Life Is A Pile Of Papers

Doing Morning Pages at the living room desk I was troubled by piles of paper on the shelves to either side. Mail, drafts essays, reminders, notes, a magazine, two folders, and whatever was at the bottoms of the piles. I kept writing my pages, knowing I’m best served by doing one thing at a time, but those piles nagged at me.

Soon as I finished writing, I consolidated the piles into one and cleared one shelf. I breathed a little easier. Hoarding works up my anxiety. Clarity lowers it. That clear shelf had me feeling better. Not fully healed but a smidge calmer.

The tough thing about a pile of papers is that some of it can’t be cleared easily. The essay drafts, one that’s twelve pages long, need revision that will take hours. More troubling, I don’t know what to do when they’re done. I’d like to think they could be published, but I would need to figure out where and how to do that. Piled papers are daunting, but just the thought of finding somewhere to publish exhausts me so that I don’t want to even begin.

As I worked into the pile, I thought of this Fitzgerald quote: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.” I’ll argue it’s not the past into which I have to let myself be pulled. I beat on against the current to be in the moment. Sure, I’m often dragged back and waste too much energy trying to peer into the future, but I’m trying to be in this moment. That pile of papers is an affront to this moment. It is to me. It represents what I should do or should have already done. How can I be in this moment when I’m embarrassed by the things I haven’t done and wishing for a future in which I am a better man?

Morning Pages served as the first draft of this. I’m done with them now and typing this last thought. Soon I’ll walk those pages downstairs and file them. That much will be done and cleared away. I’ll check if there’s time to dig in more, clear away even one more piece of paper. I’m rowing hard against the current, stubbornly working at being in this moment with a clear mind if not a clear desk, ready for what is happening and whatever comes next.

Unpleasant Guests, Limited Wisdom

A friend called yesterday. She's a teacher and struggling. Can't find a new job. Doesn't know how to make ends meet. Her friend is in trouble. It's a lot to handle. She called to hear something good from me. I hope I gave her something. Even if I did, I sent her a version of this morning because it seemed on the nose.

What do you do when you find unpleasant guests are knocking at the door of home? Some thinly disguised versions of greed, hatred, or ignorance. Of course, the guests are usually better presented than this scruffy bunch sounds, because the self does a fair bit of work to make them more presentable to itself.

Practice says a strange thing: So that you can let them go, make mindful room for them. Welcome them in as the brief guests passing through that they really are, not the long stay tyrants we can easily turn them into. Find out who they are really, so you can know more skillfully how to let them go. The Way is not about drowning in bliss but establishing freedom in every mood, condition, emotion, and belief. And so it has to be about knowing, moment by moment, our actual condition upside-down and inside-out, with an alert, curious, willing attentiveness. Sitting patiently and ungrudgingly with the way things actually are. — Susan Murphy, Upside-Down Zen, qtd in Daily Doses Of Wisdom, page 164

I told her she certainly does have unpleasant guests knocking at her door. They aren't greed, hatred, or ignorance, more like frustration, anxiety, and fear. Unpleasant characters indeed. They present as matters of fact, unavoidable, the natural order. We've been taught that there's no other way to think of them. That's why people tell us to suck it up and deal. We're told, the world simply is this way; quit your whining.

There's some wisdom in that. We do well to accept the world as it is, but I'm not describing an awful place or situation. There is plenty that sucks about this life, but there's more than plenty wonder in it and the world is more interesting than all bad or all good.

Have you ever had to listen to someone who believes bad things come in threes? Two things happen and they cast about for magic number three. There it is! they cry. Of course it's there when they go looking for it. This morning the toilet paper roll was empty and I forgot to have breakfast. Where's my third bad thing? I can go looking for it or not. My choice. The third thing is out there (so too are the fourth, fifth, sixth), but there's this good writing, my wondrous wife in the next room, and my friend to whom I first wrote all this. We find what we're looking for, bad and good, and these things come more than three at a time.

My friend is having some awful times. Bad things are at her door. She should welcome them and offer them food, a place to sit. Be polite, I told her. Be compassionate toward them. But don't indulge them. Don't let them move in and take up all your time and space. They can visit for a few, but then send them on their way. Accept them in order to let them go. Accept the way things are without falling for the con that they will stay this way forever.

