THE LIGHT LET IN – On Being Sweet and Earnest: A Correspondence With Kelly Sundberg (Part 2)

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Georgia O’ Keefe – Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue – 1931

For Part 1 of the correspondence, as well as an introduction to how this all came about, click here.


Are these words or tears?

Is weeping speech?”




Indeed, I have often compared alcoholism to a dysfunctional relationship, and though I never quite used the term abusive, it most certainly seems to apply. There is a passage in the Big Book of AA that compares the alcoholic to a compulsive jaywalker. Jaywalking gives him a perverse thrill, but even after a few minor injuries, he keeps at it. Then one day he gets hit and fractures his skull. You would think he’s done, but he keeps at it, getting hit again and again, breaking more bones. After a particularly bad injury, he finally swears off jaywalking, only to go out immediately after leaving the hospital and get hit, breaking both his legs. This continues on and on, until his wife divorces him, and none of his friends or colleagues will have anything to do with him. He shuts himself up in an asylum hoping to cure his insane compulsion, but when he finally feels better and comes out, he goes right back to it, getting hit by a firetruck and breaking both his legs.

It is no wonder most alcoholics end up caught in the impossibly narrow space between the seemingly equivalent alternatives of suicide and abstinence; between not being able to drink safely, and not being able to stop. I’m not exactly sure what to call that pull toward the thing that kills us. It may have once been love, but it is really the nexus of comfort, fear, self-destruction, shame, and hopelessness. It is even more difficult to define that restless, grinding feeling that needed so badly to be doused with alcohol. Perhaps early on, it was fear, pain, emotion, shame, and/or boredom, and alcohol did a pretty good job of numbing those things. But towards the end, those things screamed all the way through everything, never quieting, even under gallons of booze and fistfuls of pills and whatever else I could find to ingest. But take all of the intoxicants away, and that restless grinding is still there. In the untreated alcoholic, it is a deep, churning well of discontent, and thus the common prescription, particularly after all else has failed, of a thorough program of spiritual recovery.

It is, of course, a universal human condition, that inner itch that each of us tries to scratch with food, sex, love, power, work, money, praise, escapism, cheap thrills – anything to distract from it. It is the spiritual and existential no-man’s land in the human heart, that crux between desire and compassion, survival and altruism, pain and pleasure, love and war. That inherent emptiness, shaped like an unanswerable question, is why religion and spirituality has been part of the human experience since before we even had a written history. As Bernie Sanders summarized recently during a CNN Town Hall Meeting, “Every great religion… essentially comes down to ‘Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.’” This, of course, is true, but there is more to it than that. It’s what you are left with when you find yourself alone in the dark, empty belly of night. It’s what you spoke of, that faith that you are going to be okay, no matter what happens, whether you get what you wish for or not. How we cultivate that faith is our own journey. The paths are myriad, from religions we are born (or re-born) into, to quantum physics, with its theoretical abstractions that plumb the mysteries at the heart of a near-unfathomable universe. I for one am grateful for “hitting bottom,” for having had nowhere else to turn, no more tricks up my sleeve. Because now I have no choice but to live a life within some framework of spiritual principles, which makes for a lot more serenity and peace than a life lived in fear and selfishness, jumping from desire to desire, comfort to comfort, with little regard for anyone else.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a beautiful concept: bodichitta. The word has many connotations, but its etymology in Sanskrit essentially means “awakened consciousness,” or “awakened heart.” Pema Chodron defines it as “our soft, wounded heart” and “the genuine heart of sadness.” It has three qualities – clarity, openness, and compassion, which all together comprise bodichitta. If you were to go searching the body for it, you would find nothing to dissect, nothing to put under a microscope, just a feeling of tenderness, tinged with sadness. Not the sadness of being mistreated, but sadness as old as the world. The sadness of starlight, still emanating from stars that are long dead. Bodichitta is our essential humanness that we spend a great deal of our lives trying to forget, to smother, to ignore. We become afraid of that tenderness, we distrust it. Instead we seek comfort, pleasure, and escape – often in destructive, selfish ways, and in doing so, we become less and less in touch with our own inner truth. Like any truth, it is impermeable, and unchangeable. Whatever illusions we drape over it will eventually fall away, and it will almost always result in some degree of pain.

