While it is, apparently, a myth that habits take 21 days to form, I do feel a little bereft now that I’ve moved my furniture and my writing practice from the Central Library back to my own living room. I didn’t realize until today the many ways that this newly adopted theatrical sequence helped me become a better writer. Most days, I would travel up the escalator from Fourth Avenue, time that I used to get my head in the game. The ride to Level 3 was long enough to switch mental modes: I’m no longer at work. I’m here to write. I would check in with David in security, if he was on duty. I would stop to talk with Linda, Andrea, Misha or David at the information desk, if they were free — just a minute of banter before someone inevitably came by to ask about a book. I moved on, finding my key card in the zippered pocket of my purse. I swiped it across the red scanner to gain access to the back-of-house space where I stowed my coat and purse in a locker. Sometimes I ran a comb through my hair or ate a protein bar if I was in between meals — whatever was needed to be presentable or fortified for the task at hand. By the time I emerged from the black door and ducked under the stanchion rope onto the small stage, I was in character. My brain was ready to pick up where I had left off the day before. I took out my laptop and plugged in the power first, then the cord to the large monitor behind me. I booted up. I turned on music by Yo-Yo Ma, Tomo Nakayama or Todo Es to further clear the chatter from my head. These small rituals were like stations of the cross; I completed each of them, in order, before I began to write. Like all brief but intense experiences, spending a month as a novelist-in-residence at the library was transformative; it was difficult to quit cold turkey. For one, I miss my new librarian friends, but I also long for the accountability that came with showing up to write every day. (If you are ever looking for motivation, I recommend posting your writing schedule on a public calendar.) It also meant that my writing time was protected. For two or three –or sometimes six or seven– hours a day, my job was to focus only on writing. Yes, I can still write at home, and I can set daily word goals. Yes, NaNoWriMo is not a realistic pace that I can maintain long-term. My average daily word count in November was 2,600 words, which is a lot on top of a full-time job — or at least, it’s a lot for me. Still, of the many lessons I learned, one is that I am a slow writer in private practice. Typically, it takes me three to four weeks to write the first draft of a single short story (say, 5,000 to 10,000 words.) At the library, I was creating content in days that would have otherwise taken a month. When I write in normal life, I often edit as I go, which adds a drag coefficient that is not possible to sustain when you’re attempting to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Still, NaNoWriMo made me question whether I wish to continue working the same way. For, as painful as it was to lay down sentence after sentence without going back to smooth and polish them, I faced the reality that early editing is a means of procrastination for me. It also makes for uneven work. Some writers fear the blank page, but I fear the ugly first draft, so I take a long time to complete things (even blog posts like this) because I’m constantly refining the early parts before the piece is finished. I write as if I’m rolling out dough, starting over and over in the same place. Over-editing aside, I have spent the past week reveling in the ability to write without hesitation, since no one is watching me. A Novel Performance proved that the observer effect is indeed real (the act of observation changes the phenomenon or subject being observed.) I often froze up when writing romantic or emotionally complex scenes with a crowd of people standing three feet away, their eyes poised on the screen just about my head waiting… waiting… for something brilliant to appear. I found it difficult to experiment before an audience; I didn’t feel like I had the creative space to write something that I might not keep. When those moments arose, I channeled my inner Jo Ann Beard, composing, editing and re-composing sentences in my mind before typing them on screen. Slowly. Very slowly. This may be fine for Ms. Beard, but it turns out that I am the type of writer who thinks by writing rather than one who writes by thinking. For those who geek out on statistics, here’s a fun fact: it took me 20 days to write 50,000 words and only another 7 to reach 70,355 (the library was closed on Veterans Day and Thanksgiving; the final day of writing took place on November 29.) That means I was averaging 2,500 words a day in the first three weeks of the installation, but I actually increased my productivity in the last week to 2,905 words a day. Everyone kept asking if I was tired or ready to be finished, and I suppose that I said yes, but I would follow that with a disclaimer: even in the thick of it, I had not run out of ideas, and I was always eager to return to the couch. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write, and the more ideas for other stories kept bursting into mind. Kamikaze writing (my term for this approach) was like learning a new sport: the first few weeks, your body is fatigued and full of fits and starts as it begins to understand how to work in a new way, however you soon get in a groove that somehow creates new energy from the effort. After that, you can go farther faster (or stronger longer) seemingly without end. During NaNoWriMo, I didn’t stop to plot or track my daily word average, but seeing the numbers after the fact substantiates the consistent flow of energy I felt, despite my creativity coming under unusual, intense and ongoing demand. No breaks. Just write. And I did. Since finishing, many people have asked questions I can’t answer fully: what happens next with the book? When will they see it in print? What am I working on now? Will I do NaNoWriMo again? An easy response to the first is that the book goes into a drawer for an indeterminate amount of time. My main squeeze, who stayed up late last night to finish it, gave “The Year of the Tiger” a thumbs-up as worthy for more work, so it passed an early test. It also means a hell of a lot more time and effort, and a residency or two in order to complete it. Only now do I begin to see the licking hell fires that my novelist friends have resigned themselves to; they are the ones who answer this question with, Well, I just finished my fourth revision… Their plight, now my own, makes me shudder. Yet, I must acknowledge that this is my second attempt to turn these ideas into a book. Part of my proposal for A Novel Performance was to examine the role of failure in literary art, as this current draft is actually the result of failure. The story was vastly different in 2012 when it was fodder for a memoir, so I have effectively written it over from the beginning two times — and much more work is needed. (I took what I learned from the first version as fuel for a completely fictitious cast of characters.) While I don’t imagine that my third draft will be a complete re-write, my hesitance in answering this question comes from knowing how much I’ll have to revise, which is a lot. Most novelists I know spend five to ten years on a novel; I’m still in year three — or year one, depending upon how you look at it. So, when will you see it in print? When (and if) it’s ever ready. This summer at the Tin House summer workshop, I asked literary agent Meredith Kaffel about the right time to approach an agent with a manuscript. I should add that I didn’t just ask this question, I asked tentatively. Meredith has an incredible presence — she appears seasoned beyond her years and presents the assured beauty of an Orange is the New Black-era Laura Prepon, her dark brown hair drawn to a long side braid, thick-framed glasses that make her eyes appear large and wise, bold red lipstick that contrasts with her pale skin. I posed the question and she immediately responded, “You’ll know when it’s ready.” She’s correct. The more I write, the more I know when my work is ready — and if I have to ask, it’s not. When you’re starting out as a writer, you look for validation, and so you send things to editors and agents before they should be sent, and they are summarily rejected. I’m still shopping a piece that I completed years ago when I had just returned to writing; it’s an essay about my father that I totally believe in, but I can’t seem to place it. In 2009, I submitted it to one magazine –The Sun– which was very optimistic. After waiting six months only to receive a hard-copy rejection, I didn’t do anything with it until 2013 when I gave it a spit-shine and started sending it out in earnest. It’s still looking for a home. If I rewrote that essay today as a more mature artist, it would turn out differently; this may be what I have to do if I really want to get it published. And thus begins my answer to the question of what I’m working on now. One major initiative is adapting NaNo lessons into my daily writing practice. For starters, I will take writing as seriously as I take my job and defend my writing time. I will show up ready to write and not wait until the mood strikes. I will not fear or attempt to avoid the messy work; I will get the first draft down sentence by sentence and edit later. I will not save up ideas in my mind, as if obsessively replaying their potential will somehow make them better. I will write outlines (perish the thought!) and perhaps even organize and rearrange the order of a piece before writing it. I will not fear that my creativity will dry up from overuse. Post-novel, I’m digging into several short pieces: an essay about my experience in the library, a short story about a wrongly-fired woman seeking revenge, a flash fiction piece about love and regret, and a series of linked prose poems about beauty and self-image. This last effort is part of a multi-media installation titled “Ugly Me,” which will open in July 2015 at the Jack Straw Cultural Center in the U-District. I’m also part of Project Home Poem, a temporary literary art installation led by artist Perri Howard for the new Northgate Sound Transit Station. Then, there is the matter of this novel. I’m applying for grants and residencies… we’ll see how it goes. As for NaNoWriMo, it depends on what’s cooking next fall. It is no easy thing to write 50,000 words in a month, whether you’re doing it in public or not. In fact, the latter is more difficult, I think, as the joys and pains are private, and so is the motivation. I feel unbelievably fortunate to come away from NaNoWriMo with not only the first draft of a novel, but new friendships, a keener sense of the role that our library and librarians play in the community, and many newly-formed habits –and a more confident artistic voice– that I hope will grow stronger with time. Finally, my deepest gratitude to the library staff who made me feel inspired, welcome and safe every day; to 4Culture for their support of this project; Paul Constant of The Stranger and Rachel Belle of KIRO FM for their thoughtful coverage of A Novel Performance; Seattle Public Library for hosting me as a novelist-in-residence so that I could create this work; Nick Spang for his beautiful documentation; Jeff Sandler, whose assistance in relocating my living room was invaluable — and to my friends who supported me in countless ways over the past five months, especially those who took time to show up at the library. THANK YOU.
Based on my encounters for the past two weeks, I know the first question lingering in your mind, so let’s get that out of the way: 39,212 words total. That’s an average of 2,614 words a day. Or, for those who think in page count, it’s 73 single-spaced pages written in 12-point font — and, as I confirmed for a middle schooler determined to note (loudly), “You’re not indenting!” – no, I don’t indent.
To his teacher, whom he surely told the following Monday that the writer in the library doesn’t indent her work (so he shouldn’t have to, either): I’ve very, very sorry. I should have said that, when I prepare manuscripts to send to editors, or anyone other than me who will read it, I do indent paragraphs. My deepest apologies.
Two weeks of writing a novel at the Central Library have brought many unexpected interactions like this. (Who knew that a pack of pre-teen boys would call me out on page formatting?) This Thursday, two girls, perhaps seven or eight years old, were gathered at the edge of the stanchions that rope off my living room from that of the library. Their arms linked, best friends obviously, they were incredibly courteous as they observed me, a strange adult lingering in captivity inside the ropes. Next to me, a large sign with pink lettering poses the question, “What is she doing?” as if to warn children about the dangers of my particular species. The girls snapped photos, but hesitated in taking one of the explanatory postcards, probably because they thought the cards were meant for adults.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw them shimmy with excitement, then skip over to their parents who urged them to return to me. They were so cute, their noses twitching with curiosity, that I couldn’t resist removing my headphones to engage with them when they reappeared at the edge of the platform. “What’s the name of your book?” they whispered shyly, when I removed my headphones.
“The Year of the Tiger,” I said.
“That is so cool!” they squealed, before running away.
