Adjective. 1) Seemingly absurd or self-contradictory. 2) Exhibiting inexplicable aspects that may be true nevertheless. 3) Logically indefensible, though derived from credible inferences of acceptable data. –ON A STICK. Because you know it’ll get messy.
“I was sitting in Fred Rogers’ office… talking … about children and violence, on a Tuesday, that was the moment that the shootings at Columbine were happening. When Eric and Dylan were shooting their classmates. It was exactly what we were talking about….
And what I had said was ‘there’s three simple words or ideas that you can apply to a rich life … you say that there’s something beautiful, something noble, something sacred.’
…Just a brief example of what I mean by that:
…The sunset—if we allow it to touch us—do you and I take time in our daily lives? And I’m talking about seconds—to consciously be moved or touched by something we consider beautiful?
If either of those two kids [Eric and Dylan,] thought there was a single thing in the world—a word, an idea, a song, a rock group, a movie, a bird, a person, a religion—if there was a single thing in the world that either of those kids thought was beautiful, noble, or sacred, they never could have done what they did.
And then I realized with a shudder that—is it possible that tens of millions of Americans don’t feel they have any time for beautiful, noble, or sacred in the vicious crushing pace in this life about: wanting stuff and getting stuff and having stuff and using stuff and buying stuff and then of course replacing stuff, repairing stuff, protecting stuff, defending stuff.
You know that it’s so vicious, it’s anti-life.”
–spoken by Bob Lozoff, transcribed from on-camera interview in the documentary Mr. Rogers and Me (available free on Amazon Prime video.)
This is me now. I, Judy Emerson, have strong personal feelings about the wisest course for America in the aftermath of mass gun violence. We are all shaken, but the adrenaline speeds your reactions in a different direction than mine. I will set aside my temptation to spout statistics and pound my fist on the table.
But—it’s like he said, that getting stuff and protecting stuff and defending stuff is anti-life. I agree with him. What is it we insist on protecting? We are yelling at each other to defend—what? A position? An object? Stuff? Or even the right to have stuff?
Wherever we believe blame can be pinned for mass violence, what if we changed the subject to our own life, our own conscience? What about coming back to the one power each of us can actually wield? The power of choice over our own thoughts, speech, actions. I have no power over yours.
If I focus on mine, and you focus on yours, what if we all considered this:
Are my thoughts, speech, actions promoting or defending life? Or stuff?
I’ve been re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. The television series I watched on Hulu prompted me to download the original book on my Kindle. I am reveling in the beauty of the author’s work. Her simple, but weighted turn of phrase can evoke dread or irony. Make me ponder the world.
This story is fiction. Made up. Not true.
But it is, imperfectly, truth personified.
This book was published in 1985, when my daughters were only five and seven. I read it so long ago that I had forgotten all but plot summary. It was escapist reading for me then. Its cautions and its hope sailed right over my head. I was a little numb at the time.
But it’s still here, speaking to me now. Look what I missed. The warning that there are risks in complacency. That religious structures may be antithetical to faith and virtue. That human beings treated as possessions, pawns and tools signal encroaching rot in society. That government can be subverted. As it has been countless times in history.
I’m awed by this book. How it makes me think.
Like I have been awed in the past by The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. And by Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. And To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. And Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, and Beloved by Toni Morrison. And more. And more.
And what struck me next was that these books, and hundreds or thousands of other books, and the effects they have created over these decades or centuries, have this in common: They are each a made thing. A constructed entity, produced by struggling, imperfect human effort and ingenuity, grown out of the writer’s imagination, hard work, and skill.
The author started the same way we all started when we were five or six, with just a pencil and a piece of paper, writing their first name for the first time. The author dreamed it up, each of them. Invented this published allegory standing in for life itself, imparting some personal or universal wisdom about the nature of human experience.
The author built something new that never existed before. Like a child’s father helps him to construct a birdhouse out of plywood, glue and nails. He needs encouragement, and practice, and trial and error. He’s learning to make more complex constructions later on in his life. He has to be willing to try, and to endure mistakes and failures. He has to build on what he learns. He has to develop patience. He’s learning now, so that perhaps one day he will have learned how to construct a skyscraper.
Books are constructed things. That encouraged me, somehow. To think about these books that have inspired me, not as natural formations like a mountain range, pre-existing beyond my understanding or ability. But as human projects undertaken, worked at, sweated and worried over, eventually completed. Books are built of letters, words, paragraphs and patience (punctuated with impatience,) and stubbornness, and conviction, and maybe a little fanaticism and perfectionism. A little obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Human constructions, like an invention patented, a system enacted and affecting outcome, a product developed and marketed, a business built and thriving, a union formed and bringing change. An industry, an economy, a nation. We humans make things, some constructed on a foundation of ideas held sacred. Some for money, or to gain power over others. I might have reverence or ambivalence or revulsion for a book or for a corporation or for an agency or a government. I won’t like all their intentions or their effects. We won’t all agree on the outcomes.
