New album out May 21. Something to enjoy in the meantime:
New album out May 21. Something to enjoy in the meantime:
That title comes from something friend and poet Cindy Beebe said to me in a recent e-mail, and it refers to the hopeful, painful process of writing and submitting work to editors, contests, and the like in hopes of publication. In another e-mail conversation about this topic, poet B.H. Fairchild once told me that sending off your poems is like sending your children to Bible camp and trying not to care very much whether or not they ever come back. Whenever I send something out, which has been a rare occurrence in the past year, what comes to mind is a scene I once saw from an episode of a Japanese game show that used to air on TV called Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, in which contestants subject themselves to physical humiliation for entertainment. I’m not sure what made me stop in my channel surfing that day (a slightly lurid, juvenile fascination, most likely), but the bit I saw was a ‘challenge’ that began with contestants having to run full tilt at a series of doorways covered in paper. Some doorways only had paper and others had solid doors behind the paper and, depending on which door they picked, the contestants either leapt successfully through to the other side or were flung back from a painful collision with a closed door.
That’s what submitting work feels like to me–running full tilt at paper covered doorways and knowing that perhaps only one of the many doorways before me is paper, while the rest have solid, unyielding wood behind their thin veneer that is going to smack me hard and send me flying back. So why run at all? This is a question I’ve had to give some serious thought to as I enter the final stretch of my novel revision and begin to contemplate beginning the process of querying agents, which will expand the number of solidly blocked doorways exponentially. On a more obvious and practical level, the answer is that it’s impossible to get published without going through this process. Nearly every time I go to a writing conference or workshop or read an interview, some successful author or poet is sharing just how often they have been rejected in the past. What is surprising is how many still get rejected currently, even with an established pedigree. The reality is that more gets written than there is room for, and editors and what they’re looking for always has an element of personal subjectivity to it. Publication isn’t just about how talented you are–it’s also a good deal about how hardy you are.
Such inescapable reality still doesn’t answer the deeper question, though. Why try for publication? Part of it is, of course, ego and vanity. We all (and this is true of every person on the planet–not just writers) think we are special in some way and long for the world to finally recognize this specialness and validate us. Part of it is also the nature of the product. If you spend a few weeks building a bookcase, at the end, you have a bookcase that’s solid, visible, and real. If you spend a few weeks or months (or years) working on a piece of writing, the product is somehow less tangible. Yes, there is a visible product, and yes you can share it with your friends and family and even post it on a blog that maybe 10 or 15 people will read. But somehow it lacks that same end-product tangibility that other endeavors have. Like the tree-falling-in-the-forest conundrum, one might ask: if a written work has no one–or only a very limited audience–to read it, does it have value?
Which leads to another part of why we introverted, overly-sensitive, risk-averse writers might still find flinging ourselves at wooden doors worthwhile–we want to tell the truth and we want others to share in that truth, however small it might be. We’ve all had those moments where we’ve read something so beautiful in its truth that it feels as though the author or poet has reached into us and plucked a string inside our heart and set it thrumming. It’s that thrill of recognition, the deep yes or amen, and the natural response for those of us who write is to try and write our own truth and hope that someone else, ideally lots of someones, will one day read it and experience that same deep resonance and response. This is true for all people, really. Everyone wants their life and work to matter and have significance. We are all longing for a chorus of amen.
But there is risk involved. There is pain and disappointment and discouragement, and what I fear most is not being able to endure long enough. That I will fling myself at only so many doors before walking away. And that is where my friend Cindy’s line is such an encouraging and important reminder. In whatever endeavor we are striving through or towards, we are not alone. We are all in this brutal dance together.
Several years ago, the school where I work instituted an ‘advisement’ period twice a week, in which teachers could conference individually with students about their progress in school, distribute information from the counselors, and so on. I started with a group of freshmen, about half of whom were failing at least one class (many of them multiple classes) by the end of first quarter. When I asked each of them why they were failing a class, I was astonished by how many of them answered, “I don’t like it.” It wasn’t that they found the class too difficult or that they were scared to ask the teacher for help. They simply didn’t like the class, and therefore they didn’t do any of the work. Their decision-making was based entirely on whether something gratified them in the moment. If it didn’t, then it was not worth their time or effort, regardless of the consequences. In fact, it took quite a bit of persuasion throughout the year to make some of them see that a reluctance to run a mile in P.E. was a pretty dumb reason not to graduate from high school.
