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Ask Polly: Nothing in My Life Feels Big Enough

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Dear Polly,

I am 35 years old and have lived in NYC since I came here to study theater at NYU 15 years ago. I have a stable job with benefits (no longer in theater and film), and most people would look at my life and think I am very lucky. I think I am, though I’ve been dealt some tough blows.

My mother died the year before last and my father five years before that. I brought my mother to live with me in NYC to take care of her while she was dying, and it was the most meaningful time in my life. All the hard shit was so fucking hard I can’t even describe it … physically, emotionally, and spiritually. But none of it seemed hard because I loved her so much. It shocked me … the depth of my love. Few in our country talk about death, what it means and what the process can be like. And most of us send our loved ones to be cared for by professionals who technically can handle it but give very little love and actual care. I believe that is a mistake. I know firsthand how it feels to hold someone who is in so much pain that no amount of medicine can touch it. I know the animal contact of bathing my mother, of holding her on a portable potty when she can’t make it to the bathroom, of touching and caring for her once round and white soft magnolia of a body and witnessing it turn into bone and hanging skin. I died inside as she pleaded with God to take her to be with her husband. If you don’t believe in true love, you watch someone plead to see their love’s face and beg to die so they can just be with them again. I died inside so many times I can’t name them all. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Dying inside is a soulful process when there is love involved. These moments together tested my core beliefs and affirmed the things I knew to be true but never witnessed firsthand. Love is a real and undying thing, and we are all souls trapped in bodies that eventually let us down.

For five years, when I was in my late 20s, my father had Alzheimer’s. My mother took care of him and nursed him in our home in North Carolina. He had heart issues and had a heart attack in my arms while I was taking him to the hospital to visit her. He died in our living room while my mom and I carved wooden hearts for Valentine’s Day and I sang “Real Love” to him. Then his absence filled her world.

It’s all just life, but those were scary times. The deeper part of it is they adopted me at a young age since my birth parents abandoned me and so much of my identity is wrapped up in them. They were literally the most loving, saintly, wholesome salt-of-the-earth people I have ever come in contact with. I never once heard them judge a single human being. They saw the good in everyone and lived simply and honestly. I wanted only to be good to them because they were so good to me. Our love and relationship seemed effortless.

The dark side is I decided at that young age to find perfection in everything (on top of my Virgo nature) and also make each moment magical. That was my coping mechanism. Never mess up and be perfect and no one can leave you ever again. Ivory tower, so to speak. Still doing it.

When my parents died, it’s like all the love and meaning drained out of my life. I think I’m one of those people who finds deep joy in loving and taking care of others. I know you can say, Oh, you have to start loving yourself …taking care of yourself. I have done a great job of that (I think) my whole life. I have fun, I meditate, I do yoga, I cook, I read books, I see movies, I travel the world. I like myself very much. I’m not perfect, but I do try to be a good person. I do all these things and they used to make me feel something but they don’t anymore. Not really.

So. Am I grieving? Am I lost? Is it a just matter of time? Time heals everything? I don’t want to be told to find my real passion. Or to start a hobby. Or to find gratitude and joy in the small things. I need more than that. I don’t know what I need, but I don’t want petty advice or “10 Simple Steps to Happiness.”

To experience something so deep and so meaningful has left me wanting something more deep and meaningful. Nothing else will do. Santiago? Have a baby to care for and nurture? Start an orphanage in Chile? WTF?

Love,

WTF Orphan

Dear WTF Orphan,

It sounds to me like you should try to fall in love, have a baby, and start an orphanage. I’m not kidding. Because it sounds to me like you believe in love and connection more than anything else in life. And you love caring for others. And you’re not at all cowed by the darkness that involves. You don’t mind the darkness or the hard work or the struggle. You understand that when you’re truly alive, sometimes it’s scary and messy and even hauntingly awful. Sometimes you are exactly where you’re supposed to be and it’s terrible and it’s also amazing. Sometimes life is so insanely sad and so good at the same time.

You have a rare set of skills, and there’s something about caring for someone — in spite of the enormous inconvenience and mess and pain involved — that makes you feel like you’re in the right place. I wouldn’t normally tell some random human being who doesn’t have a partner to have a kid, but I think you’re someone who should have a kid, no matter what. You don’t mention looking for a partner at all, but I feel like your strong belief in love and connection indicate clearly that you are someone who should be open to welcoming love into your life.

You say that you’re a perfectionist, and it’s obvious that you idealize your parents a little bit. Do you hold other people to impossibly high standards? Can you accept people who are mortal, who do judge others without wanting to do so? Do you think you could love a partner who wasn’t perfect? Could you love a child who made choices you wouldn’t necessarily make for yourself?

These are questions you should ask yourself. But someone who sees the beauty in bathing her old mother can probably see the beauty in other people’s flaws. I just wonder why you aren’t pursuing love and a baby and a job as director of an orphanage if you already know that these are the things that might feel worthy to you. Have you been steadily doing the sensible thing — cooking and doing yoga — since your mom died, instead of daring to pursue exactly the kind of life that would feel whole to you?

