May was a tough month. I had a heavy work schedule and a certification and training class over 2 subsequent weekends that entailed classroom work as well as long, cold hours in a YMCA pool. My schedule left me with little time to write and no time to relax and catch up to myself.
I successfully passed the class and am now recertified to teach Red Cross swimming lessons, and I earned a couple of very helpful paychecks, but I’m exhausted and dissatisfied because I haven’t been writing much.
Work is an excellent distraction from my life. It always has been. I like to work. I like having concrete and specific expectations in a work setting. I like making a contribution to others. I like the social aspect of work, and I love being part of a team.
I also like the paychecks.
I could increase my hours to full time and enjoy the benefits and increased income. I could continue adding to my education and certifications and take on teaching more classes and aquatic programs. I’d enjoy it and I’m confident I’d do well.
I tell myself that’s what a normal, responsible, adult person would do.
I tell myself I should be grateful for work opportunities and take full advantage of them.
I tell myself I need the money.
But all the while there’s a voice in my head saying, “But what about writing?”
What about the blog, the books, that query letter I need to write and that submission process I promised myself I would tackle this year? What about that activity guaranteeing no income, demanding all my passion and creativity, requiring long stretches of quiet solitude and combining my greatest joy with my most vivid hopes and fears?
It’s time to fish or cut bait, shit or get off the pot. It’s time to reassess my time, energy and priorities and make conscious choices. It’s time for recommitment.
All my life I’ve worn efficiency and effectiveness like a suit of armor. People remark on my poise, my strength, my confidence and competence. All my life I’ve felt like a fraud and an imposter.
I’m not motivated by the desire to compete or win applause. All I’m trying to do is stay safe. I hide my vulnerability behind my ability to be organized and willingness to take on responsibility.
A job is something I can do well and the world calls me successful.
A writer is something I am, and I must define my own success.
A job is a description, a list of competencies met and skills demonstrated, a time card, a schedule, policies and procedures.
Writing is intuitive, illogical, timeless, messy, infuriating, captivating and uncertain. It’s risky and vulnerable.
My job requires professionalism.
Writing requires absolute authenticity, sloppy, smelly and sticky.
I master a job.
Writing masters me.
I’d like to make an easy black-and-white decision here — live like a normal working person or find an old cabin in the woods and do nothing but write, but that’s ridiculous. Life consists of many threads woven together: Family, friends, home, our own self-care, community and work.
I can work and write too. I can’t take advantage of every opportunity at work, have a perfectly organized private life and be a perfect friend, family member and partner, all the while crouching behind my projections of competence, control and strength, and step into my full power as a writer.
I may need to settle for being good enough, or even (God help us) average at work, at home and in my relationships. Maybe I don’t need to take advantage of every opportunity coming my way, whether at work or in the course of daily life. Maybe staying safe is not such a life-or-death matter as I’ve always thought.
In the midst of all this rumination, Memorial Day weekend arrived. Saturday was the day we cleared out my storage unit after it flooded over the winter. We recruited some generous friends with a truck and trailer and made a date. At breakfast I wrote a short list of what to take. Then, instead of loading up the car, checking the list several times and getting ready hours in advance, I sat down and wrote a query letter and subscribed to an online site for locating publishers and agents who are currently accepting submissions.
Delighted and satisfied with my morning, my partner and I got in the car at the appointed time and headed to the storage facility.
I forgot to take the key to the padlock on the unit door. I also forgot the broom and the tape measure. I hadn’t taken time to check my list as we left.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
I left my partner there to wait for our friends and came back home.
For the first five minutes of the 20-minute drive I berated myself. Wasting gas, mileage and time. Worse — wasting my friends’ time! Rude, tardy, irresponsible, disorganized, incompetent …
Wait, I said to myself, hang on.
Isn’t this the choice I made, to settle for being less perfect in favor of writing? I failed to be properly organized in order to empty the storage unit, but I wrote a query letter, a project that’s been pending for seven months!
I had to smile at myself.
I slowed down and started enjoying the spring day. I stopped yelling at myself. I had been imperfect in front of God and everybody. My cover was blown and I felt uncomfortably exposed. I didn’t like it.
