The challenge of true change
By Andrew Bertaina
A leopard can’t change its spots.
When I read to my children, then very young, their warm bodies curled against me on the couch, they loved to hear the violent animal noises I made when I read Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? As I read, the introduction of each animal was accompanied by the most realistic noise I could muster—the trumpet of an elephant, the yelp of a peacock, growl of a bear. I went so far as to research the correct sounding noises online, making sure my trumpets and growls approximated nature. My best was the guttural snarl I made for the leopard, deep and concussive, a snarl that often left me coughing for minutes after. Elephant, Elephant, what do you hear? I hear a leopard snarling in my ear. The children laughed in delight, and asked to hear the sounds again and again.
Times change. The pattern of light moves from spring to summer and birds migrate through the cathedral of sky, caterpillars change shape, become butterflies. I no longer read the children books on that couch. My wife and I separated, and I moved out. Now I live blocks away from my former home, and they are getting a bit too old to appreciate a guttural snarl. Instead, we read about wizards and wardrobes in this little life I continue to cobble together in my apartment, with its small succulents, abundant bookshelves, pictures of monasteries on greenish waters, the Alhambra, Lake Bled, cities I’ve traveled through since I left home. All the invisible cities of dreams, being made visible.
In the early stages of the pandemic, on the heels of a breakup with a long-term girlfriend, a relationship I thought might last forever, one that might reify my mistake of having not made the marriage work I walked the streets in my neighborhood in a fixed pattern. First, I walked the numerical streets, which cut horizontally through the small Brightwood subdivision in Washington, DC, where my apartment and former
house are, blocks away from my ex-wife, so we could easily walk the children back and forth to one another—duplexes mostly, some single-family homes, scattered chain-link fences, scrambling squirrels, towering oaks lining the streets, or smaller ginkgo. On my walks, I passed a community garden I’d always intended to get a plot in. The garden was flanked by a large green field where starlings sifted the ground for worms, small beaks darting into the soil. As I walked, I cried, and I sifted my own life for some sense of meaning, of what went wrong between the dreams of adulthood and the adult ashes of my life, answers that must lie, squirming beneath the surface and roiling emotions.
I’d lived a typical life, had two children, bought a house, but a strange undercurrent of dissatisfaction with something had always been present, And then my life turn as topsy-turvy as a wild stream, emboldened by spring rain. Suddenly, the choice of what I was to be, felt open again, as opposed to determined. Thus, the spring walks, the crisp air, the scattering birds and pale blue skies, were all reminders of my essential and startling solitude. I’d see a house my girlfriend and I would have once sent to each other via text: faded bricks, roses climbing a trellis, a quiet sunroom, windows over the garden, suddenly blurring, fading, pictures unsent, lives unlived.
On other days, the children are a hum of activity, fights on Zoom calls, distracted calls of “Dad, Dad, Dad,” at every moment. Me answering time and again, that’s my name. When they are done with school, we drive through the narrow channel of streets that connect our neighborhood to Rock Creek Park. The large swath of river and trees runs as vertabrae through the northwestern corridor of the city. Before gentrification, a dividing line between spacious Georgians, Colonials with ostentatious pillars, modular boxes with windows overlooking the park, and the more crowded duplexes and apartments across the park and the never-ending street hustle of Georgia Avenue.
We walked the same path every day that spring through a canopy of tulip trees and elms, which cast a halo of gauzy light. Bikes whizzed by, and once we stopped to watch a pair of pileated woodpeckers, feet gripping oaks as they hammered away. The skipping of rocks, training them in this most elementary of tasks. The sort of thing that time now affords us, arm angles and flicks of wrist, sending the stones skimming over the water, briefly taking flight. The schematics are mathematical, but a properly skipped rock, whirring through the air, dimpling the water, looks like nothing so much as magic.
Most days they seemed not to notice the sadness that threatened to engulf me. I had to remind them I was miserable.
Daddy is sad.
Is that why you were being mean today?