You described to me so clearly what matters the most in life to you. Do you talk to other people this way regularly? Do you wear your heart on your sleeve? Do you open up? Or did your parents hold this precious place in your life and no one else gets to see that side of you? Because I do think you’re grieving and depressed and that’s why you can’t feel anything. But I also think you’re trying to come out of the closet as an intense person with extremely strong opinions about what is important in life and what isn’t.

When I was 34 years old, I had weathered my father’s death along with a series of disappointing relationships, and I was suddenly unwilling to befriend or date anyone who didn’t understand how high the stakes were, and how important it was for me to talk openly about what really mattered to me. For the first time in my life, I started to respond to other people on my own terms, instead of just to please or entertain them. I had started up an email correspondence with a guy I met through friends. But when I wrote him something a little bit more honest than usual, he wrote back that he hated earnestness. I earnestly replied that I loved earnestness and I wasn’t going to waste my time with anyone who was so afraid of his own emotions that he had to run around making other people feel embarrassed for feeling their feelings.

This was totally out of character for me. Normally, I would’ve just played along and tried to make a self-deprecating joke that would pull the guy back in for a little while. But for the first time, I knew what I wanted and what I wouldn’t accept anymore. It felt good to slam the door shut on someone who was dedicated to maintaining a sly, self-protective stance at all costs. I had wasted decades of my life trying to fit in with self-conscious hipsters and fashionably detached intellectuals, and I was over it. I didn’t want to hide anymore.

I think you’re in a similar position: You’re trying very hard to bring all of these really intense emotions you feel privately out in the open. The subject of your email to me was “Nothing seems big enough.” That’s how life feels when you keep your truest, most passionate, most intense feelings hidden from the world. The secret, romantic world that lives inside your head and heart is so much bigger and brighter than the mundane outside world seems to be. But life only feels that way when you can’t look someone else in the eyes and tell them, with a clear voice, what you believe in, what you value, what you long for, and what you will no longer accept. It takes a lot of courage to do that. You seem to be telling me, “These busy people rushing in circles around us, making small talk, ignoring the fear and the melancholy they carry around inside? To me, they aren’t living in reality. Reality is bigger and brighter and more terrifying than that. But that’s where I’m going to live.” And in the moment you say that out loud, it’s like that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps into Munchkinland, and the colors are terrifyingly saturated and the babies are cute to the point of being a little grotesque. Just saying what you believe, out loud, to someone who’s listening and understands can give you chills. Suddenly, the world is burning with bright colors, the flowers have faces, strangers are singing and handing you lollipops. It’s almost too much.
For most people, it is too much.

That’s okay, though, because you’re going to pay attention and find the people who love the truth, whether it’s gorgeous or hideous or a little bit of both. You’re already trying to connect all of these precious experiences with your parents to your present and your future, so you won’t have to feel so alienated from the people around you anymore. But when you’re a heavy motherfucker who knows what she believes in, you scare a lot of people away. Meaningful connections with others can be tough. Even so, you have to persevere. You have to find other people who care about and believe in the same things that you do. In our culture and in our country, as you point out, people are unprepared to deal with death head-on because they never think about or talk about the heaviest stuff. So you have to talk about it. You have to take the really intense stuff that you’ve written down for me, and you have to put it into your mouth and say it, even though you know that you’ll scare a lot of people away.

I know you were trying to feel something when you wrote to me. By writing down what you believe in, did you feel something? Did you cry? Because when I read your letter, I feel like I’m witnessing someone who knows what she cares about but can’t say it out loud to anyone but a stranger. You have to start telling people — old friends, new friends, strangers — what you care about. Make other people uncomfortable, if that’s what it takes. And rest assured that, the older you get, the more you’ll feel at home letting other people know just how heavy and dark you feel a lot of the time, and the more you’ll move among people who understand the divinity of connecting, of telling the truth, of showing up for each other, no matter what.

You say you don’t want to be told to find your passion. But you already know what your passion is. Your problem is that you’re afraid to show it, to share it with the world, to change your life in pursuit of your passion. Your passion is love. Put yourself in a position to love and be loved more openly, more passionately, more fully. Whether that means looking for love, having a baby alone, working with children, or volunteering at an orphanage or a hospice or a nursing home—only you can figure that out. But you have to reach out and pursue the passion you have for connecting honestly with other human beings, some of whom need your help desperately. If you want to move forward, you have to take some big risks and leaps of faith, and you have to stop being embarrassed by your most passionate thoughts and emotions and experiences.

Be careful not to put your parents on a pedestal. Love them, but know that you will feel love just as strong as the love you feel for them. You will. That love didn’t disappear along with their bodies. That love is still with you. That’s what they’d want you to know. All of that love is inside of you now. Share it. Spread it around. So many people need it.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: Nothing in My Life Feels Big Enough