Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Warrior and the Artist

This morning a friend of mine told me he had received a piece of good news the night before. Something drastic and immensely stressful that was right about to happen in his life was no longer going to happen. Because the "sword of Damocles", as he called it, was no longer hanging over his head, a decision which had been easy -- leave the situation he was in and avoid that sword -- now became hard. Stay, or go? It's actually a rather critical life decision for him, and there are convincing arguments for either option. No looming sword of Damocles to cut through the vortex of indecision and clarify things. I wrote him back saying I was thrilled to hear the news but that I wondered if this made his decision all the harder. "It's like the universe saying -- you're not getting off that easy. you have to make your own decisions," I wrote.

He answered briefly..."yes and yes and yes," ending with, "Slept well last night. Felt like a gift from God."

In my haste reading his email dashed off in haste from his "mobile device", I misunderstood the last line and took it to be some incredible level of enlightenment, where the chance to be self-actualized, to stand up and make a really hard decision by himself, was something he took as a gift from above. "The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice," says George Eliot.

Turns out what my friend meant by "the gift" was, simply, the good night's sleep.  And it's gotta be a little easier to sleep, without a sword hanging over your neck, held up by merely a horse hair.

 I think I jumped to the enlightenment idea because the night before I'd been reading The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel. The subtitle is "Using Jewish Traditions to Raise Self-Reliant Children" but you don't have to buy into the religious stuff (I don't) to get a huge amount out of it. 

Last night before I went to bed, I read in the section called "The Blessing of Longing" which included a brief Jewish prayer for when bad things happen, thanking God for "this test of my spiritual elevation". What was happening with my angst-ridden friend wasn't a bad thing, it was, as I wrote in the first line--good news--but the tough decision ahead now certainly seems to qualify as a test of this friend's spiritual elevation. He will have to stretch himself further to make this decision. It will be a more difficult battle, an internal one, now, the hardest to face. 

I only know Judaism culturally, not from a religious aspect, but what I'm reading about it in the book make it sound so Buddhist. Gratitude, the feeling that you always have more than enough, living to serve others, accepting trials, even finding the holy quality to mundane chores. Mogel writes, "The ancient rabbis all had day jobs" and for Jews, despite the emphasis on scholarship, "intellectual study alone is suspect". When she writes: "No task is too simple or too menial to be elevated by our awareness of its potential connection to holiness", doesn't that sound like Buddhism? Or at least what you know about Buddhism from reading Eat, Pray, Love?

The point that I zeroed in on, influenced by Wendy Mogel's book, is that it's a good thing, a blessing if you will, to be forced to make your own decisions. On this blog I've talked about a million different ways people try avoid doing that. Letting time get sucked away online or by overbearing friends or by an absolutely pointless scramble to the top. Over-identifying with achievements of your kids. Keeping up with superficial neighbors. Escaping into TV land or overtired negative feedback loops -- why don't you get up earlier? Too tired. Why don't you go to bed earlier? Too wide awake because I took a nap. Of course it's endless. Deliberately missing deadlines. Complaining but not making any changes. Or, maybe the most dangerous, denying any unhappiness or uncertainty at all. This doesn't even get into substance abuse, gambling addiction, other ways to avoid facing the almost always exhausting task of becoming who we are. 

In The War of Art by Steven Pressfield--I keep quoting it because it's all about resistance to big life goals--he says: 

“It may be that the human race is not ready for freedom. The air of liberty may be too rarefied for us to breathe. Certainly I wouldn’t be writing this book, on this subject, if living with freedom were easy. The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.”

For the uncertain friend of mine, this choice he has to make is an opportunity for real growth, a chance to live with freedom. Maybe he will accept it, or maybe he'll seek a master to govern his time and ambition. Some of it depends on how well he has learned to swim.

In Dr. Mogel's book, she says the most important line in Jewish teaching with regards to parenting is to teach a child to swim. Though many kids--starting at zero--are enrolled in swimming lessons, metaphorically, fewer and fewer are being taught by their parents how to swim by themselves. 

With knee-pads for toddlers learning to walk, spotters to catch you at the end of the slide, parents to call the teacher and demand a higher grade (apparently it's not uncommon)--growth during childhood is not axiomatic. Physical and academic, yes, hopefully, but mental, emotional, spiritual--sometimes all that learning is long-delayed. Some parents won't let go even post-college. I'm not making this up; it's not rare for parents send out resumes for their kids, and some even join them for job interviews. 

But back to babyhood, where the helicopter stuff begins. Look at this site: Baby's 1st Head Gear Thudguard US. Look at the kid! He looks ready for professional hockey. In the sell copy: "Designed to cushion the everyday bumps and bruises your toddler experiences while learning to crawl" they're not even trying to hide the fact that this is outrageous. They're not even saying, "Prevents the .001% of cases where something catastrophic happens to a toddler's knees while he's learning to walk" . They're just putting it out there: "everyday bumps and bruises" -- routine stuff -- the bumps and bruises toddlers have been somehow able to endure for, oh, I don't know, a couple hundred thousand years or so. Why is it now they suddenly can't tolerate them anymore? And what happens the first time you fall without the padding? Oh wait, still reading here, you don't have to worry about choking circulation off apparently when strapping these things on. That's good. I hadn't even thought of that. And they go up to 72 months, that's...72 divided by 12 (need Jon Stewart for this bit)...6 years old! Are you f_cking kidding me? 

Okay, wait, maybe for 4-6 year olds it's more for riding scooters or roller-skates. But it certainly doesn't say anything about that. It mentions "rough playtime". It advertises the fact that it "gives your infant the confidence to take that all important first step without fear of bumps and bruises" and "Takes the Ouch out of every tumble!"

