Posted by: M.C. | 4 April 2011

Intelligent Design

More than 20 years ago, while working on a master’s in creative writing and starting to consider teaching, I interviewed a professor in the art department. I had heard that she was a good teacher, and I had seen and admired her artwork, so I wanted to know how she balanced her creative life with teaching. How did she get them to fit? She told me that, basically, she didn’t. She kept them in separate compartments. I found her response thoroughly unsatisfying, but during the past couple of decades, I’ve often experienced that same split. Looking back, I can understand her answer, but I’m still dissatisfied with it. The various parts of my life too often feel like separate gears that I can’t get to mesh. One gear runs smoothly, but another is stuck or grinding or spinning out of control. I’ve seen plenty or people—maybe even most people—willing to accept the lack of integration, the spinning and lurching, jerking back and forth. I suppose it’s a sign of my stubbornness that I haven’t.

I’m beginning to think it’s all about design. The American Heritage tells me that design can be lots of things, but two definitions explain what I have in mind: “the purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts or details” and “a basic scheme or pattern that affects and controls function or development.” That’s what I want: a design for what my life is about. I want a something to help me arrange these far-flung parts and show me how they fit together. I want to bring some order to this chaos.

Now I know that this doesn’t just happen. It involves taking time to make some conscious choices; some of those choices will be hard, involving competing values. And after all, one of my objectives is bringing a deeper, more open sense of play to my life. Design sounds like it would be the opposite of that. But I’ve come to realize that one thing play needs—at least when it comes to me—is structure. Despite what some of my students over the years have thought, creative writing isn’t writing without rules; it’s writing that plays with and against the rules. A poem isn’t any old string of words; it’s a string of words arranged in a certain way. I’ve also realized that no one is going to make that structure for me. I’ve got to figure out how to build it myself, for myself, and not try to make anyone else live in it.

I know, I know. A more mature, self-actualized person would have done this a long time ago. But let’s quit whining about past lapses and see if I can get to some basic principles.

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Posted by: M.C. | 3 April 2011

Inside Job

When you sit in the bathroom on the second floor of our house, you can hear overhead a scurrying and scratching. We haven’t yet decided for sure whether the noise comes from a storage space beside our bedroom on the third floor above or from something outside, on the roof. I tell myself it’s from outside because I don’t like the idea of an animal scratching around only a thin, drywall away from me as I lie in my bed; I don’t like to think of that noise as coming from inside the house. But I have to admit that—disconcerting as it may be—we may well share our apartment with something wild that goes about on all four legs.

Funny what we don’t like to admit may dwell close to home, what can be hard to distinguish from inside or out. It reminds me of those conspiracy theorists who like to claim that “9-11 was an inside job.” When you get down to it, isn’t everything that rattles through my head? As with the unseen, scurrying animal, I want to place all my anxieties outside me, in the world, in other people, in things outside my control. My worries all consist, I want to say, of things “they” are doing to me. But when I get down to it, life hasn’t so much made demands as posed certain questions: What am I willing to give up for the things that matter to me? Or the things that I say matter? How much do I care what others think of me? And if I do care, which “others” will I try to please and which will I ignore? Nothing about the answers is self evident, and no one can determine my answers but me.

Before he won his Oscar a year or so back, Jeff Bridges played a man—Max—trying to fundamentally reorient himself in a film called Fearless. After he survives an airplane crash that kills dozens of others, including his best friend and business partner, Max can’t seem to get back to ordinary life. He finds many of the expectations of others trivial; he becomes brutally honest with everyone, including his wife; the everyday has at the same time become precious and lost its meaning. Trapped in a kind of limbo, unmoored, Max feels driven to take dangerous risks. At the film’s end, he almost dies again, this time by purposely ingesting strawberries, which he knows himself to be allergic to. When his wife literally breathes life back into him, he gasps and says, “I’m alive.” I’ve always thought Max struggled because, after the crash, he couldn’t believe he had survived; as the plane was about to go down, he had accepted his death and come to terms with it, and when it doesn’t happen he doesn’t know how to accept—or whether to believe in—his life again. His emotional journey is an inside job.

