October 28th, 2012
I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah.
– Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen
I was driving in downtown Boulder the other day, singing along to k.d. lang’s version of Leonard Cohen’s song, Hallelujah. I stopped at a light, and was belting it out with the windows open, and a guy in the truck next to me looked over and smiled. I waved at him and kept on singing. (I’ll tell you, that k.d. lang girl has pipes.) In the middle of a verse it suddenly occurred to me, “Oh my god, I’m SINGING in the CAR again! I’m not the Grumpy Girl anymore! I am BACK.”
Before the fire, I would sing in the car almost every day, and sometimes stop at a light and look around at the other drivers in the cars around me. Often it would seem that I was the only one smiling, that everyone else was scowling, grumpy, talking on their phones or checking text messages. I would think, “Jeez, don’t people know that it’s a wonderful life, and we live in a beautiful place, and if you just looked around for a minute you’d start singing too?” And then we’d all drive off, each of us in our own little universe of joy, worry, or despair.
It was the same in the grocery store. Most of the time I’d wander around Whole Foods, looking at all the pretty stuff, humming as I put things in my cart. Again, I’d feel surrounded by people rushing through the store with death grips on their carts, frowning at their lists, shoving through the aisles. Boulder is a pretty cheerful town, and people are happy to live here. We have 300 days of sunshine a year and spectacular views, which makes for a cheerful populace. But even in Boulder, life proceeds apace, and we all have too much to do and not enough time. Time, the Eternal Bandit, bangs its fist on the door of our minds saying, “Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up,” and so we dash from place to place, from event to event, often forgetting to breathe, much less sing.
Many years ago, I heard a talk by a great teacher, who said that life is like a big yellow bus and we’re all passengers. We sit in our seats, looking out the window, and each of us is having a totally different experience of the exact same place. The guy over there is thinking, “How did I get stuck in such an ugly place?” The woman in the back is thinking, “God I’m so tired of this stupid bus. Same crap, different day,” and the teenager over there is looking out the window, thinking, “Look at that meadow! Look at those trees! Hey, there’s a dog! This is such a beautiful place!”
This teacher told me that I can choose how I experience the bus ride of life. I can decide if I’m going to be grumpy, worried, or enraptured with what I see out that widow. It’s all up to ME – no one else decides how I see the view. So the best thing to do, she said, is to pay attention to how you think, to watch your mind, and see where it goes, and try to steer it over to the sunny side of the street. And, it helps to sing along the way.
So I used to sing in the car, hum in the grocery store, and enjoy the ride most days. I was the Cheerful Girl, and then, of course, life threw me a little curve ball. After the house burned down, every external support I had – my beloved home, my stuff, my routines, my sense of place and safety – crumbled before my eyes, and I stepped into the whirlwind that is a post-disaster life. Whether it be fire, flood, the death of a loved one, or a bad divorce – this maelstrom of loss is deafening, disorienting, chaotic and exhausting. You can barely keep your head up, much less sing.
I remember one day in particular, when my friend and massage therapist Dana Wodtke came over to give me a massage. Dana is a big, cuddly bundle of love, who coos and pets you and says things like, “Oh, you’re such a good girl, just relax this nice body and breathe.” She set up her table in the middle of my tiny cottage, put on beautiful music, placed a warm, lavender pillow over my eyes, and tucked me up with layers of blankets. It was so soothing, so lovely. And then… my phone rang, and the answering machine kicked in, and even though the volume was all the way down, we could hear the murmur of someone leaving a long message on the machine. Was it the adjuster, the contractors, the County, a friend, family member, well-wisher, was it the bank calling my loan? As the machine murmured, my cell phone starting to ring, and then kept ringing, about once a minute, over and over, taking messages. I had stashed it in the next room, but I could hear it buzzing anyway. And then there was the constant pinging of my email, softly, incessantly, “ping… ping… ping…” like drops of water in some ancient torture chamber.
At one point Dana stopped the massage and said cheerily, “Well girlfriend, you know what? We’re just going to turn everything OFF for a while!” and she rooted around the cottage, finding and turning off every electronic device in the house. Part of me thought, “NO, I have so much to DO, I have to get back to all those people!” and the other part of me thought, “Oh, screw it. It will all be waiting for me in a few hours anyway.” And then Dana gave me a long, wonderful massage.
But most days after the fire, I would drive frantically around town, with endless lists, talking on my cell phone while other calls were beeping through, saying, “Hold on, I’m sorry but I have to take this other call…” One day I was sitting at a light, clutching the steering wheel, arguing with someone on my cell phone while I was looking at my to-do list, and I looked over and saw a car full of young guys, windows open, singing at the top of their lungs and dancing around in the car. I thought, “Jesus, what the hell are THEY so happy about?” And then it hit me – Oh my god, I’m the Grumpy Girl. I’m the girl who is clutching her list and banging around the grocery store, stressed out and too preoccupied to even look around. I started to cry, right there in the car, because I missed the Cheerful Girl, and my previous life so, so much. “What happened to ME?” I thought. “Am I ever going to get ME back?” And then the light changed, and I had to rush off to meet the bankers, the insurance people, the folks from the county, the demolition guys, the builders…
But I did learn something when I was the Grumpy Girl. I learned that the trauma of loss can also be a tenderizer for the Heart. All that pounding can make you softer, kinder, more compassionate. In those months after the fire I would look around at all the other Grumpy Girls and Guys in their cars, and instead of thinking, “Why are they all so grumpy?” I would think, “Ah, another traveler on this sometimes painful road.” When I saw a woman shouting into her phone, I saw myself. I felt compassion for the man with the death-grip on the cart, smacking into me because he was so rushed. Time, death, loss – they were chasing us all, and we were all Fire People, all refugees, recovering from some kind of grief, some kind of pain. In their grumpy faces I found kinship, and connection, and thought, “Yes, I am you and you are me, Grumpy Girl, Grumpy Guy. I hope we all heal soon.”
A few months ago I did a radio show on public radio about the emotional impact of trauma. There were three of us on the show; a trauma researcher, a psychologist specializing in post-disaster trauma, and yours truly, the Two-Time Fire Girl. It was a great show, and we talked about the impact of trauma and the process of recovery. Sallie Robinson Ward, the psychologist, said, “After a trauma, there’s a long process of catching up with yourself.” When she said this I realized she had captured the experience perfectly. When trauma hits, part of you literally goes away. I don’t know where it goes – out into the ethers, deep into another part of your mind or psyche, but it squirrels itself away somewhere, in another place, hibernating, waiting for warmer weather and a safer climate.
It’s awful when that happens – when you lose the Cheerful Girl – and you pine for her, and wonder if and when she’s ever coming back.
And then one day, the weather turns, and after months and years of running and fighting and struggling and grumping around, you find yourself smiling, and laughing, and you catch your breath with wonder. You realize that you are no longer the Grumpy Girl, but you are once again the Cheerful Girl, and you think, “Oh, I have missed you SO much!” And you celebrate the return of your own sweet heart, the You that is really You, the girl who sits in the front seat of the bus, all in wonder at the beauty of the trip, saying excitedly, “Look at those trees! Look at that meadow! There’s a cute dog! This is such a pretty place!” And you are back, really back, and singing in the car on an autumn day, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.”
Wishing You Days of Song, and So Much Love,