Tumbles are supposed to have an ouch associated with them! You tumble. You say ouch. You stand back up. Toddlers don't learn to walk because there's no possible chance they'll get hurt while doing so, they learn to walk in spite of the fact that they might get hurt while they're learning. Pain--physical pain--is there for a reason. Without it, you'd just keep doing the same dumb things over and over again. Most of us have learned not to walk straight into a metal pole. And surely you've heard about people who can't feel pain so they'll just stick their hands right into a burning inferno. Not good. Pain tells us what our limits are. But that's just for survival (not the point of my tale, really rather low down on the priority list for most of us). Pain is essential for spiritual learning, too. It's part of the process. You can't truly move forward without facing down some kind of demon.

And I think the universe will keep testing us again and again until we finally "get" some essential lesson. You can run from it for years --escape, avoid, lie, come up with ways not to have to deal with whatever your weak spots are, but it's just gonna keep serving up those opportunities to prove yourself, until you do. And then when you make some progress--like I feel I have, with being more assertive--the tests just get harder, the demands increase.

I read this quote everyday before I begin my work. It's Steven Pressfield again. I have it printed out hanging on the wall next to me. 
“The warrior and the artists live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the same battle must be fought anew everyday.”


On one of those heartbreakingly beautiful days we had two weeks ago, I wrote some notes down immediately after I ran, while I was still out on a pier by Jane Street. I think it was the day after the "dramatic Facebook goodbye". It’s in my awful handwriting with purple pen written over a page stamped with dinosaurs that I found stuffed in my pocket.

And this won’t seem like anything big—because all I’m doing is transcribing something I wrote—but it is. Because this is the step I usually skip. And this is the reason I’m not a famous author by now. (Just kidding – imagine having that level of arrogance?). No, but this is one crucial reason I haven’t finished more projects. Because the problem is I like to create, I like to “channel energy”, (My friend Hein’s words, for what she does with her artwork), I like to write when I have a surfeit of emotion, which is most of the time. But I don’t like squinting at crap I wrote by hand and transcribing it to the computer. I honestly don’t think there’s anything more psychological about it, like some deep-seated block about facing what I had to say, or fear of rejection (got over that with 10 years of singing in a band despite knowing I had a terrible voice). It’s just laziness. It just bores me, irks me, to do it. I liked jotting down the notes, because that was all in the moment when I was feeling it. But later, it's dredge work, the rabbis with their day jobs cutting wood and making cabinets. Like my physics friend wrote in a letter from 1996 regarding a physics problem, “I did the hard part of the problem right, but I was too lazy to finish the easy part.”

And this really has been this massive revelation for me, because most of my stories and novels are finished, at least draft wise, but they’re never in one file, never in a format I can find or read.  And yet, for a decade now, whenever I felt stuck with writing, I’d read a book on writing that said, “Just write”, so, I’d take out a brand new piece of paper or open a brand new word file document, and just write. Maybe it was good advice, but it wasn’t really all that useful for me.

(From the notes in purple pen on the paper stamped with dinosaurs)
I shouldn’t have told Wally that the sun was a star. He was disappointed, just like I was the first time I found out. Hopefully he can forget that and go back to thinking of it as the sun. Well, to us it is. It’s not just any star, it’s the one closest to us, that gives us life. The relationship is what matters. Things like Facebook sometimes obliterate distinguishing lines between near and far objects, between relationships that matter, and ones that don't. It inhibits processing events, it removes natural filters – in friendships, in terms what’s important to share, in what’s important to know or remember. It’s yet another portal bombarding us with meaningless, unsorted, random information that hasn’t been thought out or given any context.

Am I defending my decision to get off Facebook yesterday?

I do sound like I’m protesting a bit too much. I’m protesting, I’m resisting, I’m giving myself talking points, I’m coaching myself, I’m listening to Mozart, I’m looking Wally in the eye, I’m spending time talking to Alex in the morning quietly with coffee and Irish Soda Bread.

But something is tugging at me, still. I’m resisting this massive, global, intoxicating form of resistance. Trying, without much company, to resist resistance.

But it’s not easy, because the desire to be part of a group is so fundamentally wired. It’s how we survived for thousands of years. I think given my genetic makeup I have an even more sharply defined fear of disapproval. My dad’s father came from Poland in the early 1920s. His maternal grandparents came from Russia. They were all Jewish. Fear of disapproval or  stepping away from the group has got to run so strongly in their veins. It didn't mean snickering behind backs, or loneliness. It meant death. My mom’s family comes from Ireland. Post-college, she renounced Catholicism, but blind obedience to authority doesn’t come out in a single wash. I think it's a little bit ingrained. Obeying even crazy, senseless stuff. It’s just what you do. It’s part of a complicated system, more so for Catholics than Protestants I think, with all the saints, and that thing where you save up time to give people in purgatory, can't remember the name. But the punishment for insubordination is pretty clear, regardless. The punishment is hell, literally.