I’ve always identified with Max, because I think we have something like the same problem. Too often I find myself living life less like someone who is alive and more like someone who’s about to get caught where he doesn’t belong. I want to be, to write, to run, to play, but I hear that scurrying around somewhere in my head that I’ll have to answer for it if I do. The only way out is to recognize that my life, too, is an inside job. I have to choose a way of being, each day, each moment that feels true to me. After 50 years of living, it’s time for me to accept that I am alive and act like it.

Posted by: M.C. | 2 April 2011

Getting to Fun…

…Isn’t always so easy. Take an impending race for which I am woefully underprepared (and I’m not exaggerating or being falsely modest. I’ve run six races in the past six years, and I’ve never lacked confidence that my training gave me a solid chance to perform at my level of expectations. Not so this time.), mix in a move to a new house we’ll be renting, add the usual pinch of work stress, and stir in a generous helping of toddler, and you will have the perfect mixture for my current state.

I’m trying to figure out what I need to do or have on a regular basis to feel that I can manage my demons well enough to do my job, get in some creative work, and behave like a decent human being to my wife and children. The answer that comes to mind is an old one: structure, regularity, habits that nuture my emotional well-being. But those seem hard to come by.

I don’t write very often because at work I feel that I need to be doing my job and at home I have a hard time finding a settled, quiet space. The move to the new house should help somewhat with the second problem, at least as far as space goes. I don’t run as much as I should (hence the lack of race preparation) because I haven’t worked myself into a regular time to do it. Once upon a time I’d get up at 5 or 5:30. But that means getting to bed early enough, and that means not getting caught up in this or that TV show that sucks my brain dry anyway but also turns off all of the stresses that add to my need for writing and running time.

Push has definitely come to shove, but unfortunately the place they keep meeting is me.

Of course, it might help if I stopped expecting to be sane, prepared to meet each day, and productive, but the demands of work and home sometimes make it difficult to blow those things off. But somehow I have to find a way to not let them drive my emotional state. I have to find a way to convince myself that doing what I can do in my own way and time will be good enough.

Stay tuned.

Posted by: M.C. | 31 March 2011

Plus One

“Yesterday it was my birthday
I hung one more year on the line
I should be depressed
My life’s a mess
But I’m having a good time”

                                          Paul Simon, “Have a Good Time”

Today is the first day of my fifty-first year, so it was, indeed, my birthday yesterday. Half a century of anxiety and angst and unreasonably great good fortune. Thanks to that good fortune, my life is not a mess, but too often I’ve allowed myself to be. I have cut myself off from a great deal with my worrying. I realized at one point yesterday that if I had known I would last this long, I would have done many things differently: put aside more money, even in small amounts; exercised more regularly; taken more chances earlier; and just freaking relaxed. But most of all, I think I would have done everything more slowly and more patiently.

So I want to give thanks for my wife and my sons, for the friends and mentors and students have encouraged and supported me. But the good news is that I’m not done yet. And even more importantly, god’s not done with me either. So I’m going to try to chronicle year 51, a day at a time. This could be fun.

“Paranoia strikes deep in the heartland
But I think it’s all overdone
Exaggerating this and exaggerating that
They don’t have no fun”

That’s not going to be me. Not anymore.

