It’s how the light gets in

Sometimes it’s hard to write in this blog, considering how personal it can be. Really hard to write. I agonize over what I should share and what I shouldn’t. When you write, there is a fine line as to what is self-exploitation and what is getting the story told. The story really doesn’t care much about the writer. It just uses us, day and night, until it is told, or it kills us. So, there is some debate. Sometimes I overshare.

The other day I watched a Brenee Brown YouTube where she says, “Vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability.” That’s just a smack in the face with a cold fish to hear someone put it that way. I think of some of my favorite pieces of literature. The books Unbroken, or Wild, or the poetry of Leonard Cohen, Pablo Neruda, Silvia Plath, or countless melancholy bands that I love to listen to on a dark night when the rain is tapping on the windows. TV shows like Fleabag, movies like Good Will Hunting, the Razor’s Edge, or so many others.

I have to gauge what my boundaries are. I’ve read several Townsend and Cloud books. There’s nothing in there about how to set boundaries for a writer. I don’t share everything on the page, and often the words I put down are done to serve the story. Though at times, the details and the emotions may seem exploitative. It’s a form of expression. A very deep and intimate one you share with your readers–whether or not you know them. Someone close to me once told me that I needed to write unafraid. To keep telling the story.

So I’m going to share a story. It’s a love story.

It was probably one of the last beautiful nights of the summer. Nobody uses the phrase Indian Summer anymore, not only because of how sensitive everyone has become about being culturally sensitive, but also because the last two years has made the change in seasons pretty much meaningless. It was a cool night, but not cold. I pulled a kitchen chair onto the sidewalk in front of my apartment. I put on my fedora and my recent playlist and lit up a cigar which I smoked until long past sunset.

A couple summers ago, this was a ritual for a Friday night with someone I was dating. She introduced me to cigars and it is one of the bad habits I don’t regret. What other vice forces you to sit down for 45 minutes to an hour and just do nothing else. It is meditative. Which is often what I do as I draw the fragrant smoke into my mouth and exhale it as phantasmagoric tendrils of white smoke into the night air. It is therapeudic.

She and I used to sit in front of the firepit, sipping whiskey or wine, eating cheese, smoking cigars, and just chatting about life. Our relationship lasted only about nine months. It took me a long time to get over her. I had friends who sat with me in that grief and made me feel safe. They reminded me that I was worthy of being loved, even if she was gone. Someone who loved me so hard, but still left.

That night, I thought of her clearly for the first time in almost a year. Gone was the grief. It was laid bare and I missed only the company we shared. I have had no desire to seek her out for over a year. I held up my drink and toasted her. I felt gratitude for those moments and was happy to remember them. I wished her happiness and hoped she too was enjoying a night like this, maybe with a man she was in love with, or her big family, or maybe just by herself. I still carry a love for her inside my heart, without feeling that pull of regret for things having ended.

The next day was rough.

I need to finish work on the house and I have been procrastinating. It’s almost like a feeling that if I finish it, I won’t have anything left to distract me from my problems. Upcoming court hearings, work, relationships, family, etc. The house has been good for distraction, but I’m at a point where I have only a few things left. Right now I see only the flaws of a DIYer. I still see a lot of work ahead of me. Which eventually needs to be done.

I drove to get supplies. It beat sitting in the house with my thoughts and worries and pieces of my life which I feel like I have been holding onto like sand. The tighter you squeeze, the more slips through your fingers. Not even the three hour round trip could ease my racing mind. Nothing seems to help. Not alcohol or binge watching TV shows or playing hours of fetch with the dog.

I haven’t been sleeping lately. Last night I got two hours of sleep. I’ve been shaky and not wanting to be social at all. (Posting this will be the end of a two day self-imposed communications blackout.) My cough is back again. So I took a nap, or tried to.

It was in the liminal space between sleep and being awake that I realized a lesson I was on the verge of learning on that last night of summer. Nobody asks us to love them or stop loving them. Love doesn’t mean getting your way. It offers no guarantees. It is not something that allows you to control someone or make them feel shame that they don’t love you enough or in the way you might expect.

That isn’t how it works.

It wakes you up in the morning. It sings and rocks you to sleep. It keeps you close when everything feels like it has cracked and broken. It sends pens to scratching on the surface of notebook pages, bleeding out ink like blood onto the page. It calms you down and helps you breathe. It can also kill you if you hold it in, just as sure as an anuerism.

