This is an ideal day, wide open, warm. I’m wearing shorts and a t-shirt and sandals. I’ve gone for a run in the park, walked the dog, hung the laundry, and meditated in the back yard listening to the birds and the traffic.
It is possible to be quiet and still.
And yet, there is an undercurrent of anxiety. Feelings of inadequacy, guilt, shame, grief, panic. When you strip away the layers of busyness, you have to look at yourself, pay attention, listen. Maybe you were busy for a reason. Maybe you didn’t want to scrutinize the uncomfortable emotions and their uncomfortable causes.
What a question. Oh boy. Rejection hurts. Not meeting my own expectations and hopes hurts. Feeling purposeless in my vocation hurts.
Is this true? Do you feel purposeless, directionless, or is your purpose and direction so attached to outcome that you’re standing in the way of recognizing what is before you? The here and now. Not what came before or what may come, but what is here before you in this very hour.
I come inside and draw a picture. I write this meditation.
I ask: Is my vocation, my purpose more closely related to being a writer, or to leading a life of contemplation? What connects these two points on the map inside my mind? What separates them?
A writer writes, of course, but more importantly, she publishes. Produces. Makes her ideas manifest on the page. Her work can be seen, recognized, appreciated.
What do you even call a person who leads a life of contemplation? How quiet and interior is a life of contemplation? How is such a life made manifest? Is it a life in which its purpose is entirely untethered from production, from recognition, from approval? Is it a life without notice? What would that mean?
Do you ever feel too superstitious to mention that you’re feeling good? Like by speaking such words out loud, the universe will notice and you’ll call down your fair share of trouble and grief?
This morning, I noticed that I didn’t feel tired. In fact, I felt energized. I was looking forward the day ahead. The obstacles seemed surmountable and I wanted to go for a run just to enjoy how at easy I felt inside my own body. But I also noticed an underlying emotion — was it shame, almost? I was feeling good, even great, not tired … because I’m not that busy right now.
I’m not busy.
I’ve been busy, so I know what busy feels like, and I’m really not busy right now. I’m not struggling on the verge of complete burn-out. I don’t have to fantasize that I’m going to step out of my life and vanish, as a coping mechanism for getting through the day’s tasks. Kind of the opposite, actually, and this absence of extreme stress, even distress, triggers a certain fear in me that may be familiar to some of you, too — that my value, my worth is directly connected to my busyness.
By not being busy, I’m attempting to rewire my understanding of worth and value. Time, space, attention: what are these worth to us? Attention to tasks, to desires, to emotions, to motivations, to goals. Neutral attention. Non-judgemental attention. The attention of curiosity. The attention of immersion in a moment. The attention of presence. Contemplative attention, calm, stillness, peace — the opposite of busyness.
This is my current goal: to give myself these moments. What does it feel like to move easily through a day? What does it feel like to breathe? (Take a deep breath now, and feel what it feels like.) What does it feel like to relax into a task, to give myself a break, metaphorically and literally?
It feels good.
I feel good. I acknowledge this feeling in the present, in the now. The now is where we live, and yet our minds would carry us back in time or push us forward, with worries about what’s to come, or what could have happened differently, if only. Sometimes the ability to move forward and back in time is a wonderful magic trick and a saving grace, but often it’s a form of self-torment.
For example … yesterday, I received student evaluations in the mail, for the cartooning course I taught this winter. I stood in the kitchen in my coaching gear, minutes before we had to leave for a soccer game, for some reason choosing to take that moment to scan through the comments and ratings (anyone who receives evaluations knows this was a terrible idea!).
The positive comments far outweighed the negative, yet had zero effect on me. I can’t even remember them now, but I remember the student who didn’t think I used the readings well, and the student who said the storyboarding didn’t work for them, and the student who was disappointed that we hadn’t done more writing.
My attention was attuned to the negative.
Why? It occurred to me this morning that what I wanted was an excuse, a reason beyond myself, to justify my decision not to teach, at least for now — and a handful of negative comments did the trick. Playing the comments on a loop generated unpleasant emotions, but also made me feel justified. (side note: I wonder why I keep needing to justify this decision to myself? No one else is asking me to do so!)
Viewed from a neutral standpoint, the comments have nothing to do with my decision not to teach: a decision made months ago, not yesterday, that, viewed from a neutral standpoint, made it possible, this morning, to feel good, not tired, not stressed, not burnt-out. A decision I can feel inside my body. A decision that isn’t actually about teaching or not teaching. It’s about making space.
