Sunday, January 31, 2010

Water Flows Underground: How to love my unfulfilled dreams

January 30, 2010

Richard Russo, in his book Bridge of Sighs, centers a chapter on the main character’s thoughtful consideration of a parallel, yet unlived life. Lou, a shopkeeper who has lived in the same depressed town his entire life, looks upon a parallel and unrealized life as he is writing a family history of sorts. He explores this with an utter lack of angst, resentment or anger. Instead, he carries the unlived past, present and future with the same hope that the unrealized was conceived with because it has remained wholly untouched and completely intact.

I was reading from this book tonight while my daughters were ice skating at our local outdoor rink. I sat by the heating lamp, book tilted up toward the high, overhead lamps and their laughter, mixed with the sound of blades against solid ice, intermingled with the words on the page. The fact that I was reading a passage about a town probably not unlike Longmont, where we live and where I thought we would never live. The fact that I’m at a certain point in my life when I’m pausing between looking back, looking ahead and getting through each day, while I'm reading this book, is not lost on me. 

These are remarkably challenging times and I mean this in the most personal sense, as well as how our personal stresses fit into so many other lives and into the struggling pulse of our country. The personal stress is one of work and money, or the lack of both as consistent forms of security and feeling safe. Of being able to feel I’m properly able to shelter my family with the calm surety of my childhood. And in the midst of the clamp that fear puts on one’s being when faced with sustained financial insecurity, I keep asking myself the same question, over and over, which emerges in my head as David Byrnes' singing  "And you may ask yourself...How did I get here?"
My husband and I have been married for almost 15 years, together for 25. We met when we were both determined and creative spirits; he a writer, me an actress. He was going to write the next Great American Novel. I was going to win more Tony Awards than any other actress. We moved to New York, he first and I to follow and we pursued our dreams which seemed so possible and so real. Our life was dedicated to art, to the pure pursuit of art at the expense of all else – money, security, marriage, children. He wrote slim poems bursting with the heart’s syncopation. I sang and spent my days in performing workshops and auditions, attending theater and living the dream I had envisioned at 15 years old.

Then one day, the dream for me was no longer that. I was unhappy in the world I had chosen. There was no purpose to the dream other than it was what I had believed myself to be for 15 years. I saw it in the mirror of my last audition. Another part of myself pulled out while I sang and hung out behind me watching me and talking to me. Who is that unhappy person in the mirror? It’s me, I answered in my head between notes. Why is she so unhappy? I looked in the mirror to see what this other self saw and I saw myself, unhappy, sad, and disconnected to the dream that was no longer there. I stopped singing mid-song and quietly said, “I can’t do this anymore.” And I walked away.

Why is this with me now? I think because I feel the same stripped away feeling that I felt almost 20 years ago. The fear of a future that might be as uncertain as the present, where you can get fired from a job a week after your father has died. Where insurance can be cut off for a single mother of two after being laid off a job. Where the fear of losing our home or not being able to make a living is with me every second of the day.

But at the ice rink, while reading the quiet lives Richard Russo has brought to me, lives also filled with homes lost, business started and failed, children who die and those brought into the world and who stay safe, the way in which the lives are gently given to me on the page bring me peace. There is suffering, but there is grace. There is loss, but there is recovery. In the same way the main character experiences the permanence of the road not taken, I experience the permanence of the lives that exist in books and am tearfully grateful for the gift of books.

As my girls round the frozen oval over and over, holding hands and keeping each other from falling over with laughter, my heart felt full to burst. How could such happiness, such motherly bliss be present while I feel so much uncertainty? How can this day be part of the same life that was yesterday, when I had to write a painfully honest appeal to my mother to ask her to loan us money? How can the tears I’d finally allowed to pour out be part of the same person who smiled and laughed with the elderly residents at my mother-in-law’s housing complex?

The only answer I can come up with is the one I read in Richard Russo’s gorgeously subtle book. The truth of a life lived with many unfulfilled dream is the embodiment of love, love in action. I have to love the things I’ve believed possible, those which I believed in for my lifetime but have yet to realize, as well as the many great ideas that fly across my radar everyday. That they remain unfulfilled is not cause for anger, for regret, for wringing my hands of all that I haven’t accomplished. They are cause for celebration because despite their stage of development or realization, I created them, they emerged from me, from the multitude that is me, from the alternate sides of my psyche and soul, which has given rise to so much that is possible.

The purpose of this entry is simple and a step toward a way through all of this: over the next 30 days or so, I’m going to chronicle what it is to be a 51 year old overly educated mother of three living with extreme financial stresses. The goal? To learn about myself in this extreme situation and to let go of the shame, isolation and paralyzing fear that it will never change. I might not be able to pay the mortgage right now, but I can write about it. I might not be able to buy my kids new shoes, but I can write about it. I'll be writing about my continued job search, my launching a new business idea and the through line through it all will be the simple act of writing it down. 

When the twins were born and I was a 43 mother with three children under three, I wrote. I wrote my way through the isolation, the exhaustion, the frustration and the joys. Through the same extreme financial stress. If I could do it while breastfeeding three children, I can do it now. I have to do it now because it is the only way I know how to survive this time with myself intact and sane.

I’ll be exploring my fear of budgets, of building a sustainable and meaningful work life. I’ll be exploring learning to be vulnerable to the ones who count on me the most and to give up the part of myself that equates authenticity with losing love. 

After the 30 days, what do I think will happen? Everything, anything and nothing. But I realize the only way to survive these days and nights in which I am so afraid is to trust that it will pass, and to hold onto the alternate life that flows under me, as well as to do what I know - write, love myself and my family, hopefully find some humor and do lots of yoga.

And if I’m lucky enough, I’ll glide along on top of this difficult time like my three glorious girls on the ice rink tonight, and together, we'll go round and round and round, with love and laughter and grace.


Megan said...

I read this before our lesson yesterday and it certainly had an impact on me. If I hadn't read it, I would have been puzzled by the obvious shift in your aura and mood. Lisa, you are very inspiring to me. Thank you!

Gail Storey said...

Lisa, this is wonderful writing, and I really appreciate how you share so much of yourself with grace and humor. I look forward to more posts, I'm subscribing to your blog right now!

Margaret said...

Your words connect me to my years as a single mom, with 4 kids 8 to 14, and to now, as a single woman, dipping into my small retirement savings to make the mortgage. Thanks for putting this down, and reflecting so deeply on dreams that changed to other dreams. I have often thought about writing about a parallel life; the life I might have had if I had made other choices. I will stay tuned. You are not alone.

Christine Weeber said...

Thanks for your post, Lisa. I'll link to it on FB too. I think a lot of us feel this way--either from the economy or illness or parents who are sick or aging. Writing is, indeed, one way to manage the ride.

dana said...

Thanks for your honesty.

Lisa Trank-Greene said...

I am touched so deeply by these comments. A very profound for me, for all of us - and this is the only way I know how to get through it with some sense of sanity, as well as a small offering to the world as an act of healing, which is why we're all here, right?