(My partner, as he reads this for the first time, informs me nobody else noticed or cared.)
So be it. The writing requires my unconditional best. The rest of my life can have whatever is left.
Normal, perfectionism and maybe even safety are overrated.
We got the storage unit emptied out and swept.
Then I came home and wrote this post.
(See poem below)
“Leave the dishes. Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor. Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster. Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup. Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins. Don’t even sew on a button. Let the wind have its way, then the earth that invades as dust and then the dead foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch. Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome. Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry who uses whose toothbrush or if anything matches, at all. Except one word to another. Or a thought. Pursue the authentic-decide first what is authentic, then go after it with all your heart. Your heart, that place you don’t even think of cleaning out. That closet stuffed with savage mementos. Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever, or weep over anything at all that breaks. Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life and talk to the dead who drift in through the screened windows, who collect patiently on the tops of food jars and books. Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything except what destroys the insulation between yourself and your experience or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters this ruse you call necessity.”
I went to the dentist last week. I spent the usual hour with the hygienist and then the dentist breezed in to give me four or five minutes of exam, comment, teaching and friendly conversation. Thankfully, I don’t require more than this, as my teeth are in excellent shape. In the course of those few minutes, I used the term “permaculture,” and he asked me what it was. I gave him a brief answer, and on the way out the hygienist said I had a “high dental IQ.”
“She has a high IQ, period,” he responded as he left.
I almost got out of the chair and went after him to explain that I’m the dumb one in the family, and certainly don’t have a high IQ.
As I’ve gone about life since then, I’ve thought a lot about that interaction. I’ve also been feeling massively irritated, isolated and discouraged. This morning I woke out of a dream of being in a closet groping for my gun, my knife, even my Leatherman, absolutely incandescent with rage, because a man outside of the closet was having a dramatic and violent meltdown, intimidating everyone present because of something I’d said or done that he didn’t like.
I wasn’t intimidated. I was royally pissed off.
When I had my weapons assembled, I stormed out of the closet and came face-to-face with a clearly frightened woman who was wringing her hands and making excuses for the behavior of the yelling man. I screamed into her face that he could take his (blanking) opinions and shove them up his (blanking blank) and unsheathed my knife, not because of her, because of HIM.
I woke abruptly at that point and thought, I’m not depressed, I’m MAD!
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
While I showered and cooked breakfast I sifted through IQ and conformity and cultural and family rules, economic success and failure, work, invalidation and silencing and keeping myself small. I thought of how pressured I’ve always felt to toe the line, be blindly obedient, follow the rules, ask no questions and be normal. Normal, as in compliant, and refraining from challenging the multitude of life’s standard operating procedures that “everyone knows.” Normal, as in not daring to resist, persist, poke, peel away, uncover. Normal, as in never, NEVER expressing curiosity, a thought, an experience, a feeling or an opinion that might make someone uncomfortable. Normal, as in never admitting that the way we’re supposed to do things doesn’t always work for me, and frequently doesn’t appear to work for others, either. I slammed around the kitchen, turning all this over in my mind, letting the bacon burn, and finally pounced on a keystone piece to write about.
What does it mean to be smart? Why do I feel like a lying imposter when someone makes a casual comment about my IQ? Why is IQ even a thing? Why does so much of my experience consist of “sit down and shut up!”?
Intelligence is defined on an Internet search as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.” Please note the absence of any kind of test score in that definition. Likewise, there’s no mention of economic status, educational status or social status. Also, this definition says nothing about intelligence as a prerequisite for being a decent human being.
The definition takes me back to the playing field in which I wrote last week’s post on work. Here again we have a simple definition for a word which is positively staggering under assumptions and connotations.
Fine, then. I’ve explored what work means to me. What does intelligence mean to me?
