Wrists

I never would have described myself as someone who worked with his hands until last month when I could barely write due to pain in my wrists.

What happened was: I took a day off from work and did not rest; I worked in the yard doing in one day all the tasks I’d been wanting to do for weeks. I loaded and hauled off yard waste. I weed-whacked. I dug out a bed around the oak tree in our yard and covered it with mulch. I shoveled new gravel onto our driveway. I was manic homeowner determined to get as much done as I could before the sprouting dandelion came home from school.

A week later I woke up with my left forearm and wrist swollen and sore. I didn’t connect it to the day of labor; instead I thought its occurrence was random, mysterious, perhaps the onset of some kind of more serious disorder. What is my body doing? I wondered. Google didn’t help; within minutes of typing in “sore wrist” and “symptoms” I was enmeshed in descriptions of carpal-tunnel syndrome at best and rheumatoid arthritis at worst. The next day I tried to help Rio cast a fishing line into a lake and had to stop because my wrists were burning so bad. I slipped away into the boat house and sat quietly in the dark, shaking my head, rubbing my aching arms.

In a strange and melodramatic way, I wanted a diagnosis — not to earn pity points but rather because otherwise the condition would be deemed lifestyle-related and the remedy would be a long series of small adjustments. Anything but that. I wanted a name for the pain so that I could find a prescription to kill it.

Panicked, I went to my doctor, and she asked me to detail what I’d been doing with my hands and arms recently. I told her of the day in the yard, of the months tapping feverishly at the keyboard. She did a few tests and declared my wrists and arms overworked. Her prescription? A month of wearing wrist braces and keeping yard work and computer use to a minimum.

I am still young, but the burning in my wrists was telling me I could no longer bang my body around and not notice the bruises. I’d had older friends warn me that a day would come when soreness and stiffness would show up like a stray dog at the door and never really leave the yard, despite my foot-stomping and screams to scram. Damn, that fateful day had arrived, I realized, and I had to fight off the feeling that it was all downhill from here.

But I refused to go lightly down that stream. I focused on changing what I could, which in this case was, first off, swearing off the weed-whacker, which from first purchase had felt all wrong; something about its tiny vibrations made my body feel like a tuning fork struck hard against a piano. Who cares if my grandmother whacked her edges without incident until she was 90? That invention and I were not simpatico. Next I took a good look at my work station from an ergonomic perspective and found that I was basically doing the exact opposite of everything I should. Because I had never had any wrist problems before, I had simply never noticed how I sat, how I typed, how I beheld the magic screen. Now: new chair; new keyboard; new monitor height and placement; new keyboard tray. More breaks. More time in chair by window, reading. More editing standing up. Wrists much happier. Have yet to swear off typing and surfing machine though tempted.

To be sure my condition wouldn’t linger, I paid a visit to a physical therapist in town. She asked a lot of questions, took a mess of notes. She told me to take off my shirt and walk around, lift up my arms, twirl about. It felt odd to be so scrutinized, but comforting too; just trust that this person can help you, I kept thinking to myself as she uttered another “hhmm.”  Her diagnosis? That I was farming out too much labor to my wrists and ankles (low-grade soreness) because of problems in my “core.”

“You are not weak,” she said, “You just need more balance.”

Ah, so my metaphysical struggles find their brethren on the physical plain! Evil little creature, existence!

“Well, I’d like to be balanced,” I said, dead scared, knowing that to change I would have to let my entrenched physical patterns die ignoble little deaths. Adios, status quo. It would mean doing daily exercises with balls and rubber straps and working on tiny forgotten muscles who surely would have preferred their slacker existence.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve doing her exercises, unsure of the science but certain of my faith. It helps to remember my old high-school football coach, Mr. Hirsch, one of those elderly gentlemen with enough “core” to knock your seventeen-year-old ass right on the floor. He’d scream at us to hit the blocking sleds and, if we did that with insufficient vigor, he’d order us to “drop and give me fifty!” I’d  just put my head down and do what I was told. Obedience to authority has its place. So when my physical therapist sweetly but firmly tells me to sit on a huge inflatable ball in front of my computer, I’ll do it, even though it violates in all ways my sense of sleek. Pain, in this case, has been the alarm clock that awoke the slumbering man, reminding him to sit up in his chair and pay attention, to not neglect the gifts that help him live out his purpose.