As surprised as I was by my students’ perspective, it actually makes sense that they would function this way given our culture at large, which creates celebrities out of people with no discernible talent or virtue (often the exact opposite of that–we seem to reward the most debased and dysfunctional members of society with our attention); in which people applaud themselves for having found the easiest and shortest way to attaining something, regardless of the lack of ethics or the harm it’s done; in which we have so many options for gratification that experiences have become disposable. Hard work is for chumps.
Even those of us who recognize how problematic that worldview is struggle. Some of the things I love most and recognize as the most meaningful are the hardest for me to sit down and actually do on a regular basis. They are not instant gratification pursuits. They are hard, and I have to fight myself constantly to engage in them instead of checking my e-mail one more time or going on Facebook or watching TV or rooting around in my refrigerator for something to snack on even though I’m not hungry. But there is something good about having some drudgery, or at least drudgery with a purpose. There is something good about the Me being humbled by the work of something that’s bigger and more important, that takes time and discipline and thus quiets the Me’s demands. I resist it, but I know I need it. Which is why I’m thankful for reminders like this:
Last week I read this article about how today’s college students think more highly of themselves than ever, but don’t actually perform as well as they think they do. Aside from confirming the doom-and-gloom comments about “students today” that I hear from fellow teachers (and, I’ll admit, pronounce myself when I’ve had a bad day), it made me reflect on my own college experience, which was the exact opposite of what’s cited in this latest study.
As the youngest child in my family, I grew up with three older siblings who were (and still are, for the most part) highly intelligent and highly accomplished. As in, they won pretty much every academic award/recognition/prize in every subject at every grade level it was possible to win. My two oldest siblings also are gifted pianists, which my middle brother could have also been had he not quit piano to excel at sports instead. Oh, and win a few writing contests on the side when he wasn’t creating short stop-action animation films. Needless to say, I knew early on that I was way behind, and struggling mightily in subjects like math and physics and scoring significantly lower than my siblings on the SAT (even with the help of that prep class my mother sent me to), not to mention AP tests, only confirmed this early conclusion. I saw myself as just an ok student with ok abilities. I won some awards too, but they didn’t really count stacked up against the family legacy. To be clear, my family was always supportive of me and I can’t remember a single time my parents ever said I should be more like someone else in the family. But somehow I still became convinced that I did not measure up.
This only became magnified when I went to college. At Wellesley, I was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of students who were just like my siblings: impressively intelligent, accomplished, and talented in all sorts of ways. On the one hand, this was a wonderful and extremely positive experience. In addition to learning from my professors, I got to be around all kinds of amazing people my own age, including the friends I made at MIT, where my middle brother was studying. I got to experience and be enriched by their thinking and creativity and talents. I loved being in college, but at the same time, I was haunted by the feeling that I was constantly on the verge of failure and/or of being revealed as a fraud who did not belong in this company and/or being asked by the college authorities to pack up my things and go. And this made me work harder than I ever had before in my life. It also made me very quiet in class. I had more than a couple professors ask me why I never spoke in class. I usually responded with an ambiguous shrug, but the answer is quite simple–I thought I would sound dumb compared to everyone else.
About five days before graduation, we received a printout of our final transcripts. I remember seeing my grades all listed in a row and thinking, “Hey, these aren’t bad!” Then I saw the words “magna cum laude” at the top right. I didn’t know what that meant, so I asked a friend down the hall. I was utterly shocked when she told me. I was also utterly disoriented. It was the first time it had ever occurred to me that I was actually a good student.
In the years following graduation, I found myself deeply regretting the level of fear and anxiety I had throughout my college years. Not only had it caused me a tremendous amount of stress, but because I had felt so inferior, I missed out on the opportunity to really engage in class discussions, talk to professors, and explore certain options (like internships and graduate school) I had automatically dismissed because I didn’t think I would qualify. Boo, fear!!
