“Every day includes much more non-being than being. This is always so. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.”
– Virginia Woolf
I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the way, I stopped caring what people think of me. I don’t mean that I stopped caring what the people I love think of me – I care enormously about that – but I stopped caring about the big, wide swath of people who have opinions of me based on their own projections. I wrote an essay about this recently which seems to have struck a nerve, so I thought I’d offer some further thoughts here – in part because a dear friend of mine was lambasted publicly, earlier this week, in such a wrong-headed, ill-informed, factually misleading and hostile way that it’s hard to sit back and just say nothing about what it means – whether you’re a writer, an artist, a teacher, a doctor, an actor, a trapeze artist, whatever – to put yourself on the line. Every day. Whether you feel like it or not.
I’ve been putting myself on the line – literally, on the line of words forming sentences, paragraphs, pages, books – for so many years now that it has become second nature. I use my own life as a laboratory, or perhaps an archaeological dig. I burrow down, searching for tarnished nuggets of truth. I do this not because I think my own life is particularly interesting or special, but because it’s the lens through which I can come to understand the world. I go deep into the specific, the particular, in order to be able to make a larger sense – one that hopefully resonates and weaves its own tiny strand into the universal thread.
Over the years I’ve been accused of many things: of being self-absorbed, narcissistic, spoiled, privileged, and so forth. I’ve been accused of these things by people who don’t know me, and who make certain assumptions when they read into my public persona. A newspaper comes and photographs my house – it looks larger than it is, neater, prettier, more nicely-furnished, because that’s what photographs do – and the next thing I know, I hear I live in a house straight out of a movie set. I post pictures on Facebook or Instagram of lovely moments: a favorite barn at dusk, my son playing tennis, a view from a writers’ conference. A schoolmate of my son’s who apparently follows me on Instagram recently said: “You seem to really enjoy your life.” It was such an interesting thing to hear, and it took me aback. I mean, I do enjoy my life – sometimes. And those are the times that end up on Instagram or Facebook. Right? We don’t pause partway through a marital squabble and take a selfie. We don’t snap a picture of the dog pee stain on the rug. We curate our lives, airbrush them. I’m on the cover of a magazine this month, and boy oh boy, I wish I looked like that all the time, or even some of the time. I had a team of the best hair, makeup and stylists in Los Angeles taking care of me that day.
I try to tell the truth of my life, even as I curate it. My husband and I are writers. We live modestly. I can’t remember the last time we took a vacation in which at least one of us wasn’t working. Those Instagram posts from Aspen, Provincetown, Taos, Positano? Working. Yes, in lovely places – I’ve figured out how to do that, living by my wits – but nonetheless, I am teaching intensively for many hours each day, and often, after workshops, all I can do is go back to my (very nice) room and take a nap. As a writer, I work pretty much seven days a week on my own work, and on the work of others. I wouldn’t trade it for anything and feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do what I love, and to live in a way that feels examined and meaningful. But it isn’t easy, and I refuse to pretend that it is – even as I post the glowing photos.
On my office wall hangs a poster with wisdom from one of my favorite human beings in which she shares seven lessons she learned over the course of her first seven years of curating Brain Pickings. Among these lessons are: Be generous… it’s so much easier to be a critic than to be a celebrator. To understand and to be understood, these are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
Isn’t it all any of us really want? To understand and to be understood? To bear witness to all of it – the good, the bad and the ugly? The real? Let the critics float away on their own toxic cloud. Count me among the celebrators.
I’m writing this at four o’clock in the afternoon on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. I am stirred, always, by the Day of Atonement. I light memorial candles for my parents, twin flames that burn side-by-side for twenty-four hours on my kitchen counter. When I light those candles, I think of my own parents lighting candles for their dead parents. I remember seeing those flickering flames as a child, and imagining the lives of those who came before me. Lives I couldn’t touch. Lives I would never know. Grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents. There is something enormously powerful in being part of a generational chain, and the holidays bring up that feeling within me. It is at once painful (so much lost!) and bracingly beautiful to consider. I am only the most recent link on a chain that extends back and back.
