Self & reflection


Today’s Photo Friday challenge is Reflections. I took this photo last August in the reflection of a fire-truck bell. As this and my other reflective pictures prove, I’m smoking, baby!


Last week I received an updated copy of my car insurance which reflected the seemingly innocuous fact that my 1993 Subaru is now registered in my name and Chris is no longer listed as a driver of that car. And there in black and white I saw it printed for the first time: “Lorianne Schaub. Marital status: separated.”


On the one hand, “separated” is such a mild euphemism. When I first phoned my mother to tell her of Chris and my decision to divorce, I couldn’t bring myself to say the dreaded “D” word. “We’ve decided to separate,” I explained calmly. “It’s an amiable split, but things are understandably awkward.” It was only after my mom pushed for specifics–was I referring to a trial separation, or had the die been cast–that I made the situation clear: no, it’s over; he’s moved to Vermont, and the paperwork for a divorce has been filed. Even with my mother, though, I stumbled over the “D” word. In my head “divorce” equated with “failure” whereas “separation” evoked an image of an amiable parting: here we’ve come to a juncture, you and I, and I will walk this way while you go that.


On the other hand, though, “separation” is a jarring and even violent term. Whereas “divorce” can refer to a coldly clinical legal procedure (sign the papers, pay the fee, and you’re outta there), thinking of oneself as “separated” evokes images of body parts lying bloodlessly detached from one another: here’s an arm; over there’s a leg. “Separation” sounds almost surgical, as if the act of divorcing from one’s partner of nearly 13 years is a kind of dismemberment, a cleaving apart of flesh and bone that had improperly knit.

Wind chimes

This latter image of separation seems particularly apt. At times over the past two months since Chris moved to Vermont, I’ve felt emotionally dismembered, as if my head is in one place and my heart in another. On one level, I live and work and interact like any other normally functioning person; on the other, I feel like I’ve left a limb or two somewhere, but I can’t remember where. How can people talk and interact with me normally: can’t they see that I’ve been cloven in two, half of my limbs and nearly all of my heart having disappeared, severed? At times as I go about smiling and chatting as if nothing has happened, I feel like a magician’s assistant: my head is smiling, my hands are waving, and my feet are dancing…but each of these parts is neatly segmented into its own clever box, a benignly bloodless dislocation.


Some while ago, Andi described the experience of breaking up with a partner and then moving to Korea as feeling like an unaesthetized spinal transplant: suddenly the very thing that held you upright has been ripped from you, and there you are trying to navigate a foreign airport as if nothing ever happened. (Unfortunately, I can’t find the precise permalink to Andi’s post, so you’ll have to rely on my paraphrase.) Although I’ve never had spinal surgery nor have I ever moved to Korea, I know that during that week when Chris moved out, I felt like I’d been enviscerated, like I was walking around town with a huge gaping hollow where my stomach and guts used to be. I couldn’t eat nor did I want to, and I felt oddly detached from my own body: somehow it didn’t seem real that I could function like any other normal person with a brain that was spinning from an onslaught of “what if’s” and “if only’s.”


The metaphor of divorce being a kind of unaesthetized envisceration works on several different levels. As I mentioned, I’ve never had spinal surgery, but I have had my appendix removed, and several years ago my father had both his colon and bladder removed not long after doctors had riven his ribcage to repair a long-abused and direly blocked heart. I know what it’s like to be bent double with abdominal pain; I know what it’s like to lie abed without the energy to stand much less walk while nurses exhort you to get up and be moving. I’ve seen my father slowly recover after doctors literally severed his insides to keep the rest of him alive: I know the mixed emotions you feel toward the bastards who stole your father bit by bit in order to defeat the damn Cancer that had been eating him, unaware. When you see a man brought to the brink of death then back again at gloved and masked hands–when you’ve felt the press of those same hands as you lay on a gurney, pain ripping your insides as you clawed at your own IVs, madly animalized by pain and fear–you don’t know whether to thank medical science or excoriate it. Those bastards cut open my father after he allowed them to cut open me, and neither one of us would be alive today without such goddamned and bloody intervention.


