What is saving my life?

what is saving my life
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Everywhere we turn we are told by a soulless calculation what to read, what to watch, what to consume, what to be interested in, what to think. We are awash in what Colin Wright describes as “endless torrents of overt status-seeking, cold selling, and frenzied attempts to claim more of [our] attention”; attempts that amount up to little more than “lowest-common-denominator, value-vacant diversions.” 

Earlier this year, I decided to stop making podcasts and videos, and I took a much needed break from social media. I had gotten so caught up in the mindless angst of always-on, content production I failed to notice that nearly all of my efforts were fueling activities that had almost nothing to do with the endeavors that actually matter to me.

I started asking myself questions. Questions I couldn’t quite answer. Some I still can’t. Some I’m still trying to. Questions echoed in the searching angst of Wright’s own:

“Do I want to spend a significant portion of my life…dancing for strangers on the internet so I can maybe attract more followers and likes, which in turn might help me be more successful at other things I care about?”

And,

“Do I want to spend my time and energy coming up with clever posts and videos to increase my online social standing…or would I rather invest those finite resources in the work I actually want to do?”

I forced my feed into a hunger strike. I deleted all the social media apps from my phone, eventually deciding to permanently close my Facebook and Instagram accounts. Like Wright, I started thinking more about “how to intentionally and morally use these tools for the valuable things they still offer”. And, in the process, I recommitted myself to the things I love: reading, stillness, writing, quiet.

The algorithm isn’t your friend. It won’t give you what you’re searching for, only what it thinks you want, only what it thinks you should need. It will only attempt an answer at half the question, and it’s usually the half you’re not really asking. It may analyze your query, but offers nothing to satisfy the seeking at the heart of the question, itself. It will tell you what’s trending, but it won’t tell you what will test the limits of your thinking. It won’t satiate your sense of wonder and mystery. It functions only to further ingratiate you into the cocooned safety of an all too familiar comfort zone. It only seeks to perpetuate the cycle of infinite scrolling sameness

At best it’s ambivalent, amoral, and uncaring. At worst, it’s actively malevolent. In either case, as Seth Godin explains, “we benefit when we realize that the algorithm isn’t rooting for us and quite possibly is working against us.”

I don’t know much of anything for sure. I don’t know much of anything at all really. Maybe none of us do. But, I know that Nick Cave is right when he says that “moments of happiness are not experienced alone,” that “they are almost entirely relational and are dependent on a connection to the Other”. I know that it’s easy to become lost, and apathetic, and cynical in the vacuousness and vapidity of a culture bent on ceaseless consumption for consumption’s sake alone. But, I think that people honestly and unironically sharing and “talking about what they love and why”, as David Dark suggests, “could turn things around here, there, and everywhere”. And, I think that online spaces do still afford us the opportunity for both.

“What if”, as Jenny Odell asks, “we spent less time shouting into the void and being washed over with shouting in return” and more time listening for the still, small voices that open us up to something noumenally bigger? What if we became less interested in being influencers and more interested in facilitating conversations about what influences us to keep hoping, to keep going, to keep growing? What if we became less interested in gaining followers and likes, less interested in getting somewhere, and more interested in giving attention to the people, places, and things that, as Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, help us to become “more fully human [and] trusting…in the real world”.

What if we became what Seth Godin calls “curators for ideas”? There is a rich swath of writers, and artists, and poets, and ideas that will radically alter the way you see yourself and the world around you, that an algorithm will never put in front of you. But, someone who has embraced the cost of curation can. We can. Austin Kleon points out that Facebook blandly and indulgently asks you to answer questions like “How are you feeling?” Or “What’s on your mind?”. And Twitter asks “What’s happening?” But, what if we started asking ourselves better questions? What books taught us to breathe again? What songs made our souls sing? What art, poems, podcasts, blogs, articles, or films helped make it easier for us to be alive? What if the fulcrum of our relationality and our connectivity to the other rests upon our ability to share the various ways in which we each seek to answer the question: “What is saving my life right now?”

