Naturally, after years of northeast city living, I walk fast. Last night, soaked from head to foot after a spin class, I slowed my pace. My car (utilitarian, dirty) was in a lot (street level, gated, manned), same place I parked for Monday's class. I noticed the unusually warm November air, and the pitch black sky (no stars, no moon), and the lights ablaze on the backside of a three-story concrete apartment building at the far side of the lot. It's common knowledge that to be a writer one needs to slow down and notice things.
My new book bag arrived in the mail yesterday. Last night after spin, not exactly at their request, I gave Darby and the girls individualized tours of the (let's count together) sixteen (or did we miss one?) pockets. There are pockets within pockets and it gets very confusing, but the most important thing is that there's space for my (printed out, three-hole-punched, three-ring-bindered) reading materials and (new) laptop. In addition to the bag and the laptop, a few weeks ago I went to the eye doctor for the first time in six years and am now wearing new glasses (Prada like the devil). Also, I have more student loan debt. Apparently I am going back to school.
Do I look smarter?
Am I more organized?
Will my new bag and laptop and everything make me focused, disciplined, witty, and desirable in smart, creative, insightful ways?
Dammit, will these new specs and my sixteen (or seventeen) pocket book bag help me achieve all my professional, creative, and life desires, which include a charming, perfectly-sized house in a small town with agreeable weather (some rain, plenty of sun, cool enough for layers, warm enough for bare feet), beloved students and colleagues, published books and essays, and plenty of time with Darby to explore exotic and familiar places where we can be both adventurous and lazy?
Ah, welcome, mind-chatter. Of course. Have a seat, set up shop. Like my new book bag, there are pockets within pockets, and there's always room for more worried inner-dialog. One thing my mind chatter does not refute is that I am an attentive listener.
One of my past writing teachers always insisted on grounding details right from the start. Let the reader know who, what, where, when, and how, she would urge, but look at me here. Even with the MFA acceptance letter, new glasses, and book bag, I cannot hide from the fact that I will fail. I have already forgotten the grounding details.
Who: Yours truly, the timid and fierce dreamer in residence.
What: MFA in Creative Writing with a focus on Creative Non-Fiction (but explorations and possible semester in Fiction). Low Residency program.
Where: Antioch University Los Angeles.
When: Beginning in a few weeks on Thursday December 5 at 6:00 p.m.
How: With a good amount of anguish, I suppose.
The low residency format of this MFA means I will be on campus for ten days each semester, for four or five semesters. Ten days on campus attending workshops and seminars, followed by five months of 'project period' in which I will write and submit, among other things, twenty pages monthly to my mentor. In preparation for one of the upcoming December residency seminars, I re-read a passage in Anne Lamott's book Bird By Bird. In her chapter titled The Moral Point of View she writes,"The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe... telling these truths is your job."
Sorry about the profanity, but Dammit, Jim. What are the core, ethical concepts in which I most passionately believe? Lamott is not asking for a superficial answer about what I like, or to what I am agreeable, but that which I most passionately believe. She writes later, "Reality is unforgivingly complex." Hell right it is. Is there a closet to hide in, because this stuff is pretty intense. How do you unravel your passions enough to get at Truth, with a capital T? Can I not just live in keeping with my values, hopefully bring that to my yoga students and my kidlets? Doesn't she know that the Prada glasses are just a ruse?
Apparently not. Lamott is saying Arielle, dear timid and fierce dreamer in residence, you can quietly live whatever life you want, but if you are going to write about it, you need to step up to the plate. And, by the way, you're the one who put the application in the mail to Antioch, with an excerpt from the book you are writing about the time you toured the country for five months with your band. You went to one of the top music schools in the country despite unholy cries from your nuclear family about how you cannot and should not pursue the life of an artist. YOU HAVE DISMANTLED YOUR LIFE EVERY TIME YOU FOUND IT WAS INAUTHENTIC AND REBUILT THE FOUNDATION FROM SCRATCH.
Yeah, Ms. Lamott. I guess stepping up to plate is kinda my modus operandi anyway. I just wish I could do it with a little less commentary from the inner critic peanut gallery.
In the shower this morning, I held the bar of lavender soap and closed my eyes, trying to find the words to describe the sensation in my hands. No words came, so I simply washed my face. I pressed my fingers against my closed eyelids till sparks of color and geometric lines lit up against the darkness. How would I describe this? I thought, and wondered if it looks the same to everyone. Again, no words.
