Discover more from Freer Form by Shira Erlichman
Encountering the beast in the road
#17: A quest toward feeling beloved on this planet
Whew. Last week I found myself triggered & emotionally dysregulated in a way that I haven’t been for a year. Walking through my neighborhood at night, I sobbed, ashamed for sobbing, & angry at myself for being ashamed. What a fantastic snake-eating-its-tail. It was hot. I was sweating. Whenever I passed someone I’d cover my face. Why am I so traumatized? Why can’t I just ‘handle’ it? Why am I so ‘sensitive’? The contents of my suffering are not so important to share with you. But the state of my suffering – the desperate, keening, howling, the fast-walking the streets of my neighborhood in tight rectangles – that does feel important to share. Why can’t I get a grip? Why am I so ‘emotional’? Perhaps you can hear the disparagement in my inner-monologue implying: Why can’t I be different?
Reader, near-distant one, when I reached the next suburban intersection, captured in a stopped car’s burning headlights was a possum. I rubbed my eyes. Yes, a possum. He had completely stopped traffic on the tight two-way street. He walked slowly, drunkenly, back & forth in front of the car. Is he sick? His body was outlined by the shriek-white headlights, his long tail extended straight back like a stick, & each whisker was individuated in the glow. Mid-walk: he froze. One paw up in the air, the other three on the ground, his tail flattened backward in a strict underline. He appeared stamped in light; & indiscernible from taxidermy.
What the– My mind stopped. My problems, poof. A car coming from the opposite direction swerved to a disheveled stop mid-street, a maneuver driven by shock, not logic. A woman stepped out & was bathed in the other car’s headlights. She stuck her arms out, pleading, “Oh my god.” She turned to the other drivers, but also seemingly to no one, or to God, “what do I do? What do I do? What do I do?”
I touched my chest, viscerally softened at the fact of her care. Disoriented & potentially dangerous as it was.
In a daze she moved toward the frozen possum. That tiny movement toward him caused him to flip onto his back & writhe. Is he dying? I couldn’t believe how pained he looked, his little feet pawing the air, back twisting against the concrete. Of course! I remembered: possums play dead. The stress of a confrontation causes them to go into shock. It’s involuntary. He went limp. A lump of laundry in the road. Cars began to glide around him. They moved as if driving through syrup. & There he remained, fake-dead. A precious, vulnerable, little possum self.
This all took less than a minute. In that minute, a revelation swept my body: if that possum had only known better, he could’ve kept walking out of the street & easily disappeared into shrubbery. But he didn’t know better. Because he is built to survive. In his own way, this way. I, too, probably can’t always discern the better way, where the street melts into shrubbery, where I might find safety. I, too, have a body built to survive; a mind carved with, at times, very involuntary & ineffective strategies.
As I grow, go to therapy, work to be more aware & to change, I must also honor that I’ve always been trying to survive in my own way. My ancient wiring has always been geared toward a perceived safety. Because of self-reflection, there’s room to rewire. Isn’t there grace in that?
I can’t tell you what happened to that possum. I felt my helplessness, soberly understood my limitations. I moved my feet. I unfroze. I left. As I turned toward home, the woman behind me was still asking, “What do I do?”
I couldn’t believe what I’d just seen. Specifically, at such a vulnerable moment in my own life. I felt touched by this beautiful, ugly, ancient creature, whose lineage dates “back to a sister group of marsupials called the peradectids, which lived at the time of dinosaur extinction” [Source: Florida Museum]. That’s 65 million years ago. & Here I was, 65 million years later, witnessing his brain do what his brain does: freeze, roll over, play dead.
I turned the knob to our front door. I could still see his pointed teeth in the headlights, his little paws, just trying to survive. I wiped the tears from my eyes. That’s the nature of the beast. I was speaking of both of us.
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The next day I ran five miles. Five miles in blistering heat. By mile one, I was ashine with sweat.
