I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
–Percy Bysshe Shelley
I want to escape this haunted place, walk away, never look back, forget, and wander among green trees, feeling their breath on my face. I want the blessing of the rain on my skin, to plunge my hands into rich soil, lie open to birdsong and the sun’s touch.
I want to be free.
Yet, again and again, I find myself crouching in front of that shattered visage, tracing the frown, the wrinkled lip, the sneer of cold command, unable to leave it or look away. I remember, and weep, and try to understand how something so mighty, so powerful, can fall and break apart, become nothing more than a colossal wreck in a desert in an antique land, unvisited, unremarked, nothing but time’s debris.
I was born in the shadow of those stone legs. I watched the sculptors at work, perfecting, shaping. I learned to worship Ozymandias, to make myself small before him, to endure his stony displeasure and indifference.
I did not know his name for a long time, not until I read this poem in high school. He was called Money. He was called Status. He was called Power. He was king of kings – that I never doubted. He required unceasing sacrifice; though I sacrificed everything I had, the sneer and wrinkled lip looked down upon me in infinite contempt. I looked upon his works and saw destruction and anguish. I saw lies and shattered lives and I despaired.
By Wei Gao on Unsplash
I left. I crawled away under the weight of my own inadequacy and unworthiness, across the lone and level sands, feeling his stone gaze upon me. I left, and one day I got to my feet and walked, and then I remembered how to dance, and swim, and the world opened up for me, showing me friendship, healing and joy.
Then, across the years, across the miles, Ozymandias fell, and the ground of my being has shuddered and convulsed with the impact ever since.
Understand, when he fell it all fell. Secrets lay revealed. Lies tumbled naked in the desert sun. Ozymandias, so carefully sculpted by generations before me, disintegrated. I understood then what I was taught to call Money was really named Fear. Status was in fact Shame. The wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command were not love, were never love. The king of kings lay forgotten, impotent, slowly wearing away to sand.
“Look on my works … and despair.”
It’s all gone, the gods of my childhood, the king of kings, the money, the status, the false power.
Except for me. I am not gone.
In Maine, I eat and sleep. I journal and write. I walk to work, talk to people, laugh, teach. I sweat on the elliptical and exercise in the pools. I pay bills, make plans, file papers. I buy groceries and cat food. I do laundry and clean. I work in the garden. I’m distracted and absentminded, prone to sleeplessness and unexpected fits of tears welling from some deep unaware place. Or, on the other hand, maybe that place is all I’m truly aware of right now.
I talk and text and email to staff at the memory care center in Colorado where my mother resides, to her hospice team, to people at the agency we’ve now hired by request to provide extra caregiving. I hear about dementia, combative behavior, falls, sabotaged bed alarms, incontinence, sleeplessness, anxiety, medication adjustment. I am called to calm Mom down as though that was ever possible, as though she trusts me or ever took any comfort from me.
And part of me kneels in the desert, watching the family money (a mere pittance, judged by today’s standards rather than those of 100 years ago) and pride, that towering edifice more important than love, more important than health and happiness, more important than anything, sink into the desert like water. Is the desert powerful enough to cleanse it? Shattered Ozymandias still frowns, wrinkles his lip, sneers his cold command, but his works have disappeared even as he himself wears away.
Do I grieve or rejoice? I try to understand. I try to feel something more than despair at the waste of lives, at the dearth of love.
One thing I know: I will not stay here, beside Ozymandias. It’s a cursed place, a dark place. I will leave it to the circling vultures, the sun, the wind, and the silence. I will leave it to Time to wear away the sneer, the frown, the wrinkled lip, the trunkless legs. I left once, and I will leave again. I know this desert is a small place and the world is wide. I know who I am now. I know what love is, and that I’m capable of it. I am no longer alone.
I would have saved my family if I could have, but my gifts have no monetary value. What I have to give, what I am, cannot be bought or sold. I do not accrue a good rate of interest. I was not judged a sound investment. I did not increase my family’s status. Ozymandias, king of kings, was incapable of seeing or knowing me, being far too dazzled with his mighty works, dissolving now into sand while I myself, still vital and alive, pause to find absolution and mourn, groping for a way forward, watching it all decay.
What idols have fallen in your life?
What family secrets have you discovered?
Do you find comfort in the eventual fall of what once seemed all-powerful, or does it frighten you?
How have you challenged your family’s definition and expectations of you?
Leave a comment below!
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Seligman suggests a continuum of optimistic to pessimistic patterns of thought and belief that influence our happiness. He discusses the practices of hope or despair.
I struggled with this piece of his work. I don’t like the choice of hope (a feeling of desire or expectation for a specific thing to happen) or despair (absence of hope). I want a choice in between, but it took me some time to figure out what else wasn’t working for me. After talking it over with my partner, I finally got it — power!
