Posted by: M.C. | 5 February 2011

Lighten Up, Francis

It falls to me, then. (I was going to say “It falls to us” but I stopped myself because I realized that I can’t speak for anyone else or at least don’t want to try. I exhibit this propensity to slip into the first person plural, and I’m not sure what that’s about. Am I trying to hide my own experiences—meaning problems and failings and idiosyncrasies—behind the pretense of representing some group: my generation my race my gender my personality type my socioeconomic demographic? Or does it come down to feeling odd when I see so many first person singular pronouns embedded in the sentences traveling across my screen? Digression? I think not. We’ll—Aaargh—I’ll see in what follows. Where was I? Oh, yes..) It falls to me, then. The problem of my consciousness and its appropriateness and its place in the world and whether I’m going to let it play itself out or seek to submerge or modify it for any one of a number of socially justifiable reasons. The right (not in the sense of “correct” but in the sense of “the only workable”) answer is to let it play. You probably saw that coming; I probably telegraphed it, even if I wasn’t sure when I was writing these past few entries what the answer should be. But if the answer be to push back, to unbend myself from the pretzel logic (yes, for you Steely Dan fans out there, that phrasing was intentional) that seems to dominate this particular age, that still leaves the question of just how to pull that off.

I read today (yes, I know it wasn’t directly work related) a Rolling Stone interview with Stanley Kubrick from 1987 age (back in the age of papyrus) when his film Full Metal Jacket was released. After recovering from the fact that this was more than 20 years ago now, and acknowledging the hole in my film viewing life that his death continues to leave, I couldn’t help but marvel at his ability to shape the making films into the kind of experience that he wanted it to be. I keep wondering where that comes from. Was he born with it? Did he get it from some kind of nurturing he received as a child? Did he manufacture it somehow? These are not abstract questions to me, even though I’m not and don’t practically see how I could become a filmmaker.

Strength, that chameleon of a concept, that method actor of a quality, keeps coming to my mind as as good a name for the thing I’m looking for as any other. Thing? I know, not very concrete; not very specific. Call it a label if you like. But names don’t behave, and that certainly applies to the word “strength.” I have played this recurring trick on myself where at any given moment all I see are weaknesses—thinness when I was a boy and youth, laziness as I grew older, glibness in my work relationships, too much deliberateness at one point, too much impatience at another, not enough discipline as a  running motif. Give me five or ten years, though, and I begin to pine for thequalities I used to want so badly to shed. I look in the mirror or step onto the scale and try to figure out ways to carve my form down to the wisp of a physical presence that I once had. I wish now that I could rest more in the ease that I used to wear so lightly and judge so harshly. And I’d love to recover the ability to not take things so seriously (I’m trying to introduce “Lighten up, Francis” from Bill Murray’s Stripes as a new mantra). Which brings me to my current working definition of strength: compassion. It’s come to me as I’ve thought about what goes along with those moments when I feel most anxious or helpless or lost, most like I’m not where I want to be in life. It comes down to annoyance or frustration or even anger. Sometimes that’s directed at other people. Mostly it’s directed at me: He/she/I should know better; he/she/I should have thought things through more, paid more attention, been more careful. It seems to flow from some sense that I have no room for error, which, if true, means that I’m good and cooked anyway because the errorless life is not one I’m going to attain anytime soon. Or maybe I have this thought that I’ve screwed up so much that I’ve used up my allotment. Whatever the source, it generates the desire to be more in control of my world and myself, bringing with it more tension and discontent. Conversely, a greater sense of contentment comes when I turn off judgments about myself, about others, and about how life should be moving forward at any given moment. So the only real strength I have comes when I let life be, to turn down my expectations, and to accept myself as I am (even if it’s not how I think I should be). I know this isn’t new stuff, but it’s still counterintuitive in our culture, and certainly in my head. But when I write and it goes well, it’s because I’ve released my words with a sense of their power and an acceptance of my responsibility for their effects, but a trust, a faith, that I need to give myself over to them (the words, the writing) anyway because that’s the only way to find out the things about myself that I need to find out.

It falls to me. No one’s going to save me from my fear by giving me the love I should have had all along. No one else, anyway. I’ve been hoping someone else could do that for me, and not that I’m not loved, and not that some haven’t tried. But essentially, I’m the only one who’s going to pull this thing off. And that seems to mean I have to give myself permission to suck sometimes. No, that’s too limited. I have to be okay with the pervasiveness and persistence of my imperfections. Still not there. I have to make peace with the person who inhabits this skin being who he is rather than who I thought he was supposed to be.

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Posted by: M.C. | 3 February 2011

Twist or Shout?

