Thursday, November 29, 2012

I remember when I had standards. That was a good day.

Poor neglected blog. If I had a little more rage and a little less self control, I'm sure I'd write more. Or if I had more discipline and creativity. Or more gratitude and gentleness. As is, I have been too apathetic these days to do much of anything but exercise and tweak my grocery budget. My body has never looked so good; neither has it ever seen so little action. 

I have been avoiding writing in all forms these days. It takes me weeks to write letters to my friends, even when they offer me up letters like gifts, sending bits of their hurt and heart and love when I've done nothing to make myself worthy. I address the envelopes and stamp them and tuck a piece of paper or a note card into the flap of the envelope and then I carry them around for weeks meaning to write a little note. There are some I've carried around for nearly two months. What could I possible have to say to these, my brilliant and busy and accomplished friends? 

I haven't written a dissertation word in over a month. I have a reading assignment currently. I have discovered some things that genuinely help my project. I have thought to myself, while reading and reflecting on those things, I must write this down; if I can freewrite this, I'll think it through; there's a connection I can make and it's close to the surface. it will come if I just write it out. I haven't written it out. Any of it. I've talked a little of it out. Thought about it. But worked the ideas through my fingers onto a keyboard? No. I can't bring myself to do it. 

I can't take up the long-ish books I need to read because I can't (so it seems) focus on anything of length. Oh, except for Anna Karenina. And The Complete Father Brown
I have been instructed (by my voice teacher who, except that his middle name is Torquemada,* is actually a nice guy) to make a habit of doing vocal exercises every day. This is not a new idea, of course. I mean to make a habit of meditating every day. Of writing my dissertation every day. Of reading for the dissertation every day. I mean to make exercise a habit and not a quota--to trust myself to work out on a regular, reliable schedule and not to bunch up workouts because I've slacked, or to dread it all day until I actually begin and am pleased. Now, on top of all the things about which I already feel guilty, I have to add the vocal exercises (which are challenging; I am not good at them). 

I laughed, though, when it occurred to me that I have been instructed to do what I want to do, and that about which I am, in a sense, writing. At the core of my thoughts about ethics is the idea (not an original one) that  what is most important are the tiny small things that one does regularly. I am being told to pay attention to what I am and what I do, and there is no difference between attending to silence and attending to self or to aspects of self (like vocal health). I can't attend to silence if I can't attend to the tiny ways that I sabotage my efforts at creating rituals, routines, and habits: to what am I paying attention if I can't or won't pay attention to myself? 

I've lumped things like "reading" and "writing" under "dissertation" or "academia" so regularly that all reading and all writing feels like a chore because I associate it with the reading and writing I am not doing and must do. In this way I have slipped into lethargic apathy. "Singing" is not part of that lump. Now I have only to begin everything again, tiny bit by tiny bit. I feel like a Taoist master. But ask me again tomorrow. 

*But not in a bad way.

Monday, August 13, 2012

this is why you should keep your closets full of secrets

I found my old prayer journal yesterday. Over the weekend I did much cleaning and culling and throwing away. While moving things around to fit more and different things into my closet, I found an old, beat-up, red, spiral-bound notebook. I thought, when I picked it up, that it was my high school poetry. That, it seems, must have been purged long ago. These were high school prayers. 

What a revelation those prayers were! It isn't the case that anger is a new struggle for me: it turns out that I have been struggling with anger for much longer than I remembered. It may be that I have always been quick to feel offended. That I was crazy about boys, however, was not at all a surprise. 

I am relieved to have found compassionate tendencies in that journal. And I am relieved to have learned that I thought much about and struggled greatly with questions about how to be a good friend. This is something I think about a lot these days and I thought that this might be a new concern. It isn't the case that I used to practice friendship with ease and fluency that I have since mysteriously lost. Instead, I found that it was hard for me then to know how much or little to say; when to offer advice and opinions and when to hold back; how much to share with friends and how to ask for help. This makes me feel a lot better now. 

I was happy to recognize myself in many parts of that journal. What surprises me a little is that it feels as though I am meeting myself again. That is, I see now and lately that I feel very angry more often than I would like. In high school I was also aware of my anger. But it seems to me is that there were years in between then and now during which I did not think of myself as angry. The same is true about my concerns regarding friendship. I am aware that other people have needs and boundaries and differences that I can't always see and I am aware of my tendency to hold back, assuming that others don't need or want my advice or opinions or perspective. And I was aware, at least to some extent of that back in high school. There seems to be more coincidence between my current self and the self I found in that journal than I expected and there seems (though I may be wrong in this) to be more coincidence of selves than there was a few years ago. 

What feels alien to me now, of course, is the intense longing for God. I've wondered if I had manufactured (somehow) that desire back then. I don't think I did. I think it was genuine. But I can't imagine being that passionately identified with anything in any way like that at all. 