The goals of tonglen meditation, as Pema teaches it, are essentially to learn to accept and live with our own (often uncomfortable or painful) feelings and shortcomings, so that we can heal our broken, imperfect selves and free ourselves from suffering; as well as cultivate compassion, in order to help heal others, and free them from suffering. The Buddhist concept of self is that each of us is perfectly whole as we are, nothing ever needs to be added or taken away. The goal of enlightenment is to see through our delusions and realize that we have everything we will ever need already, and not only are we perfect as we are, but we are not really “individuals” at all. None of us are the separate entities we believe ourselves to be, but part of the Oneness of everything. In fact, we are not even “part,” of anything, but the very oneness itself. Which I know sounds like utter nonsense in words on a page (unless it is the words of someone like Jane Hirshfield or Ikkyu or D.T. Suzuki), and therefore is something that can only truly be understood by being experienced. Thus the power of the Zen koan to twist the usual linear, expository nature of our thoughts, until it breaks open and allows the mind to exist on a more experiential level.

This is all in the service of learning boundless compassion. We are kind and helpful to others because it feels good. And the reason it always feels better to give to others than to give to ourselves is that the former reinforces our universal oneness, whereas the latter reinforces the illusion that we are all separate entities. Thus to be sweet and earnest is to be true to our essential nature. Selfishness, fear, survival of the fittest, war, taking by force – these are the opposite of our true nature. What many may call human nature is really delusional nature, the belief that we are in competition with each other. Which is not to say that the enlightened are meant to be soft, and without toughness. Zen involves a fair amount of tough love, from the kyosaku, the hard baton used to whack the student during meditation, to urge him or her to enlightenment; to the pain and sleeplessness of many hours of meditation during sesshin; to the strict, unflinching un-logic of the master, often at moments of the student’s rawest vulnerability, moments which are designed to break the hard shell of resistance in the logical mind, and the perceived limitations of the body. Beginning in the 12th century, Japanese samurai adopted Zen Buddhism, out of which came concept of bushido – a combination of the Zen idea of impermanence and inner calm, and a warrior’s fearlessness and code of honor. Pema’s Tibetan approach is less formal and strict, and focused on gentleness, both with one’s self, and with others. But even then, there is a great deal of toughness and courage, in that one is asked to sit with many of the painful, unsettling feelings that we are so used to avoiding.

You mentioned finding safety in hardness, and wanting to be harder, and I am interested in talking more about that. However, I have quite a bit to say about it, so I’m going to save it for the next installment.

From my inner truth to yours,



* * *

What batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.” 



This past August, I attended a writer’s retreat at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, which is where Georgia O Keefe painted her famous landscapes. I had driven all the way from Idaho to Ghost Ranch, and at the end of the week, I would be driving to Ohio. There is something about driving long-distance that leaves me raw. In the car, it is just me and my “soft, wounded heart.” I do not listen to audio books. I do not listen to podcasts. I do not want that time to think. I want that time to feel. I do not have much time to actually feel, you see? I spend so much time directing my energy towards others, and I guess that I worry that, if I stop and let the feelings in, I will collapse. When I am in the car alone, those feelings catch up with me, but the car offers a kind of safety, a framework that allows me to let the emotions in. I once told a friend that there were no more productive tears than “car tears,” and I still believe this to be true.

While I was at Ghost Ranch, I was already very raw from the drive, and the landscape was so imposing, so magical, that I felt overwhelmed by something spiritual (I am not always a spiritual person). I sat in an Adirondack chair and watched the sun set behind those beautiful clay rocks, and I thought to myself, “It is so difficult to try and be hard when I am really just tender.” I am tender, but hard. The tenderness comes from my nature, but the hardness comes from the life I have lived. I’ve always suspected that there is a certain safety in hardness—a protection from wounds—but I am not hard enough to actually feel that safety. How hard does one have to be to be safe? Donald Trump is maybe hard enough to be safe, but so few people are.

Even my abuser was not hard enough to be safe. Even my abuser was vulnerable, tender, and loving. This was not an act. I would like to reduce his tenderness to a performance, but to this day, I do not believe that it was. When I walked into the backdoor of the home that we shared, and he greeted me with joy, wrapped his arms around me, and held me for so long, his tenderness was real. My tenderness towards him was real too. But when we screamed awful things at each other, that too, was real.

