Today is my birthday. It’s family tradition that we get to do what we like on our birthdays (within reason). Among my wishes was that I wanted to go to church: my dad’s band was playing at the service. I love the band’s mellow folksy sound — Dad plays the piano, and there’s a banjo, guitar, fiddle, and voices in harmony. The whole family came along, which was also my wish.
It was the last service of the year, and instead of listening to a sermon, the congregation was asked to reflect silently on two questions: what experiences in your life this past year have been life-giving; what experiences in your life this past year have been life-draining? I found myself turning away in my mind from labelling any experience as negative, or draining. Why? Because there is a part of me that remains forever hopeful, optimistic that any conflict or trial could be transformed by attention and care, or could be transformative in ways that can’t be guessed in the painful, hard moment of its happening.
But in truth, some experiences are draining. And I do try to pay attention to those, too.
Life-giving experiences this year: as I let my mind wander through memory, I saw images of connection. Sitting at the end of the dining-room table, poring over the novel I’m working on, feeling like an antennae connected to the universe, pinging with focus and energy. Eyes closed, doing yoga, sitting cross-legged on soft sheepskin surrounded by music. In my body, running in the early dark morning. With my family, around the table. With my soccer team, outdoors on summer evenings. With my writing group sitting at the table. With my word-of-the-year group. Listening to stories being shaped and coming alive. We are all raw material, and yet we are also all capable of transforming into exactly what others need, at any moment in time.
Life-draining experiences: I did not dwell on these heavily. But I acknowledge these were also a part of my year. I would call them: broken connections. Relationships in flux or turmoil. The distractions of the constant stream of information and news, the scroll of social media, disconnecting me from my body and mind, and from those who are present with me. Times when I lacked focus. Days when I was unable to write for lack of focus, or care. Frazzled energy. Fears too dark to name. Times when I felt overwhelming anxiety, paralysis, over everything I can’t control (which is, let’s be honest, most everything).
Connection / broken connections.
To be grounded is to be rooted, is to feel oneself sturdy, energy flowing directly to and from an idea, a cause, a project, a desire. To be grounded is to feel connected to place, connected to self, to body, to spirit, to feel whole. It may not be possible to feel this way always. But even to feel like this sometimes is wonderful. It’s good to remember that it’s possible to feel this way, at times and on days and in hours when I don’t.
Connection / broken connections.
There will always be broken connections. Broken connections remind us that we are needed, that our creativity is needed, that our love is needed, our attention is needed, that our hope is needed, crucial, essential. We can’t fix a lot of things that are broken. That’s a hard human truth to learn. Maybe we aren’t meant to do that, we humans — go around fixing things all the time. This isn’t to discount the importance of policy-making in shaping our lives; what I’m talking about seems more personal. What I’m talking about is loving awareness. Maybe loving awareness is about acknowledging hurt, pain, brokenness, and making connections despite our fears, despite the risks. Maybe it’s letting go of the expectation that we can fix anything at all, and just listening, trying to hear and feel underneath to what this broken connection is telling us. (Put down your phone? Go for a walk? Write in your journal? Sit with yourself? Hold someone’s hand? Ask someone to hold your hand?)
Letting go of the idea that you can control what happens doesn’t mean you give up hope.
Hope is not the same as expectation. Hope seems much richer, much deeper, much more flexible and open to the air. Emily Dickinson says it much better than I can.
Hope is the thing with feathers
“Hope” is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —
And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —
I’ve heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet — never — in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of me.
My word-of-the-year group met last week for the last time in 2019. My word this year, SPACE, was resonant and practical, and has met me where I’m at in terms of my goals and aspirations. Essentially, a year ago, I determined that I wanted / needed / craved more space, specifically more space to write. Space and time are inextricably linked. They can’t be separated.
But so are space and discomfort. (As far as I know, Einstein didn’t weigh in on this theory.) Let me explain.
What I’ve come to believe is that I am the source of my own space. If I feel crowded out of my life, it is because I have chosen to be a person crowded out of her own life. I am the biggest obstacle in the path to my own contentment, and enlightenment; conversely, I am also the person capable of removing said obstacle. The expectations of others are not holding me back — my own expectations are the source of my unhappiness. What I’m sparing myself, by building a life that is crowded and that crowds me out, is discomfort.
Anything I give space to will cause me some discomfort, and the opposite of feeling discomfort is so often, instead, feeling resentment. It’s something we don’t think about much. But the fact is, we are much more comfortable feeling resentment (and anger, annoyance, irritation) because it is an outward emotion — we can send it toward the object of our resentment. Discomfort is an interior emotion that asks us to be responsible, to accept the cause of our discomfort as our own choosing.
