Category: Word of the Year
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 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.
My word of the year is SPACE. What I didn’t expect to find within this word is its companion, SILENCE. Silence can be a challenging state to sit within. I don’t always want to hear my own thoughts so clearly, or recognize the distracted and tumbling, tangled nature of my own interior life.
We spent last week, the last week before school started, at the cottage that belonged to my stepmom, and still feels like hers, even though she’s been gone for more than a year now. We love going there, love being there. It’s been a gift to have this place in our lives, and the kids have memories that go back, now, 11 summers. It’s the kind of place that has become a touchstone, and returning is a kind of pilgrimage. Returning is a measure of time passing. While we’re there, though only for a week at most, it feels like we’ve always been there and will always be there.
You can only get there (easily, practically) by boat. About five years ago, Kevin developed an inner ear disturbance that’s triggered by boat rides, and each year the after-effects would last longer and longer (months, even), so for the past two summers, he’s hiked in on a path that literally no one else uses. It’s overgrown. It takes him about an hour and a half. And this year, it was occupied by swarms of insects. He arrived at the cottage looking like a wild man. He wasn’t sure he could manage the hike out, but on Monday, he and Rose trekked the path again, to save his brain.
The corollary to his necessary hike is that I’ve had to learn how to drive a boat (not high on my list of things I wanted to learn how to do). We do what needs doing to get us to this place.
There is plenty of space at the cottage. Space for the kids to play. A big lake for kayaking and adventuring, alone or together. Star-gazing at night. Shelves of books. Late, lazy mornings. Late-night all-family card games. We never seem to need anything more than what we’ve got. Even when meals get creative, by necessity.
Space, silence. Quiet.
I tuned out from the news, from podcasts, from the internet almost altogether. But I did listen to one podcast, On Being, on Sunday. The title was: Silence and the Presence of Everything.
Isn’t that something? How the themes of our lives get tied together by invisible thread? I’d been worrying about space and silence. Silence as a negative. Silence as too much space for my mind to listen, anxiously, to itself.
Silence. Presence. Everything.
“Silence and the Presence of Everything” was about listening. Not active listening for a particular thing you expect to hear, or have been told to listen for, or pay attention to. Listening to what’s there to be heard. Listening without judgement.
An interesting thing happened at the cottage. I managed to write a bit every afternoon, when no one was paying attention; no one even really noticed. What was strange and thrilling was how I would fall into the writing (fiction), almost as if by drifting toward an idea. An image would surface. I would let it drift. I would be resting or sitting by the water. And some small fragment would drift toward me. And then I would get up and write. The writing felt similar to listening.
It didn’t feel active. It didn’t feel forced. It felt like I’d tipped sideways into another time and place and body, and I was just there.
Now I’m here, home again. Dreading a root canal tomorrow morning, but otherwise glad for a day, today, in which I’ve done exactly what I want to do with all my new-found, new-made space: I wrote. I’d gotten up early to exercise with friends and by 10AM when everyone had left the house and the laundry was underway, I felt tired. So I meditated/napped for 10 minutes. And then I got up and wrote. I told myself: Remember to meditate/listen/nap before writing. Drift into what you’re about to do. Listen. It’s okay if listening turns into dreaming. Let yourself drift.
Space = silence. Silence = listening. Listening = drifting. Drifting = door opening to fictional world. Step inside. Space = writing.
Also, space = rest.
I’ll write another blog post (maybe) about what it feels like to let go of the need to pay attention to a particular something, and just be. It’s almost the opposite of striving. I’m such a striver. To be without purpose, listen without demand; it eliminates the task of waiting. It makes silence okay. Drifting toward mystery. Because mystery is okay too.
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?
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.
You see, in this new phase, I am a writer.
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 easy.
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.
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