The story begins with me moving from mountain to cat, passing through cat tuck. Leading with the back of my neck, I pull forward, bringing my knees to ground and curling my spine outward, tucking my chin, chest, and stomach in, in, in, then flattening it all to natural alignment starting at the tailbone and moving up the spine to my head.
I kneel in cat, wrists under shoulders, head forward, back straight. The teacher approaches and reaches down to touch the vertebrae between my shoulder blades. “Can you straighten here?” she asks. I let my spine sink between my shoulder blades. “You don’t want to make a valley,” she says. I lift my spine back up a little. She presses down. “Now what about this vertebra?” I feel her finger on the bone, and I know how she wants me to move, but I can’t imagine how to move there. “It’s as if you’re beginning cobra,” she says, and so I pull my shoulders down my back, lift up through my chest. “Where are you feeling that? What are you tightening to make that happen?” she asks.
“My arms,” I say, and my armpits are quivering with effort but it’s not quite my arms—this position is creating a curious feeling in my stomach and chest, an opening that feels close to a breaking. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s difficult—and new. It’s also triggering insight: this is my problem, this is the weak link. “That’s what you want,” she says. “Every time. Every time.”
Oh the ecstasy of self-improvement fantasies. I walked home marveling at the new lift in my chest and ribs, the catch of my breath as if the top of my lungs weren’t used to such space and struggled to fill it. I envisioned a new me, one who, empowered by strength in the small connective muscles of my back, could throw farther, lift more, sing louder, swing a bat faster, and impress my father-in-law with my steady grip on the pistol we shoot once a year or so at the hunting camp.
Poor unimproved former self, I thought. That unenlightened she found it easier to breathe when slightly slumped, could push herself harder and farther if she went sloppily, bullying past her field of energy instead of staying in it. But this NEW self leads with her heart. She moves deliberately, discerning what is needed from what is not. She knows how to be where she is and how to fill that space. She will never slump again.
Can I tell you it is self-published? Can I say that without it feeling like a confession? It’s a book of poems, and it didn’t win any contests. No one important wrote a blurb. The back cover is blank but for my bio and a barcode. I paid for the rights to use the cover art, and I looked at other poetry books to figure out how to format the front and back matter. I chose the font type and size and spacing. I set the price. I wrote the description for amazon.com. I did it by myself on createspace.com, a division of Amazon.
My motivation to self-publish was 80% closure (i.e., get these 10-year old poems out of my head so I can move on) and 20% hope (i.e., maybe someone will like them). The first draft of my book bio: “She is happy to put this book (her first) into the world so she can forget about it and move on to other things.” I thought it was amusingly self-deprecating at the time, but on one of my final proofs it suddenly sounded sad and a little F-you if you’re dumb enough to buy this book. Shame runs deep. I haven’t worked hard enough, I haven’t tried hard enough to win a first book contest, I don’t participate enough in the literary community. Someone important will see this and shake their head: There’s a lot of crap out there.
I changed the bio. Cutting out that sentence made it bland, but it dissipated the darkness that hung around the whole process. It inspired some much-needed revisions of a couple of poems I’d been pretending were okay. It made me excited, finally. I wrote a book! I can give it to people! Some people might even buy it!
And then the ensuing upward spiral…I will give this book of poems to people, I fantasized, and their enjoyment will grow to a fervor. They’ll tell their friends, who will tell their friends, some of whom will work at libraries and bookstores, and I’ll be invited to read, to autograph, to write the screenplay. Someone famous will nominate my book for a famous prize. More importantly, I will not be someone who has regrets on her deathbed. I will instead have a pile of my own books around me, testament to my warm embrace of the person I was meant to be.
I’m a sucker for self-improvement. Caught in my visions of perfection, I never dream that I could backslide to that former dud of a self. But every time, I do. Even now, as I write this, I’m slumping in my seat and worrying that I might never finish a book again.
I could take comfort in the Buddhist teaching that I’m already whole, that I can stop striving and just be where and who I am. But if I give up on a new self, then what becomes of these moments of experience that feel so true and inspirational? Do they matter?
Not really. What matters is that I took a single moment in yoga class and my excitement about my book and turned them into thoughts: thoughts of perfection and self-worth, thoughts of the future, thoughts of the past. All of these thoughts are illusion, and any indulgence in illusion comes with a crash. When I fail to live up to my vision, I’m left with guilt and shame.
What matters is that I did something brave with my poems. I finished something, released it to the world as a thing, an artifact, and by doing so removed it from the possibility of change. If it can’t change, I can stop thinking about it. (If only I could publish myself, right? Then I could stop thinking about her…)
What matters is the moment of connection with my yoga teacher. I went to yoga that night grudgingly, resenting how long it would take and how crowded it would be. Instead, I was given a gift, perhaps for that night only, that made me happy I went.
