Permission

In order to write the way I want to write, and to put those words out into the world, not hoard them, not hide them, I need permission. I want to write about emotions and experiences, physical experiences, sensual experiences, not just ideas. I want to tell stories about characters who are lusty. Characters who drive too fast, who take risks, who gobble their dessert instead of savoring each bite. Characters who have sex. I have an internal voice, a strong voice, that denies me permission. This voice tells me to be careful about what I publish, to not risk giving the wrong impression, to not risk offending anyone.

Up until now, occasionally I would seek out someone to give me permission to do something not careful, not safe, not boring. Because of the way my mind works, there are certain people from whom I would accept advice and encouragement to take risks, to have adventures, to live less carefully. But only occasionally. Here’s the thing I have figured out: I need to give myself permission. I need to take MY word for it.

I find myself asking how do I find that permissive voice? But when I ask the question in those words, I’ve already lost the game. By asking that way, I’m saying I don’t know, and I’m waiting for the answer to come to me, when the truth is I already do know. I give myself permission not by asking about finding the right voice, but by daring. By being fucking uncomfortable. By writing words that make me cringe, make me curl up in a ball on the couch and feel embarrassed and ashamed and worried I’m going to get in trouble. By telling stories I want to live inside of, stories about characters who take risks and live messy, screwed-up lives, but characters who I am rooting for, who I love and hate. Stories and characters who make me feel.

And then when those words and those stories are out there in the world, and people are reading them, learning to live with the discomfort that generates. Learning to trade the comfort of safety and invisibility for the exhilaration of exposure.

A Risk

It was an unremarkable day in November, with the exception that it was the Sunday after Thanksgiving. From then until Christmas, New York would be in its annual frenzy of holiday retail. They build a holiday market every year at Columbus Circle with temporary stalls set up for vendors of all sort. They start building the stalls the day after Thanksgiving when the grandstands for the big holiday parade have been cleared away. By Sunday the stalls were built, but not yet occupied, with tarps covering the open sides to keep out the weather and riffraff.

Mila and I had become friends earlier that year, and although we flirted more heavily than prudent for a bachelor and a married woman, we had never crossed a line that would constitute infidelity. We met in a café that afternoon, seeking refuge from the cold and grey. There was just a hint of mist in the air, and even by mid-afternoon the sun already seemed to be failing, giving a sense of intimacy to being tucked inside the warm café.

We had pastries, and, as usual, our banter became lightly flirtatious. When the treats were gone, Mila said, “Let’s walk!” and off we went towards the park. We crossed the avenue and made our way through the unoccupied stalls.

“Hey look, this tarp isn’t tied closed. We could totally sneak in here,” I pointed out. Mila stopped and pulled the tarp back. Without hesitation, she stepped in and pulled my hand. “Whoa, wait, do you think this is a good idea?” I looked around to see if anyone was paying attention. There were numerous people around, but no one was paying us any mind. She tugged again on my arm and I went inside with her.

We pulled the tarp shut, and had the strange sensation of being completely alone in the midst of a crowd. There were people walking by and we could hear snippets of their conversations as they passed. Our eyes adjusted to the dim half-light and we grinned at each other. I whispered, “This is pretty funny. It’s like a secret hide-out.”

She looked into my eyes and then without warning pulled me to her and kissed me. I was shocked. We had never crossed this line before and I had intended we never would. She was a good kisser, and not reticent. After a delicious moment of enjoying her warm lips, her tongue started to explore my mouth, beckoning my tongue to play with hers.

The electricity of this unexpected delight was coursing through me. I was acutely aware of the people walking by on the other side of the tarp, but I could tell no one had any idea we were in there. I relaxed my vigilance and let myself sink in to the kiss. Mila’s urgency increased and we stepped into each other. Her hips started to grind against mine slightly and I could feel myself stiffening with the thrill of contact.

Her hands were wrapped around my back, but one crept around to the front of my jeans and cupped me, now fully excited and ready. Involuntarily I pushed against her hand and she grabbed the outline. A low groan I wasn’t aware of rumbled deep in my throat. She stopped kissing for a second and pulled back to look at me with a devilish gleam in her eye. “What’s this I’ve found?” she teased. I found myself too drunk with unexpected excitement to respond coherently. “Oh Mila,” was the best I could come up with. I leaned in to kiss her again.