But each of us can build something. A contribution to human endeavor, based on our interest and strength and skill. We can use the failures to recalibrate, adjusting the course toward eventual completion.
I have an interest in building with words and ideas. Not everyone will like what I construct. My writing project, now unfinished, does not function today as I have in my mind that it should. It’s still raw. So I’ll guard what is still in-process from public view until it’s completed. I’ll keep hammering away at what I’m building.
Margaret Atwood, and John Steinbeck, and Toni Morrison had this in common: they developed their raw, unformed ideas with stubborn, repetitive hard work. They kept trying. They didn’t give up. And eventually they gifted the world with a whole and complete articulation of ideas that became a part of our cultural canon. An experience we can enter like a house constructed of art. Like the palpable beauty that we step inside when we’re in the presence of the statue of David that Michelangelo “constructed” out of a piece of marble. Or a different kind of beauty in the experience of a Gustave Klimt painting.
There will come a day when I’ll invite the world to step through the portal of my completed structure, into the world of made-up characters who have something real to say. For now, it’s still under construction. Back to work. Donning my hard hat now.
Does fearless even exist? Somehow we adapt to personal fears that flashed into being long ago when something disrupted our sense of safety. We ignore, we avoid, we mask, we repress. Life calls for courage, even while fear still huddles in the shadows of our heart. Ah, there’s a challenge! (Poem by Dawna Markova.)
I confess. I never watched “Grey’s Anatomy.” All those years it was Thursday night programming, I had appointments on Thursday nights. But now I’ve been binge-watching on Netflix. Besides creating characters you love or hate, Shonda Rhimes was a master of finding amazing songs for the soundtracks. The show is introducing me to a world of new music. Those songs made me think, made me feel, gave storylines the perfect punch.
Season 5, Episode 21 (which first aired on April 30, 2009) featured “Turn and Turn Again” by All Thieves. The vocal quality knocked me out, and the peaceful feeling of it. I didn’t analyze. It was just art flowing over me. Wow. Inarticulate wow. I shared a link to the song with a friend, who responded, without saying if she liked it or not, “What particularly grabs you about this song?”
Well, damn. So then I was on the spot. Esplain yourself, Lucy!
I was surprised to discover in the lyrics a prompt to say something out loud about politics. I don’t want to step on any toes, and I don’t want mine stepped on. But just listen to this song. Please.
Note that I hold no rights to the video or the lyrics, copied here. Here’s the link:
Writer(s): Mark Bates, Rollo Armstrong, Tzuke Bailey
Wow. So here’s what I think.
“The road curves down… And the lights come up to meet us ” –We’re in a difficult, painful place. But something awaits us.
“We enter this town Like new born creatures” –With “beginner’s mind”, we might discover something wondrously unexpected here.
“Those I know I see anew” –Life bursts forth out of a rigid absolute that I encased in concrete long ago.
“I am human…and you are human too” –There’s an unexpected glimpse of heart behind armor. We have more in common with one another than differences. We are all bearers of light, shadowed by the effects of the darkness. Wisdom and ignorance in each of us.
“Every traveler, please come home… And tell us all that you have seen” –Could we try to hear one another? –After not listening for so long, and only bashing each other, pushing our own agendas onto one another, trying to shout over each other’s voices to make our own message heard and suppress the other.
Might we find a way to believe that the other voices, even those who oppose our ideas, have their own reasons for their belief, based on perspectives emerging from experience, even if it’s different from ours?
“Return every gun to every draw [drawer?] … so we can turn…and turn again” –Laying down our weapons, hearing one another, could we subvert destruction, see the pain in each guarded heart, nurture seedlings instead of torching forests?
“Only priests and clowns can save us now… Only a sign from God or a hurricane… Can bring about… The change we all want” –Does it take a hurricane to make us kind to one another for a minute? I’m not taking “priests” as literal religious figures, although maybe… But grace–something radical, out-of-the-box, a supernatural or serendipitous unfolding that opens into an alteration we couldn’t generate by rational means. Surprise! Wouldn’t grace be good? Standard operating procedures have gotten us to exactly where we are.
“And we’ve done it again… This trick we have… Of turning love to pain… And peace to war” –We’ve screwed it up again, negated what good had been accomplished, as humans do over and over. Of course we do. Another predictable social cycle of expansion, then contraction, then expansion, like all the cycles preceding. A liberal movement, or conservative, and then the opposition response, then back again…. Because we are never satisfied to hold to a course that isn’t an immediate and perfect fix to our dilemmas.