Was it? I was flattered, as it’s a working title, and kids are notorious for saying what they think, especially when something stinks. What I did think was so cool was that kids under 10 thought that seeing a real-live writer was interesting. After all, I’m sitting on a couch typing away at my laptop… it’s not like I’m throwing paint or devouring my tamer. But it’s a reaction that I hoped would happen —that young people, especially young women, would see this installation and be inspired, hopefully to go home and write— still, you never know how an idea will play out in real life.
Despite being an avid reader and writer all my life, the first time I saw a “real” writer was in my late twenties. It was David Sedaris, and he was reading, not writing. (He’s so small! I thought, although my nosebleed seats at Benaroya didn’t help.) I remember marveling at his talent and his nasal voice, wondering along with everyone else how he did it: how did he made us laugh one minute and utter the collective sound Aaaaah in the next? It was magic, the same way that my other favorite authors had the power to spellbind me with their work, seemingly instantaneously and with little effort as I turned the page. Surely, this talent came naturally and effortlessly; this is what they were meant to do in life.
I continue to believe that literary art is indeed so mystical because we never watch as it’s conjured. Even I secretly suspect that other writers possess a far superior ability to my own because — *poof!* their book is born onto a shelf seemingly from the ether, and I didn’t have to spend hours editing it. (Prolific authors such as Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates only affirm my suspicions.) One day, a thick tome appears in the library and our discovery and consumption of its ideas happens as swiftly as the book was penned, we believe. Or, we don’t even stop to consider the work that went into it because we’re already bugging the librarian for her next recommendation.
Growing up, I didn’t have relationships with writers. For one, there were no writers in our surburban community, or if there were, my parents weren’t connected to them. My family consumed mostly read mass-market fiction, and those writers, like Anne Rice, Stephen King or Clive Cussler, lived far away. In high school, the writers whose work we read were dead (well, mostly) or likewise far removed; back then, even if they were alive, there was no internet that we could search for them on. I studied English Medieval Literature in college, so the authors I read were way dead. The person who created the work, and the work itself, were two very separate entities.
It wasn’t until the last five years that I’ve read contemporary authors who I could actually connect with in real life. Of course, it can be equally daunting to hear masters like Jo Ann Beard say that she lays down her work sentence by sentence, and that she doesn’t edit it once it’s written because, “If the sentence wasn’t perfect when I wrote it, I wouldn’t put it down.” (She went on to say that she tirelessly works and re-works sentences in her head line by line before she writes them, in case this sounds easy. If I tried to work this way, I’d never write a thing.) But to hear her explain her process and gain a sliver of insight into what it takes for her to write makes me read her work differently. It makes me read it slower, in fact.
As uncomfortable as it is to sit beneath a large screen where anyone can read what I’m writing [in its most naked, unpolished form], the transparency of A Novel Performance is the main reason for doing it. I love the questions I’m asked because they’re not always easy to answer. Having to explain what I do, how I do it and why (sometimes I have to think hard about that) is helping me to define my own process in explicit ways that I might not have come to on my own.
Some questions are easy: How long does it take for a writer to compose 39,212 words? (So far, about 60 hours.) Someone asked, do you erase? (Yes. You can watch me go back and forth over a line a couple times if it doesn’t feel quite right, although I can’t linger on any one part.) How do you know what happens next? (I created a very high-level outline that I’m using as a guide, but I’ve gone off-road a couple of times already.) After two weeks, are you tired of writing? (Fatigued, but not tired. The well may not be as deep from day to day, but it gets filled.)
People have asked if I’m crazy (yes, maybe) and where the furniture came from (it’s really mine; I bought the couch from Dania years ago and refinished the little side table myself. My boyfriend sorely misses his rug and lamp.)
My favorite question so far, though, came in passing from a woman pulling a large piece of luggage to the elevators across from me. She paused to take in the scene: a woman curled up by herself on a couch with her shoes off, a laptop teetering on top of her knees, surrounded by house plants and two red velvet pillows. She snorted and asked the room, quite loudly, ”Why you so special?!”
Every day when I arrive at the library to re-enact this scene, knowing that, even as an emerging writer I’m being supported to create art –to do the one thing in life that I feel made to do– I stop to ask myself that very same question.
As a dying hurricane flings gusty winds at Seattle, and with them, tree limbs, power lines and a pantheon of multi-colored leaves, everything feels off-kilter. Daylight savings time is about to fall back, autumn has us wriggling in her damp, chilly grasp, and Renée Zellweger is sporting a new face that no one can stop tweeting about. This last turn has emerged between the paparazzi’s cooing over George Clooney’s long-awaited wedding, something I admittedly find irresistible to read about in People.
To the media, I think it mattered little that it was any one particular bride, though she seems lovely, intelligent and spirited, but only that someone, anyone, finally, presented a complete enough package (in Clooney’s eyes, at least) that he might commit. (While it may be true love, my cynicism says that Clooney is a betting man, and at 53, he sees the wisdom of leaving the singles scene on a high note.)
About Zellweger, the host of blog posts, op-eds and commentaries blowing through the media recall the red, yellow and orange leaves cascading outside my window like giant Technicolor snowflakes. Some writers insist that it’s no one’s business what a person does with her face while others use her plastic surgery to lambaste society, suggesting that Zellweger, under emotional pressure to remain beautiful, succumbed to what she believes we demand of her. If she doesn’t, she won’t get work in Hollywood, some say. Certain journalists criticize her for being weak, some take pot shots at both the publishers and readers of magazines for perpetuating the cult of impossible youthfulness, and yet others see Zellweger’s actions as a strike for feminism, both pro and con. A piece in the New York Times sums up what I believe is at the heart of this disturbance, no matter the point of view: “Ms. Zellweger looks beautiful but she does not look like Ms. Zellweger.”
We come to believe that we know a person based on labels: her name, appearance and attire, what she eats and reads, where she lives and works, the vehicle she drives (or doesn’t), her associates, and certainly, her words and beliefs. Over time, we amass enough data points that, as a collective, appear to form a definition of identity. Zellweger’s transformation shows how much we rely on sensory information as a definition of character, but it also shows that these definitions are by no means stable, and that no one views herself the same way that she is perceived by others.
On the drive home just after midnight last night, we spotted a large tree downed by the storm, not yet understanding that the tree had taken down the power in our neighborhood. We pulled up to our parking garage, pressing the button for the gate to no effect. Idling in the driveway, we were told by a man walking his dog that the building had lost power, so we parked on the street and navigated our footpath home by the flashlight app of my iPhone. The streets and buildings were eerily dark, the wind whipping wildly about. With each step, I anticipated cry of hounds in the distance. As we approached home, I felt relieved to see the red glow of the digital lock on the back gate, which meant that we could gain access to our building, but the hallways and stairs were completely dark. It felt like we were the lone survivors of an apocalypse.
Our apartment held an unearthly quiet in the darkness –true darkness– and, for some reason, I expected to find people inside looting our things. What would I do? There was so little that I’d fight for besides life and love; if they wanted my clothes or the red decorative bowl I bought at Pier One ten years ago, they could have it. But my unease, thankfully unfounded, wasn’t really about being robbed. It came from a change in my sensory perception of a place I’ve come to know well. Remove the visual means with which I encounter my home –extinguish the light– and I begin to question its definition as a safe retreat. Fear creeps in. I begin to wonder if there is any place in the world that is truly safe. On the outside, a homeless man shuffles by and looks up at my building, a new apartment complex, as a lush fortress, secure against theft and the wild weather. Which of us is right?
Earlier that evening, I paused in the powder room to look at my face in the mirror. I thought of Zellweger’s surgery and doubted that I would ever consider doing the same. Perhaps that’s because my forehead is still mainly unlined and the crepe paper creases beneath my eyes are superficial, but it’s also because I’ve always pictured myself on the edges. My self-perception of the figure I cut in the world is a quiet and blurry one, maybe even elusive –I don’t believe that I lead with my looks– but this is not necessarily how others perceive me. Whose perception is true?
As a concept, point-of-view has taken center stage as I prepare for National Novel Writing Month, which begins next Saturday, November 1. On that day, and for the 29 thereafter, I’ll appear in the Central Library downtown as I attempt to pen 50,000 words by 11:59 pm on November 30. After a major snag this week, I realized that my perception of what I’m about to do –write a novel as public performance– no longer appears to me as a feat of writing, but one of art installation. This process of planning, designing and implementing A Novel Performance has not been easy, nor has it been as enjoyable as I thought it would be. With a story, I can create, demolish or remodel a given world as I wish it to appear, but in the physical world, I am powerless without the consensus and approval of others. (One might suggest that what I don’t enjoy is the lack of absolute control, or at least, the perception of it…) Nevertheless, as November 1 nears, I must shift my focus once again, this time from installation back writing. Whether I am actually able to effect change in that world is yet another question of perception. Who’s story is it? Who is in control? The performance begins…
Perhaps after all this, Zellweger’s physical appearance is now aligned with a self-perception that she’s long held inside. We squawk about how different she looks, but in her mind, she finally looks right. She’s as relieved about her reflection as the rest of us are about Clooney’s nuptials, sighing as if we are exhausted matchmakers. (At last, we’ve married him off!) At once, the skies clear and turn blue, the winds draw back the carpet of leaves from the sidewalks and we get the opportunity to reassess the world around us, which we believe that we can know.
This week, amidst the swirling leaves and celebrity upheavals, my eye doctor gave me toric contact lenses to try. The visual haloes I’ve become used to, caused by astigmatism, have disappeared. Every word I read appears crisp in ways that words never have before in my left eye. Is this how vision is meant to be, only I didn’t know it? Until now, everything has appeared with a blurry aura that seemed to belong there. This is what sight was for me until a clear circle of plastic, thinned at the top and bottom, changed everything. Now, I’m forced to ask how accurately any of us envision anything, including ourselves.
Last night after dinner, six of us gathered in our friends’ living room to let a homemade Greek meal settle along with the wine we had just enjoyed. As a group, we daydreamed in a way that felt like the dinner parties of my mid-twenties: we talked exuberantly about future plans, what we hoped we’d become, the adventures we hoped to have, places that we wanted to see. Peppered with laugher, our conversation was energetic, full of promise, like the last amber sunset before the blue-gray rain clouds of fall set in.
Spontaneously, one friend said, “When I think about you, the first thing that comes to mind is a writer,” to which another agreed. I paused. This is something I’ve tried to make happen my whole life, in spite of every title I’ve held that has not contained the word writer. As they spent the next minute agreeing with this assessment, I wondered how long my self-perception has been outdated. When had I achieved this? That’s the thing about setting your eyes on a goal, be it beauty, marriage or accomplishment; your vision can become so obscured that you don’t realize when you’ve arrived at the very destination you set out for. You have to look up from the trail markers every once in a while to assess your actual location, and it may look different than it once appeared from far away.