What if it were like this: We each enter this life bewildered. And that bewilderment dissipates as others hand us vocabularies for naming the world. They provide us lists of what things are to be called: objects, experiences, ideas, communities, people. The “people,” of course, includes us. Parents, peers, popular culture, teachers, and priests distribute list upon list. However, we soon discover that these lists do not all agree. Some of them overlap substantially; some come in completely different alphabets. As a result, no one accepts all of the lists provided. We all reject a good chunk of the vocabulary they contain, but most people (I think) can find a few lists that they decide more or less fit. They might be called “American” or “God” or “middle class”; they might have as their heading “Christian” (or Muslim or even atheist). Some people swallow their given list whole, while other select from various lists like a Chinese menu. All well and good. Now, some of us fall under the category of “marked.” That is, when people call someone “normal” or “everyday” or “average,” we marked folks aren’t the ones they have in mind. Something about us makes us stand out from the general social expectation. This might be a melanin-related condition, or connected to what does (or does not) hang between my legs. It might be about whether my legs or other appendages or other bodily organs all function in the generally accepted way. This places me outside, and because I come from some place that’s “outside,” I find all of the lists mainly wanting. Something in us marked folks learns this lesson early. I learn to sidestep, to bend or lean a little so that I fit into the picture. Most of us do anyway. I twist my body and mind close enough to the borders of the lists that I can be seen at least peripherally. Maybe I become accustomed to these odd positions, to attaching a vocabulary to ourselves that mostly hangs on. But one day I feel the muscle pull against the curve of my spine or the scoop of my pelvis. One day the ligament snaps back, and the list falls off, and then I have to choose: Continue in this more upright carriage or adapt. To continue means to resist, even to battle. Adapting means to temper that sense of myself, to let go of a part (sometimes peripheral, sometimes essential) of how I want to name and act in the world. Simple. Continue or adapt. Here’s the thing. I’ve gotten myself twisted. I’ve had help, but I can unbend and call it straight, whatever else the world calls it. I can name these new postures. See, it hurts either way. So which way will I?

Posted by: M.C. | 3 February 2011

Disappeared

I am becoming, I think, invisible, transparent, translucent. Light penetrates, passes, through, leaving me unseen. Again. It is the malady of my childhood which I thought I had made go away in my youth, but keeps recurring. Let me tell you what I mean: I have in my head this store of touchstones: films and songs and writers and politicians and artists and actors and events and bits of language from books and poems, connections linked by neural pathways leaping over the chasms that traverse my brain. I built them (without thinking) out of the flotsam of clashing parents and sad boorish siblings and a social universe that had a congenital aversion to my skin tone. All of the elements of this social universe considered me either a nuisance or altogether irrelevant, not worth the exertion of contemplating me long enough to dismiss me. But as I grew I wove my fabric of irrelevancies and coincidences and insights into a cloak that rendered me solid somehow. I wove it mainly from my words and I learned to spin and shape the words and toss them into the sky into patterns (quilts to constellations) that others could observe, and through them, me. But I have always feared that this ability was useless—not to me, but to others. They might marvel at it (for a while) admire its intricacy (for a while) find it curious or quaint (for a while, even a long while). And now I feel its visibility fading. I see a story in the paper about a character actor I grew up watching who has died; a songwriter passes away; an author ends his life. A ripple, and then they are gone. The absence carves a hole in my existence, but others seem not to notice. I reference an event that shook me to my core, or lifted me into ecstasy, but no one remembers anymore. And when I try to pull someone into this very tactile universe, I only feel more adrift. Nothing I say resonates, as if I had recorded a monologue on a record (vinyl, shiny, black usually) playing at the wrong speed; sluggish syllables mashed together into unintelligibility. I reach for another solid, conscious soul to share what must sound like comedy or grief or madness, but they whizz by, slicing along in contemporary time. So I let my words dribble into silence. It is a tortuous thing to try to stand still in order to be seen, plus it doesn’t work. I try to pinch myself into these nano timeframes. I try to leave alone that roar of my history that always resides in the back of brain, but it only cramps me into a caricature angry in his loneliness. No one wants to look at anger (especially slow motion, standing still, mouthing nothing) so I begin to fade. Soon, I have disappeared myself, and even those closest cannot find me. I need a stable wormhole, some device that spans time and space to reach from universe to universe, from my tapestries of memory to the virtual, amnesiac moments I inhabit now. ButEveryoneAndEverythingFlyBy. And I am invisible. And I am lost.

Posted by: M.C. | 1 February 2011

White Season

It’s snowing here. The sky is a blank white that melds with the earth in the distance, and flakes keep blowing and twisting and drifting their way to the ground. They tell us that this afternoon a blizzard will arrive—the latest Storm of the (Young) Century—but I can’t get myself to care; I seem already to be in hunker down mode, buried in drifts of tasks and plans. I should make a “to do” list, but I keep putting it off because I know that then I’ll have to actually do what needs doing. I’ll be able to approach my work systematically, which means that my excuse of being overwhelmed and confused and not knowing where to start will evaporate.