Intelligence means the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn. Good learners do not sit down and shut up. We question, and we go on questioning until we’re satisfied with answers. We try things, make hideous mistakes, think about what went wrong and apply what we learned. We don’t do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. We exercise curiosity and imagination. We pay attention to what others say and do and how it all works out. We pay attention to how we feel and practice telling ourselves the truth about our experience. After a lot of years and scar tissue, we learn to doubt not only our own assertions, beliefs and stories, but everyone else’s as well. We practice being wrong. We become experts in flexible thinking. We adapt to new information.
Intelligence endures criticism, judgement, abuse, taunts, threats, denial and contempt. It’s often punished, invalidated and invisible. Intelligence takes courage.
Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash
Intelligence is power. It does not sit at the feet of any person, ideology, rule or authority and blindly worship. It retains the right to find out for itself, feel and express its own experience, define its own success, speak its truth in its own unique voice, and it remembers each of us is limited to one and only one viewpoint in a world of billions of other people.
Intelligence is discerning the difference between the smell of my own shit and someone else’s.
For me, intelligence is a daily practice. It’s messy and disordered and fraught with feeling. It means everything is an opportunity to learn something new. Everything is something to explore in my writing.
I have no idea what my IQ is, and I don’t much care. I’m sick and tired of all the family baggage I’ve carried around about who’s smart and who isn’t and how we all compare. Honestly. What am I, 10 years old? Enough, already.
I’m also fed up with being silenced, and in fact I’ve already refused to comply with that, as evidenced by this blog. I understand a lot of people don’t want to deal with uncomfortable questions. Too bad. Those folks are not going to be my readers. It’s not my job to produce sugar-coated bullshit that can’t possibly threaten or disturb anyone.
I was raised with a strong work ethic and a strong volunteer ethic. Both have been solid foundations in my life, except for one thing:
Our cultural definition of work.
Work: That activity that imprisons so many of us into a schedule, into a car, into rush hour. That large piece of our life in which we must perform certain tasks in certain ways according to certain policies and procedures and do nothing else. That arena in which we compete and prostitute our power to an (all too often) toxic authority.
Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash
Work as defined by someone else and enforced through our fear of losing a paycheck. Usefulness as defined by someone else. Productivity as defined by someone else.
Then there’s workaholism. I’ve been closely connected to more than one workaholic. I used to think workaholism was a meaningless riff on alcoholism, but one day I explored it more closely because it was destroying a relationship. I bought a book (I know you’re shocked), Chained to the Desk, by Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D., and I read it and wept. I recognized a pattern I’d lived with my whole life: A pattern of unavailability.
Workaholism describes a dynamic in which we become entirely consumed by one idea or activity. Most commonly, it’s a job, but it can also manifest with volunteer work, hobbies and interests, recreational activities or ideologies like religion. Oh, and let’s not forget addiction. During active addiction as well as recovery, some lives remain centered on whatever the addiction is or was. There’s no room for anything else.
The workaholic has a primary relationship, just like an addict, and that primary relationship is all-consuming of his/her time and energy, although most of them will never, ever admit it. Workaholics are compulsively driven, self-destructive, unable to make choices, usually in denial, and they destroy relationships. They view themselves as frantically and endlessly trying to keep all the balls in the air: Family, partner, household, friends and work. Those of us connected to them experience chronic unavailability and abandonment from them and helplessly watch as they become steadily more overwhelmed, exhausted, disconnected, ill and miserable. Trying to talk about it only makes it worse.
Workaholism often begins because we are captivated by an activity we love. We have a sense of mastery and competence, or a sense of contribution. The activity seems to give us a connection to our own power. Sometimes we earn money, or recognition, or develop social bonds, or experience some other payoff that we can’t get enough of and can’t do without. Whatever it is we’re engaged with is familiar. It’s not uncomfortable, uncertain or uncontrollable. We understand what we’re doing. We can succeed at it. It doesn’t frighten or threaten us. When we’re engaged with it we’re not doing anything else. It’s the perfect distraction. We can’t be expected to do anything else. We’re not supposed to be doing anything else. We have no time for anything else. We’re working!
Meanwhile, the rest of the workaholic’s life, all the complicated, messy stuff, becomes a smoking crater. The larger the crater grows, the harder the workaholic works in order to avoid managing or facing it.