She pushed me back slightly and looked at me with that gleam again. “James. I have wanted this for months. We are not going to waste this opportunity.” She pulled down the zipper of my jeans and I gasped as her chill fingers found their way inside my boxers and wrapped around me. I twitched back away from her and she stopped. “OK? Are my hands too cold?” she asked.

“No, you’re good,” I moaned more than said.

She pulled me out into the cool evening air and sank down to her knees. I was startled. “Whoa, wait, what are you doing?”

“What do you think I’m doing, Silly?”

“Mila, no. I mean yes, but you don’t have to, I mean… Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“I have wanted to do this for months. I love this. Just relax.”

“But wait, there are people walking by… What if someone stops and hears us?”

“So be quiet then. And who cares? Let them find us.” She looked up at me with her hand wrapped around me.

“Oh Mila. Oh. Oh, yes please.” I leaned back slightly and shut my eyes.

“I’m really good at this. I want to make you feel amazing.”

And with that she stopped talking and took me into her mouth. She was good at it. Amazing in fact. I slid my fingers into her silky hair and rubbed her scalp as I got lost in the sensation of mouth, her tongue on me.

It seemed like within seconds, I was already close. “Mila, Mila, wait, stop.” I pulled back slightly.

She stopped and looked up at me. “Are you OK?”

“Yes, yes, better than OK. But I’m going to come.”

“Yes, that’s what I want. I want you to come in my mouth.” And she took me in again. Within seconds, I could feel all my muscles tense and my breath practically stopped. She gave me a final swirl with her tongue and I went over the edge.

“Mmmm,” she groaned as well. She looked up at me. “Did you like that Baby?”

I was struggling to stay standing. My legs felt weak. “Yes. Yes, I did,” I said with my eyes closed. I swayed back and forth slightly. She stood up and I put myself back together and zipped up. “Kiss me,” I said. She leaned in to kiss me, and I found her tongue with mine. I could taste a hint of saltiness. When I opened my eyes, she was looking at me, still with the same gleam. “That was amazing.”

We waited until it sounded quiet before pulling back the tarp to make our exit. When we stepped out, we almost bumped in to an older woman who was walking quietly past. She looked surprised, and then assessing us, displeased. She looked us up and down with a scowl, made a sound of disapproval, and moved on. Mila looked at me and we laughed. “She’s jealous. I bet she hasn’t blown anyone in 40 years.”

Hiding

I couldn’t step up today. I sat down to write at least three times and could not find the courage to write something honest. I wanted to write something trite, something easy, something safe, which is the same as hiding. At least three times today I went to sleep and then woke up later from a dream that disturbed me. Dreams that I was so relieved were only dreams. Dreams that I wanted to extract myself from and be back in my safe, comfortable apartment. In my safe, comfortable life. I am appalled at the way I am hiding in my safe, comfortable life.

Subway Platform

(Without planning to, I seem to be writing a story in installments – this post is a continuation of the previous narrative. If it continues I suppose I will have to come up with a name for it and start tagging the pieces.)

A woman I hadn’t noticed earlier is getting off the train in front of me, and she looks kind of familiar. She’s crazy pretty, but in an unexpected, not-obvious way. In an instant it connects, yes, this summer, the hill at the meditation center. The picture-perfect day, the offhand comment about her book, her storming off. Before I had completely recalled all the pieces of the story, I had touched her lightly on the arm. Did I really just do that? The pit in my stomach was already telling me it was a mistake. “Hi, do you remember me from this summer? The field at the meditation center?” Oh shit, I’m in it now. Her eyes flash. She doesn’t hesitate. “Yes, I remember you. You’re an asshole. What do you want?”

“Um, I …” I don’t know what to say. I know what I want to say. What I want to say is “Look, what I said obviously provoked a really strong reaction, and the strength of your response intrigued me, so I couldn’t resist saying hello and seeing if you wanted to explain it. I wanted to see if you even understand it yourself.” That’s what I want to say, but obviously that would be a colossal mistake. I try for a more conciliatory approach, “I feel terrible I wrecked your peaceful afternoon. Would you consider letting me buy you a cup of coffee and explain what I missed in the book?”

