The three best things that happened to me yesterday happened before 6:30am: 1) a line in a poem that wouldn’t come right seemed like it would; 2) I thought of a way to return to a writing project that I keep abandoning; and 3) my 4-year old son walked into the kitchen in his penguin pajamas with his armload of sleeping paraphenalia and said, “Hello there, my friend.”
Last night I was on a panel about self-care, talking about therapeutic writing. Luckily two other smart, insightful people with useful things to say were on the panel too, because the idea of self-care seems like a big load of nonsense to me. I like the idea of being kind to ourselves, but take a good look around folks, and ask yourselves if what we could all stand is a tad more self-regulation.
What I am against in particular about the marketing of “self-care” is that it always seems to involve flowers and bathing in candlelight. The message is that, done properly, “self-care” is supposed to magically make you happier, calmer, more comfortable, and most importantly, a better person.
for Gabe at the start of his season
When he was about 7, Gabe said to me, in his odd, precise way, “Well, you aren’t often wrong.” He wouldn’t say that now. Just shy of 9, he’s seen many things go wrong. Yet there is a growing sense that some important things are being set right. Being made new, made whole. Leaves are falling, but there is also a harvest coming.
Poetry, like God, does not dwell in the periphery of life. And like God, poetry is “a street-fighter, with sharp elbows” (David Whyte). Both poetry and a relationship with something greater than yourself demand awareness. And awareness is essential to staying alive.
So when I ask, “When was God present in your life today?” it is an unsentimental question. I am asking you when you felt the shared woundedness of being alive and the rawness of connection, without which, we don’t have a chance.
Was it when you got into a cab, and the driver, a woman you know, said, “I apologize for being late. I lost my son. I mean, he died. I mean, he was shot and killed. Two weeks ago. And I just, you know, can’t wrap it around my head yet. So just bear with me.” Was it then, when you prayed for something–anything–to come in and fill the space around such a precious, agonizing, searing expression of human experience?
Was it in the persistent kindness of a friend, someone whose insistence on reaching you finally made it through your self-absorption and woke you up, again, to the awareness that our most disastrous fuck-ups and heartbreaking struggles are also the openings that allow us to be on the receiving end of extraordinary kindness?
Was it when you confessed some huge, complicated, emotionally overblown nonsense that had taken up residence in your head, and the friend who was listening looked directly at you and said, “Girl, that is some sick-ass shit you’re doing to yourself. Just stop it.”
When did God show up and make it possible for you to stay here, right here, today, awake and aware? And where do you need help with this? Is it in the phone call to a sick friend you’re afraid to make? Is it in all the small things that, when combined, make your state of mind become a state of mindlessness?
Ask for help. Ask for courage. Ask boldly, as a “child of the king.” Help comes, breathing space into the impossibly tight corners, the frozen lungs. And in your own inhaling and exhaling, you will help someone else remember to breathe.
Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to the life/
We have refused
Again and again
by David Whtye
In what Alcoholics Anonymous folks call “The Big Book (1945),” there is a lovely passage about how life changes in recovery. These changes are referred to by AAs as “the promises.” One of the promises is that “we will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.” You really don’t need to be an alcoholic to get a leg up on this.
Of “the promises,” The Big Book says, “Are these extravagant promises? We think not.” The purpose of this statement is to reassure people in recovery that recovery itself is not extravagant, i.e., not beyond the bounds of reason or of what is deserved. That it is possible.
But recovery is in fact extravagant, in the very best sense of the word. In the same sense that Sacha Scoblic uses the word “lush” to describe her sobriety (her pun very much intended). Any life not deadened by apathy or constrained by fear is lush, luscious, extravagant.
I was cleaning out my office the other day, and I found a copy of a 2004-2005 University of Illinois publication called “The March to the Arch.” 2004-2005 was a huge year for men’s basketball at the University of Illinois, and this publication chronicled the team’s amazing year, which I only knew about because even though I was here at the time, my dad and my friend Ann told me about it. But really, it was a big huge deal; it was the 100th season of men’s basketball at UIUC, and the team made it to the NCAA National Championship, where they lost to the University of North Carolina 75–70. They ended the season with an overall record of 37–2, tying the NCAA record for most wins in a season, and a conference record of 15-1.
Well, whatever. The main thing I remember about that year is that diehard Illini fans really loved this team as a TEAM, that they exuded an incredible spirit when were on the court together. The only reason I’m thinking about it now is because inside the booklet that I found in my office were two pieces of paper with autographs on them: Dee Brown’s and Deron Williams’. When I tell you that I could care less about basketball (or any other sport, really), it’s beyond understatement. But for some reason, I felt caught up enough in the campus spirit to ask these two young men for their autographs one afternoon when Ann and I saw them standing outside the Illini Union. Why? Noooo clue (can you say “fairweather fan??”).