Often, we only know that change has occurred in our lives when someone else alerts us to it — Zellweger looks different and somehow I’ve become a writer. Just because we’re on the inside doesn’t mean that we know everything about who we are or all that we’re capable of. We can look up, down and out, but it is sometimes hard to see clearly within. With that, it’s time to get down to business.
By all means, if you’re near the library next month, please stop by and sit with me a spell; writing implements encouraged but not required. (See A Novel Performance for hours.) If you’d like to talk about writing, stop by on Mondays when I’ll be hosting conversations from 5 to 6 pm in the Chocolati Cafe on Level 3. In the spirit of my friend’s generous and timely observation, the sign next to me will read, “The Writer is IN.”
Today is one of those fall Sundays in Seattle that I live for: the sky is bright white with a thick cover of clouds, and with all the windows open, it’s about 65 degrees inside. I am bundled up in my sweats on my couch with my favorite sage green throw wrapped around my feet, which are deliciously cold from the breeze spilling in. My laptop is propped on my knees and occasionally, I pause to take a sip of tea and look out the window. This is very much the sight that visitors to Seattle Central Library will see in November this year.
Thanks in part to an award by 4Culture, I will install a recreation of my creative space (in this case, my living room) on Level 3 of the public library as part of a performance art installation in which I plan to write a minimum of 50,000 words in a month, a challenge also known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo.) The idea began when I realized that, as an English lit major, I had only ever studied the work of dead people in school. We were never able to talk to the creators of the works we read; we could only guess at their process by reading intercepted letters or through anecdotes and hearsay about their lives.
In my journey as a writer, I’ve struggled for mentors as much as I’ve wrestled with developing and understanding my own writing process, especially of late. Meeting contemporary authors at places like Hugo House and the Tin House Summer Workshop has emboldened my hunger for connection. Yet, as a creative discipline, writers are often secretive or reclusive, bemoaning their loneliness at the same time as they encourage misanthropy and, in my opinion, an undervaluing of our craft. My installation, called A Novel Performance, is a way of challenging writers, including myself, to move beyond all of this — to reach out to others by showing what we do.
(Side note: I hope you stop by starting November 1 or follow on Twitter where I’ll be tweeting about the experience at #LiveNovelist. For more info, click on A Novel Performance.)
I say this as a lead-in to what’s come to mind lately, and that is ritual. I once maintained a weekly habit of blogging, often starting a post on my couch on Sunday mornings and publishing at my favorite coffee shop. When I began this blog in 2010, I wrote and edited directly in the WordPress page editor. Today, I no longer post weekly. I rarely go to Caffe Fiore since I moved — and, in fact, don’t go to coffee shops anymore to write. I compose posts in a word processor to perfect them before I paste them into WordPress. Over time, my ritual has changed with my shifting lifestyle, and now today, I question the benefit — both the steps of the ritual and well as its end result. I’ve become complacent and comfortable. The ritual of blogging no longer has the same impact, except for a regular deadline.
These questions of purpose, result and significance have become important as I try to encapsulate how and what I do in order to explain it to others. For me, writing starts with so many mundane factors, like the fact that I require a couch or any other non-desk-like setting in order to write. Ambient noise is okay, but not music, conversation or television. I struggle with large type and I really can’t write productively in double-spaced text (I need to see large swaths for context), so my work typically begins as single-spaced text in 10-point font in paragraphs without indents separated by a single line break. Or, if I’m working in my field notebook, then it’s all by hand in eerily parallel lines on a blank (and unlined) page.
What any of this actually has to do with my writing process, I can’t say. These obsessive/compulsive control factors are different for everyone, yet they do exist, and maybe that’s enough to justify their importance in my process. Only when I stop to examine them do I realize that there are many other nuances that go along with writing that, on the surface, have absolutely nothing to do with craft. Yet, when everything is in place, I can sit for hours with my brain in another world and, if left undisturbed, the sun can go down and I can become very hungry without rising to do a thing about it. Being in the groove feeds me in another way, and it’s only when a story or essay feels a certain degree of settled –or, settled enough for a particular evening– that I can leave my work without feeling interrupted.
This brings me back to the purpose of ritual. In yoga, we practice a sequential physical exercise in order to calm the mind, similar to ritualistic practices to ease anxiety. A systematic repetition of behaviors can quell and neutralize excitement while other rituals actually build energy. Think of the holiday progression from Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas when you were a child: a certain buzz arose during mid-October as everyone wanted to know what costume you’d wear for Halloween, then fall foods like sweet potatoes, stews and pies would appear, then it was time to watch football games, parade floats and eat a gargantuan meal at the end of November. By Hanukkah and Christmas, the frenzy of December was dizzying. Like the ancient Greeks who celebrated the states of ekstatis and enthusiasmos with wild dancing, rituals can be a means of exciting and altering one’s state of creative consciousness.
As the kick-off of my installation nears, I realize how frenzied and erratic I have become in both my writing practice and my preparation for it. I’ve let the world enter my sacred space and transform it with the same to-do lists and rules that measure my non-writing life into equal amounts of duty, responsibility and limits. These things are not the same as rigor, which is important in an artistic practice — they are soul-killing weeds that have sprung up in my garden over the summer. I have forgotten to nourish the soil that makes writing possible. I’ve become too busy for a ritual whose result is deeply important to me.
There is no turning back from the tasks ahead, and I’m not suggesting that I want to, but I do want to make A Novel Performance into a dividing line. It will mark the end of five years of a certain kind of practice that has served me in its time. What happens over the course of November is an experiment. It will test the means and methods I have established to date, and from it, I will form a hypothesis about how I’d like to shape my writing future.
What do we really need to blossom? What is extra? What pushes us out of our comfort zones, just a little, and helps us reach new places we didn’t think we were capable of finding? What should we remember? What should we let go? What brings us pleasure? What makes us lazy? What do we need to feed ourselves every day? What is so important that it’s worth sacrificing for? These are questions a ritualist asks as she creates a new space to test, research, reflect and play.
That’s what ritual is for, in my mind — not a place of dogma or religion, or a means of withdrawing from stimulus — but a space where the spirit is free to join and create, whether with the body, the arts, materials or the mind. A safe place that allows us to jump higher, break things and fall down without dying, to spill paint on the floor, sing off-key, run down the wrong path. It must be someplace firm and soft, nurturing yet stimulating, a place that emboldens us to meet the challenges we fear. For some of us, this place also includes a plush couch and a warm throw.
If last summer was the season of shoulder, this summer was the season of the glute. Each year, I learn more about how the human body functions via injury and physical therapy, so when it was time, once again, for PT in June, thus began the summer of 2014.
Like a team of sled dogs on meth, it seems my enthusiastic hamstrings have been first to volunteer for tasks that other muscles –larger muscles– should have done over the years. Hearty little things, it took four decades before I burned one out, but they should have known better. What were they thinking taking on the work of my glutes who rested back like regal pillows all these years?
My hams worked so diligently, so quietly, that I never noticed, only enjoyed the forward propulsion they provided. The poor dears were martyrs, really, suffering in silence yet begrudging every request I made. Oh, she wants to walk faster now? We’ll show her! A half marathon? Fine! Swimming?! You know, no one else down here is lifting a fiber, but if she wants power, we’ll give it to her! We’re struggling, but don’t mind us!
Even if my hamstrings had raised an early alarm, I probably would have powered through any twinges that limited my exercise. Aches are something to be worked through, strengthened. We’re accustomed to a certain baseline of fitness, after all, which we imagine will be ours always; it’s surprising when our bodies change, since they do so gradually. Our minds resist altering long-held expectations of health and fitness (or even lack thereof) because we believe we’re the same today as we were ten, twenty, thirty years ago.
And so, an ache arose this spring that I couldn’t quite place. For months, I treated it with massage, thinking it was a pulled muscle, but the pain increased to an unbearable state. I couldn’t move my leg, let alone squat to pick something up or even get out of bed, without discomfort. After all was revealed –acute hamstring tendonitis– my glutes, who should have been doing more work, and I had it out. You’re the biggest muscle in the body and you just laid there? This whole time I thought we were working together, but you were faking?!
During the first session, my PT asked me to fire one glute muscle by itself, but it just sat there in its sweat pants licking the potato chip grease from its fingers. I turned to gaze back at it, but it shrugged and took a nap. “Normal people can do this?” I asked, willing each cheek to move independently without calling on any other muscles. She nodded, gravely. “We have some work to do.”
How could this be? After all the squats, stairs, walking uphill… how could I have been so deceived? All this time, it was my hamstrings taking the brunt of the load while my lazy glutes fanned themselves and ate bon-bons? They had been hiding back there all this time like stowaways in the trunk, knowing that I wouldn’t go looking unless I was quite determined to find them — and that, as it turns out, would take years.
Rehabbing this part of my body made me think about all the things that we subconsciously turn off or buffer in our lives. We grow calluses and blisters in response to friction and pain, but they don’t cease the mortification to our bodies, just insulate us as we solider on. We grow cynical or emotionally distant in the face of break-ups, finances or losing loved ones, but that doesn’t stop the challenges from coming or help us meet them as they pile up. As embodied beings, our instinctual response to stress is to shrink, harden or redistribute effort in the hopes of avoiding suffering. We trick ourselves into believing that we’ve conquered challenges or that they’ve gone away when what we’re really doing is avoiding and deferring pain.
This is the most true of stress. We power through a tough work week then go to yoga only realize that we’re strung tighter than guitar wire, hunched over and mentally frazzled. We’ve told ourselves a story that we’re fit and resilient; instead, we’re burning through our physical and mental resources because we’re too numb to realize what’s happening. We’ve shut off our awareness to our own bodies. Then, one day, something small occurs and the house of cards falls under a light breeze. Stunned, we wonder why.
The human body is both highly intelligent and quite lazy. It strives for efficiency, so we must constantly challenge it in new ways, otherwise it adapts and relaxes under routine demands. Rather than calling upon every muscle to collaborate on a task, it learns to draw upon the few most willing and easily accessible to carry the load while the others rest. This was the year that my hamstrings were bucking for best actress, best supporting actress, best screenplay and best director at the same time my glutes took a sabbatical. Rather than becoming more fit from all my (ahem, over) training, I had unwitting created a cause for injury.
