This week I attended an Ashtanga yoga class for maybe the second time in my life.  The sequences are repetitive, you do a run through with the teacher’s guidance, and then repeat the sequence on your own three times. Every time the teacher said, “Okay, now do it on your own,” I suffered a little bout of panic–what if I couldn’t remember the sequence without her? What if I got it wrong? And then I’d do it. Just fine. Or a version of it that was good enough.

Two weeks ago, I was in Vermont for what is my last residency at Goddard College (unless something really unexpected happens this semester). It was a challenging week–a lot of miscommunication, a lot of layers I didn’t have enough information to really understand–both there and in other places in my life. Many of the formative realizations of my adult life, about love and desire and friendship and my own strength and capacity happened on that campus. Anyone who has been to a residency at Goddard knows what I’m talking about. You get to this little cluster of buildings far away from your life and discover things you can’t unlearn. And I’d worried, in the past, that the magic of residency would not be replicable and that without it I’d get stuck, live with less clarity. But this past residency I realized that maybe I’ve learned well enough in my time at Goddard that my work has outgrown the dependency on it.

Again and again, I am paralyzed by what if I can’t make it in the absence of____________? I protect myself against absence, make decisions with the intention of minimizing the experience of loss, proceed with caution, try not to make habits that rely on quantities I feel I can’t control.  Which doesn’t work, so again and again I find that when I have to, I can make it in the absence of just about anyone or anything–and that I learn the most about myself and my relationship to the thing I’ve lost in the period of adjustment. I think it’s this way for a lot of people. Things change, we survive, we keep getting better. Even though we weren’t sure we would.
I’ve just finished reading Detailing Trauma: a Poetic Anatomy by Arianne Zwartjes.  Well reading it for the first time anyway.  It’s in my stack for the foreseeable future.  She says this:

To surrender fully, to let go.  To yield.  Sometimes opening the hand is the hardest action the body can perform: one finger at a time.


The prompt this week was provided by my wonderful advisor at Goddard, Lise Weil. We used it in four groups last week and the resultant writing was really spectacular. Set a timer for 10 minutes, then finish the fragment below. Then set the timer for another 10 minutes, but this time go over what you’ve written and write from where you’ve left off.  Mine is after the jump, read it only once you’ve written your own. No cheating. I’d love to read yours.

So much suffering that is diagnosed as personal…

So much suffering that is diagnosed as personal is, in fact, part and parcel of living on this planet. The result of the human memory, the ways in which we yearn for and repel love simultaneously. How we crave to be seen and are terrified of criticism.

The fact of mortality, which we are never fully oblivious to, often blinds us when it arrives. We act as though we did not expect it. As though avoiding it has not been the entire point of our existence. When it cuts the ropes of the fragile shelter we have constructed we are smothered under the weight of this thing we built. We can hold still and be crushed or we can crawl out from under it, bruises blooming on the backs of our thighs, heads throbbing, elbows and knees–those hard parts we use as weapons– scraped. The skeleton misaligned. If we crawl out, we wander in search of other shelter, plant longer stakes into the soil and then those constructions too are felled. Eventually we learn to keep an eye on all of the anchors, to check and recheck them each day.

3 thoughts on “Absence

  1. Annelise

    Thanks for sharing this Seema. Here’s what I got:

    So much suffering that is diagnosed as personal feels so much bigger than myself. I feel all alone in it, though I am not. We know exactly what suffering is. When does suffering turn into surviving. When dose surviving turn into suffering. Sacrificial. Magnificent. Martyrial.

    Even though I know exactly what suffering is. I also know what it is not. it doesn’t feel like a choice until one day, suddenly, it is. It took me a while to surrender myself back to the earth. To trust my body. To trust that I still had a body. To feel myself in my skin. I know exactly what suffering is. Sometimes you don’t realize it till it’s over. You’ve been floating above the ground, trying to figure out what’s wrong with you, why you can’t get down from the air. And then there is another kind of pain, where you feel your body once again and it is terrifying and you want to reject it, but you can’t live in the air any more. And so coming down, there is a horrifying numbness, and you’re scared it’s going to be like this from now on. But gradually. So slowly you hardly notice, you begin to like yourself again. You start to understand the meaning of terra firma. One day you wake up and say, thank god I’m here now. Now I can begin again, this life. I was not living before. It’s not as if there is an escape from suffering either. But a pushing through. Life, it’s a decent into yourself. Its a stairwell, back to where you started. It’s looking through the same eyes and seeing something different.

    • seemareza

      Thank you, Annelise. This is beautiful. xoxox

  2. Dave

    So much suffering that is diagnosed as personal isn’t personal at all. Your diagnosis doesn’t care about you, it just is. Suffering I’ve recently learned is a choice we make, we take our pain, mental/emotional/physical, and we amplify it, we dwell on it, we personalize it, we refuse to accept it as a natural part of human existence. I’ve caused my own suffering by my refusal to accept my depression and PTSD diagnosis. Instead of viewing these as a natural result of my traumatic experiences, I chose instead to view them as labels, as attacks against my character, as signs of weakness, and as something to be ashamed of. My lack of acceptance and subsequent suffering led to self-loathing, a suicide attempt, cutting, and two hospitalizations, not to mention the damage and pain it brought to my family and others that care about me. There will always be suffering in the world and in our personal lives, but much of it could be avoided if we just learn to accept things for what they are instead of personalizing it. Life isn’t personal, the world isn’t out to get you. Accept the pain that life occasionally throws at you, process that pain, and get on with life.

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