Healing Wounds

Not long ago I saw a therapist who guided me through a hypnosis session that profoundly changed me.

I had talked with the therapist several times and had told him about a sense I had of a wound within me. It was a physical feeling I would sometimes get of something large, heavy, and overwhelming weighing down on me, a deathly kind of chill that would crop up unexpectedly. I didn’t know what was inside this wound, but I had the sense that something had happened to me that I’d repressed so deeply that I couldn’t name it. I have no memories of any deep trauma, so I was unable to talk or think my way toward resolution. I wanted to get into this dark hole and excavate what was there. I asked the therapist if he could help me.

He told me he might be able to help me heal the wound, but that it was likely I would never be able to understand it. “You may never discover why it is there,” he said. “But we can still try to treat it.”

To get inside the would, I’d have to get into a deeply relaxed, or hypnotic state; to get there, I’d have to open myself up and shut down my rational mind. In a few of our previous sessions, the therapist had noticed that I’d catch my emotions and compose myself right when I was beginning to cry, thereby shutting down the valve that was about to open.

“I can get you down to that spot,” the therapist told me, “but you are going to have to let yourself fall into it.”

I believed this therapist, whom a friend had once referred to as a “shaman in the woods.” I’m suspicious of hocus-pocus, but I also believe there is much to life we cannot see. I realized that I harbored a bias against hypnosis, cartoons from childhood the principal source of my crude understanding of it as a manipulative practice induced by a swaying pocket watch. The therapist was seasoned, smart, and kind. The foundation he provided was firm enough for me to trust leaping off the cliff with him.

To prepare me for the session, the therapist asked me to make a list of spiritual guides I wanted to accompany me on my trip inside. I listed specific family members and friends:  my deceased grandfather Joe and father-in-law Bill would be there. My Mom and Dad, and Annie and Rio would come. I even invited Rumi.

The day of the hypnosis, I was excited but not nervous. I had felt this wound for decades and was inspired by the idea of healing it. My therapist had me lie down, and he used soothing words and silence to bring me into a quiet, floating world where I seemed suspended outside of rational thought. He, as a person, and the room I was in, began to float away. His voice asked me to picture a place I wanted to be, and I ended up choosing the sandy beach right beside the Haw River near our house in Bynum. He invited all of my guides there, and before long I was standing foot-deep in the river surrounded by my friends and family. (That I was literally on my therapist’s couch had become an irrelevant fact.) Rio stepped forward from the circle and stood eye-to-eye with me. I was now a small boy, and not Rio’s father.

Rio said, “Come play with me.”

I shook my head.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I’m scared,” I replied.

“Of what?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“It’s OK,” he said. “You are OK.”

Suddenly the scene was replaced by a blank screen with a strange small black circle slowly moving and circling in front of it. I told the therapist about it, and he encouraged me to look inside the circle. I did, and I only found more darkness. I had the sense that I would find what ailed me if I kept going.

Almost like an abrupt cut in a movie, suddenly I was in my grandfather’s garden on a bright summer day. I was a child. I was kneeling, and my grandfather was on his knees too, carefully showing me how to pick a green bean off the vine. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my arms. This was a scene, but it was also something I had really experienced; my grandfather had always had a huge vegetable garden in his backyard in Connecticut, and my sister and I had spent hours in it helping him and my grandmother pick green beans. In my twenties, I had lived an entire summer in a nearby lake cottage and had visited my aging grandfather weekly. Every visit, we went out to tour his garden, and we picked fresh vegetables for me to take back to the cottage.

But in this moment I was a boy, the same age I’d been with Rio by the river, and I suddenly felt a surge of positive emotion so strong it is hard to describe. It felt like the warm sun was gushing through me, like photosynthesis, like my whole insides were being flooded with the brightest white light. I was awash with love. Tears came gushing down my face in a sudden torrent. “My grandfather loved me so much,” I said out loud with utter clarity.

Just as soon as I felt the sensation, it was gone, and the therapist slowly guided me back to the river, and he soon closed the loop on the ceremony and brought me back to waking life.

As time has passed, I have understood some of what occurred. My sense is that my wound was partially healed through physically experiencing the embodiment of my grandfather’s love. This is not at all what I expected. His love had been so constant and pure in my life that I had largely taken it for granted — I certainly never considered him when I thought about pain. I’d had tumultuous relationships with other men in my life, particularly my father, but my grandfather’s love and presence had never been in question. Perhaps that is why his love, and a scene that epitomized it, was at the center of that swirling black mass, which I believe was a visual symbol of my wound. The session took me not to an answer of what my trauma was, but rather to a source that could heal it.