I don’t have it all figured out. I haven’t even figured out a way forward. For now, I just have field notes. Just thoughts and observations. But, maybe that’s how all solutions start. And, this smattering of musing is simply part of what is saving my life right now.

The past…

the past
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No amount of regret can bring reconciliation. “Nothing erases the past”, Ted Chiang says. “There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all.” We can hope for mercy, without promise. We can seek redemption, without assurance. We can work toward restitution, without a guarantee. We can do nothing else. It isn’t much, but perhaps it’s just enough, maybe even more than.

Most things that are broken can’t be mended. Some things, once poured out, can’t be put back. Nothing spoken can ever again be unsaid. “[M]oving on is a myth”, Suleika Jaouad says, “a lie you sell yourself on when your life has become unendurable.” 

The sacred canon of the clean slate is the unholy “delusion that you can build a barricade between yourself and your past”. But, the past is never somewhere else. Never far away. Never a distant yonder. Never a discarded ‘over-there’.

“The past is not one separate place”, says Matt Haig, “It is many, many places, and they are always ready to rise into the present”, always-already present. Everywhere hope emerged and fear shattered through. Everywhere you were hurt, and where you did the hurting too. All of it. The pangs and twitches of an absent-presence. The vacancy that becomes a revenant. Always there.

And, there is no ideal-you. No Platonic realm of perfect forms in which to discover your faultless self. One that is clean and whole. One that is unblemished and unscarred by every tool that chiseled you into shape; every trauma, every misfortune, every mistake. It never leaves.

You are never just one thing. Never just one self. You are not only “Your current self”, John Green says, but also “all the selves you used to be”. You are legion. You are many. The addict and the sponsor. The drunkard and the preacher. The saint. The sinner. The prophet. The whore. “[W]ho we were and what we did and what was done to us”, says Holly Black, “we don’t get to shrug that stuff off and become some new shiny person”. We are the atomic weight of the things we carry. The mass of who and what we have been. An arithmetical expression of the elements that make up who we are.

We dream about starting over. Wishing for ways to make amends. But, “Fresh starts”, Ali Millar suggests, “are a lot more complicated than they look.” Sometimes things that look so solid turn out to be made of straw. Sometimes straw can be spun into gold. Sometimes what looks like a house of cards can withstand a storm, and sometimes we’re dealt a bad hand that we do our best to play. Hope has always been something supple, and almost always bends beyond reason.

You can be both broken and complete. Perhaps, the very best of us are. Paradoxical anomalies turned into logical proofs. Proof that you have struggled and prevailed. Proof of your refusal to be the sum of your faults. Proof that yours is the name given to striving and strength. That you are the word used to describe the wrestling.

Perhaps there will always be a darkness that traces your steps and matches your stride. A darkness that you would prefer to either control or cast aside. In every shadow there is fear, there is remorse, and there is regret. But, within it there is also love, and there is hope, and there is a friend

When it comes to the past, you can’t ever really lay it down. Can’t ever really let it go. But, you can learn to hold it loosely, knowing that “somewhere out there,” as Millar says, “there’s something better worth beginning again for.”

There is a door…

there is a door
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Depression turns the world into something small. Turns you into something smaller still. It blinks out the stars, blackens the sky, blocks out the sun ,and cloaks everything in varying shades of night. We adapt to surviving in the environment of the dark. Closed-in, closed-down, and boarded-up. We learn to live in little rooms. “Rooms the shape and size of every role [we are] supposed to play”, says Lee Kravertz, “Rooms [we’ve] either outgrown or [we] never fit in to begin with”. A claustrophobia so thick you can taste the weight of it in the air. You don’t know how you got here, and you don’t know how to get out. The entry is invisible, and the exit is even harder to find.

And yet, there is a paradox that sharpens to a point in the closeted space. An anomaly that punches a hole through the heavy fabric of the black. A secret comes to light. A secret becomes the light. “[The] secret of the universe,” Frederick Buechner says, “is a room where life is reborn out of death. A room where you are commissioned in darkness. A room where…morning after morning you are given back to the world.” A place where the suffering becomes a candle. Where the hurt becomes a gate, and the pain becomes a door.