Living in the country, as I do, it would be easy to skip the holiday. There have been years when I have attempted to ignore the whole thing. After all, I no longer live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, or in Brooklyn, where it would be impossible to walk out my front door without being confronted with the holiness of the day in the form of people in their finery walking to or from synagogue. I didn’t go to synagogue today. Where I live – as I have written about extensively – I have never been able to find a spiritual home. But it has turned out that the lack of that spiritual home inspired me build me own. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, time is our cathedral.
I found myself thinking today, as my husband and I took a long walk, that even though it stirs me, in many ways the Day of Atonement doesn’t feel all that different to me than any other day. I lead an inward life. I spend my days alone with my thoughts, searching for words, reaching for ideas. In my study, I am surrounded by photographs of my ancestors, but even if they weren’t looking down at me from the walls where they hang, I would still know that they surround me. My writing brings them closer to me, and me to them. And so I remember, today, as I attempt to remember every day, that I am part of a vast tapestry. That I didn’t get here on my own. And that, if I close my eyes, I can hear the holy sound of the shofar blowing in every synagogue, every corner of the globe.
I’m back on the chaise. I’ve just finished with the last full week of teaching I’ll be doing until March. All summer long, I’ve wondered what this moment would feel like. I have no flights scheduled, no dates on my calendar (except for a few small weekend retreats like this one and this one) and a real swath of time stretched out before me. A magic carpet, rolled out, ready for me to step onto it with the intention of finishing a draft of my new book.
Today is the day. The fluffy white dog is lying by my feet. I’m wearing the world’s most comfortable sweatpants, a favorite yoga tee shirt, and a ratty cardigan. My hair is a mess. My glasses perched on the bridge of my nose. My house empty — husband doing errands, boy on a boat ride. Just a couple of weeks ago, a photographer was here to take my portrait for an upcoming essay. I was sitting just here, the fluffy white dog just there, and I quipped: this is exactly what my life looks like. And she responded: it looks pretty damned perfect.
Ah, yes. Here I am in my perfect life. There’s only one problem with it. Can you guess what problem might be?
Inside my head, all is chaos. Tears are backed up behind my eyes. I can barely sit still. The deepest parts of myself, unfathomable. This summer involved an unusual number of workshops, readings, or other business in Seattle, Aspen, Vermont, LA, Atlanta, Rhinebeck, Salisbury, Provincetown — with many days in New York City in between. It has been a summer in which I led meditations, lectured, dove deeply into student work. A summer in which I said yes to judging a couple of awards and fellowships that have required an insane amount of reading. A summer I have taken care of my family as best as I know how. A summer I have loved – completely loved – and yet I am here, as parts of myself feel as fragile as small birds riding wind currents, trying to find their way back to me.
Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.
I think of this as protecting my instrument – and yours. When that instrument is out of whack – and mine is now – it is my job to go back to the simplicity of Kenyon’s list. To have patience. And above all to understand that the noisy, noisy world we live in – with its carnival of distractions and enticements – is not where we find the words. The words are stones at the bottom of the sea. We train ourselves. We expand our capacity to hold our breath underwater. And then we dive – alone, we dive. Sometimes we emerge, gasping, our hands empty. But if we dive deep for enough successive days, weeks, months, years, decades, a lifetime — we might – just might – emerge with something new, some fragile, shimmering thing no one has ever seen before.
Lately people have been asking me what I’m working on. A perfectly reasonable question, though one that strikes terror and dread in the hearts of most writers. If we’re not in the midst of a book, the question makes us feel guilty and fretful. If we are in the midst of a book, we need to find ways of answering in a way that doesn’t take away from the work itself. I’ve come to think of this as a sentence that doesn’t cost me much – if anything at all. But part of the problem, in my case, is that I’ve grown slightly allergic to the word memoir. After all, I’ve written two, no, three, if you include Still Writing, which is a memoir at least in part. So: three memoirs. And now that I am well into a new book, and it is decidedly not a novel, I have been searching for another word for what I’m doing, a word that doesn’t drag along quite so much baggage in its wake.
I’ve tried: I’m writing a book-length lyric essay.
I’ve tried: I’m writing a work of creative non-fiction.
Both of these sound pretentious to me.
I’ve tried: I’m writing a memoirish-type thing.
I’ve tried mumbling incoherently and hoping the subject will miraculously be changed.