Because humans get uneasy in the face of ambiguity. We want bumper-sticker simplicity. Longing for perfection, we destroy the good. We clutch at something different, and then we don’t like how that works out…. We’ve become marbles in a pinball machine, only ricochets and flashing lights.
My own heart’s highest expression of what is right and good, moral and ethical—for me—only rankles with folks I cherish for entirely separate reasons. I don’t expect we’ll be suddenly simpatico if I insist how wrong they are. They’d surely tell me I’m the one who’s nuts. And then where are we?
Listen. Maybe we could hear each other. And turn again.
You noticed I’ve been AWOL? Yeah, I missed you too. I’ve been in the muck wrestling with myself. I dislike the term blocked. Okay, maybe you’re not a writer, so it’s possible this has no relevance to you. Except.
Ever call yourself a failure? Ever quit because you were stuck? Maybe you figured other people were better able. And who did you think you were anyway? In a flash you were axle-deep in a swamp of self-defeating beliefs. It might take more than four-wheel-drive and hip-boots to navigate the sinkhole of self-doubt in your path.
Yeah, I know. If you had your druthers, you’d be anyplace else. Me too. But I still want to get where I was going. I’m not giving up.
So I looked for a source outside my own fevered brain to get out of the swamp. And I found help. I’ll give credit to Bret Lott. And to the author of the book of Ezekiel, in the Old Testament, for much of this entry.
Yesterday in the public library I found Before We Get Started, A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life by Bret Lott (Ballantine Books, 2005.) He pointed out that writers are restricted to the same tired old letters and words and possibilities that have been recycled for thousands of years. We just rearrange them. There’s nothing new under the sun. Our raw materials are like dry bones. He went on:
“Faced with that endless valley of bones we have available to us, we must do what Ezekiel did: we must bring those bones to life. Ezekiel’s vision can teach us a lot about writing:
“Ezekiel 37 New King James Version (NKJV)
37 The hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. 2 Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. 3 And He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
So I answered, “O Lord God, You know.”
4 Again He said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. 6 I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.”’”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them.
9 Also He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”’” 10 So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army.”
Here’s Bret Lott again:
“…. I don’t think it would be too far from the truth to imagine that Ezekiel, knees trembling before the despair of so many bones and God breathing down his neck for an answer thought fleetingly, dangerously, There’s no way. Bones to life? Nope.
“O Lord God, You know.” He doesn’t say, You bet. He doesn’t say, Don’t think so. He leaves it to God, and then proceeds—and here is the most important moment—to speak the prophecy he has been called to speak, whether he believes it or not, and not knowing as well what that prophecy means. He speaks, because he has been called to, and not because he knows what will be the outcome.
And then these dry bones come to life.”
Me again. This is another version of the resurrection story, the paradox woven throughout the natural world and Biblical wisdom. That what is dead can come alive again. As recurrent as winter’s dead grass emerging green again through melting snow in the spring. The vibrancy of new forest growth fertilized by the mulch of wildfire’s devastation.
What is dark can be foundation for brilliant dawn. It’s built in to the design of the universe.
Ezekiel and Bret Lott are both talking about inspiration. How something beyond rational is required for creation, which is the transformation of sweaty gruntwork into a beating heart quickening sinew and flesh.
It takes faith to follow, and keep following, what has called us. Our balking is where we’re stuck on our own inadequacies. Our resistance flies in the face of the calling itself. My second-guessing is telling God he doesn’t know what he’s doing. My fear of doing it wrong keeps me blocked. Over-analyzing, self-critical. Paralyzed.
The act of creativity enfleshes and enlivens dry bones, beyond my known abilities. I’m called to trust the process. So here’s my part: I need to let go of whether the stuff I’m writing is any good, at least for this phase. I need to keep at a practice of producing material. Do the next right thing I can find. Sit my butt in the chair and type what I can, words that show up on the screen. I need to set aside advance edits of the story trying to emerge, tantalizingly close to the surface. Quit overthinking, and transcribe what is hovering there. Pluck the images out of thin air, and take down the message dictated. Inspiration is not my job. That’s a separate thing.
Creation is still happening, every day. For writers, for entrepreneurs, for problem-solvers, for teachers, for those making steps to solutions. When the ashes of a dead career, or relationship, or project fall away, leaving open space for a new pathway. We create when we don’t know how it will play out, but we’re willing to puzzle over possibilities. We create when we get our judgments out of the way, and take the next small step to what we CAN see to do.
Prophesy! Without knowing the ending. Even when I don’t know if it’ll be any good. The job, the call for me, is to quit the distractions and just do it. Focus on the practice.