The cure? My glutes had to attend summer school. Everyone else was splashing at the pool while they stayed inside doing clamshell extensions, Romanian deadlifts, bound squats and bridge poses so that I could understand what it felt like when they were actually working. When a sensation has been absent long enough, or never there, it’s like discovering a new part of your body. As hikes and long walks resurfaced in my exercise regime, I found I wasn’t able to move as quickly as I did when powered by the fan boats that were my hamstrings, but I did move more steadily. My entire body felt more engaged; I could even sense the connection from my big toes all the way into my deep core muscles. This ability to not just look but feel these relationships body allowed me to explore my body’s function and sense its weaknesses more deeply.
As atrophied as my glutes were, my core was as well. It was deceiving how many stability-based yoga poses I could execute yet, when asked to do something different, like lower both heels to the floor in boat pose, I had almost no strength. I had to face how hidden, weak and unused much of my core was, even after decades of exercise. So often we call upon our extremities to do much of the work –they’re accessible and willing– that it’s easy to forget the very center of our beings, which is where real power, poise and health come from.
Our cores are so much more than muscles, though. They contain the central column of energy that weaves together our mental, physical and emotional systems. Our souls, or whatever you may call the forces that animate us, thrive deep within the center of these three. Think of someone you really love and you feel a warm, effervescent glow inside. When you press their body to yours –you hug your child, your lover, your dog– you can feel the same elixir stirring in them. Our cores are made to recognize and respond to each other, but when they are damaged, we shield them from the world, and even from ourselves.
With the deaths of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of comedy as it relates to our cores and how we view ourselves. After news of Williams’ passing, I listened to several interviews that touched on his struggle with addiction. I suppose I knew or heard about this over the years, but in comparison with his larger-than-life talent, it seemed like a footnote, or at least, predictable for someone in the entertainment business and thus, regrettably dismissible. He struggled, he conquered, he moved on.
But he didn’t. This is the lie we tell ourselves. Listen to him here, gracious and wildly funny as always, but beneath the quips, he’s tired. There’s something happening beneath the surface of his words that he’s not acknowledging, and neither do we; it’s enough for us to absorb the richness of his thoughts and wry perspective.
This interview made me question how I wrestle with challenges in my own life. How often do I cover over pain with jokes that cushion whatever tender spot has come up? Humor doesn’t make the root cause of the pain go away, but everyone feels good for a minute, including me, laughing at my lazy glutes or what a bad swimmer I am. When I want to distract someone from asking about what’s really going on with me, I’ll get us both laughing until we move onto the next task. As with physical injury, I don’t pause for a rest or to really consider where it came from and how to heal it; there isn’t time, and so I move on.
The key to comedy is self-deprication, and Robin Williams knew this deeply. Similar to memoir, if you want to be a successful comic, you must throw yourself under the bus first — then you peel yourself off the asphalt, poke yourself in the eye, drop a hammer on your foot and do it again. Few have achieved this as masterfully as Williams or Joan Rivers. It took her death to remind me that she went deeper into her core than most comedians do, poking at tender places to bring joy to others. She made fun of her own looks, her physique, her femininity, menopause–anything and everything to connect with her audience, especially women.
There are blue comics and then there is Joan Rivers, real as you want to get, banned from The Tonight Show for 26 years. By the time I was coming of age in the 80s, I knew her more for her fashion commentary than the performances she gave in the 60s and 70s (there was no You Tube back then, kids.) As I did just weeks before when Williams died, I took time to watch some of her clips to remind myself of what the world lost.
Recorded in 1967 on the Ed Sullivan Show, the first clip was stunningly relevant to life today, 47 years later. What struck me was not how depressing it is that dating, especially from the female perspective, has changed so little from the 1960s, but how well-pointed Rivers’ humor about it was and is. Her comments speak to an existential struggle related to the value of women in our society — a struggle that is little more resolved since then. Yet, it’s possible to listen to Joan Rivers and know that we are not alone, that someone else is paying attention; she sheds light on what many women experience. The power of her comedy comes from a central place of strength, offering not just laughter but connection.
Nothing with Joan was taboo. Over her career, she flogged every part of her body, her looks, her lifestyle, her intelligence. Similarly to Williams, she did this by accessing places that are often hidden or weak, places we are loathe to explore. Yet, she was able to turn on her emotional core muscles and make them work hard, work together. She offered up herself as sacrifice, not from a means of distraction or displaced shame, but strength.
Without a mother or grandmother to turn to as I get older, I often find myself searching for mentors of their ilk as I age. When I watch reels of Joan and her daughter, Melissa, I see something extraordinary happen between them, the kind of spark I imagine that I would have with my mother if she were still alive. They share a tenderness and sharp honesty that goes beyond a familial bond. It’s a master and her apprentice at work, the former encouraging the latter to follow in the honored tradition of the craft while making it her own using her own unique strengths. This is something missing in my own life, I realize: a safe place to test theories of how our bodies work and what happens to them over time, which is distinct between genders. I’m beginning to understand why women form coteries as they age, if only to discuss –and freely laugh about– such things in the closed company of those who can empathize.
Watch how she engages the audience on the show that got her banned, praising women as she abases herself. We trust her because she acutely pursues her own flaws, yet she uses the harsh light of her reflection to encourage us to go easier on ourselves and each other. No one –not our coaches or even our detractors– is ever as hard on us as we are on ourselves. We cover over what feels ugly and weak with the facade of material success, camouflaging ourselves with careers or spouses, community stature or finances, even our looks, to obscure our hidden weaknesses. They fade deep inside but don’t go away; we forget they’re there until we’re called upon to address them, often at the point of injury.
I feel blessed to have witnessed and learned from Rivers and Williams, who brought so much of themselves into their work. While I enjoy an occasional lampoon where people talk from their butts or throw wrenches at someone’s head, there is no substitute for the deep and true humor that these two masters gifted us with. They made careers of reaching into dark places that are inaccessible to most of us on a given day, sporting the wisdom and fortitude to examine what they discovered and the nerve to share what they found. All this for the purpose of tickling that same spot deep inside us and, I do believe, assuring us that we are not alone.
Every time they made us laugh, they helped us see that someone could know and understand all of the things we hold inside — and still love us anyway. The ride always felt perilous because their observations were so dead-on, but we kept coming back because it was based in truth. Especially with Williams, who could get at the soul through surprising channels of insight, I always felt like I needed a seat belt. His gentle personality is what made his humor that much more powerful. Audiences trusted him to take them to the brink of discomfort because they knew he wouldn’t abandon them there.
As summer comes to a close and my physical form continues to organize itself beyond the bounds of anything I can control or predict, my approach is to listen more than I ever have. I’m meeting a new version of myself in the body I have today; it’s not bad, just different. From my head and heart to my deep core, I’m capable of much more than I ever thought or tried to do before. The knowledge of one’s potential only comes with time, I think.
Upon releasing me from treatment, my PT underlined the importance of allowing my body to rest, noting that this–not just physical training–is how to build strength. And so I’ll continue to seek the places inside that I have overlooked all these years and find ways of getting my parts to work together instead of apart, and I will make time for rest, maybe even an afternoon nap and, most especially, I’ll make a point to stop and laugh at it all.
Warning: this week’s blog post, a comedic romp into the realm of the sadly under-utilized gluteous maximus muscle, is now interrupted by thoughts of a more serious nature. If you tuned in for laughs, check back in a week or two. The bit that I’m prepared to write on the modern American rump is going to be killer.
And now for something completely different.
A couple of weeks ago, I read Zeroing in on the Female Traveler in The New York Times. On the surface, it was a breezy report of the latest trend –packages marketed to solo female travelers– but the messages lurking underneath made my hackles burst into flames. Since The New York Times decided not to publish my op-ed in reaction to that article, I thought I’d share a few thoughts here. I’d love to hear your comments and reactions as well.
To start, the article reports on Womanhood Redefined, a campaign by the Westin New York Grand Central described as a “personal journey with a rejuvenating getaway” intended for female travelers like me, a childless woman traveling alone. From $234 a night, the package includes dietary and exercise consultation, discounted yoga, a white tea candle and a copy of Melanie Notkin’s book, “Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness,” which inspired the package. (Other packages like this are now popping up elsewhere.)
There was something about that white tea candle that sent me over the edge. Must vacations for women consist of the same relentless self-improvement and zen-seeking that litters our daily lives? And, if women like me are truly other, how will sequestering ourselves and burning candles help us discover new territory? Maureen O’Brien, director of sales and marketing for the Westin, comments that everybody knows “somebody that we love or care about that this book speaks to,” as if we others are intrinsically broken, damaged and unhappy—in need of reconditioning. She might have ended the sentence with, “Bless their hearts.”
I should note here that the first time I traveled alone was eight years ago. My friends were busy starting families, and there was no telling when I’d find a companion, so off I went. I wanted to see the world and realized that if I waited for the right guy (or any guy) I would miss out on a lot of living. This sounds brave, but this doesn’t mean that I was necessarily comfortable with traveling alone. Newly divorced, I was still getting used to eating and even grocery shopping alone; looking back, this was a good struggle. I’m glad that no one convinced me that I’d channel my inner Special Lady by staying at the Westin, because I would have missed the point of getting out there in the first place.
After reading this article, I realized that I’ve been taught to fear being alone all my life. (Hence, setting my couch aflame with the fire of a thousands suns.) From childhood to college and marriage, I had never lived alone. When I was first divorced, I felt self-conscious about embodying the stereotype of a divorced woman even though, deep down, I was having fun. Still, at the grocery store, I found myself putting thoughts into the check-out lady’s head, That poor, single gal shopping for one… when all she was thinking about was the end of her shift. And, more importantly, I had nothing to be ashamed of.
Our lives are populated by both implicit and explicit messages that suggest women should not be alone. From mothers who raised us on constant rapist alert to well-intentioned friends fixing us up with any and every single man they know to the news media and entertainment industry who bombard us with cautionary statistics that make terrorist encounters seem like a viable, and perhaps the only way, to meet guys, the message is:
Alone is failure, alone is dangerous and alone is other. Don’t let this happen to you.
For every campaign that encourages women to shelter up in a posh hotel or believe that candles, exercise and diet is the way to redefine womanhood—or that women need redefining in the first place—we’re taking a step backward. Women don’t need to be saved. We don’t need to be meditated into compliance. These messages are elusive and therefore dangerous; they’re so commonplace, we don’t think to question them — they simply are. They convince both men and women alike that women are in constant need of fixing, tending and protecting.
Why was I afraid to travel, eat and shop alone at age 32? Why was I loathe to be singled out as single in public? Because a lifetime of messages reinforced the idea that my so-called otherness made me a target.
