I have watched so much in my life decay: my teenage passion for the violin, houseplants, my marriage. It took me years to admit that any of these were in decline. At the time I was simply outgrowing my dream of having a concert career, or the ficus had a disease. Or we were going through a rough patch that somehow never quit.
But decay it was—rank and mucky and, eventually, fecund. My giving up the violin allowed me to expand into the arts in new ways. The dead houseplants were sometimes replaced, sometimes not, and the decay of my marriage helped me see that when something dies, something else always springs up in its place.
What that something is, I’m still not sure. I’m learning how to be alone again after ten years of constant companionship. The companionship was profoundly comfortable. The alone-ness is taking some getting used to.
I’m now trying to uncover what is pleasurable to me, what I enjoy. This is simple knowledge for some women: a bath, an uninterrupted hour with a book, or a snuggle with something furry and prone to naps. For me this is uncharted territory. All my life I have put my pleasure firmly in the care of others or in the next wondrous milestone I was dead set on reaching. It isn’t working anymore. I am now facing the decay of myself with this projected kind of life. This habitual bid for happiness beyond myself that has weathered, worn, and torn me down into a pile of rubble I hardly recognize.
So, I’m starting to try baths. I’m pretty late to the party on this one, I know, but honestly I haven’t bathed since I was a kid. And for pleasure? Forget it. But who knew? Baths are pleasurable. Add in a few drops of lemon balm essential oil and you have yourself an almost mystical experience.
I’m staring to go to movies by myself—movies only I want to see. Sometimes I bring my book and before the movie I sit in the courtyard at the little independent theater I like and chew on a fudge oat bar thingie, listening to the fountain pouring poetry into the evening air.
Sometimes I walk slowly down to the neighborhood park with no thought of working up a sweat. There I sit under a young tree and do nothing more than watch people practice their tightrope walking between a pair of sturdier trunks, or listen to the shrieks of children trying to climb the sandy hill that overlooks this pretty city in which I live.
If this is what comes of rubble, I’m starting to think everyone should try it.
But when I try to hold on to to these surprisingly wonderful moments with myself, I come smack up against the decay yet again. These moments cannot remain. No sooner have I luxuriated in how fantastic I feel then I am worried the feeling will fade. Because of course it does. As the Buddhists say, each moment is a birth, a life, and a decay into the next. (If the Buddhists don’t actually say something along these lines, they should… because that is how it freaking is.)
Decay, then, is a great teacher. It reminds us to be here. Now. In every stage. It is the denouement of every cycle, and it is the fertilizer for the next. Be here in the emergence of a new life, my decaying marriage seems to say. Be here in the big joy of experience, so say my failures, my past decays.
A decomposing forest floor is teeming with life—it is essential to the trees, the animals, the very air. We can miss it, step over it, staring up at the canopy. But it is there, quietly feeding the world.