Who you really are
April 11, 2011 § 1 Comment
It was around this time last year that a strange thing happened to me. I had been reeling from some coinciding heavy losses in my life: the end of a major relationship, the completion of a pivotal film production that had brought with it some overwhelming disappointments alongside its successes.
All of these bitter life circumstances brought with them some major blows to my self-confidence, as disappointments often do. I was so wrapped up in my financial and emotional survival that I didn’t have the time or ability to get perspective on everything that had happened to me. I started to feel very bad about myself and my choices, and unable to trust my judgements, feelings, and experiences. Had I brought these circumstances into my life somehow? If I had only been better, stronger, more capable would these things have happened?
Fortunately, my inner spiritual life and faith did not falter in the face of these disappointments, but actually strengthened. I began reading voraciously and discovered the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, David Richo, Gary Zukav, among numerous others. It was through these teachings that I was able to fall back on a thin thread of a belief that my life held some kind of destiny I was only on the verge of discovering; that these unfortunate circumstances were only one part of a whole long journey and that they did not define me.
And so it happened that one sunny late afternoon, after spending a languid and bliss-filled day outdoors in the thick, humid, Montreal heat, I arrived home to my apartment. I had been practicing stillness and cultivating presence in my life for many months already through journaling and meditation. One of the exercises that both Katie and Tolle teach is the practice of looking at the world without labels. The idea is to just perceive and observe your environment without the mental chatter that forms meaning and judgement. Suddenly, when I stepped into my livingroom that day, I got a glipse of my apartment with fresh eyes, as though I had stepped in the door for the very first time and knew nothing about the person who lived there. This is fabulous exercise and one I believe everyone should do often!
I looked around my living room and wondered what I could discover about the girl who lived there. I looked at her photographs on the walls, the black and white framed picture of her deceased paternal grandmother, who she’d always wished she’d met, the photos of her living family, framed and hung delicately in little collages. I saw a collection of miniature animal figurines, small metal toy birds, ceramic seals, little dogs displayed on the wainscotting. I saw plants hanging, home-made curtains sewed by her mother, a collection of little shells and beach glass on the windowsill. And suddenly it all seemed so ridiculous that I began to laugh. This is who I am, I thought. This is who I am. I am not my thoughts, my fears, this resentment, and confusion that I feel. I am the girl who hangs family photos, collects weird little animal figurines and keeps her plants healthy I found this sight a hilarious relief. What I saw was a glimpse of some kind of innocence – my simple desire to love and be loved – that I had somehow missed about myself through all that stress of the daily grind. Most of our day is taken up with just this kind of simplicity and innocence: driving to the store, a smile we give to a stranger on the sidewalk, straightening a photo that is crooked, washing a favorite shirt, buying a bus pass.
Since that unexpected insight, I have practised looking at other people’s homes in the same way, and I am often overcome with a new and sweet perception of a person that moves me deeply. I have been bouncing around so much this last year, and I’ve been lucky enough to have seen and lived in many different homes, so I’ve had a lot of practice with my new-found hobby. Some of these houses have been spartan; others messy; some lonely – they seem to be waiting for something or someone; some are abundant with a deep and complex creativity that has at times inspired and stunned me. Our houses often reveal the workings of our inner lives. At a friend’s house the other night, I noticed the make-shift way he’d rigged a lamp over the pool table, extending the wire across kitchen ceiling to the other side of the room. I noticed a collection of bones and antlers on a dusty shelf in the corner, and a crooked piano against the bohemian wall. I could spend many days in that house absorbing the mysterious layers of a person I barely know. What we have in our homes says everything about what we value and who we are; so often what we can discover when we see ourselves with fresh eyes is just so profoundly beautiful and sweet. Some people see value in the simple things of nature, they see pieces of art and creative possibility in their natural environments. Our homes are nothing but a relationship with the world.
My grandmother has a bouquet of eagle feathers on her dresser, feathers she has been collecting for years and years on our beach. In her house, I see an elegance that comes from a long life, and a relationship with with the world that is moralistic and refined. My breath is taken away constantly by the twists and turns of her personality. There is so much purity that emerges from someone in the twilight of her life who has nothing left to lose. She is preoccupied with simple things, like what kinds of birds have come to feed at her windowsill — blue jays are not allowed, but quail are always a delightful surprise. She wants to know if I will get her her four packages of jello on Wednesday or on Thursday. She eyes up her loaf of cinnamon bread for its freshness like she is devising a great decree. I love her so much I can’t believe it. I know that every day is an opportunity for me to say hello and good-bye at the same time. Every day we meet one another for the first time, and everyday we say goodbye.
I look around my grandmother’s house for clues about who she is, and through her, I sometimes wonder if I might get glimpses of who I am also. I know I will never totally comprehend her. Human beings are universes; often we are unconscious even to our own depths, capabilities,and complexity. I notice that at her vulnerable age, 94, my grandmother is very much concerned with kindness towards animals. She offers to them the same kind of empathy she perhaps wishes for herself and her family. She exists in the same kind of fragility as the deer who come to visit her at the window, and the seagull who stops by for food.
Yesterday I saw her walking by the dining room towards her bedroom in the evening sunset light. The way the light cast through the room and onto her pale skin it was as if I were watching an angel move through the house, so silent and sweet, so innocent. She looked at me as if to say “My love, this is who we are.”