I am left wondering, then, whether I have been broken or fixed. Or neither. Perhaps just different.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Lately I have been afraid to read. When I say that fear hasn't kept me from reading, you should not cheer me on: I can read the following with ease: 
  1. facebook status messages
  2. blogs
  3. in particular, food blogs
  4. self-help books
  5. magazines (the shorter the article, the better: I've even been avoiding the real articles)
  6. the Ikea catalog
  7. Etsy
There are many, many things I honestly want to read. There's that book on Kant's moral philosophy that I started. I enjoyed reading it (the 20 or so pages I accomplished) but have not returned to it. I started War and Peace one night. A bookmark about 15 pages in is all I have to show for it. I have several books on my shelf (free! I have them!) about fiction and literature. These would help me in my dissertation work. I might not even have to take notes on them. And their spines and covers are perfect, without a single crease or bend. I loved The Golden Bowl and I have two copies of The Ambassadors. Haven't started. And then, of course, there is the poetry into which I can't bring myself to journey; I run my mind lightly over their surfaces instead of plunging into their depths.

I just can't bring myself to do it. I am not even entirely sure what it is that I am afraid of. Unless it is that I am afraid to learn and know more than I do. I am at a stage of writing now where I am better able to see the holes in my work. I am also at a stage where I must prepare (much and quickly) to obtain a job, and I see the holes in my professional development. The reading I want to do and must do would certainly help to fill those holes. 

And that, I find, makes me very, very nervous. I see that I have used "I don't know that" and "my background is not very good" and "oh, but I'm not very well-informed about that" as excuses. I have used such excuses to keep myself from becoming competent. That way, when I fail, I can say "well, I didn't know X or Y or Z" even though I could have taken it upon myself to learn them. 

I am afraid, it seems, of being an academic. Of having any authority. Of pushing myself to work (sometimes) at my own limits. If I did that--if I explored and expanded my limits--I'd have to learn to tell new stories about myself. I'd have to develop stories about growth and accomplishment and achievement. And that is why I just cannot, these days, bring myself to read.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Things about which I care much less than previously:

1. Whether my skin stays matte all day
2. The fineness of my hair
3. Having perfectly groomed eyebrows
4. Visible pores
5. The paleness of my legs
6. Being considered "trendy" or "fashionable"
7. Not having a perfectly flat stomach

there are probably non-physical/non-vanity-related things about which I care less now than I did but I cannot think of any now. I am a bit embarrassed when I think of all the time I spent fretting over all the imperfections and flaws that I now see as features that reveal me to be a particular and real person. 

This seems to be part of a larger trend of letting go (which is, nevertheless, very hard!): as I cull my closets and my bookmarks and my blogroll; as I stick closer and closer to my budget and so shop and browse and desire less; as I let my magazine subscriptions go and as I think more carefully about the value of the books I read and the movies I watch—in all these things I am making space, both mentally and emotionally. 

So far I am not making good "use" of this space: I stay in bed too late (and go to bed too early). I still check up on blogs I have decided I no longer need to follow. I still waste time trying to decide the "best" way to make use of my time. I spend far too much time on facebook. 

Nevertheless, it seems that change is possible. And slow. And without grand signs from above. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

in which it appears I am breaking a little in a very good way

I remember a time when I had what I would later refer to as disciples. These were women (now; we were all girls then) a year or two younger than I was who would sometimes ask me to pray with them, who asked me questions about God and faith and discipleship, and who believed I had insight, if not answers.

I certainly thought I had answers. Never since then have I tasted the ambrosia of certainty. I no longer know the flavor. Indeed, I have spent the last many years running away from anything that smelled of even a cheap imitation of that intoxicating illusion. I can, if I like, connect my discomfort with such things as opinions and preferences and decisions with my fear that I will believe too strongly in them--that I will take them for Real and for Right and forget to respect both the trivial nature of my preferences and the viability of other peoples differing preferences.

I am reading a memoir now. Surprised by God by Danya Ruttenberg. It is a terribly difficult book for me to read. The prose is lovely and the rigor is refreshing. It stirs so many things up and I don't know how I will come to respond to the book as a whole or to the way it reframes questions and problems and ideas around which my mind already circles.

She quotes religion scholar James Carse on page 160. In this quote, he describes what a great [spiritual] teacher is and does: a great teacher is unobtrusive. She clears the path so that the student can approach the source/thing/teaching/truth and the student comes away alive with her own thoughts ringing in her head, not the words the teacher spoke. The great teacher makes it possible for the student to experience something deeper than the particular words used to clear and reveal the (or a) path.

My very first thought, after I read those words (just a few minutes ago, really), was that I had no business posturing as any kind of teacher all those years ago. I have had many occasions to regret and to repent, after a fashion, having done so. I have just learned a new lesson in how very wrong I was. Just a little below the bit I paraphrased, she quotes a 17th century Benedictine monk about what spiritual direction is: "[A spiritual] director is not to each his own way,... but to instruct his disciples how they may themselves find out the way proper for them ... he is only God's usher, and must lead souls in God's way and not his own." I only knew my way and only affirmed and held up my way. I didn't know other ways and the possibility of other ways frightened me. In my narrowness, I hurt people who were trying to discover for themselves "the way proper for them."

