Tag Archives: radical self acceptance

radical self acceptance means getting to change our minds

A couple of days ago, I officially accepted a place in the SF State MFA program. As a student. This winter I sent out applications to Mills, SF State, and the Stegner Fellowship program, hoping that, one way or another, I’d be able to spend the next couple of years truly focused on writing. The folks at Stegner weren’t interested, but Mills and SF State were. I have spent the last month or so trying to decide which would be the best place for me to spend the next two or three years; what a lucky thing to get to make such a difficult choice.

For many years, I was determined never to go to school for an MFA. Many of the writers I loved and admired — Anne Lamott, Dorothy Allison, Alice Walker, Pat Califia, Leslie Feinberg — had not received MFAs. They just wrote, and shared their work, and then wrote more. Why did I need to go to school for a piece of paper that would tell me I had the right to write? Why did I need to sit in a room with folks who would tear my work up just to please the instructor? Why would I set my tender, still-budding, creative vision under the knife of harried creative writing teachers, who were only teaching in order to make enough money in order to buy themselves a little more time to write, and didn’t want to be teaching anyway, and who wouldn’t be able to help me develop my work the way I wanted to because all they’d see was how different my writing was from The Canon and, thus, what a failure I was as a writer.

Plus, I applied to an MFA program in, what, ’99? 200o? And didn’t get in. The professor from Goddard’s MFA program thought my poetry was too “young.” So there was that, too.

Call it sour grapes, what came after. MFA? I don’t need no stinking MFA.

But there was another thing, too: MFA? No one wants to give me an MFA. I’m not a real writer. Who am I to think of myself as a writer that way?

•§•

Forty-nine days ago, I stood in the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and stared at the pill in my hand. What did it mean that I was about to do this? I promptly fumbled the pill and dropped it down the drain.

By the time I decided to take the step I was about to take, I’d tried about everything else I could think of (consciously and unconsciously) to deal with my depression. I’d gone to therapy (lots and lots and lots of therapy), I’d begun to exercise more, I’d changed my diet, I’d even tried to self-medicate with various herbs and supplements (according to lists offered on blog posts and herbalists’ websites). And I wrote and wrote, of course. I’d also self-medicated in plenty of other ways: eating so much that all I could feel was fullness and shame (rather than despair), watching television to numb my spinning brain, and, of course, there are all the years I gave to alcohol (which, as a depressant, isn’t actually the best antidote to chronic depression — but, being drunk, it was hard for me to logic that one out.)

But I didn’t take drugs. I didn’t want to take drugs. (Never mind, as my sister reminded me, that alcohol is a drug, and food can act like a drug, and television… never mind all that.) Drugs weren’t natural, and anyway, why would I want to medicate my depression away? Why would I want to pretend like I wasn’t depressed? I had good reason to be depressed, for christsake, given all I’d been through at the hands of my stepfather for my entire adolescence, given the fact that I was a queer woman living in America, given the facts of misogyny, homophobia, the pervasiveness of violence against women and children, and the hostility and suspicion often cast toward those who were willing to come forward with their lived experiences of abuse. Who wouldn’t be depressed, given these and other realities of this so-called civilized society. I couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t depressed, actually. I didn’t want to be numbed to my feelings by psychopharmaceuticals. (I would, instead, numb with other things.)

And I didn’t want to be a part of a system that wanted to individualize the problem of depression and other psychological responses to living in rape/trauma culture — we didn’t fucking need drugs, we needed adults to stop raping children; we needed a massive cultural shift. If so many kids weren’t being raped, they wouldn’t grow up to need Prozac in order to be able to present as a functional part of capitalist society, in order to act like everything was ok. Everything wasn’t ok.

I’ve been wrangling with a well-earned, post-trauma depression since the early 90s, and there’s a history of depression on both sides of my family as well. I lived with my depression, getting to know its  contours and bearings, its triggers and nuances. I found a fairly decent way to coexist with it, and function. I wrote about sorrow and loss and shame. I wrote about living in the aftermath of trauma, that depression was part and parcel of my reality. I taught friends and beloveds to understand that there would be days I simply couldn’t be available to them, days I would be sad, days I would not be able to be touched. Those were my inside days, I called them — when I was all the way inside myself. They wouldn’t last forever. That was a blessing of recovery, to get to the place where I knew that a wave of depression wouldn’t last forever. I would come back out of it, and be a different self again. But all of these parts were myself. My depression was part of what made me me.

And then, a few years ago, my hormones began to shift. Maybe it’s perimenopause: right around the time I was bleeding, and maybe for a few days after, I felt fine, but then my mood would begin to sink — often, for at least two weeks out of every month, I was trying to function while in a state of total despair. Everything I wanted to do — prep for a workshop, write a blog post or even a journal entry, have coffee with a friend, take the dog for a walk — required all the energy I had, and then required a rebound period, time to recuperate, recharge. I had to drag myself through most of my life. Writing stopped helping the way it once had. I had one low plunge that left me feeling suicidal — even though I knew, intellectually, what was going on. I knew this was my hormones talking. I knew I would feel better (at least somewhat) once I bled. But that didn’t help ameliorate the despair. Instead I thought, Is this how my life is going to be from now on? Am I going to spend half of it just trying to recover from the other half spent feeling like I’m crawling through a cave of misery and shame? Do I have to live like this?

Depression isn’t just anger turned inward. Depression isn’t an attitude problem. Depression isn’t an inability or unwillingness to see the good side of things, to engage in more positive thinking. Depression isn’t simply sadness. Depression is the result of a chemical imbalance in the body.

Someone said to me, If you had a broken leg, wouldn’t you go get a cast on it until it healed? Taking anti-depressants is like that, they said.

But I was stubborn. I had made it all these years. Was I really going to give in to Big Pharma now?

(And then there was the little matter of the drugs’ side effects, not the least of which was the trouble folks had sexually once they started taking SSRIs. I had enough trouble with my sex — did I really want to make sex more difficult?)

Still, the despair was making it difficult for me to feel much joy or positivity at all. The rebound periods weren’t that much higher than the lows, and the lows were getting lower. I had those days of sitting on the couch, watching endless repeats of crime dramas, weeping at how I was wasting my life, comparing myself to the (apparently) non-depressed and functional people around me who could just get up and go to work and spend time with friends and spend time with family and still have energy left over. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just power myself through this anymore?

I couldn’t power through it because I was depressed.