Moving my body has always been a way of taking care of myself. When I returned inside from the heat, a thought crossed my mind: Remember when you couldn’t imagine running five miles with ease? I’ve been coping with a year-long quad injury. Months ago, a five mile run felt like a pipe dream.
I keenly felt where I differed from the possum, that beloved heap in headlights. As a human, I can reflect. I can foster self-awareness & grow. It may take a long time to address what debilitates me, but it doesn’t have to take 65 million years.
I grabbed my notebook & played a spontaneous little game called REMEMBER WHEN. I reflected on things that were once true that aren’t now. & Things that I would have once loved to be different. Things that once trapped me. Things I’d overcome. Too, I reflected on not-yet-realized dreams. & On choices I’d made that had led to a better now.
It reads: Remember when…you couldn’t imagine running five miles with ease? you lived with your parents & didn’t have the opportunity to make the choices of an adult? you took a risk & moved to New York? Odes to Lithium wasn’t a book yet? you lived - & felt trapped - at the intersection of Loud & Dangerous? you didn’t know Angel (was on the horizon)? you had to face way more alone? you were delusional, paranoid, hallucinating - daily? your nerves didn’t stop you - & you got a standing ovation? you moved through impossible feelings by calling a help line, by being resourceful? you were more intimidated by experimentation with gender fluidity? you couldn’t say ‘I take Lithium’ or ‘I have Bipolar Disorder’? In Surreal Life was once a year & 20 students? you were more afraid of the dark - debilitatingly so?
The previous night I’d encountered a beast in the road. Well, three beasts: The possum; my traumatized self; & the question of change. When we encounter these vulnerable beasts, it feels important to use our uniquely human capacity to reflect, to remember when. In doing so, we honor.
What are your REMEMBER WHENs?
• This truly extraordinary poem about, you guessed it, a possum. “I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death. / I am going to behave like a Jew / and touch his face, and stare into his eyes, / and pull him off the road.”
• This week, I spontaneously took myself to the movies. I sat in a sold-out theater gambling on an old film that I knew very little about. Here are the first 3 minutes of BLUE directed by Krzystof Kieślowski. I left the theater feeling as if I’d been embedded in a sensuous poem.
• This tiny window on a Brooklyn street always stops me in my tracks. At first I see, of course, a window. But then, my view widens: I see that the concrete & all it is attached to (the grass, the trees, the buildings). Are these the home this window belongs to? Is that what the artist was alluding to? (It makes me think that if we look at anything, I mean if we really know not only how to see it but how to see through it, it can transform. Like that possum. When first looked at, I saw a possum. When looked through, I saw not just the creature’s body, but survival itself - the quest toward living, toward being. & Yes, toward love. Do we dare name even our most difficult wirings as a quest toward feeling beloved on this planet? I like to think so.)
• A week into registration, my global online writing class In Surreal Life is already half-full! Sign up today & join us for what our alums have called a month full of creativity & community that is “life-changing, perfect.”
• The In Surreal Life community is waving a heartfelt goodbye to our incredible Marketing Manager, Colleen Callery. We are seeking a brilliant new human to take over the reigns & build our community. Do you know someone right for the role? Send them our way!
• My friend, writer, performer, & dramaturg Lauren Whitehead on what success means to her. What does success mean to you?
• Lauren & I recently exchanged poetry manuscripts. This week we met up & pored over our work together. Coffee & mint tea spilling at the edges, we grappled with major questions & fanatically hailed each other’s lines. I am astounded by this one & want to see it everywhere I go, like a plane trailing a message in the sky:
It’s something, isn’t it? Amidst all the pain & occasional late night sobby-wanderings, I was born. It didn’t have to happen. But it did. Oh, I was born / I was born…
Let’s part on this note by Kazuo Ishiguro, my friends.
I wonder, what’s waiting for us all when we put down our striving & perfectionistic expectations, when we accept the mess of now, the real of me? Did Kazuo just suggest: the sky? Could something that loyal & unwavering really be available?
Let’s find out.
With ample maple syrup,