The breath to bring life to those words? That’s from a source beyond me.
It’s Thanksgiving time. I have been abundantly blessed. Thankful and grateful and blessed, that’s me. I can’t complain. Except I do. Where do I get off whining? Where do any of us?
In my weight loss support group, the talk is the same as the conversation in my head for decades on end. What treats can I squeeze into my daily allotment of calories? I want my cake and to eat it too. I want to be thin, but there’s homemade macaroni and cheese. Can I budget my Thanksgiving Day food allotment so I can enjoy stuffing, and mashed potatoes, and gravy, and the buttered rolls? Or hey, screw it, I’ll cheat on Thanksgiving and think about dieting after the holidays. But the pants are too tight.
If you’re reading this, and you don’t struggle with overeating, then you have my admiration. Also my sneaking suspicion that your character flaws lie in less visible but perhaps more morally questionable places. Uh huh. But not my business.
Why can’t I have a big slab of pumpkin pie, like all the rest of America? Oh, I forgot about people in poverty… but this is about me right now. I hate that I’m deprived of Caramel Cream Cheese Pecan Brownies, when those spiteful people with fast metabolisms eat everything they want and never get fat! It’s not fair. I feel cheated and sad when I see other people wolfing down fried chicken, or loaded baked potatoes, or Death by Chocolate cake, because I want to join in. Not the death part, though. Other people enjoy Starbucks Venti Salted Caramel Mocha (570 calories,) why can’t I? Are there even lattes in my future?
But in the meantime, what if I looked hard at what I often ignore? Echhh.
I have indulged in a lifetime of bad eating habits. This is no surprise to any of you. You can see my belly. Come on, polite is just a lie.
I am horrified to discover that I have increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease because I’m fat, even beyond the risk factor that my mother had Alzheimer’s. I take four prescription medications. I say no to activities with friends because I’m embarrassed that I can’t keep up with them. So fun is more subdued, more sedentary. Dominoes, anyone? I’ve consigned myself to sitting in a chair. I’m tired. Which is boring, really. I hurt. I have pain in my left hip. I have arthritis in my low back. Which must be worsened with higher body weight.
This year I have a new diagnosis of asthma. I run out of breath when I exert myself. My brain and my muscles don’t always get enough oxygen to run the show. And now there’s sleep apnea, so I go to bed with a plastic mask affixed to my face, with a long hose pumping air into my lungs should I forget to inhale. This is a direct result of my body mass index being too high. I’m fat. If you think you need to point it out to me, please don’t. I’m aware. Here’s a direct result of my lifelong habit of using food for comfort, and reward, and to tamp down unwanted feelings, which compromises breathing. Yeah, ill-gotten coping strategy, rooted in childhood deprivation. Blah blah. But this is now. I will breathe in and out over 23,000 times today, each breath altered because of my habits with food. My childhood was a long time ago. I’ve got to quit whining. It is not attractive.
I have no defense if you’re judging, me, but you smokers, quit that!
I’m not that heavy. I know people way heavier than I am. And there’s always somebody sicker than me. I don’t need to shame myself, or them either. They are doing the best they can see to do, and it’s none of my business.
I’m just talking about me. And if you can relate, that’s your stuff.
I’ve gotten used to moving slower—I only notice it when I walk across an airport. I’ve rationalized buying bigger clothing. I’ve told myself those buff gym rats who can actually follow the Zumba instructor’s moves must be less intellectually or emotionally evolved than I am. I’ve settled for the life of the mind because my body won’t go that way.
I can whine that poor me can’t have all my favorites at Thanksgiving. I can moan about the Christmas cookies that will be shoveled into my path, and have to be agonized over. Would a luscious treat magically convey the richer life I hunger for? Or do I really crave the sumptuousness of a life of vitality? Is what I really want more about competence and exhilaration in simple striding and stooping, leaping, squatting and stretching? To play with my three-year-old grandson, to model empowerment for my teen granddaughter, to hold my own with my younger friend who wants to hike. Will I fulfill my promise of an afternoon of bowling to my ten-year-old grandson?
I’m not talking about having ripped abs, or entering bodybuilding competitions. I’m talking about using this almost sixty-five-year-old body as it was designed. To move, to engage, as a vehicle for life. To enjoy the daily pleasures of flesh. To feel the sensation of ownership of the body I was given.
I can gaze transfixed into the pie case at Village Inn, or I can notice how my belly fat might risk that my brain won’t sustain rational thought and witty conversations in my golden years. Pie could mean my memory drains away, and puddles into my cellulite. It might mean that I dial back my shoe-tying and switch to Velcro, that I quit expecting to move on my own two legs from the car to the movie theater.
