Between Freddie Mercury and Saint Francis: Exquisite Clutter and Learning to Let Go

 

Sherlock_Holmes_Museum
Not my apartment. Photo from the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London from Wikipedia.com

I want to lead the Victorian life, surrounded by exquisite clutter.                                                                                                       —Freddie Mercury

Grant me the treasure of sublime poverty.                                                                                                                        —Saint Francis of Assisi

Allow me to paint you a picture:

Take a one bedroom apartment—vintage—that is to say, not rehabbed and fancy with a subway tiled bathroom and stainless appliances but cozy and cute with perhaps a little rust on the white, metal kitchen cabinets, some peeling paint on the window sills—let’s just call it patina. Add a mishmash of furniture dragged from alleys or selected at your finer Chicagoland thrift stores and one beautiful couch purchased brand spanking new from a real furniture emporium. Live in aforementioned apartment for eleven years. Enjoy the companionship of several four-legged creatures who make the sorts of messes four legged creatures are wont to do. Buy books until your shelves overflow. Buy holiday dresses, bathing suits and birthday candles. Make a Halloween costume every year; save them all because you might want to be Aphrodite, an owl or a ‘50s diner waitress again. Attend to living your life. Don’t get rid of any of the thrift store jeans you keep buying without trying on that don’t quite fit.

Now, fall in love and ask your girlfriend and her dog to move in with you. Continue reading Between Freddie Mercury and Saint Francis: Exquisite Clutter and Learning to Let Go

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grace

Cat Stretching

When I was in college I tried to wean myself off sleep. I’ve never functioned very well on less than eight hours of zzzs, and I’ve always been profoundly jealous at those who can. Sophomore year I came up with a plan to gradually reduce the amount I slept each night until I made it to – I’m not sure what my goal was – six hours? four? Turns out I’m not the only one who has had this brilliant idea. When I typed “can you train yourself to need…” into the search bar, Google right away suggested “less sleep.” This was followed by the even more ambitious, “Can you train yourself to not need sleep?” Wow. At all? Most researchers say that although individuals differ in the amount of sleep they need, a person can’t deprive herself of sleep without suffering things like fatigue, sadness, stress, anger and diminished performance. My own sleep experiment did not meet with success: I caught colds, suffered migraines and continually dozed off in the library until, bitterly disappointed, I went back to sleeping eight-ish hours a night.

This is how I’ve tended to approach most things in life. I value self-discipline, hard work, endurance. I set monster goals. If I’m not pushing myself to the limit – running faster on the treadmill, soaring across writing deadlines, checking off every last to do – I feel lazy. This leads to a lot of anxiety. It’s never – I’m never – enough. Recently, I was struggling through an intermediate level yoga class – though I’m new to yoga, I skipped the beginner classes, wanting to instantly master the fancy poses, the handstands, to get the most intense workout. We were working on some insane pose – flying pigeon, perhaps – and the instructor told us to find the place in between pushing really hard – like working really hard for it and trying to be a tough customer – and the place of sinking into the pose and sort of surrendering to it. I think she said a word to describe what this place is, but I can’t remember it. Nevertheless, the idea that there was such a place and that one might choose to rest in it, breathe into it without ferocious effort or sitting back on one’s laurels, that was a revelation.

I’ve been Googling phrases trying to find the term – the Sanskrit word for that yoga place between. No luck so far. But I did find “Playing the Edge,” an interesting reflection by a yogi named Erich Schiffman who writes that,

“Edges are marked by pain and define your limits. How far you can fold forward, for example, is limited by your flexibility edge; to go any further hurts and is actually counterproductive. The length of your stay in a pose is determined by your endurance edge. Your interest in a pose is a function of your attention edge.”

Schiffman suggests that you pay attention to these edges as they arise, that you notice them, breathe there, wait until your body tells you to deepen the pose.

I want to learn how to do this in life. I am always trying hard, working hard, getting very breathless. Schiffman asserts that if you have to steel yourself to get through your yoga practice, you’re pushing too hard; you’re fighting yourself. “Keep tabs on whether you are enjoying yourself or not,” he writes. “If not, why not? Find a way of doing the pose that is enjoyable.” It reminded me again of that day that I got nowhere close to flying pigeon – the yoga instructor told us to try to keep the beginnings of a smile on our face. Just the feeling of being about to smile.

Here’s the thing: I like my life. I like writing and teaching. I like spending time with my friends and boyfriend. I like my pets. I like taking care of them. I like taking care of my home and cooking good meals. I like exercising. But way too often, all of these good things add up to ohmygodhowamigoingtogetallofthisdonei’mfailingatlife?