I am humbled and sad because I have a new way to understand the harm I did previously. I am gladdened, though, when I think of how I have come to value, without being quite aware of it, standing aside so others can learn things in ways proper for them. I am now taking this from a strictly religious context into a broader one, but the gladness and humility both still hold. I had the opportunity to learn two new skills this summer: I taught my very first class and I indexed a book for the very first time. I did these two new things simultaneously and, although this increased the pressure for a few weeks, I got to learn the same lesson from two otherwise unrelated experiences. In my class, the point wasn't to demonstrate to my students how well I could read the texts. I wasn't there to dazzle them with my brilliance, wit, incisive commentary, original interpretations, or mountains of scholarship or research. The purpose of my being there was to clear the path so that they could approach the texts and the ideas and meanings within in a way that would do justice to the discipline, the texts, their contexts, and also to the students' situations and abilities. Nothing in the class was about me or my abilities. My goal was to step aside so that my students could learn the material I taught and not just remember what I said about the material I taught. With the index I learned a very similar lesson. The index was not a text of how well I read the book. I learned a lot from the book and found it very interesting. But that wasn't the point. The point was to make it possible for other readers to find their way into the text and to learn from it according to their needs and situations.

My students did, of course, spend much more time than I would have liked trying to attend to the exact words I used and trying to reproduce them in their papers and exams. And the index, being my first, probably reflects more about me as a reader of that book than I hope future indexes will. Nevertheless, I can see now--right now--that I have finally taken to heart a lesson I didn't know, twelve years ago, that I needed to learn. I can now see, and really, deeply understand, the value in stepping aside and being an usher for others to approach something bigger than I am, whether that bigness is philosophy or God. It no longer needs to be about me and it no longer needs to be done in just my way. I still get in my own way. I still have a difficult time being flexible or being able to richly imagine the many ways other people see and feel and experience and need things. Nevertheless, I am encouraged that a part of my person that was harmful to others has broken a bit and shifted to a smaller corner, even if it might never quite be shaken out of me. For now that can be enough.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

summer wine

I don't recommend drunkenness. I certainly wouldn't prescribe excess consumption of alcohol. I don't generally enjoy hangovers and would rarely wish them on anyone else. Sometimes, however, it is possible to enjoy a hangover more pleasant than the wine and conversation enjoyed the evening before. Perhaps such hangovers can only happen in the summer, though I would like to think they could happen during a blizzard (and resultant snow day) as well.

This is the hangover that might begin with a bit of a headache early in the morning, but nothing that 2 glasses of water (with lemon), 2 eggs (scrambled, with greens), and 2 cups of tea (strong, Earl Grey) won't cure instantly. After breakfast, the rest of the day stretches until it is easily three times longer than a typical day. Your eyes feel about 90% open, just a smidge lazy and closed. There will be time, it seems, for everything in the world. A meeting with friends is almost unbearably long--enjoyable but colored with shades of eternity. Lunch surprises you with its indolence; it waits for you but in such a complete and perfect way that you begin to feel as though  you have been waiting for it. There is time to run out and find something sweet. There is time and time for everything.

The heat and its muggy, thick perfection recall you instantly into a twelve-year old body and for just a moment (or a minute, or five), you feel as though you are in the middle of your summer vacation and bored, bored, bored in the best of ways. You have the feeling--so rare, now that you're all grown up--that everything is just where it was supposed to have been, that someone very competent is in charge of things, and that things will turn out. Why wouldn't they?

There is time, barely, but fully, to relax into plush words and delight in someone's passionate prose and forget entirely habits of possession. Forget the panic and despair that sometimes accompany the words you did not write, that someone else, someone not you did write and wrote well. Just pure, non-possessive, peaceful pleasure. The words threatened to sail over your head but you, in your perfectly hungover state, did not even reach out your hand to capture them. Like a Taoist master, you let your stillness bring the words to you. You let go of the need for the words and they came, all of them, and you tasted each one.

The day continues to stretch. Yes, there is work to do. Yes, it is good work, interesting work, work of which you approve. Yes, you have done some of it. But there are also unexpected conversations, connections to be made with other people, in the flesh, skin and hair made perfect and soft by the thick and humid air. There are words to seek in addition to the words you write and in your delicious unattachment, you hold them all--all--in your hand, heart, mind, head and there seems to be time for everyone and everything. You wonder, for a moment, why it is you worry so much. No answer comes easily and so you let that question slip away. It isn't even interesting.

The day, the heat, the thickness of the air, the promise, the time, the unraveling of attachment seem to you like just what you hoped those long hot soaks in your bathtub in the winter could have been. This, this perfectly hungover state, is better than any bath. The velvet warmth carries into the heart of you the way a bath never can.

You know, of course, that it would be utter foolishness to try to achieve this state. This feels profound. Had you tried for the perfect hangover, you would have missed it entirely. You probably would not have made it to work; you might not have even made it out of bed. Your inner sage might be holding an awareness that this state need not be lost even if you never drink wine again. Perhaps you won't need wine next time to remember the length of the days, the relief of relinquishment.

Monday, June 11, 2012

not waving, but--

Today I lost it. Angry, tantrumy, teary mess. 

Two professors emailed me about a teaching possibility for next year. Very reasonably (I thought), I explained to them why this was a completely unworkable, unreasonable idea: I need to focus on finishing my dissertation by January so I can defend in March and graduate in May. I have been telling myself the story of this timeline for months. It has become something of a mantra: chapter 5 August chapter 6 November chapter 1 January revise February defend March graduate May. Teaching full time would force me to revise the mantra and I have been so proud of the mantra: finally I might redeem all that time I wasted, all that privilege squandered. 