Today I sat on that same beach in Bynum, looking out over the water as Rio built a sandcastle. At one point he came over to me, nudged my legs open, sat down, and leaned his back against my chest. I put my arms around him and felt the sweetness passing between us. Sometimes I wonder what all of these loving moments between him and me will add up to. Which minutes will become memories? I suspect that love given and received doesn’t just evaporate; I believe it lodges deep inside of us, light we may harvest when later darkness falls.

Gray Skies

Annie found an apt term for what I was in this week: a “grump funk.” I can’t determine its cause but can describe its symptoms:

*General feeling of grayness, like the rainy sky above me. Normally the spring’s burst of blooms sprouting from the trees would get me smiling, but this week they’ve been like tiny worlds I don’t have the passport to. It’s not that I don’t see them (maybe I’d almost prefer that); it’s that I can only shrug at their beauty: nature’s twinkling offerings met only with an indifferent eye.

*Substantial time and energy spent in constructing myths about those around me.  I’ve been flitting between extremes, either romanticizing people so that I can envy them or judging them so I can feel better about myself. It’s a pretty lonely spot.

*Hypercriticism toward works of art, my own or otherwise.  I went to a movie the other night and hated it, despite the fact that it was me solo in an artsy theater taking in the heartbreak of a foreign film. The recipe didn’t work: I almost left halfway through, my inner art critic loudly condemning the film’s every move. Wisely I stayed away from my own writing during this period.

*Isolation. Yesterday I saw one of my favorite acquaintances at a restaurant and gave him only a cursory wave from the safety of my table.  I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer him, or him me. My world is gray and I like it that way, the voice inside me said.

In spite of my grump funk, I put on a good show. My high-school football coach used to admonish us to keep an “even keel” on the field no matter what was happening around us. I try to remain calm, knowing my short-lived malaise is hardly a tragedy. But I still can’t hide it from Annie, nor did I wish to. What good is a relationship if it’s not a safe place to shake out our dusty shadows? Let them fly free for a while. This weekend: nonstop rain both days. I told Annie that if I didn’t have a kid I’d just hole up with her in bed all day, rising only for food and coffee, watching movies and intermittently napping over the hours, unfazed by the changeover from light to dark. I wanted to disengage from life for a good long while, to have a good dose of “I give up” so that I could try again. (Sometimes I flip it and think the singer John Popper had it right when he said, “I think a need a prison in order to dream of being free.”) But then there was Rio wanting to play and explore together, unaware of my motives and offering a real way out of the blues if only I could see the portal he was holding up.

Then Annie stepped in and said, “Why don’t you just curl up for a few hours with the door closed and watch Friday Night Lights? Take the break you need.” And I did, Rio watching his own movie out in the living room for a bit and then he and Annie cooking together, or so best I could discern from my sweet sad nest.

And it was downright medicinal to float in that bubble of jack squat for a while; I smiled and laughed through the show and found myself in a small town in Texas. The respite gave me the wherewithal to stay on the saddle. The psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has written that pleasurable emotions come and go. No matter how we court it, we are at the mercy of joy’s vicissitudes. I know I can’t turn on happiness like it’s a switch, but it still sucks to be in a dark empty room. But I know I’m also lucky: for me the situation is temporary, and even then I see sunlight coming in through the slats.

In the meantime, according to Fredrickson, there is one positive emotion I can actively cultivate: gratitude. While I wait for joy to return from her sojourn down the road I can do more than just curse from the bus stop; I can run through the blessings in my life, say them aloud, even express them to those who bring them.

It may be strange to watch a cranky gringo suddenly telling the people around him what he’s grateful for, but it’s not an act; I’m trying to thank my way out of it. I hope I don’t take those blessings for granted when I find myself again on the coveted perch.

Lost in Translation

I once spent a week at youth hostel in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where I met a big bearded Greek man named Nikos. He and I seemed to stumble into good conversations almost every time we opened our mouths. Nikos was adept at English, but one evening he was trying to make a point, and he couldn’t find the English word for it. “Yes, yes, you see, it’s all about…about…hold on.” He grabbed his Greek/English dictionary and scanned his index finger over the pages. “Yes, it’s all about passion!” he declared.

