This is one of the things I have hanging above my desk – this and a list of 50 things my little sister loves about me, a baby picture of Olive, an eagle feather ( because of course an eagle feather), and a whole host of other assorted beautiful bits and pieces.
It’s a quote that hits home for a writer who writes like I do.
It’s embarrassing, sometimes, feeling like I’m writing a journal for the world to read. Every six months or so I have a crisis where I gnash my teeth and rend my garments and wail at the heavens and wonder what the hell is wrong with me, that I feel this need. This desire to dig into the most vulnerable parts, to poke them and then to bring them kicking and screaming into the light to show you.
Hemingway and I are just about as different as two writers can be – in quality and calibre and the fact that he can say in five words what it would take me five paragraphs to finally circle around to – but we are on the same page with this one.
Sometimes it’s hard to do. Sometimes I struggle with propriety and the high road (and for some challenging thoughts on the high road, click here). Sometimes what hurts is too painful to write about. Sometimes it feels ridiculous and maudlin and I’d rather write something funny and I suspect that you’d probably much rather read something funny but, I have discovered that writing hard and clear about whatever is happening – whether it’s a humiliating oil change or what happens to the child of a hippie orrr the brutal aftermath of infidelity and divorce – it’s all I really know how to do. I’ve never been very good at fiction or small talk, nor at hiding what I’m feeling.
It’s when I’m avoiding this edict, when I’m taking the easy way out and being obtuse instead of clear and skirting the hurt, that’s when I can’t write anything at all. I sit down and it all rings false. I start and stop and start and stop, everything feeling like I’m speaking in someone else’s voice.
We are so good at distracting ourselves, our culture is built on it, and I think that I’ve been slowly becoming a master at it myself. I fill my days with Olive and I fill my evenings with work and with people and I read until my eyes close, and I never have to sit here with this quiet, small, uncomfortable feeling to find out what it’s telling me.
We all do this, to some degree. We distract from discomfort. We distract with TV and the never-ending black hole of the online world, or the beer we can’t stop drinking, or by surrounding ourselves with people who live loudly enough to drown it all out.
I think you hear a message in different ways, from different people, louder and louder, until you get it. I’m intelligent, but sometimes it takes a while for the pieces to fall into place. maybe it does for you, too.
A few weeks ago, a very smart man suggested that I sit with the unpleasant feelings I’ve been having lately. He suggested I accept them and anticipate them and use those moments to be kinder to myself, rather than becoming more demanding, or feeling angry at this scratching of old scar tissue.
Yesterday my brother sent me this article, which features a beautiful passage by Nicole Krauss:
It’s a strange thing about the human mind that, despite its capacity and its abundant freedom, its default is to function in a repeating pattern. It watches the moon and the planets, the days and seasons, the cycle of life and death all going around in an endless loop, and unconsciously, believing itself to be nature, the mind echoes these cycles. Its thoughts go in loops, repeating patterns established so long ago we often can’t remember their origin, or why they ever made sense to us. And even when these loops fail over and over again to bring us to a desirable place, even while they entrap us, and make us feel anciently tired of ourselves, and we sense that sticking to their well-worn path means we’ll miss contact with the truth every single time, we still find it nearly impossible to resist them…
…And so before we can arrive at the act of breaking, we first have to confront our fear. The fear that the blank canvas and the blank side of life reflects back to us, which is so paralyzing, as you put it, and seems to tell us that we can’t do anything.” It’s an abstract fear, though it finds a way to take on endless shapes. Today it may be the fear of failure, but tomorrow it will be the fear of what others will think of us, and at a different time it will be fear of discovering that the worst things we suspect about ourselves are true.
Today, I sat waiting outside Olive’s preschool, talking to my sister, Hilary. “Maybe you aren’t done.” she said, “Maybe the work isn’t done.”
I understand it now.
Knowing yourself is everything. It sounds like hippie bullshit, but your whole life – the outcome of each and every choice you make – will depend on how well you truly know yourself.
Who are you? What do you like to do? What do you believe in? Who are you when you’re by yourself? What feeds you? What drains you? What gets the bulk of your time, your energy, your focus? What brings you joy? Who do you love? Who do you become when you love? What are you left with when it’s gone?
We cannot just loop. We can’t just cycle endlessly from one job to the next, one lover to the next, one city to the next, without pause. Without examining our lives. Without looking at the feedback or hearing the words of others wiser and more objective than ourselves or listening to what our lives are telling us.
Every so often you have to sit and face the blank canvas of life ahead of you and decide what to do with it. You have to look at the choices you’ve made and where they’ve led you and figure out what’s missing and what’s too much and what is just how it should be.
It’s fucking hard to do that. To be honest, sometimes I hate it.
Lately, I hate it.
I hate shutting off the distractions – the music, the articles, the conversations, the texts. It makes me feel anxious and unmoored. I hate putting down the book and the busy work and sitting with myself and listening. All day long I crave silence and then when Olive finally passes out I clamour like mad to fill it.
Inviting that stillness in opens the doors to an incredible host of questions. Big Questions. Questions I thought I was done answering. About babies and marriage and where to live and whether to buy a house and what the hell I’m doing with my life and how I’m going to make a difference.
It’s uncomfortable. I hate it. But each time I do it, it gets a little easier. Less unpleasant. Less foreign.