Finally, at an appointment I’d made for completely different reasons, I talked to a new nurse-practitioner about my depression. But I don’t want to go on anti-depressants, I said. I talked about wanting to see an nutritionist, go to an herbalist, try acupuncture. She asked me about the extent of my depression, and I heard myself describe how impacted I was by this aspect of my psychological and physiological makeup, about my family and abuse history. She wondered if I might not be dealing with pre-menstural dysphoric disorder (or PMDD — in other words, really, really, really bad PMS). She talked about the way depression works in the brain, and reminded me that if I went on anti-depressants, I wouldn’t have to be on them forever. I could try them out and see how they worked — while also doing these other things I wanted to try. Something in me shift, or broke, or gave up, or raised its hand and said, Please. We need some help.

I said I’d talk to my therapist. And I did. And later that day, I called back, and my nurse-practitioner wrote me prescription for a low dose of Wellbutrin (the one anti-depression without negative sexual side effects, as it turns out), which is often prescribed for PMDD.

On a Friday morning, 49 days ago, after dropping my first pill down the drain (talk about ambivalence), I went into the bedroom and swallowed this medicine.

•§•

Over the last decade (or so), I’ve eaten a lot of crow. As someone who spent her twenties in a lot of judgement of others decisions and lives, in righteous indignation and certainty that I knew the Right Way to do things, life has knocked me down an awful lot. Righteous indignation has a lot of power in it, and a lot of strength. It makes sense to me that my twenty-something self, once released from my stepfather’s controlling and viciously libertine worldview, would need to stand up and state what I believed with no room for anyone to question or challenge me, with no room for complexity. I took hold of a viewpoint and stubbornly defended it: gay was not just good but preferable to straight, butch was good/femme was bad, MFA candidates were sellouts, folks who took antidepressants were weak, people who charged money for healing work were suspect, and many, many more. I honestly believed I knew what was right and what was wrong– for myself, and for most folks, really.

Then my first marriage broke up and I began coming out as femme and trying to run a business, and ran smack into the backside of my stubborn, judgmental self. Crow, crow, crow.

Strong judgement is a safe place to live, especially when living with as much anxiety as I do. If I held a position with absolute certainly, I didn’t have to worry about it. I could have a place of clarity amid all the panic and terror I swam through every day.

But absolutes aren’t sustainable, at least in my experience (notice how I can’t even make that statement as an absolute!) — they’re like towers made of shale, from which I couldn’t descend without feeling like I’d failed. My judgments trapped and isolated me.

Slowly, through my 30s, I had nearly all of those towers of certainy crushed beneath me, and I sunk into the complicated morass of Real Life, which is messy and imperfect and contradictory. I mourned my capitulation, struggled through shame and grief. Mostly shame. And I kept writing, slowly working my way into an understanding that having strong views wasn’t in and of itself a bad thing — but being unwilling to question those views (just as my stepfather had disallowed any questioning of any of his pronouncements) was harming me, and harming my relationships.

•§•

I noticed an immediate impact from the anti-depressant. There was a day in that first week on the medicine that I had a writing group, then a phone call with a friend/colleague, then a coffee date with someone, and after that, I still had energy left over to write and connect with my beloved. I was astonished. Before the medicine, just one of those things in any given day would have knocked me out. I thought, Is this how normal people experience their lives? Do non-depressed people always have energy like this?

Feelings didn’t go away. I didn’t suddenly turn into happy happy joy joy just because I was on an anti-depressant. That first weekend on the medicine, I felt as though a fat clot of heavy cloud had been pulled off of me — and underneath that weight had been my joy, my sadness, my anger, my fear, all those feelings that had been pushed aside to make way for the demands of despair. I could actually feel things again. Oh.

(I then promptly proceeded to over-schedule my life, given my sudden increase in energy — if I’ve got it, I better give it away! — apparently having to learn the lesson again, through exhaustion, that the anti-depressants aren’t magic beans. They didn’t make me an extrovert; I still need to balance time with others and time to work and wander alone.)

And the PMDD has faded, at least these first months. We’ll see what happens over time. I still get premenstrual (thank goodness– I love that crabby PMS girl!), but the trough of despair isn’t there for now.

I decided to apply to graduate school for creative writing because I wanted, finally, to be able to fully apprentice myself to my craft, something I was never able to do as a student. I have studied writing alone, I have participated in writing groups, I have learned about writing through writing (and reading). I am profoundly grateful that I wasn’t accepted to that MFA program 15 or so years ago. I needed to get to another place in my writing self before I set my work into the hands of others. I needed to learn what teacher could mean, and what I was looking for. I needed to learn to trust my own processes, how to accept the complexities of my own work, and those of readers and respondents. I don’t believe that having an MFA makes me a writer. I am already a writer. The MFA program will introduce me to new aspects of my writing self, offer mentorship and challenge that I may finally be ready for.

I still have plenty of things I’m righteous and certain about — not the least of which being that I’m certain that those convictions will also get complicated if I get to live long enough. The longer I live, the messier everything gets — or rather, the more I’m able to be aware of and sit with the complexities and layers in everything. I am not perfect. We don’t have to be perfect. We get to be ourselves: contrary and obstinate, laughing at ourselves if we’re lucky, as we choke down one more thing we used to be so certain of.

learning to listen to different forms of success

MissionFishes-711504Good morning, good morning. The sun outside is bright egg yolk orange, just over the Oakland hills. How is the morning finding you today?

I have been thinking a lot about success and failure these days. I’ve been caught up quite a lot in comparing myself to others who are more successful, according to our American standards: folks who have high-paying jobs, folks who own houses, folks who are able to travel wherever and whenever they want, folks who have money and access and what I assume is a kind of ease. Do you do this to yourself, too?

Here’s what came of this rumination at this week’s Meridian Writers group on Wednesday morning:

She has failed to grow up and become a successful business person. Every month she gets a magazine in the mail. It comes from the alumni association of her undergraduate college. Against anything that’s good for her, every month she brings this magazine into her house, sits down with it, flips it open to look at the faces of alumni who are achieving. Making names for themselves. Successful. Here are the politicians, the scientists, the social entrepreneurs, the designers, the computer programmers, the movie and television producers, the hedge fund managers, the actors. The writers. Every month she scans the list of books published recently by other alumni. she hopes not to see the name of someone she knows. She hopes none of these now-published writes graduated after her. If they are older than she is, she’s a little easier on herself: she still has time. She scans the personal essay section, to which she has once again failed to submit her own piece, the story she’s imagined sending to them for five years. Every month she undertakes this self-flagellation, looking at the faces of former classmates who now head law firms, run major organizations, made millions of dollars selling their ideas to Silicon Valley. She tortures herself with the faces of the just-graduated, the young-and-up-&-coming who already warrant press coverage for their achievements. Every month she reminds herself that she is a failure.

