Friday, September 19, 2014

Uncertainty

Many years ago I was a "devotee" of The Course in Miracles. A spiritual psychotherapy, the course (when I practiced it) helped me to sidestep crises by sitting with an upset, waiting for clarity before acting. The idea behind it was that emotional triggers in the present--the things that upset or cause me anxiety--often have their roots in the past. When acting upon those misdirected feelings, well. . .hello, misery. I've been living in that place for the past few days. And this time, I am pausing, waiting for clarity, for insight, and yes, a Miracle.

I've been thinking a lot this week about the impulse that makes me take immediate action; the goal is to rid myself of discomfort, get what I want. My real aim is certainty. I want to know how things will unfold, what the other person thinks and feels, where all this is going. And so, even business dealings can sometimes resemble a romance (when this happens, game over).

Feeling uncertain is my Achilles heel. And yet, I work at a craft with so much uncertainty built in. There is never a guarantee of publication, of people liking what I write, or that after spending weeks or months on an essay, it will morph into anything I'm happy with. Yet I continue. Inside myself is a block of certainty. I write for myself, and this is available to me as long as I want it. I write because the process steadies and soothes all my uncertainties. When a business dealing goes awry--and I'm up at 2:00 a.m. (not a romance, I know)--I stare it down on the page. Maybe you, too, Dear Reader, have wrangled yourself out of a deal, or a romance, or an anything. If I think you might have, and my words touch you, then more certainty that I should keep doing what I do. 

In a few months I'll give a talk to MFA students about writing. The uncertainty of a writing career is what comes to mind and how to build a solid foundation of belief and certainty.  I want them to know that being able to write for oneself is a gift. I want to say, write with certainty, regardless of how your work is perceived. The world is fickle. Today's bestseller is on tomorrow's sale table.

Ah. . .finally I can get in something about how my watercolors are going. This week of practice was frustrating and wildly uncertain. I got stuck on a sunset landscape. I left Saturday's class believing I understood the directions and would remember the demonstration. At home, I recalled nothing. I wanted to give up when my sunset looked like a smashed sunnyside up egg. I carried on and became obsessed. It was a great distraction from uncertainty. Whether I did it well or not, there was no guarantee. Somewhere between the neatness of the one on the top and the mess on the left is what I'm aiming for.  (Later that day: the new one on the right.)

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Stories

Standing on line at Starbucks, my attention drifts to the miniature black and white cookies on the counter. I travel back to 1959, recall the window display in the bakery on Utica Avenue--the one my mother worked at--with its large, round cookies, half dark chocolate brown, the other half waxy-ivory. They were half the size of my face, yet looking back, I recall bragging that every bite I took had a bit of both flavors. I don't know how I managed it.

Now, my fingers trail the plastic wrap and press against the puffy package. I smile to myself, recognizing my sweet nostalgia, my yearning for a time that precedes the stresses of today, that precedes the knowledge of how my life would unfold.

Childhood moments, one after the other, roll into stories. There were those cookies, made so precious by our frugality, our picking and choosing what and when to devour our morsels. My mother and I--and all my delicacy jaunts involved my mother--would stroll through a specialty store, also on Utica Avenue but down a ways near Empire Boulevard. We'd buy almonds, golden raisins, chocolate covered cherries, and our most favorite--De Beukelaer wafers. They were in the shape of a Nestle's bar, long and thin, but layered with creamy chocolate and crisp wafers, to a 1/2" thickness. They were so good, we almost couldn't eat them.

My mother put the wafers in a cabinet behind the dishes --a place I would one day keep my cigarettes after I gave them up but occasionally indulged. When we were being mischievous, likely when my father was at shul and my brother, up to no good, it was time to open the cabinet, reach in for our stash. We ate gleefully, piggishly, licked our fingers, loved one another to pieces.

Ah. . .I am finally getting to the point of this post. . .stories. My second day of Eng 101 and students have returned to class, confused and lost in their assignment--come in with a few ideas for our first essay: significant childhood events. Some have lugged heavy, horrible events--the death of a parent, an abortion, being bullied, robbed at knife point. Others are empty--I'm only 18, not much has happened yet. I tell them, stories are everywhere, every second. I tell them about buying coffee and noticing the cookies, the place I traveled to. They look at me blankly.