Should I plan for a wheelchair? My bathrooms are not accessible! Are oxygen tanks in my future? Diabetic supplies? Compression stockings? None of this is sexy. Will the equipment necessary to hoist and heave and move my body around be too difficult to haul out of the trunk? Will I just stay in my house? Will somebody have to wipe my butt because I can’t reach it? What cost to my self-esteem over that? Or I can start moving!
The deprivation model of living has me jealous that the next person gets away with triple cheese lasagna and garlic bread dripping with butter, and Tiramisu for dessert. But while I’m drooling over the menu, I avert my eyes from the ease of a woman exactly my age wearing smaller pants, with a spring in her step, a glow in her skin, and a light in her eyes. Look away from the menu! Get back to yoga class.
These days I’m retired, and I can choose how I invest my hours and my money. I can put my feet up and binge-watch Netflix. I can indulge myself in whatever I really truly want. What do I most want? The sweet fleeting instant of a cream puff melting in my mouth tastes like an ingredient for isolation, depression and disability. Cream puffs age me faster. Is that what I was craving?
The class of 1971 is having a 46-year reunion, next weekend. They’ll be at the football game against the rival high school. Go, Bulldogs!! The soundtrack will include Crosby Stills Nash and Young. Remember Teach Your Children Well? I put in a request, even though I can’t be there this year.
I’ve been thinking about those kids I grew up with. All of us are in our mid-sixties now. Although if they’re like me, I bet they still hold the delusion they’re sixteen and just got their drivers’ licenses. The Beatles are still together in our hearts. How can we have gray hair?
We rallied for peace. We were mythic in our own minds, righteously vocal against the corrupt establishment, against the war, against the lies of politicians, against oppression. We were different than those who came before. But how pure were we really? Did we sit-in because we wanted to fit in?
How much we needed to belong! At the local hangout—Shirley’s Drive-in—I dropped a quarter in the jukebox one afternoon when the place was swarming with high schoolers. I played Time of the Season by the Zombies (or was it Incense and Peppermints by the Strawberry Alarm Clock?) On my way back to my booth, as the beat of psychedelic rock throbbed over the hubbub, one of the jocks gave me such a startled look! Could I like that music without dropping acid? I was a goody-two-shoes, not even allowed to go to dances. I loved those songs. But my jukebox choice that afternoon tried to send a coded message to my peers that I wanted to be one of them. An old longing.
I don’t know what secret feelings the cheerleaders and jocks were hiding inside, but I was uneasy in my own skin. Awkward. Scared all the time. An outsider. I imagine I was obnoxious about what areas of competence I believed I had, in overcompensation for the rest. Maybe I’m still giving off some of the same vibe. There is probably some eye-rolling going on here.
However much we evolve even if we’ve had profound healing, isn’t there still that little kid inside, in an old bubble of fear…will anybody like me? How can I fit? Did they feel it too?
All the way back to earliest grade school, my tough family life prompted covert acting out. Those were hard years at home, and I felt unsafe and unlovable. A kid who feels like that brings it to school with her, to the social milieu. Because where could she lay it down? I observed the apparent social ease of the upper tiers of elementary school social strata—an ease that seemed magically bestowed. Seamlessly, gracefully engaged in by everyone else but me. I was jealous.
These days I know I was wrong in those assumptions. I know that even the kids I imagined were living charmed lives had their own painful challenges. Nobody had it easy.
The next thing I’m going to admit is something I feel ashamed and sad about.
From first grade on, there was Bobby, that everybody liked most, and Susie, the most popular girl. These are not their real names, because that’s not the point. One year Bobby liked Susie, or so it was said. They were both cute, popular, wore nice clothes. They were innocent friends, and nothing else, but we were all of us playing at being grown up, applying what templates of relationships were demonstrated on TV and movie screens. We, as a group (Miss Mendoza’s class—and no, that’s not her real name either) were vicariously trying on social roles. So, we watched with interest, this boy and girl whom we had drafted unawares, into role models without their consent. The sing-song chant of “Bobby and Susie sittin’ in a tree…. K-I-S-S-I-N-G… was some degree of social harassment. Or maybe even bullying. Did it embarrass them? They had no chance to opt out of our attention, to step out of the glare of our teasing, our jealousy, for their preferred status as our imagined social examples.