Both hope and despair take me out of my power. Hope is passive. I’d prefer to ditch hope and be proactive about what I have the power to prepare for or influence in terms of the future. Despair is even worse. Despair is no hope at all. What’s in between hope and despair? I couldn’t find anything. The best I can come up with is curiosity. Curiosity is free of hope or despair.
I want to think about the future without hope or despair. I’d love to say I’m curious, but mostly I’m just resigned and tired!
I finally decided this particular frame of hope or despair doesn’t work for me, no offense to Dr. Seligman. I went back to the beginning and considered my frame for the future.
Two of the most transformative things I’ve learned from emotional intelligence is the toxicity of expectations and the power of releasing outcomes. I used to spend a lot of time and energy fantasizing, catastrophizing, hoping, and longing for better things in the future and missing much of the present entirely. I don’t do that anymore. The past is gone and we never catch up to the future. My life is right now, and right now is the only place in which I have power. Even if I had the ability to shape the future, I don’t know what’s best for me or anyone else. We all know what we want, sure, but what we want in the moment is not always best in the long term.
When I consider the future, two things define my thinking. Whatever it needs to be, it’s okay with me, and whatever the future brings, I know I can count on myself to cope with it.
That’s it. No hope, despair, or expectations, and I stay solidly rooted in my own personal power.
Seligman doesn’t discuss power at all, but the ability to manage my own power is what makes me happy. If hope and despair are practices, I can’t see them as empowering ones. The practice of managing one’s own power, though, builds strength, courage, resilience, and confidence.
So, happily ever after. What does it even mean? Since when was anyone happy ever after?
Whatever the future brings, it’s okay with me. I’ll learn. I’ll adapt. I’ll be just fine.
Recently I went back to the little mountain town in the Southern Colorado Rockies I called home for twenty years, and wrapped up the sale of my house. It was an important trip for me, one which I’ve been anticipating ever since I arrived in Maine two and a half years ago. My partner and I drove out and drove back. I didn’t try to blog or write on the road, but I made a lot of notes and I discovered a persistent theme.
Reclamation, according to a quickie internet search, means “the process of claiming something back or of reasserting a right” or “the cultivation of waste land or land formerly under water.” It strikes me there’s an interesting and subtle possibility of conflict in those two definitions. What exactly is waste land, and who has the power to define it? Also, what does cultivation mean? Big Ag? Monocropping? Pesticides and Roundup? Or cultivation by plants, animals and wind?
In any event, I’ve been carrying the word reclamation for some years now like a talisman. It’s a cord linking events and choices of the last years of my life together.
Photo by Tanja Heffner on Unsplash
I remember exactly when it started. I was sitting in a chair in the salon where a friend cut my hair for years. In the mirror, I could see my hair falling over my shoulders and down my back, thick and wavy and beginning to be streaked with grey. I was desolate because of a broken relationship, and I saw a woman who was unwanted in that mirror. I didn’t want to be her anymore. I wanted to be someone else. My friend asked me what I wanted to do and I told her to cut it all off. “Reclamation,” I said. I couldn’t say more because I didn’t want to break into sobs, but she knew exactly what I meant, and she tied a smock around my neck and started cutting.
My ex-boyfriend had loved my hair. I loved it, too. It made me feel sexy and beautiful and feminine. Cutting it was the first step I took on the road leading me to this attic space in central Maine, where I sit this summer morning (with short hair) writing with the windows open and the sound of crickets, frogs and birds flowing in.
I held onto that word, reclamation. It became a boat to sail away in, and then a lifeboat, and then a raft and then a spar of wood in a fathomless sea of floating debris that kept me alive until current and waves took me back to shore.
Photo by Edewaa Foster on Unsplash
The little town I lived in had no claim to fame or big dollar tourism except for a golf course. When I moved there the course was renowned for being one of the most beautiful in the country, and visitors came from all over during the summer to play there, filling the inns and RV parks. Then drought struck that part of Colorado, the golf course was sold to an absentee owner who immediately got crosswise with the town, and gradually, due to a mixture of water problems, politics and general assholery on the part of the owner, the golf course went downhill, people lost jobs, the greens became unkempt and the tourists stopped coming. Then, just about the time I left town, the golf course closed.
I don’t play golf and my living fortunately didn’t depend on the tourist trade, but every morning, just before dawn, I walked on the golf course.
I didn’t do it for exercise or as a discipline. It was my lifeline. It was the one place where I never failed. I was guaranteed solitude and peace. Nobody knew where I was. I knew the course so well I could disappear into it, be absorbed. I had several routes, one for ordinary days, one for days of grief, one for days of rage and the longest one for days of despair. I used some of the cart paths, but mostly I followed the contours and edges of the greens and walked along the river, which was generally only a trickle, if not entirely dry. I often heard owls going to roost as meadowlarks began their morning chorus. I saw bears, foxes, skunks, deer and geese.