A few days later we were having a very different conversation, and Nikos was again caught at a linguistic impasse. “That’s such a good example of…of,” he paused, grabbing the book, “of…passion.” This time around he was a little less enthusiastic about his find.

Finally, the next day, we were smack in the middle of more kismet when he turned to find the English translation for the word in Greek he wished to express and once again found “passion,” which he uttered with much less, um, passion. “This English of yours is not so great,” he explained. “You see, those three ideas were three entirely different words in Greek, and they each had an important meaning. In English, it all gets mushed together into one word. I’m glad I have my Greek!”

Nikos’ point was valid, and I can think of other great words that don’t translate neatly into English: duende in Spanish, schadenfreude in German, and ubuntu in Zulu would all need at least a sentence in English to convey what they mean. In such cases, English’s motto seems to be, “When in doubt, appropriate” — Webster’s is littered with words that derive from other languages; we can thank the French for debonair and ennui and the Yiddish for kvetch and shtick, just to name a few.

Interestingly, many countries have fought against importing English into their native languages because so many of the words creeping in are commercial in nature. Say “prime time” or “talk show” in Paris and watch for scowls. But still, I’d make a case for a few English words: how many languages have a term for the last little bit of food left intentionally on the plate? That would be ort. How about “fond of using maxims in a way that is ponderously trite?” Hello sententious. It’s also hard to beat the word jaunty.  Doesn’t it just sound right? I’m also a big fan of panoply.

The truth is, all languages are inherently imperfect. I see the spectrum of light refracted by rain in the sky and say “rainbow,” and you understand, though that label can hardly capture the infinite associations we each have with that particular phenomenon. Any word is shorthand for something that is, if it were to be fully expressed, utterly unique, and thus, in a word, ineffable. In the face of complex concepts, experiences, or emotions, sometimes words do fail, regardless of the particular language that contains them.

It’s also true that all languages evolve through their contact with other tongues. What’s wrong with a free trade of words? I should have asked Nikos for those three different Greek varietals of passion and integrated them into my lexicon at least. In South Africa, Afrikaans is a good example of a rich melange, even with its checkered racial past. Its root is Dutch, but as Dutch settlers in Cape Town interacted with the indigenous Khoisan people, French Huguenot settlers, and the thousands of slaves the Dutch brought in from countries such as Malaysia, Madagascar, and Sri Lanka, the language became a hodgepodge of dialects. To this day, Afrikaans is notorious in South Africa as the best language to swear in. Its phrase for “Get lost!” (Voetsek!) is so effective in scaring off dogs that I still use the phrase to intimidate suspect canines, even when they are North Carolina natives.

Kids are wonderful innovators of language and seem to have no problem mixing and melding for maximum effect. Years ago Rio decided that except and besides were so interchangeable that it was easier to just use becept. I’ve been tempted to call this evolution and use the word. And to this day, we still refer to Rio’s favorite fruit as strawbabies, relishing rather than correcting that particular malapropism. Now that he’s starting to write phonetically, his linguistic inventions are growing exponentially. My favorite right now is how he writes was as ouz. I didn’t know he’d already been influenced by the French oui.

Cosmology

I was raised fairly agnostic in Los Angeles, but I remember going with my grandparents to Catholic Mass every Sunday when my sister and I would spend the summer with them in Connecticut. I was perplexed by the “Lamb of God” imagery, and I tired from shifting from sitting to standing to kneeling so many times.  But I also remember the way my grandfather, normally taciturn and reserved, would gruffly sing along with all the hymns. I liked dropping coins in the basket as it was passed down the row but was jealous of the people who stood in line for Eucharist because I was usually hungry. My favorite part of the ceremony was when we turned to our neighbors, stuck out our hands and said, “May peace be with you.”

I started talking to God after this — nothing major, not with much faith or vigor, but once in a while I’d shout when I needed something. But then there came the day when I asked and he didn’t show up. I was nine, and my parents were getting divorced. My father had moved out, our house was on the market, and we were living in limbo. I was feeling lonely, dispirited, and I wanted my friend Greg to come over. I called him but got a busy signal. For some reason playing with Greg seemed like the most important thing in the universe. God, please let Greg’s phone ring and let him answer and please let his parents say yes! I called: busy. I repeated this three more times and then said to God: If you don’t make him get off the phone this time, I’ll never speak with you again!

