Archives for posts with tag: happiness

About a year ago, I wrote about the patterns that I had noticed in my life. I have tended to trust the signs that the universe provides for me—much of what I have written about my current book project attests to that. I can admit that there are times that I have misinterpreted the signs, or that the universe has played an awful game of three card Monte with me. And yet, what other choice do I have?

I walk the line between an abundant trust in my muse—or the universe—and a willfulness that is singular and purposeful. This comes with risks. There is a song by Coldplay, in which the singer challenges, “Go on and tear me apart.” It is a brave dare, and echoes a bit of Emerson that was shared with me recently: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” What if all I get is torn apart and unsettled? I have lived too long under that flag to feel continued comfort in the “torn apart” life.

As I approach the end of this book, all the patterns (all right, most of the patterns—I am writing about a part of the world that eschews ideas of perfect resolution for a reason) come together. As the revision process takes hold, I rejigger, rip out, and rewrite scenes and conversations so that the whole points, gently and not too obviously (I hope) to the overarching pattern. The book is, finally, about patterns (Is it? Really?).

But life is not a book. Life does not (really) contain messages and patterns that point us toward happiness and success (Are you so sure about that?). Yes, there are patterns, but there are also many, many random occurrences and, perhaps even more challenging, patterns that unsettle us in ways that are distractions, that may even be injurious. At the moment, I simply cannot accept the notion that absolutely everything helps us grow and thrive. Some stuff, as my father pointed out on a particularly egregious day on the ocean, is just shitty. I throw shitty books across the room—the shitty life cannot be so easily flung into some other corner.

So, why feel hopeful? Because I am balancing between an awareness—too keenly felt this past several months—of the capriciousness and, well, shittiness of the universe, and the other more generous and affirming aspects of the exact same universe. Balance is not a passive activity. It may become seemingly involuntary, the way that holding your head—or a glass—level on a churning sea becomes second nature (your muscles are working all the time). I do not veer from happy to sad, celebratory to angry; they are all there, all the time, and for now, that is good enough. Of course, I seek—and will continue to seek—to tilt the balance to the more favorable side of things—and I am (Shut up, Doc!)—and that is because I feel that my purpose is to add to the balance of light.

Back to the tightrope.

I spent the past 24 hours writing in what I described as “sludge”–not exactly “ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey,” but close. It happens. I admitted this to a friend, who asked, “You’re not feeling frustrated?” I answered, “Frustration is part of writing. One cannot write without it.” Let me explain.

First, as you will recognize from previous posts, I used to sail on the ocean, heading back and forth from the Chesapeake Bay to Bermuda with my father. Setting aside the variability of the weather (from windless and flat to howling and mountainous), I was sick nearly every time I took the trip: 24-36 hours of plain and pronounced discomfort. I eventually discovered that a vertigo medicine helped settle the sea for me, but up to then I kept at it, and accepted the retching as payment for the joy. So, I have that experience to draw on.

Second, I was a swimmer, and while I was not an Olympian, I practiced hard. Improvement came with pain, and I learned to adapt to the persistent ache in my shoulders, arms, and legs. During practices, the immediate feedback for how fast I was going came through either the proximity I had to faster swimmers, or, when I was one of the faster swimmers, from how much pain I felt. Pain—of a certain kind—equaled speed. There are, of course, other kinds of pain, such that denote injury and not improvement, and I was fortunate to avoid these until later in life.

Some days writing is just going to be like a bad day on the ocean, or a crap day in the pool. Some days my brain just does not connect to anything brilliant, or worse I think it’s brilliant, but I have done none of the necessary work of getting my characters in and out of rooms. I have left out simple gestures, and replaced action with explication.

Sometimes when sludge is all there is, I scrap large chunks. Sometimes it just takes connective tissue—so that the ideas get bound to motion. Sometimes, it is a signal that I am not being wild enough. Once I was told that a character was boring. Tough criticism, but, a sludge encrusted character needs to be set free—or buried.

So, frustration will happen. So will boredom, says the man who puts in 26-32 minutes on the elliptical six days a week. Raucous music keeps the heart rate over 160 bpm, and sometimes works for writing. And metaphoric raucous music too—add a crazy scene as needed. Even Dickens used spontaneous combustion to advance the plot.