In the days of relative plenty, maintenance men worked as early as I was walking, but I was a familiar local figure and we ignored each other. I avoided them and they only saw me at a distance. There was an elaborate sprinkler system, of course, that worked all night every night and made the whole place fresh and green and cool, a stark contrast to my daily reality of hauling or pumping grey water out to my garden because of drought and watering restrictions. I lived a five-minute walk away.
During our recent trip we only spent one night in that little town, but I woke early, slid into my clothes and walked to the golf course. I knew it had been closed altogether for some time. This year the drought momentarily broke in the valley with record amounts of snow and rain, and the river that so often dried up flooded, both on the course and through the town. As I slipped through the gates and passed the “no trespassing” signs in the dark of early dawn, I could hear the river, an amazing, miraculous sound. The scent and chill kiss in the air of running water was very different from the mechanical chik, chik, chik of an automatic sprinkler.
The cart path was rutted, muddy and overgrown. Large tree limbs had fallen and nobody cleared them away. The river actually broke out of its banks and spread across a former green. I’d seen pictures in the local paper, but I still couldn’t believe my eyes. The town sent in machinery to make barriers out of heaped-up debris and mud. Whole trees had toppled, their root balls pathetically exposed to the sky.
Photo by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash
Once, I could have walked several paths on the golf course blindfolded. I often was there in the dark. Now my footing was uncertain. The grass grew up to my waist and I kept tripping over hidden windfall branches. Weeds filled the sand traps. The greens were, of course, gone. The groomed contours that once marked my route had vanished, forcing me to slow down and move more cautiously. I strained my eyes to discover familiar slopes and hollows in the dim light.
As I moved deeper into the old course, I thought of all the hundreds of mornings I’ve spent there, praying, weeping, raging, pressing myself against nature in every mood and season. I took my joy there, my hope, my dreams, and my gratitude practice. The golf course was a place of creative inspiration, a place of guidance and comfort, a place in which to staunch wounds enough to carry on another day. I was real there. I didn’t try to hide from myself.
That highly-groomed, herbicide-gagged, shaved, enslaved, money-making piece of land (a waste land) is going wild again. It was captured, bought, and pimped by a businessman in order to create a profit. Now, Mother Nature reclaims her own. The land begins to remember itself. As I walked and the light increased, showing me myriad signs of healing, I felt akin to the land. What is happening there is happening to me. I had a pimp, too — myself. I sold myself for what I thought I was worth in order to get what I needed. Now the land and I reclaim ourselves from a bleak and limited culture that relies on chemicals, profit and power-over rather than natural cycles and cooperation.
Reclamation is not a controlled, civilized process. It’s wild, sometimes catastrophic. The river made a scar where it broke its banks and uprooted trees, but it carved out a new bed for itself. The old bed will fill in. New growth will cover all that exposed earth. The downed limbs and trees will rot and feed the soil and mycelium while native plants and grasses return. Is this what we mean by waste land? Forest fire, flood and storm are acts of nature that reshape the land and environment. Life dies and renews, one act leading to the other. We often experience reclamation as terrifying and tragic. Human beings, for the most part, don’t welcome change unless we control it.
Yet we do change. The world changes. The weather changes. Those around us change. We can neither stop nor control it in any significant way, and I’m entirely grateful for that. The golf course and I are messy. Our hair is disheveled. Our trim, neat lines are blurred. The high unmown grass through which I waded brushed against the hair on my bare legs. The water feeding the land and the water of feeling that feeds me have carved a new, wider path. Bridges and trees sag and unravel, not trash but compost for the next thing. Paths and fences fall into disrepair. Grass and saplings mingle freely, each reaching toward the other at the edges.
Photo by Laterjay Photography on Unsplash
Snakes, rabbits and insects live again in the shelter of the grasses. Does can leave their fawns safely concealed while they browse, and their presence will bring the mountain lions down from the foothills. Owls will find abundant mice, voles and other rodents in what was a carpet of sterile green velvet. The beaver and raccoons will no longer be trapped or shot, lest they disturb the regulated beauty of the water features or annoy the tourists. Over all this complex, creative system, the meadowlark still sings, that king of the high fields and plains, and his song still brings tears to my eyes and an ache to my throat.
That land will always be home to the woman I was. I was glad to return for a brief hour and realize my beloved place has moved on, just as I have. The land and I were both over-civilized into waste land, but now we’re reclaiming ourselves. The golf course and I reassert our right to be what we are. We surrender to change, to mess, and to the transformative edge of chaos.