The subsequent busy signal sealed the deal.

I spent the next two decades proudly godless, relying on my own will power and abilities to make things happen. I looked down on people who hadn’t figured out the folly of giving up so much power to some holy force. But then I started to notice phenomena like deja vu and coincidences and thinking about someone just seconds before they walked into a room. When my friend Vince and I backpacked through southern Africa, we began seeing conspiracies of confluences sprouting up everywhere, from the backs of Malawian buses to the sides of Zimbabwe highways to the porches of Tanzanian youth hostels. Vince and I started calling such moments of connectivity “HP,” for higher power. (Later I discovered this term was common shorthand for God in twelve-step meetings, but at the time Vince and I thought we’d invented it.)

As I got older, I saw that my own self-will was not as potent and steadfast as I had come to believe. When it would falter, or come up against forces greater than it, I realized I could either drown alone or throw my hand up for help. I began to understand that “higher power” wasn’t a stingy overlord nor a haphazard genie who sprinkled good fortune. Rather, it was an animate force I could engage, one that resided much closer to my own imperfect heart than I’d realized previously. I began asking for aid and assistance more readily, and thus stumbled into prayer — the act of saying “I cannot do it alone” invited the holy in.

So when Rio asked me last night, unannounced, over casserole, “What is God?” I knew I had quite a task cut out for me.

“God is . . . love,” I replied. “You know how you felt when you were sick last week and you kept nuzzling into that warm spot under Mama’s arms? I’d call that God. And remember how we told you that when your grandfathers died their spirit lived on in the flowers and the rivers and the trees? Well, that’s God too.”

“And what about Jesus Christ?”

Jesus.

“What about him?”

“Well I know what happened to him!” Rio responded, jumping off his chair to act out the scene. “These guys didn’t like him so they made this cross and they used a hammer and nails and they stuck those through his wrists and ankles and he bled and died.” He squinched his face a little. “Why did they do that to him?”

“He was brave and he fought for justice, and he believed in helping people, and not being greedy,” I explained. “Some people didn’t like that. He was a great and important person. And so were others like Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Bob Marley and Harriet Tubman. Some people think Jesus sticks out over all the rest, but I don’t think so. They say he is the son of God. I don’t think he was the son of God — I think we all are. I think we all have God in us.”

“So God’s inside you?

“Yup.”

“And me? Is God inside me?”

“Yes, my love. Yes.”

Namesakes

When I lived in Johannesburg in my twenties, I would often travel to Zimbabwe to visit a friend I’d made there named Sam Koffi. One time I asked Sam to translate his son’s name, Donotso, into English.

“I can’t really think of the word, but let me try to explain it, Tim.” Sam described how when it rains in the rural areas of Zimbabwe, it is not uncommon to see children running out of their homes and opening their mouths to the sky, laughing and dancing for the crops they know will finally grow. “‘Donotso! Donotso!’ they chant. The rain has finally come. This is what I have called my son,” Sam said.

“Ahh, I see,” I remember saying. “So his name means ‘Refreshment.'”

“No,” Sam replied. “It is stronger than that.”

“Relief?”

“No, not that either. I’m sorry, Tim, there is no word for it in English.”

Years later in California, I asked a Hmong-American high-school student I was teaching what her name, Nkauj Nag, meant in English. She thought for a while and then responded, “You know how you feel kind of sad when it rains, but in a good way? Well, that’s what my name means. How about your name, Tim?”

At first I had no real answer. I told her there was a Book of Timothy in the Bible, and that it probably carried some ancient meaning I didn’t know.  (Later I looked it up and found out that the root of Timothy is “honoring God.”) But in the days that followed, I remembered some stories about my name. For one, my parents told me that before I was born, they had a few names on their short list — Timothy, Evan, and David — but that when I came out, they weren’t sure which one to pick. As they deliberated, my three-year-old sister Jenny decided to call me “Betty,” after Betty Rubble of The Flinstones; apparently I held that name for a short while.

My middle name Saunders has some juice in it too. I was named after a great-great uncle of mine, Nicholas Saunders, who was killed by the hoof of a horse that a Pinkerton guard was riding during Pennsylvania’s Homestead Strike of 1892. As the legend has it, Saunders was a young Irish-American priest who supported labor rights. He had traveled to Homestead to aid the striking workers, and in so doing, met his death.

