Sunday, October 12, 2014

How Not to Figure Things Out

dedicated to Mary, Tanya, Heather and my Mom

It occurred to me the other day that I'm not going to figure things out. I probably use that expression many times a day in various forms -- I can't figure it out, You'll figure it out, Figure it out! I need to figure it out, Just figure it out! -- and certainly popular culture is filled with tips on how to do it or on how other people have done it. I can figure out a math problem or how to work my new phone or what to do about Oliver's schooling or how to help Henry navigate high school, but there's no figuring out the really big life things. I'm not saying that things just happen without effort and thought, but it's a rare big life thing that is figured out in the sense that one comes to an answer in a direct way. Does this make sense? Because there's a lot that is unbloggable now in my life, I might sound vague, but what I can draw an analogy to is my early years with Sophie, right after she was diagnosed and probably for the next ten years or so when I was always trying to figure things out. This meant many active hours of brain anguish, of being on all the time, in the event I'd miss something. When I say that, I mean it quite literally. I spent conscious and unconscious hours worried that if I didn't do something or think something or research something or talk to someone about something, I'd miss the chance to fix Sophie. In other words, I would miss figuring things out. I remember with an almost PTSD-like intensity the cover of a Time Magazine article about child development and the brain, how at age three, a window shut on language. I believe that has been debunked since then as we've discovered the brain's capacity for amazing feats of regeneration, but the sound of that window slamming haunted me for years. I spent a lot of time trying to figure things out before that window slammed and well afterward.

When I sat down to write this morning, I looked at the collection you see in the photo and realized that I'd made a sort of shrine, and that gazing often blankly at these things helps me to center myself and channel all the energies I have in me and outside of me to create and to write. There's a card there at the back that a blogger friend who's become one of my best friends sent me. There's a little jade statue of the Buddha, and a tiny tin of holy dirt from a shrine in New Mexico that my friend Tanya brought me. There's a bit of driftwood from the beach in Victoria where I spent a week last year, a week given to me by Heather McHugh and her organization Caregifted. There's a little house behind it with the words A house without books is like a room without windows. These objects sit on a box of postcards from Penguin that replicate one hundred book covers, and in front is a glass coaster that my mother gave me years ago with a sweet saying. I always feel joy and content when I write, to tell you the truth, and that's true for both online and off-line writing, but particularly so when I sit in a sort of reverence and allow it to just happen. I hesitate to use the word channeling for all its over-used weight, but I'm not sure what else to call the release of fingers on keys, the rush of language and words falling into place. I'm not figuring things out, though, and it's not about me.

I get a lot of emails and telephone calls from people with little children who are new on the path of disability or epilepsy. I'm always struck by their bravery and by their sense of urgency as much as by their anguish. I recognize all of their emotions because I've had them or continue to have them. When I cast my memory back to my own early days with Sophie, I remember the visceral details of trying to figure things out, but I don't remember much of who I was or how it happened, or even how I did it. I want to say, sometimes, you won't figure things out, but even twenty years later, I don't have the wisdom -- or presumption -- to do so.

If I could, I'd tell them how not to figure things out, but I haven't figured that out either, other than to treat with reverence and love this place inside of me that persists in opening to possibility.


  1. I just realized I say that too, but mostly to my kids or husband when we have conflicting things going on, time-wise or such. "We'll figure it out," I always say, knowing that before we have to do that, everything will probably have changed and so it's fine to wait until the last minute. Usually. To figure it out.
    But oh, it is SO human to want everything to be like a puzzle that if we just get all of the pieces in their places, it will all come together, whole and solid and beautiful.
    And yet, so much of life is nothing like that. Nothing at all.
    You ARE a goddess, you know. You are.

  2. So so true.

    "We'll figure it out," a sort of mantra throughout the raising of eight kids. I still say it. It gives this odd reassurance to me. And when someone says it to me it always feels like an emotional balm.

    But you are so very right. The big things, those I can nibble around the edges. I don't figure them out.

    I look forward to your blog every day. You help me connect to life. I agree with Ms. Moon, you are a goddess.

  3. Those are some lovely, and more importantly, meaningful objects in your photo. This is a beautiful post. Very well put. I'm forever trying to figure things out. I have to learn not to try so hard...

  4. you're right, it isn't so much the actual figuring out, and putting order in chaos, but that little door inside that is left open to possibility.

  5. It's a cliché to say it's all about the journey, but really, there is NO figuring things out. We may get solutions to small definite problems, but the big stuff just keeps unfolding. Right? As you said, I think it's all about being open to what comes as best we can.

  6. I remember years of research which probably started when Katie was about four months old. I needed to know what went wrong with Katie's brain because if I could just figure it out, then we could fix it. Took me years to realize and then finally accept that there was no fixing.

    I continue to try and figure things out with regards to live and death. I spend a lot of time trying to understand the point of life and what happens us to when we die. There are so many theories, beliefs, and isms but of course I want proof.

    Another friend of mine has been diagnosed with cancer, the kind that can only be slowed a little and not cured, although I now believe that a "Cure for cancer" is a big fat marketing lie. I'm not the first who wants to understand the point of life but I do so want to figure things out. I don't just want an answer so much as I want an answer that is acceptable to me. Hubris, I know.

  7. Brilliant. You are so right. Figuring things out is overrated, as is "pushing through." I am learning that the more I relax into my deep knowledge and simply trust that I'm doing the thing I'm supposed to be doing right now, the more content and satisfied I am (and everyone around me is, too). Thank you for this.

  8. I don't know how I missed this post. I can't seem to figure anything out these days. But I'm not really trying. Just waiting for a door to open.

  9. Once again, you've said with such lyrical elegance how I feel too. You amaze me and inspire me every time I come here.

  10. I believe you have found the Tao.

  11. I have a little shrine too, and on it sit a beautiful book of matches you gave me--what wonderful symbolism--and, believe it or not, something I've been meaning to send you for weeks. It's a relief to realize that I'm not going to figure things out and that things don't need to be figured out. I think some people need to be more introspective and self-aware, but I think those of us who write are overly self-aware, and often we just need to leave ourselves alone. And not figure ourselves out.



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