I am teaching now and it is all I feared it would be: more work than I have time to do; no idea how well or poorly I am doing; no clue how to prepare or improve; no pleasure or satisfaction or reward. I hate things I am not already very good at and I am not already very good at teaching. The thought of taking it on full time--more accurately, the thought of trying to do so--scares the shit out of me. I am already more lonely than I thought I could be--I who require large doses of solitude, I who can't handle too much social time am overwhelmed by my feelings of isolation and aloneness and insignificance. The thought of taking on such loneliness for years? I lost it. Freaked out completely. Sobby irrational mess. 

The boy says I have to do it. That I can. That it's necessary to try. I knew he would say so. 

To be at all ruffled would be sufficiently irritating. That I have become entirely disheveled, emotionally speaking, is distasteful. I am just the kind of person I despise. 

I will, with red-faced soul, retract my reasonable arguments and try. Or try to try.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

the limits of metaphor

I want to be happy. Maybe it is more true to say that I want to want to be happy. Or that I want to do the work, to put in the effort to be the happy person I believe I can or could be. Being happy would require letting go of many thoughts, thought patterns, fears, judgments, insecurities, and self-doubts. If all of those things could simply be gone--if my psyche could be hollowed out in a soul fire so that nothing but the foundation and walls remained--I'd be delighted. I don't want to have to do the work to carry all those things out of the room of my soul. I don't ever want anyone else to see it happen or to note the changes. I don't want the neighbors to notice all the trash I have to take the curb every day. I don't want my friends to walk in and say "My! You have done a lot with the place!" What I hear in those words is "And why on earth didn't you do this sooner? See. It is all your fault. You have willfully made yourself miserable and it's about time you wised up a little."

A tiny voice way back somewhere invisible tries to tell me that if I can cart out all this emotional junk and trash, I will hear different things in those words. That I will have let go of the filter that hears judgment in acknowledgment. I can't imagine what that would be like. I do know that I am the one judging myself. How did I let things get to be such a mess? What is my problem? My soul is cluttered Hoarders style. Do they shoot a series of that show for folks whose hearts are packed full of junk?

I understand my metaphor and the metaphor makes sense. If I could physically remove things from my soul--as I have been decluttering my home, for example--the task might be easier. I would see the holes for what they are as soon as I removed something. This is all internal work and I can't always see what it is I am doing. I don't know what it feels like to remove something and I don't know how to tell whether I have gone out in the middle of the night and taken it back from the curb. If I can learn to stop feeling rage at co-worker X for complaining about absolutely everything, does that have any effect on my irritation at co-worker Y? How do I take anxiety about the future to the curb? How do I package up nagging for pick-up? How do I get my arms around pushing others to love me so I can get it into the truck and take it to the dump? The metaphor grows and it still doesn't offer any guidance when I want practical solutions.

I absolutely hate the thought of others witnessing any growth or change on my part. That's too much. Too close. To fragile. Too intimate. I don't know how to be graceful in this. I don't want to talk about it. Don't want to think about it. Don't want to think about talking or thinking about it. It seems, of course, that this is just what must happen, just what needs to be done. I am rebelling. Throwing a tantrum because I can't change the shape of the world. I suppose people must do this all the time--grow and shift and change and things. I suppose I do so, too, and that others notice it and adjust. I am resigned to that and it still bothers me. No one else tells me about ways in which I may have changed or grown (or shrunk); I can't see it, either. How will I know, then, if I change any of these thoughts or attitudes in positive ways?

Monday, April 30, 2012

Books I have read lately

Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard
Black and White, Dani Shapiro
Evensong, Gail Godwin
The Art of Mending, Elizabeth Berg
Ancestral Truths, Sara Maitland
The Patron Saint of Liars, Ann Patchett
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
The Epicure's Lament, Kate Christensen

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Thinking  more about what I wrote the other day. I see that I have been relieved (!) of many of the activities that have often soothed (or seemed to soothe) my anxiety, loneliness, and self-doubt: I no longer have recourse to shopping, whether for clothes, or cosmetics, or for household goods; I drink far less often; I see fewer friends; I cannot treat myself to a fancy coffee or a piece of pie as  little pick me up. I see, too, that my increased sugar consumption is very likely related to the loss of all those things. Also that my new exercise habit and my recent hunger for fiction are other, healthier responses to the loss of old self-soothing activities. 

It is good to lose shopping and alcohol and sugar as means for alleviating the anxiety of growing up. Seeing my habits and behaviors and tics and tendencies in this way, I see that there is more room for improvement: I plan to give up trimming my cuticles. Now that I see why I have been eating sweets more frequently, I can look for non-food and non-sugary food replacements. (I envision an upcoming mild obsession with sweet potatoes.)  I appreciate the exercise and the fiction-reading more: these are strong, healthy, good things. I can keep including them as part of my daily routines.

I also see that, as I have been paring my life down--paring my activities down--I am taking somewhat better care of myself: I do the dishes and the laundry more frequently. I have not run out of toilet paper or cat litter in months. I don't even remember having made the bed many days but I look over my shoulder to check and it has been made. The laundry doesn't pile up. My pantry is well stocked. I find I have time to make steel cut oats in the mornings and soup on the weekends. This does help to relieve some of the anxiety about the little daily chores that never go away.