Posted by: M.C. | 17 February 2011

Connected

Alright, let me step back for a moment from the breathless, quite possibly incoherent thoughts I posted earlier and see if I can more clearly say something about this complexity that the priest-paleontologist-anthropologist-(theologian?) Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote about and what it might mean for me now. Of course he was writing more than half a century ago, but he seems to have foreseen pretty well the kind of interconnectedness that technology has made possible. He realized that would move us more and more in the direction of unification, but he also seems to have realized the threats this might pose to what he called “personalization.” In our culture, we often mash together the idea of being a person with the idea of being and individual. But ecology (and politics and sociology and biology and psychology and just about every other branch of science) has taught us that my uniqueness as a person is not something that I can produce individually. It’s the product of my reaction and interaction with the culture and moment in history that surround me. When I pretend that I can make or remake myself without anyone else’s influence and without consequences (for good or ill) for others, I create a dangerous fiction that gives me license to act as though I am the center of the universe. Being a fully conscious person isn’t the same as standing alone as an individual; it means understanding all the forces and people that have shaped me and using that understanding to fully realize my own unique identity. Artists aren’t individuals; they are people who have developed the capacity to absorb what we all experience and translate it back to us in all its complexity and joy and sorrow and deep humor and deep tragedy. And if we’re smart enough to listen, it deepens us and our consciousness too. We lose a piece of that consciousness whenever we squash the ability of a person to grow, and we lose it too when we deify the unmoored, invincible individual over our moral and human obligations and relationships to one another.

Here’s the funny part to me. My ability to connect to others doesn’t come, ultimately, from tweeting and multitasking and surfing and plugging in constantly. If I don’t take time to pause and reflect and see myself clearly, I won’t ever understand how I am connected to others. I’ll always see others through the smeared lens that is my misshapen sense of self. If it’s true that we are unavoidably connected on a deep level, then the ability to understand that connected depends not only on my learning information about the world, it depends on my looking very, very closely at who I am. And this takes commitment. And it takes patience.

Posted by: M.C. | 17 February 2011

Consciousness

I’ve been occupied for the better part of the past week with a sick child, not able to keep anything down for two days. Of course, he’s recovered and moved on while I try to deal with the blow to my sense of equilibrium that his illness provided. It’s one thing to experience the fragility of my own health; but to have a front row seat on the fragility of his was more than unsettling. And if you share my somewhat morbid, somewhat perverse frame of mind, you can’t help but wonder what the point of it all is. I mean, someday something is going to do me in—and him in turn, and everyone that I have ever known or loved. Someday, all of us will be gone. This is an existential fact. But what do I do with that?

Well, since I’m a nerd, and a person who thinks too much, and (as the Brits would say) a bit of a nutter, I’ve been reading. The most recent suspect is a book about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of him; he was a Jesuit priest, born in 1881 and died in 1955. And being a Jesuit he insisted on being ridiculously brainy and participating in major anthropological expeditions in China and publishing major scientific works. But the Church was not so sure about him, in part because evolution was a major part of his worldview which the Church wasn’t so sure about in the 1920s, and he spent various parts of his career prohibited from publishing and accused of suspect thinking and even heresy in some quarters. Now if you know me, you can see why I would find someone like this appealing; he has the whole Catholic, writer/intellectual, traditional but not conventional thing.

I’m about 50 pages into the 120-page book (The Promise of Teilhard: The Meaning of the 20th Century in Christian Perspective by Philip Hefner, for those of you keeping score) and his ideas fascinate me. I can’t begin to cover it all now, but I’ll start with just a piece: Life, he believed, was evolving toward increasing “complexification,”: inert organic compounds combining to create life; single-celled animals and plants becoming multi-celled, generating higher life forms; humans arising, becoming conscious, and those levels of consciousness increasing to include an awareness of self, other humans, other creatures, the planet itself, and beyond.

Okay, so I know what you’re thinking: blah blah blah. Here’s why it matters—maybe—and why my individual existence and the loss of that existence is something more than a private tragedy—maybe: I have the opportunity to contribute to this growth in consciousness. I have the opportunity, by becoming more reflective about myself and more aware of others, to move our understanding forward. Now, what I can do individually, personally is probably miniscule—inches in the cosmic distances measured in light years. But the accumulation of inches, with the addition of a sudden foot or two periodically, is how we got here. And heaven knows we haven’t figured out how to use our increasing consciousness not to destroy. Who am I to discount what any one of must might contribute, even if that one is as small and often confused as me? So I don’t have the time to waste lamenting my eventual physical fate. I have work to do. We all do. My son, it turns out, has the right idea. After I recover from an illness or a shock, time to start exploring again.

