By Jen Pastiloff.
There was this woman at my retreat last weekend at Kripalu in the Massachusetts Berkshires, who, when we were doing an exercise on forgiveness, told me that she was done forgiving. Had spent her whole life forgiving and was done. She was in her seventies and her husband had died the week before.
Being done. I understood that.
A life of forgiving someone their mistakes. A life of forgiving ourselves our own imperfections and mistakes and misgivings. I get that wanting to be done with forgiving already, the I am Godamn sick of forgiving, I want nothing to have to forgive already. I want to be free.
There was this boy I fell in love with once, a long time ago. He had been someone I’d known all my life. One day, when he sat on my couch and said to me I am not a keeper, I knew it to be true, yet still, I had to forgive him because I loved him. And even truths must be forgiven sometimes.
Before that moment on the couch when he said I am not a keeper, we had gone hiking. And, just as they predicted, as they are so prone to do, the winds had listed judiciously, in their croupy and discordant jargon exactly what he would say, and just how so. Still, for as much time as it took to turn my head toward some imaginary noise, I was disappointed.
I am not a keeper.
Naturally, I thought of bees. I thought of him in a full body bee suit, perhaps light cotton and polyester, and white.
I am not a keeper.
As he sat on my couch, sinking into the cushions I thought You are a keeper! You are! You are mine!
In his zippered bee veil, arm-length fitted bee gloves, ankle straps, he became my master of apiculture. Taming wild bees and handling wild honeybee swarms for me. Immune to their habits: nothing phased him. Not even queen clipping: the removal of one or both front wings of a queen to prevent her from flying, so she falls on the ground in front of the hive. The swarm then returns to the queen on the ground and if she is unable to reenter the hive, she will die.
Not even this would phase him.
He was glorious as a beekeeper in my imagination so why couldn’t he be mine?
I asked him: What do you mean you are not a keeper?
And then: I assure you: You are!
If we could see ourselves as others saw us we would understand our own capacity. The power in it, the donning of the big white suit, the rolling of the queen bee.
You are not above this I said or tried to say to him that night on my couch as he sank into my oversized cushions.
In the Malibu mountains, hiking in the sun that afternoon, long ago, all that incessant buzzing. I let him think it was the wires. I took it to be some sort of sign and I listened intently as we made out on the dirt path before any other hikers came by.
I am not a keeper.
I forgave him. He didn’t love me back or maybe he did but it was too late or not enough or it didn’t matter because there are no facts when it comes to feelings.
My heart was shattered but still working and after a while it began to work better and more efficiently and I forgave him until I realized I had nothing to forgive him for. He brought my heart back to life after years of half-dead. What did I have to forgive him for?
I saw this man tonight running down my sidewalk in front of my apartment building. Upon closer glance I saw he was running crooked and upon an even closer glance I saw he was dirty, missing teeth, and, homeless. I was coming down my stairs mouthing the words I hate myself as I saw him running crooked in his toothless glory down my street. He was trying not to step on the cracks.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing yet here was this dirty long bearded man trying to literally not step on a crack (lest he break his mother’s back?) and it made me sad. Sad that I had been mouthing I hate myself because I lost my iPad due to my typical absent-minded ways. How easy it must be to slip gradually from saying I hate myself to really hating myself to really really hating myself so much that I avoid cracks on the sidewalk?
I don’t know.
But I know that I am not that different from that man. He may be battling some tremendous mental illness but how different am I? His heart beats and he is afraid.
As does mine. As am I.
Whatever panic causes him to run in zig-zags and to jump over cracks on cement might have once been a small fracture in his heart, maybe small enough to make him say I hate myself.
I hate myself sometimes.
Or so I say. So I spew out like it’s an old friend and the only name I can remember.
I lost my iPad because of the same old shit. The same old shit that causes me to not put away my tax returns and to file for the wrong year and to lose things and forget appointments and to get buried under such a huge amount of papers and dirt that I forget to breathe. So when the same old thing rears it’s head again and causes me to lose something I treasure, I immediately revert to that old friend, the only name I can remember. The one that’s called I hate myself.