There was a set of girls, and I was among them, who decided that the fault for our own social deprivation could be pinned on Susie. We were ignorant sexists, blaming the female for the attentions of a male, however innocent all of it was. There was formed a little mean-girls clique, and while I don’t remember the ringleader, my presence gave consent. I was responsible for joining in. We distracted ourselves from the self-loathing we felt for being outside the social limelight. We called ourselves the “Hate Susie Club.” The club was an ugly, fleeting invention, probably the length of a single recess period or two. As far as I know, it evaporated as soon as it was spoken into existence. It took root in my memory not for its duration, or for any actions that were physically undertaken. I remembered it for two reasons I can think of, looking back with my adult eyes. First, it had been a rare moment when I felt included in a kind of membership, which was an experience I was starved for. And second, my conscience burned me like a bad rash, for aiming hateful thoughts at a girl I only admired and would have wanted to be like. Neither Bobby nor Susie had ever been unpleasant to me in any way. Why would I agree to such poisonous energy? I numbed myself and “forgot” about it.
Decades later, on suddenly encountering Susie at a gathering, I blurted out the beginning of an abrupt confession. What earthly reason made me open my mouth? I was seeking, I suppose, to unburden my guilt, apologize, and make amends for the ugly, short-lived meanness of the idea it represented. Such a terrible impulse, serving only me. I spoke the name of the “Hate Susie Club” to her, and then stalled out. As the words left my mouth I froze, aghast at hearing aloud my own complicity in creating a wound that sounded to my own ears more cruel than I had let myself know. And now I had compounded it by speaking it anew. Susie’s face was at first friendly and open, then surprised, then wary and masked. Within a minute, she excused herself and moved away to a cluster of folks across the room.
As an unwitting, needy child I had sinned simply to lend my ears and my voice to a conversation of such hatefulness. But now as an adult I had compounded the harm. And what is worse, I pushed it out of mind, and did not try to repair it since then. I’m realizing in the writing of this post that even now I still had Susie on some kind of social pedestal, and convinced myself she was okay.
I am sorry, Susie. For listening to hateful speech, and joining into it, for however brief a time. I am sorry that my adult bumbling so many years later, for only selfish reasons, caused hurt again. I’m sorry my embarrassment caused me to go silent, for all the time between then and now. I was wrong.
I think now of the bullying I know is rampant in our schools today, and the lives it maims and destroys. As an adult I have engaged in conversations, both personal and professional, on the need to instill compassion in our children. I have presented myself as a compassionate person, and told myself I modeled it.
There are gaps.
But I never saw so clearly that my complicity back then was bullying. That my failure to own it, or clear it, was hateful.
There’s a saying, that “Hurt people hurt people.” Surely the children who bully others, are, themselves, hurt. But I wonder if we turned the camera on ourselves, if we might see that behind our masks of morality, our defended egos, our religious postures, that the festering of our own old wounds maintains ugly blind spots even today. Are we insensitive to the degree we have not healed? Are we still bullies? We may slice open others’ wounds without noticing.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can devastate me.
In our graduating class of 1971, there were more than 500 high school seniors whose lives encompassed personal hopes and dreams, sorrows and fears, pride and shame, promise and despair. Every one of us carried unspoken burdens, then and now. We cannot fully know all the experience of another. 46 years post-graduation, might we examine how we live out what values we say we hold? Might we look for ways to make the world kinder, and more understanding? That would be better.
I can go all my life without ever considering the textures of another human life whose heart beats just around the corner from where I live. Let alone a person, or a people, half a world away. I don’t think about them.
I’m aware that my toenail polish needs to be re-done, that I forgot to start the dryer, that I have an unheard voicemail. I’m aware that I feel hungry, when it hasn’t been that long since breakfast, but there’s a craving, maybe to distract myself from boredom or a nagging emotion I’d rather not have, by noshing on something. What do I want? Something salty maybe….
I am not aware, on the other hand, except in rare, brief moments, if ever at all, of that specific, particular fear in the belly of a child in central Phoenix, homeless with his mother, who slept fitfully next to her, in an alleyway on a piece of cardboard, his hand on her shoulder to reassure himself she’s still there, that she hasn’t left him alone to look for her dealer, even though she said she was never going to do that again, until he jumps awake at the snuffling of a stray mongrel. Now, even though it’s still dark, he obsesses about making sure to be on time for school, where there will be breakfast, even if the kids look at him funny because he smells bad.
I am aware of cat hair between the keys of my keyboard, of the prescriptions I forgot to order, of the questionable color combination of my sports bra and yoga pants with this particular tank top, of feeling discouraged and deprived at how slowly the weight is coming off.
I am not aware of how infectious is the laugh, when she isn’t so consumed with grief, of a twenty-three-year-old woman with two little ones in a refugee camp on the other side of the world, and how attached she was to her mother, who did not escape the dangers the young woman has fled with her husband whose single dimple and shining eyes still make her heart surge, and with her brother who is the cleverest in the family, but they had to leave their older sister behind, because she wasn’t strong, and not quite right in her head since she got hurt so badly, and it would have been more dangerous for the children, although they loved her so, and what will she do now? I’m not aware of the stories her Papa told her as a little girl, that she carries in her heart.
