Friday, February 22, 2013

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

My husband tells this "story", according to some friend of his: if you ask a regular person how they're doing at a party, you get an answer like, "Fine," or "I'm good, how are you?" But if you ask an addict/artist/human on the fringe how they're doing, you get their grim, unabashed life story. "I feel like crap, It's been a rough week, I miss my ex, I really want to use, I can't pay my rent because I haven't sold anything in weeks, I shouldn't even be at this party..." etc.

I dont' know if this is true, or if it's just cute. Today, if you asked me, "How are you, Jess?", I'd say, "Well, almost everything that used to give my life pleasure or meaning has come up empty, and I don't really know what the significance of any work at all is. I don't care about the things I used to care about, and I feel pretty dead inside. But I had a decent yoga practice yesterday. And my husband and I are going for falafel for lunch, so that's something."

No one wants that girl at the party. If you wonder where I am, I'm hiding, 'cause that's the weather of my world right now.

Because I've been writing about my YU30 challenge, one thing I haven't said in this space lately is that I'm in the midst of some internal upheaval. It feels really opaque right now, and also so cliche as to make me nauseous. There is some part of me wearing a black turtleneck, smoking Dunhills, reading Camus and Nietzsche, and holding forth on the meaninglessness of it all, and frankly, I want to hit that girl in the head with my cast iron frying pan, she's so gross and self-indulgent. On a more compassionate and honest note, though: I'm asking myself about the things I say I care about--teaching, creating, community--and wondering if they really mean anything to me. I've been thinking about that same old story of massive professional success being hollow and empty inside. I've been thinking about why I have two insanely expensive degrees--one I'm STILL paying off, the debt of which feels like dragging an oak desk behind me through life--and if the education in any way makes me anyone different, or if I am who I am independent of what I know and what I've been taught. I've been thinking about this notion of dharma.

This is a photo I took of me trying to move walls. I don't live in this apartment anymore, but I still try to move the walls around me. It accounts for a great deal of suffering, I think.
I should have warned you at the beginning, this is a little all over the place.

Often dharma is defined as duty, central nature, work, purpose (cue Rick Warren ad--after all, my judeo-christian education was thorough), that which you were created for and purposed to do, or to be. I think I've found a couple of those things, but they've been repeatedly empty. That is to say, I work for a while at the thing that I think is my purpose: let's say building community, only to discover that the other people I'm trying to build community with don't want to do it the way I want to do it. They're not interested in it if they have to make themselves vulnerable, or they think the most important way to do it is to keep the eyes on the goal and to dismiss the experience of others, or they just don't want to work with me, or whatever. I wind up disappointed and lonely, wanting to shake my fist at all the moonfaces who talk about wanting a better world, but won't put their emotional/communal capital where their mouths are.

When I consider this idea of dharma, of the natural order of things, and what my work is within that order to make the Universe run at its greatest capacity, it's tough for me not to wonder what's in it for me. I can spend the rest of my time doing work for which I am naturally talented, doing work that I've fashioned my skills to perform well at, but is it going to give me anything back? Will I feel fulfilled? Will I be able to put bread on my table? I ask these questions, with more than a small chip on my shoulder, and I hear a voice reminding me that my work isn't to do what I'm supposed to do with any attachment to or concern for the results. My work is only to work, to but the best out into the Universe as an act of worship, and to mindfully detach from what comes back because what comes back doesn't belong to me; it belongs to the Universe.

In which case, it doesn't matter what I do for work: I could teach brilliant young people how to harness their creativity and cultivate discipline and discernment, or I could bake bread; or I could sell shoes, or deliver babies, or check in guests at some hotel. Ultimately, all the work is the same work.