But the frustration also comes when we get close to the sludge, and the sludge covers what we don’t want to engage. Sometimes we need to treat ourselves roughly when we write, and work what makes us, not just uncomfortable, but downright upset. The sludge can be like a makeshift bandage, covering some old hurt. Hey, you don’t have to own the hurt, but see it, and work it. Pain can clarify and properly unsettle the writer—and enliven the writing.

So, here’s to frustration. And writing through it.

I once had a “fitness trainer” who exhorted me, and those I worked with, to be as hard as the tip of the spear. I had spent years as a serious swimmer, and had a macho enough attitude to gobble this up. There were long sessions among Nautilus machines (the preferred hi-tech option of the early 80’s), blistering runs, and of course, time in the water. I enjoyed the hardness that was belied by my boyish exterior. The baby-faced bloom of youth did not dissipate until I was nearly 30 and grew a beard. I used my appearance to push me: “Do not mistake my youthful exterior for a lack of drive,” I thought. I drove hard.

Then I stopped. I left a life that promised not just physical hardness, but an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual severity. I dropped out and into the lost years of restaurant work, taking solace in uncommitted drift. In spite of the self-enforced sojourn, I kept swimming, which was more languid, even at a brisk pace. Two regular diners, Tom and Janet Flannigan, joked about all the “soft people” they saw in the pool—“You’ll never stay fit doing that,” they jested, lighting up cigarettes, and drinking themselves thin.

And I began writing, even while I worked 80 hour weeks at an Italian dive in Manayunk. The writing echoed the life I left and the ramifications of my decision. It feels as if everything I wrote was rooted in those moments. Of course, I was trying to write my life right.

I have often questioned my decision to become, if not “soft,”then decidedly less “hard” than the path that had been open to me. At least in the first several years after my decision, I think my friends saw aspects of that old self, but as best I could I burned it or buried it. We make choices in life, bending toward the light or dark—unlike phototropic plants that do so automatically. Or so we like to imagine. There are consequences to all our choices, to how we emphasize parts of our personalities or our essential selves. A choice away from or toward ripples into every other dimension of our lives.

This past winter, for the first time in over 30 years, I returned to weights. I bemoaned (and bemoan) the loss of strength—it isn’t innate, and must be tended. Jack, the owner of the gym I attend, says, “You’re in great shape.” I remember when, I think and do not gainsay. For now, I have taken on the task of shifting and strengthening the weight on my body. When I turned 50, I fought hard to get my body weight down to 200 pounds. This year, heading to 59, I flew lower with relative ease—I even have to eat more. I also feel harder, and delight in the body that has reemerged, as if it had been waiting all along (I knew you would be back). Although my strength is not what it was, it waxes again, along with some other aspects of that one time severity.

I court severity carefully. Maybe it took thirty years to give me distance from all that being the tip of the spear meant. Maybe the intervening years have buffered the fatal vision that guided my hand and mind. Or maybe those years changed me enough that I can take that dagger and wield it without the same moral repercussions that haunted me then, and that drove me to chose against it. Choosing against is never the same as choosing for; the choice to avoid a path is not the same as choosing a path. I have begun choosing for again, a bit rusty, but finding my way.

Not to my surprise, this change has come with a reinvigorated call to writing. I am a man whose mind and body work in concert. There was a reason I championed Susan Bordo’s and Richard Rorty’s philosophical repudiations of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. We are not just minds forged in cold thought but warm bodies that claim a presence in the world. I tried to make my mind and body softer, and there was a deeper cost. I felt that cost more powerfully as I passed through this year’s birthday. I choose this body now, and the mind that goes with it, and feel ready to press on.

Forward.

I began graduate school in the fall of 1988. Writing was still new to me. I had written in high school then in college, but the daily life of writing was only a shadowy presence. I had begun a novel, and tended it during the free time of my six day weeks managing a small Italian restaurant in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia. Which is to say, that I had written enough to gain admission to a program, but not enough in any real kind of way.

Graduate school was a relief and a release—it was the thing all my friends and customers were hinting at when they asked, “What are you going to do?”—recognizing long before I did that there was something specific that I was going to do.