Forgiveness is not always easy and anyone that tells you any different is lying or just trying to sell some books.
It took me a while to forgive that boy I fell in love with who, when I said, I love you, stared at me, wide-eyed. I am not a keeper he had told me and yet I dared tell him I loved him as if he might change his mind.
It may have had nothing to do with me but still. I wanted him and loved him and I felt unlovable and the old variation of I hate myself, called What is wrong with me? stopped by to visit.
I forgive myself for losing my iPad. Frankly, I don’t care about the damn iPad. It’s the self-destructive I must live in chaos patterns that I need to work on.
I forgive them. And I am ready to be free of them. I am ready to be done forgiving, as the older woman who’d lost her husband had told me.
Last weekend, at the same retreat, there was a woman who showed up because I had written an article many months before which she had commented on. I replied to her privately and it had touched her so much she showed up to Kriplau. I had no idea she would be there.
This was her original comment on my essay, where I asked if anyone had ever had anything happen in life that they perceived as sad or painful which now they see as a blessing or gift in some way?
“My bad, sad, crappy, unfairness happened two years ago in July. I got the worst phone call a mother could get. My son was killed in a horrific propane tank explosion two days before his 13th birthday. My husband tried to save him and was burned 83% of his body and survived. He spent almost 5 months in a coma and 2 more months of intense therapy. That time and the last two years have been some of the darkest periods of my life. My saving grace is the non-profit foundation our family has begun in my son’s name. It will help children with learning disabilities (my son had LD) to build self esteem and we will also start a grief support group for children. I know the pain our family felt, but I still see the pain my son’s friends carry every day. Hopefully, this support will help other kids with their pain. The foundation and its services is what drives my life now. It is the reason our family gets out of bed each morning. My husband, two grown daughters and I are working hard to get through the bad, sad, crappy, unfairness to find meaning in my son, Luke’s, short but amazing life. It will be a long road, but I’m sure one we will be glad we travelled. Some day maybe our when it is our time to join Luke in his new home, he will tell us how proud he is of us and that he knew all along we did it for him!!”
As we did our exercises on forgiveness, I found myself not being able to look at her. As we did the part on gratitude for someone who is living or dead, I avoided her also.
I was afraid.
I was afraid I would see someone who couldn’t forgive herself.
It hurt when I watched her cry through the various workshops. I kept seeing her 12 year old son and her burned husband and it made me want to go back in time and take that propane tank off the lawn and take her son out of the tractor he was driving and take it all back so it never happened and we never met. I’d gladly unmeet meet her for that.
But we did meet and she was there and what I saw was not a woman who couldn’t forgive herself but a woman who lost her son to a stupid freak accident that had nothing to do with her or her son or her husband. I saw a woman who was broken because of the loss of a child but I did not see someone who was terrified of stepping on a crack. I did not see someone who hated herself. I did not see someone who could not forgive herself. I saw someone who was counseling kids on how to deal with grief as she nursed her own and moved forward without a manual.
It would be nice if nothing ever happened for the remainder of our lives that warranted forgiveness. But that will never be the case.
Someone will always die or leave us or we will lose our iPads because of some behavior we perpetuate or someone will love us and we won’t love them back or vice versa or we will lose our minds slowly and then swiftly and one day we find ourselves hopping over cracks in the sidewalk. Or none of that will happen but someone will say something and hurt our feelings and we will lock ourselves in a bathroom and cry and cry and cry until it’s time to go back to work. Or we will say the wrong thing or make a terrific mistake and the only thing that will keep us afloat is someone’s forgiveness. Maybe that.
I forgive you for not loving me back.
I forgive you for dying.
I forgive me for fucking up.
I don’t know what happens to the rest. The unforgivables. I don’t want to know because that means I have held on to them, that I have carried them with me to the end of my life. I want to walk down the pavement in a straight line, my head held high, with a deep knowing that despite it all, I kept going. That despite it all I have room for love, and that with love comes maybe more of the same, but that it’s okay.
At the end of my life I want to know what I am letting go of.
It won’t be a ball of hate purple and blue as a fist. It will be a lifetime some mistakes, yes. And some f*ck-ups. But mostly love.