I love that word: contemplative. It speaks to me.
I’ve entered a new phase in my life. It should have a name, but it’s a little too nascent to be properly defined, as yet. In this phase, I’m not teaching and The X Page Workshop has wrapped up, and collectively the team has yet to decide what comes next. My focus, therefore, turns not outward, but inward.
All this year, I’ve been seeking space. Last fall, when I was drowning in responsibilities, the word SPACE became my mantra, and my goal. I worked so hard to give myself this gift. It’s here now. And I’ve recognized that my new goal is to allow the space I’ve elbowed open to remain spacious, not to clutter it with new pursuits. What if I give my writing the attention I’ve given everything else? That is the question before me. It’s an experiment. I wonder: will the writing life, its necessary solitude, its self-generated energy, continue to call so loudly now that I can turn toward it?
Here is the gift of time, to explore.
Here is where I inevitably get caught up in looping guilty thoughts, ranging from, can we afford this?, to if we can afford this what have I done to deserve this?
There lives inside me a desire, an impulse, to give rather than to receive. The discomfort I feel when receiving — praise, thanks, gifts, anything good — is profound; it makes me almost ungracious. I’ve been trying to learn how to say thank you for years. To say it and to absorb it and to accept it. I don’t want to hoard my riches. But I don’t want to squander them either. If I am to accept this gift of time, I have to accept it despite not knowing whether anything good or useful will come of it. That’s hard. I know that if I put my time into teaching, into running workshops, good and useful things will come of it. So it’s hard to step away from purposeful actions toward an activity that seems indulgent, self-indulgent, even, and not obviously of use to anyone else.
I mean, I am writer whose focus is on writing. Stories, a new novel, cartoons. I’m not, in this phase, a writer whose focus is on sharing her skills with others. I’m a writer who is practicing her skills. I need the practice. The practice calls me.
I am setting new routines, in order not to squander my riches: these gifts of time and space. Exercise early. Meditate when the house has emptied out. Follow the rituals that ease me across the border into a creative state: open my notebook, listen to a song while drawing a self-portrait, write for three minutes (or more) answering the question: What’s on your mind? And then writing, or editing, or cartooning. Also, and as important, reading. Books, fiction. On Monday, I read an entire novel (Normal People, by Sally Rooney.) Today, what’s on your mind? turned into a meditation on love, a spoken-word poem, inflected by the Kendrick Lamar soundtrack I’d been listening to. I hung up a load of laundry in the sudden sunshine. I meditated while standing in the grass in the back yard. I decided to write this post before setting up at the dining-room table to work on cartoons.
It feels pleasurable.
It feels good.
I’m not a hedonist by nature. I’m ashamed, maybe, to enjoy feeling good. To enjoy ease. Something whispers that I’m not deserving. What a strange barrier to fulfillment. Truth be told, I’m drained and exhausted, teetering on the edge of burn-out. I know in my bones that this phase is as necessary as the other phase. The inward feeds the body and the spirit to prepare it for the outward. It’s good to feel good. To swim with the current. To sit quietly and breathe deeply. The scent of flowering trees is especially intoxicating just now. Am I ascending or descending? It’s too early in this phase to know. Either way, it feels good.
We did it! The X Page storytelling workshop culminated in a show in front of a sold-out audience, and the experience was so profound and meaningful that I don’t want to try to peel it apart. Suffice it say, we could feel the attention and support of the audience as the performance unfolded on stage; and throughout, I felt pure joy to be witnessing these unique personal stories told with such confidence and personality, and staged so brilliantly and effectively.
I’ve been thinking about the material world. How we attach value to things, and how we measure value according to a concept so abstract it only exists because we’ve collectively agreed to believe in it — money. We seem to believe that for a thing to matter it has be material, its worth evaluated and determined on the open market. It’s a formulation that makes no sense to me at all. It seems to me, instead, that a material thing only has value when it is attached to meaning that is beyond its material form. Things don’t matter to us because of what they cost or what we can sell them for; things matter because they connect us to the ephemeral, to experiences, to memories, to images and stories.