I had drifted after college. It was as if I wore an anti-gravity suit that kept me from becoming grounded. There were reasons. I had encountered “purpose” as a rationale for selfishness and intentional moral blindness. The latter I found incredibly troubling. I believed in an inherent goodness—found in man or god—in spite of my experiences in the world. And when I wrote, I explored that possibility.

When I arrived at Binghamton, I poured myself into the work, writing with avaricious fervor, and studying gleefully. I learned quickly that a “B” was an “F,” and after one failing grade on an essay, turned to successful outcomes. I earned a scholarship after my first year, and with it, the right to teach, which I welcomed with the zeal of the recently converted. I was hooked.

One of the hooks at Binghamton was the presence of John Gardner, the author of The Art of Fiction and several novels I had not yet read. I had read Grendel when I was much younger, drawn by the monster after my mother had read us some version of Beowulf as our bedtime entertainment. What attracted us, some of us at least, was the myth of John—driven, irascible, generous, and demanding. As often as not, when describing ourselves as writers, we focused on our characters-not the characters in what we wrote, but out own personal strengths and foibles, and how we matched up against this fabled presence. He had been dead for 6 years, but he hung around the program (his ex-wife became my dissertation director).

One of my teachers, I think it was Liz Rosenberg, introduced me to On Becoming a Novelist, in which Gardner laid out some characteristics of the novelist:

Like other kinds of intelligence, the storyteller’s is partly natural, partly trained. It is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility: wit (a tendency to make irreverent connections); obstinacy and a tendency towards churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true); childishness (an apparent lack of mental focus and serious life purpose, a fondness for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper respect, mischievousness, an unseemly propensity for crying over nothing); a marked tendency toward oral or anal fixation or both (the oral manifested by excessive eating, drinking, smoking, and chattering; the anal by nervous cleanliness and neatness coupled with a weird fascination with dirty jokes); remarkable powers of eidetic recall, or visual memory (a usual feature of early adolescence and mental retardation); a strange admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness, the latter often heightened by irrationally intense feelings for or against religion; patience like a cat’s; a criminal streak of cunning; psychological instability; recklessness, impulsiveness, and improvidence; and finally an inexplicable and incurable addiction to stories, written or oral, bad or good. Not all riders have exactly the same virtues, of course. Occasionally one finds someone who is not abnormally improvident.

We looked inside ourselves to see whether we met the unholy criteria that John threw down—gauntlet-like—for us to match. It became a weird check list. There were dozens of weird checklists that we tested ourselves against: pre-work habits and rituals, kinds of writing implements, time that we wrote. I think that many of us were hoping to awaken a writing practice that could sustain us, and so looked for that one thing, the one trick that would allow the words to tumble out as effortlessly as possible.

Of course, we focused on how damnably hard writing was—and is. The metaphors we used to describe writing—like Virgilio Pinera’s man who decides to eat a mountain, one rocky mouthful after another—emphasized the difficulty, futility, and irreverent commitment. Perhaps the real solution was a correction to our character—some unbridling of our sinful writer manqué natures, and a resurrection into some more saintly (or demonic) deranger of the senses. If only we could rid ourselves of our flaws, and get to work.

I came to grad school, and to writing, after years of 60+ hour weeks. I rose early enough to get to the pool and down 3000 meters, then head across town to the restaurant. When I arrived in grad school, I found a job, and worked 3-4 nights a week in a high end restaurant. After I started teaching, I took a job in a bookstore ran by the husband of my mentor (he had been a student of Gardner’s as well). I swam, and then started running several days a week (I could listen to music while I ran!). Some of my classmates complained about the workload. I did not. Work was in me. Writing was not.

But it was. I wrote some inspired pieces, and won praise from mentors and classmates for my work. I didn’t know what to do with it—I had some things published, but what do a few stories and prose poems amount to in a world driven by novels? Besides, I confused inspiration with work. Work, that simple, boring, daily activity, with simple, boring, daily and measurable rewards. I was seeking star fire, supernovae, and earth-shaking prose. In order to do that I had to remake myself in the image of whom? John Gardner? Stephen King? Virginia Woolf? Some Norse God?