Any choices I’ve made that I value have caused me to feel discomfort. Giving space to listen to opposing positions — discomfort. Saying no to people and opportunities — discomfort. Waiting with a writing project as it forms and develops — discomfort. Allowing a child to wrestle with their own problems — discomfort. Taking a leadership role and being responsible for decisions that affect others — discomfort.
What I’ve learned this year is that when I allow myself to focus more fully on what I’ve named as my desire — time and space to devote to my writing — I also have to confront my insecurities, which come crowding into all this open space. It’s uncomfortable. I feel vulnerable. Exposed. Teaching was easy to talk about, pretty much universally understood and accepted as a positive and recognizable undertaking. The ambition of developing an ongoing career as a literary fiction writer in a market that is facing serious existential challenges: not so easy to talk about. Even that sounds like an excuse, as I read it over. And so I’ll revise: It’s not so easy to talk about my ambition to continue developing my craft as a literary fiction writer in the absence of new publications. But it’s true to what I’m doing.
And I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to name that desire, and pursue it, at least for the time being. I do feel discomfort being here. But I know discomfort is here because I’ve given it space to be here. In a sense, I’ve actively invited discomfort to be my companion. I also know that I wouldn’t feel better in the throes of resentment, overwhelmed by commitments, wishing and longing to pursue my deeper ambition; I would feel different, yes, running on fumes, exhausted, stretched thin, maybe full of certainty and outward purpose, maybe not; but definitely not better.
In conclusion, my year of making space has somehow turned into an examination of discomfort. And I’ve realized that I’m unexpectedly comfortable with discomfort. I have a pretty high tolerance for feeling it. I think, if deployed under the right set of circumstances, this might even be a super-power.
I’ve typed, deleted, and typed anew the first sentence. The problem isn’t that there’s nothing to write about and reflect on. The problem is there is so much! And I’m struggling to identify the theme that would bind these disparate aspects of my week together.
On Wednesday, we held the open house for the second season of The X Page workshop, which will begin in January, 2020. It was an emotional evening, a familiar team of women gathering to meet new candidates for this collaborative, cross-cultural project. I was reminded of the small miracles and many challenges behind and before us. The energy felt familiar: a bubbling sense of adventure, curiosity, wondering, nerves. The desire to hear each other’s stories. To connect on a deeper level. Wondering what we would make together? Wondering, also, where we might go wrong, would we say the wrong thing, make an assumption that would be hurtful, misunderstand one another — this, too, is part of the project, part of any project that transports us out of our comfort zones. This may also be the greatest intrinsic potential in the project: that it may teach us how to sit with discomfort, express it, feel our way through it, forgive and be forgiven, and learn from being challenged, because we often (unconsciously) try to avoid all of this, in our ordinary spheres of reference, our primary contexts.
On Thursday, my emotions were at a low. I felt unworthy in all aspects of my life; I’m not saying it was rational, only that it was what I felt. I mention this because I want to be honest about the ways my emotions can bottom out, sometimes. I was feeling profound despair, weakness. Thankfully, instinctively, I didn’t cancel plans/routines and hide away, even though I wanted to. Friday morning, I got up early to run. I went to visit a friend. Two poultices for my spirit: exercise and friendship. My emotional trajectory could not help but rise.
On Saturday, I received an award that five years ago would have been unimaginable — I was named Youth Coach of the Year for the district in which my team plays. To be honest, this was one of the things I was beating myself up about on Thursday; I didn’t feel deserving of this recognition. I kept listing all of my limitations as a coach. And then, on Saturday, it came to me — my limitations have been my strength as a coach. Or perhaps, more accurately, awareness of my limitations has been my strength. I prepare for practices diligently. I do my homework. I ask lots of questions. I’ve surrounded myself with assistant coaches whose technical skills are stronger than my own. I’ve benefited from thoughtful mentorship and coach’s education. I was very green when I first volunteered, and I’m grateful to the club for trusting me to learn and grow alongside the players. More clubs should do this. Give moms the benefit of the doubt, the vote of confidence, the support needed to volunteer.
