Saturday, April 15, 2006

Something Found

Today, I received an e-mail from a stranger who happened upon something I'd written in my old AOL Journal. Below is her note and also a copy of the original post. It is a rare and beautiful thing when a stranger reads and comments on your words. Have any of you experienced this? If so please share it with me:

Dear Ms. Williams,
I am writing to you after coming across a piece of your writing entitled "The One Thing I Would Most Like You to Know About Me" several weeks ago. My first reaction after reading it was almost disbelief. I thought I was reading an essay about me and I was so stunned I had to read it several times over. It seems you have captured everything I was thinking about but was able to put it in writing and provide an explanation, a resolution and for that I would like to thank you.

For the past year or two my life has been nothing less than confusing and a mindless journey towards something in the dark. After much reflection I believe I have found a somewhat clear path to travel upon, but at least I know I have an idea of where I'm going, so again, thank you for being a catalyst to this.

Now to my actual intention and reasoning for writing you today. I was so inspired by and connected to this essay I have decided to get something for myself that will always remind me of my own bitterness and also a reminder of what I am working towards.

Next Thursday I plan on getting a tattoo of the Chinese characters for 'bitter' and 'sweet'. Again, I must say thank you for providing the inspiration. I truly believe that tattoos have the power to heal and guide and that this one will be no different. I am still not quite sure why I feel the need to inform you of all of this. I suppose it might provide further closure and assurance of what I have discovered within myself from your work.

Have a wonderful Easter weekend!

Best Regards,

[She signed her name, but I will protect her anonymity]

The One Thing I Would Most Like You to Know About Me

I want you to know that I am bitter.

Does this seem like a negative thing to admit?

It's an observation that's related to a painting I recently became acquainted with, "The Vinegar Tasters."

In "The Vinegar Tasters," three men stand around a vat of vinegar. Each man has just tasted the vinegar and is having a reaction to it.

Vinegar, by the way, comes from a French word, vinaigre, meaning sour wine and has been used since ancient times. The Chinese saw great medicinal qualities in vinegar and called it the essence of life.

One man in the painting looks sour. He represents Confucius, who looked to tradition for meaning and order. Another man looks bitter. He represents Buddha. He represents me: I am bitter.

To Buddha, life is bitter. Life is full of attachments and desires that lead to suffering. Life is a revolving wheel of pain, which can be escaped by achieving Nirvana.

This sounds awful, I know. We all want to be happy. But bear with me, now.

For a long time, I tried to avoid my feelings of suffering. So I buried myself in intellectual pursuits. I set a series goals for myself, most of which I achieved.

These are some of the goals I set for myself: I will get this degree, I will get this award, I will get into this program, I will get this grade, I will be inducted into this society, I will be the best in the class, I will win this contest.

Many of my pursuits were in the arts. I studied studio art and creative writing. But I'm pretty sure that neither my art nor my writing really spoke to people. It certainly didn't speak to me. I was a scholarship girl.

A scholarship girl is a student who works hard and does all the "right" things, but doesn't know why she is doing them. She takes good notes, writes good papers, learns techniques, and even creates mildly exceptional works of art. And her teachers love her. She loves them, too. She lives for their applause.

I use "girl" instead of woman because in so many ways I wasn't fully grown.

The whole time, I was pretending I wasn't suffering. I was suffering, but I had pushed down my hurt. The details of my hurt aren't important. The hurt and the reasons for it are common enough, universal. All of us have hurt in the ways I was hurting. In a nutshell, I hurt because I had never learned to deal with loss or longing or grief. I hurt because I didn't know who I was. Tobias Wolff described my condition in his memoir, This Boy's Life. He said, "Because I did not know who

I was, any image of myself, no matter how grotesque, had power over me." Images of yourself aren't necessarily grotesque as in "ugly." A beautiful image of yourself, such as a scholarship girl, can feel grotesque if it doesn't feel true.

Inside, I was bitter, like Buddha is bitter in the picture. Outwardly, I smiled a lot.

The one thing I would most like you to know about me is that I was bitter then. And I want you to know that I'm bitter now. I'm no longer a scholarship girl (Although there are still many ways in which I'm not fully grown.)

The difference between the person I was then and the person I am now is that I'm learning to embrace my suffering, as one embraces a child. I'm not running away from my suffering by trying to find happiness in outside accomplishments or pursuits. I'm learning to cherish my suffering as one cherishes a child. Because out of my suffering comes my art.

The thing I want you to know about me is that I don't believe that this kind of bitterness is a bad thing. The Chinese character for suffering is "bitter," and Buddha said suffering is holy. It is holy because points us toward liberation. I think the Christ story teaches us the same thing. When Thomas touched Christ's wounds, Thomas looked deeply into those wounds, the wounds representing all suffering. Indeed, to look at any wound takes courage.

Now, when I write. I look deeply into my suffering, and it is sometimes a terrible place to go, but there's a liberation that happens afterwards. With that liberation comes a new energy. That energy feels a lot like joy.