First, we must stop relegating single and childless women into a separate caste. (I hate to even write the word ‘childless’ as if this somehow means that’s we’re lacking, but what other word is there, child-free?) Point being, when half of females of child-bearing age today are actually childless, as the article states, we are no longer other. Yet, there is more.
As women, if we cannot see when we’re pulling the wool over our own eyes, who will? The article’s veneer of empowerment (“I love that people in the industry are thinking about the idea that we’re not all families and couples,” says Bella DePaulo) ignores the suggestion that follows: women travelers should be considering “female-only floors, mother-daughter escapes, and shopping vacations.” Campaigns like this reinforce the notion that women are only safe with other women, and that our interests are limited to shopping, weight loss and pampering. They replace our curiosity and resourcefulness with terry cloth robes and calorie counters.
After many solo trips, traveling alone has become a sanctuary for me. It provides time for reflection and independence, but it also lets me listen to everything that’s happening around me. When given the opportunity to close my mouth and open my mind, I become more aware of the world. Getting lost in a new city, something the old me was once afraid of, has actually helped me find myself anew. Traveling alone has sparked my fascination with the world; my solo adventures have deeply inspired my creative process and expression, launching this blog, a book of essays and a winning travel writing submission.
At a time when young women are kidnapped and brutalized for seeking education and enlightenment, we cannot let even trite campaigns like Womanhood Redefined go unchallenged. They contribute to a landslide that we’re perpetually digging out from, one that proves that the world is too dangerous for women to roam free. We must be present in numbers. We must dare to be visible, and we must encourage others to do the same. No matter how hard-won our self-reliance is, it must be fed with constant positive vigilance.
For every women who is afraid to travel on her own, our world grows smaller; our art and culture suffer. For every woman who hesitates to live on her own terms, fearing that she will be ostracized or penalized for her choices, we lose the freedom that generations fought for. We should not apologize for having children or not, for marrying or not, for being alone—or not.
Womanhood Redefined seems like a small thing to kvetch about, and maybe it is, but it’s one tile amongst many that make a giant mosaic. All women, regardless of marital or family status, must demand more than spa packages as a means of defining and understanding themselves. More than that, we need to shout, Hell no! when shit like this comes our way; we shouldn’t let it slide. When I tweeted my indignation about the concept of otherhood, namely a protest at how the travel marketing industry was going to profit from selling women the illusion of self-discovery, the author of Otherhood immediately defended her work. At first, I wondered if I had been too hot-headed and reactionary, then a fellow Tweep pointed out how many like-spirited comments the article had received.
Every trip doesn’t need to be a episode of Survivor or The Amazing Race (hell, I like to chill by the beach as much as the next person), but I do believe that we should seek to leave our comfort zones, at least a little, whenever we travel. We should model the way for others as much as ourselves; it pays off, but this stuff takes effort. We can’t sit back and let others figure everything out for us, including the way we rediscover or refine our definitions of womanhood, self-worth and humanity.
In the end, I believe that travel is our solitary hope as a species, for only when the foreign becomes less strange can we truly develop empathy. Sequestering ourselves in hotels, fretting about body fat does nothing for our minds or our compassion, let alone our self-esteem. We must challenge and encourage each other to risk meeting people where they’re at, whether it’s Nashville or Nairobi. We can’t wait. We must do it now, even if it means going it alone for a time.
Finally, to that end, we can not afford to consider anyone as other anymore. This goes for men and women, East Texas and the Middle East, it goes for the town of Ferguson and wherever you’re reading this. We must be united as a people.
It will take each of us speaking up, loudly, no matter who boos, hisses or tweets in response. We will surely encounter rooms where giving voice to these ideas isn’t popular (especially since so many of us should be at home being domestic.) It will take time and courage. It will be frightening, even. Like traveling alone, we cannot let our apprehension hold us back from experiencing and fighting for the world and our place in it. Let’s say it together: we are not other, and when we are not other, we are also not alone.
Until this happens, I’ll light a white tea candle and hope for change. Funny, I always seem to have extras.
With regard to weathering change, I’ve received more advice in the past few weeks than ever before. Major life shifts –birthdays that end in zero, moving households, entering or leaving significant relationships– invite these pearls from friends who hope to save us a little pain. This advice-giving is part of a human tradition that links us as a species and keeps us alive from generation to generation. The admonitions may change over the centuries, but the legacy of knowledge is meant to help us flourish and perpetuate. It can also soften us. Even the most crusty creature can summon a hardship he or she faced and, from that, offer a balm to ease the discomfort of transition for others.
Yet, we share the stories of our battle scars (and wrinkles) knowing that we can’t truly alleviate someone else’s pain. It’s a necessary result from surviving rites of passage, which are essentially circumstances that we are unprepared for: our spouse leaves us, we begin a new job, we move to a new city, we age, we start families, a car sideswipes us as we bicycle home, we face serious illness. It’s not only how we get through these periods of acute change or adversity that’s important; it’s the way we learn to recover and ultimately how we adapt our lives thereafter based on what we learned.
How we cope with change is, in a sense, more critical to our wellness than simply surviving it, for it paves the path of the future. We can opt to ignore or deny it; we can choose to power through it without pausing to open ourselves to sensation. None of these dissolves the pain, nor do they cure the affliction, but instead shroud it in obscurity and thus perpetuate it.
A week past my fortieth birthday, my burgeoning sack of life wisdom runneth over. Add to that the stress of moving and combining households, which comes with deeply systemic life interruption. Each daily pattern that once was, from bus routes and exercise to shopping, dining and sleeping is different and, on some level, uncomfortable. When I mentioned this to a friend, bemoaning my inability to sleep due to unforeseen airplane and environmental noise that come with my new apartment, she offered the notion that adjustment to any major life change requires 1,000 days. The first year is simply finding one’s way, she explained, the second, you start getting into the groove, the third, you know the terrain instinctively.
Three years?! It rings true to a degree, but counting down time is something I try not to do anymore; it makes long periods seem unbearably longer and robs the short ones of their magic. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep, but I can’t see toiling with my current challenges for that long, even though I know that things change minute by minute in imperceptibly small ways, even when it seems like they don’t.
Eventually, my body will adapt to the thundering airplanes above and the lapping fountain below. I’ll sleep through the night without fans or white noise or the collection of earplugs that currently litters my nightstand. I’ll find a means of exercising without going to a gym, as I have for the last eight years. I’ll adjust my transit schedule and extracurricular activities to accommodate work and living with another human being. I’ll learn to share my space until I no longer identify things as mine or yours. I will not notice when a sense of familiarity or comfort descends around any of these behaviors; instead, one day, one by one they’ll feel better, good, maybe even great. Of course, by then, other departures will be underway.
How any of us moves through change –the way we incorporate coping mechanisms into habit– dictates the quality of our life experience. We will either incorporate patterns that work, or we will inhabit our lives with circumstances that are ultimately distasteful, even as we insist on wanting harmony. While the disposition we bring is entirely up to us –circumstances by themselves are inert, it’s our human mind that assigns them values of good or bad– I would assert that humans subconsciously attract disruption and chaos simply because we’re comfortable with and even addicted to pain, especially the unexamined kind. Stepping back to understand change and how it affects us is key to adaptation — the very gift our friends offer when they share their perspective on everything from love and career to turning forty. These may not be universal truths, but they offer newfound perspectives for consideration.
This is where Bonnie’s 1,000 days comes in, which to me is more about allotting oneself the time to understand change and examine one’s response and adaptation to that change, measure by measure. If I were to extoll advice to someone else right now, it would be the importance of stopping for a few minutes every day –really stopping, no lists, no computers, no tasks, no music or TV– to consider how precious these periods of monumental change really are. 1,000 days. If we knew we’d only get a few of these periods in a lifetime, would we change the choices we make in the small minutes that comprise them, which slip by unnoticed?
My birthday came and went without much observation on my part, so frenzied was I about putting my life on a cross-town truck. I only paused that evening at dinner with friends to consider the threshold I am passing through…and then I moved on to climbing the next mountain. My new wisdom asks that I adapt my behavior: I will stop being too busy to actively participate in my own life.
Today was the first day of the week-long Tin House Summer Writers Workshop in Portland during which a couple hundred writers from across the nation will engage in lectures and interactive sessions where we will share advice and critique with one another. I have a choice: I can breeze through this week as I have been, eyes already on the next task, or I can focus my participation. Each day, I can make a point to appreciate this experience, knowing that it’s once in a lifetime: I may return, but this particular cohort will never come together again. In these few precious minutes, about 10,000 of them, all of us will change constantly and rapidly as writers and as people.
To that end, I can finally share with you the short story that brought me here. (It was the writing sample that accompanied my Tin House application.) Told through the lens of an Gen-X female, my story, “Pas de Deux” was inspired by generational workplace struggles that I witnessed. The main character’s refusal to relinquish the fleeting promise of youth for the role of mentorship is something that many of us are unprepared for; we fear letting go who we were for the [older] people we’ve become, and so cling to our former identities — in some cases vehemently.
“Pas de Deux” was accepted by New Lit Salon Press to an anthology called Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness, a collection that examines intersecting issues that affect the mental health of women, from physicality and sexuality to race, class and motherhood. Filled with spine-tingling tales of women breaking down boundaries that society insists we shouldn’t, the anthology speaks to gender dynamics that are starting to mean more to me than they ever have now that I’m of a certain age.
Because women generally refrain from physical confrontation, our warfare plays out through social manipulation and passive-aggressive behavior. This story wipes the slate clean, granting the central character all the aggressions she might care to exercise, and more. I can’t say that it ends well for anyone, but the choices these characters made have helped me look with new eyes on certain challenges in my own life, and I hope that they help others do the same.
In the end, the question of how we traverse and emerge from change, crossing the threshold from our past selves to the present, is the question of how we want to live. Is it only a choice between conquering or being conquered, sinking or swimming, leaning in or giving up, or is there a third, more elusive option —growth and progression— if we’re patient enough to discover it?
If you’re interested in reading “Pas de Deux” and other fine tales of madness, you can purchase Behind the Yellow Wallpaper in print and digital editions. It might make you think twice the next time you believe you know someone… including yourself.
While it’s been many years since I’ve shared the cost of rent with someone, this isn’t to say that I haven’t lived with other people.
Years ago, after my ex-husband and I separated, I rented a condo in downtown Seattle, thrilled with the prospect of re-discovering city life. The architect who designed the building, a crusty old gent known for his stylish spectacles as much as his cantankerous wit, referred to my new abode as “one of the bread-and-butter units.” (He still resides in the penthouse today.) He croaked this observation before sweeping out for dinner with his wife, leaving me agape and blinking at the community mailboxes, unsure whether I should be insulted since the condo wasn’t actually mine.