Posted by: M.C. | 10 February 2011

Yes, but…

“People might think you’re sad,” she said. My wife was talking about my latest blog posts, and I could understand what she meant. Lately I’ve described myself as lost, struggling, invisible, poorly understood. It makes sense that someone might look at those descriptions and conclude that I’m feeling down about my life. But yesterday afternoon and last night I heard a speaker talk about art and what it does, and she said something that struck me. Art beautifies, she said, but it also questions. And it began to occur to me that this unsettled state in which I’ve spent so much of my life isn’t a sign of depression or unhappiness.

As long as I can remember I’ve questioned whatever conventional wisdom I’ve encountered. Within the traditionalism of my Catholic upbringing, I was both very devout and very unhappy with the slow pace of change within the church. Within the intellectualism of the liberal and academic worlds I now occupy, I’ve always been uncomfortable with the kind of absolute characterizations of those who disagree. In an age of speed and technology, I want us to slow down and look each other in the face. I used to think it meant that I could never find a home in any community because I always seem to find something wrong with any community; however much I appreciate what any group offers, I can’t help seeing the cracks and the silences and the blindness to other perspectives. Sometimes I’ve wondered whether I always have to play the devil’s advocate. But it’s never been a game or an intellectual exercise. It’s just that I can’t help seeing every conclusion, every generalization as—in part—a lie. Every time we say something definitive about how the world works, we have to leave out all the qualifications and exceptions and individuals cases that contradict that conclusion. For every welfare cheat, there is a struggling mother doing everything she can to give her children a better life; for every deadbeat dad there is a divorced or single father devoted to his children’s wellbeing. For every selfish corporate giant, there is a genuine philanthropist. And sometimes these opposites reside not just in the same community but in the same person.

I know that we have to make generalizations and draw conclusions in order to make decisions. I know that policies can’t be based on single individuals but on general tendencies as best we can identify them. But something in my nature never wants us to forget that these tendencies which we like to treat as objective facts are categories of our own creation. It occurs to me that my own desire to push and probe and question has everything to do with the art of my life. I love words and I love writing because words always slip out from under us; they force me, when I take them seriously, to have to consider and reconsider exactly what I’m trying to say. That is their danger and that is their pleasure. And this unsettled, uncertain perspective that I have often considered a burden may in fact be a gift. On more than one occasion, I have made others weary with my continual probing and arguing, but despite what they may think, for me it has never been about winning. It’s about what composition scholar Ann Berthoff called “the continuing audit of meaning.” It’s an itch I can’t stop scratching. And for the first time in a long time—maybe for the first time ever in my life—I’m beginning to think of it not as destructive but as creative and generative. It comes from a desire to keep extending myself and challenging others to wrestle with what we think we know. Sometimes I have found that wrestling painful, but I’m beginning to realize that gives birth to the art that is the act of my living.

Posted by: M.C. | 8 February 2011

Starting Silly

I turned the rocking chair sideways then pushed it against the wall. Then I worked the coffee table back and forth until it was against the chair and the television stand. I had cleared a space in the middle of the living room, between the couch and the television. I started the DVD and watched the muscular, middle-aged, almost comically serene-sounding man begin to talk about breathing, postures, and positive energy. I followed the movements of his hands as best I could. I tried to breath, inhale and exhale, at his commands and shifted my body, hands, hips, feet, and head to try to match his. Meanwhile my wife watched, relaxed on the couch, as she surfed the net from the laptop. She didn’t say anything, and I don’t even know how much she paid attention to me while I took my body through its gyrations, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit silly. I know that wasn’t about her or any disapproval she actually showed—she didn’t give a hint of any. It was more about feeling myself moving again, inexpertly, awkwardly, trying to sink consciously back into my body. I haven’t done that for weeks now, not since the last time I went for a run, and I felt clunky and robot-like sometimes. But as I progressed, I could feel my muscles tingling and my lungs easing. And I’ll go to bed in a few minutes knowing that at least today I stepped out of the stream of mindless rushing and worry and felt my body working. I cleared some space in the room, then stepped into it.