I want you to know: I am bitter and that is okay.

A few years ago, I ran across a poem by Stephen Crane:

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of if. I said:
"Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter-bitter," he answered;
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."

I remember my own heart beating fast as I read this poem. The hairs went up on the back of neck and on my arms. Something about the poem felt very true. But for a long time I couldn't get past the negative connotations of "bestial" and "bitter."

Now, I see that the creature is bestial in the way we all are. We are animals, after all, beasts. We live according to the same natural laws as beasts. We have to kill to eat, and we have to eat to live. We are mad to couple, mad to survive.

The beast is bitter in the same way that I am bitter, I realize now. The beast is eating its bitter heart because that's where its suffering lives.

When I write, I'm a lot like the creature in Crane's poem, I think. When I write, I am naked and bestial. I am eating my bitter, bitter heart.

Which brings me to my final point:

Who is the third man in the painting of the "Vinegar Tasters"?

He is Lao-Tse. He is smiling. He has learned that life, even as painful as it sometimes is, is sweet.

Do I want someday to be the smiling one?

You bet.

I don't know what it will mean for my writing. But, yes, I want to be like him, like Lao-Tse.

I want you to know that I'm working on it.


beths front porch said...

Thank you for sharing the anonymous comment and reprinting your essay. I have not received a comment such as you have described; yet every blog comment I read as a response to my entries makes my heart and head engage and move faster. I am also reminded of our "conversation" about "responsility" for sharing our wisdom and learning. Perhaps the word responsbility was a fork in the road with several paths/meanings. However we understand that word (I like the definition I saw yesterday, "free moral agent"), I thank you and applaud you for sharing your wisdom. Love, Beth

Vicky said...

My dear - the power of your writing continues to grow. Look at all it brings you. This person needed your wisdom and experience, and you were able to provide it through your words. An affirmation for you, and a mighty relief for her. I am happy you are able from time to time to receive acknowledgements (especially such as this) of your great worth. I, for one, am very glad to have you on this earth.

Love, Vicky

PS - I agree that, as you point out, bitterness is not just a negative emotion. The trick, however, is not to become engulfed by it, because then the creativity is stifled.

Paula said...

Awesome post, Theresa, and I'm glad you republished the original entry--you know I often feel like you speak my own words and feelings. This one perhaps most of all.

I occasionally get emails and am always glad for it. I resisted putting an email link for a long time because I was not sure what to expect and, as you know, had already experienced some frightening comments on the blog itself. I've been VERY glad, though, that I added the link because I am so thankful when people write a personal note. I wish more people knew how much these kinds of notes mean and were braver about following through on the inspiration of writing them.

I'm glad your reader wrote; she enlightened all of us.

Judith HeartSong said...

I'm glad you shared all this. judi

ckays1967 said...


As you have told me, that is what writers do my friend, strive to leave lasting impressions. You've done you work well.


dreaminglily said...

I remember this entry. I loved it so much. I can understand why she was inspired. It's one of my favorites that you wrote.


Nelle said...

What an incredible entry. We are taught from so early in life that our what are commonly perceived as negative emotions must be kept well hidden. Anger, bitterness etc. I have a constant conflict with my childhood family because I discuss all my feelings. I speak what is MY truth and they do not like it. I find that the truth is liberating and I refuse to be silenced because some might not like to hear that I am not happy all the time. I experience all my emotions and I will speak what I feel.

Erin said...

Theresa--thanks for sharing this! I remember this entry from your AOL blog because I passed it on to several friends. It's such a beautiful entry.

V said...

Lao-Tse. The Nirvana for all of us to strive. Aw, Theresa, you make me remember, Oh, how I love the artists, all of us.
I just feel so much admiration for your personal writing. It`s so reassuring to view your soul.

Jod{i} said...

Wow...That is such a warm feeling inside. TO know that when we(anyone) writes their own personal thoughts, in moments of feeling alone or nowhere to turn. Then someone just writes the simple words,"I thought it was just me"
That my thoughts actually had some impact on another.
This post from AOL is one of my favorites of yours as well...It was an eye opener and the nodding of the head entry.

THanks for sharing this!


Wenda said...

Oh Theresa, I want to comment on your post, on your words, on the letter and on the poem, but I've just been reading Rilke's letters to Franz Kappus and as much as I've enjoyed everyone else's comments, these words of Kappus' stop me: "When a truly great and unique spirit speaks, the lesser ones must be silent."

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"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken


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The Secret of Hurricanes : That article in the Waterville Scout said it was Shake- spearean, all that fatalism that guides the Kennedys' lives. The likelihood of untimely death. Recently, another one died in his prime, John-John in an airplane. Not long before that, Bobby's boy. While playing football at high speeds on snow skis. Those Kennedys take some crazy chances. I prefer my own easy ways. Which isn't to say my life hasn't been Shake-spearean. By the time I was sixteen, my life was like the darkened stage at the end of Hamlet or Macbeth. All littered with corpses and treachery.

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