Like all of the multi-family buildings I’ve lived in, we tenants didn’t interact much, at least not directly. The guy below me, whose third-floor unit had an expansive private outdoor space, loved to host parties during the crystal blue summer months, blasting Madonna til two in the morning while his guests guzzled Cosmopolitans. (Sex and the City was still big back then.) Instead of knocking on his door in my jammies, I called to concierge to ask him to quiet down.
Over many sleepless summer months, I grew to despise my fun-loving neighbor, though I didn’t even know his name. At that time in my life, I probably would have enjoyed his shindigs if he had invited me, but instead, I continued to call the concierge every time he partied past midnight. Instead of a relationship, we lived in a kind of denial that either of us existed. He didn’t think that he was disturbing anyone, and I would listen while he informed his disappointed guests that they had to tone it down, as if the edict came from someone else because, technically, it did.
After a few years in gritty Belltown, the economy took a downturn, and my employer cut our salaries. Twice. I broke up with my then-boyfriend. Twice. I was feeling thin in all sorts of ways –spiritually, economically– so I decided to move into a classic brick building (read: more affordable than a condo tower) on the south-facing slope of Queen Anne. So much for the bread-and-butter life.
It turns out that this beautifully restored apartment was exactly what I needed. It was too small to host the gatherings that my condo held, and there was no balcony or view save for the peek-a-boo of the top of the Space Needle from my living room, but it was peaceful and dignified. More than that, it was really, truly mine. During my tenure, I’ve rarely entertained, save for one or two friends or the occasional date, none of which lasted into the throes of boyfriend-dom and the requisite detritus that comes with having a man squatting part-time in one’s apartment. If I was at home, I was generally alone, and it was exactly what I needed.
My one-bedroom aerie was also perfect for writing, which I began to do quite a lot of after I moved in. With the sun streaming through the wood-framed windows on Sunday mornings, church bells pealing in the blissfully silent air, I put my feet up on the ottoman and formed a weekend ritual that has fueled this blog, and many other pieces of writing, for the last five years.
That is, until he moved in. Our tumultuous relationship began as many do, born of misconceptions, pride and a twist of fate that brought us together on a stormy November evening last year.
I had been through many neighbors by then, both above and below, all of whom stayed about a year. By sound alone, I came to learn their habits, hobbies and relationships over the last five years, thanks to the thin ceiling and floor membranes that comprise this 1930s building. There was the couple who had a baby shortly after I moved in; for months, all four of us woke in the dark for 2 a.m. feedings. There was the Seattle Pacific University student who hailed from eastern Washington, joined on weekends by her Spokane-based boyfriend who came to argue and make love with her in alternating shifts. Most recently, a diminutive thirty-something techie lived above me; meek and shy, he fancied playing electric guitar occasionally in the evenings and on weekends, about the same times I liked to write.
I drew upon my network of musician friends, all of whom independently agreed that I should ask him to plug into headphones during his practice. When I did, he thought for moment as I shifted uncomfortably on the other side of his door. “I’ll turn it down, no problem, but I don’t like headphones. The sound isn’t right.” He paused. “Maybe you can just come tell me when it’s too loud.”
His offer was not acceptable, but what could I do? He was always pleasant and responded immediately to my requests. Defeated, I shuffled downstairs to my apartment and rested back against the tall wooden door of my unit. Begrudgingly, I noted that he had turned down the speaker volume; in fact, I could barely hear him playing. It was almost pleasant, except that I could hear it, thin as ghost music, and the very fact that I could hear it was irritating. I flounced onto my couch with a frown, drawing my warm laptop on top of my thighs, the notes of his guitar distracting me like sirens through the single-pane windows. I said out loud to no one, “But I don’t want to have a relationship with you.”
Wasn’t that it? I didn’t want to tell anyone what I needed, especially if it meant admitting displeasure or asking for something that could be declined. It was easier to be independent, to rely only on myself to make or cease things from happening. I didn’t want a relationship with my upstairs neighbor or anyone else, not really. Wasn’t that why I was alone in this otherwise quiet space where no one asked or was invited to visit? He was disturbing the pact that I had unknowingly created by settling down with Peace and Quiet once and for all, ready to live happily ever after — alone. While I went out almost every night with friends for drinks and dinner, or to shows and art openings, when it came time to leave, I secretly loved coming home to absolutely no one.
My sequestered private life was, of course, in diametric opposition to my oft-advertised and seemingly earnest search for love. Over the years, I went on many dates, some of them bad or at least memorably uncomfortable, which fueled my get-togethers with florid stories of the horrifyingly ridiculous man-creatures I met both online and in person. With enough knee-slapping stories to fill a chapbook, it’s no wonder I didn’t find love. I wasn’t really looking for it, and if it had found me, I wouldn’t have been able to ask for what I needed anyway. While I hate to assign him too much credit, my new upstairs neighbor has had a hand in changing this.
The weekend before I was to leave for Austin to visit friends at Thanksgiving, I spied several young men gathered around a moving truck in the back parking lot. The dull pounding of dropped boxes and hard-soled-shoe-wearing twenty-somethings clodding on the wooden floors above heralded the departure of my reasonable, guitar-playing neighbor. It was then I realized that, other than the notes from his guitar, I had never actually heard him or his girlfriend inhabiting the space above. I suddenly regretted my vitriol-infused tweet strings about him that began, Dear Neighbor… He might not have been reading or heeding them, but the universe had, and it was going to afford me with a new perspective.
Impossibly loud noises –heavy thunks, galumphing steps– rained down from above until midnight. It was Sunday and I had to wake up at five for the gym, followed by work. This whippersnapper was going to learn a lesson, and I was going to teach it to him. I zipped up my sweatshirt and flew upstairs, fueled by righteous indignation. When I rapped on his door, expecting to cow a college boy into respectful submission, I was greeted by a fifty-something man who appeared intoxicated. When I tried to explain in an apologetic, tit-mouse voice that he was keeping me awake, he suggested it was the locksmith who had been there earlier.
“Well, actually… I heard you just now… You know, this is an old building, so sound travels. If you take your shoes off inside, it might help a lot.”
“I’m not wearing shoes,” he said, folding his arms over his chest.
We stood there for a moment silently, facing each other like two gunslingers, he in his stained T-shirt and boxes strewn down the hallway, me in my wonderment of how this arrangement was going to work. The next night, drunken and cavorting with what looked like a barely legal girl at two a.m., my query would be sealed with an answer: it wasn’t going to work. After being asked to quiet down, he threw a fit, slamming the door and absconding with his nymphette down the staircase, which ran along the north side of my unit. “No f’n bitch is gonna tell me what to do!” he boomed, his voice echoing off the walls. “I pay thirteen hundred god-damned dollars a month in rent – no bitch is going to tell me what I can do in my place!”
After another late-night incident a week later, which left me curled up in bed, heart racing with anxiety, I notified the landlady. Our building does not have an after-hours monitoring service, and there was no way I was going up there to talk with him again. Ever. She promised to speak with my new neighbor, which prompted him to leave an ugly flower basket on my doormat one afternoon. It was the kind that men with no taste buy for women they don’t know. The card was addressed: “To Better Future Encounters.” Inside, he wrote, I will do my best, within reason, to accommodate you. My intentions are good.
In the seven months since, his words have proven untrue. It is even more ironic that these words were written by an English teacher who works at a private Seattle school. An English teacher?! As a writer who holds her own English teachers in the highest regard, my neighbor feels like an insult to the profession. That, plus the fact that he regularly smokes pot and gets drunk with young people who can only be former (and hopefully not current) students, adds further insult to the archetype of the Insightful, Caring, Sensitive English Teacher Who Can Be Trusted. On the other hand, how many literary men and women have drinking and substance abuse problems? Maybe his behavior isn’t so surprising or far out there as it is incredibly annoying to put up with.
Thankfully, I won’t have to bear it much longer.
My upstairs neighbor isn’t the only reason I’m moving, but his never-ending blunderbuss did wake me up to a few things. The regular panic I began to experience at hearing his booming voice from above brought me back to my childhood. I realized that, in the face of angry confrontation, I was still thinking and acting like a vulnerable child when, in fact, I am not. I didn’t have to be scared into silent acceptance anymore. I began calling my landlady in the wee hours when he kept me up. After a period of halting improvement followed by relapse, I wrote a formal letter addressing the round-the-clock noise problem. As soon as I began to stand up for myself, at least in my own eyes, I stopped having anxiety attacks at the sound of his thudding feet.
And, when it became clear that my landlady was delivering lip-service rather than actual assistance, I took matters into my own hands and decided to move. It was satisfying to hear her sputter apologies when she received my termination notice, pointing out what a good tenant I had been all these years. “I should have served him with a ten-day notice long ago,” she lamented.
I murmured my agreement and feigned regret, assuring her that there was no way that I could stay, as I had already put down a deposit on a fabulous new place with an in-unit washer/dryer to boot (“But we have a top-floor unit coming available… I guess I should have told you that last month…”) The truth is, I am ready to leave. Nothing she could have promised or said would have changed my mind.
In my complaint letter, I cited the fact that I can even hear my upstairs neighbor urinating, he does it so loudly, not to mention the fact that his tromping footsteps wake me up almost every night and make it generally impossible for me to exercise the quiet enjoyment of my space. In disrupting my sanctuary, the lughead gave me a reason to face and voice what was hurting me, and from that, I was driven to communicate what I needed to others, and ultimately, myself.
However distasteful and thoughtless, we sometimes need these catalysts in life, especially in the face of immense changes like moving… and turning forty. An expensive transition lies ahead this week, but one that I have been building up to, yet not ready to exercise until now. My very private and [mostly] serene apartment was meant to heal me, a Fortress of Solitude where I could quietly pen my memoirs as I figured things out. Subconsciously, I chose it because it reminded me of the cliff houses in the Cinque Terre; halfway up the steep incline of Queen Anne hill, it was protected and remote, two words that describe my lifestyle over the past decade, despite my sanguine personality. It catered to my hidden desire to get away from it all, from everyone.
As I approach my fortieth birthday, my friends continue to assure me that I will come into myself, feel more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have, and I believe them. For me, the past decade has been about piecing together things that were rendered asunder for most of my life — the kind of stuff that a person does by herself in an apartment like this. From what I sense about the coming decade, more light and space are necessary; this new decade of growth is not done alone in the dark but in partnership and with witnesses.