On Facebook, I often felt irritation, envy or boredom, but not sadness. So I think sometimes about how it's a quick fix, the easiest possible way to check out. Bang, get online, poke around, share something cool George Clooney said (I never cared for him at all before, I can't believe how great he is with political stuff). I never felt anything approaching joy on there. But, barring some depressing animal rights post, I wasn't sad, either. And when I started to maybe feel a bit down, I could just get a quick fix of -- again, not happiness, but blankness, disconnection disguised as feeling like you're a part of things. But isn't sadness essential if you want to feel real joy? Muting your life – numbing yourself – with info overload, giving into instant gratification, being wildly connected in a socially mediated way, means you mute everything, good and bad, means you are numb not just to sadness but to real happiness too. Catharsis is necessary. Writers, artists, dancers, readers, theater-goers have always known that. Yet instead of stories in these online forums we resort to momentary impulse, blips and snapshots devoid of meaning. Reading and commenting on these updates, we don’t process, interpret, analyze, create or internalize most of what we're experiencing or exposing ourselves to. In short, we don’t grow.

Growing is always going to be a metaphorical skin shedding, it’s always going to require sacrifice. Something has to go when you force yourself to do it. Whether it’s just the books you’ll never read to create room for the ones you are writing. Or the recording project from 2003 that you're just never gonna finish. Or the clothes you're never going to fit into anymore. Maybe it’s time with friends because you need it for your work. Maybe it’s the self-image you had as the person who’s always up for hanging out. Maybe it was some big life ambition, as it is for my friend, which you might have to leave behind, to fulfill some other, more meaningful, if less impressive, goal. With creation comes destruction. In The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, the author talks a lot about positive and negative life forces and how we all have both. And get this: it's the evil one--they really call it that--that contains all the life energy for reaching your true potential. 

Creating and growing, real self-actualization, keep coming at the cost of the person you were. My dad always quotes, I think Joni Mitchell. "Old friends say I'm acting strange." Whether you make the decision to go or stay, if you move forward, then either way, you leave. A cocoon is safe and protected. But there's not much of a view.

It’s packed out here on the Highline and river. I miss the solitude of running  on crappy days when it's windy or rainy. Solitude is hard to come by in Manhattan. I don’t even feel it in the apartment because it’s so loud in there, and also because of my own addictions to checking email obsessively and, in recent weeks, going on FB daily. I guess that’s what’s good about it too. With the touch of a button, you’re not “alone”. Look at all these other people posting, commenting on your comments, “liking” something you posted. 

But I need emptiness to create. I need the blank page. The time alone with my thoughts. Like Twyla Tharp (the choreographer), I need the white empty room.

It feels like full summer today. I like to pretend I'm running by the ocean, which leads me to think about the cottage, our family’s house by the sea, long since sold to some other family. Wally’s been saying he wants to live in a house lately. And that he wants to sleep with Sky again (our dog who lives in Massachusetts now with four other dogs (and really nice people, not sure how many). He wrote this little book in school, dictated the words to the teachers, and drew the pictures. It was a fill-in-the-blank feelings book. The one that really struck me was “I get angry when…”and he said, “I can’t see the stars at night”.

A few minutes ago I was annoyed waiting to cross the West Side highway around 14th street because there was a whole gaggle of people –bikers and joggers – waiting to cross with me.  I wandered off on this little path to get away from them, and when I did, I saw these clumps of chives, just growing wild by the side of the highway. I picked some, and smelled them. It brought me back instantly to standing in the backyard of the cottage where chives always grew. That backyard was like this holy place. The yard was rolling and full of giant rocks, and one really neat tree, but it bordered against a huge field that went down to the woods and then beyond that you could see the Housatonic river. You couldn’t see the ocean itself, two blocks away, but there were these wetlands there that were just radiant in the evening, when the sun lit them up. It was wild. I could never believe it. I never thought a day would come when we wouldn't have that view.

But here, now, there are chives growing right in the middle of the city, right alongside the West Side Highway, growing whether someone takes care of them or not, whether someone enjoys them or not.

(Back to today)

The important thing is to grow, whatever the outcome. To always grow, and to reject those things—in so far as you’re able—that inhibit growth.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve at times had the desire erase earlier posts…especially ones from the first year I began writing here, 2010. But I steel myself against mortification, and tell myself not to. Leave them there. More important than the fact that I am not totally incoherent, crazy, and conflicted now, balancing motherhood, writing and relationships, is the fact that I was, just two years ago. That a series of tiny decisions along the way led me to feel more centered and responsible for how I spend my time, now. If anything, it's the change that should be applauded, not the fact that feeling this way came easily (it didn’t!) The part I should be pleased with is the hard-won fight, pushing against resistance, the accomplishments of the tortoise not the hare.
The sun is a star, a third-generation star, composed--like everything in our solar system--from two other stars that burned out billions of years ago. But the key point is where it stands in relation to those of us who live here on earth. Context matters. On this day, God willing, Universe willing--heaving curve balls and hard decisions at us like meteoroids--we are further along than we were yesterday.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Urban Garden

We are starting again from scratch, with growing carrot tops. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Sleepwalking through Cyberspace

The answer to the question “Just how much time did you spend on Facebook?” gets to the heart of what I find so insidious about it. Really, I think I'm being honest--I did not spend much time. I posted every now and then, liked photos, commented here and there. I blocked tons of people from my news feed. I did not lurk around very often. But it was background noise, and I already have enough of that, living where I live.  Maybe some people don't.

It was okay when I went on Facebook once a week or so, but it had become something I was checking daily, several times a day. An avalanche of senseless, disconnected, unprocessed information. Yes, it was often amusing. It was nice to see updates on friends. There were some people I was happy to be in better touch with because of it. And I liked our neighborhood gang—finding out about the baby crocodiles at Chelsea market or that they were having a picnic by the river that night.

