Are You Bored by Your Own Bullshit?

“Life, friends, is boring.” -John Berryman, “Dream Songs 14

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I urge you to watch Berryman recite his poem, linked above and here [Screengrab via YouTube]
My psychiatrist and I have a “joke” that goes something like this:

I tell her how, for me, our 45-minute sessions fly by. How I relish our conversations, and  feel engaged for the first time all week. Then I laugh and tell her not to worry — I get how bored she is. I know she’s just sitting there, forced to listen, probably looking at the clock, thinking, Really? This bullshit again? 

My therapist insists my assessment is inaccurate. She loves her work. She finds it deeply rewarding to help patients get to the bottom of things keeping them stuck, no matter how repetitive. I shouldn’t worry about being interesting. That’s not why I go to therapy. 

She’s right. I go to therapy to feel happier and less consumed by my most stubborn demons. Still, I can’t help but find this joke (which is really my joke, not ours) darkly funny. If I were my therapist, I’d certainly be bored by me. Bored by the fact that I continue to engage in the same destructive thought patterns, habits, and behaviors, despite knowing how bad they make me feel, that I could be making better choices. Bored by my relentless appetite for self-blame, even though I’ve learned — both experientially and through extensive research — just how unproductive it is. Each week, my session is somewhat of a carbon copy of the last. After 19 years of therapy (and counting), I still have to remind myself that self-awareness alone doesn’t change behavior. Here we are.

As I’ve thought about and worked on this blog post, it’s dawned on me that what I seem to find funny about this “joke” is the irony — namely, that I find the repetitive, incessant nature of my suffering (and the active role I play in perpetuating it) boring. The joke is the fact of my projection. I am the one who is bored by my own bullshit. 

This realization is bizarrely comforting, in part because it makes my bullshit (for lack of a better word) feel a little less … heavy, solid, real. By creating a bit of space around the habits I find painful, my boredom functions as a shock absorber. It lets me take a step back, so I can see myself and say, Ah, cleaning on your hands-and-knees again. It’s 1am and you’re exhausted. Perhaps this is not the best idea.

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Compulsive cleaning is probably my most repetitive therapy topic

The comfort of boredom

There’s certainly a degree to which I could perceive such a distressed image of myself with self-blame and condescension: “You freak, what’s with the OCD again?But I don’t — and it’s as if I am unable to in the midst of boredom. I can’t judge the pain as much if I am bored of it. Bored of my habitual decisions that keep me in pain. Bored of my self-awareness. The only reason I am able to see these painful behaviors with such clarity and focus is because I am so damn bored of them.

Boredom encourages me to witness my emotional pain with more distance than I’m used to. In a state of boredom, I cannot help but yearn for something more interesting on which to focus my energy. I furrow my brow. I get curious. And with that curiosity, I can be more compassionate. Instead of playing victim — what’s wrong with me? — I step into the role of explorer. Now what? 

Ultimately, that sensation of curiosity feels good, or at least better than the boredom preceding it. There’s an element of humor in it, too: it feels a funny to separate yourself from your behaviors in order to see the patterns as merely uninteresting, rather than pathetic, stupid, or frustrating. That’s because draining value judgment from how we perceive our actions certainly isn’t automatic. After all, we have all evolved to possess what psychologists call negativity bias, the instinct that makes negative experiences seem more important than they actually are. Although negativity bias is originally a survival instinct meant to help us readily identify danger and predators, most of us know it best as the inner critic — that voice that always gives more weight to our mistakes and flaws than successes. We often regard ourselves, our own minds, as the predator from which we are trying to flee. 

We’re all mammals

Now knowing the evolutionary roots of self-criticism, it’s easier to understand how and why so-called “bad habits” (which I’ve also been calling “bullshit”) self-perpetuate. When we act against our best interests, we tend to meet ourselves with criticism, guilt, and blame.  Our brains make us feel bad about the “mistaken” action so that we recognize it as a threat we should stay away from. But since the “threat” in this case is within us, we end up simply making an enemy out of ourselves. We feel unsafe in our own midst. We rebel against our interests again, because who cares, we are the enemy anyway. We do the bad thing again, we feel bad again. The behavior continues. Soon enough, it’s a habit. A bad habit on its way to becoming bullshit.

Recognizing that you are actually bored of feeling this way is what can interrupt the cycle. Staying with my survival-metaphors, boredom signals “safety” to the brain. Think about it: if you are able to feel bored by something, that situation is not requiring you to be on “high alert” (e.g. you cannot bored in the presence of a tiger).  No, you won’t suddenly manufacture the feeling of “safety.” But your brain, which does not know it is 2019 and that your inner critic is probably among your greatest threats, will feel calmer. And with that calm is opportunity — for something different. 