There is an opening in even the smallest of enclosures. A handle in the dark. The trick is to find it. To know where to look. To search for the seams. The tiny crevices where the warmth of something overlooked cuts through the cold.

Carl Jung says that “The doors to the self are few”, and sometimes difficult to see, often because they are in places we either don’t notice or would rather not look. He says that “If you have a deep scar, that is a door. If you love the sky and the water so much you almost cannot bear it, that is a door. If you yearn for a deeper life, a full life, a sane life, that is a door.” There are moments of rapturous hurt, ache, and longing, places of breach and breakage, places calloused from the constancy of a familiar suffering. These are the places of profound openness. In the fractures of ourselves, where the ecstatic joy of sun-soaked wonder seeps in, we find the deepest of truths. We discover, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains, that “The suffering inside us reflects the suffering in the world”, and “if we can transform our suffering” then we can transform that of the world’s as well. When we open up, the world opens too.

“Every room”, no matter how cramped, no matter closed, no matter how small, says Anne Lamott, “gives us layers of information about our past and present and who we are”. Even the darkest corner of the most confined quarters shows us “our shrines and quirks and hopes and sorrows, our attempts to prove that we exist and are more or less Okay.” We run our fingers along the edges of our unseen things; “the clutter and the cracks”, the “bleakness” and the “brokenness”, says Lamott. The things we lost. The things we carry. The things left undone..

Between recollection and reconnection we walk a labyrinthine prayer around a black-sun center.  A pilgrimage of murmurs circumambulating our inner-court. Weaving through what Tamsyn Muir calls, “that microcosm of eternity between forgiveness and the slow, uncomprehending agony of the fall.” That’s where we find it; a door.

In every little room there is a door. There is an opening. An opportunus. A porta fenestella; a small window where providence comes to speak. A tonglen. A sending and a taking. A place where suffering compresses, and compassion starts to breathe. Breathing in the texture of constriction, and breathing out into vastness and enormity.

There are entryways to awareness that connect us to everything. There are locks, but there are also keys. Where the light comes in. Where the darkness flees.

My year in books: Nick Hornby

My year in books: Nick Hornby
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Like most people, I’m good at coming up with an idea, good at starting a project, good at setting a plan into motion, but not always great at seeing it through.

About two weeks ago I started a blog series with the intent of highlighting some of the insightfully inspiring books I’ve read this year, and the blog posts that they helped me spark to life. I only made it through two installments of this series before getting distracted by other blog ideas.

I always succumb to a small burst of serotonin laced excitement when I finish a book, because I get to start a new one. Even within the rush of dopamine that comes after I crack open the cover of a new book, there is the sensational thought of what book I’ll start after this fresh one. At the beginning of a book I am already pondering the next one. I am much like Pamela Paul in that “I am always…pining for the next book”, always lusting after “the forward movement,” lost in ecstasy and “the anticipation of what book comes next”. Not long after my Matt Haig book reading bender, I was looking through my bookshelves trying to decide what to start. Itching with the need to chase the dragon, I noticed I had a books by Nick Hornby that I hadn’t read yet. I burned through one, and before I knew I had gone through another two.

I started with A Long Way Down, and quickly followed it up with About a Boy and Funny Girl. I won’t lie, Hornby’s books didn’t hit in quite the same way Haig’s, but they were refreshing and delightful.  They are fun to read. They filled with interesting and quirky characters that are flawed and fucked-up in the most glorious and hopeful of ways, and they find their way to meaning and belonging not in spite of their many faults and foibles but because of them, because of their ability to own them, to embrace them, and to recognize them in someone else too.

