Hurt, Pain, and Agony (swimming and writing)

At the end of a day at work, I had a low grade fever on Monday, and so I had a choice to make—go home or go to the gym.

When I was in high school and college, I swam competitively. I was a good swimmer, not a great one, but I had made myself a better one and took pride in the effort. I enjoyed practice, in spite of the fact that practice hurt. The predominant swim coach of my youth was James “Doc” Counsilman. He prescribed—preached, really—the progression of hurt, pain, and agony as the single lane toward improvement. I gobbled up his Science of Swimming, and pushed myself into agony and better results. I never became an elite swimmer. I came to the sport too late and without the technical proficiency needed to excel beyond my willingness to work to the point of physical failure, but I did become a much better swimmer.

I hated to miss practice. I went when I had a fever. I went my my shoulders felt shredded. I went if I had the flu. I pushed my body hard enough to compromise my immune system, and plunged my body into a staph infection that ravaged me for a month. I kept at it.

I briefly considered quitting when I was in college. While Swarthmore was a place to be committed to study, most of the swimmers on the team joined to be fit, or to explore the sport. I was maniacal, and therefore, felt more often than not alone on the team. I missed the hard driven team of my high school. Also, I was not used to being out ahead of everyone else. This is not a boast, just the nature of the circumstance. There were other teams on which I would have not made the cut. I knew that.

I rejoined the team, refocused my effort, and pushed on.

So, I felt under the weather on a Monday. Let me put this into context. Nearly every day at my job, someone calls out sick; I have enough free time in my schedule that I am able to cover other people’s classes. I do not understand being sick and missing work. I know it happens—I have had migraines, back spasms, and bronchitis in the past fifteen years. I had knee surgery fifteen years ago (torn meniscus). I get it. Illness happens. I admit to being stupidly judgmental about this.

For many recent years, I worked seven day weeks. If I got sick, my body, as if on cue, waited until I had a break in the school year. And then, I somehow avoided being ill on Sunday; I worked for a church. It just happened that way. The little stuff—a headache, some intestinal discomfort, a low fever—was just part of the day. Buddha might have said that desire causes suffering, but it seemed to me that a small amount of suffering was simply part of life. Swimming had taught me that.

I claim that swimming taught me that lesson, but I am not so sure, because there were—are—aspects of my life that suffering has upended. While I could fight through a workout, or endure lengthy stretches of difficulty in a relationship or job (perhaps endure too willingly and for too long), when it came to my writing, I backed away from the agony. Agony for writers, I think, is a bit different from agony for swimmers. Muscle pain and, what? brain pain—I hesitate to call it heart pain—are different creatures. Physical pain ends—for most. Certainly the kind of agony I courted in the pool stayed mainly in the pool, at least until my knees needed surgery. Mental pain permeates the day—you can stop writing and still feel the agony of an unsuccessful scene—anything less than glowing prose. And when even the good writing does not find a reader, then the agony feels for naught.

Writing does not quantify the same way swimming does. More writing does not necessarily guarantee better writing (There is a correlation, but it’s more slippery) the way that more (more yards, more effort) swimming leads to faster times. Nor does it compare well with work, where improvement and accomplishment have monetary results. Does a higher salary indicate a job better done—or for that matter a more valuable job? I guess that depends on how you ascribe value.

Maybe because good writing—whatever that means—is dependent on the reader, if one seeks to write well, one either needs a fairly reliable ability to dissociate from the absolute creative process and read one’s own work as a stranger might, or have a reliable enough reader to sort through her—or his—work. But more than that, one has to engage the work almost without a thought for oneself. There is a second dissociation—and this is like swimming: one must be attuned to the pain and the pain cannot matter.

For instance—and this is an insight into my judgmental brain—I described a character whose skin turned browner while he worked for weeks and months outside as “brown as a berry.” This is an old cliche, and one that I first overheard in the British Virgin Islands while sitting at dinner. Some old man—I was 12 or 13, everyone was “old”—described me in his British accent as “brown as a berry.” I did not know then that it was a cliche, and the phrase stuck, because my experience of berries tended to berries of red and blue and possibly black—the blackberries that grew wild on bushes near my home. It felt foreign and I enjoyed that the phrase had some unexplained—for then—British origins. The phrase dropped into my work, and I knew it was hackneyed when I wrote it—a minor disaster, I suck as a writer—and when I revised, I took it out. I knew that I would. But I had to move on while I was writing, I could not spend five minutes, let alone twenty-five, figuring out some turn of phrase. In the end, I let it be simple: “his arms turned brown by the sun.”