So I’m going to work at finding that space between pushing and surrender. To keep tabs on whether I’m enjoying myself or not, and if not, to see what I can shift. To be interested in myself, in the moment and in what’s happening in it. And since I still don’t know what it’s called in Sanskrit – that in between place, that balancing of effort with ease – I’m going to call it grace.moon trees 2

Thank You, Virginia

As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world. Virginia Woolf

Last week I rode my bike up to the post office on Main in Evanston. I like that branch because it generally only has lines at Christmastime and because I like the idea of a post office on Main Street. I was there to send in a grant I’ve been working on for two months – the reason there were no October posts at The Saltwater Twin. This is the first time I’ve applied for a big grant. The $50,000 Gift of Freedom Award is offered by A Room of Her Own (after Virginia Woolf’s famous essay), a foundation that supports women writers and artists, and according to their website, it’s the largest grant of its kind to women in the United States. So, yeah, $50,000? I had to give it a try. The application was massive – five meaty essays plus a writing sample plus tax returns and all kinds of paperwork. It took many, many hours to write and assemble. And a few days ago I was finally finished. It’s mailed in. Now I just have to wait five months to find out the results.

The day I sent it in, I thought I’d be riding high – relieved and hopeful and feeling like crowing over a job well done. Instead I felt tentative, sad and anxious. Go figure. It was hard to let go of the application. I’d put so much into it, it was hard to stop and accept I’d done all I could and that was that. I’ve been thinking back to my letting go posts of late summer/early fall. Here’s another opportunity to practice. While I was working on the application, I fantasized about winning that fifty grand. That’s how I faced the seemingly endless essays and rationalized the many, many hours it took away from working on my book. I pictured sitting down for a celebratory meal, drinking a fancy cocktail, quitting my part time restaurant job and settling in to write like crazy. But once that package left my hands, all I could think was, no way am I ever going to get that award. I just spent eight weeks working on the longest shot ever. But my last post here was “Everything Is Medicine.” Writing a massive grant application? Medicine. Yes, $50K would be awesome, but I’m going to see this accomplishment as a good thing, no matter the outcome. Maybe I’ll even drink a fancy cocktail regardless.

AROHO, the foundation that gives the Gift of Freedom award, goes out of their way to support women writers. They set up a Facebook page where applicants could commiserate with and encourage one another.

(I resisted the urge to Facebook trash talk, Muhammad Ali style: “If you even dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize.”)

They also offered an option to sign up to receive daily, personalized “Countdown to Freedom” emails to cheer you on in the process. The emails usually consisted of an inspirational quote like this one from Diane Ackerman: “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.” I love that they did that. When I was working on “We Got Spirit!,” a monologue I performed in the Live Bait Filet of Solo Fest some years back, I had an idea for a traveling cheerleader service. It would be akin to a singing telegram – a nice cheerleader would arrive at your home or office and cheer you on in whatever challenge you were facing – whether you were a student heading into a scary test, a lonely homebody who needed to get out there and make some friends or an unpublished writer working on a book – whatever your hurdle, the cheerleader would address that in a special cheer for you. So, although I will not be stopping by in a cheerleading ensemble (even though I have one), in gratitude for Virginia Woolf, the AROHO foundation and the wonderful friends who offered feedback on my application (Thank you Ann, Harry, Jordan, Lindsay, Nick, Rick and Ruiyan), I would like to send out some cheer. If anyone out there needs support and encouragement, tell me in the comments what goal you’re trying to reach or send me an email through my website maiamorgan.com and I will cheer you on.

And now, back to business as usual: working on The Saltwater Twin, submitting essays thither and yon and perhaps occasionally sipping something fancy.

Letting Go, Part 2

I remember being fascinated as a kid by the way babies would grab my finger and squeeze like crazy. Even when we outgrow the reflex, we continue to reach and grasp and cling. Yet part of growing up is learning to let go. Toys break, friendships fade or (if you’re in middle school) stunningly crash and burn, grownups baffle and disenchant. Most of us learn at some point that clinging – to people, experiences, things – brings suffering. But still it’s hard not to clutch. Especially in moments when the world seems to be spinning out of control.

Four days before July turned into August, I ended up in the ER with a crazy, stupid migraine that would not go away. They gave me a spinal tap, I suppose to rule out meningitis. The migraine abated after about 24 hours, but the headache that resulted from the spinal tap stayed another eight days. Apparently it takes your cerebral spinal fluid time to replenish itself and for some people this takes longer than others. And while your body restocks the CSF, if you try to raise your head or sit up, your head is flooded with pain. The only time I managed to be relatively comfortable was lying flat on the skinniest of pillows. I don’t like skinny pillows; I like fat, fluffy ones. All told, I lost two weeks of income and was in bed nearly as long, stalled in the middle of summer, getting restless and discouraged.

