Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Gaze

For as long as I can remember, I've used reading and writing as a means of palliative care.  As a very young person, I read everywhere: in the bathtub, in the car, during meals, as I fell asleep and when I woke up.  I preferred pastoral narratives, particularly those in which the child protagonists engaged in solitary acts of adventure and survival (I still have the warped paperback copy of 'Farmer Boy' that took a plunge into the bath one sad, lonely evening).  In 3rd grade, when my folks were finally and dramatically splitting up, Mrs. Galloway allowed and encouraged me to spend class time writing plays, which I would teach to selected peers at recess.  In 7th grade I discovered poetry when an ambitious teacher exposed us to William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow;" it was my first attempt at analysis and I loathed the endeavor, the dissection of beauty into little bits of reason and explanation (funny, I would go on to do exactly that as a music theorist).  From then on, writing was a permanent fixture and, along with playing music, my primary coping mechanism.  While other kids were getting high and drunk and screwing and all that other fun stuff, I was writing poetry and stories and essays and discovering I could play pretty much any piece of music without looking at notation. I considered myself a "creative" and felt pity for those who didn't have access to those types of expression.

It was that way for a long time; even after coming to terms with the fact that I wasn't going to write or play or teach music for a living, I still wrote every day.  And then I became pregnant with Sydney, and the writing stopped.  It's not that I got lazy or overwhelmed; I simply could not write.  Every writer, amateur or otherwise, experiences blocks, but this felt less like a block than it did an absence: that thing had gone away.  I didn't have anything to say.

After Syd was born it gradually resurfaced, and I started writing a little, though hesitantly (I was shaken by the gestational episode).  I started this blog and that seemed to help a bit, and I gradually got back into some more creative rhythms. I became pregnant with Evan and had another episode, but with less anxiety attached, as I assumed--correctly--that it would pass at some point after he was born.  Funny thing was, I never stopped to consider why it happened--a strange thing really, for such a navel-gazing introvert.

It took this latest episode to turn my gaze back inward.  Why was this happening?  There are a ton of books out there on writer's block and I've always been suspicious of every single one.  The answer I'd constructed for myself--that the effort and energy of creating a life sapped whatever other energies I otherwise possessed--seems now like complete bullshit.  Now, I'm forced to confront my block with true honesty, not the superficial and placating self-reflection that often poses as honesty.  I'm forced to admit that I avoid the inward gaze the way most of us avoid dental work: we know it's necessary and ultimately healthy, but it's scary and painful and costly.  So we don't call, or we make an appointment and skip it.  The way most people avoid therapy.

I'd like to change this.  I'd like to embrace the gaze, but the problem is this: the problem is pain.

This year has been the most brutally painful time of my entire life.  I didn't lose a child (knock on some fucking wood, ya'll), I have my health (mostly, though that is seriously neglected), but otherwise it's in shambles.  But there's a funny thing about suffering: when done properly, one can emerge victorious.  I know this because I've witnessed it in many of my clients, and it never fails to amaze me (and them).  You suffer tremendously for a period of time, you cry and scream and destroy your health and ruin relationships and your work suffers from lack of attention, but if you're honest, if you gaze openly into the weeping void, you learn.  Maybe you learn that life is hard and sucky and maybe you hate your parents for forcing it on you, but more often than not you learn astounding things about yourself.  You learn that you are deeply flawed.  You learn about your capacity to hurt the people you love in terrible ways.  You learn that you are vulnerable, and you learn to have compassion for that vulnerability.  You look at photos of yourself as a young child and realize that that little person deserves love, and affection, and forgiveness and compassion.  And if you've done the work properly, you learn how to give yourself those things, instead of insisting that everyone around you provide it.  Because those people are flawed, too, and they will always let you down.  Sooner or later, no matter how much they care.

Writing has always been my honest gaze; even when I'm not writing sappy shit like this, it has forced me to turn inward and use only my own words, my own thoughts--to turn a jumble of nonsense into coherent narrative.  And I see now, I see it very clearly, the reason why I've avoided it.  We're all, most of us at least, afraid of the gaze.  That's likely why the incidence of substance abuse is so high among those types we like to label as "creatives:" the pain of the gaze is intense.  It illuminates the darkest parts of us, the parts we never want to acknowledge, let alone show to anyone, ever.  It fucking hurts.

But it's essential to growth and happiness--I've learned that much over the past year.  And although I'm not a particularly spiritual person, I'm using these words from Thich Nhat Hanh as a guide through whatever remains of my miserable journey:

“At any moment, you have a choice, that either leads you closer to your spirit or further away from it.”