Does that sound like agony? Sucking as a writer is agony. The realization that my work would not please everyone—and that I still had to do the work—was not easy to accept; secretly, I believe that the whole point of writing workshops is to learn to ignore critiques as much as to learn from them. How does one know when the work is “not good”? Or, for that matter, “good”? Rickie Nelson sang, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself” (more hackneyed advice from my childhood). There is agony in those questions.

And so, on Monday, I headed to the gym. I shortened my workout, burning down 500 calories in 23 minutes. It was shorter, not less arduous. I was in various forms of discomfort through the first half of the week—my insides disagreed with something I ate. I kept at the gym anyway. And then—always and then—I read the first chapter of my novel out loud at an open reading on Friday, and sent off the first set of query letters to agents on Saturday. The book, for now, is done. I wrote this. And I started the next book.

I am prepared for the work, even if it hurts, even if I am in agony. I have trained for this all my life.

Why the Djinn?

A friend asked where I got the idea for the Djinn. Here is the long story.

I wrote poems when I was in ninth and tenth grade. They were lengthy works with regular rhythm and rhyme. They told stories. When I asked my school to allow me to do an independent study in poetry writing, I was turned down, but one of my teachers suggested working with him to write sonnets and other formal verse. Stung by early rejection, I refused his offer.

I started writing fiction in college, and was accepted into a workshop in my senior year. After graduation, I started writing an espionage novel that had something to do with Monet’s Haystack paintings in the Hermitage, in St, Petersburg. I started work on a story about a baseball player. I started something about two friends who decided to go to college and pretended that they were ten years younger than they were.

I had a sense of the novel, and novel length stories, but at this point in my life, I had only read a few hundred novels—and many fewer short stories. Even though I started writing with poetry—blame A.A. Milne and Dr. Seuss for the sounds in my head—I had been enchanted by folk tales, fairy tales, and mythology at an early age. I took out book after book of myths (Greek, American—Native American and regional folk tales, Indian, Chinese—I was only limited by the selection on the shelves) from my the local and then elementary school library. My other interests in the library were the Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock anthologies of horror stories, atlases and encyclopedias.

I did not start reading adult novels until I was in 7th grade and a friend lent me his copy of The Guns of Navarone, after which I read everything that Alastair MacLean wrote. I made a mad dash through Kurt Vonnegut in 8th grade. I read all of Ursula K. LeGuin’s books before 9th grade. All this is a fairly slim bit of literature. My parents were not big readers—we had collections of Reader’s Digest Condensed Novels on our few bookshelves. My mother did read to us, sharing Beowulf and Poe stories. But we were not a bookish family. My brothers and I found what we looked for with relatively little guidance.

I was an able enough reader in high school, but short of Billy Budd, little of what I read stuck with me. On my own, I read all of Neil Simon’s plays, and other plays, and took up with science fiction and fantasy (Asimov, Tolkien, and a little known writer named Zenna Henderson). I read and reread Robin Graham’s account of his trip around the world, Dove. Mostly, I spent long hours listening to progressive rock, watching old movies, swimming, and driving the family car as far and as fast as I could.

In college, I discovered William Blake, James Joyce, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Gustave Flaubert. It was also when I read all of John Le Carre’s spy novels, The Joy of Sex, and the only Daniell Steel novel that ever passed my way—The Promise. The main focus of English Literature courses was exposure to more—and I share the story of having a short novel assigned between a Tuesday and Thursday class with my students now. I read widely and gleaned what I could as quickly as I could. In my junior year, I switched focus to Art History (same deal: memorize as many works of art—in order and with an understanding of importance—as fast as possible), which, fortunately included a Cinema class that greatly expanded my limited knowledge of film.