No matter that she runs her own small boutique business that succeeds well enough to allow her to pay her rent most months. No matter that she has a life full of color and laughter, morning sunlight, a cat who curls next to her on the couch and purrs while she writes in her journal. No matter she knows — somewhere inside — that she has enough, so much more than many: a safe home, a full refrigerator, lights and water and heat that turn on when she wants them to. She has a small garden plot in the community garden down the road where she can dig her fingers in soil, where she tends the fat hands of chard, tall cosmos and hollyhocks and borage and lavender and salvia, tends tomato and broccolini and a small thicket of herbs. Never mind the pots of basil and feverfew on her windowsill, the chickadees and house finches and goldfinches that visit the bird feeder she’s hung from the bottlebrush tree just outside the window near her kitchen table (which is also her office, also her desk).

They never tell her own particular kind of success story int he alumni magazine — about the thousands of students who left the college grounds and did not become standouts in their fields, at least not in the headshot-press release- TED talk- thought leader kind of way. Instead, some of those folks went out to craft small and beautiful lives that tendriled through the communities in which they settled, made home and family, or didn’t, figured out how to survive during the days or months or years when getting out of bed took all the energy they had to spare. They grew to know themselves well, if they succeeded at staying alive, and learned to listen to different forms of success: the kind that goes unreported except in poems, in novels, in glances with strangers across the subway on a chilly February morning.

It’s so easy to compare ourselves to others and come up short, negating the beauty and power in our own lives in the process. There’s an image that cycles through the desktop photos I keep on my computer. It reads: Comparison is the thief of joy (attributed to Franklin Roosevelt). I keep it there because I have to constantly step outside the compulsion to compare myself negatively to others — why are they succeeding when I am not? (Meanwhile, I never tried to succeed at what they are doing, which doesn’t stop me from beating myself up anyway for “failing”!)

Yesterday I thought, It makes about as much sense for me to compare myself negatively to those who went out and worked in the corporate sector or got law degrees or became programmers at Apple or Microsoft or Google as it does for me to compare a fish to a dog and then call the fish a failure because it can’t run on land and chase a ball.

Albert Einstein is supposed to have said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” That’s what I mean.

I have had (am having!) an artist’s life. A successful artist’s life — by no one else’s standards but mine.  What an extraordinary thing to be able to say. I may not be as successful yet as I’d like to be as an artist, but I have absolutely succeeded in creating an artist’s life. When given the choice between money and time, I have chosen time — almost always. And so, rather than being caught behind a desk doing someone else’s work, I have been out wandering, watching the world, reading books, talking to cats and birds and city squirrels, putting my feet in the surf on a weekday morning. And I have written in cafes all over Northern New England, Omaha, San Francisco and Oakland. None of that time has been wasted. Not even the many years spent just trying to let it make sense that I was alive and had control over my own life, when something in me had believed my stepfather when he’d told me I’d never get away from him.

When the artist, the writer, finally publishes her book, the one that’s well-received, gets recognized, gets her that interview on Fresh Air, we look back at all the time she spent not making money, all the time she spent writing and paying for groceries with her credit card, and call it not wasted time but time becoming an artist, becoming the writer she was meant to be. Until that happens, though, her life looks a lot like ours (we who are not among the literary elite, or even the well-published): we make decisions others can’t understand. We write instead of going to parties. We go to bed early instead of going out with friends because we want to have those early morning hours for our writing. We write on our lunch breaks instead of networking like our coworkers do, the ones who want to stay with the company, the ones who want to rise in the ranks. We don’t care about the ranks — at least not the ones at the company.

We write because we want eventually to publish and see our names on the spines of those objects that have been beloved to us since before we could speak: the books read to us by parents or sisters or aunts or cousins, the books we took into our own hands as soon as we could. Those not trying to live our sort of life, or too afraid to do so, may not understand us. There are those comparing themselves to us, too, and coming up short in their own eyes, though it’s hard for us (at least for me) to believe that.

It’s easy to get invested in the story of failure. Today I’m working to look through other eyes, to step outside the ring of comparison (where I always get pummeled on the ropes), and remember that, as a fish, I’m doing just fine.

 

Thanks

The birds are already awake this morning before I get to the keyboard. I had a whole plan for last night — celebration at the final meeting of this fall’s Fearless Words group, hustle home, and head out to Brothers & Sisters to dance hard enough to find my gratitude, to sweat out the toxins, to touch and grab hold of my joy. But when I made it home I was just too tired to go back out into the world; several nights of not enough sleep finally caught up with me. And how could I drive through or around the protests in downtown Oakland in order to go dancing of all things. It felt like crossing a picket line. So instead I obsessively updated my twitter feed, trying to follow what was happening, and ended up crashing on the couch. Not exactly the celebratory evening I’d had in mind, but this 42 year old body doesn’t rally the way it did when I was 22, even though I don’t like dancing any less now — it’s still one of the very small handful of healing practices that have kept me going.

Today I am thinking about the complexity of gratitude. All over America, we’re supposed to be grateful today — we have a national holiday set aside to be thankful for all that we have. It’s meant to be a time for gathering with family, connecting with our beloveds — no one is supposed to be alone on family (even if they’d prefer to be). Meanwhile, we are surrounded by advertisements for so-called Black Friday sales, enticing us into believing that we do not have enough, that we need to buy more, proving the lie of this day of gratitude practice, at least culturally. On this day when we’re supposed to be jubilantly grateful for home and hearth, kith and kin, we have a nation rising up in grief and rage. Many, many people will not be safe today with the people who are supposed to be their safest havens — many of us will grieve the families we ought to have had, the safe hands and hearts we ought to have been surrounded by. This is the beginning of the most complicated time of the year for so many of us.

There’s a poem I like to hand out every November — if you’re in a workshop with me, you’ve probably seen it. It’s W.S. Merwin’s “Thanks,” written in 1927, and it goes like this:

Thanks
-W.S. Merwin

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow for the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
looking up from tables we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

This is one of my favorite poems, one I would like to commit to memory someday. I find it to be outrageously hopeful, naming the possibilities and claiming of gratitude even at our most difficult times, even when gratitude seems wildly ridiculous, even laughably hopeless. How can we be grateful when our country is dropping bombs on people around the world? How can we be grateful when we know somewhere in our own neighborhoods a child is being harmed right now? How can we be grateful when our friends our sick, our communities are hungry, our hearts are aching, our own bodies suffer?

with nobody listening we are saying thank you

I read this poem and I think about resilience. I think about the times I sat with my stepfather while he had his hands on me and I made it through his violence. I think about getting out from under his hands when they were on my neck or between my legs. I think about the moments I had alone — walking my dog, doing homework, riding the bus home from school — when I saw something that brought me joy. Maybe it was a flock of pigeons diving and pooling in the skies over Omaha. Maybe it was my dog bouncing after a squirrel that she had no hope of catching. Maybe it was figuring out the answer to an especially difficult calculus or physics problem. And yet, what right did I have to feel joy? How could I possibly have had the capacity to feel joy? What is it in us that allows us to smile at all when we know we are headed right back into the fire?

