Farmers let fields lay fallow. Bears hibernate. Human beings sleep. And artists take a break from creating. I decided to take July and August off from workshops, from submissions, from all the “work” of writing — especially anything to do with shameless self-promotion. I call this doing the yin work.
It was good timing.
This July, I resumed a full-time work schedule. And even though a 40-hour work week can feel like a luxury in this day and age — especially when you work in the tech sector — it’s been a struggle for me to re-acclimate this time. It’s hard to say how much of the struggle has to do with my current state of health (overall, pretty good) and age (if I were a man, I’d be old enough to study the Kabbalah), or if it’s always been this difficult and I just didn’t realize it. I’ve been learning to be kinder to myself, to lower my expectations to be more in line with what most human beings might reasonably be able to accomplish.
Lowering one’s standards can be more difficult than you’d think. All children grow up thinking that what happens in their families is just the way things are. Their parents teach them by example how to be in the world. I’ll be forever grateful to my mother for the courage it took her to leave an abusive marriage with two kids in tow, and then to raise them without a dime of child support. But it does mean that I grew up thinking that stretching myself to the very limits of my own abilities — and often beyond them — is just par for the course.
This expectation enabled me to survive a difficult childhood, excel in school, win a scholarship to a fancy liberal-arts college, and eventually stumble into a field lucrative enough for me to move to a home in the metro Boston area that has birds and trees outside. But — as my nurse boyfriend tells me on the regular — the maladaptive coping techniques that worked for me then don’t necessarily work for me today. Expecting myself to hold down a full-time job AND become a Successful Writer TM AND keep from ruining my health again might just possibly be unrealistic. Which makes me feel a little better that I haven’t been able to keep all three of those balls in the air for the past couple of decades.
The return to full-time work chafes especially hard because M and I are in the process of executing Project Okelle Career Change. This plan might sound familiar to anyone who lived through the irrational exuberance of the 1990s. If increasing shareholder value in Okelle, Inc. were my only motivation though, I’d stay in my cushy corporate office job until (hopefully) I retire or (more likely) they kick me out the door during the next big re-org. But while I enjoy living in a pleasant place, eating food other people cook for me, having health insurance, and keeping my creditors happy, money cannot be the only reason I work.
Parts of me are terrified at the idea of upsetting the status quo — and given the rollercoaster of last winter and the slow road to recovery that followed, I can understand their concern. Parts of me are less than thrilled about all the things that buying a home symbolize: loss of youth, loss of hip-ness, initiation into the Top Seekrit Club for Middle-Aged People Who Know about Stuff Like Fixed-Rate Mortgages. And hiding deep behind all of those tiny Okelles is the anguished artist who’s been wanting so badly to pursue her dreams, but is also terrified of achieving them.
My inner artist is terrified of what might happen if I do, in fact, throw all caution and pragmatism to the wind, follow the bliss instead of the money, make sacrifices, go without, eat rice and beans, claw myself to the top of the caterpillar pile, and end up with an expensive piece of paper, another three decades of student loan payments, middling success as a professional writer (for a given definition of success), and an unfulfilling job that pays less than the one I had before. No matter what I do, I doubt I’m going to achieve the aura of fantasy-fulfillment that has been surrounding the idea of being a professional writer for me since age 10. Existential angst is a fact of existence. Nothing will change that, not even the Nobel Prize. Especially not the Nobel Prize, according to Doris Lessing.
Whenever the possibility of my fulfilling this dream occurs to me, I find myself tearing up. The energy behind those tears is deep and complex. I’m not sure I’ll ever unpack it. I’m also not sure that I need to before I start walking toward the thing I fear. Fear is an old companion, one who rises to swamp my boat when I run from it, and who bouys me when I steer into it. As a way of working with this particular snarl of fears, hope, grief, and resentment I’ve begun reading Pema Chödron’s book The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. She talks a lot about being a warrior in this book, which is comforting since I’ve always wanted to be a warrior but never wanted to bother with military service or, you know, actual fighting. The warrior she describes, though, reminds me of the internal jihad Muslim teachers talk about: the warrior who is courageous enough to run toward the dangerous, frightening places within, and who chooses to allow pain and fear make her flexible rather than more rigid. This passage in particular spoke to me:
The irony is that what we most want to avoid in our lives is crucial to awakening bodhichitta. These juicy emotional spots are where a warrior gains wisdom and compassion. Of course, we’ll want to get out of those spots far more often than we’ll want to stay. That’s why self-compassion and courage are vital. Staying with pain without loving-kindness is just warfare.
“How to stay with your own pain in loving-kindness” was not on the core curriculum of the public schools when I was growing up, but then again neither was “how to start your own business,” or “how to pay off a massive amount of debt,” or “how to be a queer woman in a straight man’s world.” I’ve been able to bungle my way through the rest of those lessons. School was pretty easy by comparison, really. You memorize the Pythagorean theorem, regurgitate it for the test, and get on with your life. The constant practice of being a grown-up, however, can be much more difficult. As can reminding yourself that yin work is a necessity, not a luxury. Any artist will tell you so.