Somebody asked me, “How’s it going?” It was a colleague. A student. A friend, even. There was that moment, a pause. The jumble of possible answers, the stumbling over a response. Realizing, in fact, I didn’t know how it was going. Or I did, but how it was going was so many things I didn’t know which to say, what to share.
And so came the inevitable. “Good!”
Sometimes this is fine. True enough, even. Or all the person was expecting or looking forward or prepared to receive.This time, though, my smile stretched too tightly across my face. A mask. It felt lonely underneath it, and I felt full inside, withheld. By choice, or by circumstance, or by convention, but withheld nonetheless. Full, as in holding in my experience, my sense of where I belonged and what I longed to be, where I felt most alive, the pain of the places where there was disconnect, and the even greater pain of keeping that hidden out of fear.
In other words: Not seen, not really there. Behind a door. Behind a curtain. Behind a mask. Behind some kind of lie that was harmless-enough seeming but one that in fact was beginning to take a steady toll, because I was letting it. The toll of not telling the truth. The toll of not taking the time to really ask a question, to really answer a question. And then the toll of perpetuating this cycle when I said, in turn, “How’s it going for you?”
I don’t always want to share more. And truth be told, I don’t always want to invite more. It seems easier, on the surface, to stay on the surface. To go beyond this requires slowing down, and seeing where that leads, which is invariably unknown. Asking a question about not knowing. Cracking open a door to an answer, perhaps one of many. Fear of the what will flood in if I do, and how I’ll handle that sudden brightness that may sting my eyes with beauty and require me to dismantle carefully built edifices of appearance–also known as closets and prisons–rather than seeing myself as a prism capable of reflecting so many kinds of light.
I want to be a good question-asker. I want to take the time to ask not, “How are you?” but “What was your low point today?” or “Was there a moment lately when you fell madly in love with your life?” or “What’s making you want to run away lately?” This means I have to be willing to be a question-answerer, too, rather than always taking the well-worn “Good!” route. And that means stepping into some murky territory. Fear. Fear that I need to watch what I say and to whom. Consider the implications. The risks. And how about this–the gifts. Am I willing to open up to the gifts?
Going beyond the superficial nod means starting with myself. Isn’t that always the way? I have to ask myself real questions, every single day, and then take the time to sit and listen to the answers rather than just moving onto the next thing and wondering why I come home some days and cry, or walk hurriedly looking down at my phone instead of up at a stranger who might be a neighbor.
I want to say I’m willing and ready. I even have some pretty powerful points of reference from my own life to know that stepping from longing into experience is where it’s at. It is the portal to all things painful and all things beautiful. It is the gateway to real life, which is here all along. The difference is to sink into it, to get barefoot in it, to bare my teeth to it, to open my heart to it, to let it have its way with me, to trust in goodness, to have faith in what I can’t see and in my own intuition and in the natural flow that happens quite amazingly when I’m not busy obstructing it with fear and resistance and withholding and self-censoring and waiting and whining and not starting.
“How are you?” has so many answers, as the day has so many lifetimes, and life has so many layers. It has nothing to with being good at anything. I often wonder what it is I’m really good at it, in fact.
But then I sat on the train tracks for fifteen minutes on a Saturday morning, starting with a Rilke quote and writing down words, words I grabbed from some parallel realm that’s kind of swimmy, with no freaking idea if anything I was writing “made sense” but going with it as I simply transcribed them, painted a picture, described what I saw and felt, and decided, again, to share what came.
And then people responded. It happened again. My god. Every time, every single time I do this, point and shoot and write and share, I am filled with a sense of belonging and also one of surprise. But that was easy, I think. It was nothing.
It was easy, in its way, to write that poem. It wrote itself. Or something. And it was easy, to take that photograph, to see the tracks, to be transformed by them. To step into a picture of what it felt like in that moment. It was easy, too, to share it, and a gift to be met with something like understanding, connection, call it either of these.
And that is very much the point. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t count. It means in some way, it’s actually the only thing that does. The question and the answer. A knowing that might not make any sense. The truth written in the language of image and line–this is the enterprise that feels like home, in the same way that coming out felt like coming home to myself, to life where it was waiting all along, like the stars in full sun in that Linda Pastan poem I love so much (“What We Want”).
What I long for, it turns out, is also longing for me. Beyond the vague generalities, the rushed answers, the loneliness of subtle lies, lie real questions and real answers. I want to know what these are. To live in and from that place, which is here.
Do not be afraid.
Note: This post was mightily Inspired by Glennon Melton’s Save Your Relationships: Ask the Right Questions on her Momastery blog–and the thirty minutes of questions and answers Mani and I shared at the kitchen table after she read it out loud to me tonight.