It’s a dreadful, destructive cycle.
Some people on the other end of the spectrum from the old 9-to-5, 40-hour-a-week paradigm are talking about unjobbing. Unjobbing challenges the traditional Calvinist work ethic so many of us were raised with. It explores the territory between a 40-hour-a-week job and chronic unemployment supported by foodstamps and other social subsidies. I’ve read a lot about it over the last two or three years.
Unjobbing does not imply that one doesn’t work, just that we define it more precisely, or maybe less precisely. Maybe we should stick with the classic meaning of work as an activity involving effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result, and let any reference to jobs go.
This morning, as usual, I took a walk. I took a bucket with me, because the trees are dropping their cones and I make handcrafted wreaths and other art with them. (When I lived in Colorado, I bought all these cones. Now I take a bucket on my walk and pick them up! I love it.)
Photo by Michał Grosicki on Unsplash Eastern White Pine
Anyway, as I walked I thought about all this: Work, unjobbing, workaholism, income sources. I groped around in the terminology, in my guilt and shame about not wanting to work in the way I’ve done all my life, and poked at my deeply-rooted belief that everyone must work! I thought about how expensive it can be to work, in education, in time, in energy, in clothing and equipment, in gas and transportation, in child care, in taxes and “benefits,” in self-respect and power and joy. I thought about work as a limitation, perhaps one of the biggest limiting factors in our lives.
It occurred to me that what I really want is a seamless life. I don’t want my life to look like: Work For Pay. Relationship. Creativity. Housework. Errands. Relaxation. Exercise. Volunteerism. Play. I can do more than live in a series of small boxes, much, much more. I can be more.
I want my life to be like my morning walk. I don’t set an alarm or adhere to any other kind of schedule in order to do it. It’s not a chore; I do it because I want to. It starts my day with exercise. It’s meditative, grounding and centering. It refuels my creativity. It reconnects me to my spiritual source. It provides free resource with which I can earn money and do something I love to do.
All this in a 45-minute walk. Useful. Productive. Joyful. Simple. Free. Seamless.
A seamless life. I don’t know if I can create such a life. I only just this morning identified what I really want. I’m not going to discuss with the voices in my head whether my desire is appropriate, allowed, shameful or possible. Such a discussion isn’t useful. I’ve worked all my life, for a paycheck, as a volunteer, in a household and as a parent. If I have to go back to a traditional job, I will.
But I’m going to try damned hard to find a better way.
Walking on our 26 acres, my path winds around open fields and keeps me out of heavy woods and brush, where ticks are waking. It’s grey and overcast, not raw but damp, a combination of snow and rain coming down and turning my already wild hair into a mad woman’s wig. The surface of the snow is glazed hard in most places, but when I get close to the tree line or streams that trickle down to the river, I punch through it and sink. Walking on the thick layer of leaves under and among the trees is like walking on a sopping sponge. My socks are sodden inside my winter boots.
I see thickets where the deer have slept, melting the snow with their warm bodies, lying out of the wind in the shelter of trunk and branch. I imagine them rising to their feet, squatting in their awkward way to leave pellets and a splash of urine, and then stepping away through the snow with those delicate hooves and legs. Their spoor is everywhere.
Photo by Teddy Kelley on Unsplash
The medical transcription business is wildly unpredictable. One seesaws between frantic pleas from supervisors for overtime because of a sudden flood of work and the dreaded “no jobs available” message upon logging in. As I’m paid by production, no work means no money. Since the new year, work has been slow in the company and transcriptionists and supervisors alike are feeling the stress.
I’ve been thinking about my fear of not enough these days, and how small it makes me and my experience of life. One of the reasons I like to go out and walk is because it pushes against my tendency to curl up in corners and play hours of solitaire while I make up stories about living under bridges and berate myself for NOT PULLING MY WEIGHT and WASTING TIME.
The river is still ice covered, the edges yellowish and slushy. I see animal prints in the snow over the ice, but I wouldn’t dare try to walk on it. As I lean against a tree and look down at the ice-bound river, I hear a nesting pair of barred owls calling to each other, though it’s still early afternoon.
