October 6, 2015, my office
I passed a big milestone this weekend.
It’s been a year since my husband told me he was leaving. At the time, it came as an extremely unpleasant surprise, and today it still remains something of a mystery.
I’m not going to say that my house burned down and now I can see the moon (as the saying goes). No one wants her house to burn down, and you can see the moon just fine by stepping outside once in a while (except when there is a rare and beautiful eclipse, in which case you can’t see it at all). I don’t think that change, even necessary change, requires a catastrophe to bring it about, nor do I believe that every catastrophe is for the best, necessarily.
But if your house/life burns down, the process of rebuilding is intensely conscious. The life you had before the disaster took shape organically, over many years, and it reflected both the compromises of partnership, and the preferences of your younger self. The life you now contemplate will express your present identity. So what should it look like?
Adversity isn’t identity, and no one would want it to be. We are infinitely greater than the sum of our negative experiences. But it is human nature to reject the idea of pain without purpose. I think that our sense of a true self, of an identity, often comes into focus through our attempts to understand painful events. (On this topic, I was very moved by Andrew Solomon’s thoughts on how the worst moments in our lives make us who we are.)
When you emerge from the shell of your former life, you feel as you imagine a newborn must feel: dependent, disoriented, frightened, and battered by overwhelming emotions and sensations. But then, as your agency returns, you begin to observe your own actions with interest. Freed of patterns and routines, how do you choose to spend your time? With whom? Which activities do you anticipate with pleasure, and which ones with dread? And from these basic cues, you can begin to build a life around your identity, instead of crafting an identity to fit your life.
I wouldn’t have chosen the fire, but it has generated a new life that is wholly mine. Because if your house burns down, why content yourself with simply looking at the moon? Why not shoot for it?
P.S. God, yes, it’s messy.
P.P.S. Really looking forward to seeing you in person (!) at the International Festival of Authors party. Both of us in the same room at the same time: an event almost as rare as a lunar eclipse. We will need photographic evidence.
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