“Why would I waste one more minute of my life with you? So you can ruin another day for me?”

“No, not that. Because I will listen to what you have to say and maybe I can understand the story differently if I hear it from your perspective. You could consider it a service to the author.”

I’ve never done anything like this and my heart is pounding. Usually I run from any sort of confrontation. She starts to say something and stops. We’re on a crowded platform and there are people pushing past us, but she stops and turns so she’s facing me fully. She looks intently at my face as if she’s deciding whether to tell me to drop dead. Again, she starts to say something and stops. Then she says, “OK, I will have one cup of coffee with you and explain the story that you’re too thick to understand. But that’s it.”

My Own Personal Virgil

In 1320, Dante finished the The Divine Comedy, which describes his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. His guide through the first two parts is Virgil, the ancient Roman poet who wrote the Aeneid. At the beginning of the story, Dante, age 35, meets the ghost of Virgil after going astray in the dark forest of sin. I love this part of the story because I feel like it mirrors what I experienced when I was 40. I felt broken and lost after my marriage ended in divorce and I met a therapist who showed me the way to this world’s version of paradise by walking through my version of hell. I frequently think of her as being my own personal Virgil.

Here is the description of that meeting in Dante’s words, edited for brevity by me:

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say

what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear.

Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
But since it came to good, I will recount
all that I found revealed there by God’s grace.

And as I fell to my soul’s ruin, a presence
gathered before me on the discolored air,
the figure of one who seemed hoarse from long silence.

At sight of him in that friendless waste I cried:
“Have pity on me, whatever thing you are,
whether shade or living man.” And it replied:

“Not man, though man I once was, and my blood
was Lombard, both my parents Mantuan.
I was born, though late, sub Julio, and bred

in Rome under Augustus in the noon
of the false and lying gods. I was a poet
and sang of old Anchises’ noble son

who came to Rome after the burning of Troy.
But you–why do you return to these distresses
instead of climbing that shining Mount of Joy

which is the seat and first cause of man’s bliss?”
“And are you then that Virgil and that fountain
of purest speech?” My voice grew tremulous:

“See there, immortal sage, the beast I flee.
For my soul’s salvation, I beg you, guard me from her,
for she has struck a mortal tremor through me.”

And he replied, seeing my soul in tears:
“He must go by another way who would escape
this wilderness, for that mad beast that fleers

before you there, suffers no man to pass.
She tracks down all, kills all, and knows no glut,
but, feeding, she grows hungrier than she was.

Therefore, for your own good, I think it well

you follow me and I will be your guide
and lead you forth through an eternal place.
There you shall see the ancient spirits tried

in endless pain, and hear their lamentation
as each bemoans the second death of souls.
Next you shall see upon a burning mountain

souls in fire and yet content in fire,
knowing that whensoever it may be
they yet will mount into the blessed choir.

And I to him: “Poet, by that God to you unknown,

lead me this way. Beyond this present ill
and worse to dread, lead me to Peter’s gate
and be my guide through the sad halls of Hell.”

And he then: “Follow.” And he moved ahead
in silence, and I followed where he led.

The Afternoon Continues

(this is a continuation of the previously-started story)

“Wow,” I thought as I watched her storm off. There was a knot of fear in the pit of my stomach, like I get when someone is really angry at me. It felt the way I used to feel when I was in trouble as a child. My first reaction was to run after her and apologize, but apologize for … what? For saying what I thought about the stupid book she was reading? For upsetting her? I wasn’t sure what I would even say. The buzzing of a far-off locust framed the stillness of the hillside. Although I was definitely ruffled by what had just happened, the perfection of the sunny afternoon drew my attention away from the explosion that had just passed over.

As I sat, the fear held me, but I noticed another feeling underneath. I was amused at the intensity of her response, and I was pleased with myself for provoking her. I laughed quietly to myself. “That was really something. I would hate to be the person who has to hang out with her tonight.” Although it felt like a transgression, I realized I was proud of myself. I hadn’t backed off and I hadn’t apologized. I hadn’t said anything I needed to apologize for and I hadn’t. That was new for me. In the past, I would have done anything to deflect that kind of heat. The feeling of amusement turned curiously into affection towards her. There was a kind of intimacy in what she had just exposed to me.