If you’d like to read the blogs I wrote that make reference to Hornby’s books, you can find them below:

Short thoughts on ‘A Long way Down’…

…everything after August…

An altar at the checkout

an altar at the checkout
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Love is where you focus your gaze. Compassion is how you choose to see. Both are acts of intentionality, and both are ultimately creative. Both ask us to probe deeply into the strange and magical uncanniness found in even the most mundane moments of being here, of being present, of simply being. To transfix  and to be transfixed in a world alive with color, texture, and composition, to revel in a moment of time that reveals the sacred history of light and awareness is to be an artist, a mystic, a poet, a friend. It is to recognize that everywhere you stand is ground that has already been pronounced as holy, to see the face of every one of our fellow inhabitants as something always formed in the shape of the ineffable and wondrously Other.

I swing wide when it comes to humankind. I regularly bask in the exquisite beauty and brilliance of our species, but still find it difficult to tolerate people. Some days I think humanity is poetry personified, and on others I’d call us a plague. Somedays I praise our splendor, our ingenuity, and our tenacity. Somedays I pray for the Sun to burn out. To be fair, humanity, itself, seems to vacillate widely between ecstasy and atrocity. We are egocentric and oblivious, greedy and short-sighted, reckless and depraved. And yet, on the rare occasions when we can summon the capacity to be observant and unselfish, we are nothing short of exceptional.

Each one of us has the task of cultivating creative ways in which to regain a clarity of vision that opens us up to the full panorama of reality as a whole, a reality revealing that we are each part of a wider whole. If there is any cure for what ails us, individually and collectively, it is attention. Pema Chodron says that “In the elevator with a stranger, I might notice her shoes, her hands, the expression on her face.” In that moment “I [can] contemplate the fact that just like me she doesn’t want stress in her life. Just like me she has worries.” And that it is “Through our hopes and fears, our pleasures and pains,” that we realize just how “deeply interconnected” we are.

We are never passive observers. No matter how aloof we try to make ourselves. No matter where we are. We are always, and at all times, active participants in the unfolding everything-ness of all we observe. Even “Standing in the checkout line,” Chodron goes on to explain, “I might notice the defiant teenager in front of me and make the aspiration, “May he be free of suffering and its causes.” 

Reality is participatory. Collaborative and co-creative. Both particle and wave, dependent upon the ways we bear witness to it. There is a “yes, and” available in every moment. There is acceptance and there is expansion. “I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am,” says David Foster Wallace, “and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.”

Attention is an arduous endeavor. Seeing, really seeing, isn’t easy. Looking deeply takes more effort than we can imagine, and somedays despite our best attempts to do so, our sight will remain shallow and short. Somedays all we will be able to offer the world is a cursory glance.

“But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice,” says Wallace, even if you can’t muster the strength to see deeply “you can choose to look differently”. You can at least choose to look, at all. You can take a small moment to consider. And, “if you really learn how to pay attention,” Wallace explains, “then you will know there are other options.” There are a near infinite range of possibilities within your experience. Within what you experience and how you experience it. Options within the experience of your experience. A perpetual chain of openings and passageways. Wallace says that “It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

We live in a universe of flux and malleability. Nothing truly fixed. Nothing solidly concrete. “The only thing that’s capital-T True”, explains Wallace, “is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.”

We can draw the curtains, close the blinds, avert our gaze, and shut our eyes. We can choose to pretend not to see, or we can look around. We can decide to notice and how. We can call where we place our feet consecrated. We can take off our shoes, and as Barbara’s Brown Taylor suggests, we can “set a little altar in the world”. We can build a shrine right where we stand. We “can stop what [we are] doing long enough to see where [we are] who [we are] there with, and how awesome the place is.” We can know that surely the numinous was here, and we did not know it.

Trust the truth and pick at the bones

Trust the truth and pick at the bones
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You know it’s going to be a good book when you’re making notes in the Foreword.

As part of the ongoing adventures of my two-person book club, we started reading Aldous Huxley’s, Brave New World. The goal being to examine the ways science fiction explores philosophical ideas. If I’m being totally honest, the book has never really been on my radar and I was indifferent towards starting it.

While I relish works within the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genres, I tend to shy away from those of a dystopian nature, not because they seem unlikely or far-fetched but because all too often they feel all too probable, all too much of time. I look to books to help soften the sting of the things I need to see, but I also need them to help me escape, at least temporarily, from the harsh reality of what appears to be our impending doom.