Last year, I quit teaching college students how to write and got a job at a new little grocery store beneath a wellness center in my town. I didn’t quit teaching FOR the market job, but it’s helping me cover bills until I do what I really want to do: TBD.
The market is Amish-owned and operated and sells a mixture of bulk foods, homemade canned goods, produce, deli meats and cheeses, and expired and/or damaged surplus goods (“bent-and-dent”). My education began immediately, when I was confronted by the first of a series of escalating grammatical dilemmas. Do I tell the boss that ‘glutin’ is spelled with an ‘e,’ forcing him to change the sign he bought for the front door? They say if you don’t speak up, you share the guilt. As an English major, is it my duty combat illiteracy? More importantly, what if customers think I don’t know how to spell? Luckily, the boss overheard a customer tell me that we’d (we’d!) misspelled gluten, so when he asked me, to my great relief, to correct it, I cut out an e-sized piece of white paper, drew a neat “e” on it, and taped it nearly seamlessly over the “i.”
But soon my boss decided to label almost everything with index cards, and the grammatical dilemmas rocketed. Banana’s, Carotts, Mazarela, Baking Supplys, Picinic Baskets, Yogart—even when “yogurt” is clearly printed on the Chobani container. They say if you don’t speak up, you get throat cancer. But I keep my silence. When tape wears out and the cards fall off, I write new ones, hoping to teach by example. But when my lovely “Bananas” sign falls, a new one appears: “Bananana’s,” that tiny fourth ‘a’ wedged in like a splinter into my heart.
Lesson one: Humility.
Who cares if customers, even those who know you used to work in the English department, think you don’t know how to spell? If you live with the embarrassment long enough, it ceases to bother you. As you become less critical of others (e.g., remember that Amish are bilingual, and you aren’t), you might become less critical of yourself (e.g., it’s okay that you’re not bilingual). You might even start to wonder if anyone cares about your mistakes as much as you imagine they do. (You might acknowledge that some people, perhaps English-major types, will care; they might even judge the quality of your thinking by the quality of your writing, but these types are few, and they are punished every day by their fear of being judged intellectually inferior.)
In other words, don’t be such a perfectionist. What’s the big deal? Carotts and mazarela can both be eaten at picinics. Write, and write more. Write imperfectly, even when you know better. Trust your readers’ capacity to overlook. Be kind to yourself.
Lesson two: Embrace other people’s contradictions. Other people’s contradictions = writing material.
The market is Amish-owned and operated. I’m the only non-Amish (aka “English”) employee. Before the market, my impression of the Amish was of unsmiling faces pale between black hats and dark beards, staring straight ahead from the buggies we would pass in Lancaster County on the way to my grandma’s house. We saw Amish teenagers on scooters, one leg shoving the blacktop over miles of country roads; we saw little girls running in their yards wearing bonnets and aprons. We counted the Amish houses by the plain green shades pulled halfway down each window. No curtains, no pastels, no frills, no electricity—only cows, the Bible, and hard work.
But seventeen-year-old Miriam has and uses a smart phone. She packs her lunch in a pink princess bag and wears Sketchers with her dress and hair net; her slim ankles and shapely, unshaven calves rise beguilingly above them. Thomas, with his long, white beard and homemade deli aprons, made a joke about bikinis one time and has often expressed his view that the mentally ill need medication, not just a better diet. He tells me stories about how traveling soldiers treated the Amish during the Civil War, stealing and ransacking; one man came into the store recently just to yell at Thomas for not fighting in Vietnam.
Caleb, the owner, has had massages and Reiki treatments from women at the wellness center upstairs, and he gets a ride every weekend to Lancaster to date Amish women. I’m not sure if it’s because he doesn’t like the ones here, two and half hours northwest, or if it’s part of the effort to mix up the gene pool. He posts regularly on the market’s Facebook page. He’s read A Course in Miracles, a book of Jesus’s teachings as channeled through Helen Schucman, a psychology professor at Columbia in the sixties. He shrugs off the channeling part: “It’s not any different than the prophets from the Bible.” He’s read the entire book, all 1000+ pages of it. He reads through the Bible every year, too; it’s just a little bit of reading each night, he says. And thus, lesson three.
Lesson Three: If you work steadily, stuff gets done.