But finally what I’ve arrived at is this: I’m writing an Inquiry.
Everything I’ve ever written might be described as an inquiry. My novels all begin with questions – though these questions may not be ones I can articulate when I begin. My novel Family History circled around the question of what it might take to shake a happy contented marriage to its core. My novel Black & White centered on questions about motherhood and art. Devotion was a spiritual inquiry. The memoir aspects of Still Writing were an inquiry into what was formative for me as a writer. And now my questions have evolved into ones about marriage and time.
It wasn’t what I wanted to write about it.
To be honest, it scares the living shit out of me.
But this is the book that has been banging against my ribcage, insisting.
I write in order to discover what I don’t yet know. To peel back the layers and see what has been previously hidden from view. I don’t choose the form this discovery takes. When I have tried to force the form, it turns around and bites me. And so I have learned to pay attention to what the work itself wants to be. If we’re quiet, the work announces itself. When it makes itself known, we had best pay attention.
And so, when I’m asked, I now respond that I’m writing an inquiry into marriage and time.
How do we find the right words to describe what we’re doing? Because when we land on them, we know they’re true.
“How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”
I copied these words, from the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno, into an otherwise blank notebook about a year ago. The notebook had been blank for quite a while. It was a beautiful, perfect notebook – I had ordered it online after coveting one that a student was using – and I planned for it to be the notebook in which I would begin My Next Book. I didn’t yet know what My Next Book would be. I was on book tour for Still Writing, and traveling a great deal to speak to audiences of writers all over the country. I carried the notebook with me everywhere. The notebook went to Europe. It went to LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, D.C., and New York. I didn’t write a word in it, and I became more and more anxious. Panic began to weave a web around me that kept me isolated from my own internal life. I would get up and give keynotes that inspired writers to get to work – but I wasn’t working, because I didn’t know what I was doing, and if I didn’t know what I was doing, I couldn’t do it.
I had lost all sense of playfulness. Of messiness. Of curiosity. That feeling of discovery that happens when the writer follows the line of words – I had forgotten all about that. If I was going to deface the notebook, if I was going to begin, whatever I wrote – that first sentence – had to be perfect. It had to be a sentence to end all sentences. And so the notebook continued to be blank until a day came when finally, my own despair trumped my lunatic perfectionism.
I doodled a daisy. Literally, a daisy. Like the kind of doodles I used to make when I was six years old. And then I ripped that page out of the no-longer-pristine notebook. After which I wrote Meno’s words.
Getting lost is both the plight and the joy of the artist. David Salle once said in an interview: “I have to get lost so I can invent some way out.” And so I began to get lost. I spent much of the next year on a journey of missteps and wrong turns, all of which I had to make to get to that place of the real work beginning. I have to say, too, that this getting lost cannot be faked. We cannot pretend to be lost. We cannot be quasi-lost. In order to possibly find that way out – in order to discover that thing previously unknown to us – we walk through the pitch-black darkness. We feel our hands against cave walls. We slip and fall. We bruise ourselves, blind to our own path. And maybe we don’t find our way out. But maybe we do.
I’m just back home from two glorious weeks at Hedgebrook. If there’s a heaven for women writers, I imagine it looks exactly like this:
Buoyed by the presence of six remarkable women, I awoke each morning, built a roaring fire in the wood stove, made a big pot of coffee, and got down to the work of feeling my way through the darkness. Alone my cottage, my next book began to reveal itself to me. It didn’t not ask of me that it be perfect. It did not ask of me that I understand it. It asked only that I attend to it. Slowly, softly, with fortitude. Get lost inside of me, it seemed to whisper. It is the only way.
As I write this, I’m somewhere in the sky between New York and Seattle. My lukewarm cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is on my tray table, precariously close to my keyboard. Behind me, a baby cries. On the other side of the thankfully-empty middle seat, an older woman organizes papers and tear sheets from magazines. I’ve grown not to mind this time out of time that air travel necessitates. So far, on this flight, I’ve listened to a great podcast, have read a couple of embarrassingly junky magazines, and have been working on a manuscript for a friend.