The deepest irony of describing divorce as unaesthetized envisceration, though, lies in its agency, for I acknowledge that I am both helpless patient and goddamn bastard doctor. This separation is one I both asked and pressed for; when Chris has asked if there’s even a chance of reconcilation, my rational half (my inner surgeon) has said No. Even as I walked the streets of Bar Harbor, Maine several weeks ago, pencam around my neck as I snapped one reflective picture after another, visual proof to myself that I Am Standing and Will Survive, an unexpected cell phone call from him brought the pain of separation immediately back, unscabbed. Was separating difficult? Yes. Did I regret the decision? No. One of the oddest parts of self-surgery is the way you can simultaneously feel yourself lying strapped to a gurney, your guts splayed and splattered, while another part of you stands logical and detached, overseeing the procedure. Really, this must be done: truly, to save the life of the patient, the cancer and contiguous organs must be removed.


Thus I live with an odd paradox. Although I both regret and lament the pain of separation and I’m staggered at the thought of my own relational failures and my cognizance of how this split has broken hearts other than my own, I never once have regretted the decision that led to divorce. Yes, I’ve had moments of loneliness since Chris moved out; yes, I’ve had moments of depression and even despair. But none of these lonely moments is as bad as the loneliness I felt in a mis-matched marriage; never have I felt so depressed that I wanted to curl up and die, which is something I felt too often while married. This current pain feels like healing: it hurts, but there is a reason and an end in sight. The pain that led up to separation felt inexplicable and never-ending, the kind of pain that simmers and seethes and ultimately destroys. This current pain won’t kill me; that other kind surely was.


Unexpectedly, I’ve found moments of simple joy amidst the pain of separation: the joy of a quiet house, the simplicity of a single grocery bag full of enough food for just me and the dog. Even when the pain of separation was the greatest, I found unexpected, grounding joy in tangible objects: the caress of a broom on a well-worn floor, the warmth of newly dried laundry. The silent pictures I snapped in the aftermath of Chris’s move were my way of telling the world (and myself) I was all right, that as long as milkweeds still sprouted from sidewalk cracks and vines coiled from shattered factory windows, I too would persevere. Separation is a painful and difficult process–at times your heart and your head seem entirely detached, never to reunite. But underneath the pain lies a promise, a hope that one day I will awake to find myself no longer riven, but entire.

I snapped all of these reflective photos during my recent trip to Bar Harbor, and I’ve posted three of them to the Mirror Project. I am fully aware of the irony that the girl who avoided looking at herself in the mirror as a teenager, terrified of the Ugly Duckling she’d see reflected therein, suddenly feels the need to slap pictures of herself all over her blog. I’ve found, though, that taking and posting these pictures–a visual act of independence and acceptance–is more fun than therapy, and cheaper.

Reflections, The Artful Hand Gallery, Copley Place, Boston

I returned to Keene from Boston on Saturday, took Sunday off from teaching, writing, and blogging, and now am back in the saddle again. While I was in Boston, I carried both my digicam and my pencam, but I took very few pictures. Indeed, I consciously gave myself an official shutterbugging hiatus; although both cameras were on hand if I saw something I absolutely had to capture, I consciously tried to keep my attention in the moment rather than focusing on how that moment could be captured and potentially blogged.

Reflections, The Artful Hand Gallery, Copley Place, Boston

One shop where I couldn’t help but snap a handful of pencam images was the Artful Hand Gallery in Boston’s Copley Place mall. The Artful Hand is precisely the kind of shop I love to browse. It’s full of fun, funky, handmade objects by local artisans: one-of-a-kind furniture, pottery, glassware. And it has lots and lots of mirrors, all of them framed with hand-crafted, intricately decorated wood, tile, and metalwork frames. Besides being a delight to the eye, the Artful Hand is a mecca for fans of reflective photography. So although I’ve submitted three of these pictures to the Mirror Project, I’ve posted them here, too, so you can see larger versions of them. (Click on any of today’s images to see an enlarged version.)

