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.