And I see it that way: I am paring down my life. How much can be eliminated? How much is necessary? What is it I need and what is it I want and at what point can I tell the difference?

I keep looking for things to eliminate. Not activities or people, but things. I've purged my bookshelves recently; now I see that I can do so again. There are clothes to eliminate. Some furniture (my filing cabinet is a source of pure stress). And I would like to have some new things; in particular, I dream of crisp ivory bedding to replace worn duvet covers and sheets. In general, however, this seems to be a time in which to grow lean. A time that leans away from activity, community, luxury, decadence. A time that is full of time, and time is just the thing I need: there is an enormous amount of writing and reading and research to be done and this requires uncluttered time. This is a time to strengthen the muscles of my body with exercise and a time to stretch my imagination with fiction; this is a time in which to sink into research and make my mind supple by writing.

I wrote the other day that I am annoyed with myself and vexed to be unable to avoid myself. As I pare my life smaller and smaller, I am finding it more and more difficult to hide from myself and that might be the source of my annoyance. What is it, really, that I am afraid of? What is it I've hidden or scooted to the side by shopping my way through anger and sadness? What is it that I numb with sugar and with obsessive cuticle trimming? What is it about pushing my body to do a few more pushups or a few more squats that brings me to tears--not from physical pain but from sudden emotional rawness?

Peeling away habits of destructive coping rituals leaves me feeling exposed and undersupported. The new and healthy habits I am developing don't seem to obscure the fear and anger from which I have been trying to escape. Instead, they lead me back to them even while providing some kind of support for me while I learn to look clearly at myself.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

the philosopher as flame

I will be teaching this summer. I have never taught before and I will meet a new self this year: myself as teacher. Meeting new people can be both exciting and intimidating (even when the people you meet are your own selves), and I do feel both nervous and curious. 

One of the reasons I am so pleased with my prison and exile theme for the class is that it foregrounds the subversiveness of philosophy and of philosophers. Philosophers are trouble-makers! They are jailed, killed, exiled; their books are banned and burned. Of course there are exceptions and certainly times change, but philosophy is not what one chooses if one wishes to be safe. Challenging authority, exploring the limits of the powers of thought, attempting to face what must be the case--these are very dangerous indeed. Mental equivalents of polar expeditions. It could destroy you. If you neither fear nor face destruction, then perhaps you have not gone far enough.

And last night I read Holy the Firm. Annie Dillard does not talk about philosophers. She is a teacher of writing (or was, then) and her role as teacher surfaces a few times in this tiny book. I read these paragraphs and thought, yes. Yes, this is something like what I want my students to see. Can I put these paragraphs in one of my sermons lectures?
There is no such thing as an artist: there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows. When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the candle is out, who needs it? But the world without light is wasteland and chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination. 
What can any artist set on fire but his world? What can any people bring to the altar but all it has ever owned in the thin towns or over the desolate plains? What can an artist use but materials, such as they are? What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that's burnt out, any muck ready to hand?
What can a philosopher use but materials, such as they are? What can any philosopher set on fire but his world? This is what we see in the punishment of the philosophers. Prison, exile, and death are the repercussions for setting the world on fire. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

is this what they mean by narrative therapy?

I am irritated and jumpy because I can't seem to get away from myself and I want very much to get away from myself. I don't like myself very much. I know that. And I know from all the wisdom of self-help advice that I am supposed to like myself and that I can't expect anyone to like me if I don't like myself first. Well, I can't. So I don't tend to expect people to like me. I'm delighted when they do (or seem to). And I am often very lonely. I won't deny that either. I also know that I am lonely to the extent that I don't much like myself; when I am least annoyed with myself, I don't feel lonely at all.

I have been trying to learn to like myself. I don't make much progress. Every time I look for things to like, I am vexed by all the emptiness: there simply doesn't seem to be anything there. What is "me"? I am crabby, prickly, aloof; a know-it-all, a procrastinator and a perfectionist; I am suspicious of people who are very cheerful or friendly. I am difficult. I have no job to speak of, no hobbies. My social life lies comatose. This, if you will believe it, is progress.

Given how I see myself, as I said, I am not terribly surprised when people find me hard to like. Still, it would be something to have a group of friends. Another way of saying it: it would be something to be a member of the kind of group that is hard to disband. To have a group of people who have to put up with me (and with whom I, too, have to put up). The way kids sit together in a lunchroom and become, for years, a group. I remember not liking some of the kids in my group of friends. Sometimes no one liked certain members very much--we'd even go out of our way to avoid including them. Still, they always were there and we never kept them out too often or too long: they still belonged to us. Even if they were a little weird or annoying or dumb or mean, they were still ours to find weird and annoying and dumb and mean. I miss that.

It would be nice to have a web of relationships--people who know me and know each other--into which to fall when I feel, as I do now, that I simply can't stand myself another moment. To have people who care about me (even when they don't like me) to talk about me to me and to one another so we could all bear a little of the burden of being me and of knowing me. That is something I miss having. It isn't that I haven't got friends. But I have friends here and there. My friends, generally speaking, don't know one another. They aren't able to gossip about me in ways that can then get back to me and let me know that I need to figure things out.