So, what does any of this have to do with Djinn? I suspect that strains of all this—and of all the events of my life to date—appear in this work. Mainly, there is the myth, the early fascination with and appreciation of the fantastic as a genre, and the long interest in things that were away from here.

I encountered the djinn—as genies—in Sinbad and the Tales of the 1001 Nights. This book re-entered my life while I was in graduate school, in large part because of John Barth’s insistence on non-western sources of and for stories. But also because, once I encountered the djinn (or jinn), I was impressed by their wiliness and cruelty. I wondered—right or wrong—whether they had been mis-portrayed by the writer of the 1001 Nights. Why would such power need to be cruel? To refer back to Blake—“…what shoulder & what art,/ Could twist the sinews of thy heart?” I wondered. But I did not pursue the djinn, not yet.

I wrote in other ways. Although I have a set of prose poems set in Philadelphia that delve into the fantastic, I followed the realist tropes of my time. Perhaps this is what kept me from finishing—I was writing away from the story in my heart. Last year, when I dropped everything to take on new responsibilities—to myself and my work—I set aside the piece I had feverishly labored over for over ten years. During that ten years, I had written down a brief thought about a character who was keeping a secret (secrets will be something I grapple with forever). Five years ago, I was waiting for friends in a Mexican restaurant, and dashed out to buy a composition book, wrote a couple of pages before they arrived , and promptly forgot the book at the restaurant.

That story became the story of the Djinn.

I was dating a woman who shared my appreciation for the 1001 Nights—you have a copy too?—and that was enough of a spark to light the fire in this book, because the kindling, and the logs, had been waiting all these many years. Suddenly, I had a character whose secret was so closely held that he did not even know he was keeping it. He had forgotten that he was a Djinn.

There are other connections to other parts of my life and my studies that fueled this fire. Some of those will remain secret. Others are perhaps too obvious for me to mention here. For those of you who wonder how novels—or anything—gets written—by others or by your own hand—the short answer is that we tell the stories that enchant us. The shorter answer is that we sit down and write every day. No matter what. Perhaps because we are enchanted and under some infernal command—I wish that you write a novel, Djinn. So be it.

Losing the Path—How a writer can get lost

Along the way, I lost the true path. So many of these past posts have been about finding my way back to the right road—to my purpose, to writing, and to love. Like the Italian poet, I am perhaps a little attuned to an inspiring force—a Beatrice, if you will—and so as writing has come back into my life, I have found inspiration as well. But the path is writing, and I blundered off.

Dante begins The Inferno:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself

In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell

About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel

The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.

And yet, to treat the good I found there as well

I’ll tell what I saw, though how I came to enter

I cannot well say, being so full of sleep

Whatever moment it was I began to blunder

Off the true path.

Of course we ask, “Why? How?” For each of us who blundered off, the cause of our blundering was specific. Perhaps there are similarities. Here are mine.

Some of my challenge is surely due to some odd predisposition against the kind of selfish drive that must accompany the purposeful and durable impulse to write—or do anything. I recall when I was twelve or thirteen and we were electing pack leaders in my Boy Scout troop. I was nominated, and I did not vote for myself. I did not do that because I had been taught, always and hard, to think of others first, to not be selfish. I had two younger brothers—and not just younger, smaller—and was expected to make way for them, to not impose myself. Whether the overall message came from my parents, from teachers, or from some other source, I cannot say. When the time came for me to vote for a pack leader, part of being a leader, so I thought, was making the generous and considerate move. It was an early lesson.

My life in the world has set me against those who are primarily selfish. I see selfishness everywhere—the thousand daily infractions of an overarching ethical code. Be strong. Do more than your share. Tell the truth. Be kind. I do not understand behaviors that subvert those rules, and when I have broken them, or come close to breaking them, I have borne that certain weight. At some point on a dating site, there was a question, “Do you know the worst thing you have ever done?” I know the ten worst things. One was yelling at a boy with a physical disability to not block the stairs going into school. It is far from the worst. I work to balance the ledger.

I have framed the writing life, my writing life, as a calling. While that is a powerful vision of writing, a calling has its drawbacks, even dangers (see “The Dangers of a Calling“). It means that our work is not about or for us, but for something outside us, and this can lead those who live within this frame, to sacrifice, even sacrificing what is at the heart of that calling. Somewhere along the line, we must learn to be ferocious, obsessive even, about our purposes. This, and nothing else. No matter what.