And what is the measure of good (let alone brilliant) writing? A great sentence doesn’t blaze as distinctly as the time on the clock when you touch the wall after one of ten 200 yard swims (That’s good; keep going). You write without a clear standard, and a novelist bangs out 60,000 to 100,000 words into the blind space of “who knows what will happen to all this?”.

So we focused on character, the one thing we could control or change. This, of course, is poppycock. There are good and bad people who write. Character is no Holy Grail, and no simple gateway or guarantee to writing. Work is. I wish we had simply talked more about work and habit and word count in grad school. How do you sneak in an extra 200 words? Have you done your work for today? Do you need a new pen? God only knows, make it work, let it be work, and demystify the process. It’s just work. It’s not about whether the muse is singing to you, or the dread siren, or anything or anyone. It’s just work, a job, a practice, and all you need to do, is to do it.

In the long run, Gardner’s description of the writer, and, once again, that sense that a purpose that led to blindness to everything other than IT, drove me away. After all, what was the lesson of nearly every novel, short story, or poem we read? Connect. Connect. And for the sake of everything that’s holy, or valuable, or worth saving: connect. The pursuit of art never matched the message. Picasso was a sonofabitch, but Guernica. Dickens philandered. Woolf suffered from limiting snobbery and mental illness. Joyce? Don’t even. Our contemporaries wandered into the forest of “immaturity and incivility” with a stridency that was matched only by ignorant blowhards and professional athletes.

I recognize that now, all of it, as a kind of armor. I know what it allowed, and what costs they incurred for strapping it on with such easy regularity. I saw it for a kind of blindness, and doubted. And in that doubt, returned to the anti-gravity armor that had supported me years before.

I turned, for years, to teaching and a kind of preaching. I tried to reach out, to convert the sensible—and others—to deeper understanding (reading) and brighter thought (writing). These are not fool’s errands, to be sure. But once you have tasted brilliance—and writing done well is brilliance—every other work other than the work that is the most brilliant, makes your tongue recoil. Even your dog would turn away from that feast. Not me. Not for years. And though I still fight with gravity, I feel the pull, and this is what binds us together—separate planets careening into each other with cataclysmic potential. I tried to resist, but, really, why?

So I’m left with these questions: How does one balance the work and the meaning of the work? How does one have purpose and character? Ah, as always, the trick of balance, and not in Gardner’s list of a writer’s characteristics. We will have to figure this out ourselves.

Of course, equanimity (balance) is not Gardner’s list, but the safety net is the work—stupid, dull-witted, and quotidian. Be an angel or a devil, but get to work. It comes back, and, if done well, connects us, once more, to the world, to each other, and to the gravity that holds us all.

It is difficult to explain the existential risk that the writer—at least this writer—undertakes when working. It is tantamount to this:

One time we (my father, two crew mates, and I) sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay onto the ocean in a gale. Already in the bay itself there was 6-8 foot chop, and on this trip, one of the four sailors (a first timer sailor) had slipped into his bunk clutching his life jacket, stricken with an indomitable case of seasickness. We were sailing short handed into stupid weather.

For the next four days we sailed in 30-50 knot winds, in a sea that was more like a protracted set of sand dunes, the water whipped by the wind into twelve foot peaks that barely seemed to move. They were moving though, faster than we were in our 36 foot sailboat. The ship sailed up and down these wet rolling hills, making ragged progress toward our goal: Bermuda.

Sensible men would have waited, but for all my father’s strengths (long range planning, and in the moment decisiveness among them), he had a stubbornness that did not waver. Once he had a plan, he stuck to it. Later in life, this supported him as he battled with Parkinson’s Disease. He suffered with the adaptations the illness forced on him, but refused to be stopped. In the end this led to his death. On this trip, his drive took us into an ocean that would challenge us.

I should also note that when I point to a crew mate who became seasick, I do not cast aspersions. I get seasick, and had each time I had sailed on the ocean before this. It always strikes me when I take my first late watch, when the horizon is shrouded in black, and my eyes and inner ear cannot properly make sense of the several directions that my body is moving. It is an ugly sickness, driving the guts empty in rebellion, until there is nothing left but bile. I never missed my turns at watcher helm because of it. The nausea would strike, and I would turn my head, and do what I needed. I did not eat or drink while it was on me, and it passed, for me it did, and after 36 hours.