Paul, then Saul, was once called the Pharisee of Pharisees. The man largely responsible for the expansion of western Christianity from regional religion to worldwide monolith converted after the death of Christ.
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Paul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes, he could see nothing. So, they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind and did not eat or drink anything.
In those early ship-wrecked days of sadness, I lashed myself to the mast of Mad Men. Don Draper, Madison avenue icon of glitz and glamour, consumption, and the immense emptiness of the hoary old American dream. Played by Jon Hamm, Draper is immaculate, thickly gelled hair held stiffly in place while he commanded his subordinates, held a boardroom in his thrall, or manipulated the women he loved. Don’s charm and charisma overlay a moral tale about the fantasies we’ve all spun about our country, consumption and appearance above all else, but on a micro-level, what interested me was simple. Don was fucking unhappy.
The fascinating thing about Don is that he’s vaguely aware of his unhappiness, but he’s never able to change. He begins and ends the show as the same womanizing alcoholic who manically pursues success in the boardroom and bedroom as a means of fulfillment. There was never a question of his unhappiness; it was, in the way of friends I’ve had, so desperately obvious beneath the thin veneer of his smile. Instead, one conceit of the show was built around Don never realizing that changing his external circumstances, houses, wives, jobs, was never going to shift his relationship to the world, never bring him that elusive thing, contentment. To quote the character: “But what is happiness? It's a moment before you need more happiness.”
Whether Don is addicted to sex, alcohol, work, or himself, is mostly beside the point. Either way, there is something wrong at Don’s core, which was either caused by his traumatic childhood in a brothel and subsequent terrifying experience in the war or he’s just a soulless asshole. The diagnosis largely depends on your feelings about personal vs. societal responsibility for outcomes and perhaps even the role of free will. The answer isn’t remotely clear to me. And despite what you often read on Twitter, morality isn’t as fixed or simple as purists would have you believe. In short, life is complex.
To the credit of the show, Don does experiment with change. He’s briefly sober, briefly faithful, briefly not into his job, but he’s always wedded to his unhappiness, his wandering and restless American fervor, which at breaking points, drives him west. Out west, the land of gold rush and new beginnings, Don reconnects with some lost self, his old life, his goodness. Then he returns home, and the change or attempt fades. He’s doomed to return to the patterns of adultery, booze, and workaholic nature because that’s his core character, deeply flawed.
For much of human history, it was supposed that the fates were what drove our destinies. Yes, people could be evil or deeply flawed, but they were also detritus washed up on the shores of fate, victims of circumstances beyond their control, the cruelty of the gods. What choice did Oedipus have? None. Is our character immutable, fixed at birth or molded by the course of events outside our control? The contemporary critics would mostly say no, would mostly attribute morality to personal choice.
A zebra can’t change its stripes.
Flamingo, Flamingo, what do you hear? I hear a zebra braying in my ear.
I got the braying right. I said the word braying, extending it out in, what I can only describe as horsey a way as possible.
I identified with Don. To be clear, way less handsome, but I remembered the exact moment an existential hole opened beneath me. I was twenty-five, still fairly new to marriage, working at a thankless job shelving applications at a business school in Michigan. The sky was a gray lid, and the air was bone-chilling. Around me, I saw cold stone, salt lining the sidewalks. The birds had retreated from the bare husks of trees, which, to a native Californian, looked like kindling for the end of the world. I had my iPod on, and a sad song was playing, laced through with harmonica, and I will always remember that feeling of blasted desolation, the reality that you can’t be anything as my teachers had told me, that adult life was a sham.
Over the years I tried to break through the malaise. I tried reading the classics, Garcia Marquez, Tolstoy, Woolf. I tried aesthetic experiences and typical distractions, writing, parenting, travel, intellectualizing, drinking, flirting, after a long time, fucking. But if these things seemed to briefly lift the veil, to offer a glimmer of hope, for a month, a golden year, they too would fade, turn into another disappointment.
