what we may be

There’s a scar on my back, now.

A long, thin line from my shoulder blade to just under my right breast.  It is delicate but unmistakable.  I was warned about this scar before the surgery, with more urgency than I was warned about the issue of heart complications, or rotting my guts with painkillers.  Most people I show it to say, ‘you can barely see it. In a while, you won’t able to see it at all.’

Underneath the skin are several layers of stitches, suturing together the muscles of my ribcage, my shoulder, my arm, my back. Everything that was cut was put back together.  More or less.

I first heard about Pema Chödrön’s immensely popular book When Things Fall Apart from a podcast.  The book, by an American Buddhist nun, has achieved a global following for its elegant articulation of Buddhist teachings.  Listening to this podcast, though, I was annoyed, listening through what I felt were the host and guest’s simpering reflections to try to hear Chödrön’s words themselves.  I bought a copy of the book.

She writes: “Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

I have nothing to add to that.

I am not who I was, before.  As I imagine you aren’t, either.

I re-read Hamlet when my father died.  I made a repeat pilgrimage when things fell apart again, this time not for the prince but the one ‘incapable of her own distress’. Ophelia’s final appearance in Act 4 Scene 5. Usually interpreted as infantile, haunting, and tragic, her melancholic ramblings and subsequent death by drowning serve as tinder for the ignition of Hamlet and her brother Laertes’ grave-hopping sword fight.  There’s plenty of simpering over that one, too.

As I read it now, Ophelia descends into an associative free-fall as crystal clear as Hamlet’s antic machinations.  Grief transforms her, liberates her from the need of keeping together what has irreparably fallen apart.  She sees the naked emperor and smells what is rotten, and links ideas and songs like daisy chains to tell it as she senses it.  Being a woman, her ‘madness’ is mythologized; the most beautiful and flower-adorned of the Bard’s many dead heroines (though her iconic death takes place offstage and is merely relayed back to us).  But as usual, Horatio knows best – he warns of how Ophelia may spread “dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.”  One who cannot, will not pretend that all is well is most dangerous indeed. Clarity can be contagious.

Chödrön warns that resisting change is simply another form of fearing death.  That the mere act of trying to rebuild one’s old self on the rubble of what has permanently changed you will be as painful as the thing that demolished you in the first place.  Hamlet tries and fails, confusing revenge for the act of grieving.  Ophelia refuses and sets herself free.

I love my scar because it is the willow tree branch that snapped and cast Ophelia into the ‘weeping brook,’ only now I am strong enough to swim.  It is the line between before, and after.  It is the gift of many more healthy years to come, which will inevitably bring slings and arrows, relief, misery, joy.  I love my scar because it has made me less patient, more honest, less extroverted, more loyal, and I’m still learning what all these things might look like in the rubble of my new life. I am too tired now not to sing songs and hand out flowers, and be as incapable of my own distress as I need to be until things come together again.  I want to see it, now and forever, as pain and healing and transformation made visible.

Long live my scar, and yours.

Things come together, and they fall apart.

We know what we are, but know not what we may be.