On this trip, in this ocean, I was entirely spared. All my other crew mates, even my father, were struck. In retrospect perhaps the swell of the sea was so distinct and regular, that the three way (pitch, yaw, and roll) motion did not take grip of me. Or perhaps the danger created a necessary clarity. As with all retrospect, I cannot be sure.

After four days, we finally passed into the fringe of whatever had driven the gale. In a matter of hours, the wind created new swell patterns. Around midnight, the sea that had been a reasonable set of rolling hills, turned, and became more like waves breaking over an invisible reef or sand bar. 18-20 foot waves rose and broke, all headed in one direction. They are called following seas, which means the breakers were rising behind us, and rolling toward us. They were moving faster than we were, and lifted our boat to each peak, at which point our boat would slide down the front of the breaker like a sailboard.

That sounds easy enough, but as the boat fell down the surface of each wave, it carved a path driven by gravity and the force of the wave it was riding. Its path down the wave became, temporarily and repeatedly, unmanageable. Pushed by wind, pushed by water, pulled by gravity, the rudder merely suggested a direction. And yet, when at the helm, every suggestion made a difference. Caught at the top of a breaker, the boat could easily go sideways, and roll over. Sliding down the side of the breakers, it could turn too sharply and roll over.

A sailboat is not a surfboard.

My father and I took the helm when the sea turned. We held it in half hour turns, and it was exhausting work that required dense and specific attention. And, we were exhausted after the previous days of sail. Usually, in harsh conditions, one man took the wheel, and the other took refuge propped against the cabin in the leeward side of the cockpit, using the cabin as a wall against the constant water that broke over the windward gunwale. In this case, as we planed down the sides of the swells, the leeward gunwale cut into the water, and the water rushed into the cockpit. This added a new threat. The boat could be capsized, swamped with water if the helmsmen was not attentive. And, because no attention was enough, at the very least, we were soaked, the water pooling in our yellow foul weather gear, which was not designed for repeated submersion.

At 4 in the morning my father looked at me and said, “I can’t do it anymore. I’m going to send another crew member up, but you cannot let him take the helm until the sea settles down. You have to sail until then. The boat is yours.”

I brought a waterproof Walkman on these trips. And can admit that for the times I took the helm that night, I listened to an array of the loudest songs I had: Dinosaur Jr’s “I Know You’re Out There,” Medicine’s “One More,” and Sonic Youth’s “Sugar Kane.” Nothing was loud enough. Nothing matched the ocean or my attention. Nothing matched my awareness of what might happen, or when my father relented, what had happened.

I sailed. Every time I turned the wheel, I felt like I was making a decision that could imperil the lives of all of us. We would go down fast, without time to throw the life raft overboard. It would happen in an instant. We were at sea—tempest tossed as Shakespeare wrote. The end would come quickly. Each time I turned the wheel, each millimeter I moved it to port or starboard, I felt as if I was making a decision for speed and forward motion. It felt, again, as the bard wrote, giddy. Not happy, and not drunk—although I felt as drunk as I could be—drunk with sailing, with water and with wind—but transported out of my mind, beyond all thought, and into every thought possible. I sailed as I never had before, as I would always want to sail afterwards.

Friends ask me if I have been sailing in the years since my father’s death. I have not. But even before he died, I knew that I would not—not because of fear or seasickness (an anti-vertigo drug helped allay that)—because I had done something then that I would never replicate. Not on the ocean. I have sought it ever since.

I do not know what has ever led me back to safety. I know that what calls me is not simply mastery (I have a PhD in English, I have some level of mastery there), but the exhilaration of being over the edge of control and into the realm of the impossible. To be the captain, which I became that night. Sometimes, too often, I have exercised the caution I faulted my father for lacking. I have stayed controlled, almost too calm. In some measure, this is because I feel a lack of control and a lack of mastery around me. Even the experts profess a quietness or steadfastness, when sometimes what is needed is to go out of ones mind. To forgo safety. To risk. But also to carry the responsibility for the lives on board. We are, truly, in this together, an must all go out of our minds, together.