But it was something that, more and more, was on the in the background. The supposed benefits of multitasking have long been disproved. And so the toggling back and forth between work and email and news or anything-at-all on the internet was simply a way to make my work take longer and my thinking less clear. Often when I am stuck somewhere on a project, my first instinct is to immediately distract myself with email/FB. Check it, then back to work. Write a few more sentences, then check again. Instead of pushing through a difficult spot, I’d just blank out, put off the real thinking for a few minutes. (Unless I was charging by the hour—that kept me on track.)

It’s not the hours clocked on social media, so much as the way they undermine a flow state, cause interference, create static, and derail us from answering the question, “How do I want to spend my time?” And most importantly, living out our answer.

If you check email or FB first thing in the morning, you’ve just run through everyone else’s priorities instead of your own, first. You might not answer them, but they’re there, nagging in your head. Oh yeah, have to answer Billy about what I’m bringing to Easter. Oh right, there’s the toddler meeting this week. Heather’s birthday. Remind Jeannine to send my 1099. I haven’t sent a check to Mark yet for The Walk for Hunger. All that, before even listing out, musing about, or even giving any thought at all what it is I want to get done that day. Many people know the experience of being legitimately busy all day—at work or home—but never getting done the essential tasks, in short, not prioritizing. I think all these things crowding the airwave undermine our ability to prioritize. Everything feels urgent.

If every time I get a free moment—or sometimes not even free, already playing with Wally, for example—I check some form of social media, it’s distracting, throwing me off course. Instead of saying, “I should do the piggy bank thing with Wally today” and committing to it, I just let myself be pinged around, let the afternoon dissolve into a million little distractions. Snack time interrupted by a text from a neighbor wanting to meet sidelined by Alex calling about dinner—do we have tomatoes?—then Wally calling me in to his room to fix the train tracks then back to FB to see if anyone’s meeting at the playground tonight, funny post from Amy--did anyone comment?--plus there are the photos from Amanda, it’s my aunt’s birthday, something happening at the Natural History museum this weekend—can we go? Run to get the calendar. Toggling screens, pinging around like in an pinball game, feeling tossed around at the mercy of other people, and finding myself looking forward to the end of the day, which is depressing, all in itself. The phone rings, the train tracks are crashing, there’s a yelp from the other room, I still haven’t finished the project I was working on, there’s the neighbor across the hall, "finding" me on Facebook, asking if we can meet.

So there is the information overload, the assault on the brain, the passiveness of responding to other people rather than deciding what I want to do, the background noise, the lack of flow state.

And on Facebook in particular there is the sense that everything is urgent. Everything is happening right now. People are liking the image of the dot matrix printed out birthday card from 1984. They get it! They remember it. They're taking the time while at work to say they like it. Someone’s getting a new haircut, someone else went to the zoo for the first time with her one year old. It’s all happening right now. People are there with you, answering you, looking at what you just re-posted from There’s your friend Vince, in San Francisco, skipping down the sidewalk with his daughter. Such a lovely picture. Such incredible lightness of being. So near, you could almost touch him. Here’s Pam, your cousin Brian’s wife whom you never met (never having made it down to their wedding). I love that she posted the chart showing Obama has spent far less than Reagan. I'll repost it. I'll let her know. All of that only takes a few seconds, a minute at most.

I don’t find myself, though, after having spent time on it, feeling myself expand. Here’s all this stuff—here are all these people—there’s so much happening, so much going on, and yet I don’t feel enlarged by it, in fact, I feel smaller. More desperate. I feel bigger life goals slipping further out of reach. Friends too, seeming more distant. I don’t feel myself growing closer to them or to anything at all. Vince isn't so near I could touch him. He's slipping further away, and will keep going, until someone finally tags the other in a night-time game of tag.

When Alex looks down at his phone, responding to a ping, I often find myself leaving the room. Okay—you go read that article Scott sent about the horrible stuff  happening in Toulouse.

"Wait, Toulouse," he calls after me. "Isn't that where you went in college...for your foreign study---?"

"Yes," I call back, still heading for another, less wired, less entangled room in the house. 

Last night I found myself picking up Banana Rose, the book by Natalie Goldberg. Two of her books on writing – Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind—are among my favorite about writing. I think Banana Rose might be her only novel. So far I'd only shuffled through the first hundred pages or so, even though I’ve had it out from the library for several weeks and it’s overdue. Last night I lay down on the couch and read through to page 373, the end. It was late when I set the book down, and I felt spent. Not zombie like. Spent in a way I remember from the summer after high school, where I’d come home late, just in time for the town’s 1 o’clock curfew for drivers under 18.

Back then I'd come home so full of feeling. Too late to call anyone on the house phone. No email, no cell phone, no texting in those days. No way to reach anyone immediately. Instead I'd pull out these ugly yellow legal pads we had all over the place, and start writing like crazy, my heart pounding out of my chest.

My voice was in my own head, and my thoughts were spilling onto the page, and things were being processed, banged out into some kind of rambling order, clearing the path for better understanding (mind you I would never attempt to put this stream-of-consciousness stuff directly into a novel, which is what Natalie Goldberg seems to have done in Banana Rose). When I was too tired to write anymore, I finally climbed up the stairs and went to sleep.

Last night, reading, even that God-awful book, I felt bigger afterward, fuller, dreamier, more connected to my past and future self. The book itself was way too autobiographical, loaded with dream imagery that no one but her own psychoanalyst could even pretend to care about for a mintue. I never felt a single shred of emotion for any of the characters, never cared what happened to them, even though lots of awful stuff sort of happened. The narrator was erratic, ungrounded, weak, annoying. Her moments of insight all came from random epiphanies in nature. The plotting felt forced, like someone was referring to a book on structure the whole way through (okay, now comes a turning point - Go!)