It's one thing to slow down and notice. It's entirely another thing to have the skills of phrase. Language art. And then, beyond that, to actually say something of substance. Express that which I most passionately believe. Perhaps this MFA is just an expensive way to confirm that you are not gifted in this realm, says my inner voice.
Given this lifetime of dialog between us, I'm thinking I should consider giving my inner voice a name. Like Syd or Pup or Marcia. Yes, Syd, perhaps this MFA is just an expensive foray into failure. Meanwhile, Syd, it's still morning. I've got my coffee to drink, and if you don't mind sitting over there quietly for a while, I will journal for a page or two to clear my mind, and then I intend to sit here at my new laptop for a bit. After all, if you're done talking, I'm in for another day of writing.
The other day, while running errands and thinking of Lovember, I passed Vendome, a local wine and liquor shop. Vendome is a few blocks from my house and I drive by every time I head to Trader Joe's, but I've only stopped in once or twice. This shop is interesting because set up inside is a little grass-roofed wine bar. Call me sheltered, but I have never seen another liquor store with a tasting room. I'm not a wine connoisseur - far from it - and have been curious to try out some tastings. As I drove by, I took note of the tasting hours.
Did I explain Lovember? I'm courting my man. Lovember is my dedication this month to take things more slowly. Savor time. Be more mindful in some areas of my life. Lend attention to my love for Darby. Like so many things, if a relationship is to flourish, it must be nurtured. Darby, his love for me, and our relationship together are some of the greatest gifts of my lifetime. Thankfully, I appreciate what I have while I have it, but to paraphrase Hafiz, the one regret I do not want to have when I get to the end of my life is that I did not kiss my sweet man enough. We've had a busy few months. Now that we're in the savoring, slower, mindful month of Lovember, what better time for a wine tasting? On Sunday, I asked Darby out on a date.
We were the first ones to arrive for the tasting that evening, so for a while we had Smiley, Vendome's Sunday wine enthusiast, to ourselves. He put Miles Davis on the stereo, and as he poured told us stories about his life. Sip, talk, sip, talk. We were having a marvelous time, but I won't bore you with a play-by-play. Actually, after trying eight or ten wines, I don't know if I could. However, I do remember one moment in particular. Darby and I were sitting back, tasting the best Rhone of the evening. We were deep into Kind Of Blue. I eavesdropped on Smiley and some of the other tasters discussing Panama hats. Is there a word for the appreciation of being able to appreciate something?
I bet the French, a culture so steeped in wine, have a word for this. Miles Davis on the speakers, good wine, listening to Smiley's stories and having no need to tell my own.... In my younger days I don't think it would have felt poignant, but lately everything shows its layers, complex and beautiful. If youth is a smile, adulthood is the laugh lines that reveal a person's history. Another regret I do not want to have when I get to the end of my life is that I didn't smile enough. Perhaps it's from the slowing down of Lovember. Lately I have been rejoicing in time.
Recently, Darby and I sat together enjoying a rare Saturday moment when both kids were settled in with friends and didn't need to be picked up for another hour. The conversation paused for a breath.
"Do you know how beautiful you are?" he said, looking at me from across the table.
When Darby tells me I'm beautiful, I listen. I take it in when he compliments me. I press his words into my being like leaves between the pages of a book. I want to hold them for later, but I also want to interrupt the other narrative - the negative one, the one that says I am always on the verge of failure. I've been practicing to linger on the good stuff, and let the critical mind-chatter roll away. Lately I've noticed he tells me I'm beautiful more frequently.
"Am I imagining it?" I asked him.
"No," he smiled. "You're not. It used to trigger you when I said so. You'd resist it. Now you seem to take it in."
Trigger. Nearly thirty years ago I was riding in the car with my mom through our neighborhood, when we paused at an intersection.
"Mom, do you think I'm pretty?" I asked. I was perhaps ten or eleven.
It was a hard question to ask. At its root, the question is really, Am I likable? Am I worthy? Am I enough for the life that I want? Will life be good to me? Will it open to me, revealing treasures like love and appreciation and comfort? So much hinged on her answer to my simple question. I'm sure every kid wonders this kind of thing.