For that skill — the wonder of our human ability to continue to allow ourselves pleasure when we know what great pain feels like, when we will be mocked or harassed or harmed if someone catches us grinning to ourselves, for exactly that measure of resistance and resilience — today I say thank you.

I love that the first line of the poem is a command, a harkening: Listen — I hear the poet, the voice of the piece, calling us to hear what’s happening underneath the destruction all around us, these quiet, whispered, continual thank yous. We are not alone in this complicated place of grief and gratitude. Listen: there are others who are saying thank you anyway, who are smiling anyway, who are dancing anyway, even as the thefts and the beatings and the losses go on and on and on.

Today I am grateful for the resilience of the women I wrote with for nine weeks in Fearless Words, women risking everything to reach out to one another, women risking ridicule and shame by offering their true voices and stories to one another, women who found a new community of beloveds. It’s a devastating thing, this being grateful for a community of others who have been hurt like you’ve been hurt — it’s not that we want anyone else to have to have gone through what we went through, raped by someone who was supposed to be a friend, or sexually violated by a parent, or the friend of a parent, or a cousin or — we don’t want anyone else to know what this pain is like. And yet, we also do not want to be alone with this pain anymore. We are tired of our loved ones treating us like we’re crazy. We are tired of feeling crazy. So we are grateful to find ourselves in a room with others who get us from the inside out because they have been there, too: we go on saying thank you thank you

Today I am grateful for you and for your words, for the exact struggle of your life, for the fact that you take on that struggle in order to laugh and breathe and weep and make art and hug those you love and make a safer place for someone or something else, I am grateful for the days you walk through the fire and for the days you are immolated by pain and then rise from the ashes. I am grateful that you give yourself time to rest, time to be silly, time to garden or dance or play World of Warcraft (is that even around anymore?) or solitaire or watch endless episodes of True Blood. I am grateful for how you perceive the world: you are the only one who sees things like you do, and I love hearing from you exactly what you see and hear and feel and smell and taste and sense otherwise, with the knowing that lives deep in your liver and gut and heart. I am grateful that you give yourself the possibility of deep desire, that you have worked so hard to reclaim your sex, that you are working hard still.

in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

Today I am in grief and I am grateful anyway. I want better for us and for our children and I am grateful anyway. I am grateful we continue fighting. I am grateful we sometimes give up. I am grateful we resist. I am grateful we are not alone. I am grateful we are no longer alone.

Be easy with yourself today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, too, if you can. Thank you.

being without a soundtrack

Good morning, good morning. It’s a Saturday and I let myself rise without an alarm. In my dreams — I can’t remember my dreams, actually. Maybe they will come back as I write. My hands are dry and rough from gardening last night, and my body is a good kind of sore, the sort of sore that says I’ve been working in it. Yesterday I found pea and clover sprouts when I went down to water the garden — and the zucchini’s already putting out flowers — things are happening down in that good dark. I dug up a patch of hard-packed yard out in front of the house, added some planting soil to the clods that I broke up by hand, and then planted poppies, zinnia, and the native gardenia that I got from my friend Alex and have moved now three or four times. I clipped some pieces of salvia, lavender, and mint from the backyard and have put them in jars in the kitchen window to see if they will sprout. Once they’re ready, I’ll add them to this little garden coming together out front.

When I fell asleep last night, the house smelled of actually-sour sourdough bread — I made a couple of whole-wheat oat loaves yesterday, and though they didn’t rise as much as the white-flour loaves have (and are still nothing close to the chewy, holey sourdough that I get in restaurants or from the market), they have a tight crumb and taste fantastic. I will admit that when I opened the oven door to peek at them toward the end of the baking time, my heart fell — they looked like the sad, dense (and inedible) loaves I always got when I tried to bake sourdough in Maine. But these turned out to be actually tasty — they just weren’t terribly fluffy. I guess that’s not surprising with whole wheat.

So there’s the garden and bread update.

This morning I woke up thinking about presence. I’ve had a few days of quiet alone time, and have spent these days mostly un-accompanied by a soundtrack. This is unusual for me. I’m the sort of girl who likes to have the radio on — all the time. I got a my first portable walkman when I was twelve or thirteen, and I’ve been walking around with music plugging up my ears ever since. The music has been a part of my survival, helping me to get away from the spinning, crowded voices in my head, to get away from my difficult and immediate present. But it seems that something has changed.

I’ve used music consistently when I write — both out at cafes and alone at home, listening to something while I’m writing helps me to ignore the distractions around me and focus in more fully on the words. Having some sort of sound on helped, too, with my overly-developed startle response; when there was some sort of noise filling the gap between my imaginings and the outside world around me, then I was less alarmed when I got surprised by the dog’s bark or someone entering the room – I’ve used the music, the voices and stories, to help cloak me, to help me be able at all to move around in the world. I was so overly sensitive and easily startled that the music could provide a buffer. The sound was like a cocoon I stepped into — a private room out in the world; underneath and inside the sound, I could think and imagine and survive.

Plus, you know, I like listening to music — it’s not all trauma aftermath. Who doesn’t like to push a trowel into some freshly-churned soil while Janet Jackson promises anytime, anyplace?

The last couple of days, I’ve gone running around my sweetheart’s neighborhood in the afternoon. I have a new phone for which I haven’t yet acquired a protective case — I can drop it while just standing still, so I certainly don’t want to take it with me when I go out to run, trying to keep a hold on it while my hands get all sweaty. So I ran without music or voices — no Harry Shearer’s Le Show, no “Dog Days Are Over,” my usual go-to jogging soundtracks. Instead, I’ve been accompanied by the sound of my breath and feet, and the sounds of the neighborhood. I’m able (and even willing) to be inside my body without distraction, noticing what’s aching, what’s loose, what’s feeling good. I notice the gardens I’m running past (there’s lots of time to notice them, as I’m not running all that fast), I notice the animals, I say hello to neighbors. The other day, I saw a stellar’s jay and a salamander in mortal combat — the jay was trying to catch the salamander for lunch, but the salamander wasn’t having any of it, and kept snapping back. The bird hopped up, tried to snatch the reptile in his beak, then got scared away. I stopped to watch, but the jay flew some feet away from his retreating prey — he didn’t want to be observed. I get it: I’m like that, too. So I ran on, no music to distract me, feeling the warm sun, the cool breeze, the douse of my sweat and the spread of warmth across and through my back as all those tight muscles got jogged loose.