And still, I'm glad to have read it. I have to reconcile the fact that this brilliant giver of writing advice wrote this hideous thing. I want to think more about what was so awful about it (overwriting too, and way too much telling. "Anna was hurt." Ugh!) I want to talk about it with other people, after I get some sleep.

This morning I reminded Alex about tonight's the National Day of Unplugging, starting at sundown. Then I said how fun it was to just sit and read last night. I asked him why he hardly ever reads at night (except on screen--he's totally happy to read tons of stuff that way, articles from Scott, etc.).  He said that if he reads a book, he just falls asleep. On the computer or his smartphone, he somehow muddles through. You can be a zombie, even when you're really really tired. It's probably better when you're tired. Your judgement is diminished, your decision skills are limited. You can be a zombie, using very little thought to drive your actions, responding passively, doing what you're told.

I nodded. I understood. 

That is yet another thing that's so pernicious about technology -- you can engage with it even when you are absolutely beat, even when you're fighting sleep and should just Go the F*ck to Sleep. It's so passive, and requires so little input, so little thinking, so little brain activity, that you can sit there in front of the screen watching the virtual world even while you're virtually asleep. Maybe soon we won't be able to tell the difference.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

So Long Facebook. It's been Virtual.

Here are 10 Things I’ve found time to do since quitting Facebook. These were all things I could never seem to get to, before.

1. Plant all kinds of seeds with Wally. We are trying everything. Apple seeds, avocados…we even read you can grow carrot tops, so we’re trying that, too. So far nothing has started to sprout. That seems like a good lesson, too. You might put all this effort into something, but for whatever reason, it just won't grow.

2. Answer the Christmas/Hanukah cards that came with actual letters, or had a high-enough word count to be categorized as such.

3. Give away a bunch of writing books that have never inspired me, to make room on the shelf for the ones that do. Now I can easily pull them out at will without stacks crashing to the floor, and refer to certain sections, read an inspiring passage to myself, send a quote to a friend. Or just admire them sitting there sending out good writing vibrations.

4. Pull out tons of dusty old CDs we haven’t touched in years and begin sorting through them, getting rid of the ones we don’t need, and actually listening to the ones we like.
5. Go through the coins in Wally’s piggy bank with him. We thought it’d be nice for him to get the idea of saving up for 6 months or so and then see if he has enough money to buy a toy train. Since around the holidays Hein & Jiim gave him the C (8th avenue local!) and my parents gave him the E (to Queens!), the one he's been pining away for is the B train (to Brighton Beach--that September trip made quite an impression). So Alex actually picked up those little paper coin wrappers from the bank. I hadn't seen those since I was a kid. We emptied out the piggy bank, let the coins clang to the floor, sorted them into categories, talked about what each one was worth, counted them, rolled them up, then headed to the bank to trade them for dollar bills. Lots of mini-lessons in there about saving, counting, sorting, the dime being worth more than the nickel even though it’s smaller, etc. Then we kept walking, all the way to Grand Central, where Wally pored over the train collections like a kid in a candy store, only to finally settle on the B train in the end, the same one he’s been talking about for weeks and knew he was going to get before he walked in.

We also talked about how he should give some of "his" money to a child who doesn't have much. Alex felt I was getting too dark with some of that consciousness raising, and that maybe for now we should focus on giving to animals or tree planting or something a little lighter. So this will be really the important lesson--giving to others--but I haven't gotten to it yet.

Oh --also--you know what's really odd? The bank just trusts you as to how much is in each roll. I thought they'd have some kind of scale or at least check by length or something, for the quarters. Because initially I'd over-rolled the quarters by $2. Alex noticed when he joined us sorting. I thought you just kind of stuff as many in as you can, but obviously that doesn't make sense. But what's so odd is the teller at Chase (sorry, it was the only one we found open past 5 on the way to Grand Central) just clumped all the stuff together, counted out the bills, and handed them to us. It was bizarre. Small town honor system. I can't figure it out.

6. Okay this one’s kind of cliché, but…reconnecting with close friends who live far away. There were a few people with whom I’d played a rather low energy game of phone tag for the past 3 months or so. Finally, we were able to talk. Nice, long, meandering conversations. Just like the old days.

7. Spend two hours last night talking to Alex. Just talking. No TV, no phone, no email. I kept checking the clock in disbelief. It’s really only 9:30? What? We still have more time? Shouldn't one of us be getting really cranky by now and falling asleep in front of a screen of some kind? Usually the nights feel like they’re sucked away from me, as Rhonda wrote a few post’s back, time “sucked away against my will”. No, not yet. Still plenty of time.

8. Send off (to a publisher) a children's short story I'd written TWO YEARS AGO that had been laying dormant all the time.

9. Research places for Wally to donate his money and volunteer opportunities you can do with children. I found this fantastic site, lesson plans in "philanthropic education".  It's called Learning to Give.

10. Dance around the living room in the evening to Putamayo. After each song, I’m out of breath hoping for a break and Wally races over to the stereo, hangs onto the bureau, and says, “What song’s coming next?” When I do finally take a break, he does some kind of interpretative dance with some helium balloons his aunt Cris gave him for Valentine’s Day. They’re still flying high.