The world is not interested in my happiness. The world is just the world. Everyone is a stranger here, from butterflies to blades of grass.
A human is a process, a system of inputs. Change the inputs, change the person. Without the ability to change, to form new neural connections, we’d roughly have the life of our ancestral sea slugs. In fact, it’s our ability to adapt and change that makes much of our culture possible. Is change easy? No. Impossible? Only for the cynic. Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo does not end, you should probably change your life if change was possible. Good luck asshole! It ends:
You must change your life.
The truth is, I hadn’t been happy in a hell of a long time. But I wasn’t sure happiness wasn’t bullshit anyway. The sort of thing you chase after instead of reckoning with the reality of life, which is despair. Wouldn’t I rather embrace the discordant reality of failed dreams, war, famine, and lies than embrace false happiness? At least I was living authentically, caressing the sound of a distant train whistle, the crack of winter ice, the long gaze into the middle distance.
I remembered leafing through the Sears catalog as a child, choosing between the GI Joe Helicopter or a realistic Transformer, imagining the toy was sweeter than playing with it ever could be. Back then, you could connect my dreams for another life to the smell of new pages coming from the magazine.
My children make lists of things they want, rainbow corns and video games. How much of our desire is pulled from the cultural ether, from the relentless beautiful pictures of beautiful people in beautiful places, from the open kitchens to the Montessori schools and articles about parenting, finding romance, satisfaction, articles about having it all? Will my children imbibe the same unhappiness, hear the same stories about how the world will fulfill them and end in disappointment?
The truth is, my unhappiness, like Don’s, wasn’t something I was interested in giving up. It felt like an essential part of my core that I’d won through disappointment and intellectual application. I had always wanted things to be magical, the fact that they weren’t and my disappointment at that reality, wasn’t it a strange sense of hope? I’d never be any happier because I was constitutionally created for unhappiness. The Delphic oracle had spoken at my birth or at least at my high school graduation.
It’s true, I should say. We do all have a happiness set point. I prefer the term well-being, which has less cultural baggage. However, it turns out those busy neural networks can be manipulated to modify our set point, increase our well-being. Hell, the Epicureans and Stoics were onto some of these tricks like negative visualization more than two thousand years ago. Those long walks, podcasts and meditation led me to this sudden insight. Change was possible. The question became how?
Long before Christ, the Buddha sat under a tree and attained enlightenment. If Buddhism was anything like Jesus, I wasn’t buying. But all I had to do at first was sit quietly too.
I sat in my room and stared at the blank wall. In the silence, I found a tumult of thought. The deep well turned up a surprising insight: my mind was batshit crazy. I couldn’t pause for a second without recurrent thoughts popping in like an annoying neighbor. The mere suggestion of a pause, of reflection, sent me into a panic that had characterized my adult life. Without movement, without a magazine article, an online conversation, a flirtation, there was the endless abyss of existence that must be blotted out in order to be countenanced that existential hole, threatening to swallow me. Life lacked meaning.
To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy people are all alike, unhappy people are unhappy in their own way. Is a story about changing for the better even worth telling? Or is that just my old intellectualism stopping by to assure me unhappiness is morally justified in the face of a world of injustice. Should I follow the objection to its logical conclusion?
It is strange how much you can remember about places like that once you allow your mind to return into the grooves which lead back —E.B. White.
Habit change is difficult, neuroscientists agree. The grooves laid down guide us on familiar paths, welcome us back to familiar rooms, to see the things that brought us a reward, even if it only lasted a moment, and we woke up in ruin.
After I started meditation, I diverged from the neighborhood walks to enter the woods, green light slanting through the oaks, box elders, sycamores with carvings in them by now distant lovers. Raul and Monica ‘88. The air began to turn again from the crisp spring into the heaviness that characterizes an East Coast summer. I wept daily for the first time in my life. I sat on the edges of the creek or on the cushion of my yoga mat and cried. Sometimes they were soft tears leaking out from the corners of my eyes, but often, they were the sort of torrents of tears people call an ugly cry, my face crumpling, and deep wracking sobs shaking my body.