Maybe what I feel is nothing more than winter’s weary hold on me, the hazard of returning to the so-called temperate zone after a decade of living in the subtropical Southwest, though after two years here now, you’d think I would begin to acclimate. But it may be that some of us are born to certain geographic spaces. I can live here, but these inevitable dips in mood literally come with the territory. Years ago, as a college undergrad, I could always manage to get through the fall semester, but January and February of the second semester always derailed me. Or it may be that I have hit one of those spots in my life where enough things are “off” to enough of an extent that that I’ve lost my bearing for a bit. Maybe I’d feel the same even if I were wandering sweat-drenched under the canopy of a rain forest, or staring from a beach out over the Caribbean.

In any case, I know the antidote: I need to return to the old routines, or invent new ones. I need to clear some space.

Posted by: M.C. | 18 September 2010

Letting Go

I have heard more than once and firmly believe in the phrase, “Discipline is art of remembering what you want.” It tells me that discipline isn’t primarily about denial but about the pursuit of what we love and desire. Unfortunately, from moment to moment I find it easy to forget what I most desire–or maybe I just get afraid of what I want. Odd word, “remember,” with the “re” suggesting that I’m doing something over again and the “member” suggesting…what? Then I think of “dismember” which involves separating things, what is attached no longer being attached, and I realize that to remember is to put back together what was once together, to recall the connection among parts of my life, my past, my identity. When I re-member what I want, then I recall who I am, what I’m about, what moves me most, what I value, and in recalling those things I make myself more likely to act on them. I let the things that I don’t really desire–the distractions–fall away. Conventionally we often think about it as “denial” of what we’d like to have. But when I get out of bed because my toddler is crying in the middle of the night, that isn’t so much denial of sleep as it is responding to one of the things that matters most to me: my love for him. I’m not “giving up” sleep; I’m letting go of it in order to “re-member” and act out of my identity as “father.” Just as I’m not “giving up” sleep now (at 3 a.m.) but remembering that other part of my identity: writer.

Posted by: M.C. | 17 September 2010

Reaching In

“How’d we lose that good that was given us? Let it slip away. Scattered it, careless. What’s keepin’ us from reaching out, touching the glory?”
The Thin Red Line

I have been thinking tonight about obstacles. I don’t mean the ones imposed on us by circumstances or placed in our paths by others. I mean the things we do to undermine ourselves. The thousand habits we form and hold that stand between us and our contentment, our best interests, our greatest hopes and dreams. It may be that you don’t know what I’m talking about; it may be that you are someone who sights a goal and strives for it in a straight line, lazer-like. I am not.

Sometimes, I like to content myself with idea that the very qualities that fuel my imagination and my love of language and ability to create from my mind places and human beings who feel as real to me as those who inhabit this world in flesh and blood, sometimes I tell myself that this same gift of mind must be paid for in doubt and uncertainty and anxiety. But at other times, I think this is just a thing I tell myself.

The language theorist Kenneth Burke defined human beings as fundamentally “rotten with perfection,” by which I think he meant that we have a tendency to take things to the umpteenth degree. So when I think of writing a novel, a part of my mind insists that it be a perfect novel. And when I scale back my ambitions to, for now, only write a chapter or 500 words, or even a single sentence, I reject a thousand possibilities as insufficient before I can get myself to put down a word because they are not perfect.

It eats at me. Because, of course, I should be the perfect writer who is not stymied by such ridiculous expectations. Somewhere in the middle of the mess that is my deeply flawed humanity, somewhere *in* the anxiety, I know there’s an answer. Somewhere I know the answer isn’t being “better” but in being okay with these contradictions and finding a way to live with–and write from–them. I know the glory is right here, that I’m in it. I just need to figure out how to see it, how to release it.

Posted by: M.C. | 16 September 2010

Endless Potential

I’m discovering that one of the appeals of research is its potential endlessness. If you really want to keep from getting something done, just make a decision to research it thoroughly before you do anything else. If your mind works anything like mine (and heaven help you if it does), you will find at every turn another opportunity to explore a potentially significant bit of information. That lovely phrase “potentially significant” means the information doesn’t *have* to be significant so long as it *might* be significant. Now since just about anything *might* be significant, this means that you’re entitled to spend all day online or probing through this book or that or watching a television show or listening to music or doing anything else expect getting started on the work at hand. Which is, of course, the point.

You probably see where I’m going here: I haven’t actually written a word–literally a word–on any of the writing projects I have set for myself. I decided to announce this in the hopes that it would be sufficiently embarrassing for me so that I would get myself in gear. To be fair, I have realized about the autobiographical novel that I have a situation but nothing like the beginning of a plot. I could tell you all sorts of things about the life of this boy around whom the story revolves, but I have no significant event or events to drive any action. My plan now is to start scrounging for one. Wish me luck.