I do need to figure things out. I suppose I don't need a gossipy web of friends who sometimes do sometimes don't like me to tell me that. It may be that saying out loud, no longer trying to hide the fact that I just don't like being me might be an act of friendship toward myself. Maybe I can just stop trying to like myself, self-help blogs be damned. I wonder if that is progress. One of the reasons I don't like myself is that I don't like myself, and that is foolish. Now I can accept that I don't like myself and that gets to be a step toward self-acceptance. How funny. And how foolish all this now seems. Maybe it doesn't matter at all whether or not I like myself. Maybe it doesn't matter, generally speaking, what I think about myself at all. And maybe when I feel, as I do now, that I simply can't stand myself another moment, I should just breathe.

What do I want to be, anyway? What would I need to be in order to consider myself someone I could like? Easygoing. Relaxed. Happy. The kind of person of whom I am suspicious. Neither clingy nor aloof. I think that I will not be able to learn to develop those qualities or to see any ways in which I might have them unless I spend more time with more people.

I have been drawn to novels lately, particularly, it has turned out, to novels about family relationships, small towns, marriages, siblings. The book I am putting off but enjoy is one full of solitude (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). I want to read books by women and about women. I loved Olive Kitteridge. I don't want to become an Olive. She is difficult, suspicious of other people's expressions of emotions and cheerfulness and empathy; she is crabby and a bit cold. She gets angry when her feelings are hurt and she turns that anger loose on her husband and son. By the end of the book she is in her late seventies and only then does she finally see that she let herself become a difficult person. Maybe I have an advantage: I know now, in my early thirties, that I could easily become cantankerous. But then I am also at a disadvantage: I don't have many people who have to put up with me. My social world has been shrinking.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

a new piece of the puzzle

I think I find poetry so hard to bear because it is so very strong, so concentrated. I find the dilution of prose easier to swallow. 

And so I prefer my poems very short. My attention wanders after more than, say, twenty lines. Not for lack of interest, but because the twenty-first line undoes me. Perhaps I should approach the poem as I approach the push-up: add one new repetition daily and rest as needed. 

The poem requires me to relinquish speed and I may as well admit that I generally choose to wolf down great mouthfuls of oatmeal prose and not sip slowly the port of poetry.

But the message I am finding in all things these days is Slow Down. Muscles are built and made strong by tearing them up. The heart is a muscle, too. Perhaps while I paradoxically simultaneously tear down and build my muscles with pushups and lunges I can tear down and thus build my heart with poetry.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Poetry may be the best church of all

Watching the rain pouring from the street down through the cracks in the trainyard on Friday I felt delighted and buoyant and eager and it took me several minutes before I could locate a name for the unexpected feeling: happiness. The thought that followed--that it has, I think, been some time since I have felt such happiness (and that I am surprised to have not recognized it)--didn't diminish that happiness in the least. I was pleased to feel so happy. 

And the thought occurred to me that perhaps I can develop a taste for happiness; acquire a knack for happiness. If I can learn to savor the taste of beer or of chevre or of olives, then perhaps I can also learn to love the taste of happiness, "like small wild plums":

The Plum Trees
by Mary Oliver

Such richness flowing
through the branches of summer and into

the body, carried inward on the five
rivers! Disorder and astonishment

rattle your thoughts and your heart
cries for rest but don’t

succumb, there’s nothing
so sensible as sensual inundation. Joy

is a taste before
it’s anything else, and the body

can lounge for hours devouring
the important moments. Listen,

the only way
to tempt happiness into your mind is by taking it

into the body first, like small
wild plums.

Friday, March 16, 2012

growing pains

I have never had to end a friendship before. Friendships have slipped away, dissolved, or gone underground. Slack and tension have been adjusted and readjusted. In my adult life--perhaps all my life--I have not had to choose to end a friendship.

I have now done so. I did not do it well or gracefully. I don't feel pleased with myself. Though I could have done it differently, I still think it having done so was the right thing to do.

I wish now that I had invited more honesty and that I had been more honest myself. I wish I had thought about why I wanted (did I want?) that friendship. I wish I had been able to better express my own growing pains. I wish it were easier to hear someone say "I value our our friendship" and I wish it were easier to ask for patience and for support.

In general, I am feeling more capable these days. More resilient. I know myself to love and need solitude and I also now know I am not afraid of it. I have been learning that I do in fact have more than a few good friends. And there are acquaintances/casual friends I admire very very much. I am learning that I don't have to spill my guts to everyone in order to be their friend; I am also learning that I can have different friends who fill different roles. I am learning, it seems, lessons I should have learned years ago and didn't. And I am learning that, for the most part, I don't have to spend time with people with whom I can't express my best and growing self. I don't need to make a friendship "work"--either it is a friendship (and therefore works) or it is not and I don't have to try to force anything.