I’m not done yet. I haven’t figured it out. It’s terrifying. But. But there’s this:
Bravery is always more intelligent than fear, since it is built on the foundation of what one knows about oneself: the knowledge of one’s strength and capacity, of one’s passion.
I think each day I come closer to tipping the scales toward the side of knowledge and of bravery. I am collecting truths and adding them one by one.
Nothing is permanent.
True happiness doesn’t compromise you, doesn’t come at a cost to those around you.
People, the vast majority of them, are wonderful and honest and wise.
Family is everything.
Vulnerability makes us strong, connection makes us whole.
Oil changes are bullshit.
See? It’s all coming together. I’m basically three days away from hanging out with the Dalai Lama.
And while I’m waiting for this pure zen state which will never come because I’m too emotional to be zen and too mother-of-a-three-year-old, too, I’ll be here writing about it, hard and clear.
The good, the bad, and the bad that I turn into good by making it funny, instead.
It’s never perfect, but it is real, and that’s the next best thing.
Having gone through what I think is a very similar divorce to you I can really empathise with this and it makes my heart hurt for you. I remember that I used to say to people that I just wanted to fast forward in time 6 months or a year so that I could be ‘out the other side’ of all the pain and not have to go through the process of healing. But of course it is that necessary process that for most people moulds and changes them into a slighter better version of themselves than they were before all of this happened in the first place.
Have you read about the ‘grieving cycle’? I discussed this with a counsellor after my divorce and had a real light bulb moment when she said to me that the cycle is not singular, you can go through it multiple times. The aim is that each of the lows become less severe each time you experience them. I can’t find a great link, but if you look here you will get the idea of what it is if you’d like to research further http://changingminds.org/disciplines/change_management/kubler_ross/kubler_ross.htm
One last thing – you say about how wondering how you’re ‘going to make a difference’. Know that you are already making a difference! You are making a difference to your daughter, to all your family and friends, to all of your readers and to the environment as a whole with all your hard work to live with less!
What Beautiful words & food for though. Thanks for making me stop and think xxxxxx
You’re figuring things out and it takes time. More time than feels comfortable, I know, but that’s okay. During my divorce at the embarrassing age of 27 I went through similar stages that you seem to be going through-shock, crippling sadness and anxiety, excitement about the blank canvas before me, etc. A whirlwind of focusing on where I’d “be” after “getting through” it- after the first round of single holidays and once the ink was dry. I threw myself back into dating and adventuring and dancing into the wee hours of the morning, filling my hours with so many distractions. But once all the activity died down and the dust settled, I nearly had a nervous breakdown as I came to understand what I really wanted out of life-a family, to make a difference, that white picket fence I’d been cheated out of- and how FAR I was from all of it. It was crippling. Self reflection and prayer and therapy and family and friends and prayer and prayer and prayer all got me to a better place once I stopped trying to fill up all my hours and thoughts. I stopped trying to control things and live my life for the remarks of how WELL I seemed to be doing and how much more comfortable everyone around me seemed to be because I had come out totally FINE and unscathed. It got dirty again and then AGAIN some months later but now… right now I am sitting here nursing my sweet baby boy with a snoring husband and an amazing life all around me. Everything I wanted and some things I didnt know I wanted- somehow I’m a stepmom and have a different career and I can say now with certainty that it is far more amazing than my old life in my old unnlemished skin. I’m a better person having come through the fire and being refined by it. You will be too. You’re still going through the fire right now but you WON’T be there forever. Keep writing, keep reflecting, keep gnashing. You’ve got this.
Ian Adams writes a bit about welcoming negative feelings in his book ‘running over rocks’ – I feel like you’d like his writing. Xxx
You very much capture the angst of those moments. Though I didn’t divorce in my 20s (I was barely beginning the relationship I’m still in 14 years later), I distinctly remember my late 20s as a time of restlessness, fear and discovery. Relish the intensity and all the creativity it inspires. Revel in it and know that time and age may bring more “wrinkles” but emotionally, it brings a certain suppleness and wisdom.
I also get into repeating patterns of *a frame of mind that’s tough to explain*. Where I feel the discomfort with my thoughts, the need to write, but I don’t know what to put down on the page exactly. It’s like the sticking point/unclear problem/worry /THE UNCOMFORTABLE THING in the back of my mind is in the middle of the room and I am just pacing around it. Nudging it with my toe, unsure how to wrap my mind/ deal with it/ start to clear it away.
When I was younger ( I.e single, no kids) I could just drop everything and write for hours, pages. Now it’s tougher, with three kids, a husband and a cat clamouring for attention. Thank you for reminding me that I need to set time aside for myself, to face and resolve the thoughts that persist in the background.
Have you checked out Danielle La Porte? She’s a fellow Canadian. You might like her. Meanwhile… we’re here, when you’re funny and when you make us weep.
I want you to know I haven’t read you in about 3 years but I spent a few hours today and I have to comment here. Having just read about your ride with the shit as it hit and went through the fan, you still have your humor. The oil change proves it. So pat yourself on the back there Madeleine. You deserve it. Being real and still having a sense of humor when it isn’t all roses is a commendable attribute. To go through the fan and still be standing says a lot about who you are. I applaud you Miss.