At the same time, I’ve come to realize that this fear and insecurity is also a big part of why I excelled, and it’s a pattern that has repeated, to a certain extent, in many other areas of my life. I think on some level, I am always looking at people who do something better than I do and feeling an urge to try to improve. I know I’m not alone in this either. Since my own revelatory moment that last week of college, I’ve made a point of asking friends who are highly accomplished how they perceive themselves, and the large majority of them share a similar story. These friends have mostly been women, so this also makes me wonder if this is particular to women or if accomplished men have a similar disjunct between their perceived and actual abilities. I’ll have to conduct a study on that in some other life.
In the meantime, it makes me wonder about this connection between fear and accomplishment. On the surface of things, fear seems to work very effectively at making at least some people very successful. But what is the point of excelling if you never get to enjoy or actually feel that you are doing well? Oddly enough, I don’t want to lose all of my fear–I think I need a little edge of unease to keep me sharp, to keep me questioning. But I wouldn’t mind meeting some of today’s over-confident college youth somewhere in the middle.
Every year we re-tell the story: a baby born in a manger, shepherds in the field. We sing songs. We light candles. We put figurines on the mantle. It is such a familiar story that we forget how strange it really is. How completely—at least on the surface of things—irrational. How illogical. The God of the universe, the God outside space and time as we know it, beginning the redemption of all creation in the most vulnerable and dependent of ways—as a baby. And a baby born not in the middle of the day, but in the middle of the night. God physically entered this world in the midst of darkness. I find that detail significant.
Six months after my mother died of cancer, I stopped by my parents’ house to drop off some groceries for my father and found him lying on his bed, unresponsive. He was breathing, just barely, but I could not rouse him. And then I found the suicide note. I called 911 and the paramedics came and an ambulance and the police to question me about the circumstances of his overdose. At the hospital, I sat in the waiting room with everyone else until someone came out and summoned me through the double doors separating patients from their anxious families. When I asked about my father, she wouldn’t answer. She just said the doctor would come talk to me shortly and put me in an office the size of a closet and shut the door.
In that tiny office, the sounds of the ER were muffled to the point that I could hear a clock on the desk ticking slowly and steadily. I was fairly certain the doctor was going to come tell me that my father was dead. Why else would they sequester me like this? And in that time of waiting, which seemed like an eternity, I both felt and literally was more acutely alone than I have ever been in my life. My mother was gone, dead of a rare and excruciating form of cancer, and now either my father was also dead or, at the very least, ill in a manner he might never recover from. I had called my siblings on the drive to the hospital and two were on their way, but they both lived on the east coast and wouldn’t be with me until late that night. Whatever was happening in the moment, I was facing alone. And yet, I wasn’t alone. As I sat listening to that clock ticking, I was acutely aware of Jesus waiting with me. That awareness was as vivid and intense as my feelings of aloneness. Which makes no logical sense. But truth isn’t always logical.
My awareness of God’s presence did not make me feel any better. I didn’t experience any cocoon of warmth or protection from the anguish and horror of those moments. But even in the midst of the awfulness, even though I felt so alone and so devastated, I knew with a certainty I could not even have begun to fabricate for myself that God was with me. I wasn’t praying. I was too traumatized to pray. I was also too angry. Not just angry, I was filled with a cold fury at God. Hadn’t we been through enough? How could this happen? I wanted no part of God. So I just sat, deadened, despairing, and fully aware of God sitting and waiting with me until the doctor finally opened the door and told me they had managed to stabilize my father for now and were moving him up to the ICU.
I’ve thought about my time in that little closet office on many occasions in the years since. For some Christians, their testimony of and certainty in Christ involves personal encounters with him that involve dramatic and deeply felt transformations, either internally or externally or both. And many, I think, are attracted to Christ in the hope that he will rescue them from pain and loss and fear. There are times when he does offer that. But on many occasions, Christ’s presence in our lives does not offer an escape from suffering, but a commitment from him to enter into the midst of that suffering with us. To walk us through the valley of the shadow of death. That has been my experience—not an absence of pain but the certainty that God will never be absent from my pain. That he will never forsake me even when I feel utterly alone. Even when I bitterly reject him.
