I had a short but remarkable conversation recently with a lady I haven’t spoken to in a few years. We had only met once or twice before, in Iowa City. I remembered our conversations were unlike any I had ever had before. She is a writer and actress and she is full of life. We got right to the heart of it each time. We talked about the kinds of stories we wanted to write, and, naturally, the kind of women we wanted to be.
In this last conversation, she asked me the kind of impossible question I love: “Do you feel like your brain takes up more space as time goes on?”
Not bigger, not more capacious, I answered, but deeper. I do feel like my brain is a little bit deeper, in that I care more about what I say I care for, but my heart is really the organ taking up the most significant real estate. Doors and windows have been opened, if only halfway at the moment, and the wind is flooding in, and there’s a too bright moon.
Her question spurred me to do some more reflection on the past years. Nearly three years ago, I moved from an uncertain but incredibly exciting life of freelance writing in New Haven to a full-time, professional grind in Cambridge. Nearly three years ago, I couldn’t imagine that I would be where I am now, that I’ve had met the people I have or become the person I am.
Fall! Fall is here. The leaves are dry and dance all frantic in the sun. So much has happened in these past nine months of laborious redirecting and reinventing. I have moved to a big, beautiful space on the first floor of a very New England-worthy house; I edited, finished and placed a short story, “Cardinal,” that had been lying dormant for a few years; I sorted through my half-passions to combine them into one big passion. I’ve made unexpected and delightful friends who have great loyalty and share my perspective on grown livin’ and bein’ in the world. I am starting classes this very week in the field – digital humanities and innovation – that I think I want to make a real space for myself in. I’ve started two major projects outside of my job: one a collaboration with my best old friend, and the other a website, an idea that came to me this past April and spurred me to consider returning to school.
There is a marvelous T.D. Jakes sermon on your passion, versus your purpose. For the past seven or eight years, I’ve run on the belief that creative writing is my passion, and my purpose, and my main reason for being in the world. More recently, I’ve dealt with the fact that fiction writing is too fickle, too elusive and difficult a profession to be the only source of one’s meaning and identity. I used to feel like I was in free fall if my creative work was at an impasse or if I was suffering writer’s block. Now, I throw myself into other work until the dæmon dances back into view.
But these are circumstantial changes. Changes to write to your friends about and tell your colleagues about and use as a bit of a shield, to assure everyone that yes, you’re moving, you’re on the right path, you haven’t lost your way. You still are relentlessly pursuing your dreams! You haven’t become someone altogether different or unrecognizable!
But all the changes I can’t show anybody, these are the changes that will matter most in the long haul. There is so much internal metamorphosis going down that I can feel, that others can’t see, that can’t be summed up in an e-mail. Your circumstances may be changing, but you can stand still, trapped in the same habits, the same obsessive need for perfection, the same views that keep you spinning your wheels.
Right now, I can see and think more clearly. My eyes aren’t clouded by a fog of nonsense. More seems to happen in a single day now than did in a month before. Last Friday, I walked around by the river with some friends, and we sat and watched the boats slip by and this simple act felt full and rich and more than any one person should need.
When you’ve been in one too many situations that compromise your values over the years, you have to do a canvass, tune-up, and reboot. I had to seriously assess my values this year. I had to make sure I still had them all in place. I recognized that conflict, drama and upheaval, and the people who love them, have been my normal for a long time. But I did the assay. Loyalty, honesty, ambition, drive, perseverance, self-respect: all checked out – but in various levels, with lots of room for improvement. We’re all works in progress.
I did learn that I’m far more self-reliant and strong than I ever gave myself credit for. I opted out of a few rides that would compromise me, my core, my better self, further. And I feel this is an incredibly difficult lesson to not just understand in the abstract, but to live out, each day.
“If only I had time, to talk about time.” I feel my distance from my past experiences; I can see the ground between me and the past. I am on a chair on a beach, watching my life projected on a screen. Staying still in the silence, not struggling, not responding, having restraint, just watching the reel unwind. I see all the people in my life, walking on the beach around me, as in this famous scene in 8 ½:
I watch nights out in New York at age twenty, feeling invincible, like queen of the world. I see the many drives through the Maryland countryside with my parents. I see all the sessions of uncontrollable laughter in college, sitting on the floor drawing obscene comics with friends. I see the people that I used to love. I remember conversations, their faces, their urgency, their hopes for themselves, their youth, their impossible energy, their talent and basic goodness like badges sewn on their jackets.
I no longer feel any bittersweet longing to have the old times and people back. I try to feel a different kind of love for them from a distance. As a good friend once described just this feeling, you can “celebrate people from your small corner of the world,” even when their part in your story (or your part in their story) is over.
It is hard to have any kind of grace in this world. I look to all the people around me who have so much more grace and maturity than I do, and I try to learn from them.
Grace, to me, seems to be the power of letting people (or ideas or situations) go, to never enter where your presence is no longer wanted or needed. This is an act of self-preservation. You let go so you can keep your dignity and you choose yourself over any situation in which you’ll have to be less than yourself.
Moving forward, I’m more aware of my own power, my ability to choose. I remember the many times before when I have chosen myself. I see what I want now, more clearly, I see how I will make it a reality, and then, hopefully, I soldier on.
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