But what I’m feeling, beneath the busyness and accoutrements of travel, is a kind of full and tender sense of what this is –– this life we all share. I lately have been feeling more alive than I have in a long time. I am moved to tears again and again –– not tears of sadness, but rather, a soft, profound awareness of what it is to be human. As I walked through JFK this morning, it was with this sense. Sometimes, in airports, I practice Metta, silently wishing passersby safety, happiness, strength, ease. And when I do, it instantly brings me into a relationship with these perfect strangers, these fellow travelers. But this morning’s awareness was different. It required no words, no formal practice. It just was.
There is only one explanation, really, for this tenderness I’ve been experiencing.
I have been writing.
After a long, painful, fallow period of fretting, pacing, and false starts, I have entered something that has me in its grip, that I think about when I wake up in the morning, and dream of at night. It wasn’t what I wanted to be writing. I wanted a new novel, and that’s not what I got. It wasn’t a plan. I had a plan to write an essay, a few months ago, while at a residency in Florida. I wrote the essay and then was horrified to realize that the essay wanted to be longer — it wanted, in fact, to be my next book. But despite my horror, I knew that there was a rightness to my realization, precisely because it wasn’t what I wanted. I wasn’t attempting to control my writing life. I wasn’t writing for a marketplace. I wasn’t thinking about the glory of it all – because there is no glory. There is no control. And nothing could be worse for the work itself than imagining a marketplace.
No. Lately it has been only me and the work. Me and the words, one lining up behind the next, the words, having been trapped in a place within me for so long that the experience of getting them on the page has come with its own, almost-unbearable, physical energy. At times I leap up from my chaise — the feeling uncontainable. Louise Gluck, in a recent interview, said that the reason she writes in bed is that, if she thinks she may possibly write something, she becomes so filled with despair that she can hardly bear it. I know this despair and it’s always a good thing – though not a comfortable one. When I feel it now, it is a wave I know I need to ride, and not run away from, no matter how I may wish to.
Everything I know about life, I know from the page. Everything I know about myself — about love, maturity, grief, joy, loss, redeption — I have learned by sitting alone in a room (or on a plane) sorting it out. What belongs to what? Why does this sentence next to that one seem to build something that feels like music? What am I really trying to say? What am I getting at? I rarely know until I write it. The words become clay that I mold and mold. Without the daily habit, the daily discipline of concentrating everything inside me on that single point of focus, the world flattens. I know this. And yet these years between books are not anything I can prevent from happening. All I can do — all any of us can do — is take care of my instrument – which is to say, stay healthy and protect my inner life – and wait patiently for that blessed sense of rightness to once again appear.
Last night I gave a reading and was in conversation with the wonderful writer Amitava Kumar. I had never met Amitava before, though our paths have crossed at dozens of literary events over the years, most recently at AWP in Minneapolis. I was invited to join Amitava in the event by one of the best literary publicists out there, Lauren Cerand, and we were hosted by a favorite bookstore, The Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, in front of a terrific audience, mostly of writers and certainly of readers.
Being the generous guy that he is, Amitava read not only from his own new book, but asked me if it would be alright for him to read a passage from Still Writing. Before he read it, he asked me if I feel alienated from my own words, if I hear another writer read them aloud. My immediate response was to blurt out that I feel alienated from my own words, almost instantly after I write them. That got a rueful laugh from the crowd, and I laughed too, but I woke up thinking about what it was, exactly, that I meant.
Lately my memoir Slow Motion has been enjoying a bit of a resurgence. I wrote Slow Motion in the mid-1990’s, it came out in the late 1990’s, and I hadn’t so much as cracked its cover in at least a dozen years, until recently, when it was suggested to me that it might make a good miniseries, and having just watched the brilliant adaptation of Olive Kitteridge, I found the idea compelling. Re-reading my old work, especially such profoundly personal old work, was quite a trip. On the one hand, I found it surprisingly emotional to read about the girl I once was. I thought of her as a character, even as I wrote the book. But now, she has receded even further into the distant past, and I find it harder to reach out and touch her. She was so sad, so lost, so grief-stricken, so out-of-control. To meet her again, frozen within the pages of my own book, was riveting, in a way. I didn’t feel I was reading about myself, or even a book written by myself. And so, I was able to admire it, in a way. The me who wrote it has continued to grow and morph into the me who could read it with a cooler gaze. In so doing, I also understood, for the first time, why people who have recently read Slow Motion ask me whether I feel exposed. The question has always rankled. No, I respond. It’s a book, a memoir, not my diary. But in reading it, I realized that, in many ways, I am quite exposed, and that it was a kind of literary lunacy, a lunacy I’m glad for having had, to put aside the question of what people would think, and just go for it.