Beyond that, there are many other roads, especially when one is in the dark—whether suffering through a bout of creative disconnection (no stories!), or suffering through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (the daily bits of life and love)—and a wrong road can seem very much like a right road. There are so many opportunities for success, and routes that promise fulfillment. The greatest dangers to purpose are not dissolution and waste; they are “almost purposeful” fulfillment. How hard to turn away from success (or the road to success) as a leader, as a teacher, as a father, as a spouse. Who would not want all these successes in his life? I am writing about me, so the male pronoun is appropriate here; I imagine that a “she” or a “they” would have the same kind of struggle.

One of the attractions of success across a broad range of fields is the push to be well-rounded. How many times was passion curtailed because it was deemed too obsessional, too blinding to a balanced life. From early on in my life, I was strongly encouraged to be conversant in several fields of study. To understand science, math, history, and, English. To be a scholar athlete. To be well-informed about the news of the day (not just local, parochial news, but in the world as well, and not just news about proto-historical events, but arts, sports, business, everything). To play a number of sports. Always more. The monomania to do the 10,000 hours of practice was seen as ungentlemanly. Me, the last amateur, breezily succeeding, breezily failing, breezily letting life slide past.

Purpose was nearly antithetical to my life. And I have paid for that. Midway on our life’s journey, I reclaim the right road. I leave these markers for you, and for me. Follow.

My Destination

I had always shrugged off the idea of traveling to the Grand Canyon. I was one of those, “what’s the big deal about a big hole in the ground” skeptics. I was wrong. Of course I was wrong. The Grand Canyon is an amazement—and of course, I was properly amazed when I saw it—looking into two billion years of rock will do that, should do that. I realized that what I had held aside was not the geology or the landscape, but the travel. Why had I discounted my ability to be amazed by travel? I had done it all my life. Going, all kinds of going, even if so much of it has been more local—on this continent, in this country—has been part of me all my life.

When young, my family would take day trips—Sunday drives—through the Amish country in Pennsylvania. We got in the car and headed out Route 30. Or we would go to the West Chester airport and walk among the privately owned single prop planes. In the summer, we headed to Longwood Gardens for fountain shows. There were trips to nearby parks—I remember lakes with small patches of added sand for “beach.” We routinely drove to Long Island—heading up the New Jersey Turnpike past the refineries—to visit family. When I was ten, we headed to Maine, a day long drive with three boys and a dog. Once we began sailing, it did not take long to head to the British Virgin Islands—my first plane rides, and first swimming in warm Caribbean seas.

I loved airplanes and airports. Departures were invitations to new adventures. When I traveled with my family, I usually sat alone—the hazard or benefit of being an odd numbered group. I took my first plane flight alone when I went to Iowa to swim; I was 15. I traveled by train and bus alone all through my early adult life. I usually traveled to visit friends. However, I also went to cities to simply see them, to look at buildings, and camp in museums—visiting and revisiting works of art that held sway over my imagination.

I loved driving, and would sometimes eschew expedience for country roads, foregoing straight, broad, multi-laned ribbons for winding paths along mountain sides and down by river beds. Landscapes called to me as well as vaulted ceilings. Beauty was everywhere.

And, I loved walking. I hiked 500 miles when I was 12. As an adult, when I took myself to Maine, I would walk the beaches in Phippsburg, breaking up my study sojourns with hours long ambles. When I arrived in Bermuda, I walked off my sea legs with long walks and runs around the island, walking into local places, on roads no taxi or rented moped hazarded. Once, on a trip to NYC, I walked, in winter, from Soho to the Met, freezing along the way, but surrounded by shops and towers and people. When I spent a conference week in Portland, Oregon, I took a day off to wander to Portland Museum of Art to see Native American artifacts from the Pacific Northwest, and a painting by Clifford Stijl. Afterwards, I headed onto Powell’s Bookstore, then to the DeSchutes brewpub. All on foot.

There were trips under sail with my father and brothers. These were tests as well as trips. The ocean makes us foreign to ourselves, our bodies not made to be perpetually wet, and perpetually in motion—shaken and stirred. I have never been anywhere larger than surrounded by sky and ocean, never felt as alive, nor as alone.