I don’t know why they had to leave. What makes that set of people hate this set of people? What happened to the wild, favorite cousin, who always won at street games, the best friend who shared her secrets when they were ten, the cranky old woman next door who complained about the noise of their giggling? The teacher who crinkled her eyes when she smiled? Did they get out? What sweetness was left behind in the mattresses and the cooking pots they could not bring along to carry on their backs? What memories did she carry into that unfamiliar place they have found to rest, and what was too terrible to remember, but had to be hidden away in the recesses of her mind, only to spring out in nightmares that make her gasp awake, staring, with tears rolling across the bridge of her nose and down, puddling in the palm cupped under her cheek?
I haven’t paid attention to what is happening to those people, strangers to me, foreigners, wherever they are. What fills my awareness is the detail of my own narrow life. I focus on what I want, what I’m afraid to hope for, what I tell myself I shouldn’t try, the things I judge or wonder over. But I don’t need to question if my front door will lock, or if the air conditioning will kick on to keep me comfortable. There is food in my freezer and the pantry. I own a fourteen-year-old car that never fails to start or get me where I want to go, and I have the money to put gas in it, or get it fixed if it breaks. I don’t have much of an investment portfolio, but I have a home that nobody will drag me out of.
Those other lives are out of sight, out of mind, for me. For them, some privileges I call rights cannot be imagined, must not be wished for, and will never be expected because to think of those things only brings on hopelessness, and distracts the attention necessary to find something for the babies to eat today.
Why do I waste my life? You never do that, do you? You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. I’m writing about procrastination, because I’m blocked. Writer’s block.
I’m poised on the verge of fulfilling my dreams, if only I can spontaneously blurt out another hundred, or maybe two hundred more pages or so, and I’ll be done. But I don’t know what words go on the first of those pages.
I can see diverging paths leading into a beautiful green forest of possible choices. So many ideas fill the forest. Something stops me from stepping onto any of those paths.
It’s like there’s a wall of glass between me and the forest paths. I’m squinting, trying to make out what’s lurking there, deep in the forest that I haven’t set foot in, that as-yet unknown territory. And I stand with my nose smushed up against the glass, my breath fogging the surface. I step back and pace. I run my hands over the glass, seeking an opening. I pound in desperation, but then I think someone might hear me getting wild. That wouldn’t do. I scan the expanse of glass. It goes on forever, in all directions. What to do?
I don’t like that I’m up against the glass. It’s not hygienic. Plus, I feel incompetent, lazy, frustrated, angry, sad. A failure. Any of those just make me want to eat a pizza, followed by a pile of chocolate chip cookies. Maybe I should talk about it at my Weight Watchers’ meeting. But that’s another day.
Another day. Therein lies my solution. Procrastination. I did not say it is a good solution, or even a conscious one. I can step back from my view of the glass, with its smeary fingerprints, and the forest beyond. I eat a snack. I surf Facebook. Google celebrities I never heard of. Take a nap. Play Solitaire. Yes. I was tempted to delete that, before you saw it. I wanted you to think well of me.
Solitaire is as pure a procrastination as I know of, and I hate to own it. I don’t mean for you, of course—Solitaire, for you, is a few moments of gentle self-care, a little tender padding between the hard rails of those arduous demands of your fulfilling life. For me it’s just to go numb. To kill time.
Now, how abhorrent is that phrase? Killing time. I am given 86,400 seconds every day (thanks, Google!) I can spend them, invest them. Or I can kill them. Murder the little buggers. Play Solitaire, for example. Either way will get me to the end of the span of time, which I’ll never get back, for writing or anything else. Then another 86,400 seconds will be shelled out. There will come a day when the seconds allotted to me personally will run out, but that’s not for years yet. Maybe. Could be sooner, I guess.
I’m feeling a little hungry….
Okay, I’m back.
Writer’s block is when I’m moving through the middle of a project, and I stall out and roll to a dead stop. In the moment, I can’t see why I can’t get going again. Frustrated, I am prompted to engage in the separate action of procrastination (killing time.) Which , numbing me, helps me avoid engaging in the meaning of the writer’s block. Because the writer’s block is trying to tell me something, if only I’m listening. I haven’t listened.
“You’re going the wrong way!” It says to me. But I’m too busy admiring my own words, telling myself it’s fine.
The novel I’m writing now is actually a story I tried to tell, starting out twenty years ago. I fell in love with the characters, and the story that emerged spontaneously. My writer’s group then, like my new group now, loved my story. But finding what wasn’t working was tougher. Back then I stalled out, and rather that figuring out the problem with the writing, I set the story aside, and turned my attention elsewhere. I avoided facing down my writing dilemma for twenty years.