The work that holds my attention is always the work in front of me. This blog post is holding my attention as I write. The book I’m now working on holds my attention, and if you were to ask me which of my books is my favorite, I would tell you it’s the one I’m writing. This is always true for me. I feel a sense of distance from each of my books because the woman who wrote them has moved on. She is sitting on her chaise lounge on a cool New England day, pecking away, hoping to find a shape for the chaos, the heartache, the beauty, the confusion, the human catastrophe. She dives deep inside the moment –– as deep as the moment, combined with her own limitations, will allow. And tomorrow, with any luck, she will do it again.
A number of years ago, I was seated next to a literary agent — not my own — at a dinner party. At some point during our conversation, she asked every writer’s favorite question: what are you working on? As it happened, I had recently begun working on a memoir. No one was more surprised by this development than I. My previous two books had been novels, and I had been waiting for the next novel to materialize, as a glimmer, a glimpse of something urgent in my imagination. But that hadn’t happened. What happened was this word, D-E-V-O-T-I-O-N, literally spelled out in front of me one day as I practiced yoga. I knew what it meant, and I wasn’t at all happy about it. I hadn’t planned to ever write a second memoir. I was a novelist. A serious novelist. The thought of writing another memoir — much less a spiritual memoir — was not what I had in mind.
The agent sat back in her chair and looked stricken, as if somehow my news affected her personally.
“But you can’t! You’re getting such great attention for your novels. You’ll lose your readers if you turn to memoir.”
The agent went so far as to call one of the editors who was interested in my new book to tell her she thought I — along with my actual agent — was making a mistake.
This stayed with me, haunted me, while I wrote Devotion. A writer in the midst of a book is nothing if not suggestible. But I had no choice. The book had chosen me. It had tapped me firmly on the shoulder, wedged its way into my consciousness, demanding my attention. The years I spent writing Devotion, I wondered if I was indeed making a mistake. Who was going to care about my idiosyncratic, complex, singular spiritual journey? What’s more, the book’s structure was also worrisome when it revealed itself. The book seemed to want to be written in small, almost puzzle-like pieces. I had always written in long, narrative sweeps. What the hell was this? I felt like my head was exploding. I felt doomed to write a book no one would read, told in fragmentary prose poems.
When Devotion eventually was published, it turned out that my fears – along with my dinner companion’s dismay – had been unfounded. The puzzle-like structure worked. Readers from all kinds of backgrounds responded to the story. That book and its reception in the world changed my life – not in a yippie-I-can-renovate-my-house kind of way, but in a much deeper way. It brought me to an abiding, powerful understanding of the way we human beings –once we dig beneath our protective shells – are more similar than different. The same worries keep us up at night. The same fears and insecurities drive us.
Just this past weekend, in a workshop, I was discussing some manuscript pages of one of my students – a lovely writer who has been working on a memoir for the past ten years – and I wasn’t telling her what she wanted to hear. What she wanted to hear was, of course, what we all want to hear, which is: this is magnificent, and your work here is done. After all, she had been working on the manuscript for ten years. She had poured everything she had into it. But her work wasn’t done. And as we began to talk about it, she told us she was trying not to cry.
And what I said in response was perhaps not the most teacherly thing I have ever said: I cry every day.
My students stared at me. Many of them have been with me for years – some, for decades. They had never heard me say anything like this before. But it was true, and I always try to tell the truth. Especially about writing, because, let’s face it, the writing life is hard. It’s solitary, often thankless, painful to the point of near-madness. It can look, from a distance, especially on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook, like the writing life involves days bracketed by beautiful cups of cappuccino in the morning, perfect glasses of Priorat at night. It can look like conferences in fabulous, far-flung places, writers gaily cavorting at festivals wearing cute clothes. But the truth is a wee bit darker. The truth is that writers, if I may generalize, are sensitive, impatient, fearful people, sifting through the sands of the every day, panning for gold. We never know what’s next. The next book, the next sentence, the next word all reveal themselves to us in their own time, with their own peculiar alchemy.
