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.