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.

Starting over and over

Today was a day with a lot of resistance. I’ve been re-reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and trying to get myself set in what I need to do to write. Jeez, that’s all I talk about, you might think. Writing. It’s because I love it. It also scares the hell out of me. Mostly because I respect what good writing is and I hope in some way I am achieving that. For those of you who don’t write, I hope that you can appreciate any other substitution for a passion that doesn’t alienate you.

I share these words not just for you, but because I am in the process of manifesting everything that I want.

I am 46 years old. A little bit long in the tooth to still be following my dreams, some might think. By now, most of my friends are looking at the coast and glide of being at least over halfway through their careers. Things like 401ks and hedge funds might mean something to them. Some are thinking of retirement. And here I am starting over again.

I had to start over from zero a few times in the last few years. The first time I started over was seven years ago, when I decided to end my marriage of 15 years. With it also went an adulthood of accumulated things. Furniture. Memories. Photo albums. Things I had inheirted, which were all lost in the blink of an eye like a housefire that has been burning for the last seven years. Today I am a man who doesn’t even own a couch. The majority of my furniture was given to me by friends who couldn’t stand seeing me living in a house with a card table to eat dinner on or sitting on the floor to watch TV. I’ve had good, kind people in my life who were willing to share their abundance when I was just beginning again.

I moved again after my job of nearly 20 years ended and the world was changing due to a pandemic. I’m starting over again, back where I started, back where I grew up. Some days I think of being the age I am now and feeling like I’ve got a 10-15 year late start. The work that I am trying to do is overwhelming sometimes. A dream better suited to a younger man.

I think sometimes of the things that I want, a vision of how I want my life to be, and that can be disheartening. Sometimes it feels like I’ve run out of time for anything like that. I check home listings on Zillow at places I would love to live and unlike the first time I bought a house, you can’t pick up a three bedroom with a finished basement for $165k anymore. Try $700k, depending on what you are looking for. I wonder how anyone does it. I worry that my life will have come and gone before I can buy a house. Or if I could, I’ll be in my late 70s before I can pay off a mortgage.

It’s unreal.

I drive a used Jeep Liberty with a lot of miles on it, but it is paid for. I live in my grandparents’ old house, which takes a lot of work. It’s a great place to have an office where I can write at least. My office is my favorite room in the house. In those ways, it gives me the solitude I need to get the work done and keeps a roof over my head. I’m not a social butterfly around town, so I don’t have a lot of distractions other than when my dog wants to play fetch. Or when my son is with me and wants to chat about Marvel superheroes and Star Wars and Vietnam and a hundred other things.

My family is closeby, which means I’m around if they need me. Sometimes I turn them down for offers to have dinner together because it feels good to be asked, but I have the luxury of declining the offer. I have other things to do. Just because I’m not punching a clock doesn’t mean I’m not working.

I guess when I look at the STUFF that I want. A dream house, a 4Runner, bi-yearly trips to Europe, a Sprinter van, winters someplace tropical, it stings a little because I’m starting off from the ground level again, and those are things only the seasoned professional can afford. Those are luxuries. Maybe a different version of me who took a different path has those things and I’m feeling the pull of it on some quantum level.

So I was reading the War of Art and came across this:

Restance and Being a Star

Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of Resistance. They’re the sign of an amateur. The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.

Steven Pressfield, the War of Art

I’m not an heir to some family fortune. Nobody is chasing me with an advance check or a three book deal. I’m just a man who never shuts up about writing because it not only brings him peace of mind, on occasion it has given him joy. Feeling overwhelmed that my writing hasn’t allowed me to drop $700k on a house or a new Toyota is the sign of an amateur. Feeling frustrated that I don’t have thousands of followers is holding me back. I can either give in and take a job and go back to scribbling whenever I’m not so exhausted to stay awake, or I can use my time to throw myself into this endeavor. Sometimes losing myself in it and dragging my friends and readers down into it with me.

Maybe I’ll never be able to afford a big house or a nice car or trips or even a couch. But I’ll have the satisfaction of doing something that I love. I’ve had stuff before. Lots of stuff. And hardly any of it brought me any real joy. Right now, I can live a life without the pursuit of stuff and I can work towards manifesting my dreams.

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.