In its truest form, love lasts long after we are gone. When everything else has broken down and been washed away, it stands on its own. It doesn’t demand anything. It doesn’t incite jealousy. It allows you to recapture joy from a single moment sometimes that meant something. It’s enough to push back the night that feels so cold and endless. Whether it is hearing the laughter of a baby who is grown up and gone away, or a first kiss and long embrace of a lover, or a grandmother fussing at you as she cooked you bacon, or a pet who never left your side when you were sick, it is always going to be with you.

It is stronger than we give it any credit for being. It is like gravity. It never goes away when it is real, no matter how much we might wish we could forsake it. Like a story, it is independent of ourselves, though we can draw upon it. It outlives us because we pass on the love we have to others and they get to carry it with them.

I’ve heard the phrase “It takes a while to unlove somebody.” I don’t think this is possible. We just let the grief teach us something, but we can never unlove someone once we have loved them.

Ring the bells that still ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack
a crack in everything
It’s how the light gets in
It’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen, Anthem

That crack is what happens when we grow. It hurts. It sucks. And it feels like it’s going to kill us. But the love we receive is the light that gets in. We get to keep it, even if the ones who brought it are gone. Until we are ready to give it to someone else.

So, when I think of what Brenee Brown said about boundaries and vulnerability, I probably should have just kept this revelation to myself. But if it sets just one person’s mind at ease and gets them through a rough patch like the ones I’ve had lately, I’m prepared to argue that with Ms. Brown. And with me will stand every poet, artist, writer, musician, and anyone else who has ever expressed the abundance of feeling from that cracked vessel they call their hearts.

I guess the right you have to sharing this story with me is that you are here and you are reading. Even if some might consider it oversharing.

The moment you let love in is a moment when you feel at peace. I hope this helps.

Thank you.

Sometimes you have to be bad at something to get good

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I my original idea for what to do when I grew up was to be an illustrator. It took one course in college to derail that. Because of that class, I hadn’t picked up a drawing pencil in…a very long time. The other day, I was given a set of pencils and a fresh pad of drawing paper as a birthday present.

There is nothing more daunting than an empty page. Whether it is writing or drawing, the empty page represents endless possibilities. You could fill that blankness with literally anything you can create. And sometimes you just freeze when presented with the opportunity.

I know that sometimes my reluctance to write is based on a streak of perfectionism. I know that a lot of the time, I can write very well. Sometimes I write too well. I can’t shut up. Because of the ease that writing has taken in recent years, I’ll be honest and say that really it’s not that good. It’s not as good as it could be. So, sometimes, I struggle with sitting down and putting the words and thoughts down because I know it could be better. It’s not going to be perfect. It’s going to be passable, it might resonate with some semblance of brilliance, but really it’s just jabber. Editing is what might give it a chance at being okay. But why edit when you can just keep writing?

So, the drawing set…

I haven’t drawn almost at all in 26 years. Other than a brief flirtation with watercolors (and they sucked) I haven’t drawn anything. So, I’ve been trying to make myself sit down and at least sketch something every once in a while. Jeez, it is hard.

If I had an excuse, I would have to say that my job at the university gave me ADHD. Anytime I was in the middle of doing something, somebody would come into the office and I had to stop everything to chat with them. It didn’t help that we had the only windows looking out into the hall and outside in the entire building. Any sort of movement meant it could be another walk-in or student or professor needing help. So, you threw on the brakes and did your actual job between contacts. There was also the matter of working in the office lobby in an open environment, which usually meant anytime a co-worker saw something on the internet, you had to give it your attention. Cat videos, gossip articles, the forecast. It’s a wonder I got anything accomplished.

So, when I sit to draw something I have a list of problems.

  • My skillset: I’m not anywhere near how I used to be. I fight the technique. I get discouraged.
  • My attention: For example, I took a break from doing a sketch to write this.
  • What to draw: I don’t even know what to draw anymore. If I’m going to take an hour out of my day to do something, it ought to be worth it, right?
  • My confidence: Anything I draw is going to suck and therefore it is a waste of my time.
  • Frustration: Sometimes it’s palpable.

These are all excuses to stop.

But here’s the reasons I keep doing it. I can actually feel parts of my brain that haven’t been used in years getting a workout. Yes, my technique is beyond rusty. It is corroded. Probably just a step away from being dust but it can only get better.

It increases my level of patience, not only with the art, but with myself. I’m forced to take the time to do something that doesn’t come easily. I’m forced to pay attention and work through a problem and I can feel pathways in my brain reconnecting. I’m forced to just be still and work through it.

I don’t know if it is getting any easier every time I try to do it. I do know that I’ve forgotten so much. I remember some basics. Darker pencils for things that are closer. Just work through it and draw what you see. Sometimes there is more erasing than drawing.