Perhaps I have been making strides, then, in self-care and self-love. Perhaps something about the idea that even at my worst, I am lovable and worthy is sinking in somewhere. I am not worthy *because* I can stifle my needs and thoughts and feelings and therefore make a friendship work. And I am not unworthy when I try and fail to express my thoughts and feelings well. I am already worthy and already allowed to be a friend and have a friend. I am not perfect, and perhaps I am not even very good. But there are still, somehow, people who love me. Even better--there are people who are happy to love me. Even though I am nowhere close to perfection. That is such a lovely thought--a thought I can sink into--and it is a thought I want to hold on to. And I think that, for now at least, to hold on to this thought, I need to let go of habits of relating built around the belief that I, just as I am, am insufficient.

It is hard to resist the temptation to be very angry and disappointed with myself for having let go of this friendship in such a graceless way. So I'll distract myself with work, writing, and by spending time with the friends whose care I increasingly desire.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

oh. of course. afraid.

I feel quite still. The stillness is like the echo of the roar of a close and fast-moving train that has just passed. My ears are ringing with the stillness. 

I was a whirlpool and now I am a glass of water. Small, still, and contained. 

Relentless, excessive, crescendoing worry has been, for now, replaced by the quiet tick tick tick of a small and accurate clock. 

Now the air pushes on me from the outside and not from within. 

I have given the empress Anger a new name: Fear. Perhaps I have begun to obliterate her false world so I can live in a real one.

I feel slow and deliberate and just a little uncertain. Like trying to walk in three-inch heels. While drunk. And over tired. And hungry. In public. During an interview. While unemployed. In an unfamiliar country. With a shifty-eyed stranger for a translator. (Who may or may not have a shiv in his pocket.) All while trying to impress the most beautiful person I've ever seen. 

(Must I relinquish metaphor to obtain a visa so I can inhabit Reality?) People are not metaphors.

Friday, January 27, 2012

On being a difficult person

It is difficult to read self-help/personal development blogs, books, and articles that recommend that one cut negative people from one's life; that one avoid difficult people; that one manage difficult people. As though only easy/positive people read these blogs, books, and articles. As though people were always and to everyone either positive or negative; either easy or difficult.

I am a difficult person. I have been accused of being very negative. Should everyone cut me out of their lives? I suppose it is up to them, but I tend to be happy when people choose not to do so.

Nothing in any of these articles is very helpful for difficult people. The writing assumes that difficult people simply like being difficult, refuse to change in ways that are clearly positive (because the positive people have already so identified them), and require management or a very wide berth. But what is a difficult person to do about her own difficult-ness?

Remember, you positive, easygoing, laidback, cheery, easy to get along with folks: negative, difficult, awkward, uncomfortable people have feelings as raw and real and delicate as your own. In fact, it is possible that the difficult people in your life are even more sensitive to negativity, difficultness, awkwardness than you are. Some of us are hypersensitive to ourselves and to others. This makes us super self-conscious much of the time. It also means that we can go from being a-okay, happy to be around folks and out in the world to being overstimulated, deeply uncomfortable, and shut down or closed off within minutes. This can be triggered by anything--by things that seem like nothing to those around us. It's not our fault. Are we responsible for it? Sure! But what is it you'd like us to do? No response we can make that accounts for our intense discomfort will feel acceptable to you. If we simply leave and retreat to our homes or rooms or beds, refusing to take calls until we feel sufficiently lacquered over to handle company or the world at large again, then you call us selfish, closed off, abrupt and uncomfortable. If we try to wait for the moment to pass (just a little!), taking breaths and smiling weirdly (or not able to smile at all), saying little or nothing and hoping no one will notice until we've collected ourselves a bit before participating again, then you tell us we've shut you out, we're acting weird, you don't know what to say to us, we're changing the energy of the moment, we've made things awkward again. If we tell you we can't be in touch for a bit because we're in a rough spot, then we're not letting you be a friend, we're pushing you away, we're devaluing the relationship. If we try to tell you about our sensitivities as we experience them, sharing what is really hard to share, you often don't understand--that made you upset? That much? Can't you just get over it now that you know? No, no we can't. That's the point. That's what we're trying to say. That's why it feels so hard all the time and it takes so much effort so often just to appear natural. Alternately, you turn our stresses and worries and overwrought feelings into a judgment of your character, or our relationship. When we say "interaction X" left me feeling raw and drained, you take it personally, as though we are accusing you of having done something intentionally hurtful. What hurts is not you or your behavior (much of the time); it is the feeling of outside air on a soul that feels scantily covered. Sometimes a breeze makes its way beyond the insufficient skin and that breeze--delightful to others--can be painful for some of us difficult, highly strung, negative people. And it doesn't stop being painful.

Cut us out of your lives if you must--you do us no favors by remaining in relationship with us if it bothers you that much; remember, we can be highly sensitive and are often keenly aware of your discomfort and of the fact that we can do nothing about it. And if you decide to "let" us stay, do stop trying to manage our difficultness. Part of what makes us so uncomfortable to you is the fact that we don't try to manage your discomfort around us--we aren't able to change ourselves in order to make you feel more comfortable in our presence. Yes, we know you are uncomfortable with our sensitivities, our weirdness, our lack of reliable social grace. And many of us understand just why you are uncomfortable--after all, we make ourselves uncomfortable, too. But we (some of us at least) are able to let you have your discomfort and we can, to varying extents, sit with that discomfort we both feel. Can you do that for us, too? Can you let yourself be uncomfortable with us? For many of us sensitive, difficult folk, that is one of the most longed for expressions of friendship: the ability to acknowledge our discomfort, awkwardness, unease, self-consciousness, and rawness, to sit with it without trying to "fix" it or "cure" us, and to love us anyway, somehow.