If I had held on to my flimsy self-identity – I’m a novelist – I wouldn’t have written Devotion. If I’d held onto the pages I was working on a couple of years ago, ones that weren’t working, I wouldn’t have written Still Writing. And now, as I sit here on the chaise on a gloomy day, my eyes still bleary with sleep, the weight of my new work pressing against me from all sides, the questions lining up, the old terror, my inner censor screaming no, no, no, not this, you can’t, you mustn’t, I find I have less and less patience for impatience — from others, from myself. This is the way it is, to try to make something out of nothing. This is the price of admission. This is what it is, to press against the bruise — I am pressing now — with no reward other than the doing, and the hope that bruise will bloom.
This weekend I led a retreat during which we focused on meditation and writing. To teach well, to teach at the height of my abilities, there are things I need to do –– ways I need to feel about myself, my writing life, my own practices. I need to be clear, rested, my mind settled before I can begin to think of helping a roomful of people settle their own minds and dig deep to find their own stories.
My group met at Kripalu in a large hall that had just been used for a yoga teacher training, and so, the walls were hung with educational posters. As my seventy students broke into smaller groups to share their writing exercises, I paced the room, listening to snatches of their stories. Often those who are drawn to a retreat such as this one have intense material –– the stuff of life –– and are looking for a way to understand it, to express it. Meditation becomes a powerful tool in this regard, a way of coming to know our own minds. As I walked barefoot through the great hall, I noticed one of the posters from the teacher training in particular. It was a list of the five Yamas –– the character building restraints central to yoga philosophy.
These are ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (not stealing), aparigraha (non-possessiveness) and brahmacharya (energy management).
I stared at that last one: brahmacharya. Energy management. How was I doing in this regard? I felt pretty much okay about the other restraints. I had those down. But energy management? (I should mention that brahmacharya in its most orthodox definition refers specifically to sexual energy, but the more open, modern interpretation raises question of where – generally speaking – we put our energy.) Where was I putting my energy? Lately I had been feeling like a leaky vessel. Saying yes to invitations I should have declined. Spending time with people who were draining. Worrying too much about other people’s opinions. Reaching for social media rather than opening a book that might nourish my soul. Staying up too late at night. Burning the candle at both ends.
As I continued to make circles around the great hall, I found myself stopping in front of brahmacharya again and again. I think so many of us feel this sense of being drained of energy. We’re working twenty-four hours a day –– how many of us actually turn off our cellular devices when we go to bed at night? Our sleep –– even our sleep –– is punctuated by the sounds of beeping, vibrating, push notifications, texts. The world is always with us. Our weekends, our vacations, even our Sabbaths, are hard to make sacred. In the past three weeks I have been on six flights. I’m on one now, as I write these words. I look forward in my calendar and see no empty weeks, no long stretch of days. For a writer –– for anyone! –– this is not a good thing. Our most creative thoughts and ideas spring from a ritualized dream time. In the absence of this dream time we become mechanized, robotic, detached from our inner lives.
Energy management. This is the yama looking me straight in the eye. You, it seems to be saying. Know your own mind.
One of the things I most love about teaching is that it keeps me honest, because I simply cannot preach that which I don’t practice. So whenever I teach it brings me back to the truth of my own nature, my own foibles, my own resistance, attachments, insecurities.
Near the end of the retreat –– which had been successful even by my own overly harsh and self-judging standards –– I went around the room and asked each participant, one by one, to call out a single word. At the beginning of the retreat I had also asked for words to be called out –– and it was heartening to see how the feelings of nearly everyone in the group had shifted. I wrote these words down in green magic marker on a large piece of white paper. Peaceful. Hope. Energized. Joy. The words continued in a warm cascade. Content. Amazed. Home. On they went. There was one woman in the back row, though, who had looked miserable all weekend –– angry, frustrated, literally rolling her eyes at me. When it was her turn to offer a word, it rang out: disappointed.