I cannot help but chuckle (and rankle, just a bit), as my upstairs neighbor thuds back and forth across my ceiling like Frankenstein as I write this post. The sun is shining through my living room window, and he’s blabbing so loud I can almost make out the words as he paces back and forth. Then, his voice quiets uncharacteristically and the disturbance shifts into rhythmic thuds and bedspring squeaks that can mean only one thing: it’s definitely time to move.
With only a week left here, my hallway is starting to become full of boxes, just as his was when he moved in. I’d like to think that, even in my transition, I won’t disturb the woman who lives below me, who I’ve never met, who has never come upstairs to ask me to be quiet. She and I are strangers, as most of my fellow tenants are, all of us together pretending that we are living alone.
That premise won’t characterize my life for much longer. The other twist to the new home awaiting me is that I’ve decided to share it with my main squeeze. The timing of his career and life circumstances came together with mine as unexpectedly as our relationship, and everything that we’ve both learned from each other in the last year. I’ve concluded that, as with all major boons, you must to be willing to enter the contest, present to win and open to accepting the gift when it comes along, which is often not at a time of your planning or preparedness. That’s why I simply said yes and continue to be surprised at how not-terrifying it is to pass through this great window of change, which once seemed gargantuan and impossible to navigate.
In the end, it’s not my bonehead upstairs neighbor who I credit for spurring me into action, but the universal forces that brought him into my life. They provided the circumstances for me to realize that it’s time to go, that there’s another life waiting for me — a relationship that I am, after all this time, finally ready to engage in. Mere days away, our new life is located on the top floor of a brand-new building that faces onto a green courtyard with a fountain. We’ll have a private balcony and even a rooftop terrace where a group of friends can come gather, outside, together, all of us collectively at once in the light.
Him: We have to ask ourselves at a certain point in life if the goal isn’t how far we can push the threshold but actually how little we can do to create health.
Me: [Blank stare] Doc, this goes against my entire life philosophy.
Him: [Chuckles] Maybe that’s why you’re here.
The missing part of my exchange with an orthopedic surgeon is why I was at the sports medicine clinic to begin with –acute hamstring tendonitis– but it could apply to anything. It wasn’t the first time I had received similar advice, words that describe the tremulous battlefront of my life: if X is good, isn’t 3X better?
Sometimes solicited, other times offered in a nickel’s worth of free counsel from medical professionals and mediums alike, people often encourage me to back off a bit. They are surprised at how much I can accomplish while at the same time asking if I might consider lifting my foot from the gas pedal, at least on downhill slopes. Given my level of obstinance at the time, I might listen, but not in a way that prevents the same advice from finding its way to me through another channel.
No rest leads to a head cold. A cold gives rise to pneumonia. A few extra minutes in the sun leads to a burn. Exercising six days a week, including evening swim on Tuesdays, creates thrumming-red tendons. Like my one-time fascination with Candy Crush Saga, I admit I have a problem. (I’m on level 92 now, in case you’re wondering, but my drive has withered.)
My awareness of this pattern began in my early twenties when an astrologer read my natal chart. We sat in her stuffy, low-ceilinged adobe office in Phoenix as she worked the astral circumstances of my birth like a complicated math problem. Finally, Mary Ann said, “You seem pretty conventional until I take this into account,” noting a particular planetary placement in the first house. “You like to surprise people, especially if it means upending their safe perception of you.” I shrugged, smiling. Who, me? Then she pointed to another sector and said, “And you go too far, and you do too much.” No one has said it better.
I’ve spent the decades since trying to comprehend why I’m driven to leverage every ounce of energy at my disposal. As the first person in my family to attend college, a lot was expected of me. Or maybe my innate desire to meet these expectations simply landed in the right body; I was genetically programmed to seek out and push at the edges. Inborn or conditioned, this habit has led to trouble on occasion, leaving me gravely ill, over-extended and stressed out. It’s also helped me create a nice life. Who’s to say that driving for the threshold isn’t a valid approach to existence when tempered with a measure of reason and –dare I say– a dash of restraint? That last part takes a surprising amount of will and perspective.
Who isn’t too busy or high-achieving these days? Our world rewards hard drivers and weekend warriors. Those of us caught up in the high-speed matrix see no other way to exist. We have forgotten uttering the words, “I’m bored” as children, which wasn’t so much a complaint, but a secret delight in doing nothing. As an adult, each Friday night, I write a list of all the things I’m going to do that weekend, and each Sunday night, I write my list for the week ahead. What would I do without these guiding documents — sit around and… be? I feel guilty, lazy and flabby just considering it.
In the space of two weeks in 2006, I sold my house, finalized a divorce, moved into a new place and started a new job. When life confers this much change on a person, what else is there to do but ride the wave? Abounding chaos buffered me through the storm of change, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Perhaps this is why Gwyneth Paltrow’s “conscious uncoupling” irritates me. Can’t she fast-forward through her divorce like the rest of us working women whom she claims to envy for our hyper-scheduled lives? (We’re so lucky to have nine-hour workdays, houses to clean ourselves and errands to run! How quaint.) What bugs is the indulgent manner –the slow-moving progression– with which she has afforded herself in approaching a major life event. Who has that kind of time, to stop and think, let alone feel? And what does it say about the life I’ve created that I would begrudge her that?
If I look hard enough at my own choices, I see that powering through relationships, or particularly, powering through their ending, is my coping mechanism. It’s a popular one, too: you break up with someone and find yourself with too much free time (is there really such a thing?), so you adopt new hobbies like yoga or guitar lessons. Over time, those habits remain, stacking atop each other. Last year, my bus driver confided that she began driving for Metro after a devastating break-up. In spite of her full-time job at Boeing, she had too much time in the mornings and evenings to think of her lost love, so she began picking up shifts. That was 20 years ago. She doesn’t drive for the money, per se, but to occupy every one of her waking moments, even today. She’s still single.
I could try to make some of my over-doing seem more reasonable by explaining that my abundant exercise has less to do with weight management than staving off the inheritance of my mother’s cancer. The cloud of terminal illness hanging over me means that I need little encouragement to go to the gym at 5:30 in the morning. When people commend me for what seems like a daunting feat, I smile and shrug the same way I did with my astrologer, resisting offers of a high-five. If cancer was nipping at your heels, and you sat at a desk for nine hours a day, you’d get your ass on the treadmill, too. The problem is, I’m overusing my hamstrings –for everything, actually– and I’m not letting them rest. I’m not letting any part of myself rest.
Still, in spite of everyone’s encouragement to relax and recuperate, there is limited time to do what we want. Slowing down, pausing, recharging — are these even options when our lives are finite? How many years –healthy years– do we have to explore the world? My mother died at 45; you never know. The angel on one shoulder argues with the devil on the other: what is the quality of my experiences when I rush from one thing to the next, prizing productivity without questioning what it feels like? Am I even there if I simply speed through every event? I think of Sandro, the tractor driver in Civita, who looked at me with horror as I swilled rather than enjoyed a cappuccino on my last day in town. He held up both hands and implored me to slow down: “Piano, piano! Tutto a posto!”
As a writer, I am tempted to despair at how long it took me to come back to writing. People far younger than me who weren’t distracted by non-writing careers have published more works than I have. (On the other hand, they tend to struggle with low income and lack of benefits, often living more frugally than I care to.) Quantity and fame are not the point, I know this; still, I feel like I’m playing catch-up, so I make up for it by working harder. With only a couple of hours in the day to write, I squeeze every creative moment I can from the ether, often borrowing against sleep. Don’t others do this with sports, dance, hiking… ikebana? Maybe not.
The hyper-organized part of me is both fed and made more hungry by my craft. I don’t just write, I keep an itemized calendar of submission dates for grants and literary magazines; I track my submissions and the pipeline of in-progress short stories, essays and poems. Any waking hour that is not spent at work, running errands, exercising or enjoying a meal with friends is spent in support of my writing life — grant applications, residency and fellowship submissions, calls for entry, this blog and, of course, writing and editing something almost every night.
In spite of this effort, much of which goes unseen, it’s hard not to compare myself to others whose success –and beautiful work– is publicly apparent. Roxane Gay, a contemporary writer, blogger, essayist and university professor, recently published An Untamed State, which she wrote in four months. She also has a memoir coming out this summer (Bad Feminist), she writes regularly for Salon and The Rumpus, and is co-editor of PANK, a literary magazine. On top of this, it’s likely that you can find new works from her each week, from book reviews and op-eds in The New York Times to an active social media presence.
I’m continually surprised at the high quality of her work, given the volume. (She admits that she doesn’t sleep much.) With role models like Roxane, whose craft seems to flourish under circumstances that might crush the creativity in others, I feel called to action. How can I justify taking a nap when Roxane (read: real writers, successful writers) would use the time to write rather than rest? Does this mean that I don’t want it as badly, am not dedicated or talented enough? Is anything I do –work, writing, relationships, travel, saving for retirement– ever enough?
When I started physical therapy two weeks ago, it was like someone turned on a magnet. Suddenly, a host of other demands came calling for my attention. After five years in the same apartment, I am moving (thank you, noisy upstairs neighbor), which comes with a long list of to-do’s. A friend urged me to consider applying for a public art project, so I added a quick-turnaround qualifications package to the mix. Leadership Tomorrow graduation and our final project deadlines are looming with our final presentation and report due next week. I received an artist grant from 4Culture for an installation that will [hopefully] come together in November. Did I mention this project involves writing 50,000 words in a month? (It’s a live performance related to National Novel Writing Month.) That means I need to prepare a novel outline, create character sketches, conduct research, find a venue — more applications, phone calls, materials research, written summaries. I’m also preparing for the week-long Tin House Writer’s Workshop in July, and writing and submitting a few essays and short fiction pieces to boot. And planning my 40th birthday party.
I could go on. My big take-away here (yet another list) is that I am embarrassed to reveal everything that I do when no one’s looking. (I could add SIFF movies, professional appointments, yoga class, a second installation project happening in 2015, full-time work… and still more…) Without realizing it, I’ve stacked my calendar for the next year; if I don’t remove my foot from the gas like my ailing body and scattered mind indicate I should, I will collapse from the load. As the doctor suggested, maybe there’s a reason I’ve found my way to physical therapy where I’m learning to start over, retraining my body, and perhaps my mind, bit by bit.
After four years away, it’s clear that I’ve lost the equanimity I established in Italy. There’s nothing like an Italian hilltown as a backdrop for reflection, rest and repose, no doubt, but there must be a way to hold onto that, at least in part, in day-to-day life. With the aid of highly ambitious friends and co-workers, I’ve convinced myself that I’ll sleep when I’m dead; yet, in exchange for my productivity, I am missing out on the rich and wonderfully detailed life that I could be enjoying rather than examining. Even when I read, a seemingly pleasurable activity, I’m secretly trying to analyze and learn from the author’s choices rather than wholly reading for entertainment. Deep down, I know that what I’m doing is not sustainable.