"Your mother is so beautiful," teachers and sales clerks said to me all the time. It was true. She was in the prime of her beauty just as I was beginning to wonder about my own. She was 5'8" and wore 3" heels. Her eye shadow was purple, her lipstick red, and she got her nails manicured every two weeks by Violet who had two daughters in my school. The answer should have been fast and easy. Yes, you are pretty, she should have said.
"Ana is pretty," she began. Ana was Violet's daughter, and indeed one of the prettiest girls in my grade. "So is Risa," she said, mentioning another girl I was close with. "You?" She paused. "I would say you are more striking."
I didn't know what that meant. I still don't. That day in the car, though, I was fairly certain of one thing: striking wasn't pretty. And if I wasn't pretty, could I still be likable, worthy, and all the rest? It felt like my life hinged on this one question.
I can imagine now how this conversation might seem from her standpoint. In all the years she was told she was beautiful, my mother was also a voracious reader. She was a baby boomer dissident. She was a latent academic who, despite dropping out of high school has now earned her PhD. She got married young, had me soon after, and offset her career aspirations. I was a bright kid with my life still ahead of me. There would be limitless career options looming after college. Perhaps she thought striking was a greater compliment than the commonplace pretty. Perhaps she thought it would keep me safe from making the choices she made. Maybe it was a feminist decision.
As that scene in the car passed through my mind, I knew what Darby was talking about. Trigger. It used to be, when he'd say "You're beautiful", I would brush it off. I didn't know what to do with it. I'd laugh or shrug or make some self-disparaging remark. I couldn't decide if he was saying it out of obligation, or if he really thought I was. Of course now I see how ridiculous that is. After all, the man and I fell head over heels in love. To me, his is the most beautiful face on the planet. I imagine he feels the same about me. But he would tell me I am beautiful and it would stump me every time.
When we live under the spell of not-good-enough, we don its cloak. We hope it's invisible to others, but when someone truly loves us, they see all the layers, and they know that beneath the stories is the true self. They see youth and wrinkles, and the beauty of time. They see our successes and our struggles. 2009 was a good year. 2008 not so much. They see how far we've come, and what it took to get here. They know the tattered edges of not-good-enough, and do what they can to fray it more.
That Saturday I looked at Darby sitting across from me. I didn't know it until the other night, but he has been stealthily tugging at the holes of my cloak. It's a strange thing to realize that sometimes the best way to show love is to hold back. He's older than me by thirteen years. He knows better how to bide time. I'm learning.
At Vendome's on Sunday, as Miles Davis was replaced by Traffic, I let the 2009 wine roll over my tongue. I turned to Darby and said, "I just love being an adult." I was trying to say how much I appreciated everything about that moment, including all the years that came before. Shot through that, I also appreciated my ability to appreciate it. That's the best way I knew how to say it.
This morning, as we were laying in bed listening to the morning awaken outside our bedroom door, I think he may have expressed it better.
"Do you think," he asked, "there's a month of Lovecember too?"
I was taken off my yoga mat the other day mid-class to find my phone and jot down a note. My mat was rolled out in the front row at the far end of the studio room, the furthest I could be from the cubbies where we students stash our belongings. As everyone else lifted up into a warrior pose, I crossed in front of twenty or thirty mats to dig out my iPhone. I couldn't have been more distracting. One of the practices of yoga is clearing thoughts from the mind, but I didn't want to risk losing this one.
That was Sunday, and now it's the middle of the week. In these between days I've felt a tightening, like a bag I keep cinching closed. I've distracted myself with snacks and articles and jewelry designer websites, but like a kitten scratching at the bedroom door for breakfast, as much as I try to go back to sleep, the idea still lingers. There are other ideas too -- integration, which is something I've been thinking a lot about, and Lovember, which is an idea/project/mindfulness practice that I am embarking on this month -- and I'd rather write about them. Alas, Sunday's yoga interruption is the one caught in the bottle neck. Nothing else can come out until this one does. Here, then, is my attempt at loosening this bag, at softening around the idea I've tried to tie shut, at releasing some of the lurking darkness.
There was a viral youtube video that went around a few years ago. It first emerged in 2007. Perhaps you saw it? It was an experiment arranged by the Washington Post for one of the world's most talented violinists, Joshua Bell, to perform incognito during rush hour in a Washington D.C. train station. For one day, the virtuoso was virtually unknown. Spoiler alert: he was mostly ignored.