I was depressed for a month. I slept five hours a night, meditated for two or three hours a day, shepherded the kids through the day, with sandwiches and easy-to-cook dinners, and took long walks in the woods, and cried more. A month passed in this way, a direct reckoning with the choices in my life that had led to this crossroads, and it wasn’t pretty.
The kids and I would walk together, and I’d hug them close to me, remind them I loved them. On days I didn’t have them, I’d read books about Buddhism, responsibility, radical acceptance or listen to Happiness Lab Podcasts. I stopped the idle dating that had taken much of my free time. Suddenly, as though clouds were parting, it became clear I was the one who had made the proverbial bed and would have to lie in it. I cried. I asked for forgiveness. I forgave. I visualized an endless array of mistakes and of slights and wept.
The whole month was manic and a deep reset.
Post-traumatic growth, like change, is also a neurological reality, and I understood I’d need to embrace different habits of mind and life if I wanted to chase that elusory happiness. I had always been impulsive, impatient, easily irritable, and I’d seen similar characteristics torpedo my father’s life and now mine. Whether that be infidelity or pure unpleasantness, the habits or actions were leading to the very unhappiness I thought was an inescapable reality.
Primates suffer through midlife crises as well. Something about the horizon of death shifts our perceptions, and we are given a moment, a pause to decide if the life we’ve chosen is the one we want. In the middle of life’s road, I found myself in a dark wood.
In Mad Men, Don’s crisis doesn’t lead to any meaningful change. Instead, his restlessness and pursuit of attractive women and work at the expense of connection smacks of that American despair I felt on the walk home decades ago. Is this all there is? Just the flecks of light on water?
Most people start meditating because they’ve hit rock bottom, have suffered enough. That was true for me. There is no sexy way to describe sitting for an hour a day, trying to learn to identify thoughts and emotions as they arise, to slowly tend to whatever is left of your loving heart.
The ancient Greeks thought philosophy was a necessary part of a model for living a good life. Whether that was the Stoics, Seneca, and the emperor Marcus Aurelius, the garden school of Epicurus, founded on the idea of simplicity and friendship, or the followers of Aristotle, what was essential, was considering how a person should live.
During the Tang Dynasty in China, a period of cultural and artistic flowering, nearly every person in society, high and low, practiced Zen. In America, we venerate football, flag, and above all, power and fame. Thus, running beneath the current of the American dream is something hollow, a promise that the only way to live a good life is just over the next hill, another million, another contract, a little further west. The journey is never inward.
I felt in need of a great pilgrimage, so I sat still for three days. —Hafiz
The fundamental insight of my meditation was that suffering was a guarantee, as inescapable as plentiful light on the fields comes summer. There wasn’t some other life for me free of diapers and electric bills, scheming landlords and car insurance. This was life. The job was to be with it, to countenance it. Yes, to shift it, to change, but first, to not wish it away.
It’s embarrassing for an intellectual sort to talk about self-love, but it was a road out of the dark woods into which I’d traveled, learning to love whatever it was that I am, gave me the hope to shift, to change.
At the end of Mad Men, Don reaches the ultimate terminus, the state in which I grew up, California. He sits, beatific, on the coast, face bathed in light in a large group meditation. In Mad Men, the inner peace reflected in Jon Hamm’s gorgeous face is an illusion, one more idea to commodify. The viewer knows Don’s experience will be translated into an iconic Coke commercial. The gold rush of life.
When I was a child, my family would take vacations to the northern coast of California. We were briefly on welfare after my father left, and a three-hour drive to the remote coast was all we could afford. In Fort Bragg, huge rocky outcroppings were pounded by the sea, sending water splashing into the air, while the wind whipped off the water, and above hung a low gray sky. Far above, the coast had redwoods, monoliths overlooking the sea, planted eons ago, by the province of wind and water, rocky soil and inland fog. Everything is native to somewhere else, even the earth used to be but a small point in the universe, waiting to be born, molten lava, nickel and iron, oxygen and carbon. Nothing but elements, waiting to change.