Coming back to the project now, I love it still. Writer’s block re-emerges yet again, to focus me on the old problem I never resolved, because maybe it’s the central problem. It’s the life problem, or my particular version of it. Writing this is trying to stay honest for today, engaging instead of avoiding, this time. I’m listening now.
My writer’s block problem was fear. Fear that my character, Katie, will be revealed as her own messy, flawed self, even though we meet her as a child. Fear of the exposure of my own unacceptable faults, which in some ways are represented by my fictional character, whose story is not my autobiography, but who has a lot of me at the heart. I was afraid of readers seeing me, through Katie, as untrustworthy, defective, and human. Because however empathetic I am to anyone else who naturally has human failings, I still carry around old shame for being just a human being after all . Oh, just that again. My same life dilemma keeps on recurring, presenting the same lesson until I’m ready to learn it. Just like everybody else.
Yechhhh. Being human prompts my old shame.
I react by I reverting to old strategies of self-protection. I want to stop trying. Stop risking, avoid exposing myself as less than perfect. My old baggage, lugged from early childhood on. I set myself the impossible task of perfection and then I get embarrassed that I can’t do the impossible.
Whoever taught us we were supposed to be superheroes? When reminded that I’m not a superhero, I withdraw in unacknowledged, unspoken defeat, demoralized and disappointed in myself.
Procrastination gives me an intermission, time-out. I use it unconsciously to delay, to transition to a new, transcendent mask of holiness.
Really? Who am I kidding? Like watching internet videos (a killing-time activity) where some guy falls down on camera, but leaps up in a split-second turning a splat into a swagger, suddenly Joe Cool, to say “What are you staring at?” I’m that guy onscreen. Trying to distract from shame about the “failure” by nonchalant denial, bluster, and pretense.
Like this: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=cool+after+fail&&view=detail&mid=DB79A0DA6112104C9CF1DB79A0DA6112104C9CF1&&FORM=VDRVRV
I don’t expect to conquer this instantly.
Failure at being without flaw is really no failure at all, because flawless doesn’t exist, for any of us. It’s a myth, a fake-out. We aim at an inappropriate, unreal target of perfection, which is a setup for precisely the blunder we are so shocked has come to pass. “What are you staring at?” Myself. I’m staring at myself in a mirror, when I watch the clumsy guy try to be Joe Cool. The only way Joe Cool exists is as a fake to cover up the inner, frightened, little nerd.
So as long as I still clutch this old belief that I should be faultless, I will endlessly cycle through aiming for the impossible, failing to reach it, getting all humiliated that I am human, and trying to pretend it never happened, and it never mattered at all to me.
But I’m just who I am. A human being of human proportions, and hang-ups. I’m thoughtless and judgmental, and also forgiving and witty and kind, and angry and bitter. And compassionate and loving, and selfish and disorganized, brave and fearful, but hopelessly bad at the perfection I often demand of myself.
Hmm. When I succeed at not being stuck, at writing, at creating, what am I doing differently? Well, it isn’t that I’ve got it all seamlessly worked out ahead of time, in my head. What I have to do is start. With just an idea. And that will suggest another idea, and I follow that, and pretty soon I’m following a path that shows itself to me, one step at a time. And looking back, I notice that I didn’t pay any attention to that glass, which was illusion after all. I ignored whether it was the “right” idea. It’ll never be flawless. Once I started something, whatever I could do, then I developed momentum, and covered some ground, backtracked sometimes, but then saw how to move on. My readers, if I have any, may grumble about what ground I cover, but I’ll be moving. Or at least practicing discipline. Being imperfect, exposing the imperfections, because they’re honest, and real.
Oscar Wilde said, “You must write badly first. Mistakes lead to discovery. Letting yourself be bad is the best way to become good.” Anne Lamott is well known for encouraging writers to create “shitty first drafts.” Not to encourage bad writing, but to scratch and cudgel, wrestle and hoist a draft, any terrible draft, into actual existence. Make it the rough starting place of the eventual honest expression of who I am. Being real.
Maybe this practice isn’t only for writers. Maybe it’s for people who stop themselves from starting anything because they can’t be perfect from the very first step. Maybe we just have to start, and try. And be willing to do badly at it, in order to get good eventually.
I guess I’ll never know where those forest paths lead unless I ignore the smudgy glass, and the need for having the answers before I start. People will think of me as they decide, not what I convince them about who I am. I will set down one boot onto the grit and hear the sound of my step. Be where I am. Breathe. And then the next step.