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.