Photo by Vincent Foret on Unsplash
The truth is my medical transcription job is nothing more than a means to an end. It’s all about the paycheck. I take some modest pride in my ability to do an accurate, fast job, but I’m just a pair of skilled hands and ears. One day, when the job and I are finished with one another, I’ll leave no remnants of myself, no track, no scent, no spoor. It irritates me that it has so much power in my life when it means so little.
Water drops tremble on bare twigs and tree branches. The pussy willows are beginning to bud. Cloudy light washes the willow buds and water drops the same silvery grey and I have to draw near to tell the difference.
We’ve lately found a local lawyer to help us update our wills and take care of end-of-life paperwork. It’s made me think about all the fragments I’ll leave behind me, the furniture I’ve loved and polished; the mirror I’ve looked in since I was a child; the books I’ve handled and read in cars, in bathtubs, at tables, in beds and chairs and waiting rooms. All these things will be sifted through, separated, sold, passed on. What money there is will be divided and wind up in other bank accounts or hidey holes or cast back into the flow somehow. Perhaps whispers of me will cling to a few objects, but for the most part no one will ever know I passed this way.
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We have an old shed on the land and snow slide off the roof has blocked the door and partially pushed it open. I’m just able to squeeze in over a thick layer of ice on the threshold, formed by melting snow dripping off the roof.
We cleaned out and swept the shed last fall, but I find pages of paper blown all over the floor, pages of the first draft of my book manuscript. Last summer we had visitors who used the shed, and I’d hoped they would read and give me some feedback. They didn’t, and I’d never found the manuscript when I looked for it after they left, but the winter currents and drafts discovered its hiding place. Perhaps the wind read it as it ruffled through the pages with chill fingers.
It’s odd to see those scattered pages on the cold, splintered floor. The sight of them gives me a desolate clarity. Those written words are the most important thing I have. Working or not working, large paycheck or vanishingly small paycheck, all the objects I love and use and call mine — none of that is really who I am. None of it really matters, though it takes up space in my life. None of it contains the smell of my breath, the taste of my pain or the spoor of my love the way my words do. It’s as though it’s me lying there, discarded, damp and wind strewn, unseen, unread, unwanted. It hurts me.
As I gather up pages, I note where the snow has drifted through gaps in corners. Wrinkled beech leaves lie on a discarded futon, whirled in through the broken window above it. I open a ramshackle cupboard and find a roll of shredded toilet paper and evidence of mice at work, making the most of an unexpected bonanza of nesting material.
I find a bottle cap and cigarette butts on a window sill. More leavings. I know who stood there, smoking, looking out the window. I stood where he’d stood and picked up the butts, knowing his lips were around them, his long-fingered hand had carried them from pack to mouth and then stubbed them out in the bottle cap, a tiny ashtray. I wish for the nose of a wild creature so I could search for the cold, lonely ghost of his scent.
He was here. I am here. Deer crisscross this land we call ours. Mice go about the business of ensuring more mice, and the barred owls carry on their early spring conversation about mating, nesting, eggs and all those mice. We are so caught up in jobs and money and things. We give them so much meaning. The days go by and we alternately struggle and dance through them. But one day we’ll be gone, and we’ll all leave spoor behind, a scent or sign or footprint uniquely and simply ours.
These words are my footprints, my scent, my lingering warmth in the places I came to rest, my spoor. They are signs of my passage and the truest things I have to leave behind when I’m gone.
This week’s post is suspended between two stories. The first one is the old Greek myth of Sisyphus.
Sisyphus was a crafty and deceitful king who craved complete power. In his pursuit of power, he offended many men and gods and was eventually punished by being sent to the underworld and forced to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. The boulder was enchanted, however, to roll back down the hill (over Sisyphus, in some versions) just before it reached the top. Thus, Sisyphus was doomed to repeat the same unending and futile task forever.
Photo by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash
Sisyphus has captured the imagination of many writers, philosophers and artists, and there are several variations and interpretations of his story. If you’re interested, you can follow the link to to Wiki and read more.