I sat in a mix of different sensations: the sun on my face, the fear of her wrath, and the warmth of my attraction to the rage she had shown. It was a perfect combination of pleasant, afraid, and exhilarated, and I didn’t want it to dissipate. My evening was clear and the only thing waiting for me when I left was an empty apartment, so I stayed sitting until the shadows started to lengthen and the light started to turn the color of honey. As I walked back towards the parking lot, I realized my feeling of affection towards the woman with the book had grown and swept away the fear. The closer I got to the moment I would drive away, the more I wanted to see her again. When I reached the parking lot, I hesitated. I looked up the hill towards the meditation center, wondering if she were there. If there were a retreat in progress, I couldn’t just barge in.

Later That Afternoon

(please read the previous post below before reading this)

I think walking away from the rest of the group was what I needed to do. All morning I felt restless and fidgety, and I was starting to ache for some stimulation. The first day of the meditation retreat had been fantastic, and I was in a cloud of bliss when I went to sleep last night, but today was different. The weather was perfect and my mind kept drifting to the thought I would be better off on the beach. The silence was exactly what I had come for, but it felt like too much, like it was strangling my thoughts instead of releasing them like clouds drifting across the sky, as the instructor had said so smarmily. I felt even more agitated during the first session after lunch, and I craved a change. Although it felt forbidden, I grabbed my novel and went roaming around the grounds. In a an open field on a hill, I found a bench the monks had put under a tree in a perfect spot.

I dove into my novel and was instantly a million miles away. It was a trashy story about a woman with an endless string of liaisons, but it titillated me in exactly the right way and as I devoured page after page, I could feel the bliss returning, even though novel reading wasn’t exactly the plan. A while had passed when I started to think I should get back before the evening meal, but when I looked to see what time it was, I was annoyed to discover my Fitbit was gone from my wrist. In an instant my contentedness evaporated and I could feel the frustration and irritation I had come here to soothe rising up like bile in my throat.

I stood up and looked on the ground around the bench, but it wasn’t to be found. I looked up the hill towards the path and saw this guy emerge into the field. I didn’t recognize him as being part of our group, and he clearly wasn’t a monk. I waved and called hello and he walked towards me.


As he sat and tied his shoes, I saw his eyes drift to the cover of my novel. “Do you like it?” he asked.

“This?” I said. “Yeah, I’m really enjoying it, although it’s admittedly not high literature.”

He laughed dismissively. “No, definitely not high literature. But it is fun.”

“Oh, have you read it? I thought only chicks read stuff like this.”

“Yeah, I read it, and liked most of it, but I got frustrated towards the end. But I don’t want to say too much and ruin anything.”

“I’m very close to the end now so I don’t think there’s too much you can ruin. What frustrated you? I really like what she did with the story.”

“Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoyed most of the book. I just got frustrated at the end at the way she didn’t like take control of anything, of her life, and make something happen. It was like she was just passive when the moment came for her to step up. I mean, I get that that’s what the author was trying to do, was trying to show us, that she wasn’t really capable of stepping up, and that’s why all those things she did ended the way they did, but it still left me frustrated. Not really a big deal.”

The way he said “make something happen” and “stepping up” caught me and I could feel my irritation rising. “Well not everybody can just take control, you know, of their lives. It’s hard for some people. Why does every fucking story have to be about ‘stepping up?’” I was taken aback at how hot the sentences came out. And did I really just say “fucking” to a stranger talking about the book I was reading? That was not like me.

“I mean, of course not every story has to be a redemption story. But that’s sort of my point, in a way,” he says. I can tell he wants to back off, that he’s not looking to get into it. “I want to read a book about someone who’s not just the usual everyday loser.”