At some point, as I was harrying myself with money worries and work worries and book worries and relationship worries, it dawned on me that maybe I should use the experience as chance to practice letting go. Of worry about things I couldn’t control – the hospital bill I wouldn’t be able to pay, the writing time that was slipping away. I wondered if I could even let go of needing to be out of pain. I practiced breathing. I wanted to pitch a tantrum, what a friend dubbed his two-year-old daughter’s “toddler Medea” when she lies on the ground and shrieks and flaps her arms. I practiced not panicking. I watched myself move through these things.

There’s been a lot in the news this summer about rip currents in Lake Michigan. Close call rescues and several awful drownings. All through August, the height of rip current season, a little red triangle around an exclamation point has popped up on my weather page: rip current alert. Rip currents are fast: they’ve been clocked at up to eight feet per second – over five miles an hour – faster than Michael Phelps can swim. Most people who drown, do so because they panic and exhaust themselves trying to swim against the current to shore. What lifeguards advise instead is to swim parallel to shore until you’re free of the current and, if the current’s too strong for that, to float on your back until it abates. Then you can swim away and back to safety.

There are rip currents in our lives. Sometimes a lot of them. Sometimes it’s rip current season. So I’m heeding the lifeguards: there’s a time to swim and a time to float. That’s the lesson I’m trying to learn. To cultivate calm, to float till there’s a break in the current and then make my way back to the sand.

Letting Go, Part 1

The last chapter in The Saltwater Twin (don’t hold your breath, friends, I’ve months to go yet) is going to be about letting go. It’s something I wish I were better at. It’s a little bit of a pickle, actually, because as a writer, it’s sort of my job to notice and hold and catalogue details, but as a human being who prefers to feel mostly happy and relatively untortured, I find letting go to be a useful skill. It’s something I keep having to learn, maybe the most important thing. As such, it seems like a fitting topic for the last chapter of a book that is something of a piecemeal memoir of my whole life so far.

It’s been a challenging month. (More on that in the next post.) This old song has been playing in my head. I couldn’t remember all the words, but I knew it was Irish; I thought The Clancy Brothers sang it. Yesterday I went online to find a version to download. Turns out “The Parting Glass” dates back to at least the 18th century, and The Clancy Brothers did often play it to end their concerts. There are different versions, of course, because it is an old, old song with, as it turns out, both Irish and Scottish roots, but here are a couple of the verses that are often sung:

Of all the money e’er I had,
I spent it in good company.
And all the harm I’ve ever done,
Alas! it was to none but me.
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all.

Oh, all the comrades e’er I had,
They’re sorry for my going away,
And all the sweethearts e’er I had,
They’d wish me one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto my lot,
That I should rise and you should not,
I gently rise and softly call,
Good night and joy be with you all.

Okay, so it makes sense why this song has been playing on the record player in my brain recently, since it’s about letting go – well, saying goodbye, anyway – for a short time or a long time or forever. The melody sounds sweet and old and wistful, like the song is trying to teach you how to let go gently before the last note fades. The Pogues did a rendition and The Wailin’ Jennys, The High Kings and, of course, The Clancy Brothers. I was listening to the latter when a thumbnail image in the margin caught my attention: “Bob Dylan: Thoughts on Liam Clancy.” I clicked. In the clip, Dylan tells a story about drinking pint after pint of Guinness with Clancy someplace in Greenwich Village when Clancy said to him, “Remember Bob, no fear, no envy, no meanness.”

Yes, I am now getting my life lessons from YouTube. Because that’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard. The best advice for writing and for life.

No fear. Yep. Fear suffocates. We are our best when we throw ourselves into our work wholeheartedly without worrying about the outcome. I, for example, don’t know what will happen when I finish this book. What if no one publishes it? No one reads it? What if I’m fooling myself that I have something worthwhile to say? There are a million what ifs. But I think I’m best, I’m smartest and happiest when I can let go of the fear that things won’t turn out the way I hope.

No envy. Yep. I’ve been reading a lot of essay and memoir while working on this book. The Saltwater Twin is a collection of personal essays, a new form for me. I want to get a sense of the ways it has been done, how best to assemble a collection of work, how to create a dynamic narrative arc from stories that felt random when they were happening, how to strike a satisfying balance between story and non-narrative (but hopefully still diverting) musings. Sometimes I envy the writers I’m reading. They’ve already published books. They already have fancy websites and checks from publishers and book signings with plastic cups of wine. That envy is a fruitless pursuit, and it leads, frequently, back to fear. Who am I to think I can do this thing?

No meanness. Ah. I like that meanness has multiple meanings. Meanness, as in unkindness, does not make good art. The voices that hiss “stupid” or “worthless” or “give up now” do not make me want to sit down and type. But neither does meanness as in stinginess. I can’t hold anything back. I want to give my whole self to the work – everything I have – and freely.  This goes for life, too, of course. You are a genius, Liam Clancy!

So, my lads and lasses, my comrades and sweethearts – letting go of fear, of envy, of meanness. Will you fill a glass and toast with me to that?