I believe our names have power; they can be an evocation that echoes through our lives. I like to think that Nicholas Saunders’ commitment to social justice explains in part the presence of that in my life. No doubt this is why Annie and I gave Rio “Mandela” as his middle name; we wanted to link him directly to a person we looked up to, to someone who had made an impact on the world.  It’s not that we expect Rio to go to prison for 27 years for his ideals and to later become a emerging democracy’s president, but, hey, those ain’t bad roots to draw from.

Back in Joburg, names were complex and political. It was common during apartheid for Africans to have two names: real ones in their home language that usually carried some deep, at times political, meaning, and their Christian names. There was the notion that the latter would be useful to Africans as they navigated a white world they were officially on the margins of, especially because most white people couldn’t (read wouldn’t) pronounce African names. Homes that were more politically radical tended reject the charade, while more traditional folks continued to use both names, or perhaps even only the Christian one.

In the high school where I taught history and English, I encountered the entire spectrum: there was the school janitor who proudly went by his Ndebele name, Sifelani, which meant, “Why are my people dying?” Then there were students with African names that weren’t necessarily political but meaningful: Mpho (Gift) was sometimes given to the only girl in a family, or to a child whose mother had had a particular difficult pregnancy; Ayanda (The Family is Growing) was commonly the name of a first child. And then there were the scores of students who went by their Christian names: Peter, Paul, and Mary seemed to show up in every classroom.

Interestingly, Nelson Mandela’s Xhosa name was both difficult to pronounce and symbolically significant: Rolihlahla is a pretty good tongue twister, and it translates as  “pulling a branch from a tree,” or, put another way, “stirring up trouble.”

One of my favorite students was a tall, sassy boy from Soweto named Churchill.  I once asked him where he got his name. “My father always liked Winston Churchill,” he said without a trace of irony. By the end of my time in South Africa, as the nation shifted from apartheid to a multiracial democracy, Churchill started going by his real name instead: Itumeleng. It means “Rejoice.”

Was Gone for Days

I just didn’t have it in me. The living of life with the eyes open to the details, the sublime in the ordinary. Nope, for the last week I’ve only wanted to run away. Since writing is a lens through which I develop my own consciousness, then I wanted to be nowhere near the act. Anything I started to tap out felt fake, anyway, because my heart wasn’t in it; I had, as Ginsberg has put it, no shoulder behind the wheel.

My heart in fact was into not being present. I was trying to embrace my own nihilism, to accept my unwillingness to see the bridges. My friend Dre says that “balance is available to you at any moment,” and I believe this, but yesterday I did not want to lift the heavy veil between me and the good spot. It’s not that I’ve been teetering on imbalance’s beam; it’s more a feeling of numbness, nullness, a mute cloud.

But then my boy, who was home sick kinda from school, told his Mama that he wanted to stop by my office so that he could give me a hug and a kiss, which he did on a gravel parking lot and I swear those lips on my cheeks bathed me in hued light; “love works” I told him later, because he unlatched his chest and walked through its swinging doors until he reached mine — which were locked — but his words and touch were the key, and now here I am feeling this diamond inside, cracking open as I feel that kiss again.

Good Morning, Fear

I don’t know if it’s some twisted application of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous words or if it’s simply human nature, but I spend a lot of time in fear of fear itself. Unless I encounter something like a snake on a trail or a swerving car hurtling toward me, I don’t really interact much with my own fear, even though I have lots of it. My practice is to treat it as an unwelcome houseguest I hope will go away if I just close my eyes long enough. And yet fear exerts a huge influence on my psyche; it’s almost as if it gains power the more I pretend it’s not there.

I experienced this phenomenon over the weekend. Rio and a kid he knows had a run-in, and for some reason, this incident triggered a lot of painful feelings in me, most of which were faces of fear. Are Annie and I parenting right? Will Rio be rejected? Will I be rejected? Why are there so many loose, imperfect ends in my life? Why am I doing only A through G on my list of improvements for self, family, and house instead of A to Z? And why the fuck do we have so many things in storage?

I say this now, but on Saturday, I couldn’t have listed these fears because I was too busy shielding my eyes from them. I’m very good at knowing what I feel, but not so good at knowing what I fear. It’s as if I recoil the moment fear makes its presence known, retreating to my insulated chamber where I wait for the world to go away. I didn’t reach out to anyone most of the weekend and instead played a favorite game of mine called Numb It.