We don’t need light during the day time. We only have need of it in the dark. And that is when Jesus came. That is when he still comes. That is the Christmas story. Mary, Joseph, the animals, the shepherds, and the illogical and necessary truth that hope can be born in the deepest part of the night.
That title comes from a Jane Kenyon poem entitled “Twilight: After Haying.” In the penultimate stanza, she writes “the soul’s bliss / and suffering are bound together / like the grasses…” This illustrates a conundrum many (myself included) have wrestled with throughout the ages–namely, our seeming inability to experience true beauty and connection without the dark contrast of loss. Or, as the old cliché goes, we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone–or at least until there’s some kind of threat to it. As Emily plaintively asks the Stage Manager towards the end of the play Our Town, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” To which the Stage Manager answers, “No,” though he amends this to “The saints and poets. Maybe they do some.” This inability is, perhaps, an outcome of our fallen human condition. We are constantly losing sight of what matters until some kind of suffering or loss gets us back on track. That’s a bit depressing–except for the beauty and the radically deepened awareness that sorrow and loss can initiate.
Nature models this for us in the layers of rich hues painting the sky before the sun drops into darkness, the vivid flame of autumn leaves before they drop to the ground and crumble. A friend of mine whose husband is battling prostate cancer wrote to me about all the tiny details she was noticing and relishing while sitting next to him in the hospital after he had surgery–the softness of the hairs on his arm, the smell of his neck, the blue of his eyes. Another friend whose mother died this past summer played Bach trios (one of her mother’s favorite composers) with her brother and a friend for hours on that final day, filling the house with music; she told me through tears later that night how the beauty of that experience was something she could not even begin to put into words. She was sobbing but she was also full of joy, a combination of emotions I was familiar with, having experienced my own taste of beauty in anguish in the last days of my mother’s life, when my family gathered around her bed, laid hands on her, and sang all her favorite hymns. It’s the anguished joy of Mary, pouring fragrant oil on the feet of Jesus and washing them with her hair.
The reality is that all of our time with those we love is precious remaining time, but so often we don’t realize that until the loss becomes tangible, until it surrounds us. So yes, it’s sad that beauty must so often be accompanied by sorrow and loss. But what consolation that sorrow and loss are so entangled in beauty.
Yesterday, as I was scrambling some eggs, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” came on the classical radio station I listen to every morning. Usually the station plays Ravel’s orchestral version, but yesterday they aired it in its original form–played by a single pianist–which is, by far, my favorite version. It’s my favorite in part because all of that intensity and richness coming out of a single instrument is somehow more majestic and dramatic to me than when it’s dispersed throughout an orchestra. But it’s also my favorite because it conjures up memories of one of my most intense ‘celebrity’ crushes growing up.
While all the other girls at my junior high were swooning over Duran Duran and putting up posters of Simon Le Bon, I was enthralled by an Irish concert pianist named Barry Douglas. He was the winner of the Tchaikovsky competition in 1986, which was aired in a documentary on PBS that my family watched together after dinner one evening. Both of my parents loved classical music, and all four of us kids took piano lessons. For a number of years we had two pianos in the house just so we could all fit in the hours of practicing required–one in the living room, and one shoved between my sister’s and my bunkbed and the closet. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized growing up with a piano in your bedroom wasn’t exactly the norm.
Someone was always practicing piano at my house, and very often two of us were at the same time, which I would use to my advantage whenever I could manage to be the one practicing in the back bedroom. I would prop whatever novel I was currently engrossed in on the music stand and keep reading while I played scales and arpeggios over and over. It usually took awhile for anyone to catch on and bust me (yes, my rebellious behavior growing up was reading books when I was supposed to be working on my piano technique). One of the things I missed the most when my older siblings went off to college was hearing them on the piano, working through the same passage over and over until it flowed (my mother shouting comments from the kitchen where she was making dinner–”Ugh, that was so sloppy!” and later “Beautiful!”). I can’t even begin to count the number of nights I fell asleep listening to someone playing the piano.