And yet, within the opening paragraph of Huxley’s prefatory remarks, my scribbling was already filling up the margins. Huxley is candid regarding the shortcomings of Brave New World. He says that “It’s defects as a work of art are considerable.” He says it lacks “a philosophical completeness” and demonstrates a “vast and obvious failure of foresight”. But, he notes, correcting it would mean rewriting it. And, this would not only rid the story of its faults, but also its merits. Instead, Huxley chooses to resist “the temptation to wallow in artistic remorse…to leave both well and ill alone and to think about something else.”

He says that “To pore over the literary shortcomings…to attempt to patch a faulty work into the perfection it missed at its first execution…trying to mend the artistic sins committed…is surely vain and futile.” A writer instantiates a commitment to truth. A commitment to the pursuit of truth, to truth-telling. Truths that include the bitter, the banal, and the benevolent. It is the slow and dependable process of carefully stacking brick upon brick building a tower of “trust”. Trust in the work. Trust in the process. Trust in one’s self. Trust given, trust received, and trust exchanged. Without it everything falls.

Part of that trust includes the truth that every work is a work that fails and falls short. Art, after all, is failure perfected. Work that is flailing and infirmed creates the conditions for something beautiful and true. A creation, broken and misshapen unearths unseen parts of ourselves that we never knew.

The best way to seek penance for the faults and failings of previous work is to turn the page. Sharpen your pencil. Take up your pen and begin again. Move on to the work of what comes next. Try to do it better and try to see it through. “The next great inspiration will come along,” says Chuck Palahniuk, “but until it does, clean up your desk…Make room for the new arrival in your head.”

But, turning the page, doesn’t mean tearing it out. Clearing your desk doesn’t mean setting it on fire. Starting again doesn’t always mean cleaning the slate. Sometimes it just means learning to work in the wait.

Rollo May says that “the creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.” Sometimes progress is what we create, sometimes its what we remove. An artist is equal parts vulture and visionary. We aim to make something new, but we do so by circling dead things looking for what can still be consumed. Trust in your commitment, trust in the truth, and don’t be afraid to pick at the bones.

The middle…

the middle
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Ann Lauterbach says that “the crucial job of artists is to find a way to release materials into the animated middle ground between subjects”, in order to better “initiate the difficult but joyful process of human connection”.

To be an artist is to live in liminality. To understand the space between. The space between hope and fear. The space between the already and the not-yet. The space between what has transpired and what is to-come. The space between who we have been and who we could still be.

I make things as a means of exploring the betwixt parts of the world and the equidistant pieces of myself, where seemingly discordant things start to seep into one another.

And, yet there are instances in which I’ve missed the middle way more times than I care to admit.

Last week I posted an excerpt from an article I wrote for The Tattooed Buddha exploring just such a meridian of tension. In the attempt to balance the scales between belonging and being alone, I often err on the side of withdrawal.

I’ve recoiled in response to so much loss that I think I’ve become increasingly uninvested in the awareness of our unavoidable interbeing. In an effort to save myself from the suffering of further loss, safety turned to severance, and almost all my sentences start to center on the word “I”.

Community is a pivotal paradox, especially for an artist. We try to be adjoined in a manner that can also “protect each other’s aloneness”, Parker Palmer says; coming together “in ways that respect the solitude of the soul”.

We relish the quiet seclusion of our inner worlds, but we also require the replenishment of connection in order to see the many splendored beauty of reality all around us. Solitude is necessary in order for us to make work that is significant. But, so is “solidarity”, and we have to do our best to live in the in-between, to muddle through the middle.

