I’ve always been a deep thinker. When I was just a kid and trying to be one, I was often deeply disturbed by questions related to reality, time, perception and context.
My friend Bonnie and I played in our neighborhood every afternoon. Frequently our “play” involved a walk around the block..our claim for independence in a way that satisfied both of us and our parents as well. She was my best friend. We were in fourth grade.
The conversation would go a little something like this:
Me: So…if God has always been here, then there is no “before. Time just goes on and on. You know…like the sky. There is no beginning or end.
Bonnie: I guess so.
Bonnie kicks a rock or two or skips a few steps. She daintily performs a perfect pirouette. I continue walking to nowhere in particular, my brow wrinkled, signifying a brain on warp speed.
Me: Does that mean we were always here? Were we somewhere before we got here and are we going somewhere after we leave?
Bonnie: Don’t know.
Bonnie stops for a second, places her knapsack on the ground. She picks up an acorn and throws it into someone’s yard. She waits to hear it land.
We walk for a number of paces before another question emerges.
Me: So…why is the sky blue? I mean of all the colors in the universe, why was blue the color picked for the sky? It could’ve been orange, green or red, but it’s blue. Why is it blue, you think?
Bonnie: No idea, Molly.
There is a centipede on the ground—a big furry thing. I step over it. Bonnie slows to observe. She stops, picks up a stick and prods the fuzzy body a bit, watching it roll.
Molly: Do you ever hear a conversation in your head? Like your mom is saying something but it’s not her voice. You know something like, “you should clean your room now because if you don’t it means you are lazy”?
Bonnie: Not sure, Mol.
Bonnie opens her knapsack and pulls out what resembles a cookie, although it appears to have been knocked around a bit by the other items adjacent to it. She takes a bite and tosses the remaining bit in another front yard.
Molly: Do you ever think it’s weird that our heart beats without our having to do anything about it. I mean, when was the last time you had to remember to breathe? Do you ever wonder about that and think its kinda cool?
Bonnie: Mmmm. Never thought about that.
Bonnie stops and places her hand on her chest, cocks her head to one side and looks as if she is listening to something.
Bonnie : Cool. Anyway, I gotta go!
She shrugs her shoulders, laughs out loud and runs a beeline for home.
When I turned fourteen, I went into neuron overload. I couldn’t seem to keep up with all the questions and keen observations. Being a teenager is tough as it is trying to maneuver through what feels like thousands and thousands of pieces of incoming data, but add to it, this constant and never ending conversation with myself about the bigness of the universe, life, purpose…MY purpose…and you end up with a very, very tired (sometimes anxious) girl. I had a really hard time just observing…I had to always give what I observed some kind of meaning.
To deal with these demanding dendrites, I discovered two very distinct and opposing coping mechanisms.
My Mom got sober in 1970. Not shortly after, she started running. She would launch out of the house, the screen door slamming behind her, feet to follow on the gravel pathway just outside. One hour later she would come back, perspiring, red-faced and happy. She was literally transforming before my very eyes.
My mom was tall, svelte and quite elegant. She was captain of the basketball team and Homecoming Queen. She went to Smith College and shortly after, met my father. He drove onto campus, one fall day, in a baby blue convertible and the rest was history.
Mary still is the most authentic woman I’ve ever known. In March of 1970, she hit bottom. It took a couple of tries before sobriety “stuck” but once it did, she became a tremendous advocate for women struggling to get sober. She started working at a local Alcohol Treatment facility and sponsored dozens of women in a 12-step program. She wrote poetry, read poetry and even had a number of her poems published. She competed in many local 5k’s, winning her age group. She started running longer distances and competed in a number of 10k’s, 15k’s and even one half-marathon.
In 1974, I joined her on one of her early morning runs. I was 14. She was 52. The sun was not yet up. The screen door screeched “good morning”, our feet hit the gravel and we were soon journeying through our neighborhood. I ran one block with her–about a mile. We didn’t say a word. Our feet rhythmically hit the hard cement in unison, our breath in and out—mantra like–the crisp edge to approaching autumn filling our lungs. I had never experienced anything quite like it…the quiet, the fellowship, the power.
I started running regularly with my Mom. The one-mile block grew into two blocks and then three. Eventually we were running eight, nine and ten miles together, usually first thing in the morning. And no matter how crazy my “other life” got (high school, college, my 20’s) meeting my mom for that early morning run was a welcoming sanctuary, where mother-daughter became woman-woman…where I felt connected, loved and could quiet the constant questioning, searching, needing for purpose, meaning, love. It was as if, the needing for purpose went away and the purpose just came.
And so I ran to quiet the noise, the talk and the constant mental wanderings. During my runs I would inevitably come to a state of nothingness, presence, being. I couldn’t yet articulate its quieting effects, but I knew that running did something…something I was not yet aware of…but something really good.
In 1976, I took my first drink
BAM…the noise went away. The conversations subsided. The quiet, while only temporary and “fake” would come. My need to understand, to seek purpose, to have a greater connection simply slipped away. When I was under the influence of alcohol, of course only a temporary fix, I was able to find some peace of mind…the profound nature of my essence was hushed away and I was simple, numb, something I was not born to be. Seventeen years later, I was jobless, homeless and emotionally dying.