It was also real when he hit me.

Our mixture of tenderness and hardness caused us so much pain. Since leaving him, I am more tender than hard. I am also happier, and I am stronger.

Hardness and strength are not the same thing.

While at Ghost Ranch, I took a tour of Georgia O Keefe’s studio and home. She has collections of rocks, and archivists have documented each individual rock. It must have been an immense task, but they do not want someone like me to pocket one of those rocks.

Like O Keefe, I collect rocks. In the first year of my marriage, I worked for the US Forest Service doing core sampling in streams. I sat in the middle of cold, mountain water on an upturned bucket, and dug in the stream bed with a rusted out bowl, then measured the rocks and sediment. It was difficult work—both physically demanding and tedious. I was realizing that I should not have married my husband, but we already had a baby (I was pregnant when we married). We were living in my parents’ basement at the time. My mother watched our baby while I worked, and she once took me aside and told me that I should be grateful for what I had with my husband, that I did not appreciate him enough. (Like me, she did not know what he was capable of.)

That summer, I spent my days looking at rocks, feeling them in my hands, measuring them, and I learned to find the beauty within them. I began collecting them. Physically, I was the strongest I have ever been. My biceps bulged (this job was sometimes thought of as the most physically demanding job on the forest). I challenged my then-husband to an arm wrestle. I thought I that could beat him, but he beat me handily. Even as a skinny, inactive male, he had no problem trumping me at my strongest.

One day, I found a rock that glowed silver and green. I kept it in my pocket. It was a totem. When I worried about my marriage, I held that weight in my hand. I told myself that everything would be okay. Years later, after my marriage had gotten better, then worse, I lost the rock, and I felt, in some way, that loss was symbolic. 

Once, I tried to flush my diamond wedding ring down the toilet, but it was too heavy. The ring just sat at the bottom of the toilet. My then-husband fished it out and kept it in his pocket until I had calmed down. Rocks are tough. Inherently hard, but so often beautiful.

The last day that I was at Ghost Ranch, I stepped outside of the casita that I was staying in and found the most beautiful piece of shale. I had not seen it before, and its sudden appearance still surprises me. It was rather large. Was it unearthed? Did someone place it there? I have no idea, but it now rests on the windowsill above my writing desk. In my living room is a bowl of rocks from the Salmon River in Idaho, as well as a bowl of rocks from the desert in New Mexico.

I once had my Tarot Cards read, and the reader told me to close my eyes and think of an element—wood, fire, earth, or water. She told me that whatever element I saw was what I was drawing to myself. She told me that the element was within me, and I was seeking it out in other people. All I could see was ice.

I no longer want to be the woman who is ice. I no longer want to be the woman who brings ice into her life.

Sweet and earnest is the opposite of ice.

When I left my ex-husband, I was so angry. At first, the anger was good. It was what kept me from going back to him. It was what propelled me to make real, lasting change in my life, but it didn’t make me hard. It just made me tender and angry. Tenderness + anger is the abuser’s pattern, and I want no part of that, but still, I am a part of that pattern.

I have decided to try and break the pattern. I am working to be tender without anger. It is not easy (I still have a lot of reasons to be angry, and I am very tender).

Being sweet and earnest is part of this work, but I cannot understate how much my ability to be sweet and earnest is rooted in confidence. I know now that, if I put myself out there in an earnest way, the response will likely be tender and loving, and if it’s not, that’s okay too. It used to be difficult for me to be sweet and earnest. I attached too much risk to rejection. I still don’t like rejection, but I can withstand it now.

And as much as I like rocks, I now know that I do not want to be one. I believe that my sweetness and earnestness is a key to my healing. When a rock is broken, it cannot be fixed, but I have to believe that I can be fixed. The tenderest things can be put back together, and I do believe that, as broken as I am, I can be put back together. 

Thank you, Todd, for this discussion.





Kelly_SundbergKelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Guernica, The Rumpus, Slice, Denver Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, and many other literary journals. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and a memoir based on that essay is forthcoming from HarperCollins in 2017. She divides her time between Appalachian Ohio where she is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University and her home state of Idaho



About Todd Gleason

Editor-el-Heifer of DMC. Head Drunk. Big Sinker. John the Conqueroo. Like a knight from some old-fashioned book. View all posts by Todd Gleason

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