Also, this is gonna sound a little dumb, but I also made the decision to come home with Wally straight after school even though he's not napping lately at that time and it's beautiful and we should be outside and I can't believe you're inside, on such a nice day, blah blah blah. For a while I was pushing things...going to a playground straight after school or to the park or museum or something now that the clocks have changed and 2:30 feels so early. But it wasn't really working. Even though he doesn't need to nap, necessarily, he can't go from 5 hours of intense school and work--they really work those kids--straight to another area where he needs to exhibit so much self-control, like the playground. Now that he's older and, for the most part, extremely fair, he has to let younger kids grab, steal toys, throw sand, etc. all without flipping out. Younger kids do that stuff. So he has to accept it, but without a break, after such an intense day and no nap, asking him to accept it really calmly, when he's only like 10 months older than some of them to begin with, is really too much. 

He needs to time to decompress, too. 

And I can't directly trace this "healthy" decision-making to quitting Facebook, that would be as insane-sounding as me telling a friend that food tastes better since quitting, (I know, nuts, but really -- it does!!), but I can add to to one more way I've been able to quiet the voices clamoring for attention all around me, and listen to my own. (Why do mom-blog type entries always turn into these self-help affirmation type things? Like if someone wrote a review they'd talk about the writer "finding her own voice" and so on. Hmmm. Read "Snow Angels" by Stephanie Vaughn. Enjoy the beautiful day. Don't feel guilty if you spend a lot of it inside. You do what you can. You're finding your own voice. You're watering all your plants diligently. Sometimes they still won't grow.)

Afterthought (anticipating a round of rigorous questioning after this post from various dubious friends and family)

"I thought you said you were only on Facebook about 10 minutes a day?"

Answer: "I really thought that's all it was!"

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

You heard it here last -- Go Native! Unplug!

I don't know who is reading my blog, but I can see some of the search keywords people use to get here, and it's kind of amusing:

"is bok choy supposed to have bugs in it?"  

"boys tutus"

"is it supposed to rain tomorrow am"

The first two make sense. Boys in tutus is a favorite topic of mine. And the bug choy incident still makes me recoil. But I've no idea how or why this blog would come up in a search for weather. Funny that the person didn't include a location. Surely it's raining today, somewhere.

I'm also sorry I don't have the answer to the bug choy question. In my opinion, no, it shouldn't (have bugs in it). Even though I know that's not very green or organic or earth-friendly of me to say. (Really, it was the bugs tucked inside the shrink wrap that was so odious. But here I am, still defending myself, what is it…a year later? Yes, a full year. That was last March 15.)

Meanwhile, I'm trying to be free and in the moment…yet, through that ever-mysterious alchemy of nature and nurture, I’ve passed onto Wally my crazy, neurotic mind. Today in the morning instead of his usual question about whether or not we can someday take the Acela train (faster/more expensive, though I’m not even sure how fast since the U.S. still has the old railway tracks and that’s the limiting reagent, plus the absurd number of Northeast stops…how is Rhode Island entitled to 3? Wouldn’t one suffice? Maybe two, so we can visit Vince’s parents?), today instead, there we are on a mild spring morning here in Chelsea, admiring the purple pansies on 9th avenue (the flowers), and there’s Wally saying, “I’m going to die?”

Someday – yes. Hopefully not anytime soon. Agh. Whaddya gonna do? It’s just how he’s wired. Apples don't fall far.

In other news, this great minimalist mom--also named Rachel--who owns two pairs of jeans and lives on the Isle of Man (between Ireland and Great Britain), a 20 minutes walk (no car) from the nearest potential person-for-her-toddler-to-hang-out-with (okay, fine, playdate), mentioned me on her blog today, in her pitch for an unplugged week (or at least day). The unplugged day starts this Friday evening, March 23 sundown to March 24 sundown. Do you want to join? It's part of the Sabbath Manifesto project - I can't remember if I mentioned that before on my blog, or just in conversation.

Here's the description of the National Day of Unplugging from the cause page:

"The National Day of Unplugging is a respite from the relentless deluge of technology and information. With roots in Jewish tradition, this modern day of rest was developed by Reboot as a way to bring some balance to our increasingly fast-paced way of life and reclaim time to connect with family, friends, the community and ourselves. Shut down your computer. Turn off your cell phone. Stop the constant emailing, texting, Tweeting and Facebooking to take time to notice the world around you. Connect with loved ones. Nurture your health. Get outside. Find silence. Avoid commerce. Give back. Eat Together."

Funny, this other Rachel, the minimalist mom, was just recently rereading Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, too, "[renewing her] commitment to acting with intention and no more Zombie surfing". Everyone should read that book. Take it out of the library. I'll return my copy soon.

I was thrilled Rachel quoted my Facebook signoff, (though a bit mortified to see I'd used the word "degree" twice in a row, in such a public way!).

I love how she gets the fact that those incremental degrees add up to major part of your life. She writes:

"Take that time you would have spent checking email, browsing JCrew or pinning craft projects on Pinterest and use it to feed yourself in some way. Cook, read, rest or create. Take those tiny undetectable degrees back.

They don’t feel like much in a day.
But in a month, in a year, in a life time, they add up.
Those small degrees are novels, half marathons and vital sleep."
This other Rachel has got all kinds of great stuff on her site about paring down and clearing away clutter--physical and mental--to make room for the things you really enjoy. Here's the leaving-Facebook manifesto she posted in January. 

And yes, that Rachel is surfing around on this Rachel's blog and this Rachel is surfing around on that Rachel's blog and we're both linking to each others's sites and all kinds of others, pointing the way to more surfing on the part of our readers, even the ones who just want to know if it's okay to eat the bug-covered bok choy they got from the farmer's market, and all the while we are both saying "Stop surfing. Go outside. Go to the farmer's market. Go don a purple tutu (boys, too!). Go play with your kids or buy strings for your old rusty guitar that you always sucked at but loved playing, and start playing it, for Godsakes." We're both here in our virtual worlds giving a plug for unplugging and go joining the real one. Yes, I know. Whaddya gonna do? The world is lit by lightning.* We could carve the message into a tree, but fewer people would see it (and it might be harmful to the tree).