In the common dark, we find each other…

in the common dark, we find each other
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“trusting the unseen connection between us, I could walk much more confidently in the dark”

Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World

It’s not only our secret desires and aspirations that we attempt to make manifest in the world, it’s also the formless cloud of our inner darkness and turmoil that we try to render tangible. Maria Popova says that “The longing to give shape to all that troubles and animates us is one of the most powerful human longings”. The invisible forces of angst and agitation are also the unseen energies that cause us to ignite, that turn the endless wheel of beginning and beginning again. We are haunted by an apparition of the very thing that makes us so alive. And, as Popova goes on to say “there is something…enticing and clarifying in making visible to the eye that which the soul alone can see.” It’s not only helpful, it’s necessary. This, David Dark explains, is the purpose of art, and the task of the artist; “to give the airy nothing…a local habitation”. It is the willingness to reach into the wounded void of shadowed traces hovering over even our brightest places, and to incarnate the wafting forms of pain into something that speaks.

Frederick Buechner says that “pain makes strangers of us all”. It’s true that most of the pain goes unnoticed. That it pulls us from the public eye so that it can better pull us apart in private. It’s true that most of our cries of agony and anguish are silent. That our tongues go still in the too loud echo chamber of ‘self’ and ‘I’, recoiled in sadness and suffering. We cease to feel the pain only because it fills the spaces that surround us, and the pain starts to feel us. It starts to feel for us. There is a distancing rift to be sure, but the estrangement needn’t make us strangers. There is a mutuality within the experience of pain. A shared tendency. A tendency to close up, close down, and keep quiet, yes, but there is also a deeper kinship and camaraderie available too; if we are open and aware, if we are brave enough to bring what lives in the dark closer to the light. To take the pain and pour it into porcelain casts.

When we can heat the hurt until it thickens, when we can turn the ache into clay, when we can mold it until it takes a shape, we discover that our own pain closely mirrors that of the world’s. We find that we may be that part of the world that mirrors its pain back to itself. That corner of the cosmos that comes to know itself through its pain. That piece of the universe arising to an understanding of its identity as a being in pain. “We…become the grief of the world”, Nick Cave says, and we discover that “the common agent that binds us all together is loss”, sorrow, anguish, pain. This is when compassion becomes possible, when humanity happens.

Make no mistake, many things that are broken can’t be mended. Some things once spilled, whether intentionally or not, can’t be put back. But we can find ways to make the exhaustion utter-able. We can give the nothingness a name. We can write. We can create. We can make things. We can make hope. We can make an aspect of the pain pronounceable. We can have a semblance of power over it. We can better see the pain in ourselves. We can better see it in the world. “We reach out and find each other in the common darkness”, Nick Cave says, and then, we start to heal, together.

How to (not) be an island…

how to (not) be an island
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Earlier this week I submitted another article to The Tattooed Buddha. I’m not sure when, or if, it’ll go live there, but here’s a small excerpt from the essay highlighting the various joys and pitfalls of (not) being an island. If the article gets published I’ll update this post with the link. If it doesn’t, I’ll probably end up posting the entirely of the writing as a separate blog-post. **(I’m true to my word – you can read the full article here)

The poet John Donne said that “no man is an island.” And, in the Buddha’s final teaching he said to be an island, to “be islands unto yourselves, to “be your own refuge.” But, I think I misunderstood them both. I think there was always a middle way, and I’ve missed it more times than I care to admit. I’ve gone through so much over the past few years, become so insular, so closed-off, so inward gazing that it’s become easier to keep quiet, to keep to myself, to be my own refuge, to be my only refuge.

I have a complicated relationship to community. As I’ve moved, and morphed, and grown, and shifted, I’ve seen many of the connections formed in certain communities fall away. Time and again, I’ve been unable to engage in contexts that I found myself philosophically, intellectually, and spiritually at odds with. Bonds broke. Relationships severed. And youthful idealism gave way to cynicism and disbelief. In the process, I discovered how the connections and relationships that build up around a marriage end when the marriage does too. No vow of fealty, whether spoken or unspoken, whether of friendship or matrimony, is immune from falling apart. 

I’ve gotten to be very good at being an island. Earth adrift on open water. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be connected. Forgotten how to be tethered. Forgotten the touch of land. But, I still believe. I believe in belonging. I believe in belonging the way a prisoner longs for freedom. The way the orphan hopes for welcome, the widow looks for comfort, and stranger searches for shelter. The way a refugee dreams of coming home; an unattainable yearning to find a way back to being whole.