The story before me is that I don't always know how to reach my students. I listen to their groans; a student pushes, Well, tell us what to do. I don't want to make a wash of the assignment. Struggle and frustration are good. I walk around the room and look at each person's event; every single one is begging for a story. And so what they feel (I think) is insecure. I reassure them, and we move on.

Later I take my own insecurity to my next class. No one has a problem with the assignment. And so it goes.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Back to basics

Yesterday was class #1 in my 2nd round of beginner watercolor. After my summer romance with painting, I dropped my brushes and picked up where I'd left off last May: a full schedule of English classes. I took apart my studio (otherwise known as the kitchen). Prepared syllabi, notebooks, texts, and felt huge waves of anxiety.

For a few days it was reassuring to eat at a clean table and have an external sense of order. I needed that; when my insides are battling out something or other, I organize my outer world. But after a week, I felt a deep loss. I thought the end of summer had made me sad. Then a student asked, "How is your painting going?"

Ah...my painting. "It's not," I told him, reflecting on my kitchen, not a drop of cadmium yellow to be found. "I stopped."

"You what? You went against everything you tell us?" he asked. 

I agreed, feeling shame. "Yes. . .but I'm taking a class in a few days. I'll get it back."

I wasn't sure at first what he meant by "went against everything you tell us." I had stopped doing something that had given me joy. My students, for the most part, don't get joy out of writing. I had stopped practicing. . .became undisciplined. . .lost sight of my goals.Was that what he meant? Could be.

I spent three hours in class, centered in the present moment. Every word about paint/water ratio that the teacher said was necessary to hear; every brushstroke (light/heavy, flat/pointed), imperative to see. A friend had complimented my "dry brush" technique. Technique? I hadn't meant for that at all. I needed to find out: why was my brush dry, when filled with paint and (I thought) water?

At home, I compromised. Half my table is set up again. Pad, palette, brushes, water containers. The other half? Impeccable. And just like that, it's back, my painting pleasure. (And, mercifully, less time to obsess about why I'm not obsessing on FB.)
 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Reevaluating

A few days ago I tuned into an interview on the Leonard Lopate Show: David Zweig discussed his book, Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self Promotion. He spoke of people (like the perfumer behind the famous brands) working for the value of process (and, of course, a paycheck).  Hearing that felt appropo to where I am: wondering if external approval has become too important to me. My few months' foray into Facebook underscored that. When I post a review and people "like" it or comment, my happiness barometer shoots up. When I'm ignored, yuck. . .do I even exist? Damn FB.

I've chosen an odd time in terms of publicity to opt out of the crowd, to balance myself. I just received a review I'm very proud of. I'm in discussion with a small press to republish The Ambivalent Memoirist. It's more than I dreamed for my book. I want to trumpet my news, get applause. I relay it here, yes. . .and I do feel gratified doing so. But I have far fewer blog-readers than FB friends. And here I provide context (or, at least, try), aim for insight.

FB is not like this for everyone, and this is not a commentary on social media. It is a statement of FB and me. I'm one of those people who became dependent on the FB hit. The adrenaline rush that fueled me when someone "liked" something I posted. I had "conversations" that didn't require I put on something decent, make plans, leave the apartment, travel somewhere--not a bad thing, but not always good. I was impulsive in my messaging (although email has lead to similar destructions). I posted embarrassing tidbits, i.e. not enough people buying my book, a friend criticizing it (rather than having an intimate interaction with her), another hurt feeling here and there. I squirmed at myself.

I'm taking time away; in a Yogic-way, I'm pausing. Redefining what virtual living means, opening up the doors on living plain. I'll read Zweig's book and remember when I began my life as a writer. Process was Joy, a hundred times over. Even when writing was pain, it was joy. And then I got published. I experienced the wild rush when an editor or agent came calling. I fell down when they didn't. I went back to process, with a part of myself yearning for accolades.


Ok. There is another FB. . .problem. . .shall we say? The checking. People from thirty years ago. An errant ex-husband, boyfriends gone missing. Awful feelings churn inside me. There lives look so wonderful. I lose sight of myself.  It's Day four off FB. I wonder about my "friends"--what they're reading, where they're dining, traveling, feeling. I'll see how it goes living in just one universe.  