By the way, judging from the sky now, It looks like it might rain, today. You heard it here, first.

"Bright before me, the signs implore, help the needy and show them the way."**

* Tennessee Williams, "For nowadays the world is lit by lightning! Blow out your candles, Laura" (The Glass Menagerie)
**"I think it's gonna rain today", Randy Newman 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Pastoral Fantasy

I was talking to Physics Friend M. recently and she asked if I was still caught up in the question of whether or not to move to the country. For most of the time I lived in New York I always thought I was on my way somewhere else. Like almost everyone I liked the idea of living abroad, or maybe California. Alex always had in his head that he'd return to Brazil. But mostly my dreams of faraway places weren't grand, and the places themselves weren't that faraway. What I idealize--if you can't tell from all the previous entries of this blog--are small towns, something like the town where I grew up. I like the idea of a place Wally can play outside without adults around, the way my sister and I did at his age. A place where you can slip outside in your pajamas at dawn and the world is quiet, and you feel like you own it. A place where you just go to Kindergarten, and then on to First Grade, and then eventually middle school and high school. You just go. There's no discussion about it. No crazy testing for 4th graders, no preschool interviews, no toddlers wearing bow-ties and carrying around their resumes. 

A place where you can walk in the woods, if you feel like it, or play by a stream. Where you can read poetry by yourself on the back porch as the sun goes down, where you can dig in the garden and hear the thoughts in your head. Where you sit bored, staring out the window, wondering what you can do. And then use your imagination to figure something out.

Lately Wally's been saying he wants to live in a house, and to live with our dog Sky again. I swear I haven't put these things in his head, at least not directly. Maybe they are fragments of things I whisper in my sleep. 

He's also been asking when we can "jump into a book". Sadly, I think this is something he may have gotten from TV. But it's a lovely idea. I told him we can--anytime. Just by using our imagination. He's not completely sold on it.

Sometimes I wonder if it's lack of imagination that draws people to cities. If they don't have enough going on internally, so they need all the noise and commotion and stimulation around them. Or conversely, could it be lack of imagination that keeps me fantasizing about the country? Just now Physics Friend M. sent me this awesome article How to Be a Pioneer Woman Without Ever Leaving the Couch from the recent Times Magazine. I love how it exposes the trend of moving to the country, homeschooling, and homesteading, as a kind of separatism that gives up on the idea of community.

The author Heather Havrilesky talks about the wildly popular blog The Pioneer Woman, a somewhat sensationalized account of life as a wife and mom of four on an Oklahoma ranch. If you're looking for quiet and an escape from commercialism, you won't find it at that site where dates for her cookbook tour, TV appearances, youtube videos, commentary on Celebrity Fashion and Movie trivia abound. The quiet country life is a booming industry at this ranch. Heather indicates as much-- "The Pioneer Woman may not be a portal into a simpler, better life so much as a carefully art-directed, commercially sponsored fantasy" -- but that's not the point of Heather's piece. 

Few of us are really going to break out from our easy high rise/Whole Food lives and go try our hand at chopping wood and eating what we can manage to catch. Heather is more interested in what the idealization of life in the country implies, and how it could be put to better use. "...this pastoral fantasy understandably looms big and bright and beautiful in the face of our hunched, bleary-eyed, flickering-screen lives," she writes. 

Earlier in the article she quotes the British theorist Terry Eagleton who asserts "that the pastoral is 'largely the creation of town dwellers. It is the myth of those for whom the country is a place to look at rather than live in.'"

What can we learn from "the pastoral fantasy"--if Eagleton is right, primarily a construct of those who don't live there? Perhaps that it's a construct that veers away from optimism about the future.

Heather continues:

"...this dream of purity and separation also feeds a delusion: that isolation is the most honorable choice, that dropping out (with the help of your husband’s 20,000-acre ranch) is somehow more valiant than working slowly to reform, to collaborate, to hope for better."  

“Working slowly to reform, to collaborate, to hope for better” would be a great motto for a new movement on trying to live a country life (or idealized version) in the city. A commenter on the article ties it to what is in fact a new movement -- New Domesticity (she's got a book coming out on it) -- but I think that's more about canning jam and knitting mittens -- kind of hipster craft stuff, but still a neat cross-over.

After I told Physics Friend M. how I had finally given up the idea of moving to the country, at least for now, she sent along that article. Why did I give up the idea of moving? One, because the indecision was becoming paralyzing –can’t apply to grad school because we might move, etc. And two, because I was missing out on all the great chances for Anne Lamott’s quiet moments right here in the loudest place on earth. And three, because here, on this tiny island, I can live in a greener way than I could live almost anywhere else. For one, I don’t need a car. Moving out to the country, or a small town, in search of a simpler, more earth friendly lifestyle, and then buying a car would be ironic, wouldn’t it? (Real irony, not the Alanis Morisette kind. Hate how she ruined that word.) I mean that takes the image of bookshelves collapsing under the weight of books on decluttering to a new level.

I walk Wally to school every day. Sure, in the pastoral fantasy, that’s what you do. But how many people out there in the country actually do that? We stop and see the violet flowers on the way. We hear seagulls overhead. He tells me “the sun is following us”, and it is, through the giant buildings, that to him appear like castles. (See? You can jump inside a book, any time.)

