The one who remains standing

Personal Essays
“I Am Not I”
By Juan Ramón Jiménez
Translated by Robert Bly

I am not I.
I am this one
walking beside me whom I do not see,
whom at times I manage to visit,
and whom at other times I forget;
who remains calm and silent while I talk,
and forgives, gently, when I hate,
who walks where I am not,
who will remain standing when I die.

A friend shared this poem in a condolence card at my dad’s celebration of life. I waited weeks, until I was ready, to open this card. His wife wrote that she hoped I would find steadiness from within. Inside was also a beautiful necklace she’d worn and loved for years and wanted to gift to me. I was touched and very grateful for their generosity.

Their words resonated deeply. They illuminated thoughts and feelings I’ve been processing since my dad went into hospice.

I’ve been meditating nearly every day for four months. I’ve also been journaling, making art, reading poetry and philosophy, going to counseling, and taking time out to be alone or to be in nature. I want to be present and work through everything in a natural flow.

Lately, I’ve felt a strong sense of separateness between my self as I know me, who others know me – my outer self, say – and my inner self: the clear blue sky of my mind during meditation. The limitless, effortless feeling of simply moving along in life, breathing and letting thoughts and experiences float by like clouds.

My image of my dad is that he isn’t dead. His body is gone for sure (we all have travel-sized jars of his ashes to prove that). But, he lives on in our memories as well as through the lessons and traits he passed on to us by example and biology. He is a part of me and my life, no matter what.

There is more though.

During his chemotherapy recovery period, my dad shared with me a medication-induced experience that left him elated, grateful, and full of wonderment. He’d been given a combination of anti-nausea and anti-pain medications, then he was wheeled away in his bed for a test. He came back within 30 minutes and I asked how it went, not expecting much of a response. He asked me if I organized it. No, I told him, the doctor ordered the test.

“You weren’t there? It was amazing,” he said. “That is what academia is all about.” I laughed, what did he mean? “Did you take a class?” I asked. “Yes,” he said slowly, “The art of speeding up turds,” and then he giggled.

He described being put into a machine and then shot around in a big circle, while someone else had been shot around the other direction. They collided and he turned into a small, floating neutron. I can’t remember his exact words, but he seemed incredibly happy and very connected to this sense of being small but also expansive. He talked about his memories of Ireland, where he, my mom, and older brother spent three months traveling together after our parents were married in 1986. My dad talked about magic, mysticism, and his appreciation for these experiences.

He continued to drift in and out, mind-traveling to other memories. He’d close his eyes and I’d ask him where he was. After Ireland, he said he was in a field, the grass scratchy under his feet. He was four years old and his friends were playing nearby. Then he was in a kitchen, he was five. He and his sister were making their favorite cookies. He drifted to other times as well. He was fully present in these moments from the past. He talked about details I’d never heard before. He went from his childhood in 1943 to an experience, or a dream, of South Dakota in the 1970’s. I recorded this and other talks, but I’m not ready to listen to them yet.

Today, I like imagining my dad as this neutron. Kind of like K-PAX traveling through light, existing in everything from a dust mote to a blue bird.

The Juan Ramón Jiménez poem with its lines “I am not I. / I am this one.” feels synchronistic with the idea that we are two things: a physical body and an intangible being.

I’ve been feeling this way when I meditate. It helps me be more observant, to feel a separate part of myself not tied to my body’s physical sensations. I’ve also been gleaning similar messages from the books Man’s Search for Meaning, The Untethered Soul, Letters to a Young Poet, Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (translated by Ursula K. Le Guin); and from song lyrics, poems, and podcasts like Beautiful Anonymous and Invisibilia.

I’ve become a little extra introverted the past several weeks. But it doesn’t feel sad. It’s more like I’m recharging, enjoying thinking. I’ve been making some new realizations and having some new experiences as well.

My meditations and readings have had me pondering inner consciousness and its boundless nature. I’ve always liked giving my inner voice a place in my life, like a chatty friend who knows me better than anyone and is always there to support me. I routinely check in with this inner voice for advice and pep talks. It’s the voice I connect with when I’m thinking. It’s the voice you’re reading.

Now, through some transformative meditation experiences, I’ve been able to give that voice some space—freedom from todo lists and solving problems—to feel calm and vast. To go wherever it wants to. It’s a trippy feeling when I’m aware of both my body and this other me. It feels like I’m on the threshold of something that could be infinite.

After one memorable meditation in my hammock, I felt intensely aware of many things in a short instant. There was a rush of sensation from the back of my head that curved up and over, beyond my forehead. A few word fractions came to mind, paired with emotions ranging from painful to pleasant, which I turned into a new word for this feeling. Then there were memories of a place where I lived a couple years ago, the sound of our wind chime reverberating as waves in my ears, and an image of a squirrel I could hear but not see. My eyes opened and followed the curves of several tree branches overhead. I saw the blue air far, far above and knew it was the same air as that cooling my back through the nylon hammock fabric. I was aware of my shoulders and butt creating tension in the fabric and the sense of space between my suspended self and the ground. That moment of connection to all these disparate things, which I usually experience as separate entities, spaced out linearly, in order of appearance and distance, made me feel joyful and sad at the same time. I was facing and accepting the loveliness and barbarism of life in one gulp. The word I came up with, rumskaradonan, encapsulated this for me. The feeling made me smile, hugely and without thought. I was at the central line of a swinging pendulum. I laughed out loud. As I sat up, I held onto a sense of renewal, an other-worldly-happy. It stayed with me as I put on my shoes, and I moved on with my day.

The last month or two, I’ve also had some lessons that pushed my thinking-self into the world. I faced my fear of singing in front of someone, and I put my meditation work into practice by turning off an internal art critic in order to paint a mural.