Posted by: M.C. | 8 September 2010

Uncomfortable

The other night we watched a couple of episodes of Hoarders and then the beginning of an episode of Obsessed, initially out of a morbid fascination. Though I can’t help but feel sorry for the people portrayed and their struggles, I’m sure I also feel gratitude that my life isn’t worse, no matter how convoluted or imperfect it may feel to me at times. But as I watched the other night, I couldn’t help thinking that I–and maybe all of us–share something with the deeply troubled people on these shows.

Each show begins by depicting the depths of someone’s dysfunction: piles of objects or trash on Hoarders, or the repetition of rituals and actions in Obsessed. We marvel at the intensity of their disorders, then we are introduced to the therapist who’s going to try to help them through this thicket. As the therapists begin to address the problem, we get the same reaction on both shows: anxiety. The person with the disorder, no matter how much he or she is miserable with their current life, begins to feel overwhelmed, often to the point of anger or tears or some other emotional outburst. And the more I thought about this anxiety–this common thread–the more I saw it in my own life.

I have my own desires–to write, to run, to be healthier, to be more creative–that I somehow avoid engaging in. And I have behavior–TV watching, Freecell playing–that I know consumes chunks of time that could be better spent. I do too little pursuing my desire and too much time wasting because of the same anxiety I see on those shows. Of course, my version differs drastically in degree, but I can see that anxiety forecloses or reduces my ability to live the life I’d like to live.

To be my best self, to be the person most satisfying to my sense of myself, I have to step over a threshold of discomfort. It’s easier to hold onto my current dissatisfactions and habits, however much they limit my life. They’re comfortable; they’re familiar. To be what I might be means letting go, and it’s amazing how much letting go–even of what we dislike–hurts (though I suspect it’s often the anticipation of the pain that hurts more than the pain itself).

So I’m thinking that my life needs to be a bit more uncomfortable than it is. I’m thinking I need to spend more time stepping into my anxiety, not for it’s own sake, but to find out what’s on the other side. Because I’m beginning to understand that sometimes (often?) discomfort is the only way to get where I really want to go.

Posted by: M.C. | 7 September 2010

Outside

Yesterday, because it was Labor Day, and because my two-year-old son needed some place to run around because–well, because he’s two years old–I took him to my favorite place in town. Of course, I’d forgotten it was my favorite place because when I get home from work in the evening or when I’m home during the weekends, I tend not to go outside. Four or five days a week, I do go running, but that’s usually the only thing that brings me out of doors. My wife is fond of taking our son out into the front yard of the house where we have our apartment, but I’m reluctant to join them. Maybe it’s because the yard is pretty small. Maybe it’s just inertia that sets in once my rump hits the couch. But after yesterday, I realized that something else may be going on.

When I was a boy, I spent as much time outside as my health (I had childhoom asthma) and my schoolwork would allow. Most of that time–at least in my memory–was spent alone. On the military base in Latin American where we lived for four years, I wandered beneath the jungle’s dark canopy sometimes for hours at a time. In Kansas, where I lived later, I walked along the edge of wheat fields, followed small streams, and picked my way among clusters of cottonwood trees. I’m sure that I had companions sometimes, but it’s the solitude that I recall more than anything else. That feeling is something I’ve been reluctant to share with anyone else, so rather than share it, I’ve shied away from the experience altogether.

But for some reason, walking through the park yesterday with my son was a completely different experience. It might have something to do with his lack of desire for any agenda or purpose or structure. He spent a good bit of the time simply running along the paved path. Or he searched for rocks to toss into the still pond. Or he simply sat on the ground, digging at the soil with a stick or tossing bits of gravel to make the tall grass shiver. We didn’t picnic or hike; we just wandered and walked and sat and looked up at the trees and felt the wind blow. It felt good to be outside of everything again.

Posted by: M.C. | 4 September 2010

“Just” Writing

It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be flawless. It doesn’t have to be the best thing anyone will ever do; it doesn’t have to be the best thing I’ve ever done. It doesn’t have to glitter and gleam and immediately knock the socks off of anyone who sees it. It doesn’t have to please everyone; it doesn’t have to please anyone. It doesn’t have to be smooth; it doesn’t have to be finished. It doesn’t even have to be good. It only has to be what it is, where it is, when it is, which is here, now: what I see as my eyes move around the room, what I hear when I still myself and listen. Which is: my son running around the apartment in his diaper and t-shirt, refusing to lie still so that his mother can change his diaper, denying that his diaper needs changing (even as we can watch the swell in front and at the rear), laughing as she holds and teases and tickles him. It only needs to be this; just this.

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