It’s another version, I suppose, of the zen you bring to the mountaintop. Physics Friend M. was telling me about a meditation teacher who forces you to learn to meditate surrounded by people. At first students resist – the whole point is you need peace and quiet and need to be centered and bladdy blah blah. No, the teacher says, you have to still the voices in your head even when real voices are all around you.

What a great lesson. Anyone can be still out by the bumbling brook. How about walking through a construction site at Herald Square in rush hour in the rain? Try being still then.

Quiet and peaceful out by yourself in the middle of Yosemite? That's too easy. Makes me think of that line from City Slickers about what ice cream to pair with what main course. Hah – I’d always remembered it as “Challenge me”. But here it is, from the Internet Movie Database:

Ira Shalowitz: Barry can pick out the exact right flavor of ice cream to follow any meal. Go ahead. Challenge him.
Mitch Robbins: Challenge him?
Barry Shalowitz: Go on.
Mitch Robbins: [shrugs] Franks and beans.
Barry Shalowitz: Scoop of chocolate, scoop of vanilla. Don't waste my time.

So, for now. Challenge me. Let’s live a simple, quiet life here in the city. With greenmarkets, stargazing on the High Line, finding friends outside—no scheduled playdates!—planting seeds in little pots and watering them every day.

When I think about staying in the city, and trying to live like we inhabit the landscape of our pastoral fantasies, I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s lines in Questions of Travel. In it, the traveler writes:

"’Is it lack of imagination
that makes us come 
to imagined places,
not just stay at home? 

Or could Pascal have been not entirely right 

about just sitting quietly in one's room?’”

Which of course begs the question, what did Pascal say about sitting quietly in one’s room? Here it is. “All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

I don’t know if I’d agree all of our miseries stem from that inability, but certainly a lot of them. And I can’t help it, even with this decision to stay in the city and try to be green and not consume too much and keep the days and nights wide open with space, the one thing that always seems to be lacking – I still long for the quiet room. But the meditation teacher would scoff at staying quiet in a quiet room. Bring on the sirens, barreling trucks, intolerable itsy-bitsy storytimes and droning helicopter parents. Challenge yourself. Collaborate with others who are likeminded. Don’t leave in a huff because kindergarteners don’t have recess anymore. Start writing letters. Band together. Join a community garden. Make things better.

Heather ends her piece this way (the sky as described in the profile of Pioneer Woman’s world): “And we can still see that Maxfield Parrish sky from town; we just have to remember to step outside and look up at it a little more often.”

We even saw Mars the other night. Mars! From our window, with the naked eye. Wally said, “There’s something glowing in the sky.” He remembers to look up at it. Kids almost always do.

Gardeners at work on the High Line
Hudson River Park, Sunset 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Time is not free"

I came across this neat article from the 2010 issue of Sunset (What's Sunset? A magazine I guess.)  I wasn't actually searching for someone to validate me for signing out of Facebook, although I have found myself feeling somewhat more mixed about it than I anticipated. When I came across this article, though, I was simply wasting time, scrolling through Anne Lamott stuff on the web. Her son Sam, the one she wrote about in that absolutely blow-your-mind best book on motherhood ever written Operating Instructions (and even that's not over-hyping it, really), is now 20, and has a kid himself.

Anne Lamott's trying to convince her students that they really do have time for a more fulfilling and meaningful life. It reminded me of hundreds of discussions I had over the years, more with band members than writers, trying to figure out a time for them to practice when they claimed to not have a spare 5 minutes even in any given day. We'd go through everything:

Earlier wake up time? 
No--exhausted as it is. 

Less time on email? 
Can't--have to do it, for work. 

Less socializing? 
Already cut back so much, friends are getting mad. 

Skip party this weekend?
Cancelled on that person last time.

Leave dinner earlier?
Need to stay on good terms, those are work contacts.

Tell your family this Sunday isn't good?
It's my nephew's birthday.

Shorter shower?
Long hair, need to condition.

As soon as you get home from work?
Too stressed. I think I'm entitled to five minutes to unwind and transition.

So after that?
Too late, have to get ready to go out.

The argument would inevitably end with me saying, "Okay, fine, but you could have been practicing now, rather than having this discussion." I always thought that would be the knockdown punch, but it wasn't: "But I hardly ever get to see you." It took years, but finally I realized the question for me wasn't how to get person X to admit he/she has time to practice or write, but why am I surrounding myself with people who are not serious?  

Here's the article: Time lost and found, Anne Lamott. I pulled out the best parts, to save you time.

"I sometimes teach classes on writing, during which I tell my students every single thing I know about the craft and habit. This takes approximately 45 minutes. I begin with my core belief—and the foundation of almost all wisdom traditions—that there is nothing you can buy, achieve, own, or rent that can fill up that hunger inside for a sense of fulfillment and wonder. But the good news is that creative expression, whether that means writing, dancing, bird-watching, or cooking, can give a person almost everything that he or she has been searching for: enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty.

Then I bring up the bad news: You have to make time to do this. This means you have to grasp that your manic forms of connectivity—cell phone, email, text, Twitter—steal most chances of lasting connection or amazement." 


"...what manic or compulsive hours will they give up in trade for the equivalent time to write, or meander? Time is not free—that’s why it’s so precious and worth fighting for."


"I’ve heard it said that every day you need half an hour of quiet time for yourself, or your Self, unless you’re incredibly busy and stressed, in which case you need an hour. I promise you, it is there. Fight tooth and nail to find time, to make it. It is our true wealth, this moment, this hour, this day."