I’ve invented my idea of what it means to be a coach almost from scratch, because I didn’t play competitive sports as a kid — I didn’t have a role model in mind. (Here’s an exercise: picture a coach. Did your mind conjure a red-faced man pacing beside a field, square-jawed with tension, or yelling at his players?) There were almost no women coaching at my soccer club when I started, and there still aren’t many. I wonder whether a lack of role models actually gave me freedom to develop my own coaching style. It’s not punitive, it’s not authoritarian, and it’s definitely not angry. Honestly, it’s kind of goofy. My approach is light. I think out loud, ask questions, admit when something isn’t working the way I’d hoped, ask players for feedback to see whether we can figure this out together. I enthusiastically admire players’ creativity and technical skills. I try to highlight moments when a player has pushed herself out of her comfort zone to try something new — regardless of whether or not it worked. What I want to create is a collaborative learning environment for everyone. I think and hope this creates an atmosphere of trust and shared knowledge, where players are comfortable saying if they don’t understand something, where they can ask for help, even just tell me that they’re having an off day and they don’t know why.
I want to be the kind of coach, the kind of leader, who is also a participant, a collaborator.
Here’s what I believe. I believe that strength comes from (not despite) vulnerability. I believe that trust is earned by working through challenges, being human together, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. I believe that knowledge is not fixed and top-down, but ever-curious. I believe that almost all of what we know can be learned only by experience: experience is the source of expertise. It’s also painful, and hard, and sucks sometimes. So we need each other to remind each other of our potential, as individuals, and as a team. I believe we should be seen for who we are, not asked to change ourselves fundamentally to fit in. I believe it’s the coach’s job to position players for success, to see and believe in them, so they can see and believe in themselves.
I believe that your team needs you to be you. And my team needs me to be me.
Last but not least — it’s not worth it if isn’t fun. That’s the glue that sticks all of this, all of us, together.
This is the second wide-ruled notebook this month that I’m filling with words, words that seem to be becoming something. This afternoon, when I laid down my pen, I looked out the window and said, “I don’t even know if it’s any good.”
And I heard this reply: “You don’t need to know. It’s none of your damn business.”*
Keep making what you’re making, people. Get out of your own way. None of this belongs to us, we’re just here to do the work that’s come calling.
* in Lynda Barry’s voice
I’ve read some excellent books these past few months, all by women, mainly fiction. Most recently, I finished THREE WOMEN, by Lisa Taddeo, creative-non-fiction, and the kind of book a person wants to discuss afterward with someone else. In the absence of a book club, I bring my thoughts to you. (This is how compelling the book is: I was reading on the couch last weekend, sharing a blanket with my eldest daughter, when she suddenly said, “Wow that book must be good, Mom. You haven’t fallen asleep!”)
(Possibly related note: the book has a lot of graphic descriptions of sex. But in my interpretation, as you’ll see below, the sex stands in for desire more generally.)
THREE WOMEN is a book about women’s desire as examined through the lens of sexual desire(s) that our culture would call taboo. One woman defines herself as a submissive and has sex with other men and women while her husband watches or participates. One woman, in an almost-sexless marriage, has an affair with a former boyfriend after connecting on FB. One woman, as a high school student, was pursued by and sexually involved with a teacher, and when charges are pressed years later, the teacher is absolved and she is destroyed.
But she had already been destroyed. (This is not a spoiler; the book’s propulsive nature relies on exploration of character rather than plot.)
The most interesting section, for me, comes in the epilogue, when the author unpacks, most explicitly, the subject she’s been examining, and reveals that this particular desire she’s been exploring throughout is an exemplar for anything a woman wants—desire, generally.
Her mother, dying, has something she agrees to reveal to her daughter. Something she wants to tell her.
Are you ready? She asked me.
Yes, I said. I got close to her face. I touched her cheek. It was still warm and I knew it wouldn’t be for long.
Don’t let them see you happy, she whispered.
Everyone, she said wearily, as though I had already missed the point. She added, Other women, mostly.
I thought it was the other way around, I said. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
That’s wrong. They can see you down. They should see you down. If they see you are happy, they will try to destroy you.
But who? I asked again. And what do you mean? You sound crazy.
Later, the author writes: “… we cannot exactly say that we expect to be happy.”
Finally: “There was a beauty in how little my mother wanted. There’s nothing safer than wanting nothing. But being safe in that way, I’ve come to know, does not inure you to illness, pain, and death. Sometimes the only thing it saves is face.”
So let’s talk about desire. Not sexual desire. Desire. Naming our hopes, our aspirations out loud.
Personally, I have trained myself to expect less, and perhaps also to want less, to make do with less, to make less a wonderful shelter, in a way, a goodness and righteousness, a way of life. I do believe, morally, in the ethic of more with less. But I also can see how lowering my expectations, and being afraid to name what I want (out loud or even quietly to myself) could make my whole life so much smaller. But if I name what I want, am I not guaranteeing I’ll never receive it? Jinx! Touch wood. I do this, when I accidentally state out loud something hoped-for.
