“To be alive is the biggest fear humans have. Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive — the risk to be alive and express what we really are. Just being ourselves is the biggest fear of humans.”-Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements
At the age of seven, I went to sleep. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly the where and why of it, and maybe also the who and the what and the when and the how, but I’ve come to suspect it had something to do with my parents’ separation. When I was in second grade, my dad sat my family down at the kitchen table, maybe our first “family meeting” ever, and explained to my three siblings and me that he was moving out. None of us spoke or asked questions. We didn’t meet each other’s eyes. Only my little brother, who was four, cried.
My dad left and we didn’t see him very often, but I told myself it was okay, because we never really saw him that often when he lived with us, either. My mom read us books with titles like Why Doesn’t Daddy Live Here Anymore? and asked us about our feelings. My little brother would cry some more. I would tell her I didn’t want to talk, and to stop making such a big deal about it.
I have many memories from ages 2-6, and more memories than I know what to do with from age 13 on, but there’s a wide gap between the ages of 7-13. Some spotty memories, but not many. My next-door-neighbor friends asking me in the third grade where my dad was. Twirling in my driveway singing “A Whole New World” in the fourth grade. My fifth grade teacher asking me why I was crying after art class. The popular girls who sat by me in sixth grade wearing their Elizabeth Arden Sunflowers perfume and digging around in their Clinique makeup bags gossiping about various Spencers and Scotts. I quit ballet, which I loved, because I simply didn’t want to go to practice. I played softball, which I HATED, for years because my friend Courtney played it. I accepted Christianity because my mom believed it. I didn’t try out for cheerleading in fifth grade because I was too afraid.
Some of my clearest memories from this time come from the books I was reading. I was always reading, living through other people’s words and experiences. I tried to write a little too. In fifth grade I wrote a short story about a girl named Molly Thatcher who gets to fulfill her dream of meeting Jackie Kennedy Onassis. I self-published it by gluing cardboard to the front and back pages and stapling the whole thing together. I illustrated it myself and gave it to my reading teacher, who had told me once that she loved the Kennedys. I’m not sure if she ever read it–she used to sleep during class and tell us she was resting her eyes.
At the age of 13 boys seemed to develop an interest in me, there were suddenly boys and their boy eyes everywhere, and my eyes opened to theirs. I woke up slightly. My first vivid memory after the six-year blackout period is of me riding my bike around my old elementary school the summer after seventh grade and hearing Tony, a boy I went to elementary school with, who was skateboarding there with some of his friends, say, “That’s [CG]? Wow.” Quickly cascading after that were those first few tentative games of Truth or Dare, my love of the movie That Thing You Do!, and my first French kiss. I began to care about the brand of clothes I wore and the way I styled my hair. I began shaving my legs and reading my sister’s old issues of Seventeen that were stacked in piles in our garage, studying how to apply makeup and how to flirt. I began to live for the affection of the opposite sex because that’s what made me feel awake.
But I stayed asleep for the most part. I jumped from boy to boy, dating guys not because I was interested in them but because they were interested in me. I broke a few hearts and didn’t really care. When I was fifteen, a boy told me he loved me, and I didn’t reciprocate until a year later, but by then he was too hurt by my apparently hard heart and didn’t want anything to do with me. I kept on dating other boys but for some reason I thought I would marry him. But then he married someone else the summer after my sophomore year of college, so I began dating someone who I thought would want to marry me. And, eventually, he did.
It worked for a little while because we were both asleep. My New Year’s resolution a few years in a row was inspired by Henry David Thoreau; I resolved year after year to live deliberately. And every year I failed and never really knew why. But then someone came along who I was very much interested in, had been interested in for years, and he seemed interested in me too. He showed me beautiful things about myself. He listened to me and asked me about my feelings. He understood the things I said. Both the love I felt for him and the resulting pain that he wasn’t mine were too keen. I couldn’t stay asleep any longer.
I woke up and only then did I realize I had been sleeping all that time.
The affair didn’t wake me up all the way, of course, or I wouldn’t’ve had it. It would’ve been too painful, and I would’ve seen the situation for what it was: that Cautionary Lover did not want to be with me. After I ended the affair and told Cautionary Husband about it, I’d go back to sleep for a few weeks again and then jerk myself awake again. Over time I’d catch myself before I fell asleep and would struggle to keep my eyes open like a child fighting sleep at bedtime. Only recently am I realizing how truly difficult it is– to be awake, alive, conscious, aware, and to stay that way. It can be painful, which is why, I suspect, I went to sleep in the first place. But the alternative isn’t really much of an alternative at all. Certain books I’ve read recently, Brave New World and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, have affirmed this.
A good friend of mine asked me on Saturday how long I think I’ve been consistently awake now. It’s hard to say, but I know it’s been about a month or so. When I made the decision to move back in with CH, I realized that I couldn’t force myself to do it–I was too afraid that I would go back to sleep, indefinitely this time. I took this to mean we should get a divorce, and I told him as much a week ago. But then something incredible happened–he seemed to wake up also with the painful shock of facing a divorce, and last Wednesday we had what felt like our first honest, authentic conversation ever.
I’m beginning to understand that perhaps CL and I can’t be together for a reason. Perhaps he was supposed to wake me up because it was always through romantic love that I felt the most awake. And, if I were with him, it would be easy for me to expect him to keep me awake. But maybe I’m supposed to learn how to keep myself awake. Or maybe CH and I are supposed to learn it from each other.
To this end, I decided to get a tattoo to remind me to never, ever, under any circumstances, let myself go to sleep again.
It’s a lotus flower. According to wikpedia, “Its unfolding petals suggest the expansion of the soul. The growth of its pure beauty from the mud of its origin holds a benign spiritual promise.”
God, there has been a lot of mud in my life, especially lately. When I read Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood in May, I was furious that she awoke so effortlessly, at such a young age, and managed to maintain her consciousness. Why couldn’t I do that? Why couldn’t it be that way for me? But I acknowledge that out of all of this mud has grown something of incredible, unblemished beauty. Just this past week I read Ruiz’s The Four Agreements, which I quoted at the top of this entry, in which the author says he didn’t wake up until much, much later in his life, after a traumatic car accident. I suppose people just wake up when they’re ready, and I’m later than some and earlier than others. Maybe earlier than most, who knows.
But I do know that I will not be going back to sleep.