This week’s post is suspended between two stories. The first one is the old Greek myth of Sisyphus.
Sisyphus was a crafty and deceitful king who craved complete power. In his pursuit of power, he offended many men and gods and was eventually punished by being sent to the underworld and forced to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. The boulder was enchanted, however, to roll back down the hill (over Sisyphus, in some versions) just before it reached the top. Thus, Sisyphus was doomed to repeat the same unending and futile task forever.
Photo by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash
Sisyphus has captured the imagination of many writers, philosophers and artists, and there are several variations and interpretations of his story. If you’re interested, you can follow the link to to Wiki and read more.
Sisyphus is on my mind this week, not only because his story suggests to me the inevitability of rising and falling cycles, but also because his punishment was to forever try and fail.
His punishment was to forever try.
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash
I’m a product of a culture that taught me certain core truths about life. One has a responsibility to help others. Everyone has to do things they don’t want to do. One must never give up. One must try one’s best. We’re all in a train behind a little engine that puffs, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” and that’s the right place to be, the admirable, ethical, moral, adult, acceptable, responsible, side-of-the-angels place to be. Good people try and try and try. They don’t despair, they don’t give up and they don’t say it’s too hard, I can’t or, most unforgiveable of all — I won’t.
The truth is one of the things I least like about myself is that I can always be counted on to try my best. I don’t mean work hard. I mean try hard. Trying is certainly hard work. It’s sucked up most of my life in terms of time and energy. A lifetime of trying, though, has produced less of value to me, and I suspect to others, than an hour of work at writing, dancing, gardening, making love, playing with a child or even scrubbing the kitchen floor.
In the last ten days, I’ve been living right alongside Sisyphus. In the last ten days, I’ve meticulously gone through headlines, articles, links, petitions, news and requests for action in my email, not once but two or three times a day, because I want to help. I want to do something that matters. I want to make a difference. In the last ten days, I’ve intentionally and consciously been present, engaged, interactive, interested in what my partner is thinking and talking about, which has been largely political news, because I want to be a good partner. I want to demonstrate I’m brave and strong and intelligent enough to be part of the conversation going on in the world.
In the last ten days, I’ve privately and quietly despaired, lost sleep, felt inadequate, lost my center, lost my peace, felt gnawing anxiety and been deeply ashamed of who I am.
I’ve tried so hard.
I’ve failed so hard.
It’s not working. I can’t live like this. I’ve been pushing that rock up the hill as bravely as I can, but it just keeps rolling back down. I’m exhausted, bruised, battered, my fingernails are torn and I’m quickly losing any desire to be engaged with life.
However, oddly, one thing is working.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to a self-defense class at a local community center. The activities director happened to be there, and on an impulse I introduced myself and asked him if he’d be interested in working with me to start a community dance group. We fell into conversation, one thing led to another and as I write this, advertising is in process, flyers are getting printed, and somehow, I’m scheduled to start up a dance group in March, a thing I’ve long wanted to do in order the create the kind of healthy, inclusive community I’m starving for.
I didn’t try at all. It just kind of happened and I went along for the ride. I’ve spent hours and hours building dance playlists, but that wasn’t trying. I wanted to do it. I loved doing it. Music instead of current news? Lead me to it!
So what is it with this trying thing that’s driven so much of my life? I can’t remember a single time trying hard resulted in an outcome I wanted. It seems to me whatever happens, happens. Things always and inevitably turn out the way they turn out. I may have occasionally bought some time. I may have kept things glued together with my frantic trying longer than they would have otherwise, but was that a good thing, or in the end did I just make the cost higher for myself and everyone else?
All the really good things I can remember in my life just happened. I didn’t plot, plan, manipulate, force or otherwise try. I was simply living my life.
And what about the punishment piece? Sisyphus, by all accounts, was not a nice man, and I don’t waste much pity on him, but what about me? Endless, futile trying certainly feels like a punishment. Why have I always accepted that? Why haven’t I been able to choose to stop?
The truth is I try so hard because I feel like I have to make up for what a difficult, noncompliant, hypersensitive, disappointing, needy, dramatic, sensual person I am. I know I’ll never please or get it right, so all I have is knowing I tried as hard as I could. The world is filled with talented, creative, loving, generous, kind people. They don’t have to try to make the world a better place. The world is a better place because they live in it.
I’m not like them. I’m broken.
It’s not like I can just not try to make up for being broken!
If I don’t try, then what is there?
Which leads me to the second story, which I can’t find this morning, but I know is here somewhere in my library!
A student approached the master and said, “I work with disabled children and their families. Master, there’s so much difficulty for these people! I want to help, to make things better for them! What should I do? How can I best relieve their suffering?”