what happens when you pay attention {long read}

Old Mine at Night

Nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see …each other in life. Vanity, fear, desire, competition– all such distortions within our own egos– condition our vision of those in relation to us. Add to those distortions to our own egos the corresponding distortions in the egos of others, and you see how cloudy the glass must become through which we look at each other. Except when there is that rare case of two people who love intensely enough to burn through all those layers of opacity and see each other’s naked hearts. ― Tennessee Williams

There’s been a reason for this demonstrable quiet, when the only sound is the beating of my own heart. Barely a whisper, it’s a steady thump, methodic, something of a metronome. I use this beat to keep time, and I think about the years before this moment and the hours after, and the sickness, love, heartbreak and trembling that lie in the spaces between. In my home, I close all the windows, draw the shades and lay out my tools for excavation. Photographs — terrific images of a life lived in sepia — serve as a constant reminder of my once carefully-crafted fiction. So committed I was to this life, this mask, of feigned achievement and merriment (a beloved! a critically-acclaimed book! an Ivy-league graduate degree! a best friend who pantomimed my sentences! a body that never gained weight, but rather lost it, in disturbing degrees!), that I practically wrote the story out on my hands, face and knees. The story of Felicia Sullivan, written on the body, incanted back to me — just in case I’d forget. Back then I drank a lot {a lot} and forgetting was the sort of thing I was wont to do.

Funny how after all this time, I don’t like having my picture taken. I went from boxes of me wearing my mask to a few photos of me, without makeup, in another part of the world. I prefer photographs of food and the unmovable, instead.

When we talk about tools we always might want to think about kitchen appliances. The stand mixer, springform pans, measuring cups and whisks that got me out of this mess. Forced me to do something with my hands, made me breathe and stand in one space for long stretches of time. A few weeks ago, my father reminded me of the catastrophe that was my first cheesecake. How proud I was of the smooth surface, the whipped cream and the buttery crumb base — it was its own fiction because I’d used confectioner’s sugar instead of granulated sugar and the cake tasted of cold, slightly sweetened, cream cheese. But I couldn’t break your heart, I just couldn’t, my father said. We laugh now because I know my sugars, now. I know my way around the kitchen, now. In my home I observe the counters, the cabinets and the items housed within, and I regard them less as instruments of survival but more as extensions of my limbs. A hand that now holds a whisk is a longer hand, creating something that is an extension of my heart. Another way to physically say the words: you mean this much, I love you like this, and you are home to me.

You are home to me.

Last week I received a note from a person with whom I’d had a falling out some two years ago. I don’t remember how we stopped speaking, I just know that one day I’d be excised from her life, and I was left confused and hurt because although we weren’t terribly close, I tried to be the sort of friend who would be there when someone started taking ink to their own body. Rewriting their story, erasing it, blotting out all the years and shame that came before. Thinking that alcohol was the only salve, the terrific anesthetic. None of her friends had been brave enough to tell her that she was going under, that the drink was a river that temporarily washed off the ink, but would always, inevitably, draw her with its undertow. I was as honest and kind and as non-judgmental as I tried to be, and my words were met with rage and the door was closed on the story that was us. Clamped shut. Dead-bolted. Can’t go in.

Until last week. Two years sober, she wrote me and confessed that my words had saved her life. I remember reading this note rushing about the city, scrolling through my messages, dodging cars and traffic lights, and I froze. Stood in the middle of Broadway as people snarled and gnashed their teeth because I was in their fucking way, and here a woman wrote me a short note affirming that words, kindness and compassion have the ability to buoy and save.

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This weekend I spent time with my best friend, a woman whom I’ve known for half my life, and it occurred to me that there was a time when I wasn’t ready to pay attention. In 2001, my best friend said those same words to me, practically begged me to pay attention, told me that she’d take me home with her to Connecticut if that was what it would take to save my life, and I refused her. I can only imagine her heartbreak on the train ride back, and all the years that passed, all the years she spent patiently waiting for me to give myself the greatest gift one could give to themselves: their life back, on their own terms, lived mindfully, compassionately and with complete and sometimes painful attention.

