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.
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.
This year is almost over, and here we are, wandering into the arms of a chilly month, narrowing light, naked branches, the hunt for snow boots that fit and mittens that match, while California burns, and the glaciers melt, and Jane Fonda gets arrested week after week pulling the fire alarm on the climate emergency. Yet I continue to drive an SUV. My son graduates from high school and observes from the back seat, on the way home, holding his cap, that he’s missed a lot of opportunities, that others took more chances, joined more clubs, showed up, shared their interests, while he … played video games, I guess, he said. (In fairness to him, he’s worked at least one part-time job since age 15.) But it’s not too late to show up, I said. What interests you? What pulls you?
How do we make meaning in our lives? How do we induce momentum? How do we change trajectory?
Am I flywheel set into a track and spinning of its own weight, or am I bird, catching the air currents, or am I free, fundamentally? What I see is that we obey laws that are beyond us, even while we attempt invention, innovation, revolution. The bird can dive through air currents, perhaps, to find others, but she’s still going where the wind blows her. She’s pulled by instincts that are collective rather than individual, needs that are seasonal. We set limitations as cultures, as civic systems, as families, as collectives; but we also long to see ourselves as living outside of those boundaries, as having free will, as being in control of our destinies.
I struggled to go to the Wild Writers Festival last weekend as Carrie Snyder, writer, because I’m not publishing and haven’t published [a novel] for so very long. It’s become ancient history. I’ve passed into the past. But I’m still present. Maybe we are all longing to be relevant.
I want to wear my own face, not a mask. I want my public voice to be my private voice. I want to step forth as vulnerable as I am grounded, as transparent as I am polished. Is it possible to be vulnerable and clear? Is it possible to perform transparently?
There’s a tug-of-war between exhausting precious personal resources in an effort to be relevant and wanted and needed (taking on responsibilities, saying yes when asked to participate), and guarding space so that quieter creative work can flourish (saying no, assessing offers through a different lens, basing decisions on a formulation that acknowledges the siren song of doubt and ego and the desire to be important, that taps into grounding foundational personal principles — a personal mission statement).
Maybe I need to rewrite my mission statement for this new stage in my life.
What needs to take priority? What boxes do I want to check? What do I want to do with this one wild and precious life? Like my son, how do I get involved, sign up, figure out what matters to me, what interests me, and devote my time to doing things that are challenging, not always what I “feel” like doing, and hopefully help feed and create community for others, too? How do I do all of this and yet stay true to what’s burning bright inside … the desire to hibernate, to close the door, to write and nothing more.