Of course we understand that this doesn't look like the kinds of friendship other folks get to enjoy. It looks, well, negative. It looks sparse and chilly. But this is what we need if we are going to share the other parts of our personalities with you. Even those of us who are rather difficult are rarely difficult all the time. We might go through phases--whole years maybe--when it feels that way to you and also to us. But we have moments of pure sunniness. Some of us are quite clever, hilariously funny and entertaining; we can be deeply supportive and we can be creative and warm in the ways in which we show care; we can be or play the part of the outgoing extrovert at times. We can be amazing friends, lovers, and partners. But you won't get to know or experience that unless you are able to love--equally--all of the ways in which we are also difficult.

It would be nice to see any of this addressed in the advice offered for "dealing with" difficult people. (One "deals with" pests, generally; perhaps if you can't think of difficult people in any other terms than having to "deal with" us, then you might take that as a sign that you can't help but see difficult people as the enemy, in which case, yes, avoid us. We will be grateful to you.) As a difficult person myself, I tend to find such advice very depressing. I am difficult but I am not (usually; I, like any "easy" person, have my moments) a jerk. And I don't like being difficult. Very often I wish I could be otherwise. The truth is that I can't. And it hurts to read that one should not share one's dreams with difficult or negative people because they'll just look for ways to bring you down. It hurts to read that folks think that their successes produce negativity in difficult others. Maybe in/for some people it does. But then there must be as many ways of being difficult as there are of being not-difficult. It hurts to read that difficult people need to be "right" all the time. Sure I like being right. I like it a lot. In terms of interpersonal relationships what I need more than being right is acknowledgment that I am not necessarily wrong. Just because my feelings are nothing like what your feelings would or might be doesn't make me any more wrong or right than you. It just makes me and my feelings very different. The more you tell me that I am wrong to feel in some way, the more I will dig in and assert the reality of my experience. It hurts to read advice suggesting that you not respond to someone's negative or difficult attitude. Would you refuse to acknowledge or respond to a friend's sickness if she had, say, a cold? If your friend were missing a leg would you tell her to get over herself and just run a 5k with you? Or would you respect her limitations (whether permanent or temporary) and adjust your responses accordingly?

I started by asking what a difficult person is to do about her own difficultness and I haven't even addressed that all. This is amusing as I began by criticizing other authors for not addressing just that question. I've not come up with any ways of becoming any less difficult myself, for example. On the other hand, I am not entirely convinced that being difficult is itself a problem. There are many things we value because they are difficult--running marathons, climbing mountains, earning advanced degrees, performing brain surgery. I suppose I am trying to learn to value the ways in which I am difficult, which is itself a difficult thing to do. I invite others who are not difficult, or who are less difficult, or who are differently difficult to challenge themselves to learn to value difficultness in the relationships of which they are a part, too.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

reading wallace stevens in the new year

I don't understand poetry. I can see beautiful things in poetry--in small and in large. And there are things I do and can understand sometimes and in some poetry. Reading, say, Wallace Stevens lately, I have the sense of something beautiful down deep where I can't see/fathom/conceive. There is something there inaccessible to me and I don't know what to do about or with it.

The only activity I know to take with writing, with words, with the letters is to take the words and phrases and lines apart. To try to break the thing into constitutive pieces. But the poem, it seems, is not made of bricks. I can't undo the edifice to reveal the building plans. It is not, say, a chicken, and I cannot, like a master butcher, carve it up, moving my knife into the spaces between the bones to divide it effortlessly into essential pieces. The poem, it seems, is more like a painting and my approach to the poem is rather like trying to understand a painting by removing each layer of paint. The poem is like a large piece of pottery--a sealed urn--and inside that urn there is something. The urn gives me that sense somehow.

Whatever there may be inside that urn, however, requires the protection of the pottery for its existence. I don't know how it is I know this, but I seem to know it. So how may I understand it? How can I understand the urn if I don't understand what it protects? How can I know the secrets of the urn unless I open it somehow?

I try to take apart the words and lines of the poem in order to understand it. Even while I do this, I see that I may as well smash the urn and, with violence, force the secret from it. What do I find?  Aha! There is... ! Liquid gushes and spills everywhere good for nothing and no one and ruins my shoes. Or a peculiar smell--and nothing else--escapes the shattered vase and is lost in the ether. No, a tiny thing like a homunculus--hairless and fragile--scrambles among the sharp pottery and bleeds to death trying to hide his nakedness.

How can I learn to understand poetry and not destroy it?

Perhaps poetry is particularly tough (or so it seems) because its medium is the same as that of strongly analytic scientific work. Like a painting done in equation-paint or a sculpture done in moving gears. How, now, can I tell the difference between the factory and the gallery? Between the library and the laboratory?

I tend to focus on the stuff of it, the material, on the sense of the building blocks and/because I cannot apprehend the poem as/for/in itself. Words mean things. But what/how does that mean in /for poetry?