There is no First Prize

DSC_0042.jpgIt’s been a week of busyness with little opportunity for reflection. It’s been an up and down week, emotionally, and it’s just struck me that I’m finishing my November, as I often do, in a bit of funk. Is it the shortened days, the vanishing light, the overhanging clouds, the chilly winds, the general gloom of a world stripped bare and not yet blanketed in bright snow? Probably, yes.

But it’s also an existential Novemberness that alights every year. A wondering what it is I’ve accomplished this year, and what’s left to complete, as if I am a list of tasks done or undone. And maybe I am? But maybe, maybe I’m not, in truth.

As Kevin tells me, Life is not going to give you First Prize. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’ve written a good book. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’re a good parent. There is no First Prize that can assure you you’re a good person.

I’ve fallen to pieces on a few occasions this past week. I’ve been filled with unaccountable shame. This is not the face or person I present to the world, but my kids have to stumble over it. They’ve seen me crying and have found ways to comfort me, with compassion and rationality; and I worry that I’m harming them by not being as solid as rock, as rooted as an oak tree, as strong as diamonds.

DSC_0060.jpgI suspect that this feeling of vulnerability and exposure is cumulative. It’s been a fall of presenting my book in public to audiences interested and sometimes not so much; that’s the reality and necessity of publishing books. One must promote one’s work. One must speak on behalf of the work in hopes that the work gets found and adopted and championed by others. I have many many wonderful memories from events this fall, and in truth, very few that are even mildly distressing. So I suspect this feeling of vulnerability and exposure has little to do with the quality and worthiness of the events themselves, but rather with a sustained public stance that has been more difficult for me to participate in than I’ve allowed myself to recognize.

After all, I enjoy reading from my work. I enjoy meeting other writers, and readers. I enjoy sharing my thoughts, and appreciate immensely being invited to participate. These are enormous blessings. I am enormously grateful.

But the shadow side is that I don’t think the human character is designed to absorb even the modest amount of attention that’s come to me this fall. I don’t think we’re particularly good at it. It doesn’t tend to make us into better people. It tends to make us think we’re something special. And even while we’re thinking that, we know we’re not special at all, and the disconnect and disharmony of having to sustain and project the confidence of having something worth saying, while fearing one doesn’t, creates a cognitive dissonance.

I’ve felt kind of hollow this last little while. Hollow, and, in truth, lonely. Removed from myself.

DSC_0044.jpgRestoring an interior balance and sense of location and groundedness seems the answer. Advent starts tomorrow, a season of waiting, and I like that metaphor. I don’t mind waiting. I’ll never arrive, not really, because I’ll never cease changing. I want to inhabit deliberate patience. I want to discipline my mind away from its taste for quick hits of attention, and return it to the slow and steady onward pace of life in its daily ritual and routine, a life of small adventures, private successes, and strength through connection.

How I fit in the public work that is necessary to my job — and important (teaching is important, for example!) — is a question I’m not entirely able to answer at the moment, but I think it relates directly to maintaining disciplined habits and routines. Maybe too — this has just come to me, just now — it relates to forgiveness. Maybe it is mainly in my own mind that I’m falling short. Maybe, secretly, I really do believe in a First Prize for anything and everything, and as long as I cling to my imaginary scale of external validation, I’ll exist in a kind of permanent November of the spirit. And I would rather not.

xo, Carrie

Singing happy birthday to Margaret Atwood
The cure for November or "Christmas-cookie Sunday" #CCS

4 Comments

  1. Carrie, I believe that the experience of applause and attention can fill our heads like opium smoke. It did mine when I performed for a living. It can cloud our vision and skew our thoughts and can leave a residual desolation when withdrawn. You are a step ahead, though, if you can consider this natural part of the process. One of Melville’s characters said that when he was feeling a “November of the soul” it made him feel like jumping into a boat and going to sea. Or maybe jumping into a car and going to Starbucks, I forget which. Advent with family sounds much nicer than either.

    Reply
    • Chris, whatever you’re working on right now, writing-wise, I’m positive it’s going to be good. I know this wasn’t the point or purpose of your comment at all, but what struck me was the craft of your sentences. “the experience of applause and attention can fill our heads like opium smoke”: exactly. Thanks for writing.

      Reply
  2. Carrie, I just have to say again what an enormous gift it is to have you write the way you do, with such immediacy and lucidity, about every aspect of your writer’s life. Thank you. Every post I read, I’m struck by just how amazing it is that you let us in to so much of your experience, so thoroughly and thoughtfully.

    Reply
    • I’ll admit that I wonder sometimes, Alison, whether it’s quite wise to continue writing this blog, given that this is how I choose to write it, yet oddly it leaves me feeling less exposed, less vulnerable to share publicly this array of experiences. Thanks for reading with openness.

      Reply

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