A lot of the time, it’s a brutal business to heal the dogs of internal conflicts you didn’t even know you had. On top of that, some of the dogs have run off with pieces of you, and you can’t live right until you find them, so you go off searching.
And then there you are, in Florida. Miraculously, pieces return, almost as if they didn’t run off at all, but merely left you for awhile, as they must, in their strange orbit of the soul.
In 1885, French painter Auguste Renoir created a portrait in a new style, one he called aigre, or “sour,” after abandoning Impressionism and taking up with Renaissance art. The painting, Girl with a Hoop, would live in art history, at least as the National Gallery of Art defines it, as exemplary of Renoir’s search to create something more permanent, more concrete, than the blurred illusory qualities of Impressionism. The painting was a commission of a nine-year-old girl named Marie.
I must have seen this painting somewhere, and its sister Impressionist work, A Girl with a Watering Can. But I have no memory of when I saw these paintings for the first time, no recollection of any remarkable experience with either one. So I will tell you something very strange: when I was 36 years old, in 2010, I was working with a healer doing something called “heart therapy,” and she was taking me into a visualization to meet my inner child. I was in a desperate amount of pain then, rent by the first genuine attempts to learn who I really am, and it was a pain that would continue in me, to varying degrees, until I ran out of gas with the alligator wrangler I wrote about in this blog.
Thus far, 2010 has been the roughest year, trying as I was to beg for some language so I could understand the internal stripping away of the stories I made up about myself to have an identity in the world. I was starting to face my inner conflicts, just at the point where I could speak enough truth to myself about the way I felt inside to honor the dogs that fought there. Otherwise, I never would have agreed to inner child work, which, at that time, deeply offended the character of the intellectual whose mask, to quote Orwell, my face had grown to fit.
I found Renoir’s two girls in my mind, blended into one 7-year-old child, cowering behind the dresser in the girlhood bedroom I grew up in on Westminster Drive in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. I didn’t identify the amalgam right off; I only registered that this child was from some painting I had seen somewhere. Yet, she appeared to me vividly in the visualization, her face as the Girl with a Hoop but in the dress of the Watering Can girl, with blonde hair and a red bow. It was as if my mind had photographed these paintings and animated this part of me, this little girl who learned to survive living with me by hiding between the furniture and the wall.
But, I collected her as the healer instructed, and I thought that was that. I was wrong. For the next four years, while I paid attention to other things, the girl with the hoop was making clanging, desperate demands for my attention. And when she didn’t get mine, she would settle for someone else’s.
On the last day of the year, 2013, Michael‘s latest ex-girlfriend contacted me on facebook.
She had been reading this blog. Her name was Jenny.
There is no life for me except a mystic’s life. There is no life but God. When I agreed that God could have my life, when I made the big surrender so that I would not die drunk somewhere far from people who loved me, I found extraordinary things happening. I found myself taking a lot of sour with the sweet. I had to because love is like that, the way it won’t let me be fake, not real love, not the kind that comes from the other place and through me and into another person’s heart and they feel it and it feels hot and true like the right medicine. I receive this love all the time now, too, from all sorts of people, some of them strangers, some of them reading this blog, Andy, and I am more okay not understanding what is going to happen in life anymore because somewhere in the swamp, when God asked me to come there to meet Her, to meet Him, the dogs stopped fighting. Though I’d forgotten about this girl with the hoop.
Then came the message from Jenny.
Jenny was a mess, torn up after a year of tangling with a crazy-maker in a pattern of behaviors and reactions I knew all too well. This blog had helped her, she said, because I’d written about him. I was too curious to not meet her, so on a respite to the Everglades last month, I asked her to meet me for coffee, and she agreed.
We met at the Dunkin Donuts on the Tamiami Trail at the intersection in Naples where I used to turn into the Glades for my tours. I spotted her immediately: brunette, kind eyes, big smile, studiously poring through her calendar. She looked a lot like me. What can I say? She felt familiar.
We sat across from each other for two hours, swapping stories, connecting, laughing, sharing a few moments of frightened tears at memories we’d kept to ourselves out of shame or bewilderment. There were goose bumps as we rehashed the highlights, let me tell you. We sat in that gaudy corporate donut shop and administered the medicine to each other. I told her Michael had been a great teacher for me, and I do wish him well. I wish him peace.
“Why would I have let this all happen?” she asked me.
“I can tell you why I did,” I said.
I loved him because I had some bad ideas to work out, ideas about men and emotional needs and relationships that I picked up as a child. I loved him because the girl with the hoop told me to, though that’s not how I phrased it to Jenny. Hell, that’s not even how I understood it when I was talking to Jenny. The best I could do then was “I’ve got fucked up issues about men and taking care of them because how I was raised, so, you know, that’s what I talk with my therapist about.” Dogs leave with pieces of you. These pieces return in the face of a woman who loved a man you loved once when you didn’t know how to take care of a very, very important part of yourself.
We hugged goodbye as friends, making plans to go camping together one day. I asked her if I could write about us. She said yes as long as I promised not to make her look too crazy. But of course not–I already told you she looked like me.
Driving back from the Glades, ruminating on the wild significance of having coffee with Michael’s new ex, I finally noticed a particular phrase kept flashing through my mind along to the radio beats. The girl with the hoop. The girl with the hoop.
That’s a Degas painting, I thought. A few days later, in a lull at work, I Googled “the girl with the hoop.”
It wasn’t Degas. It was Renoir. And there I was, face to face with my inner child.
The painting itself I find curious. The girl, not even in middle school, bears the ennui of someone who has already identified the astounding ridiculousness of the world. She bears the expression of a young woman. Her left foot pins the hoop from moving although her left hand, the giving hand, lightly but already holds the hoop in place. The stick for driving the hoop she holds confidently in her right hand, the hand meant to receive, but her grip is loose, musical. She is rosy-cheeked and cock-hipped, frozen in this moment of having total control on the wheel, the circle, the infinite. The medicine wheel. The circle of dreams. She is a sassy little miss priss spinning the momentum of life, stopping it at will, oscillating between playing a common egalitarian game and reminding me of atoms, of earth, of life, spinning, spinning, spinning.
In Native American beliefs, the Sacred Hoop unites all communities. It represents a time of healing, of coming together. And here is the girl with the hoop, balancing it all.
The root of my conflicts is self-centered fear. This is what the girl with the hoop finally taught me. You are afraid for yourself, so you do things you don’t like to keep yourself from being afraid. You can’t protect me until you know it is me you are protecting.
She’s right. She is a child, and she picked Michael to protect her. How would she know better? How could I have done right by her without acknowledging she is the child I bear, that she is the seed of the wise woman, that she is the part of me–the only part of me–who needs to be able to trust me.
And I don’t know how else she would have found her way home without all these pieces returning, over the years, in the recursive journey of hoops.
night night beloveds. To your inner child, your hoop-bearer, your little beloved inside.