How to fall down
I have a friend who has a problem she chooses to keep. She is always late, no matter what. She hates being late. It’s stresses her out. She forgets things. Breaks things. Wastes money because she doesn't get time to pack lunch. She shows up schvitzing. Her eyes are watering. Her face is red. She's all apologies. And yet day after day she’ll admit to not having left enough time to get from where she was to where she needed to be. She’ll admit to having tried to squeeze one more thing in to her morning routine, one more phone call with a client, one more page of a new grant.
My dad is very busy even though he “retired” going on thirteen years ago. Two days a week he works at the VA Hospital where he used to be on staff as a clinical psychologist. Three nights a week he has patients and comes home around 9. He designs programs for education nonprofits. He has a brilliant German friend who moved to Alabama for whom he’s always doing some mystery work. None of us know what it is. It’s referred to as “Alabama” and he enjoys it largely because of the brilliant German friend. He now heads up the board of the condominium complex where my parents live. He’s still sorting out all his mother’s paperwork. He does his own paperwork for his private practice, an activity always accompanied by a great deal of swearing about managed health care. Then he’s got the same stuff to fit into his day as anybody else: bills, taxes, exercise. And the thing is, he really wants to write. He’s got the beginning of a novel, which is awesome (and yes, anyone can tell you writing an awesome beginning of a novel is the easy part, but still, for a math person turned psychologist, he’s definitely got writing chops). He says he wants to write a memoir. He’s got a great short story and the two of us wrote a self-help book years ago that’s been languishing on the shelf, not helping anybody, least of all ourselves. But, the point is, despite all these writing dreams—and potential—he finds time for everything but writing.
Whenever I talk to him and he mentions some new thing he’s doing and says, “It’s just been so busy”.
I answer, “The way you like it”.
He says, “I don’t like it like that. I want more time.”
I did something recently he’s often done with me – which is go over his schedule hour by hour. There’s plenty of time in there for writing. Yes, he’s busy, but not having time for writing is a problem he chose to keep. Drowning in paperwork is easier than facing the blank page.
My mom hates clutter. She’s organized, loves to plan, and good at keeping track of details. At 29 she was a head librarian in a branch library in Stockton, California. But the most important spaces in her house—her bedroom and her desk--are always laden down with papers and all kinds of crap. She makes them into spaces she doesn’t want to be in.
What’s weird is she’s okay with empty space and loves time alone. She doesn’t need noise or distractions to block out anxiety, chooses reading over TV, and is perfectly okay with quiet. So why does she choose to be surrounded by chaos in those spaces where she most wants peace? I can't figure it out.
What dream does it keep buyoed up, out there in the distance, the vague, shimmering unreachable realm of "someday" or "if I only had time"? I think she would love the dream described by Elizabeth Bishop in the poem "The End of March",
“I'd like to retire there and do nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.”
and yet the bare room is the one thing she can't allow.
Clutter, being busy, running late -- these are all versions of the same thing. I think about the places these demons hound me in my own life. In almost every case it seems clear the result is the same, keeping something you really want out of reach.
Here, from Heather Sellers in Page after Page
"Not being busy. That is the greatest, most fearless act we can commit. That is a way of thanking, praising God for ensouling us. Being, and not distracting ourselves with the illusion of power that is busy....
For me, it's too passive, too fake, too braggy to always be saying how busy I am...
Get real, I want to say to my "busy" friends. Be accurate and tell the truth... You do have time. Get a grip. Time is not all that surprising."
In April I got to the post office at 6 on Tax Day and felt my old sense of disappointment at getting there too early. According to the signs, I could have waited until 11:50 PM, ran over nearly shaking with adrenaline anxiety, dropped it in the box, and still had gotten my checks to the IRS postmarked on time. What a drag, I thought, waltzing out into the lovely April evening, before recognizing what that impulse was. It was my version of being late to meet friends, my version of taking on one more thing even though I’m already “so busy,” my version of the cluttered bedroom that circumvents true peace. Racing to get the taxes in on time is just another way to pretend to defeat time, to get all out of sorts so that I wouldn't have to think about getting much of anything else done that day. Everything is chaos. If I just manage to get the envelopes in by midnight -- I'll have jumped through all the hoops I need to.
It's easy to make getting the taxes in on time, something I had months to do, into a giant obstacle course for a single day, to get to the other end panting, and feeling pretty good.
These are all the same story. We have – most of us – problems that we choose to keep. Why? Because the hardest thing in the world is to be your own man (I should say person, but man sounds better). That’s the thing – freedom – agency – self-individuation, reaching our full potential – that we’ll do anything to avoid.
So instead there are the hours, weeks, and years devoted to searching for the lost wallet or the misplaced keys, to cleaning up the broken glass, complaining about the unfair boss, bemoaning the lack of eligible singles in New York, blaming the lazy coworkers or the loud party upstairs, wasting time going a block out of the way to avoid the pushy neighbors, picking up the phone call from the demanding friend, cursing the insufferable forms, the corrupt judge, the crazy tiger mom pressure of achievement. We are awash in externalized conflict, fights we pick rather than real existential struggle, playing therapist’s to friends, any excuse, anything, it’s “this damn compulsion to justify everything I do”, the refusal, refusal, to be your own person, to face the empty space, the bare room, the blank page, the lonely track, the silent classroom, to truly make your own decisions, to do the best with the little time you have, with the unfair boss and unruly students and horrible forms you have to fill out, the loud neighbors, the keyboard with the missing “a”. To accept that today is judgment day, today you hold a sweaty little ripped off piece of paper in your pocket, and it’s up to you to scrawl something on it, something to tell the world or keep like a secret, but either way, to acknowledge once and for all that it’s up to you.
People will create religions to answer to, search for bosses everywhere, in my case, create a blog and then imagine criticism of the posts I do write or irritation at the ones I don’t, imaginary reactions yet another projected smokescreen of some internal, endless battle to keep me from fighting one I really want to fight.
As for the essential conflict in all my stories and novels? They are problems, I realize now, I choose to have my characters keep. It's like I won't let them self-actualize, won't let them continue through all the stage of Joseph Campbell's hero's journey. There are the tests, the enemies, the trials and setbacks, but I just won't let them get through to the other side of the main ordeal. The mortal enemy is never faced down. I won't let them return to their own island holding an elixir. By not finishing my projects, I am keeping them from true growth, keeping them from mastery.
When you study Judo, Alex tells me, you spend the first few months just learning how to fall down. That’s it. You put on that white outfit. You go into the dojo (classroom) and then “ha–boom”--Alex got up and demonstrated for me, in the kitchen, after dinner--again and again, all you do is fail, you just keep falling down. Every single possible way and from every direction. Nothing else is even relevant, until you've mastered that.