The problem is that fear is hungry and doesn’t take kindly to being ignored. It came back with a dagger, striking at 4 a.m. when I bolted awake with a morbid sense of rupture between me and Rio, between Rio and that kid, between our house and theirs. It’s as if fear hired a horror-film director and cast a montage of worst-case scenarios on my mind’s wall. In short, spurned fear returned as anxiety, which afflicted me all weekend long.

The other form unmet fear takes for me is anger. Recently Annie and I had a disagreement. I had been building resentment, which I’d been hiding so expertly I didn’t even see it myself. But then Annie committed some small infraction that triggered the “I’ve got her” response, and I pointed a long finger in her direction and made sweeping generalizations that hurt. I raised my voice so loud my vocal chords felt strained the whole day; I even threw my jacket to the kitchen floor with a flourish, an act so silly I wish I’d caught it on camera so I could get some kicks later watching my own folly.

Finally I settled down, and as we kept talking we reached a tender place. And then I admitted, “I’m scared.” I listed everything I was afraid of, in terms of our marriage, our family, our future, and she said, “I wish you had just started there. I can meet you there. We can work from there.”

I don’t have a magic bullet for interacting with fear; I just know avoiding it causes me more harm than good.  I want to see fear as an opening to walk through, not a steel-jawed trap to run from.

My friend Jason told me a story years ago that I like to keep in mind. A man is sitting in his house and he hears a scary monster outside. It (whatever it is we don’t want to face) is walking around the house, trying all the doors and windows, trying to get in. The man imagines a ghoulish monster with long claws dripping in blood. He retreats to a back room. The monster starts to knock. When no one comes, the monster knocks louder and says, “I know you’re in there!” The man finally musters up the courage to answer the door, and he looks out to find a tiny smiling creature standing on the mat. “What took you so long?” the creature asks, and walks in.

Living the Word

What to make of the oft-heard dictum that writing is hard?

For one, I don’t think writers have a corner on the market. Obviously it takes skill, study, and discipline to get the words right, but this is true for any creative endeavor. Maybe we hear more about “writer’s block” than “painter’s block” because writers write about it! But, yes, writers, like all artists, need to practice, and study the masters, and spend many hours working on their craft.  As Oscar Wilde once said, “I spent the entire morning inserting a comma; I spent the whole afternoon removing it again.”

But what of the times when an artist just can’t face the empty canvas?

Up until recently, I’d experienced a frustrating season of not writing as much as I wanted to. I had a lot of free-floating artistic angst; sometimes this imploded as hopelessness, other times it exploded in tiny fits of envy toward other writers who were seemingly more prolific than me.

I feel pain when I don’t write, because I’m happy when I do; nothing like the river of words cascading down the page. But often in life I leave this place of glory — sometimes aggressively marching off, other times getting distracted away. This is what is difficult — the inexorable separation from the very pursuits that make me happy. What I’m not writing, the grace I’m not feeling — this, to me, is the hard work of writing. Writing itself, then, is arduous because it is difficult to get to.

I believe there are some hidden passages back to the creative sweet spot. I taught a course recently at the local community college called “Write Where You Are.” In it we aimed to shed the delusions of the writer we should be and embrace instead the writer we already were. What we found is that we were all writing — sometimes on the back of a shopping list and sometimes in an email to a friend — but the words were there to prove it, even without the validation of a contract or a book editor’s stamp of approval. We had all become so enslaved to the story of our own underproduction that we couldn’t see our own virtuosity. A friend of mine told me her version of such artistic re-framing; she started calling her creative time “the making hour” instead of “when I’ve got to write.” Sometimes she wrote; sometimes she knitted, but the fact is she was being creative and fruitful, with much less stress.

Still, there are times (days, months) when I just don’t feel like writing.  Some may rush to tag these seemingly unproductive periods with the label of “writer’s block,” but I like to approach the impasse differently. I think most writers fret needlessly over their pencil’s silence. I once heard a radio interview with the novelist Richard Ford. After being asked what he thought about writer’s block, Ford replied, I don’t. “When I’m not writing,” he said, as best I can recall, “I’m busy living, which gives me material for writing later on.” As another story goes, in Buddha’s day monks spent most of their time wandering. It was only during the three-month rainy season that they actually came in for formal practice. And here we are freaked out because we didn’t meditate (write, paint, sculpt) during our pre-assigned slot today.

