The African American celebrity looked skinnier on her magazine cover than she had on a recent television appearance. She'd photo-shopped away forty pounds, at least. Maybe it wasn't her at all, because that face was three shades lighter than hers. Wait. Had she lightened her skin? Impossible. Never. Damn. She lightened her skin.
Here was a woman who'd faced her body image struggles out loud and in public. She'd helped me accept my own insecurities. I felt like the victim of a bait and switch. That cover screamed she preferred a slender, light-complexioned body to its alternative. It screamed she'd bought into the phony ideal of beauty that she'd been preaching against for decades. Betrayer. Hypocrite. Sell-out. What lies did she tell herself to justify this trampling of her principles?
Then again, what lies did I tell … to justify my trampling of her character? In a single rant, I'd photo-shopped my values––shaved away forty pounds of empathy and at least three shades of kindness.
I woke up this morning, surprised.
Last night I fidgeted in bed, my arm throbbing from shoulder to fingertips in a cross between bee stings and tickling. Unable to sleep, I got up to worry.
I sat in the dark on the stairs. Maybe it's a heart attack. I should go to the emergency room, but what a hassle and so expensive. Probably pulled a muscle in yoga. Or it's another old-age pain. On the other hand, a throbbing right arm really is a female heart attack symptom. Isn't it?
As the edge of the step behind me pressed into my back, the mental clamor quieted into a simple question. Which was I willing to do: go to the emergency room or die in the bedroom?
The latter possibility became absolutely acceptable, because everything I'd known a second earlier fizzled into a stunningly calm No-thing. Devoid of the bedlam I'd labeled "concerns," "desires," "loves," and "fears." The preference for life melted away, since there was no knowledge that the thing-called-life had ever existed. Neither was there a preference for this unexpected hush. No-thing felt like ease.
How easy to die. How easy to go back to bed, which I did. Heads, I'll wake up. Tails, I won't.
I woke up this morning. Surprised by the toss of the coin.
"Kate, will you create a book blessing for me?"
"Yes! What fun. What's a book blessing?"
"I just made it up. We won't know what it is until after you create it."
As soon as UPS delivered three cases of books to the house, I morphed from inward-focused writer to outward-focused promoter. Where to sell. How much to charge. Tax deductions. Return on investment. Dollar signs and signs of failure. I needed Kate Guendling to redirect my world view back to why I write what I write.
Kate creates ceremonies. She'd convinced my analytical mind that ritual had the power to transform. I knew she'd infuse the book's promotion with love and generosity. That's her magic.
She organized everything. Inside a church sanctuary, she arranged twenty chairs in a circle. (Twenty chairs was a guess. We hadn't known how many to expect, but exactly twenty people attended.) One of the chairs was fancier than the others. For me! There was a table in the center of the circle, just big enough for two baskets of loose beads, and a copy of my book. On a stage behind my chair, a piano and a projection screen.
Kate held up my book, while explaining how the next hour would proceed. And then Annette Olsen sang to me. Have you ever had a hero? Someone whose talent makes you speechless and gushy? And your mouth hangs open in unflattering ways and you don't even care? Annette (who also composes, plays piano, guitar, and drums) is my hero. She sang to me. Twice.
I read a couple of essays.
"Now here's a message from a couple of people who couldn't be here," Kate said. Victor James Dougherty and Nhien Vuong appeared on the screen. They performed a freshly minted "Ode to Dawn." The two busiest people I know had taken time to write a song and make a video––for me. It was like getting the lifetime achievement award at the Oscars.
Kate walked to the table. She picked up a bead, threaded it onto a leather string, and told me what my writing meant to her. She invited the others to follow suit. They did. Spontaneously. Unrehearsed. Unprepared. One by one they walked to the center of the circle, selected a bead, and strung it onto the leather. The bead represented their blessing to me. "Your words struck a chord." "Your stories hit home." "Your story made my son and me talk about our relationship." "You're writing about my life." "I love you." "I'm choosing this green heart bead because you opened my heart." They mentioned favorite essays. They quoted me.
I was in awe of them. I listened, and thanked, and hugged, and grinned. But I tell you what, I can't find a new way to describe the feeling. Transcendence cannot be put into words. Even the word transcendent.
At the end, Kate handed me the gift they'd created bead by bead: a necklace made of blessings. The ritual marked my transition from inward-focused writer to other-focused woman filled with humility.
A piece of me died that night. The piece that's ruled by doubt. Church, candles, music, tributes, blessings. To everyone who attended, thank you for the best funeral ever.
I'm on the first-ever Dawn Downey Book Tour. I've been away from home, marveling at the generosity of my friends, who are coming up with brilliant promotional ideas and opening their homes to me. Watching them in the comfort and familiarity of their private spaces, I can't help longing for my own bed. So here's a post from last fall, to remind me of home.
At Home in Paradise:
I woke up at 2:00 a.m. with the blanket wrapped around my ankles in a serpentine tangle. My husband snored beside me, his arm heavy on my chest. I wriggled free to retrieve the covers and tuck them under my chin. The sweet scent of an apple core on the nightstand mingled with body odor from the long-past-laundry-day sheets. Outside the window, treetops swayed in the moonlight, and fallen leaves rustled as they skipped across our patio. An airplane roared above the night. At home in Paradise, I drifted back to sleep.
