whitney roberts hill

"One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began." -Mary Oliver

Month: January, 2016

Inviting the Reader’s Gaze

“In the particular is contained the universal.” – James Joyce

Sometimes I have to forget about you–the reader.

Your gaze invokes my self-consciousness. And my self-consciousness strangles the work. Or stops it all together. (Fear is a powerful dam.)

But, I knew the risks when I decided to start this blog. When I decided to invite your gaze.

The posts I publish here languish for weeks. I construct and deconstruct and reconstruct them. I push them through a dozen drafts.

Which is like working out really hard before you walk onto a stage completely naked. Sure, you have abs. But you’re still naked.

Those dozen drafts are not about perfection, though. (Most of the time.)

They’re about honesty.

Each pass of the cursor is a chance to peel back another layer of the lies I’m so effectively and elusively telling us both. I don’t mean to lie. Really. It’s just stubborn self-consciousness.

But there’s the problem again. The self.

The self that mistakenly identifies with the writing. That thinks if you like the writing, you like me. And that, as a social animal, my actual, bodily survival depends on your liking me.

But there’s no room at my desk for that self that is so worried about what you think. To do the work I have to be emptied. Hollow. I have to make space for that wild, powerful, mysterious energy. I have to surrender. Because the work is not primarily constructed out of our differences, or my specialness, but out of our sameness. The quieter I get, the deeper I bore into my own particular life, the more I find myself in a well of shared consciousness.

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It is clear on the surface that you (the reader) and I (the writer) are distinct. But two distinct beings are not all that is needed for communication. Communication requires the tension between differentiation and sameness–the particular and the universal, as Joyce wrote–which, it turns out, are found in the same exact place.

I write because it is a vehicle for entering that place. It is a means of dismantling the self that limits my humanity and my vitality.

The act of writing calls forth all of my fears. It shows me where I am bound, where I am still trying to hide. It gives me the opportunity again and again to loosen the knots of self, to know my experience more deeply and therefore to know the breadth and depth of our shared humanity.

But it only works if there is an audience in front of the stage– if the writing goes out to you, the reader. Because it is you I am most afraid of. And it is you I am so indebted to, because it is your gaze which reminds me that I am naked.

That I have more work to do.

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An Open Letter to the Children Who Aren’t Mine

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For all of the nannies,  who devote their time and their hearts to caring for children who aren’t their own.

______

 

“They” say I have to draw a line through my heart. I can love you, but only so much. Only the appropriate amount. Because you are not mine.

What “they” (the ambiguous, omnipresent, “they”) don’’t know–—could’’t know—–is that the call to love you was the call to begin my life in earnest. They can’’t know that you changed everything. You woke me up.

I didn’t’ enter into this job lightly. I thought of it as a job, sure, but I’’ve never been good at “professional distance.” I knew I would love you. I knew I had to love you to do my job well. And I was committed to being in your life for as long as you needed me.

But how could I have known what it would mean to love you? Especially to love you while also knowing that you are not mine?

I could never pretend that you would belong to me forever, the way that parents sometimes do. It was right there in the contract. Our last day was embedded in our very first day, and every day since.

It is always there in the room with us–while I pour warm water over your soapy hair, while I slice apples for your lunch, and kiss your cheeks and zip your coat. Our last day is in every goodnight hug, every gaze, each ‘I love you’ and click of the closing door.

Of course, there will be a last day in all of my relationships–and yours. People try very hard to run from that truth. We’re afraid the knowledge of it will destroy us.

I sometimes lose sight of it amid the morass of our daily life. Caring for you is more challenging and humbling than anything I’ve ever done. Every day, your innocence holds a mirror to the state of my own heart and mind. It shows me just how much armor I’ve built around myself since I was your age. Every time you copy my behavior, I am reminded anew of my role in either teaching you to imprison your own heart, or showing you how to live and love without fear.

For a while, in the beginning, I was teaching you fear, because it was all I knew. I was afraid to make a mistake. I was sure I was doing everything wrong, that I was failing you. I tried to take care of you the only way I knew how—–setting limits, making rules, raising expectations. But we both failed to live up to those benchmarks. Our days became a struggle.

I realized then that if I was going to love you, I would have to learn to love myself. If I was going to attend to your pain with kindness and compassion, I would have to practice on my own pain. If I was going to listen to you, I would have to hear myself.

I can’’t give you what I don’t have.

I sometimes wish there was an easier way. Cleaning up my own mind, healing my own heart, meeting my own needs, is hard work. But I know you are worth it so I must be worth it too.

If all I leave you with on that last day is the memory of being loved, I have done my job. And love is boundless. There are no categories, no limits, no labels for love.

The work of love is ongoing. I still have my moments of forgetfulness and fear. When tears sprang to my eyes on your first day of school, I worried that “they” would think that I didn’t have a right to them. Maybe “they” think I haven’t earned my joy either–the joy of bearing witness to the miracle of your lengthening legs, your multiplying teeth, your new friends and interests. Maybe “they” think that when I look at you I shouldn’t feel a love so powerful it cracks my heart open again and again.

But I do feel that love for you.

And because of it, I will never be the same. I know now that the limit of my love is really the limit of my life.

And I know that it is possible to love the stranger–the child who isn’t mine–with total abandon. Such strangers are everywhere I look. And they are each as worthy of love as you are.

All 7 billion of them.