So delicate or precise as to be difficult to analyze or describe. That’s one definition of subtle.
I’ve been thinking about the word subtle and the power of it. Tonight as I taught my beloved gentle yoga class, I had everyone lie on a bolster in a twist. I told them that they wouldn’t feel much.
That it was a subtle stretch but that often the subtle things are the most powerful.
The subtle truths, subtle lies. The subtle way things change and then one day we wake up and everything we thought we knew, gone. Just like that. No more father. No more job. No more summer. No more Sunday. No more morning. It seems as if it is always all of a sudden, this sliding into something else.
One day someone just dies or leaves or quits their job and although it may feel like a sudden dynamite, a grenade thrown into your life as you make buckwheat pancakes, really it was a subtle breaking down, a slow deterioration of all things knowable. It was a subtle knowing that this is not working for me and I must go. A chipping away at what was once there.
The subtle things are the most powerful except often we don’t pay attention.
The way someone look at us, their eyes softening in the way someone in love might lower their lids, a slight hesitation to leave your face so soon, because what if it wasn’t there the next time they looked? They couldn’t take that risk so they let their eyes linger a few seconds longer before looking down at the menu and saying Yes, I will have the trout.
The subtle way someone stops looking at us, their hands counting places they wish they’d been, their eyes looking for something in the room to focus on, something solid and unchanging.
The subtle signs of aging. Around the eyes, the mouth. All of it so quiet. At the same time so determined.
The subtle way my sister and I swung from the great white flab hanging from our grandmother, our Bubby’s arms. And while she drove, sometimes lapsing into Yiddish, how we played with it like language, palpable and subtle, growing in our anxious hands.
Loving every minute of it, this curious feel of age, of skin that had been through more winters than summers. Letting it slip like liquid through cracks between our fingers. Wishing we would get old just by sitting in that car, by playing with her deteriorated years. Years which swung, somehow transformed into flab on the backs of her arms.
That couldn’t have happened overnight. It was a subtle transformation just as the one which led us to want to stop aging. No wait! Slow down! Do not turn me into my ancestors!
The subtle lies we tell ourselves until they are no longer a gentle tap on the shoulder but a brick wall of hard rain. The subtle way the words I am not smart enough, I am ugly, I am not thin enough, I am never going to be able to finish all sink into the potholes of a mind, the words hardening until the soft mud of them fills every crack and only a sledgehammer can break them apart.
The subtle way depression can return after such a long absence like it had been there all along, sitting in it’s favorite chair, reading the paper. Oh me? I’ve been here for a while. You just haven’t been able to detect the the signs. I’ve been precise and delicate but you haven’t been paying attention. Can I stay?
Here’s what you say: No.
And then enough pussyfooting around. Man up!
Pay attention. See the signs. Life will sneak up on you if you let it.
As my dear Mary Oliver says in Mockingbirds:
how the old couple
had almost nothing to give
but their willingness
to be attentive–
but for this alone
the gods loved them.
What I am saying is this:
There is no such thing as subtle.