Anyway, I want to keep at it. But when you aren’t immediately good at something, it can be difficult to keep working at it. I don’t plan on being an illustrator anymore. I just want to reconnect with a different artform that isn’t just writing. It’s something I have missed yet something I am still interested in.

These days we live in a world that equates value with how much money you can make on doing it. I think we’ve limited ourselves so much in this. Sometimes there is just the joy of doing something and that is the reward. We monetized joy and I think that is wrong.

So, I’m going to keep sucking at art. If I improve, then I hope I can appreciate how far I’ve come. If not, at least it is relaxing. I guess this is one of those “hobbies” I keep hearing about. I haven’t had one in a long time. Not one that I hadn’t planned on making my life’s passion.

Sometimes you just have to do something for yourself. Even if you are terrible at it. The drawing set was not something I asked for, but as it turns out, it was something I have needed.

The mark of other

Have you ever wondered what propels certain people to create things artistically?  Whether it is visual arts, writing, music, or any other form of madness which some feel compelled to create out of nothing, something has driven these people to work and rework something until it takes on a life of its own.  Any art is a form of expression, usually gathering details from the world around them, and trying to make sense of it.  

As far as you can go back, people have done this.  In early times when some where struggling to not starve to death, or not be trampled by a giant animal they were hunting with a spear, one of their clan looked up at the starry sky and figured there was some sort of meaning in all of that.  People try to look for the patterns in things, and artists are the ones who really go to town when it comes to interpreting these patterns.  This is how we get things like religion, art, music, comedy, storytelling, and science (as much as science now tries to divorce itself from the rest).  It’s an inheirant flaw in the one creating these things who just isn’t satisfied with taking things for granted.  They have to fret and fiddle and tinker and tweak until it does.  Or comes close. And then they start all over again.

In ancient times, this sort of mental defect gave people holy status.  Shamans, oracles, soothsayers; this difference was noted and elevated to some other status.  The Other.  The Weird.  Seeing the world with a different set of eyes.  Nowadays, this sort of talk is consider pretentious.  Art is considered with deference to putting a coat of paint on a wall, music is something that guy in the town square does because he won’t get a real job, and don’t get me started on writing.  I’m sure I have half a dozen posts around here talking about how the work writers put into the craft of stringing words together is something lots of people feel like they can do (and they probably can) but probably not all that well.

So where does this defect come from?  I tend to think of it as a pearl inside an oyster.  Most oysters are happy being blobs of salty snot attached to rocks and piers by their hard external coverings.  But sometimes a piece of sand gets inside and to protect itself from this irritation, the ball of snot forms a calcium coating around it until it becomes something valuable to people right before they’ve slurped the ball of snot down right out of its shell with a little bit of hot sauce or lemon juice.

The idea is an irritant, and the artform protects the fragile mind of the artist from destroying itself from the absurdity or pain of such a thing.  The conflict.  The places only dreamed of, that would otherwise just exist and slowly drive this person mad.  Unfortunately, the artist is already sorta there.  After all, they are wired somehow to pick up these signals, while most of the rest of the species is fine with watching Real Housewives or focus on not starving to death in a hovel.

Is it a bad childhood?  A defining moment that rattled the artist’s perception?  Lack of kids their age to play with on their street? Some sort of defense mechanism that makes them look at details in some way that is different from others?  Something that makes someone bad at parties because they can walk into a room full of people, sit down with their drink and just listen to those around them, pet the cat or dog for an hour, and go home again.  Something that said to them it was hard to be around people for very long because it just reminded them of their own Otherness.  The drink or drugs are relied upon as a social lubricant, to numb those thoughts that would intrude in what most people would consider “fun” but to the Other are felt as much of a waste of time as a “normal” person would consider brush strokes, rhyming patterns, themes, or minor key.

Sometimes I feel like schools have been working against promoting this kind of creativity for a long time.  But thinking differently is why we have pretty much anything that isn’t rolling around in the mud for roots or fighting off competing predators for a rotting wildebeest carcass.  Even then, the first proto-human to figure out that a stick or rock to the snout of one of those slavering monsters bought you some time to get more food was an artist in their own way.  It’s just strange knowing that to see how little art and creativity is valued.

We take it for granted.  You turn on the radio and hear music you probably couldn’t play, that talent takes your mind off your monotonous commute between commercials for things you don’t need.  You eat a dinner at a nice restaurant you probably don’t know how to make.  You read part of a novel that someone spent two years of their life writing and chuck into the donation pile when you are sick of it.  You call that painting in your hotel room tacky, but could you have painted it?

All this taking things for granted devalues it.  Something not long ago that our ancestors considered holy is now just…not important.  Disposable.  Of no consequence.