We went to church yesterday, and while my faith as of late has vacillated, even though I’ve become skeptical of God’s existence — an existence grounded in unadulterated faith and art rather than mathematics and science — the pastor’s sermon put my heart on pause. He talked about how we manage our shame and paths that may not have been draped in light. Always, we opt to put things behind us, poised to hit the delete key, always; we desperately desire to re-write the story, re-position the facts, but these are all variations on the same mask. The same fabric woven into more fanciful finery. All serve to divert attention, move us further and further away from ourselves, when, quite simply, we could just be honest, ask for forgiveness and move on.

All this time I thought of forgiveness as something I should seek from others, rather than something that I needed to give to myself.

If we were to sit here now and architect a patchwork, if we were to fire up a loom, notice how words are the thread. Words are what binds us to one another and ourselves, and words also have the ability to excise, complete, sever and maim.

This is a rather circuitous way of coming back to the slumbering heart and the quiet that has fallen on this space. The reason being is that I didn’t yet have the words {and I would offer that I still don’t} to explain what happens when you open your creaking, wooden heart. What happens when you pry open your eyes, put away the phone and breathe through the most difficult of spaces? How do you explain what happens when you pay attention?

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Would I have continued to neglect my cat’s illness? Would I have pressed on a few more years ignoring the urge to sit in front of a keyboard and type words that weren’t even close to a marketing plan? Would I have continued to sit in a spin class where the shouting and music resembled manic Tourette’s? Would I have dismissed that woman’s kind words? Would I have smothered my growing intolerance to dairy, whose consumption has given me bouts of extreme illness? Would I have continued to slouch through my days loveless, cold, perhaps too independent — so much so that I exist to fortress myself, my own private prison that is at turns safe and confining?

Time is leaving its indelible mark, and it’s one of attention. Attention has allowed me to open my heart and let all these beautiful, magical people in. Attention is saving my beloved cat’s life. Attention is allowing me to come back to myself and meet a new version of myself.

And this new self isn’t the woman I once was. And this new self is having an occasional glass of wine without the three-piece luggage set that follows.

I worried about writing this. I worried about telling my closest friends this. That I’d have to embark on long explanations on the difference between alcoholism and binge drinking, and that there was always a possibility of me drinking again but I’d always have to examine why. I worried about this newly-sober woman, and I thought to myself, do I have to be sober for her? Am I letting her down? Will people not understand? Will people judge?

Yes, they will do all of these things. People may whisper. People may not get it. But so far I get it. So far, I know this version of myself who has a glass of wine with dinner isn’t the same girl self-medicating to mourn her mother all those years ago. Believe me when I say that I was shocked, SHOCKED, when the closest people in my life felt this way too. These dramatic conversations that I’d recreated in my head never came to pass because I’d earned my friends’ trust and they know I’d never do anything to jeopardize it.

And then I realized that the only person I have to be concerned about is myself. How I feel about this. Who I am as a result of paying attention, and how I connect more meaningfully with the ones I love as a result of it. How they see through all the distortions and layers of opacity to get to our most raw and beautiful selves.

The rest is just someone else’s story.

Top photo credit: Jeffrey Sullivan

2 thoughts on “what happens when you pay attention {long read}

  1. It’s so scary to be fully open to life and love (in a general sense, not romance-specific). I did a week-long creative writing retreat the first week of July, one I’ve done before (with many familiar faces), and I came back feeling like someone had shot a jolt of electricity right through my heart. I felt like I was full of this unstable, all-consuming emotion, and it was terrifying. I wondered how people could stand to feel that way.

    After a week of self-medication with sunshine and extra sleep, I feel more in control and less vulnerable, but it leaves me wondering if I’ve just been sleepwalking through life, or hiding under the covers.

    I hope Sophie continues getting better, and I hope you keep finding your way.

    Like

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