We who loved her are left to ask our pointless questions, until they trail off …
I stand mute at my bedroom window and press my forehead against the glass, as if I might catch a glimpse of her out by the birdbath.
Dad's pipe tobacco. He could not criticize while puffing.
Ivory soap. The bar that floated. After my bath, I was 99.44% pure. My impurities left a ring around the tub.
Pine-Sol. Somebody cared enough about me to mop the floor I walked on.
Chalk dust. It collected in the tray beneath the blackboard in high school Spanish class. It sifted into the air as I passed notes to the football star two seats over.
Newsprint ink. One summer in college I proofed the copy for want-ads, ferreted out typos from freshly printed pages. It was a solitary job in the basement of the News-Press. My hermit sanctuary.
Shalimar. A dab on my throat. I bought it often when I was single. A splurge. A gift from me to me.
Eucalyptus trees. At the Vedanta Society in Santa Barbara. My husband, brother, sister, and I meditated at vespers. The eucalyptus blessed our prayers.
The aromas--gone. The me who discerned them––gone as well. Molecule by molecule, she drifted into the atmosphere like smoke. Even though I could reclaim these scents right now, they wouldn't be the same. Had I been wiser, I might have performed a ritual farewell, but I failed to acknowledge my transient treasures and a hundred million others that passed away each hour.
From now on, I intend to say goodbye like I really mean it. Closure is a luxury.
“Are you under any stress?” my therapist asked.
“Heck no, Everything’s wonder––. Wait. Yes.” I slumped into the couch. “A friend bought ten copies of my book. Another bought five. They’re promoting it. Writing reviews that are really moving. It’s stressing me out. I can’t think. Sometimes I go blank.”
“Positive affect disorder,” he said. (Or maybe it was positive affect deregulation. Or positive affect dehydration.) “Negative comes in at a different voltage than positive. You’re wired for negative. Too much good short-circuits your system.”
I perked up. My brain loved to learn new things about itself. Positive affect discombobulation. Words offer answers, entertainment that distracts my mind from the truth of its irrelevance.
But tissues buried deep within my body relaxed, as electrical currents switched pathways. Muscles eased their grip around the goal of creating a perfect Dawn. Rewiring of the system had already begun.
I will probably still balk when the good stuff lands in front of me. You might have occasion to rush toward me with outspread arms. You might have occasion to exclaim, “What a magnificent achievement.” (And I certainly hope you will.) If that scenario plays out between us, please don’t be alarmed if my eyes glaze over. Or my speech slurs. Or my dreadlocks whip around my head like live wires. All indications of a short circuit.
Watch out for sparks, and talk about the weather until the power is restored.
Her husband and I, standing just inside the front door, talked about hospice, the DNR taped to their refrigerator, and the morphine on the shelf.
She awoke crying out in pain. He rushed up the stairs to her. I wanted to follow him up those stairs and right into their bedroom, to pat her hair, caress her cheek. But I waited in the living room. The house was still. Already empty.
A friend lay dying, her husband hurting. And there was nothing I could do.
I closed my eyes. Goodbye, Honey. I love you.
I’m having a sh**ty week.
Please don’t tell me things will get better. Please don’t point out the inherent beauty of my rotten week. Please don’t offer to clear my lower chakras of the energy blockage that is obstructing light-filled messages from my guardian angels.
I’m not one to make lemonade from lemons. Fruit is OK in my book, on its own, without somebody wanting to liquify it. Let my lemons be lemons.
Sh**ty weeks are a part of life, and I don't need to transcend life's poop.
Fortunately, others on the planet serve as my gurus in this department, living peacefully with excrement.
Dung beetles possess by far the most pragmatic attitude. Depending on which species they are––they eat poop, live in it, use it for a nursery, build with it, or wear it as flip flops to protect their tootsies from the baking savannah. There are 8,000 species of dung beetle, so you’ve got to figure they know what they’re doing. When my gardening buddies spread manure onto flower beds, they’re thinking carnations, lavender, and black-eyed susans. In Thailand, they turn elephant and panda dung into paper, which means the next New York Times best-seller might stink, in spite of the author’s literary genius. Zulu women use it to fuel their cooking fires. In Talkeetna, Alaska, you can buy moose dung earrings at the annual Moose Dropping Festival.
If my week continues to feel like a giant cow patty, I will not try to rise above it. I'll follow the noble example of the Aphodian dung beetle: burrow right on into it and make myself at home.
I studied mindfulness with the zeal of a fanatic. Meditations. Exercises. Verses composed of impenetrable phrases. “Arising and passing away.” “In the hearing, just the heard.” “Contemplate the body in the body.”
None of it prepared me for the firsthand experience.
Once, an elderly couple waltzed past me on a dance floor, and for just a moment I was unexpectedly aware of the sensation of joy. A flare-up of blazing delight, without my usual cynicism or jealousy. It was the first time I'd felt pure undiluted happiness in all my six decades. When the joy disappeared, there was no desire to hold on to it.
Years later, mindfulness introduced me to embarrassment. A woman insulted me at a party in front of a group. The heat of humiliation flooded my cheeks. My heart pounded, fast and loud. And, at the same time, I was peaceful, even curious. So … you’re shame. I’ve heard a lot about you. Then shame and I kept each other company for a few minutes.
Mindfulness. I didn't practice it. It saturated my parched landscape like a cloudburst. My emotions flourished, joy and shame equally lush.
Mindfulness: uncaused, unavoidable, unreasonable.