Posted by: M.C. | 7 February 2011

The Taming Power of the Small

So where do I start on this attempting to consciously cultivate and regain my right mind? That is, what does this cultivation look like? During most of the past five years, running has been my main physical/spiritual (yes, I’ve used that word; say it with me: spiritual) practice. Over that time, I ran one half marathon, three marathons, a seven mile cross country race, and a 5k. But 2010 was the first year in that span in which I didn’t participate in a race. Racing itself isn’t such a big deal to me; frankly, it can be more stress that it’s worth at times—at least my anxiety has been. If I had simply decided I didn’t want to race anymore, I’d be fine with that. But the truth is I haven’t been in any shape to race because I haven’t been training; I haven’t been running each day, putting in the miles, putting in the time. I have had no real routine to speak of since the end of 2009. The adjustment to a new, fulltime job just about a year ago has a lot to do with that. It released an internal jumpy need to be produce, be active, make things happen, and as a result not much good has been happening inside me. Another problem has been dealing with winter, which puts me out of shape and out of sorts when spring comes, which makes the heat of summer intimidating. Or so the story goes. Don’t misunderstand. Plenty of good fortune continues to come my way. I have met and worked with interesting people, I have my wife and my young son, and my teenage sons are doing well in another city with their mother. I have no real complaints or problems; nothing is wrong. None of this, though, has added up to contentment, which means that I need to adjust not so much my circumstances as my sense of myself, which aspect of my life that I am most discontented with. I realize now that I’ve become so externally focused that I’ve convinced myself that I’d feel great once everything “out there” fell into place. But that’s now where the disorder is.

So I just went to the library where I work and am checking out a tai chi video to use. I took my first class something like 15 years ago, and I’ve returned to it from time to time ever since. I don’t need any big steps or grand statements. I need something that I know I can keep doing. I need to spend some time breathing and moving in place, then breathing and moving through space when I get running again. Small things. Each day. And that, I try to remind myself, is what spiritual cultivation looks like. Small. Slow. Continual.

Posted by: M.C. | 6 February 2011

Stop Sign

Outside the snow has begun to fall again, light and powdery. But it’s accumulating all the same, gathering on the ground. Each flake does what it does, following its path. Acting without plan or intention, it clogs roadways, breaks branches and telephone poles, brings our lives to a halt. Meanwhile, I sit here, worrying, trying to figure out what I’ll need to deal with tomorrow, next week, next month. I wonder whether I’m doing a good enough job; I berate myself for not getting enough done last week and go over in my mind the lists I should make and the people I need to talk with to be “effective.” I know, I know. I’m not a flake of snow. I’m a person, a human being with a brain and an intellect and the ability to imagine future actions and create a sequence of plans to reach an objective. Which means, of course, that I spend large chunks of my life groaning under the weight of the worries and expectations and the plans that I haven’t carried out. I worry about the wrong decisions I’ve made in the past and the wrong decisions I might make in the future. My life swings around me too much of the time, and my head swings with it, untethered and ungrounded. I keep thinking of the places (internal and external) that I would like to be, and they feel so distant that my thoughts paralyze me into inaction. These are the thoughts that pass through my head right now. But outside, the world just *is*. Trees stand bare in the wind; a few dead leaves still hang from them, coated with bits of frost and snow. Most of the ground is covered in white. They sky is gray overcast. And I dwell and dwell and dwell. My mind churns. I think that I should whip myself into action, but it’s precisely that urgency and gogogo that weights me down. Action isn’t the problem. It’s how to stop that I’ve need to learn to pull off.

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