It’s still new — this ability to write without music playing, to run without distractions (to run, period, let’s be honest), to fall asleep alone without music on, to be in the world without constantly needing soundtrack or noise to keep me from hearing the things I’m afraid of hearing — that I’m surprised by it, surprised that I want to be in the quiet, surprised that I can concentrate without the noise. It wasn’t, as I often told people, that I simply preferred to write in a noisy cafe with the music pushing into my ears over and above the sounds of the cafe sound system and all the conversations; it was that I couldn’t focus when I was in silence — I was too scared to be alone and quiet in my own head.

Now, as coping mechanisms go, listening to music isn’t all that terrible — and I’ve certainly not stopped listening to music at all while I do other things in my life. But what I’m finding is my instinct telling me one more time, it‘s ok to let this go for now; you’re safe enough now to loosen your hold on this way of protecting yourself — like it did with smoking and drinking and butchness and workaholism and too much tv and overeating, all those different ways I’ve found to put space between my consciousness and the world around me, all those ways I found to armor up and keep myself alive. I am grateful to each of these practices, and just as grateful when one more starts to loosen its hold, giving me one more opportunity to just be in and a part of the world I’m inhabiting, grateful to have lived and healed enough to be here now.

femmelove: you can only carry yourself with your own fierce grace

medium_MissTic3One day, you will awake from your covering
and that heart of yours will be totally mended,
and there will be no more burning within.
The owl, calling in the setting of the sun
and the deer path, all erased.
– from “One Day,” by Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

Good morning good morning. I’ve been up since 4, seeing my sweetheart and her boy off on an adventure. The song sparrows found the sun long before the light crested the edges of the hills. I woke up tender this morning, struggling with old resentments, struggling with how long it can take to release myself from blame, shame, and guilt, struggling with how easy it is for me to get called back into shaming myself for old ways of being, for not growing or healing faster than I could.

I got a communication from my ex last night and it’s got my hackles all up. Never mind that it’s a straightforward question, nothing overtly hostile or shitty. He never was overtly hostile or shitty — just passive aggressive and ostensibly clueless. We rarely communicate because he asked that we have no contact, and then proceeds to contact me whenever he feels he needs to. So it is that I continue to erupt with feeling whenever I see his name in my inbox or on my text messages: old resentment, directed toward him, sure, but more directed toward me and the self I was when we got together, the self I was throughout most of our relationship. I want to have done things differently from the beginning. I want not to have needed as much time as I needed in order to finally stand up for myself and walk away.

What do we do with big anger, with the old resentments, with the heat of disappointment and shame that still sits in the body? What to do with the who I was when I was with him, who I allowed myself to delove — I mean, devolve — into? How it is that I came to the place in my life that I could say: He promised to change; I should give him another chance. How did I become a person who’d use language like that? How do we tend to the wounds of those we love without becoming wounds ourself, without believing that we are saviors, without capitulating to the lover’s siren song, the one that says, Please fix me. You’re the only one who can.

Never trust that song. It is a lie. It is the song of a wounded animal, the song of a wounded child who only wants someone to pick them up and love them well and treat them like a beloved thing in the eyes of the sun. It is a powerful thing to have someone turn the sun’s eyes on you, to have someone tell you that you are the only and one best thing that can save them — you are the only one who understands — you are the only one who can kiss it and make it better. But you are not their parent. I was not his mother. My job was never to be his mother. My job was never to contort myself so that someone else be more comfortable in the world. And still I put that task on my shoulders because I wanted to be a good femme.

I tried to reach for comfort inside the context of his disassembly: he could have have put the pillows and a blanket on the floor and said to me, If you want to be a good ally to me, you’ll sleep there. I would have. I wanted him to know that I was a safe space, that I got it. I knew that he had suffered, and I could make it better. Wasn’t that what I’d learned from Stone Butch Blues? A femme’s job is to stand by her man, hold all the secrets, and suffer in silence.

So, when the old rage and resentments flare, I rant a little, and then I check in with myself: What’d I need to learn from this relationship?

How to hold my own boundaries as sacrosanct. How to listen to the no that rises up in me like wildfire. How to trust that every other person has their own higher power, their own resources and capacity to take care of themselves, to trust that I was not put on the earth to make sure that any other adult is reparented well or gendered appropriately.

The thing I want to talk about is wounded butches and rescuer femmes. I kneel down into the bed of my psyche, push in tender fingers and pull at that woven bed of matted, invasive root structures: I do not exist to ensure that anyone else’s life is worth living. I cannot not be the mother you did not have. You could not be the father I did not have. I am not your perfect femme, the one who turns herself out to make sure the world sees you as you wish to be seen. Of course, he would say he did not ask for this — and he didn’t. I asked it of myself. This is the mire I get stuck within. My job was to fold myself in such a way that he could rise up and over. Do you see? Let me be the visible dizzy girl when we are out in the world together, so that the world will see you as that girl’s man. The world is looking for that girl to have a man. Never mind that I didn’t want a hero. Never mind that I didn’t want a man. I wanted a lover and compatriot. I wanted a friend and companion. And oh, I wanted to be the best ally. I wanted to be the hero. Yes, of course. A big sister who has failed her little sister wants to hero something successfully, and I tried to hero my ex-wife (when I wasn’t asking that she hero me), and then I tried to be the best hero femme for your tender angry scared wounded butch.

Where is the conversation about how we hold each other up and also demand that each of us gets the support we need outside the relationship? That’s not the question I want to ask. Where was the femme community telling me I didn’t have to be the good femme, I didn’t have to be the Leslie Feinberg tragic heroine suffering in silence at the kitchen table with a tumbler of whisky while my lover recuperated in the other room after yet another tortured encounter with the heterosexist, transphobic, racist, classist outside world?

If you are a femme asking these questions yourself, I want to tell you that you don’t have to be that silent sufferer. You don’t have to be the carrier of all the secrets. You are more than just the body that displays someone else’s masculinity and manhood. You are more than the quiet and slight that someone else can be big and loud in opposition to. You are more than her femme or his femme or their femme: You are more than a possessive or a thing possessed. You are more than your guilt or shame or sorrow. You cannot fix someone else’s woundings by making yourself small. You cannot fix someone else’s woundings at all. You can only carry yourself with your own fierce grace. You can only follow the tender violet callings of your own broken open heart. Yes, if you are a lover of butches, you will watch them get hurt in the world — but it is not their right to demand that you make everything better (even if they are not aware that they are making that demand). Your love will not change the world. Your love will not change them. Only they can change themselves. Listen to them tell you they will change — once. After that, pay attention to what they do, rather than what they say. Find femme support and listen to the innerest voice of your heart and your gut. Your instincts don’t lie to you, even when you don’t want to hear what they have to say. It took that relationship to teach me that I could trust my instincts. I wish I could have learned that lesson differently, and yet I am grateful that I learned it as soon as I did.