I’ve wanted to take singing lessons for over 10 years, but I hated singing in front of anyone. I didn’t want to feel that way though. Stage fright, self-consciousness, and an innate stubbornness about avoiding unnecessary, uncomfortable situations kept me boxed in. I was safe when I was just singing in my car or the few times I sang in front of a family member. But, I wanted to improve my voice.

When I first told my-now voice teacher that I wanted to learn to sing, he said, great, let’s do it. Very positive and nonchalant. I said okay, too. I didn’t think about it. Didn’t think about being afraid. I wanted to learn to sing, and he was a singing teacher, who was also a friend of my dad’s.

We set a date and time for my first lesson, and I continued not thinking about it. As I was driving to his studio the first day, I felt jittery and nauseated. Should I have eaten first? Too late now. Then I was in a seat, in front of him and his keyboard. He asked me what my goal was. I responded: “To sing. Out loud.”

With barely a preamble, he was singing vocalization exercises, looking at me expectantly. I’m supposed to sing now? Now now? Oh fuckfuckfuck. Don’t think. Just go with it. The teacher made me feel very comfortable, saying that how I sounded was normal: “Everything is normal in here.”

Before my first lesson, my singing teacher asked if I wanted to paint a mural on his studio wall. He knew I was an artist, but I let him know I’d never done a mural before. He said that was okay, he’d pay me and I should just have fun with it. He’d be happy with whatever I did.

It felt like a no-pressure situation, and I wanted to practice my art, so I agreed. I figured I’d do a bunch of research, maybe even practice drawing and painting on one of my own walls. I’d watch Youtube videos and read forums, draw studies for the palm fronds and clouds he wanted. But, I didn’t. I wanted it to be fun, like he said, and it wasn’t fun to do this research on top of all the other work I was getting through leading up to when I’d start painting.

And, everything flowed easily in its own time. I picked out colors a week ahead of time and did most of the prep work the day before. I had the most fun choosing paint colors. I spent a brief but fruitful time looking at pictures and videos for inspiration and reference the day of, and I made sure I had all the needed supplies. With a vote of confidence from the paint clerk at the hardware store that it was going to be a blast, I set forth.

The first evening, I did some pencil drawings in my sketchbook of palm fronds from a plant in the studio and of some clouds outside the window. Then I started: I put my earbuds in, and, listening to my “Dreamy Drawing” music mix, I gave myself a moment with the blank wall before putting my pencil to it.

Whenever I started to doubt myself, judge the art, or worry, I reiterated: I’m just having fun with this. Enjoy it. It doesn’t matter what it looks like in the end, what matters is that I had fun doing it, and that will show through.

I was simply moving forward on instinct and openness.

Going through the painting process in this way made me feel like I was both in control and not in control of the situation at the same time. Like in my meditations where I’m gently keeping thoughts at bay by focusing on my breath. It takes effort to be effortless. Drawing and painting the mural, I had to focus on being present and trust in my skills, in order to let go of expectations and anxiety about it turning out horrible.

With both of these experiences, I felt like I was bumping up against old boundaries, corners of myself I used to avoid. But, I was confident that I had the basic skills needed to move through the challenge, like water to Lao Tzu:

It doesn’t compete.
It goes right
to the low loathsome places,
and so finds the way.

(Excerpt from “Easy by nature” in Tao Te Ching, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin)

Having started the process of moving through these particular blocks, I’ve been feeling more sensitive, and also more free. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow but I can face the uncertainty and make it through. My comfort words during this time have been: boundless, limitless, effortless.

After my first singing lesson, walking back to my car, I felt light, airy, amazed. I talked to my dad. He felt very close. Not just because I thought he’d be happy and proud of me, but something more tangible. In a meditation later, I pictured myself stepping through a door, out into a star-shimmery vastness, with nothing under me. I felt safe, which I don’t usually feel where heights are concerned. I’m just standing in the ether, peaceful and curious. In a place like my dad’s neutron dream, where I imagine him to be now.

Knowing that my inner self is its own presence, and that my dad had his own inner self, I feel hopeful truth in the poem: “I am not I. / I am this one /…who will remain standing when I die.”

My dad’s inner self remains standing. He is a joyful neutron flipping through nature and time, roaming space near and far, and thinking about everything and nothing.

He exists boundlessly.

When I work through my internal boundaries, like fear of singing in front of someone, I reach states of mind where I feel open and electric. I feel that boundlessness.

I can share that space with my dad.

This feels like a profoundly personal truth. Yet, the questions of where we go when we die and what are we doing here anyways, are universal unknowns we’re all trying to grasp, through poetry, music, philosophy, religion, medication, nature, meditation. In these mysterious areas where dogmas are created to instruct your beliefs, I prefer the quote: “Wisest is she who does not know” (Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder). So while I won’t say with certainty that my dad’s “one,” my “one,” all of our inner selves keep existing after the body dies; I will say it’s hugely comforting for me to feel it as true.

The finality of death is sharp. My dad is gone. My other loved ones will also go. I will die. It brings on different levels of pain at different times: a jagged rift through my chest like a crevasse, a dulling rap as if from pounding my forehead against a wall repeatedly, a fear-induced stupor where I think I can feel cancer metastasizing in my own body. But, those feelings aren’t there all the time. Sometimes I don’t think about it at all. Or, when I do, it’s with a resoluteness: Well, then, get on with what you want to do, and love the ones you love.

Maintaining my routine of meditation, art, writing, reading, walking, and connecting with loved ones is bringing me steadiness within, as my friend wished. Operating on instinct and living at my own pace makes me happy, and practicing my skills inspires me to keep going. I also know that I can lean in to uncertainty, to potentially scary situations, and survive.

Whether I’m feeling buoyant or miserable, I breathe in and out. Being present and grateful is all I can really do.