The work of being complete…

the work of being complete
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“I was alone and split in two. I don’t want to be two people. I want to be one person. I want to be whole. But, I have no choice it seems.”

Alex Michaelides, The Maidens

I believe in reading with a pencil, and most of my writing emerges from the conversations, or arguments, I’m having in the margins of a text. Even when the margins are digital and the pencil is too.

On any given evening after dinner, you’ll find me on the couch or the patio, iPad and Apple Pencil in hand, Instapaper on one side of the screen, GoodNotes open on the other, reading and scribbling in tandem. This is where, and how, reading becomes a form of creative collaboration; a co-authoring. Austin Kleon says “The great thing about dead or remote masters is that they can’t refuse you as an apprentice.” It also means they can’t reject you as a writing partner.

In this particular ‘writing session’ Toni Morrison shares four lessons her father taught her about work, and I share some marginal thoughts on wholeness:

“1. Whatever the work is, do it well-not for the boss but for yourself.”

I understand this one well enough. I’ve always gone above and beyond. Done more than was necessary. More than was expected. Not because I anticipated being rewarded, it’s rare that I have been, or because I hoped the higher-ups would take commendable notice of me, it’s rare that they have. Instead, I do it because I don’t know how to work any other way. Much to my constant chagrin and behest, I don’t know how to give less than my best.

“2. You make the job; it doesn’t make you.”

This one I only understand cognitively, not experientially. That things are what you make them. That life, itself, is what you make of it, is a perspective I often lack the aptitude for, especially when it comes to work. How do you find fulfillment in something that is utterly unfulfilling? How do you take pride in work you’re almost ashamed to admit you do? How do you get satisfaction from a job that doesn’t sate your soul?

“3. Your real life is with us, your family.”

This, I’m sure is meant to seem comforting, or reassuring, but it’s neither. The plain fact of the matter is that I’m at work more than I’m home. I spend more time with co-workers than with family. If my real life is what happens outside of work than I am rarely real, and the vast majority of my day is given to something artificial and inauthentic. My trueness, it seems, is not only fractured, it’s fractional.

“4. You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.”

I’ve heard this one, or something like it, so much, and so often, the words have become banal and meaningless. ‘You are not defined by your job description.’ ‘What you do for work is not the sum total of who and what you are.’ Work and life is a bifurcation meant to be balanced. But, I want to be defined by my work. I want my job to be a reflection of who I am. I don’t want to live divided. I don’t want to live and work in separate spheres, no matter how well balanced. I want my life to be my work. I want my work to be my life. I’m tired trying to live split and being torn apart in the process.

But, perhaps this sense of desperation is so angst-ridden and palpable because it is indicative of something more amiss, something deeper and more askew. What I really want, what I really need, what I am severely lacking, is ikigai: literally life-worth, a calling, a reason for being, an energy and operative significance built into the motion of all I do and everything I am. Maybe I’m still just too naïve in thinking that it’s something that could ever come with a comfortable salary and a 401k.

T.K. Coleman says that “the universe is bigger than your job” and, not only is it bigger than your job “It’s bigger than your job plus all the other jobs that will ever exist.” He says that “being human means you’re bigger than all the jobs and all the passions you’ll ever have.” I’d take a sense of purpose over paid vacations and a dental plan anyway.

Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles explain that “Only things that are imperfect, incomplete, and ephemeral can truly be beautiful.” Maybe wholeness never arrives fully formed. Maybe it’s an afterthought at best. Life is a mosaic of moments, built up bit by bit. We live in the interstices of the in-between; the interstices of the infinite. Shaped by the shards, formed in the fissures, we live in the pieces filling the fractures of our aliveness until at last we are home.

Maybe in being made Legion we are made complete. Maybe each one of our divided personalities provides a shelter in which the other divisions can find rest.

Maybe we might still be mended. Maybe we already are. Maybe we were never broken. Maybe we always have been. Maybe there is no hope for wholeness, but then again maybe hope, itself, is the work of being complete…