This blog began with travel some four years ago—a trip to China, to a strange land to bring a stranger into my life. There are so many strange places yet to go—so many friends to visit—people I have not yet met, whose tables have an open seat waiting.

So, walking to the edge of the canyon should not have surprised me. I am sure that some snobbish impulse to avoid what millions of others had done informed my thought. But I am not like millions of others. I forget that sometimes. On purpose—as a bulwark against being a snob, against falling into the easy habit of travelers to simply bring myself wherever I go. I would rather be a stranger—not just to the place, but to myself, and welcome this new person into my already teeming life.

And so, finally, after one long ago missed opportunity, I am traveling to London. It is an easy enough first step to Europe. I wonder what I will find there, what old memories will rise up, what new experiences will awaken. And I wonder, who I will find there in among the histories and wanderings. Who will come home, amazed, this time? And what will happen if the wanderlust takes a firmer hold of me this time? How will that change me–or, rather, change me again. Eyes up, here I go.

Mothering and Nostalgia

A current meme on Facebook compares what Moms used to say to their kids with what they say now. It is held up as a clarion call to the virtues of yesteryear, when Moms—and their kids—knew what was what. Over and over again, stuff (stuff) like this careens around the internet, in casual banter on news shows, in conversations in my workplaces. Those of us who grew up in the mythical “then” look back with nostalgia, and look at this moment with a jocular disdain. I would like to call “bullshit” on the whole enterprise.

I don’t now what your mother was like. If she was anything like mine, there were highs and lows. My mother stayed at home with my brothers and me. She bowled in a league. Went shopping. Had bridge parties. Took tennis lessons. She was a den mother for my Cub Scout troop, and took us to the Devault Meat Packing Plant, among other places. Her sons were a handful. She scurried us out at a reasonable time in the morning, set out lunch when it was time, and made dinner for the family. She made us Batman capes for Easter one year; she sewed. I remember her stitching up an injury to one of our cats.

Was she happy? Her happiness was never an issue for us. Nor was our happiness overly attended to. We all were content, which, to my gimlet eye, is a horse of a different color. It was only later, some 13-14 years after I was born that she began to explore art, and then took on the work of a painter, and artist. If she found genuine and durable happiness, it was in that work—and the work of making art is not about easy delight, or even contentment (so says her son, the writer).

My mother did what she thought and felt was right. She learned her lessons from her mother and family—and what lessons they were. Some things, she changed. She never leashed us to trees in the front yard. Others were more indelible. I am certain that most of us parent in the same way—sifting through the conscious and unconscious lessons that we received from our parents. What we do, we do almost on a kind of autopilot—in the heat of the moment, dumb memory takes over. Change is hard.

I cannot and will not say that my childhood was perfect. I can recall exceptional moments on both sides of the ledger. Making a judgment seems beside the point. Here I am now, and I go on. There’s a ton of privilege built into that statement, and I fully recognize exactly how fortunate I am to be where I am, and to have traveled to this point in my life. The choices I can make now—and the way I make those choices—are predicated on the choices of my mother and father. And so on. For ages.

I guess that any time I hear someone pass judgment on another’s parenting—and mothering especially so—in that gross, if semi-benign “Look at the snowflakes” kind of way, I want to yell, “Really? Cast aspersions carefully, oh paragons of perfection!” All those old lessons about the log in your eye and casting the first stone ring out loudly for me. Those are the lessons I remember. Besides, the old joke about walking five miles to school in the snow, uphill, both ways, gives the proper lie to ill-kept nostalgia.

Life, and mothering, are hard. No one needs anyone to chide them for the daily duties. The significant missteps require a different consideration. No more abuse, please. But keep the quibbling to a minimum. Please.

In general, and in a larger sense, I distrust nostalgia. Yes, remember, always remember, but without the haze of candy floss. At heart, I am more focused on where we are going, adapting, and learning—and in passing those lessons on. Have I failed? Indeed. I keep at it. I will fail again. So what? I keep at it. Where I came from is a starting point, but not my destination. Eyes up! Here comes life.