A life that has new languages in it

the swallowed grain
takes you through the dreams
of another night,
the deer meat becomes hands
strong enough to work.
– from “Inside,” by Linda Hogan

Outside the birds are already waking up, even though the sun isn’t up yet. My body is sore from a weekend working in the garden — we  got ourselves connected and grounded and rooted over these long, warm days.

Write in the notebook, take care of the dog, get the day’s bread ready, work in the garden, be with the child. How is this not the work we’re supposed to be doing? All the rest is about making money to pay rent. All the rest is about living under capitalism.

When I work in the garden, I think about writing. I dig in this Oakland dirt and listen to the neighborhood kids play. I listen to the neighbor’s radios, their laughter and shouts. I listen to the dogs at other houses barking and playing. I listen to the birds playing deep in the middle of the trees. I watch the neighborhood squirrel as she peeks up over the top of the fence, waggling body and tail, waiting to see if the puppy’s going to run after her. I listen for bees, to see if they’re coming back. I listen for hummingbirds and hawks. I churn up the soil with the pitchfork and then I kneel down into the garden beds and dig my hands into ever clod of turned dirt, shaking out the roots of weeds before I toss the weeds into the compost bin. I make a rhythm out of it: push forward, hands under the cover of a blanket of earth, finger into the netting of weeds, pull back, break up the soil, shake loose the root system, clear out the bed. Back and forth.

On the porch, my sweetheart rests her eyes while listening to the Giants game on the radio, and I remember my father ‘watching’ baseball while he stretched out on the couch, taking a nap. Everything comes around again.

I listen to Erykah Badu, Raphael Saadiq, India.Arie while I plant the first part of this year’s garden: red onions, lettuce, zucchini, bush beans, snap peas, tomatoes, basil, eggplant, jalapeno, yarrow, gerber daises, dahlia, delphinium, calendula, butterfly weed — one bed I seeded only with red clover, to help the soil (and for the lovely flowers); we’ll turn that over later in the season if we want to plant more. I put in creeping thyme and a couple of other groundcovers around the stone path in the yard. Still to get in are a couple more flowers, watermelon and blueberries — I need to go collect some pine leaf mould to fold into the planting mixture for that last. I read this weekend about making our own fertilizer teas from grass clippings or seaweed, and thought about how to use what we already have to tend what we are growing.

And then, too, I baked: two more sourdoughs, and I’ve got the starter back out of the fridge now and working on the counter so that I can try and get it going with more local wild yeasts. The sourdough bread I’m making is tasty — round boules with a good crust and tight crumb, perfect for sandwiches and french toast — but not sour, so I’m playing around more with it. I talk with a man at my church who spent eight years baking at Esalen; he tells me about volume, and about practice.

What do I want to say about all of this?  I feel so grateful to get to do different work with my hands. This weekend, that work looked like gardening and breadwork and holding a child and holding my love. My hands remember that they are capable of sacred work. Then, this typing can begin again to feel sacred, too — less like a chore and more like pleasure. There’s something I’m trying to figure out how to explain, how to articulate — what it feels like in me to give over to the rhythm of an intimate togetherness that includes children, even if those children aren’t “mine.” A life that has words in it but isn’t only words. A life that also has room for other rhythms, other ways of being that aren’t just thinking about what it means to survive.

Gardening doesn’t force me into my body — gardening allows my body to be a part of a larger body, allows me to engage with a larger rhythm. Baking with wild yeasts allows me to accommodate another form of life: I learn to read new signs and languages — what do big vs. small bubbles in the starter mean? What will happen if we let the bread rise very slowly in the refrigerator? How will the bread work if we add different grains? In all this, too, my body learns to speak an older language again — the language of play and hard physical labor. The language of curiosity and delight: look at those bugs here; hey, what are those pigeons doing over on the neighbor’s roof; wait, why are there earthworms over in that part of the yard but not on this side? The language of stained fingers and dry skin that comes of digging hands deep into dirt over and over again. The language of recuperation. The language of tenderness.

The garden, the sourdough starter — these are live things, not unlike pets. They require attention, tending, awareness. Like an animal, they speak to me in a language I have to learn to understand — we build a relationship with one another. They teach me about other ways of living. They ask for water or food, and in return, they bubble and swell with bright and quiet beauty. They remind me that I need to get dirty if I really want to be in the full body of this life. And, too, like the puppy does, they pull me out of my head, out of this ever-churning wash of recriminations and worries. Just stop, the garden says. Come down here and pull out some weeds. Think bigger than your small worries. Think longer. Think months away, or years, Think about what will come of this little action, one seed in soil, add water and sun. Think about the cumulative effects of one small step, little bits of effort in the direction of beauty and joy, every day. Think about the aftermath of positive labor. Think about how far you have been allowed to come away from the girl who lived inside a too-white, too-quiet house in the middle of this country, how clean and painted she was, how plastic and silent. Think about the language the dirt speaks. Think about the soil under your fingernails. Think about what it means to be in ongoing communion with all sorts of life.

“as alive as any animal”

Yesterday, the poem asked: What do I do with my body if it’s not a secret? Today, the poem says:

This soup is alive as any animal,
and the yeast and cream and rye
will sing inside you after eating
for a long time.

– from “Bread Soup: An Old Icelandic Recipe” by Bill Holm

Today, I am anxious to get off the computer. I want to be in the garden. I want to read about sourdough starter, about cool vs. warm rises, I want to bring my second attempt at san francisco sourdough bread back up to temperature (it rose in the fridge overnight) so that I can put it in the oven and get breakfast going. I want to learn about soil textures and compositions, learn how to tell what nutrients the soil’s abundant in based on what weeds are growing there. I want to learn about soil amendments and natural fertilizers. I want to figure out the best way to grow watermelons here in Oakland so that a certain young man isn’t disappointed again this growing season. I want to go to the local organic nursery and pick out native plants and organic varietals that will thrive during this coming thirsty summer. Then I want to go to an urban recycling center to find a big bucket to catch shower water (while the water’s heating up, say) to help water the garden. And a bird feeder. And a top for the bird bath.

There’s a lot I want to do these days that doesn’t involve sitting in front of the computer — or even a notebook. The work I want right now is a different sort of bodily work. It’s whole body work. Kneading, digging, bending, planting, pulling work. It’s listening to longer rhythms than the immediate insistence of twitter of facebook will ever allow. It’s thinking ahead: ok, if I want this bread for dinner, tomorrow, then I have to start it now. Or : Ok, if I want to plant this weekend, then I better spend these weekday afternoons weeding and preparing the beds– and that means spending time outside working in the sun rather than hunched here over this little computer.

That is to say, the thinking these days looks less like, What do I need to do to grow my business?, and more like, What can I do today to grow a life?

This is a fairly significant shift in my thinking, needless to say.