Artists, then, have a choice: to label an unproductive period as a failure, or to unwring their hands and dig them instead into the fresh dirt of the days ticking by. Because if quiet periods are labeled as dead, what material will artists draw from when inspiration somehow picks the lock on their door and grabs them by the collar again?

I say abandon the self-recrimination, and honor rather than curse the broken pen. Fill the buckets with life’s rich imperfect waters and believe the words will arrive again. Seeds find the fallow field. As Wendell Berry put it, “The unhappiest people in the world may be the ones who think their happiness depends on artistic success of some kind.” I sometimes wonder whether this burden, which I truly believe is self-imposed, is part of why so many incredible artists fall irretrievably to their demons.

Hung Out to Dry

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

I was awed during my recent trip to New Orleans by the sheer number of people expressing themselves artistically in public. Damn, it was good to see all those guts turned outward.

Lots of images stay with me: the dreadlocked teenager in a suit sitting atop a traffic-light box strumming a banjo as his buddies played an upright bass and washboard on the sidewalk beneath him; a tattooed young woman belting out the blues on the corner like some punk-rock Bessie Smith; the beautiful couple dressed in old-fashioned clothes dancing the Charleston as an old-time band jammed behind them; the big trombone player with pillows for cheeks who beamed between thrusts of his bent piece of brass.

Driving home from the airport back in North Carolina, I looked out over the well-maintained streets and said to Annie, “I miss me some funk.”

Not to say that the place where we live isn’t the home of some vibrant art; it just seems well tucked-away. People do their funk in private, it seems, and I miss the places I’ve lived and visited where people pin their souls to their lapels and scream.

I say this as someone who himself is fairly guarded in public; I’ve never been an airplane-talker or bus-chatter or look-at-me-over here kind of guy. But I do share my inner struggles and epiphanies, as long as it feels right. To me the idea of “wearing one’s heart on their sleeve” has been misinterpreted and maligned; I’m not advocating the laying bare of all one’s angst in bouts of self-serving sensationalism, but I do think too few people answer basic questions like “how are you today” with real answers. I say, give me some goods, and I’ll give you some of mine.

But such exchanges aren’t for everybody. Some prefer a life where struggles stay safely beneath the surface. I’ve always loved that scene in Annie Hall when a worrisome Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) stops a couple on the street and asks, “You seem like a happy couple; how do you account for it?” And the woman says with a smile, “Uh, I’m very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.” And her partner pipes in, “And I’m exactly the same way!”

I can understand the instinct to play it safe — it’s a little scary on the ledge. I recently wrote a note to a friend in which I was daring with some feelings I was having; I didn’t hear back from him for a few days, and during that lull (in which I checked email way too often), I fretted over how much of my laundry I’d put out on the line. I read and reread my note, scrutinizing each word to see if it said too much. I was dying for some validation that what I’d exposed was in safe hands, but the silence continued. I ended up regretting that I sent the note, wishing I had not opened the door in my chest where truth comes and goes. Am I a fool to leave it ajar?

The key, it seems, is to know one’s audience. There are some people who like nothing more than to roll up their sleeves and play a good hand of what’s really going on with you. There are others who might like a peek but not a full disclosure. And there are some who would rather not play at all, for a variety of reasons, big and small. I try to be discriminating, but I’m not always going to get it right. There will be times I say too much. It’s in these moments, I think, that integrity truly gets tested. I once told a mentor about a moment when I had revealed too much. “Aha. So they’ve seen you with your pants down!” he said. “Now the question is what will you do in the glare of those lights?”

The answer is: I will continue to be bold, because doing so has freed me from years of shyness as a child and decades of swallowing my truths instead of sharing them. When I pull my own curtains back, whether on the page or in voice, I shed the layers distancing me from life’s messy splendor; when this is reciprocated, the resulting intimacy is an antidote to loneliness. So I will press on, knowing I’ll sometimes get caught on the corner with my broken self fluttering in the wind. I’ll reel it in, give it a squeeze, and unfurl it again. There are people on sidewalks everywhere trusting the world with their mottled beauty, and I will always be one of them. And damn, what a tribe.

Photo by Dion Nissenbaum