So, all of that to say that the Tchaikovsky Competition (beat the Russians at their own game in their own country!) was a very big deal. There were a lot of engaging and appealing contestants featured in the documentary, but Barry was first in my heart from the beginning. There were several rounds in the competition, the finale being Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto, which was played by every single one of the finalists. This is the piece he won with and this is the work he recorded in his first major recording after the competition (which I bought on cassette tape as soon as it was released). But the performance I’ll never forget is the one earlier in the competition where he played Mussorgsky. Here he is, in all of his twitchy, sweaty, handsome, masterful glory–owning this piece like nobody’s business and, in turn, winning the heart of a nerdy seventh grader in braces and thick glasses:
I’ve been sitting here, staring at a blank screen and blinking cursor for several minutes now, trying to figure out how and where to start writing this entry. Partly, it’s because I am near-stupid with fatigue, and partly it’s because I just got a whiff of something vaguely mildew-ish as I was walking down my hallway and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve been getting these faint whiffs on and off for awhile now, and even after thorough investigations that may have involved my crawling on the floor and sniffing the floor and baseboards like a bloodhound, I am unable to find the source of said smell. It just wafts through the air at random times like some spirit sent to torment me.
A friend has suggested that since my house is on a raised foundation, it could be that water is somehow getting under the house and not draining properly, and this is what’s causing my issue. This seems a very likely possibility to me. It also seems like a complicated and expensive one. I don’t even know who I would call to address this. So for now I am pretending that this issue doesn’t exist and it will magically resolve itself if I just ignore it enough, which I am successful at about 70% of the time. Then the whiffs come and I am sent into a tailspin of anxiety and re-tracing my options until I come to the same conclusion that I can’t (or don’t want to) deal with it right now.
Strange smells are not the only thing complicating my writing practice. In the last month, I have made some small progress in my novel revision and even managed to knock out a couple drafts of poems, but the two words that could best describe my writing practice lately would be “sparse” and “sporadic.” This is mainly because I started a new school year the last week of August and am back to working 9-hour days. This might not seem that momentous considering lots of people work 9-hour days, but for me it kind of is because by the time I get home from said workday, I am often a wreck–physically exhausted and usually experiencing a modest to significant amount of pain. Which means my brain isn’t working so well either. This is partly because teaching English at a public high school with large classes (typically between 35-40 each) is an extremely time- and energy-consuming job. But it’s also because of something else that I’ve been doing my best to ignore and pretend doesn’t really affect me. I have fibromyalgia, and with every passing year–especially the last couple years–it’s become almost impossible to ignore. The whiffs are getting stronger.
I’ve heard all the same stories everyone else has about writers who have juggled crazy lives, working multiple jobs and/or raising multiple children, all the while carving out time to write at 4:00 in the morning or working late into the night and surviving on 4 hours’ sleep in order to pursue their passion. The message is, if you want it badly enough, you can make it happen. This is true in many ways, and because of this mostly true idea, I have been wracked with guilt. If I really wanted to write regularly, I would make it happen. Ergo, I must not really want it. But I do. It makes me incredibly sad when two or more days go by and I haven’t done any writing/revision. It’s depressing. I pine. And then I clobber myself with the conviction that I must not want it enough or really be serious about writing or I would be making it happen.
But being a good teacher these days (which is also something I have a passion for) uses me up to the point where I come home some evenings so tired that I have to really think about whether it’s worth expending the energy to take the pre-washed lettuce out of the bag and put it into a bowl. Which leads me to this profound and probably already-obvious-to-everyone-else conclusion: sometimes wanting something isn’t enough. Sometimes you can truly love and long for something and life circumstances just don’t allow it.
Oddly enough, this is a relief to me. It means I don’t have to keep feeling horrible about feeling horrible. It means that instead of trying to strive for some impossible and unachievable perfect balance, in which I am doing all the work necessary to be a good teacher AND to be a good writer AND taking care of my house AND overcoming my physical limitations through sheer force of will, I can have some bad days. I can start to come to terms with the reality I’m living in and focus on what does work even with my limitations. What I am able to achieve even though it’s not as much as I might like. And, most importantly of all, I can truthfully claim that writing is deeply important to me, even if some weeks all I can manage is a half hour on Saturday.
This is hard, because most days I still want to do it all. But sometimes, I just can’t.