet and the towel was red and folded just right against the sand and the smell of salt and brine and water hung in the air and there were dolphins in the surf and I had them all to myself until they were gone.
Then, that same week, came the magnolia tree. M. and I went in to Santa Monica to see his aunt and uncle and niece in their new house. One afternoon we all went out to the yard and M. and his uncle practiced Kung Fu in the grass and the baby held with tight baby fists onto her mother’s index fingers and walked up and down the flagstones from the garage to the house, and I was under the magnolia tree in a green plastic chair and a breeze shook the browning flowers down from their stems to the grass and the white blossoms hung heavy and fragrant amongst the leaves and this tree was the most beautiful tree I had ever seen—I saw it like it was the first tree I’d ever seen, or maybe the last, with its gnarled old branches and thick healthy leaves and so many flowers, so many flowers.
And then I thought, I remember feeling like this before, when I was a child.
And then I thought, I want to keep feeling this way.
And then I froze and a ball of panic formed in my throat and all of a sudden I didn’t know how it had even come to me in the first place, and I didn’t know how to keep that feeling and it was slipping away from me but I didn't want it to! and my body tensed and then it was gone.
It was not possible for me at the time to see familiar objects like I saw the magnolia tree.
I ended up leaving M., because it is hardest of all to bring the magnolia tree to the ones you love.
I left M. the way an adult rips off a child’s band-aid after assuring him it won’t hurt as much; but a child isn’t so weary yet that getting a lot of pain over with quickly is necessarily better than feeling a little pain at a time, slowly. I told M. he didn’t love me the way I loved him; later he said, “You just don’t feel like I’m in love with you, and there’s nothing I can do about that.” I hated him for it when he said it, but he was right.
And I would wake up with my hands balled into fists, more exhausted than when I fell asleep; sometimes I would wake up and cry to think that I had to do it all over again that day. The only thing that kept me going was not a happy thought, which worked because I couldn’t be disappointed by it: I was determined that I would not have sacrificed my relationship with a man like M. only to continue being unhappy.
There were so many things I did to try to get better. I don’t know which was the most important. But I will list them all, and try to explain what each step meant to me. And I will tell you that I am mostly better, and that the work comes easier, but I still must do it, all the time.
I started running again. I had always liked running, and running gave me a choice, a role to play in my own recovery. I could get out of bed and go running and thus make a concerted effort to deliberately feel better. And even if it didn’t work—hey, at least I’d gone running. The endorphins only ever helped, and it made me take care of my body in other ways: if I didn’t get enough sleep, I couldn’t go running. If I didn’t eat right, my run was miserable and I got cramps. But the best thing about running was that it automatically shut my brain up for the length of my run. My body was working too hard to allow my mind to latch onto anything; thoughts came, and they went, and that was all. But this was running at its best only. Sometimes I had to walk. Sometimes I couldn’t run long enough to find a groove for my mind or my body. Sometimes I was tired and bitchy and not even running could cure my depression. But sometimes it did, and that was enough.
I refocused my attention. This is still difficult for me. What I mean is that any time I caught myself thinking about something other than what was directly in front of me, such as the future or the past or what I wanted or what someone else wanted, I refocused my attention onto what was in front of me. I used a mantra: “Shut up and look at a tree;” an especially effective mantra for when I had nothing to do, specifically, to focus my attention on. It was a reminder to mentally explore and experience the world around me, instead of the made-up one that was nowhere to be found. The future is not real, not yet, and maybe not ever. The past did not happen only in the way you remember it happening; the people who were there for an event perceived parts of what happened through the interpretation of their own thoughts, which is not nearly the whole of the event. And that doesn’t even take into account the sorts of happenings humans can’t experience directly, like the way the ultraviolet light looked or the sounds and smells present that you can’t hear or smell. Or, even more importantly, the views of other people which you can’t ever experience. The present, from your point of view, is the only reality you have access to, and it is worth being there for.
I didn’t yell at myself for doing badly at refocusing, but I didn’t let myself off the hook with excuses about how I needed to solve the problem I didn’t currently have. If it wasn’t in front of me, it was not pressing enough to be spending my time on it; or, if it was, in fact, that pressing, I would just put it in front of me. I make this sound easy. It is not. Sometimes I would go for whole days without managing to correct my attention. Sometimes I still do. This becomes incredibly difficult when an issue requires not only present work but an investment in the future—another reason relationships seem to evade the magnolia tree. But the way I describe the process was the goal.
I brushed my teeth and washed my face. This sounds silly. What I mean is that I took care of my body. Without the body, there is no experience, bad or good, tainted or relaxed. Without the body, there is only the mind and what it can do to you as it tries to entertain itself. I am a terribly cerebral person, sometimes to the point that I forget my body is there, except as a vague sort of vessel to cart around this beast of a mind I possess. I bump into things. I get bruises and can’t remember how they got there. I can completely ignore discomfort and pain because I am so caught up in my little thought-universe. But my thought-universe does not exist. It is made up. It is fiction. The real universe is the one my body inhabits. So I flossed my teeth.
I wrote. By this I mean: I took care of my mind. My mind can send me into spasms of invented torture. But it is also an amazing contraption. When my mind is healthy, I am forgiving and honest and creative and compassionate; I can identify the root of problems most people can’t even see; I can perceive the emotional states of the people around me. My mind is enormously capable, and when I ask it to do things like simply walk down a street I have walked down a thousand times before, it rebels at the monotony, and makes up problems it can solve instead, which are more interesting, and infinitely available. So I wrote to try to give my mind something to do. Articulating abstract thoughts is tough work for a mind; examining those articulated abstract thoughts for bias and for truth is even tougher. But such activity uses my mind to full capacity, in a positive way. I would write my thoughts and feelings down, and then they did not twist and turn when I tried to examine them for fallacies. The truth came in baby steps, but I got to know myself, got to know my own tendencies and traps, got to know the best ways to work myself out of those same tendencies and traps. I could create generous, wild hypotheses about the roots of my own behavior, but then I could leave them on the page and not take them with me.
Finally, I learned how to accept myself the way I accepted reality. I still have trouble with this; I am always changing, and reality is always changing, and it is easier sometimes when one is tired and overwhelmed to make believe oneself and reality will remain the same. But I was home at my parents’ house in western New York State, sitting up at two in the morning in my pajamas looking out the tall breakfast room windows into the blue snow and cloudy night skies, going over and over my decision to leave M.: had I made a mistake? Maybe he was the one for me. Would he take me back if I asked? Why had I treated him like that? I had failed at loving him properly; how could there be anyone else as good for me as he had been? And on and on in full detail about our painful relationship. And then again: Maybe I made a mistake.
And then I thought: So the fuck what?
And then I thought: He made lots of mistakes, and I still loved him. Aren’t I entitled to at least one?
And then I felt better, and I went to bed. It wasn’t the last time I had those thoughts; but it was the first time I’d allowed myself to have them without feeling bad. It was the first time I had admitted to a definition of myself that included mistakes, imperfections, reality. It is difficult. There is a person I want to be, and it is important to work towards being her as best I can. But it is also important not to get angry or ashamed or frustrated with myself for failing to be her; it is important simply to correct what can be corrected, and try again.
It is important to sit under magnolia trees.