Playing it safe is a ticket to mediocrity in art and in life

2.27.16_marsh_620wI was driving last Wednesday night during a sudden violent thunderstorm, first on the highway and then on city streets unable to handle the epic volumes of water flow. It was a terrifying, white-knuckle experience, especially as I had someone else’s child in my backseat. I was thankful for the traffic, so I could gauge the depths of the fast-running streams that crossed every intersection. Give me a snowstorm any day.

That intimidation feels familiar. It’s been with me all week, as I continue to work on my novel. I keep thinking I’m not up to it and finding other things to occupy my time. I’ve never been afraid of hard work—especially when I’m on a roll. This project is calling me to let go, to let the writing take me where it will. And yet I’m afraid I can’t pull this off. That all these years of work will have been for naught. It seems the more I learn about craft, the bar gets higher and the finish line farther away. Continue reading

Forced hierarchy pushes everyone down

2001_7.24_Havre-de-Grace_620wI am closing in on that age noted by my parents years ago as one entry point into elderhood: when the U.S. President is younger than me. With Obama, I’ve just squeaked by: he is sixteen months older than me. If Hillary or Bernie win this one, I may be okay at least for another four years. That does seem part of either of their appeal—the wisdom and equanimity they must have accumulated during long, eventful lives.

In general, though, we seem to lack positive archetypes for older people, especially women. NPR’s Ina Jaffe has reported about issues facing older Americans for years, and even she doesn’t have a good word to refer to them. Polls are inconclusive: most older people don’t like any of the usual words. But the problem is more than skin deep: Continue reading

Something’s coming

2000_7.9_Whitsunday sunset_cropIn my early 20s, I went through a major Henry James phase. One of my favorite stories—the one that has stuck with me all this time—is, “The Beast in the Jungle.” Maybe you know it. The main character spends his whole life certain that an unnamed evil is waiting out there for him. Something horrible is going to happen; he can feel it. He waits and worries and abstains from engaging with life, trying desperately to stay safe, to avoid this fate. At the very end of his life, he realizes that the catastrophe he feared is, literally, nothing. Nothing has ever happened to him. He has never lived; he refused the love of a good woman and squandered his one, precious life.

Most days, I wake up feeling uneasy, like something is wrong and it’s probably my fault. One recent morning I caught myself and thought of how many days I open my eyes and feel this mild dread. It’s like all the fears and failures, doubts and embarrassment, so carefully packaged and hidden during the previous day, grow restless in the night and surface with the new day. Where else are they to go? They don’t seem willing to stay stuffed down by my oppressively optimistic self. The list-maker. The implementer who stays busy to stave off anxiety. The do-er desperate to avoid an end-of-life realization like Henry James’ unfortunate character. Continue reading

Pulled away: teetering between flow and resistance


“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” ~ Miles Davis

I know I’m a rank novice when it comes to stillness and listening to the small voice within. I’ve been experimenting long enough that I am familiar with what works for me, whether it’s journaling or yoga or piano or walking in the woods or even mundane activities done with mindfulness. Yet it’s all too easy to be pulled away, to sink back into the muck of the modern world around me, with its incessant noise and technology and blather, its crises and escapism.

This is all an easy excuse, of course. I’ve been away from this blog too much lately, and I’m out of sorts. One of my ways of cultivating the timeless and nourishing energies of creation is to write, to polish a bit and release the results into the world. With regular practice, this becomes second nature. I can count on something pouring forth or trickling in, depending on the quality of my attention. When I allow myself to go completely off the rails, I lose that flow and close up. It becomes a chore to receive gifts that were once freely offered. This toggling back and forth can be exhausting. Continue reading