So much of what I do has no monetary value attached. Sometimes I get paid for my work; often I don’t. I have a new story in PRISM International that took four years to write. It’s a little over 1,000 words. I earned $90 for it. I was thrilled and happy to earn anything at all (literary magazines are run on a shoestring and a prayer, and I don’t take payment for granted). My point is not that I should have been paid more, or even that I should have been paid anything, but that the value of that story, to me, is unrelated to monetary compensation. It’s unrelated to material compensation of any kind. I wrote it to explore an idea. I loved working and reworking the words on the page. The language and structure were surprising. I felt rich every time I waded into its words. I felt fed. I felt alive.
I believe the value of the workshop was in the connections made, the space carved out for stories to be told and heard, and the hope and joy, and sense of belonging, that comes from working with others toward something bigger than yourself.
We need to have enough material goods to live more than a life of struggle, survival, and trial. Beyond that, what we long for won’t be answered by the material. No prize, no public acknowledgement, no stack of cash will satisfy; quite the opposite. If we’re doing what we’re doing for material reasons, receiving material reward only makes us hungry for more, greedy for it, like addicts. Trust me; I know. I know what we’re longing for can’t be bought or sold. I know that meaning and purpose, belonging, are not commodities. I know that within us is always enough; and I know that we’re always seeking, nevertheless. We’re seeking to connect, even briefly, with mystery, with the unknown and unknowable, from whence we’ve come and to which we will return, carrying nothing.
We’re always becoming who we might be.
I am a maker of experiences, not things. Even when I make things, it’s because they’re attached to experiences — stories, cartoons: my attempt to translate experience into a form accessible by someone else, its effect ephemeral, the tiniest vanishing ripple on the greatest lake. Enough. I am enough. You are enough. We are enough. And isn’t this life just terrible, terrible good?
Sometimes my skin feels too porous, and emotions pour in almost painfully. Yesterday, I started reading a personal essay in the newspaper written by the mother of a child on the autistic spectrum who was being bullied by classmates, people he thought were his friends. I had to stand up and walk away, so strong were my feelings of sickness and pain, gut-deep, a grief and horror that seemed to wash through my bloodstream.
I stood by the sink and wept.
Stories of exclusion, cruelty, judgement of others trouble me so deeply I can hardly tolerate the pain. I guess here in my mind, I live in a world in which people see each other, are kind to each other, have compassion for each other; but in the real world, there is a lot of pain inflicted even by people who are trying to be kind; pain is also inflicted by people who only want to be left alone, people who don’t want to engage, people who don’t care, who are struggling with their own troubles; and there is pain actively inflicted by people who fear and hate others for their differences, people who don’t want to understand or learn or listen, people who actively target others, weaker and more marginalized than themselves.
I can’t make sense of it.
It just doesn’t make sense in my brain.
I don’t have solutions. I can only to attempt to make spaces for that version of the world that exists in my mind to exist in real life. I’ve tried in the classroom, on the soccer field, inside my own family, and in this storytelling workshop. I know I’ve gotten things wrong. I suspect I’m sometimes the person who’s inflicted pain when trying to be kind, and acting in ignorance. But I’d rather try than hide. There is no alternative that makes sense to me.
For the past 11 weeks, I’ve been privileged to be part of The X Page Workshop. It was envisioned as a creative and collaborative undertaking that would bring together women from different cultural backgrounds, all of whom are making lives for themselves and their families in Canada. Each week, a group of almost 30 of us have met to work on writing and staging stories. Together, we’ve made something that’s rich and enriching. Just with stories! Just with stories and goodwill, trust, kindness, and effort. When we’re together in the beautiful space at the Centre for Peace Advancement, as we have been every Tuesday evening since March, I feel immersed in the possibility of the world inside my mind becoming a real place. It feels like a real place, then and there.
Just thinking about being there brings me a sense of peace and ease.
It isn’t perfect. Why should it be? This world in my mind has conflict, but it also has ways of talking about conflict, because there is trust, and the trust is constantly being earned. Each small thing offered, in this world in my mind, is actually a really big thing. Our gifts to each other don’t have to be grand gestures, large acts, or come from a place of material wealth.
I think the best gift we can give to someone else is to see and acknowledge them without wanting or trying to change them in any way.
To live in this world in my mind, I have to try to live with unconditional love. And that means feeling too porous sometimes to the brokenness in the real world. That means loving what’s broken, too, unconditionally. And that hurts. But it’s the only thing that makes any sense to me at all.