You’d think I’d know this already. And I do, theoretically, although I’ve rebelled against slow, steady work my entire life. I have preferred the hare’s alternating energy blasts to the turtle’s plod, eternity made visible. But here, confronted with 50-lb bags of flour or pickling spice or oat bran that must be packed into 1 and 5 lb bags, I learn that I tend to WAY overestimate how long things will take, which means I rarely attempt anything that seems big—like writing a novel or trying to publish a book.
Packing monstrous amounts of basil into 4 oz containers, by the way, takes about an hour, not weeks and weeks of toil and cinders and little mice that sing and make clothes for you.
Lesson Four: Confidence is key.
Caleb knows nothing about food; Thomas says this is because he’s a bachelor whose mom cooks all of his meals. Thomas also says that Caleb doesn’t taste food—he just eats it. So in addition to having to explain to Caleb what a yam is (not a radish) and how long apples will stay fresh (not two years), we’ve had to explain that lumpy milk is bad milk and that hard chips are stale chips. “It tastes fine to me,” Caleb says, and sells it anyway. All of this is to say that it’s been Caleb’s life’s dream to own a grocery store, and now he owns one. He makes decisions quickly and in a minute reverses them without worry. He insists that customers will buy more if all prices end in a 9.
Lesson? You can do anything you want. Want to be a writer? Write! If Caleb wants to write a book one day, I have no doubt that he’ll do it promptly and with minimal worry about how it looks or sounds. That’s an editor’s job, anyway.
Lesson Five: Keep your deadlines flexible.
Under Caleb’s tutelage, I’ve learned the meaninglessness of the expiration date. If we haven’t sold something by 10/21/14, don’t worry! Just cross out the old date with a black marker and write in a new one, say 05/30/15. Or, play it safe and give everything we pack an expiration date of two years, whether it’s pretzels or fudge or cumin.
Some writers like deadlines. I don’t like deadlines, but I need them. For example, I was asked to write this blog in August and given a deadline of February. I like this. It gives me lots of time to set and cross out deadlines along the way. The deadline doesn’t matter that much as long as sometimes still buys the final product. The final product doesn’t have to be good, as long as someone buys it.
Lesson Six:Don’t worry so much about transitions.
One normally wouldn’t expect to find piles of mayonnaise on the produce table, but if you have boxes of expired mayonnaise and not very much produce, why not?
If one of your characters or ideas is not well-developed and you don’t know how to fix it, just write other stuff all around it. That will get people’s attention; they might even buy it.
If you notice that your list of lessons is less about lessons and more about some light sarcasm, don’t worry about accounting for this shift in tone.
Lesson Seven: Organization doesn’t matter.
People will find what they need. Cram your book/shelves with so many words/foods that people will be forced to dig through them to find the gold. It doesn’t have to make sense! It’s better if it doesn’t! People will discover something unexpected in the process.
For example, if you pack a sentence so full of words that they all jumble together like pineapple chunks soaked in heavy syrup and stuffed into a 15.5 oz dented can sitting on top of torn, stacked boxes of expired mackerel next to the pillar in the aisle off of which customers have to scrape the wooden molding to get by with their carts (and forget about handicapped access) and in the meantime you’re so tired of walking over to the deli to see if anyone needs meat and the webbing between your thumb and fingers is sore from triggering the pricing gun, then your sentence will force people to stay with it and look at it again and again, as many times as there are boxes of recalled diced tomatoes, and if anyone gives up and leaves, they’ll be dogged by the fear that they missed something really great. It’s kind of like reading the classics.
Lesson Eight: CINDY! DELI!
Sometimes you have to get someone to yell at you to hurry up even if you’re already on your way there.
Lesson Nine:It’s not rotten unless it makes someone throw up immediately.
If you must hang on to an idea (or potato salad) even though the essay (or customer) is just not buying it, do so.
Kill your babies, they say. But I say don’t kill them until you’re perfectly sure they are disgusting, ugly babies that make you want to throw up. Because sometimes those babies have to stick around for awhile until you stop being enamored with them. So, even though they may kill your entire essay or poem or book, let them have their way. Watch how they make your readers gag. Watch how they make your essay gag. Then, when you finally start to gag, even if it takes years, you can throw them out gladly and with relish.
Lesson Ten: Freely plagiarize yourself.
Just because you have expired matzos priced 2 for $1 in the first aisle doesn’t mean you can’t have another stack of the same expired matzos priced for .99 a little further down the aisle. Most customers/readers don’t look/read that carefully anyway. Go banana’s.
Lesson Eleven: Ignore your critics. In fact, it might be better for you to avoid workshop-style writing all together.