It’s when he says “loser” that I lose my cool. I started yelling, “What the fuck are you saying? Are you saying that people who can’t get out of their own way and have issues that can’t be resolved in 250 pages are losers? Is that what you’re implying? What if she had a mother who was always on her about not getting married and not having kids, what if that same shitty divorced mother was always criticizing her for not reaching for the things that she couldn’t make herself want? What if? Huh, what if? And what the fuck makes you so high and mighty that you can judge her for not reaching some standard that you set?”

He watches me as I rant with a slight smirk; it looks like he is holding back from saying something. “OK, I see your point,” he says, but it’s clear he’s saying it just to placate me.

“You’re an ass,” I spit at him. “And you totally wrecked my quiet afternoon.” I feel the rage boiling in my veins. I grab my book and storm off with hot tears running down my cheeks. He watches me walk away, and does not say a word.

August Afternoon

There came one of those weekend days that followed a brutal week of working too many hours. I had not had time to return any of my friends’ calls about plans for the weekend, and I was so fried, all I could think about was sleeping in and not having anywhere to be. I slept until almost 1:00 Saturday afternoon and woke up to see it was a perfect August afternoon. I was in a pleasant fog of being not-fully-awake, and didn’t feel like seeing anyone, but I wanted to get out and get a taste of the sunshine. I decided I would ride up to the Buddhist meditation center and walk the grounds.

It appeared someone had mowed the grass trail recently and it looked like a green carpet. It had been decades since I had spent the entire summer barefoot and grown shoe leather on the soles of my feet, and I knew my feet were tender, but I had to feel the grass. I took off my shoes and the path felt like velvet under my bare feet. There were big lazy bees buzzing in the purple clover by the side of the trail and a few fluffy white clouds in the otherwise spotless blue sky overhead. Even though I had ridden more than an hour to get there, I still felt the dopiness of recently waking up, and my head was delightfully clear of any thoughts at all.

Just before I reached the crest of the hill where the trail turns into an open field with a view of the valley, my foot stepped on something sharp. I stopped to look and it was the wristband of a green Fitbit that blended into the grass perfectly. I stuck it in my pocket, thinking I would leave it in the parking lot in some obvious and conspicuous place so whoever lost it could easily find it.

When I reached the field, I stopped at the edge to take in the view of the valley. The sunlight sparkled on the surface of the river several miles off, and the hills on the far side looked blue and misty in the distance. My eyes swept down the hill and I realized there was a bench under a tree about halfway down I had not noticed before. And there was a figure on the bench I could not make out because it was in the shade of the tree.

The figure waved to me and I waved back, thinking it was simply a friendly inmate of the meditation center completing their afternoon contemplation. But as I started along the trail at the edge of the field, a woman’s voice called out, “Hello.” Yelling across the field to her seemed unbearably awkward, so I walked in the direction of the bench, still carrying my shoes. When I was still several yards off, she said, “Hi, could you tell me what time it is? I seem to have lost my watch.”

I consulted my phone and said, “It’s a few minutes before 4:00. But did you lose a watch or a Fitbit?”

“Actually it was a Fitbit.”

“With a green band?” I asked.

“Actually yes! Did you see it?! Oh, that would be such a relief!”

“Yes, but I wouldn’t have found it if I hadn’t been silly enough to take off my shoes. By the way, do you mind if I share your bench to put my shoes back on?”

“Of course not, here, sit down. Oh, thank you. I’m so happy you found this!”

The Coast of Maine

I was at a wedding on the coast of Maine in May of 2013. I was happy to be there, but at times the pressure to be social, to make polite conversation, felt suffocating. I was delighted to discover that if I wandered away from the celebration into the fog, I was quickly on the rocks at the shoreline. I was dying to sit down on the surprisingly sturdy bench placed there, but to do so would have meant instantly soaking the seat of my dress clothes. It felt daft to be in such a wild place in such fussy clothes, but one has to take such opportunities as they present themselves. The fog formed into droplets on my eyelashes and felt like a kiss.

Being next to the ocean has always simultaneously drawn out of my heart a longing and an excitement. The fog only increases the sense of mystery and anticipation, like some delicious adventure could be hiding just out of sight. The ocean is never completely still. Not only is it always moving, it is always moving vigorously and decisively. If you sample a drop of water with your tongue, there is no wondering if maybe the water is salty. If only all of life could be so alive, so aggressive, so definite.