I tell my therapist that my soul is locked behind a door made of ancient wood and that the mahogany guards a snarl that is better off in darkness. That snarl wraps around shame and judgment and loneliness and inadequacy and terror and emptiness and exhaustion and meaningless, and if the door opens, I know I will enter. Because the door is also an invitation. That locked away place is dark and warm, and I fit, snuggled in the comfort of pain. Maybe the Cure plays, or maybe Patti Griffin, and maybe there is the densest down duvet I’ve ever wanted thrown over my old porch rocker offering warmth and heaviness and silence. And if I sit and tuck myself away here, I know I will not emerge. That snarl of feeling will gather around me, and it will squeeze, and I will struggle to breathe and beat on.
My therapist is the only person I tell about this door and the unrelenting knot it locks away. And so my therapist is also the only one to whom I say that this door must remain locked. I am sure of it—maybe the only thing I am sure of. But what I didn’t realize was that, in telling her all this, I am actually unlocking the door, and now I am here with her, and I wonder: if we enter together, might we be able to air out the space and let the light in?
For years now, I have been working up the courage to go to the doorway alone and peer in—at the darkness and its inviting rhythm. I am working up the courage to cross the threshold, to sit, maybe even settle in. Can you just be with what you feel? Don’t judge it or change it. Just observe it and let it wash over you and see what happens. This is what my therapist has been telling me, in preparation for this moment. I’ve been practicing: Like when I want to eat the whole kringle and I observe those feelings and that impulse without judgment— I am learning, at least, to save the judgment for later, after the last crumb, and then I let the shame in. Still, I have been practicing, and so today as I write poems on a hillside in rural Spain, I let myself be pulled deeper. I worry about permanence, though, and whether it really is enough to just feel and won’t it be like an octopus pulling me to the depths of undersea trenches, impossible to emerge again? So I do what I coach my own children to do when Big Feelings come: Put a hand on the belly, close the eyes, and breathe in through the nose, deeply. Count to four and then exhale. And repeat until the breath is steady.
And as I do this, I smell lilac. An image offered during one of our workshops, but it comes alive in my breath. Lilac: that heady punch of June on Granville, when he and I would walk in the newly returned possibility of bare arms and dream of what our lives might become, maybe even together. The gray bricks of St. Gertrude on the corner, the only church around we’d consider for that marriage bashfully hiding in the shadows of our promises. We would have to leave the perch of our third-floor apartment and its garden of catalpa trees filtering out the city in order to get close to the Sunday organ, which is what always called to us, and in late May and June if we descended from our nest to the world, we would smell lilac. He would declare it his favorite, and in doing so, somehow also make a declaration for me. We would stand there, in this city that is my ancestral home, but on a block I never knew without him, a block with a foamy green house and a gabled porch tucked behind a fence of lilac, and we would pause and push our noses toward the tiny purple flutes and bat away honeybees and then look at each other and walk on, hands entwined.
And even on those languid afternoons when we would walk to Montrose Beach because it was finally a place to delight in again, after the ice, every breath took in the smell of exhaust and Ethiopian spices, of laundromat steam and rat dung in alleys, of coffee roasting and also of lilac. And so this is what I feel when I breathe in the smell of lilac at my teacher’s prompting: earliest love.
In Milwaukee, though, we smell magnolia in May and and fresh cut grass in June and milkweed later in summer, and so I have been looking for the lilac. It is not in my neighbor’s yard or at Kern Park or even across the street at the greenhouse. And so every spring, I tell him we need to plant lilac and also forsythia and maybe even a dogwood, which he likes because it reminds him of Cincinnati. We never do any of this—because the fence is broken and they’re tearing out the lead pipes and the kids prefer a trampoline. One day, we say, when we have the money and the time. One day, we say, and dreams descend onto tax bills and aging parents and family calendars. Still, I keep asking for lilac—I even threaten to steal Amy’s, which she planted this year, but she is disappointed that it smells to her like stale perfume. I keep asking, but I also keep moving on without it.
And then one pandemic afternoon, Buzz and I are out for a walk, her pulling towards a squirrel and me laughing at a ramshackle house that is trying to grow a paw paw orchard. She stops to poop—the kind you wish you could just walk away from because, dear god, a bag is not protection enough. But neighborliness matters in this place we are making our home, so, I stoop with a covered hand and—I smell it. I smell lilac. Here, on Townsend, around the corner from our Victorian, is a tree as old as the neighborhood. I inhale what I thought I had left behind that lifetime ago, and I wonder that it has actually been here all along.
I wonder, too, at how even in the dark and clingy closet of my soul, the lilac wafts. And I know what I never thought I could: that even in this place of shame and pain, there is also love. And if I can pause enough to stop worrying about the integrity of the locks, I might realize that when the door is left open, the love can reach in around the baseboards and through the cracks in that ancient wood, and I might realize, too, that this door has never needed locking, after all.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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