There’s a book I love that I discovered while I was a Hedgebrook a couple of years ago — World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, by Christian McEwen. (Sneak a peek up there at Amazon, and then buy a copy directly from the publisher here.) I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately (I’d flip through it again, but my copy has walked away from the Writing Ourselves Whole library — that happens sometimes) — McEwen describes how necessary it is for creative folks to slow down, feel our rhythms, be all the way in our lives. Through personal anecdotes and examples from hundreds of creative folks, McEwen makes the case for a slower — rather than fast and multitasky — creative life: she describes the artist’s need to wander (literally and figuratively), to have space for silence and dreams, to do one thing at a time, to have space for deep connection with others and room in our lives for alone time Not everyone will resonate with her arguments. I myself bought a copy of her book as soon as I returned from Hedgebrook and dipped into its pages whenever I needed to counter the voices in my head (not to mention all those business-coach types out there on the interwebs) clamoring at me to do more and go faster and do it all now now now now now.

So I am listening to that part of me that wants to do other work: the building a life work. And what I notice–as I give my attention to the people I love and the garden and tend to a puppy’s hurt foot and dig up oxalis out of the raised beds and make lists of plants I absolutely must get into the ground this year (so many more than will fit in this small yard, mind you)–is that I don’t have to force myself to write when I sit down to the notebook or this little computer: the words begin to percolate around the edges. They are fermenting in the deep and bready parts of me. They are finding their own slow rise back to into my fingers. They come again to be as alive as all these other animal parts of me. I feed the words in this slowing down, even as it looks, on the surface, like I am turning away from them. This is a good kind of creative parenting. This is making a life I can live in.

come back

Angel breaking through the wallGood morning. The music is going, the coffee is percolating, and the rose blooms wide open, like my body. I am surrounded by the books that I love and the home I have made for myself.

I want to tell you that I never believed I could get here, to this place, of possibility and celebration. I reach back into the years of despair, if only to remember again what it felt like to wake up hopeless, if only to remember what it felt like to not ache, not believe. I hoped and longed for and wanted but did not believe I deserved. I did not ever see myself getting here, to the place I wanted: a body that was certain of and curious about itself, hands filled with words and joy, a little apartment in the city that was a haven for language and resilience. But that is what I have.

Today’s post is brought to you by this quote from a poem by Kallie Falandays:
“I want to give you your history back.
Your fingers back. I want to tell you yes.”

and by this quote from Carl Jung:

“In the final analysis, we count for something only because of the essential that we embody. If we do not embody that, life is wasted.”

This morning I want to say yes. I am afraid, and I am resolved. These are the things that I can do. I can write sex, I can adore poetry, I can wonder at the mystery of the world. I can find words for the tenderest absurdities that occur in the erotic body, I can be a woman who clawed her way back into her own skin. I can remember what it was like to feel outside of my own bones. I can laugh at what wants to dissuade me. I can long for your yes. I can find words for this now of our recovery. I can be the girl with the birds in the back of her throat.

I may never be the safe and clean thing you’d hoped to birth. I may be always sharing words of danger with the strangers who hover around your shoulders.

The poet says, “I want to give you your history back. I want to give you your fingers back. I want to tell you yes.” I want you to know your essences, I want you to feel the importance of your presence on this earth surging through every one of your cells. I want yes to sing through your every syllable. I am speaking to the hardened and to the lost. I am speaking to you who is stuck in her bed. I am speaking to the old me, to the me I’ll be again: despairing and certain she will be forgotten. I am speaking to the one who knows for sure she will never desire again. I am speaking to the broken, to you who do not believe you will ever be welcome to to unfurl.

I want your myriad, cacophonous voices. I want your heavy stories. I want the words that lodge at the back of your throat. I want your mysteries and countenances. I want the history that you have not been allowed to share. I want to hear why you’re sure it’s your fault. I want to listen to you. I want the room to listen to you. I want you to take up all the airtime you need. I want you to talk for hours. I want your words to fill the world. I want the lenses to focus in I want everything to center on you. I want you to tell us. I want you to say it. I want you to put them into words, all those hauntings that shred the edges of your consciousness, your everyday walk to work, your now.

Come back to us. Don’t keep all your songs to yourself. Allow yourself to offer the generosity of the horror that lives in your bones. Do you understand me? Your history is not your burden to carry alone. You are not meant to do this work alone. You are meant to have other hands help you in the carrying, other ears and lungs and legs; it is not meant to be that the deepest intimacy in your life is between you and your violator. Do you understand me? You are meant to settle into the circle of darkness and light that we all share. You are meant to be a part of this humanity, this collection of desecrations and holy knowings, this confabulation of traumas and resiliences. You are not alone. No one will know your story if you do not share it with us. No one will know what you saw and felt and know if you do not release those ephemera and terrors into language.

We need all the wordings you can wonder yourself into. We need them to know you, and to know ourselves. Get lost in the sorrow if you have to — of course, sometimes we all have to — but come back soon. We need what you have to tell us. The essence of you is a necessary part of this earthly existence. Tell us what you have seen.

Thank you.

letting life in around the words

Trees
~Bishal Karna
 
About life

I started writing a book.

Writing the book

Became my life.
 
About writing a book
I started writing a book.
Writing about writing the book
Became my life.
 
Meanwhile,
The mango plants in my garden
Bear delicious fruits.

~~ ~~ ~~

This poem fits today: I’ve spent so many years tangling with how to write the story of my life that I can get pulled right out of actually living it. This morning I spent a little time in my garden, after four or five days being away from it. I was frustrated with myself because I hadn’t gotten out of bed early to do my morning pages.

I was awake at five, but my body was achy, I’d only gotten about five hours of sleep, blah blah blah: all the usual excuses rose up in me when I thought about swinging my legs over the side of the bed and slipping out from under the covers — only this morning, I listened to them. I let them win. I fluffed my pillow, curled into a new and more comfortable position, and went back to sleep. When my alarm went off at 5:30, I proceeded to play the snooze game for another half an hour, until my sweetheart came in to (sweetly) inquire as to whether I ever planned to join the day.

Meanwhile, in my only-sort-of-sleeping-inbetween-the-snooze-going-off-every-nine-minutes state of mind, I was deep into the self-recrimination: you say you want to write but you don’t even have the discipline to get yourself out of bed.

Do you ever get tired of writing (about) your excuses?

Today, the page didn’t feel like a friend. I imagined pulling myself from under the covers, thumping down the stairs to the kitchen, lighting the candle and opening the notebook, only to be confronted with the leer of all those empty, blue lines: now do you have something worthwhile to say? Just for today, I couldn’t bear it. Please, don’t give me more room for rumination that I’m supposed to pretend is art. Please, don’t force me to be of use this early in the day.

