February 18, 2015
The day my new mortgage was approved by underwriting, I took an impromptu selfie and posted it to Facebook. One of the comments I got was from a midwife and pelvic care provider I’d been to see after Jasper was born. A pelvic care provider is kind of a personal trainer for your vagina. If you haven’t delivered a baby you might think that is weird or gross. If you have delivered a baby you know exactly why such a job exists.
I’d also tried to see her after Balthazar was born, but she had just had a baby of her own and wasn’t working much. Which, considering the place she was in and the place I was in, was probably for the best.
“You look peaceful,” she wrote now. “Congratulations!”
As they say in yoga, I felt resistance to the word ‘peaceful.’ Which is to say, the word ‘peaceful’ really pissed me off. Because of the nature of our connection I know read a lot more into it than I should have. At first hearing it sounded patronizing.
Does it mean she thinks I’m at peace generally? I wondered. Or is she making an oblique reference to Balthazar? Does she think I’m at peace with what happened to him? No fucking way. I’m not at peace with what happened. I will never be at peace with what happened. The element of approval implicit in acceptance trips me up every time. Even if I go on to win a Nobel Peace Prize and a National Book Award and pilot a doomed aircraft to safety and find a cure for autism, there will be no part of me that believes his death was for the best.
Furthermore, I’ve never been peaceful in my life. Even before Balthazar died, it was never a part of my self-identity at all; in fact, the opposite. Everything is a struggle and to get what I want I have to fight, tooth and claw.
A well-worn family story about me: the winter I was eight, I was slated to compete in a Junior Olympic swim meet in Jeffersonville, In., about 12 or so miles from my house. I’d only been swimming competitively a short time, and I thought, falsely, that being in a meet called the Junior Olympics was a big deal. The day of the meet I had a fever, and my mother didn’t want to let me go. After arguing and crying didn’t work, I packed up my suit and cap and goggles and towel and started walking. Knowing full well that I would try to make it to Indiana somehow, my mother finally relented and drove me to the meet. I won one race and got second in a couple more. They gave out really nice medals, as I recall.
With every retelling, indomitable will became more and more central to my sense of myself, and the keystone in the arch of everything I thought of as positive in my character. But every story can be turned and examined from a different angle, where it reveals truths previously hidden. Every aspect of character has its shadow side. It’s apparently taken the subsequent thirty-five years for me to realize that what worked on my mother when I was eight might not be the right strategy for every single obstacle that appears in my path.
My thoughts kept returning to what the midwife had said. What did she see, and what did she mean? What kind of peace was she referring to?
Wikipedia says this:
To be at peace is to be free of anxiety or distress and is considered a healthy mental state. Peace of mind is generally associated with bliss, happiness and contentment. In Taoism, being at peace is self-acceptance. Letting go of the past, not holding on to the future.
Inner peace is in some sense not being at war with reality, which is why I have habitually rejected it. Balthazar’s death didn’t make accepting reality any easier, but I’m not sure it made it any harder, either. It was always hard. I’ve never been able to trust that the future could work out, that there could be enough. That things could be OK without a herculean effort.
And if you had asked me I would have told you, sadly, that I am still that way. But sometimes people who don’t know you well can observe changes that are too subtle or too close for you to realize. Am I really still the person who faces the world like a feral cat that has been trapped in a box and taken to the vet for shots?
A few days after I posted the selfie I ran into my former Pilates teacher at the coffee shop.
“You,” she grinned as she hugged me, in a tone that implied I had done something clever. I quickly realized that it was because she has been reading the blog. This must be what it’s like to be Cheryl Strayed, I thought, albeit on a very small scale. It’s disconcerting in the best possible way to be jolted by a hit of positive regard you weren’t expecting at all as you sat there looking at the music listings in Willamette Week.
She told me that beauty was radiating from inside of me. Which is a compliment of a whole different order than “You look beautiful,” as nice as that one is to get. Instinctively I clutched at my heart. Trying to acknowledge how it felt to hear that but also, maybe, because suddenly I feared that my chest was made of glass. Could she see it? It was almost too much. Quick! Let’s talk about your kids!
I wonder now if the Pilates teacher and the midwife saw the same thing. I wonder if they saw that I’m not fighting so hard anymore. I haven’t given up on anything being possible in the future, but I’m not excruciatingly unsatisfied with the present moment. I’ve always been a strong swimmer and I have fought the current for a long time, but that is not always an efficient use of energy. It hasn’t necessarily taken me anywhere. I haven’t drowned, and maybe for a portion of my life that was important, and enough. But sometimes in order to move you have to unclasp your fingers from the branch you are gripping so tightly. You have to let go and see what happens.
Sometimes the relief when you do that is so enormous that it shows in your face.