I don’t know why people do this with “famous” people: get autographs or other artifacts that somehow manage to obscure the fact that “famous people” are just human beings, and despite our adoration and/or devotion, we can’t really “get” anything from them. Also, they are not more than us, nor are we less than them. When I met David Whyte, it wasn’t as a famous person; I didn’t want to touch him, or to ask him to sign anything, or take a picture of myself with him. I wanted to meet him as a human being, one who seemed possessed of a particular kind of wisdom that offered a way of looking at the world that was (and still is) deeply interesting to me. I really, really wanted to talk with him. And to my still enormous astonishment and gratitude, that’s just what I got to do.
It’s taken me a long time to get up the courage to write about this experience because I was afraid I would sound like a braggy name-dropper. But maybe it’s that enough time has gone by, maybe I’ve eased up on myself, or maybe it’s reading about artists like Summer Pierre, who set 6 and 12-month creative goals for themselves, and have the self-permission to pursue them without getting in their own way. I love this kind of humble confidence–the simple, fierce belief that you, and everyone else, have the right to do something other than what David Whyte calls waking up every day into the “great To Do list” of your life. (Summer Pierre is AMAZING, BTW. Must-reads on her web site: “100 Things,” and the story of how she gave birth to her son on the side of the highway in NYC).
Someone recently asked Barbara Walters who she thought would/could “replace” Oprah as the queen of talk TV. Barbara put her own astute spin on her answer and said, “Lady Gaga.” She wasn’t referring to Lady Gaga as a talk show personality, but rather as a charismatic figure who speaks directly to her fans (her “little monsters”) with a message of empowerment and courage: “It is a different time but the same message: ‘I had to struggle, I couldn’t get there, look at me, I made it, and YOU CAN TOO.’ And both of these women, Lady Gaga at 25 and Oprah in her 50’s, both of them mean it.”
Oprah has always authentically aspired to motivate her viewers, listeners and readers to live their “best lives,” and Gaga does the same. Whether you like her (or even care about her) or not, Lady Gaga is a cultural phenomenon to pay attention to, if for no other reason than the extraordinary popularity she experiences. She is bizarre, real, savvy, and culturally attuned to the complex issue of 21st century identity. She has said: “I am the excuse to explore your identity. To be exactly who you are and to feel unafraid. To not judge yourself, to not hate yourself.”
If this message seems worn out or far removed for you, (e.g. if you had had enough of Oprah’s empowerment talk, or are thrown off by the image of Gaga wearing a raw steak on her head or clumping through an airport in 24″ Viktor & Rolf platforms), take a moment to reflect on how many negative thoughts you had about yourself since you woke up today: 3, 5, 10, 50? Not hating yourself is not about being a TV talk show mega-star, or a theatrical, otherworldly musician; it’s about waking up in the morning and being your own best friend. It’s about talking to yourself as you would to someone you loved. Or, at the very least, being someone who, as Anne Lamott writes, is militantly on your own side. We all need more practice at that.
This post is a story about the terror and the triumph of following your passion.
In my quest to become more domestic (more on this soon), I’ve been scouring “Ladies Home Journal” and “Women’s Day.” In one of these magazines (or perhaps it was “Real Simple”), I read about one mother’s approach to Mother’s Day, and though she was pretty vague on the details, the bottom line was this: she asked each of her 9 (or 12 or 15) kids to write (or draw) a message to her. The confusing part of the article was that sometimes the messages related to Mother’s Day and some to her birthday, but never mind. Nothing about motherhood is perfect.
January is a confusing month. First you get the sort of upswing of energy that comes from making it through Christmas, and it’s an emotional, albeit somewhat arbitrary fresh start. It ushers in the pledging allegiance to the delusions of New Year’s Resolutions, though if you read my post about resolutions, you know my thoughts on that. But then comes the emotional and psychological downswing of the fact that it’s actually January. Two more months of winter (if you’re lucky), on top of the insanity of the fact that in your least reliable state of mind you have new self-imposed stuff that you feel like you have to do (if you’ve made resolutions), like lose weight, be nicer, be happier, be more organized, work harder, transform your personality so you fit in with the rest of the world, just generally try to be a more acceptable human being, blah, blah, blah. And also, it’s cold and gray.
My personal fantasy about January is that should be declared The Official Month of Freedom. In other words, you don’t have to do ANYTHING. Of course, your kids would still go to school and/or daycare, but every adult would receive vouchers for massages, home food delivery, housecleaning, esp. the crap stuff you never get to like the floorboards, behind the washing machine and dryer, and that one spot behind the toilet that you know you have to get to because your mother-in-law would, but you don’t really have the energy or generational self-respect to try. For a week or two, you would have Staff. Does anyone agree with me on this? Should we start a petition?