We stayed in a low-slung motel there, a single story that stretched the whole length of the cliff. In the afternoons, during rare sprays of sunlight, we’d toss the football on a large field of grass, running quick slants and post routes through flowers and molehills. When we were bored, we’d scrabble down the cliffs, feet slipping, and watch the waves hammer the shore. We built castles, but they were destroyed almost immediately in the icy froth. There was something almost contemplative in the sound, in the immediacy of the waves, the voracious winds, something of the indifference to us, to all our clamoring and fears, a reminder of our insignificance, which I associate with calm.
Years later when I was twenty-three, the first year of my twelve-year marriage, we lived in a small studio, whose imperfect foundations made it a refuge for spiders that spun webs in every corner and hollow for the cool ocean breeze. Some nights I'd leave the studio and walk to the beach, threading my way through the quiet streets, cars parked here and there, windshields limned in salt. At the dead-end street two blocks away, I crossed the train tracks and through a small Eucalyptus grove until I reached the edge of the cliffs that overlooked the ocean. Then I’d sit quietly. I’d breathe in and out, wind ruffling my hair. In the distance, the moon lay across the Pacific as a lover, silvery threads tending to the dark endless ache of the ocean. In the distance, blocks away, was my new wife. I was alone with the ocean.
The other day when the children were with me, we witnessed a robin’s furtive movements in the bushes, then a mad flapping and the wild spearing of the dirt until he’d grabbed the flailing body of a large worm.
Remember that dead deer? my son asked.
The body half-opened, innards displayed, reddened guts lying across a log where the children often played. We’d only spotted it after going over to play in the shallows, flies buzzing in its ribs.
I do, I answered.
When do you think I’ll die?
Not for a very long time, son. But we’ll all die someday, every step we take is in a place where something has once died, a worm, a sea slug, a beetle, an ant.
Stop talking about death, daddy.
It’s the only certainty in life.
Ten months after the breakup and several months after the depression has lifted, I stand by Rock Creek, alone. It’s winter, and the trees are emptied now, the winds and rain have scattered the leaves. The river is a ribbon of light passing through the small valley, and those trees hold up through their bare branches for an electric blue sky.
I think of David Whyte, his beautiful poem, “Coleman’s Bed.” The final stanza, like a rhythm and a reminder all through those dismal months.
Live in this place as you were meant to and then, surprised by your abilities, become the ancestor of it all, the quiet, robust and blessed Saint that your future happiness will always remember.
I made my way down those rocks from eons ago, sedimentary rocks from the Laurel formation, formed by volcanic ash before humans were even a twinkle in the eyes of evolution. I’m careful as I walk, such a fragile thing, a knee, a body, a life. Then I sit, crossing my legs, while the golden light washes the river, and I meditate. I think of that sense of awareness that runs as bedrock beneath the pandemonium of life. Sometimes I think there is something of those California days left inside me, as inside Don, a place I can quietly go. Is this a cliche? Have I become dense and easy to please in middle age? I don’t know.
The truth is, I don’t particularly care. I grip now, as tightly as I can, the edges of well-being for the first time in my adult life. The children and I read books again together every night, after we meditate. We tell each other about the things that have made us grateful during our days. We huddle together in my small bed and read until they are near sleep. I am trying to hold on to that feeling through mediation, podcasts, books, the stoics. Perhaps I hold on so dearly because life in its vertiginous bounty, bell-shaped droplets hung from trees, bells of laughter from a friend, bells calling me back to meditation, all toll the same thing, life is dear. Hold it, I tell myself. Hold it.
Washington, DC, USA
Andrew Bertaina's short story collection One Person Away From You (2021) won the Moon City Press Fiction Award (2020). His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, Redivider, Orion, and The Best American Poetry and notable at Best American Essays 2020. He has an MFA from American University in Washington, DC.