I added her word to the cloud of words, and tried to let it go. But instead, for the rest of that final session, she hovered in my mind. Disappointed. She kept walking out of the room when I offered prompts or instructions, until finally, she just simply left. But what was I doing? I was that leaky vessel –– allowing someone who was, as I once heard a healer describe this kind of person, an energy vampire –– to climb inside my mind and sap me of my own strength.
She didn’t have the power to do this to me.
I was doing it to myself.
And so I’m telling this story on myself –– this story of my own struggle with brahmacharya –– because I invariably finish leading these retreats with new lessons I have needed to learn. I want to say thank you to that woman in the back row for reminding me that I’m responsible for my own energy management. There are a thousand ways we can waste our energy –– and only one way I can think of to harness it, which involves paying careful attention to our own hearts and minds.
I’m writing this from a cramped window seat on a flight from Hartford to Orlando. (And no, I’m not going to Disney World. I’m spending three weeks as a Master Artist in Residence here.) I’ve been spending a lot of time on airplanes lately. Sometimes with my husband, sometimes with my son, but often alone, on my way to teach somewhere, or give a reading. So none of this is new. But what is new are the tears in my eyes as I write these words. Tears of gratitude that the fears that plagued me for so many years have subsided. For a long time –– in my twenties and early thirties –– I did everything I could to avoid travel. I wasn’t quite agoraphobic, but I had terrible anxiety when it came to taking risks of any kind –– and my definition of risk wasn’t paragliding or skydiving. No. My definition of risk was getting on a train, a bus, a plane. Even driving a car to an unfamiliar place set me on edge. All of it felt, to me, as if I was courting disaster. As if I wouldn’t survive the journey.
I don’t know what, exactly, changed. My son was four years old when I went on book tour for my novel Family History. I remember calling my publicist from the departure lounge at LaGuardia airport, weeping. I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t think I could board the plane that was going to take me away from my husband and little boy. Fortunately, my publicist –– a mom herself, and one who had been through some hard times –– was able to talk me down in just the right way. I got on that plane, and the next one, and the next. But still, I sat in my seat, a heart-pounding, palm-sweating mess. I was able to do it –– but the cost was high. I would arrive at my destination wrung-out and exhausted.
Eventually, I discovered a pharmaceutical solution to my fear of flying. I became willing to medicate my terror. I had a system. Just before going through security, I’d take a half of a half of a sedative –– a very low dose, but enough to quell my nerves. I became able to board flights more easily, and even anticipate flying in a different way because I knew I didn’t have to suffer. I did this for years. I flew more and more frequently for work, and this system was just simply part of what I did in my new role as literary road warrior. I had my travel-sized cosmetics, my plastic bag for carry-on toiletries, my go-to outfits for public speaking, my pile of magazines, and my little pill case.
But then something happened to me –– so radical, so amazing that I could never have imagined it. After many thousands of miles –– Rome, Florence, Venice, Positano, Paris, London, Prague, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Chicago, Anchorage, Minneapolis, Columbus, Miami, New Orleans, Charlotte, Detroit, Houston, just off the top of my head –– one day it occurred to me that perhaps I didn’t need to take that sedative before going through security. Maybe it would just be enough to know I had it with me. I could always take it if I became nervous. So I kept my little pill case in my pocket. A talisman. A rabbit’s foot.
Just two weeks ago, my husband and I were on the way to the airport for a trip to LA when I suddenly realized, with a nauseated jolt, that I had forgotten my pill case at home. It was too late to turn back. I felt that old anxiety stirring from its slumber. Could I get on a plane with no safety net? Was I pushing my luck? Did I dare?
Reader, I dared. I was a little tense –– old habits die hard –– but something inside me had shifted in a profound way, and though the superstitious part of me believes it’s tempting fate, I will say that I feel fairly certain that I have changed in a deep, internal way. And to what do I owe this shift? Certainly, I worked hard to overcome my anxiety, but we all know that working hard isn’t enough. I became willing to take medication –– to understand that it was bigger than me. I learned to meditate and developed practices that are a part of my inner landscape. (May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be strong. May I live with ease.) And all of this together formed the roots of a desire to live this precious life, to live it fully, completely, with courage, with abandon. To recognize the improbability of this gift I’ve been given. To see the world. To expand my horizons. To trust the tapestry that weaves us all together.