I have over-prepared, or tried to know, to tame the ideas in my head, worried that they were unintelligible, or that they were somehow too strange. I feel myself now, at the top of the breaking wave again. And look down into the night sea. This way. Now. Down. For life.

Since the 1987, I have started at least five novels. Some I carried with me for a few months—the story of a wedding, unfolding like the petals of a rose. Others lingered over decades—the story of a woman who stole paintings. None of them lasted beyond seventy or eighty pages, or in the case of the long project, fifteen or twenty starts at initial chapters. I had notebooks full of scenes, outlines, character sketches, dialogue, and thematic connections. All the while I wrote other things. Shorter pieces, poems, prose poems, essays, sermons, children’s stories. Or I wrote nothing at all and suffered in silence. I believe that I was unbearable in those times.

What cracks the shell, and let’s the story run out?

I do not know.

I do know that I burned the first one. It had stuck with me for a couple of years, and was the piece I was working on when I went to the MA program at Binghamton. I put the pages on the little hibachi I owned, and watched it burn. I kept the ashes in a brown paper bag on the desk in my office at grad school for as long as I was there. Some of my friends found it morbid. I found it freeing. Move on.

Over the years it has been less easy to move on. I became more anxious. Would this happen? Had I somehow failed? I had other successes as a writer along the way. Why not switch course? Why not give up and go in another direction? There are many ways to write.

Even as a high school English teacher, novels called to me in ways that poems and shorter pieces did not—as exhilarating as a poem or short story can be. There is something satisfying about the duration of a novel. There was also, like it or not, the commercial aspect of novels—they are designed to draw everyday readers. I loved that about them. 300-500 page pop songs.

Perhaps I was too enchanted by the high art novels that I read in my graduate classes, and in the critical approaches we used to pull them and the ideas that surrounded them apart. I forgot about the old thrill of reading for pleasure—which is why novels exist. Art is fine, better than fine. Criticism is a world unto itself. But writing for an audience, for a world of unmet readers, that is everything.

And so, this time, I am following Seymour Glass’s advice to his brother Bruno, and I am writing the book I want to read. I am my own unmet reader. And will hope, against hope, to find many others.

I was compiling blog posts today—why not a second book about writing and second chances? (Yes, but first things first)—and realized that I had written over 60,000 words in two directions since the beginning of September. While working at a new job. While beginning a new relationship.

That is more, by no small amount, than I wrote in any year I was in graduate school, when all I had to do was read and write.

When I saw that number today, I was in a room with a friend at school, and nearly broke into tears. I don’t know why it took so long, but there it is.

I don’t know why the shell had not broken open before. No novel came while I was getting my PhD in Creative Writing. I received crazy kudos from some of my academic professors about my critical work—but I knew that wasn’t what I wanted. I knew the successes would have been too tempting. I would have been a writer manqué. The worst. So I struggled and struggled. And struggled.

I always wrote, frustratingly, stupidly at times. There was never a period of time when it stopped entirely, but it all felt like awfulness. I was ashamed of my work. It stank. No one could convince me otherwise. I hated that feeling, and hated how it conflicted with the desire, the call, I felt daily.

And then, when I went to China to adopt my daughter, that shame abated. About many things. Over the next several years, culminating with this one, I found my way back. It was hard earned. I stopped listening to old demons, stopped worrying about quality (though good things were happening), and stopped waiting. It wasn’t a smooth restart, but it got me here, and to what has happened over the past several months.

I have not started writing for you, dear reader, though I love it when the few of who do, do read my work. Those flags from many nations delight me. I like that you have been here while this has happened. I enjoy sharing my exhilaration with someone. I have tried to talk to my best friend about it, but he’s in the “don’t tell me” camp of writers. I’ve shared with a few others, but it has been nice to share with you.

This is my chance. I know it. I know all the costs and weight of regret and everything else that goes with it. I was a “happy enough” man for ages, and always felt the horrible gnawing of unfulfillment. I took the first full strides back to my work a year ago, and have spent much of this year falling back in love with myself.  Somehow, this love freed me to be myself again, and in some ways, for the first time.

Yes, dear reader, I have regrets, but I cannot dwell in that space. I have to look to my future and embrace it. That is all there is, the only way I can live now. I know the other paths, and they are death. I will not go there again.

This way. Forward.

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