One Sunday afternoon about fifteen years ago, I wandered into a panel discussion at The Brooklyn Public Library just as Carmen Boullousa, the Mexican poet and novelist, was being asked a question.
“How do you write?” the questioner asked.
Carmen Boullousa threw her hands up in the air and slammed them down the table in front of her.
“You don’t know what you’re doing!” she burst forth, with a shout and a laugh. “You start off blinded, and you work until you begin to see.”
I was 37 or 38 at the time, with a husband and two young daughters doing whatever they were doing in our Prospect Heights brownstone a few blocks away. And for as long as I could remember, I’d been trying to connect life’s dots with a modicum of elegance and a minimum of fuss. Determined to press on, to be a trooper, to feign competence, to not give passport, ever, to a willingness to be blinded.
Carmen Boullousa was talking about writing but I sensed her advice might help me in ways that went beyond it.
I scribbled her words down in a post-it note plucked from my purse, and tucked the note in my red, weathered wallet with the broken zipper.
Where it remained.
On another Sunday afternoon a handful of years later, my husband of a decade and a half looked up from the New Yorker that lying open on his lap and told me he was no longer in love with me. Several tortured therapy sessions later, he asked for a divorce.
Despite my best efforts to avoid such a fate, I had to confess that I had no idea what I was doing. I was starting off blinded. At long last.
My husband moved out of the house soon thereafter and, late that first night, I slowly pulled a down coat on over my Ikea bath robe and took the family dog for a walk. It was raining. I’d forgotten an umbrella. The dog had diarrhea. I had no plastic bag. A street light overhead illuminated a patch of sparkly wet pavement in front of me. And for a moment I stood there, wondering what would happen if I’d just lay my soggy self down flat on that sparkly wet patch of ground. If the dog would stay close. If passersby would lean over me to inquire, or step gingerly over me.
“Get yourself to the end of each day,” my therapist advised. When I told her that felt impossible, she replied, “Then try to make it to noon. And from there, get yourself to 4 p.m.”
“Learn to treasure the freedom you didn’t ask for.”
Months passed, and when my daughters went to camp in Vermont the next summer, I decided on impulse to welcome a French woman into my house for free for a week, courtesy of the website couchsurfing.com. Sybille was from Fontainblue, had split from her own husband a few years before mine did me, and showed up at my door with a purple wheeled bag; a round of stinky, creamy cheese; a bottle of wine; a kind face.
While I imagined happily married couples the borough over gathered together with their happily married counterparts, there Sybille and I sat side by side in my unrenovated kitchen, two strangers talking and not talking, drinking wine and eating cheese.
When she left a week later, Sybille wrapped me in a hug and then took a step back to look at me and issued me an instruction.
“Learn to treasure the freedom you didn’t ask for,” she said.
I decided to throw a dance party and asked my friends to each bring a little something to help usher me into my new life.
Leanne showed up with a canvas bag full of the makings of the evening’s signature cocktail, which she called “The Jenny D Futurama.” Allison Barlow brought a piece of pale blue seaglass, made beautiful for being so weathered. Lynne brought her happily divorced friend Ruth. Kathy Brew handed me two magic seeds she said she’d brought back from Peru. Someone else brought a loaf of fresh baked bread; another guest brought lilacs.
The music got turned out loud. At some point I hopped on the coffee table. All present put their arms up in the air, closed their eyes, boogied.
Blinded, and working so that I could begin to see.
Dating in middle age, a long marriage behind me, held a certain freedom.
As my friend Elise has put it, “You’re a lot less inhibited when the worst thing you think can happen to you happens. You’ve already walked through the town hall naked.”
So there was the artist I met for coffee with dark teardrops tattooed under his eyes. The struggling actor a decade younger who I let kiss the soles of my feet. The jazz saxophonist who, on our first date, said my true name should be “Ondine”—“Water Spirit,” he translated–and who took my face in his hands at a midtown intersection and said, “Let yourself be loved.”
And another artist who, while ordering breakfast at a diner, sat across from me at our table, looked up at the waitress and said: “I’ll have a egg.” Who was guileless and boyish and gentle—and didn’t know who Queen Elizabeth was.
Did it matter? Who knew? Maybe it was time to stop. Maybe I’d become a wise old celibate.
And then one morning three and half years ago, after a not-unhappy three-month break away from OKCupid, the impish smile of a certain profile picture prompted me to extend a two-word greeting.
“You’re cute!” I tapped into my phone.
Two minutes later, a response.
“Thank you!” it said. “My male vanity is healthy enough that I believe I’m the only person you’ve said that to this morning!”
“You’re absolutely right,” I typed back, laughing at myself now. “Sit pretty in the knowledge that you’re the only person in the whole wide world whom I’ve told is cute—so far today.”
A few nights later, Kent and I met at a bar without a name on its front, around the corner from me on Vanderbilt Ave. I was nervous and wanted to cancel. But I didn’t.
And then I saw Kent standing there, and inexplicably curtsied.
Kent moved in with me over the summer. I love the guy. We’re happy.
A few weeks ago, I discovered a note I’d written to myself when I was in the hottest of my divorce fire nine years ago.
“You’re a mom whose daughters will soon both be grown,” I’d written, “and in a flash you’re a little girl wondering, with that primitive and familiar panic, where the solid ground beneath you is. You must do the opposite of everything you think: must allow the dirt beneath your feet to go dry and then to crumble, must allow yourself to fall, fall through the earth, dust all around, blinded.”
Blinded. There it was all along. The necessary pre-condition for working to begin to see.
And here’s the thing. Carmen Bouloussa wrote a bunch of books, and was willing before every one to not know what she was doing—to start off blinded and work until she could begin to see.
I only wish I had allowed myself that practice sooner.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
It’s okay to not know what you’re doing. Indeed, that’s the starting point for all that matters.
Thank you, Carmen Boullousa.
(Image courtesy of the author/Isabella Giancarlo)