In Zen, we often talk about having a mind that is clear like a mirror: red comes, only red; blue comes, only blue. This means in any given moment we strive to respond only to that moment, our perception unclouded by the residue of the past nor the wisps of the future. When I arrived at the Cambridge Zen Center on Wednesday night, I was surprised to learn that Zen Master Bon Haeng (aka Mark Houghton) wanted me to give consulting interviews to the people who had come to Wednesday evening practice. Never having given consulting interviews before, I had a moment of panic and self-doubt: what if someone asks me a question I can’t answer? What if a problem arises that I can’t handle?

Reflections, The Artful Hand Gallery, Copley Place, Boston

In the split second in which I could have said, “No” (an answer that Zen Master Mark wouldn’t have taken anyway), I fully reflected “panic mind”: when panic comes, only panic. But in the next split second, the mirror flashed clean: no problem. A clear mirror doesn’t have to know the right answer to any given question: a clear mirror doesn’t have to know anything. And so on Wednesday night a somewhat shaky, entirely uncertain Zen Mama sat next to a rock-solid veteran Zen Master as a dozen-some practitioners entered the interview room one by one to reflect their mind. “Consulting interviews aren’t about teaching anything,” Zen Master Mark had reminded me. “They’re simply about sharing an experience in the moment.”

And he, of course, was right. During each interview I followed my breath, trying to center my attention not on my racing thoughts (“What should I say?”) nor on my pounding heart (“Panic! Run away!”) but on my own rock-solid center, my breathing belly, the True Self that doesn’t need to know anything. Moment by moment, faces came and went, each reflecting a different color of human experience: a shy-smiling woman who struggled to find strength; a sad-faced man who struggled to quiet his restless body; an acquaintance who shared a particularly traumatic challenge he’s facing, a situation that stunned me with the level of pain it involves and the simple fact he felt comfortable sharing that pain. Humans are vulnerable creatures: our hopes, tragedies, and joys are written in tender, one-of-a-kind lines on each of our fragile faces. When pain comes, where can we find solace? When joy comes, where can we share?

Reflections, The Artful Hand Gallery, Copley Place, Boston

When sadness comes, only reflect sadness; when joy comes, only joy. In my own experience sitting on the other side of the interview room cushion, the teachers I’ve appreciated the most are the ones who didn’t try to teach anything: when I entered the room with a troubling problem, riddling question, or just plain and simple pain, they only tried to reflect (and be present with) that mind. Sometimes the simplest statements are the most profound: “I’m so sorry” or “How can I help?” And sometimes the best answer is silence, the courage (and centeredness) to simply sit with someone who is suffering, saying all there is to say through the unspoken language of presence: “I’m here, I’m not judging nor rejecting you, and I’m not running away.” The world is full of mirrors that reflect our bodies; where do we find compassionate companions who in a moment are courageous enough to reflect our fragile souls? If you find such an artful hand, buy and then cherish it at any cost: such a clear-shining mirror is truly one-of-a-kind.

Lake Champlaigne

Chris and I are back from spending exactly 21 1/2 hours in Vermont, and you didn’t even know we were gone!

Shelburne Farms Inn

As part of a surprise for Chris’s mom’s 60th birthday, on Monday morning we drove to Shelburne Farms, where we spent the day with Chris’s family and then stayed overnight at the Shelburne Farms Inn. Chris’s brother, Steve, is a professional photographer, so I tried to hold my shutter-bugging in check. I couldn’t stop myself, though, from taking (and posting) a couple of the usual touristy photos. Shelburne Farms, of course, is beautiful, with acres of cow-dotted fields and tree-studded hillsides. And the Shelburne Farms Inn is absolutely stunning with elaborate carved woodwork, fabulous views, and antique-appointed rooms. (We stayed in the Oak Room, which overlooks the lake and shares a bathroom with the Dutch Room, where Steve and his wife Eve stayed.)