For here I'm a tad more interested in what happened on Sunday (but you should really read this excellent Washington Post piece about what happened that day in the train station). My sweetheart Darby teaches the yoga class. He's a well-loved teacher, and it's a popular class. Throughout a regular Sunday there is laughter, some groaning, a few f*bombs, a lot of sweat, and occasional cathartic weeping. A sense of camaraderie has developed among the students. We are all human, we are all perfectly imperfect, the class seems to say in a collective sigh. Sundays are less about silent meditation and more joyful celebration.
On this particular day, as we moved through prasarita padottanasana (wide legged forward fold) and some standing twists, Darby talked about awareness. He mentioned the recent Banksy stunt in NYC in which the elusive graffiti artist set up a stall near Central Park and sold (via an unknown gentleman) authentic Banksy prints for $60 - and had only three buyers. Oh, whoops. Spoiler alert.
Darby was pretty much asking us to wonder, how often do we rush by things of beauty, interest, poignancy? How much do we miss? He also mentioned the Joshua Bell experiment. As various articles about this ask, "If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?"
Well, that's a good discussion, if you're considering the viewpoint of the passersby. In fact, more often than not, we are the passersby. But what about when you're the busker?
In fact, this conversation on Sunday hit home because I was the busker. In the mid/late '90s I stood with my guitar on the gusty train platforms and sidewalks of Harvard Square, offering my art to anyone who had the time.
Much like the Joshua Bell event, my busking was also an experiment. I loved writing music. I loved singing. What I didn't like was the gut-wrenching, finger-numbing, throat-tightening anxiety that gripped me every time I stepped on to a stage. I wanted to love performing, and the best way to do it, I thought, was to perform as much as possible. I bought an amp with two inputs for voice and guitar, a boat battery to power the amp, and a bright red dolly to lug it all out to the street in a compact package on wheels.
The good times were when it wasn't too cold, and someone sat down on the sidewalk to listen, say a kind word, or put money in my guitar case. More than fifteen years later I still recall the night a man handed me one hundred dollars - five twenties, actually - and told me to record my songs, and the afternoon one of my local idols, folksinger Catie Curtis, stopped to listen for a few songs. There were times of encouragement, but mostly it was a practice of ignoring being ignored. Joshua Bell and I have at least this in common. When I look back on those busking days, I remember a few people resting nearby to listen, but I mostly remember the passersby.
Until this week, I had almost forgotten that getting over stage fright had been my main reason for the busking. As it turns out, my experiment mostly worked. The anxiety never entirely went away, but it certainly lessened. Yoga helped with the rest. But until this writing, when I've thought back on those busking years, I've mostly remembered them through the lens of failure. It would take a heart of steel to overlook the hundreds of people who never knowledge the music. That's what gripped me the other day in yoga. In addition to Banksy and Bell, Darby mentioned another incident of an overlooked artist: the band U2.
Years and years ago, before U2 was known by anybody here, a friend of Darby's shot a few photos of them. They were performing live at a club in Dallas as the act between wet t-shirt contests. Unlike Banksy and Bell, they were not famous at that time. Maybe they were ignored because they were unknown, or because the club patrons were only there for the other shows. Possibly they were ignored because they weren't any good. The point, I realized, is that it doesn't really matter. What matters is that they didn't stop there. The band didn't let past failures be the measure of their future success.
This is what I had walk across the yoga studio to write down: Do not base the possibility of future success on the memory of past failures. Too often I look at my past in an attempt to predict my future. After all, we are the only case study any of us really have. More often than not, I consider something a failure if it didn't meet the high expectations (and generally short time frames) I set myself. I've looked back instead of forward. I put lack of success on a pedestal and declared it The End instead of resting it on the side of the road and continuing the journey. Too many times, I've rubbernecked disasters instead of keeping my eye on the road.
So here we are. November 1. This is going to be an interesting month. For a long time now I've been looking forward and setting measurable goals. I did get into the MFA program. I did finish the marathon under five hours. I did book the gigs. This month of November I've renamed Lovember. I'm dedicating it to a different sort of growth, one with no measures. There's going to be a lot less rushing around, because Lovember is not about check lists. Lovember is about kindness. Joy. It is about showering the man I love with love, and writing because I love to write.
This Lovember I am keeping my eye on the things I hold at the center of my heart's bullseye, and not letting past failures be anything other than one lens through which to look at history.