Saturday, August 30, 2014

So long to facebook

I deactivated my Facebook account. I need a break; I don't want to know what people I don't know are doing. In twelve-step meetings they have an expression: Keep the focus on yourself. While many say that FB is all me me me, but really, it is you you you.
And so I've taken a pause, put the relationships on hold.

I click into FB as thoughtlessly as I used to light up a cigarette. My cigarette however, while deadly in the long run, made me comfortable. It was a shield between me and all of life's tremors. FB is not deadly but is discomfitting. It brings me up close to people, thoughts, rants, photos that are funny or disturbing or make me envious, or once in a while, teach me something (which is great, but the envy part is just too yucky. Ditto to all that time slipping away.)

I don't have much to post, usually an article I like from the Times, sometimes book news. As it happens, a few hours after deactivating FB, I received a great book review I would have posted. Look at me, the headline should have (but wouldn't have) said: Aren't I something? No. I would have said: "Dear friends, please share my happiness. . ."  and thus receive the Facebook-hit, because in truth, that post would have made me feel like something. . .for awhile.

I picture all my FB friends who live inside my computer. Some are real. We see one another, talk on the phone, have friendships in the actual world. Most aren't. They'll go on without me, not even miss me. So far, and I know it's been but a few hours, it's nice to have my precious time back. It's nice to live away from the crowd, to be private. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Salvation

My writing life remains in limbo. Instead of putting fingertips to keyboard this summer, defining myself in black and white, I picked up my painter's brush and cadmium red, Prussian blue, phthalo green. The beauty of watercolor painting, besides exquisite color, is that I have no attachment to the goal. No expectations other than slowly improving, making something pretty.

I never imagined I would put writing away for awhile (time as yet undetermined). I never thought I could find that kind of joy and expression elsewhere. In a review of my book by Publisher's Weekly this phrase might explain it: ". . .writing as art and psychological salvation." And so I explain this new affinity for painting as such: I'm salvaged.

Well. . .more precisely, feelings that overtook me have been tamed. By giving them shape in the form of an essay or memoir or blog post, then sharing them, they no longer have their way with me. There is great satisfaction in publication, but the act of writing was my necessity. The need was what drove me.

Be a voice, I tell my students. You can make a difference. In my very idealistic teacher-way, I'm telling them they can change the world. But I forget to relay, writing can change them. This summer I changed in a different way; I was less a voice than a color, rather colors! Tubes of paint spread across my kitchen table, deemed "my artist's studio."

Later today (it is 3:40 a.m.!) real life will beckon with its need for Fall semester preparation. Ah. . .chaos will ensue. At some point I will paint it out in dioxazine purple.





 

Monday, July 28, 2014

External rewards

My book received an awesome review from Publisher's Weekly. I felt so heady after reading it, I left my apartment, as if my brain couldn't be contained within these walls. I called a friend and read the review to her; sharing my joy and being out in the air made my high manageable. Today I'm reflecting on another friend's dilemma: a recent book contract he received didn't make him happy. Will I ever be happy? he asked.

Sigh. Life moves through and around me. When I received my review I was lifted up from my mundane experiences. That was a few days ago. Now, so much has and hasn't happened--social-life inertia, crazy world events, at my college more unpaid work time is being required (and the word "illegal" roars through my brain)--can anyone keep a steady pace of "happy," especially when it comes from an external reward? My guess is no. Unless that is, those rewards keep coming, one building to another and another--but even then, eventually there will be a lull. Then what? 

A New York Times article by Kate Murphy, "No Time to Think," says Americans are hyper busy. When they're not, they're absorbed by their gadgets. No one is thinking, and it seems that's how they want it. Thinking brings the dreaded, feelings. I gaze outside my windows into a courtyard and thinking time stretches before me. I have few gadgets. The TV and radio are off. A mess of feelings make themselves known--but I am a super-feeling kind of person. They don't scare me.

Below is the best of last week's painting class. The class was frustrating (once again), and after one hour of struggling to paint a nude model, I gave up. I played with colors, painted flowers, hearts, dogs. When the teacher walked by, I hid my work. I once again have deeper understanding of my students who drift away when they don't get the assignment.

Tomorrow night is my last class. No hearts, flowers, dogs, unless they're what we're supposed to do (doubtful).