As I said, we spent exactly 21 1/2 hours in Vermont: we arrived for a noontime lunch on Monday and then left at 9:30 Tuesday morning so I could be back in Keene in time to teach my afternoon class. So given the whirlwind pace of Chris and my day-tripping, here are various blog-bits to mull over while I unpack my bags…

176 House

Thanks to Kathleen of unsettled for taking me out to dinner at this local restaurant. We’ve eaten there before, but this was the first time we ate outside on the terrace, which was entirely deserted by the time that our twinkle-toed waiter finally brought Kathleen her last drink. (If you don’t believe the twinkle-toed part, check out Kathleen’s version of the evening: yes, Mitch the waiter really did do a fairy dance amongst the twinkling Christmas lights.) Over the course of the evening, Kathleen showed me how to take a non-blurry low-light photo, which involves using your camera’s self-timer, setting the camera on a stable surface, and then NOT TOUCHING IT. The next time Kathleen and I get together, I’ll take a side-angle photo of her bounteous, blog-worthy breasts. Kathleen repeatedly laments that my blog isn’t trashy enough, especially given how trashy I can be (and frequently am) in person. Just wait, sweetheart, until I have incriminating photos and tell everyone, both of our drooling hubbies included, that our girls’ nights out have gone lesbian. Stay tuned, folks.

On a purely technical level, I’ve been hobbled by continued laptop woes. Faithful readers might remember the accident that robbed me of my T-key. Well, yesterday my new keyboard arrived, and Chris promptly popped it on my laptop…only to discover that the spacebar doesn’t work. Drat. So instead of typing blog-entries-like-this-for-the-several-days-until-I-get-another-keyboard, I asked Chris to switch back to the old keyboard. (I can, after all, still use the T; it just doesn’t have a key on it!) Once Chris had re-installed the old keyboard, I discovered that the slash/question mark key didn’t work…okay, no problem. That makes it impossible to type URLs, but I can live a couple days without that…until I discovered that the P key no longer works, too! So although I can go a couple days without slashing or asking questions, I most definitely cannot go a couple days without P-ing, so here I am typing this entry in my office at Keene State. Here’s hoping my new keyboard actually works from A to Z and beyond.

Home reflection, June 2004

Next, it was only a matter of time before my fascination with shop-window reflections would find its perfect outlet in the Mirror Project, a website featuring photos of folks who have snapped self-portraits in various reflective surfaces. My sidebar blogroll now features a link to random Mirror Project images, where you just might happen upon one of my first three submissions. The picture I’ve posted here is one I took yesterday while sitting the desk in our home office. Behind me you can see a nifty print of an illuminated Medieval map of the world with Jerusalem at the center; in my hand you can see my beloved Waterman fountain pen. There is a mirror on the back of a blocked hallway door in our office; you can see the right edge of that mirror as well as a reflection of the (dusty) file cabinet that is snug against said door. This will be my next Mirror Project submission; often while I’m writing at my desk I’ll pause to look in the mirror, so it was natural to use the camera’s self-timer to capture such a contemplative moment.

Lastly, today is Bloomsday, the 100th anniversary of Leopold Bloom’s June 16, 1904 stroll through Dublin as recounted in James Joyce’s Modernist masterpiece Ulysses. As fate would have it, I’m teaching an online course in British Modernism this term, and my students read (and were completely befuddled by) excepts from Ulysses several weeks ago. (This was a schedule goof on my part: had I planned my syllabus more wisely, we would have read Joyce this week.) The best way to celebrate Bloomsday, of course, is to stroll the streets of Dublin; many Joyce fans, in fact, converge upon Dublin every June 16th to do just that. Joyce, however, wrote Ulysses during his self-imposed exile in Europe: the Dublin streets and buildings he described were those he remembered from afar, the setting of many an imagined perambulation. So lacking the means or the wherewithal to drop everything and spend 21 1/2 hours in Dublin, you should take a day-trip in your own neighborhood, living one day as a flaneur in your own town. Joyce argued that all of human nature as well as the best and worst of all human civilization could be found on the streets of Dublin; I’d argue the same can be found on the streets of any town, starting right here, right now. In other words, take a walk, an at-home day-trip, wherever you find yourself, to see whether Joyce was right.

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