Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Magnets, Magazines and Gentleness

I have a special place in my heart for the cheesy and sentimental, and on my refrigerator I have one of those "quotable" magnets -- the kind that make hipsters and self-styled artsy-types cringe.

Be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. In the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. - Max Ehrmann

When I open the door to refill my water bottle or take out the half-and-half when I make coffee, I read it and I smile, and I try to heed its advice.

Make choices, but do not be hasty, it says to me. Trees don't grow overnight. Neither must I.

I don't know if I've recounted this story before, but I was on the subway in Cambridge once - the red line to Harvard Square - when a kid came up to me. He was maybe 16, and obviously stoned. His eyes were red, but he looked at me with a suddenly alert compassion.

"What happened to you," he asked, looking up at my forehead.

I told him.

He exhaled, mumbled something, and said to me,"You better spend the rest of your life taking it easy."

When I have told that story to people, they bristled. "Don't let that make you think you can be lazy."

At those times, I would stammer that of course not. I was a hard worker. I was responsible. I was what I was supposed to be. I follow the rules. Yes, sir. Why people in my life have been so convinced that on the inside I'm somehow deeply lazy is a topic for another day, but what I should have said was more akin to "fuck off."

Because I think I finally understand what that boy was telling me. Be gentle with yourself.

When people ask what I'm going to do next, I tell them I am freelancing. And I am. I will. I fully intend to make it happen. But then they ask how its going, and really. I've been back in the country for three weeks and lost my pet to cancer. I'm not exactly trying to pitch anyone right now. I'm mostly trying to feel like this life I've thrust myself into is in some way my own.

Which I confess involves a lot of sitting around looking at the spines of books, half-reading New York Times columns and watching episodes of Criminal Minds. I make stacks of things I intend to read. Herodotus. Henry Miller. The new Oprah magazine. I wonder for the thousandth time if Netflix is worth it. I make protein shakes with berries because I can't be bothered to think about actually making food. I wonder how the hell I'm supposed to figure out what to charge people for taking pictures of their kids or their weddings. I wonder if I have any idea what I'm doing.

Today I came across an article in that Oprah magazine by Anne Lamott, a writer whose book "Bird by Bird" -- about life and writing -- was a staple in grad school feature writing. Her article was about finding out who you really are... and it somehow reminded me of that gentleness I had decided to show myself to choose deliberately, without panic.

"I can't tell you what your next action will be, but mine involved a full stop. I had to stop living unconsciously, as if I had all the time in the world. The love and good and the wild and the peace and creation that are you will reveal themselves, but it is harder when they have to catch up to you in roadrunner mode. So one day I did stop. I began consciously to break the rules I learned in childhood: I wasted more time, as a radical act. I stared off into space more, into the middle distance, like a cat. This is when I have my best ideas, my deepest insights," Lamott writes.

I smiled at her words. I've had bosses sigh with exasperation as I've gone shoe shopping while on deadline. When I've flipped through photographs, stared off into space, gone walking around Newburyport and come back with a 42oz. Diet Coke because I didn't have my story nailed down in my head yet -- I'd done all the work except the writing, but the writing -- the figuring out of structure, tone, cadence, nuance... Those things happen when you're not thinking about writing. Some other part of the brain shifts through the information and then poof.

It's time to begin. Thankfully, when on deadline, you can make yourself move faster, but for me it has always involved that seeming waste of time...

So here I sit, on a cool autumn afternoon, listening to the Decemberists. I have vacuumed my apartment. I have done some laundry. I have made lists in my head of all of the things I need to organize, to throw away, to create. And I will do those things. Even a cup of coffee can't be forced into being before its done brewing.

And I will write that damned book I have had in my head all this time, so maybe someday I will get to sit and read my own words in Oprah magazine talking about how sometimes stepping forward means stepping away.

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