So much inner critic, which gets louder and louder the more often I hit snooze. Then I fell back asleep and dreamt about my stepfather, who’s been visiting me in my dreams lately. He doesn’t say much — he’s a presence and an energy, something that lives in me now as one of the layers of my psychic majesty. Today he wanted some protocol followed that I didn’t want to participate in but finally capitulated to. I called him sir, in the dream (which never was the case in real life), when I gave in to his instruction. A half-swallowed sir, something he didn’t require but that I’d added reflexively. Some layers here.

Then I woke up again and it was seven and I’d missed all the good of the day because the sun was already up. You ruined another one, Jen, said the inner critic. (So easy to do so much wrong and be asleep for most of it!) There was much commotion in the house, readying for school and work, so there was no way I could focus now on my morning pages. I just had to forget about writing and hope that maybe tomorrow I do it better. This is the morning bargain with the inner critic, who would like me to either have conditions be perfect (which they never are) or forgo writing altogether: tomorrow I’ll be perfect, I promise.

And then I thought this line: sometimes the page doesn’t feel friendly — and something fluttered like a feeling through my body: maybe I’ll go ahead and write anyway.

And then I got out of the damn bed and passed through the morning’s fray directly into the garden, which was in dire need of watering (and weeding, maybe: I can’t decide whether to treat the purple oxalis like a pest or like lush ground cover — or steam it up for lunch). Once I picked up the hose and started talking to the mints and the johnny-jump-ups, something shifted in me. I was in another element, another part of my life: I was letting life be life. Some days don’t have to be perfect. Some days can start off on the wrong foot (or no feet and difficult dreams) and shift easily back into alignment if I listen to my instincts and simply try and take the next right step.

I watered and looked over the damage Sophie had wrought during a weekend mostly unsupervised — some carrot sprouts dug up, one salvia plant in need of serious splinting. While I was engaged in this effort, the closed and self-shamed bits in me began to open up, peek out from behind their hiding places, pointing out other spots that needed water, sections of the garden that need fertilizing, one of the newly-planted rosemary bushes that had just begun to put out tiny blue flowers. There was a shifting in me. The day wasn’t ruined. Just breathe. Everything’s ok. The critic wasn’t as audible anymore.

Now I’m out in the sun, typing up this damn post, and grateful. After I’m done, I’ll go into the garden and do a bit more pruning. The tomatoes have finally given up the ghost — it’s time to pull up the plants and hang them upside down til all the last green tomatoes ripen.

What if you trust your process this morning? What words would come if you imagined writing anyway, for just fifteen minutes, even though everything’s wrong? And then — what if nothing is wrong?

Thanks for your spaciousness today, for your listening heart and wise, writing hands. Thank you for your words.

taking breaks and being selfish

Good morning this beautiful morning — how is the sun singing to you this morning? How are you letting yourself into the sky’s day?

I am back to this blog writing after a bit of a vacation — I’m sorry for the long absence. I went back east for about a week, and got to nestle and swim in the New England summer. During vacation I read a lot, swam in the Pacific, visited with friends and family, sunbathed, walked in the rain — I wrote, too, though not on the computer.

I don’t like to spend much time on the computer while I’m on vacation; I take myself offline, and though I keep my phone close at hand so I can take pictures, I avoid email and my social networking apps. Being away from the (perceived) demands of social media allows me to take a real break, to slow down, to pay a different kind of attention. I feel less scattered when I’m offline — though it can take a day or so for the quality of my awareness to recalibrate from easily distractable and multi-task-oriented toward something more focused and yet with a wider peripheral vision. I begin to walk more slowly. I turn away from the screens, letting my eyes open back to the real world that surrounds me.

I tend to feel guilty for taking these sorts of media-input breaks, like I’m in avoidance mode. This is an old feeling, and comes from the years in college when I would, in fact, avoid the phone and email so that I could tell my stepfather that I honestly hadn’t been aware of his many and varied attempts to contact me. I would turn the phone’s ringer off and turn down the volume on the answering machine. This was before voice mail, though — I wasn’t able to avoid hearing the cassette tape whir into motion once the recorded greeting started to play, and I couldn’t turn down the tape as it recorded his message to me, sometimes sweet and wheedling, sometimes threatening and angry. So I’d leave the apartment, wandering the streets of my small college town for hours, holing up in cafes where I wrote and wrote and wrote, always aware of what I was doing: avoiding the phone, not being where my abuser wanted me to be.

In her book World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down, Christian McEwen writes: “The practicing artist is, by definition, someone who is able to build a life around his or her own creative work. Inevitably, such a person will have considered his or her attitude to time. What matters is not how much they actually have, but how best to inhabit it and make it spacious: how to allow room in which attention can take root.”

By necessity, during those years, I learned the power of making time for my generative, creative life — even all these years later, though, the powerful and useful practice of taking space from communicative devices can be, for me, tinged with guilt and shame: I internalized the sense that I’m running away from something or someone, that when I make space for my creative self, I am taking something from someone else.

You don’t have to have an abuser telling you that you’re selfish for not being at their beck and call to have this particular lesson take hold: we get this message from our work, our families, our communities — that we are selfish if we say we need time for our art, particularly when the time we need looks to someone outside our own head like time being wasted on a walk in the woods or reading poetry or daydreaming or otherwise creating the sort of open, woolgathering headspace and heartspace necessary for generating creative work.

How do we unlearn this message, that time not spent doing work that benefits someone else is time wasted? Or that time spent in our creative process is time spent selfishly? Or that being selfish with our time is always a bad thing?

How do you challenge that idea?

After all these years, I still have to breathe deep into the anxiety that when I get done with my writing time, I’m going to have to deal with someone’s fury. I don’t — if someone is going to be angry with me for taking the time I need to write, I gently encourage them not to be in my life anymore. Sometimes I succumb to the fear of selfishness: I stop taking the time I need to write, in favor of spending time with other people. After several days of this, I hit overload. Every. Single. Time. I become cranky, achy, short-tempered, and less able to concentrate on anything or anyone. I end up needing lots of time to myself in order to come back into balance.

It’s kind of like the way I still sometimes binge, when I’m feeling really bad about myself, which then reminds me that my body doesn’t respond well to that kind of overstuffing — that that coping mechanism doesn’t serve me anymore, and I deserve to take care of my body in other ways.

I have to learn and relearn these lessons: when I allow myself the practices that I need in order to be in balance — which includes both “free” time (which is the playtime that my psyche needs in order to keep the words flowing) and writing time — then I am better able to engage in my relationships.  Not everyone works this way, but I do.

What do you need in order to fully inhabit your creative self? Can you write about those conditions and desires for ten minutes or so today? Notice how your body feels when you write about what helps our writing to flow… and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

Thank you for going as slow as you need to go. Thank you for your words, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.