Trust your instincts. When you know that your efforts to keep the shelves orderly increase sales (for example, the same day you organized the salad dressing, almost every customer that day bought salad dressing), and you know that part of being orderly means not putting all 12 boxes worth of dented chicken noodle soup cans on the shelf at once, crowding out other soups, you can neatly place and label the extra chicken noodle soup in the storage area and safely ignore the co-worker who makes sarcastic comments like “People won’t buy it if it’s not on the shelves” and “You making another store back here?”
Even so, even when you know beyond doubt that you are completely and obviously RIGHT, the critics can still make you nervous. They can make you want to give up, to stop fighting the status quo and just stuff the shelves. In that case, you can either rally yourself or see lesson 7.
Lesson Twelve:Love your creations, whether they be characters, line breaks, lines of reasoning, descriptions, or plots. It’s all illusion anyway, so relish the process and forget the outcome.
Not all Amish stores operate this way (in fact, I’d bet most don’t). And even though I’m often stymied by grammatical or ethical dilemmas, I can still enjoy work if I loosen my desire to control and focus on what I like. I like using the cash register. I like cleaning fingerprints off the freezer glass. I like how Thomas sings when he mops the floor or cleans the slicer. I like getting lost in organizing the cake mixes, even when I come in the next day to find my entire system in disarray. It’s all about the moment anyway, right? I have yet to apply this attitude to writing, but I’m working on it.
Lesson Thirteen:When you’re ready to quit, don’t question yourself.
If you live in the flow, focus on process, stay in the moment, etc., you will know when it’s time to move on. The flow will divert, and you’ll float along with it. When that moment comes, don’t think about it, don’t open up the space for anxiety and second-guessing. Don’t worry about closure or timing or elegance. Just move on. This can apply to jobs or to essays.
Too many words, I tell the man poking at my stomach. He’s doing something called Chi Nei Tsang, working with the energy of my internal organs, and he’s instructed me to name any resulting thoughts or feelings. Coming at you or coming from you? he asks.
From me, I say. Required of me, I think, but I don’t say this. I don’t want to hurt his feelings.
I’m struck by this phrase that arises from my belly. Like any teacher and writer and friend and family member, I deal in words. Speech—the demand of forming words in my head and lining them up in an articulate queue before they exit my mouth—has always drained me.
You’re a good listener, people tell me.
Where talking fails, I write. I take the chaos of words in my head and organize them on paper, mostly to get rid of them but also in the hope that if they’re good enough, they’ll entertain people who don’t know me. Writing about yourself is called memoir, and that’s what I’ve been doing for years now. Writing about myself means I never lack for ideas. I’ve also been convinced that writing about myself is essential to healing. It’s almost a form of righteousness, this therapeutic work, this writing through it.
So why the angst now? For whatever reason, writing no longer feels therapeutic. It feels oppressive. All of that meaning. All of that me.
I met a woman at a holistic health type of retreat who said she was a retired potter. How do you retire from pottery? You begin to practice Zen Buddhism and realize that you can stop putting stuff into the world.
What if I could heal myself not through words but through silence? Some meditation practices teach that we are of four minds: the senses, the ego, the intuitive decision-maker, and the memory bank. The memory bank—the part of the self that makes demands, that begs for our return to old habits, that cries out with desire, fear, aversion—tends to make the most noise and, for me, has motivated writing. It has convinced me that its feelings and desires are the only worthy subject and that processing its feelings and desires is the most important task in the whole wide world.
Meditation teaches that we can tame this memory bank. We can sit quietly while it rages and cries, gently acknowledge it but keep it in its place. We can burrow down, down, down beneath it, to silence.
What does this mean for a writer who gets her material from this tempestuous bank? You arrive at silence, and then what? What is left to say?
“I have nothing to say / and I am saying it / and that is poetry…”
I used to think this quote was dumb and John Cage pretentious. If you have nothing to say, then prove it. Shut up. But what if nothing truly is the space from which poems arise?
Am I trying to say I want to be a poet? I don’t know. I’ll probably change my mind about all of this in a week. In the meantime, I just know that I’m tired of words*, of having to make them make sense. Although I will always enjoy a well-written memoir, I admire writing that seems to play, that lacks any apparent agenda. It’s an ability to be sensuous, maybe, to plant flowers instead of vegetables. Or maybe it’s Creative Writing 101: use images, not words. (Am I romanticizing the writing process, trying to take hard work out of the equation? Probably. Sounds like something I’d do.)
As I see it, these are my options:
I have so much to say
And I am saying it all
And that is Psychosis
I have so much to say
And I am trying to cage it in a coherent essay
And that is Sisyphean
I have so much to say
And I am not saying it
And that is _________
A cop out
Very Buddhist of me
What non-writers do
*The Author is sheepishly aware that her blog post is 1) about herself and 2) has a bunch of words.