That's the limit of my wisdom. Feeling that it's not quite enough, here is the sheer grace of Derek Walcott's most gorgeous of poems:

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Signs In The Schools

A teacher in our program gave me a sign to hang in my room. Not a good teacher. Not one with whom I have a lot of contact. Mostly I stay away. Sometimes I play like bad teaching is contagious and that helps me keep my distance. She came to my room with a sign saying something like, no kids in the hall ten minutes prior to dismissal. I read the sign and then handed it back to the teacher. "I can't hang this in my room," I said. She said we have to. I circled a mid-sentence word on the sign that was capitalized for no reason and added a carat where another word was missing. "Did you make this?" I asked. She said it was another person on staff.

That other staff member hates when I correct her writing, but if she wants the sign hung, that's the price she has to pay. I explained the typos without fanfare. I've been down this particular road too often with her. On the way back to my classroom I thought about signs and messages.

There are ways to go about running a school such as the one at which I'm currently, but not for much longer, employed. I have my ideas and some colleagues agree with me. Others don't. They make signs that, despite typographic errors, five the stern message that students better behave or else.

In my class we are watching The Green Mile. There's a bit of dialogue I could have written about teaching school:

...our job is talking, not yelling. You'd do better to think of this place like an intensive care ward.

We have had some trouble around dismissal time. A few kids get out of class and cause some bother in the halls. Bother. I can't call it trouble. I keep my door closed and stand with my back against it talking with the kids or just listening as we wait for dismissal. I try to smile.

Now consider what I'm doing. The door swings into the room to open. To go out, a kid would have to pull me out of the way. They're unlikely to do that. This is my kind of sign. It feels gentle. There's an understanding I pass on by standing there. Some kids know what I'm doing and nod at it. Those who don't know at least see that we all stay in the room until dismissal. That's good enough.

I suppose I'll have to hang the sign once it's rewritten. I won't like it and I won't use it. The tone of the thing is too angry. That sign yells at the kids. Me, I'd prefer to talk with them. It's how I would want to be treated.

What Writing Looks Like

At my job I'm supposed to be writing, but at one point I pushed the chair back from the desk, crossed one leg over the other, put my hands behind my neck, leaned way back in the chair, and stared at the plaster wall for a couple minutes toward the end of which I worried that someone might walk in and doubt I was earning my keep. Had anyone asked what I was doing, I would have wanted to answer, "I'm writing," but probably would have said I was thinking because so few people would believe that, staring at the wall, I really was writing.

The look of writing differs throughout the process, changes according to the kind of work and the tools employed, and varies according to the writer. It even sounds different. I talk to myself while writing, whispering the lines as I work through something difficult. Sometimes writing is a good pen moving across and down the page. Most of my writing has me sitting at a desk rapping too hard on the keys and beating holy hell out of the space bar with my thumbs. I'd hate to share an office with me. But writing is also staring at the wall, looking out the window, filling the water bottle or coffee cup, crumpling a sheet of paper, massaging the eyes, and sometimes going for a walk or a run. Aaron Sorkin writes in the shower. I doubt he brings the paper and pen or his Macbook in there, but he's not taking a break so much as advancing the process.

No one questions Aaron Sorkin at this point. Not anyone with half a brain. I'm a lot less established and feel the need to account for what I'm doing. Good people are paying me money to write and I'd hate to have them think my staring at the wall is a waste of all that. I want to explain that looking at the wall got me the fix for the paragraph on page three. I pretty much wrote it on that wall, my body reclined in the chair, hands behind my head, but the pen in my head writing, scratching, and rewriting words. I found the words as if they were written in the textures and patches on that wall. I just needed to see their outlines enough to begin hearing them drop into place one after the other, one sentence and then another.

Now that's writing.

No one caught me in the act of it and had to hear my explanation. Except you.

I've been staring now at the two-word sentence that precedes this one, wondering, how will this end? Check back with me in a while. I'll still be staring out the window, into the pattern of the carpet, or maybe even at the painted wall. You'll have to get my attention. I leave this world when I'm writing even without pen or keyboard involved. I hate to come back until I've found the words and have arrived at the period that finishes it off just so.