This brings me to my birthday resolutions. Each July, I make a list of what that I hope to accomplish in the new year, the length of which is based on my age. During the twelve months that follow, I delight in crossing off achievements one by one, reviewing the completed list the following July with pride. These lists are supposed to make me feel like I haven’t wasted my time on earth. They are also a habit that I’m going to discontinue at 40. My list will consist of a single question that I will ask no matter what I’m doing: Am I enjoying _____? Perhaps I’ll learn that it’s not so much about accomplishing many things, but engaging more deeply in the few things I do.
I will not evaluate the worth of activities based on their productivity. I will not plan for fun; I will simply have it. (If you don’t plan for it, you’ll never do it! Yes, I actually said this.) I will learn how to say no. I will not schedule activities every night of the week or back-to-back on weekends. I will not feel guilty when I blog only once a month. I will not treat my life as a master schedule whose every minute needs to be filled. I will not judge my commitment or ability to write based on the high proportion of publications that Roxane Gay, Zadie Smith or Junot Diaz rack up compared to mine.
My list of things for today is quite long. In fact, there are things I should or, rather, could be doing right now. Instead, I’ve decided that writing this post –or, more importantly, pausing to think through what it really means and practicing it– takes precedence. Not everything is going to get crossed off today, and I will learn to be okay with that. It’s a single, small choice, but a person has to start somewhere.
Within the pantheon of idyllic perfection looms a lofty figure, one who overshadows beloved English professors, high school football coaches and even Oprah: O Paragon of Grace and Beauty, thy name is Mother.
For those of us who have lost our mothers, Mother’s Day takes on a different meaning forever afterward. We learn to celebrate favorite aunts or grandmothers, female friends who have become mom-like, or perhaps we are the ones fêted by our children as we make our own families. Silently in the background, we pause to remember our own mothers, dreaming of what we might be doing with her if she were still alive.
This has been my experience for the last twenty-three years. On Monday, when everyone comes to work with stories of Mother’s Day, I’ll feel an echo of longing and a lack of tales to reciprocate. I will delight vicariously in my co-workers’ exchanges, predictably colored by festive brunches and family reunions, remembering what it felt like to bask in the love of my mother. Having a mom means that you’ve planted a flag in someone’s territory for life. It’s a hard habit to break.
Some will tell stories about tradition or small rituals they perform each year, like a family walk at Green Lake. I will envision them presenting bouquets of flowers and dining out at favorite restaurants, making memories over quiche. They will talk about visits to mom’s house in Leschi or Tacoma or Mount Vernon, or an afternoon at the assisted living facility because mom is unable to drive. Even in the latter cases, I will be happy-envious. In these stories, there is still a mother to be hugged and loved, even if her vitality is diminished.
When your mother dies at a young age, meaning that you are young as well, you naturally collect mother figures throughout your life, though the replacement roles are hazier. You don’t hold these women to the same standards, a phenomenon that goes both ways. While this means that you’ll never find someone who fills her shoes, it also means that you won’t judge them by the same rigorous standards and expectations that you held for your mother. No one can can replace the woman who raised you; in the same moment you complain about one thing, you’ll defend her because she is, after all, your mom. She wins at all contests, whether for the most loving or crazy or judgmental. Don’t try to convince someone that her mother isn’t 100% at the top of her game, no matter what it is.
If nothing else, we are creatures who learn from infancy a single version of how life and love should be; imprinting is inescapable. If our mothers made cinnamon toast on Sunday mornings, then we will find ourselves inexplicably comforted when our Airbnb hostess in Boston offers us cinnamon toast, even at age 40. Cinnamon toast means safety. Yet, while someone else’s cinnamon toast may be tasty, it’s not the same as we remember it. Our mother’s cinnamon toast was just a little better because she used real butter rather than the heart-healthy kind. The impostor-toast is not perfect.
In eastern traditions, this phenomenon is called samskara, a pre-conceived impression. We cling to certain ideas, forming memories that sink from the conscious into the unconscious, becoming embedded in our subliminal mind. These ideas pass from our active thoughts into a background data loop that informs our actions in the present without us realizing it. When we crave affection, we may hunger for a piece of cinnamon toast, then think of our mother, concluding that it would be nice if she were there. We taste the sweetness of the bread, conjure the sense of her love and appreciate from afar how kind she was to make us something to eat before she tended to her own hunger. We play this tape over and over again, never fully sated by someone else performing the same act. With every replay, mom’s cinnamon toast –and mom herself– becomes more of an impossible ideal.
Our lives are embedded with these samskaras; they are our conditioning. The more we repeat them, the deeper the grooves we carve. Every year that our mother is no longer there to make cinnamon toast, the more we crave it, the more delicious it becomes in our memory, the more we try to make the same toast ourselves — and ultimately fail because her toast was perfect, and now, quite impossible to duplicate. This is true of our first loves, our childhood best friends — the firsts of all things. How can what we receive from others ever be enough if it doesn’t match the impact of these samskara-setting experiences? Can we ever be loved, then, if we don’t allow anyone else to measure up — or change our definition of the ultimate ideal?
The key to samskaras is that it’s possible to break them, as well as make new ones. While on one level, samskaras represent order (itself, not a bad thing), the ability to regularly shift our patterns, expectations and habits into a state of constant self-renewal presents the possibility for a dynamic version of samskaras. Busting through our calcified beliefs takes intentional work, to be sure, but anyone who has heard her Gloria Gaynor anthem play after a bad break-up knows it’s possible. After dislodging the scar tissue of entrenched patterns, we feel exhilarated and fluid — anything is possible. Changing our physical and mental patterns is as scary as it is empowering (if I let go of what I believe, do I lose myself?); as creatures of habit, we don’t do it as often as we should.
Thus, the perfection principle conferred on all things Mother.
In my memory, my mom will forever be frozen in her mid-40s. As I near this age, I’ve come to suspect that she wasn’t so perfect –in fact, I’m realizing that she was terribly imperfect– a conclusion previously off-limits. The problem with people dying, especially when they die young, is that we martyr them. Multiply this a thousand times when it’s your mother, who started off as perfect to begin with. The notion that my mother wasn’t always logical in her decision-making, or that she lacked vigilance, was impossible for most of my life. A person doesn’t go there, especially not on Mother’s Day.
The ideal of my perfect mother is a samskara as deep as my entire being. Looking back over the past four years of essays, not only in this blog, but pieces that I’ve submitted for publication, I witness myself supporting this notion over and over again. The gaping groove of my devotion has become a bottomless crevasse, fueling my writing into increasingly more intense and personal chasms as I try to understand why such a perfect person would end up in less than perfect circumstances. No wonder these works haven’t been picked up (and thanks to my readers for bearing with me.)
Joan Didion once said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” Just a year ago, I would have insisted the same of these essays about my mother — and I would have been wrong. I wasn’t writing to understand what I thought, or even to suss out my own life choices, but to prove a faulty hypothesis that my world view depended on. It turns out, my mother was not perfect. She was also not a victim of things that happened to her, like I wanted to believe, but decidedly imperfect in her choices that brought about those events. She was funny and kind and rebellious, yet she was also uninformed, fearful and inhibited. She didn’t always make the best choices despite her intelligence. In the end, she was as fallible in her life decisions as, say, me. Or any of us.
It was shocking to realize this and have the world not end. It was just as surprising –cleansing, even– to let myself feel frustrated with her shortcomings yet discover that I could still love her and hold her in esteem. Imagine: it’s possible to look up to a person –a mother, no less– who isn’t perfect.
When a parent dies in your youth, a common coping mechanism is to become a control freak. Your samskara reasons that, if you can play dungeon master in your own make-believe fiefdom, things will be okay. If you were already a high-strung type-A control freak –a samskara learned from your parents, say– you will take this trait to a new level if your mother dies. Your life goals become perfection (there’s that word again), order and control, so that you will not be surprised by unforeseen events again — or, if you are, you will have established and pre-positioned every needed resource at the ready.
The worst thing for people like us is to not be in control. We don’t wish to dominate for the sake of power, rather we don’t want to be let down [again.] The price of devastation is too high to entrust our hearts or livelihoods to anyone else. The only way to safeguard oneself is to be at the top of the tower, always. Other sentries will miss the tiny movements that our eagle eyes detect out there in the dark; our lazy-eyed compatriots will fall asleep and let the raiders invade the village. To survive, we must execute all tasks ourselves. We must be perfect. Above all, we cannot trust others. Trust leaves us open and vulnerable, and vulnerable means fallible, penetrable, weak. Vulnerable is the feeling of the earth liquifying beneath your feet before the landslide smothers you all the way down the hill.
This idea, too, is a samskara from childhood, only I didn’t inherit it, exactly; I set down the grooves myself. My mother was perfect, so I should be perfect, too. She died, so I should be even more perfect in her place. The problem is, as a writer, if I am to explain her decidedly imperfect life, I must either reveal her personal imperfections (impossible – she has none!) or make her more perfect so as to distance her from the events that befell her. Watch as my mother becomes inert and, frankly, not very interesting… and I, in my quest for perfection, become the same.
After reading through my essays about her, and the many rejection letters that accompany them, I now see a need to understand her as a whole person, if I am ever to write about her convincingly. Just as writers should never write to settle scores, we should quit trying to preserve memories of people as they never were.
Maybe Joan Didion would correct me here and say that all this writing about my so-called perfect mother has helped me figure out what I’m thinking, but I think it’s the opposite. Writing about her over and over has actually deepened the groove, allowed me to mine the depths of the samskara that insists that the only way I can love my mother is to insist upon her lily-white transcendence. This deep-set belief restricts me as an artist as much as a daughter.
No one is all good or all bad –at least, not people who make interesting characters– and she certainly has potential if I let the light of reality shine. With distance and age, perhaps I can allow her character enough space on the page to inhabit more of who she really was: a woman as emotionally complex as the rest of us, and for her complexity, that much more compelling.
This Mother’s Day, I will break the samskara in which I relegate my mother to the blameless, snow-white Virgin Queen, and instead forge a new habit: I will recall her many facets –caring, affectionate, silly, a good dancer– and above all, love her for everything she didn’t get right. In the name of coming clean, I might even confess a secret: in spite of her Italian heritage, she was an awful cook. Her salmon was as dry as the Sahara desert, her liver and onions as desiccated as salt-packed eel. I used to beg her for a plate of plain ground beef with salt and pepper just to avoid whatever new concoction she was trying.
Or, on second thought, maybe I’ll save this for the book.