On July 6th, 1993. I hit bottom. I was empty, silent and deafened by the cycle of shame that now ruled the conversations occurring each morning. I placed a last-ditch call to my sister. “Help me. Please somebody, anybody! I can be no longer…”
My sister had heard this from me many times and, as always, she was patient: “Molly, just sleep on it. Promise me that you will just sleep on it–see how you feel in the morning. Honey, this too shall pass.”
I hung up the phone, curled up on the couch and lay there in the despair, in the silence and the darkness of my depressed brain, and knew that nothing short of a miracle would pull me out of that wished-for sleep.
The following evening, July 7th, somehow, I dragged myself out the door and by rote hit the pavement for a run. The air was electric with a coming thunderstorm, the wind blowing the leaves of the trees upside down and causing the dirt on the street to swirl up. Rounding the last corner of a six-mile run onto East Boulevard, I was on the last stretch of road toward the apartment where I was staying. Everything was in sync, my breathing, the float of my steps on the pavement, my relaxed arms, my speed–and as I approached the intersection of Kenilworth and East Boulevard I moved to a space of total effortlessness and breathlessness, overcome with the moment.
Something was happening–something so real, so raw, so momentous, it forced me to stop dead in my tracks at that intersection. The sounds of the city floated to the background, the street disappeared, and like tunnel vision I became fixated on the way the sun filtered through the leaves on the trees. casting the most distinct shadows on the pavement at my feet. I could hear my breathing, my heartbeat in my ears; feel the sweat flowing across my temples and down my back and chest; a surge of strength , power, presence lit me up–and in that instant my life changed. Call it what you want, but the darkness of the shame I had hidden away inside was warmed by a light of such power that for that moment I just was: silent, present, pure, worthwhile and nothing.
I wasn’t a woman, a runner, a troubled person. I wasn’t old, young, an alcoholic. I just was…nothing. No longer seeking. No longer wondering. I was. I was nothing.
What was different about this experience was my awareness of its occurrence. The years of running prior to this day had always left me with a feeling of power, strength and being, but I had never been able to articulate why. For the first time, I was conscious of this state of nothingness. I was free of definitions, stereotypes, cultural and societal expectations and in that moment the meaning, purpose, answers to all my questions and the core of all my conversations become crystal clear. These conversations don’t really exist. They are not me. These conversations are nothing until I declare them as something.
Ahhh…to stay in such a state would be a luxury. I’m here to admit, though, that I am back at it again in full force! If I’m completely honest with you, if I take a few minutes and consciously listen, there’s still a lot of talking going on inside my head.(Thankfully not as much.) So much so that I even have conversations about the conversations. “You should be past this by now.” “Aren’t you through with all of this negative self-talk?” “Why can’t you be at peace and just get over all this thinking?”
I’ve done a lot of awareness work over the last seventeen years. A LOT! This has included trying a number of very interesting additional coping mechanisms to quiet the incessant chatter. I’ve been through personal enrichment courses, run triathlons, journaled, read books, written books, “gone” vegetarian, made love, not-made-love, cut my hair off, worn only cotton fabrics, hired a guru, meditated, remained silent for two weeks, went braless and make-up-less, prayed. chanted and practiced yoga…and yet, while not as demanding or loud, the conversation in there keeps on keeping on.
It seems to me that every one of these techniques brought me closer to detaching from the chatter and just observing it. When I embrace the talk and see it for what it is, rather than fight it, I move to this higher state of nothingness. When I run, when I write, when I meditate, when I disconnect from and observe the conversations, they no longer rule or define me…they just become nothing. And it is from this state of their nothingness, that I can create meaning, purpose and some sense of Divinity.
Which leads me to now…right this minute, while I write. Go with me on this. I’m beginning to wonder if this state of nothingness that I experience when I write, might be something you and I could share. Perhaps the space to which I travel when I write, particularly about the children in my life, might provide a sanctuary of sorts for you: an opportunity to become “nothing” with me…an opportunity to explore our nothingness and joyfully move into the space of our something…that which we choose to be…not that which we feel we must be.
What might reveal itself to all of us if I, as best I can, share the nothingness joy of being…jump in with wild abandon, ride with it recklessly and uninhibitedly, joyfully bring it up from inside to out and have some fun. Conquer…no that’s old language…”love on” this space with one another and in the process evolve a little more and maybe just maybe…if we are lucky live more frequently in the space of joy and wonder where children live so uninhibitedly and unabashedly! What will I learn? How will my awareness grow and evolve?
And so my friends, here is my invitation (and challenge) to you: Come along with me. I don’t want to do this alone. Join me. Come on! Every once in a while, I will share a story or experience which has wandered in and out of my life and my life’s work, on this blog and we can share the perspectives/answers/questions that arise from that experience. If you want to share the experience in person, rather than “electronically” read “What I do.” Let’s celebrate our connectedness and delight in our differences.
We can wander through the big, little, weird, fun, rich profound and beautifully simple questions about and observations of ourselves and the world around us, together, each of us pondering, exploring and joyfully sharing what comes up for us. Who knows what will happen? Who knows what will show up, manifest, and reveal itself? Who knows? Can we ride to a state of nothingness together? Will the power of the Divine become that obvious?
Molly: So, Bonnie. What do you think would happen if I put all these questions, conversations, debates and thoughts that I share with you every day on our walk around the block, down on paper? What might reveal itself? What will show up if I set them all free? Set myself free? What will happen to you? What might happen for you?
Bonnie: I dunno, Molly.
Molly: Wanna find out?
Bonnie picks up a stick and traces a parallel path on the ground beside her as we join hands and walk home together.