Sisyphus is on my mind this week, not only because his story suggests to me the inevitability of rising and falling cycles, but also because his punishment was to forever try and fail.
His punishment was to forever try.
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash
I’m a product of a culture that taught me certain core truths about life. One has a responsibility to help others. Everyone has to do things they don’t want to do. One must never give up. One must try one’s best. We’re all in a train behind a little engine that puffs, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” and that’s the right place to be, the admirable, ethical, moral, adult, acceptable, responsible, side-of-the-angels place to be. Good people try and try and try. They don’t despair, they don’t give up and they don’t say it’s too hard, I can’t or, most unforgiveable of all — I won’t.
The truth is one of the things I least like about myself is that I can always be counted on to try my best. I don’t mean work hard. I mean try hard. Trying is certainly hard work. It’s sucked up most of my life in terms of time and energy. A lifetime of trying, though, has produced less of value to me, and I suspect to others, than an hour of work at writing, dancing, gardening, making love, playing with a child or even scrubbing the kitchen floor.
In the last ten days, I’ve been living right alongside Sisyphus. In the last ten days, I’ve meticulously gone through headlines, articles, links, petitions, news and requests for action in my email, not once but two or three times a day, because I want to help. I want to do something that matters. I want to make a difference. In the last ten days, I’ve intentionally and consciously been present, engaged, interactive, interested in what my partner is thinking and talking about, which has been largely political news, because I want to be a good partner. I want to demonstrate I’m brave and strong and intelligent enough to be part of the conversation going on in the world.
In the last ten days, I’ve privately and quietly despaired, lost sleep, felt inadequate, lost my center, lost my peace, felt gnawing anxiety and been deeply ashamed of who I am.
I’ve tried so hard.
I’ve failed so hard.
It’s not working. I can’t live like this. I’ve been pushing that rock up the hill as bravely as I can, but it just keeps rolling back down. I’m exhausted, bruised, battered, my fingernails are torn and I’m quickly losing any desire to be engaged with life.
However, oddly, one thing is working.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to a self-defense class at a local community center. The activities director happened to be there, and on an impulse I introduced myself and asked him if he’d be interested in working with me to start a community dance group. We fell into conversation, one thing led to another and as I write this, advertising is in process, flyers are getting printed, and somehow, I’m scheduled to start up a dance group in March, a thing I’ve long wanted to do in order the create the kind of healthy, inclusive community I’m starving for.
I didn’t try at all. It just kind of happened and I went along for the ride. I’ve spent hours and hours building dance playlists, but that wasn’t trying. I wanted to do it. I loved doing it. Music instead of current news? Lead me to it!
So what is it with this trying thing that’s driven so much of my life? I can’t remember a single time trying hard resulted in an outcome I wanted. It seems to me whatever happens, happens. Things always and inevitably turn out the way they turn out. I may have occasionally bought some time. I may have kept things glued together with my frantic trying longer than they would have otherwise, but was that a good thing, or in the end did I just make the cost higher for myself and everyone else?
All the really good things I can remember in my life just happened. I didn’t plot, plan, manipulate, force or otherwise try. I was simply living my life.
And what about the punishment piece? Sisyphus, by all accounts, was not a nice man, and I don’t waste much pity on him, but what about me? Endless, futile trying certainly feels like a punishment. Why have I always accepted that? Why haven’t I been able to choose to stop?
The truth is I try so hard because I feel like I have to make up for what a difficult, noncompliant, hypersensitive, disappointing, needy, dramatic, sensual person I am. I know I’ll never please or get it right, so all I have is knowing I tried as hard as I could. The world is filled with talented, creative, loving, generous, kind people. They don’t have to try to make the world a better place. The world is a better place because they live in it.
I’m not like them. I’m broken.
It’s not like I can just not try to make up for being broken!
If I don’t try, then what is there?
Which leads me to the second story, which I can’t find this morning, but I know is here somewhere in my library!
A student approached the master and said, “I work with disabled children and their families. Master, there’s so much difficulty for these people! I want to help, to make things better for them! What should I do? How can I best relieve their suffering?”