In truth, I’m morally opposed to the idea of bottomless aspirational desire, of eternally needing and wanting more, which always seems to come at the expense of others. I disagree with inflicting harm on other people to favour one’s own pleasure. That is why the stories of two of the women in this book were more difficult for me to understand—acts of self-pleasure are rarely victimless. Can desire be healthy if acting upon it will damage those to whom we owe our loyalties and responsibilities?
I’ve been thinking about how comparing ourselves to others is a fast-track to misery. It’s a fast-track to bitterness, envy, and a form of self-loathing that we often turn outward on the object of our comparison. I fought these very feelings yesterday morning in a weight class at the gym, working out next to a woman who seemed effortlessly to wield weights heavier than mine, whose endurance was always greater than mine. My attention was divided, and I kept diminishing my own efforts, even while thinking things like: She must have more time to work out than I do, or even, It can’t be healthy to work out as much as she must, to be in such good shape. I also recognized, even as my thoughts ran in this direction, that any discontent I was feeling was so wholly not this stranger’s responsibility, but my own.
I wonder whether comparison whispers to us that we should have been wanting more all along, that our suppression of desire has cheated us somehow? Does it make us question our life choices? Recognize invisible alternate realities all around us that may already be closed to us?
Is our comparative envy perhaps also related to a scarcity of resources? For women, there is an extreme scarcity of resources around desire, success, and achievement. We have a very narrow window of acceptable achievement, and of the way to acceptably achieve. Naming our desires is not so straightforward. We have to be so careful not to name desires that would hurt others (as I said above), especially our children. We struggle, too, to claim our own successes. We work so hard to keep in balance all these pieces of ourselves — and our expectations for ourselves — that we inevitably fail on one important front or another.
We cannot exactly say that we expect to be happy. Is this a gift we could give to each other, especially as women? — admiration for each other’s strengths, in tandem with appreciation for our own.
Running with a friend. A dear friend. Every Monday morning, 6AM, for the past decade, maybe longer. Time adds up. Conversations accrue. We change. We don’t change. We agree. We don’t agree. We listen. We understand. We’re gentle with each other, even when we don’t understand. It’s early. It’s dark. It’s light. It’s dark again. We see the stars. The sunrise. We talk. We’re quiet. We feel heroic. We’re tired. We’re energized. We ask questions. We tell stories. Share ideas. Consider options. Imagine what comes next, or many years from now. We remember. We celebrate.
Earlier this fall, I told her that I’d had a revelation, that I’d woken up in the middle of the night, and I’d thought — It’s okay to enjoy life.
And because she knows me so well, she understood the significance.
I said, I know it sounds sort of minor and obvious, but it really feels like a revelation — that it’s okay not to strive so hard all the time. That life should be enjoyed, as often as possible. That I don’t have to feel guilty about not feeling stressed out.
I said, The thing is that I realize that I’m really enjoying my life right now.
(Side note: I’m almost too superstitious to let that last sentence stand, but I’m going to put it out there into the universe, in recognition of the ebbs and flows, the waves that carry us closer to shore and back out again; I accept that not every day will I really enjoy my life; but also that I want to celebrate each day and hour that fills me up and makes those other times survivable.)
This morning, Monday morning, we ran again, for the five-hundredth time or so. Out to where the sky opens up and we can see the stars (except not this morning; it was overcast, snow on its way). As it happened, I felt more interior and listened more. But in her presence, I was reminded again that it’s possible and good and okay to enjoy my life: I gave myself renewed permission. I thought: What a gift it is to feel pleasure. To look forward to a blissful morning such as this very morning, beginning in the company of friendship, and moving through the usual morning routine surrounded by family — a shower, poached eggs on toast and a homemade mocha, reading the newspaper, the sound of a child playing the piano, the house gradually emptying out — and then, a quiet dog walk in the snow, returning home to quiet, where I’ll read, I’ll nap, I’ll write. And I did and it was.
Snow falling, falling, falling out the windows. A soft light. Living in my mind, feeling alive through characters, visiting other times and places, and yet anchored here in warmth. The best day I can imagine.
And so I say to you, too: Go ahead. Enjoy your life. You have permission! It’s okay! No matter how quiet, no matter how undramatic, no matter how small the victories. Enjoy. Whenever possible, love what you’ve got — life. Taste it. Feel it. See it. Embrace it. Let it be what it is, something that doesn’t quite belong to you, but is of you. It lives in you, through you, you are your own expression of this difficult wonderful gift.
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