But that's not how I was raised. I can't shake these specters of "you're defined by what you do, by how well you excel at a task". My father has worked for the same company since I was four. My mother had, I think, seven different jobs, looking for something in each of them that ultimately didn't come to her. She had this many jobs not because she couldn't stay employed, but because none of them filled her up with whatever she was looking for, and helped her to identify herself in a positive and healthy way. These two people, my first models for everything, taught me that work was the most important thing in someone's life--more important than health, more important than family relationships, sometimes more important than civic duty (but not always; as much as I saw work be put above all else, I saw some volunteerism, too).  When my mother was out of work it cast her into an incredibly dark year of her life--she seemed not to know who she was without her job (there are probably millions of people facing the same kind of darkness and alienation with the unemployment numbers the way they are in America right now). Likewise, I felt never more visible to my parents than when I was succeeding or excelling at something that they valued--and when you're seven, or twelve, or twenty-two, your work is school, right?--and never less visible to them than when I was asking them for something that I needed that they couldn't give me. Like so many others (I told you it was cliche), I feel like I have to be special in order to be ordinary, and to be ordinary will make me invisible, and we all know what happens to the invisible people in our community.
S is for svadhyaya

I learned how to measure myself based on what I was doing for work, and if I wasn't doing something of (others') value with my life, then I was wasting precious resources, not to mention not living up to the expectations of my parents, my family, my university, my race. God, no pressure.

But it isn't just work that I use to define myself--I wish it were, because changing jobs, while not easy, is doable, and when you find the right one, there's all this (idealized, fantasy) confetti-throwing-rejoicing-beauty at having found that which is your dharma. No, it's almost everything in which I'm seeking meaning, and coming up short. I see now that the relationships I had, even with the "most important people in my life"--family, girlfriends, even my closest Loved One--can't sustain me the way I need(ed) or want(ed) them to. Some of them were never able to provide me with what I needed despite our best combined efforts, for any number of reasons. Some of them didn't want to give me what I needed. Sometimes my own attachment, my own desire, my raga, a clinging, craving greed, is so great that nothing will satisfy it. Still, what this means is that the places where I'm looking for real meaning are all like empty wells: some of them dry, without the water of life for decades; some of them mossy, able to feed only the small-celled plants that grow there; all of them, to me, empty, empty. (I think of a line from a Julian Schnabel movie: "Cerrado, cerrado, cerrado, todos cerrados.")

Alas, I think I'm wading into a process that is only going to be deeper, higher over my head, before I'm on the other side of it, before I find the thing that I'm really looking for, which is ultimately at the center of myself, if only I can be still enough, quiet enough, careful enough to see it. I'm right at the beginning, and I feel utterly, entirely lost. Good news is, I'm not disinterested in everything:

  • my yoga practice is a godsend right now. It is challenging and discouraging--it forces me to confront the reality of my skills, the How It Is of my body-mind--while at the same time providing me with opportunities for observation without judgment, for letting go, and for coming into contact with the Divine. It is one of few places that, even as it works my ass over, feels wonderfully safe;
  • the food. All I can say about the food is that I'm thoughtful about what goes in and I'm grateful for that reflection. I still want to care for myself and I reflect that by preparing and eating mindfully. 
So at least I have that; I have the love of a good man who doesn't need me to be special in order to love me; and I have the need to be free of the crap and the lies, and to find what is true and real, to silence the bullshit so that I can recognize the truth. Things sound dark, or bleak, but they're not: I'm not overwhelmed with depression. I'm just tired of the bullshit. I'm looking for the Real Thing.


Abby Martin said...

dear jess, i can't tell you how beautiful you are... your words resonate with me, as always. i am working like crazy lately (real-fake job and fake-real job, it's complicated).. and thinking about being a vessel helps me find grounding when i get lost in my head. and this:
"we work in the dark
we do what we can
we give what we have
our doubt is our passion
and our passion is our task
the rest is the madness of art"
(henry james)
love always
abby (from river city ages ago....)

Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

Jess, yoga and food sound like excellent anchors (buoys?) to get you through your dark night of the soul time. I've felt similar feelings about personal relationships. My parents taught me that what you do outside of your job is much more important than what you do FOR a job, so I got a different message than you. But it still makes me sometimes use a certain measuring stick for my life and not being satisfied.

Anonymous said...

Lovely bold post lady. It reminds me of this quote:

Despair is the only cure for illusion. Without despair we cannot transfer our allegiance to reality - it is a kind of mourning period for our fantasies. Some people do not survive this despair, but no major change within a person can occur without it. -Philip Slater

My yoga teacher says - if it doesn't change you/your life, it isn't yoga.

Here's how it feels for me sometimes:

Thank you for this post!