Boredom is not a gut reaction to pain (it certainly is not mine). But it’s a framework to consider. A perspective shift to explore when you find yourself deep in the ditch of victimhood and self-blame. This is all an experiment. A pendulum swinging between habit and exploration, again and again. 

Best of all, none of this involves any forced optimism. The glass may not be half full, and that’s okay. But rather than humoring your survival instinct to fixate on and overthink recurrent missteps, you can choose to see doing so as uninteresting. You can look at the image of yourself with investigative eyes, because curiosity is the natural antidote to boredom. Remarkably, this shift from boredom to curiosity doesn’t require that much effort. It just unfurls, like petals of a flower beginning to open in spring.

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The “glass” may even be a half-drunken bottle of Heineken, abandoned on the street. SO GET CURIOUS ABOUT IT!

Experimentation, not solution

This perspective shift is a lot easier to try than a lot of the self-help “hacks” out there. (I am not a fan of “hacks” nor of “self-help,” really, despite my tendency to write in a kind of self-help-y way). If you’re sitting there thinking, “I am so hard on myself, there is no way I could feel better,” take a step back from how miserable you are (I’m right there with you) and ask: Are you bored of feeling this way? My guess is you can probably find part of you that genuinely can answer “yes.” It’s actually quite easy to convince yourself that you’re bored of feeling like shit. And it is remarkably empowering.

A bored brain won’t blame you for your dysfunctional habit of cleaning on hands and knees at 1am. And by mitigating that blame, the well-rehearsed choreography of the inner critic, there is space for something new, something far more interesting. 

Dealing with Anxiety + Embodiment

Can I eat
what you give me. I
have not earned it. Must
I think of everything 

as earned.

            –Robert Creeley

The speaker of Robert Creeley’s poem “For Love” stutters these sharply enjambed lines just after gaining momentum at the beginning of the staccato, recursive poem.  Desperately, the speaker (Creeley himself) asks his lover, the poem’s addressee (whose name is Bobbie, as we learn from the dedication)  if he is capable of eating what she gives him. Of course, he is also asking himself, rhetorically, performatively—is he capable of receptivity? Can he really accept love? Pleasure. Acceptance. Being seen.

Immediately, Creeley decides to answer for himself: “I have not earned it.” His insecure, questioning mind then chirps in with an additional, new question—no question mark: “Must / I think of everything // as earned.” In characteristic fashion, Creeley’s question is a statement, likening his interrogations even further to the circular, often contracting ruminations of the mind.

I’ve always read these lines in a somewhat symbolic way: in the often-sheltered universe of one’s romantic relationship, love itself becomes objectified, something to be earned, deserved, returned—a commodity. We “invest” in others, and wonder if it is “worth” it. Love—something we feel with our bodies and ultimately do with our bodies—becomes an idea. A thing. And our vocabulary adjusts accordingly. This poem gets that, and has been my favorite poem for many years. I even have one line from it tattooed on the back of my right thigh!

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DAT INK.

I love this poem for many reasons, but I am especially fascinated by how strangely the body figures into it. Take the act of eating, which is presented as a symbol of the “give and take” of love, of what the speaker earns (or doesn’t) from his lover. In the world of the poem, Creeley’s body is not hungry; he simply wonders whether it is deserving of love’s nourishment. “What have you become to ask,” Creeley immediately then asks (characteristically without a question mark), “what have I made you into,” he says again, growing desperate with each question. His potential answers include: “companion, good company, / crossed legs with skirt, or / soft body under / the bones of the bed.” Creeley’s lover is an idea— “companion, good company,” a compartmentalized fragment, “crossed legs with skirt,” or a surreal composition, “soft body under / the bones of the bed.” Creeley’s recursion is his defense—from himself, from the body. And from his need for defense, we know of his vulnerability. We see the absence of his being, his loving, in the poem, and in the absence we feel his anxiety, which is basically the poem’s subject.

Throughout “For Love,” the speaker and the lover’s bodies both are no longer bodies, but rather the ideas of bodies. And love, perhaps, too, becomes an idea as the speaker’s experience becomes circumscribed by the circularity of the poem’s language. The poem talks about itself, creating distance from the thing it seeks to describe (love), and defends itself against its own admission: a desire for presence, connection, expression—being, in other words.

This dynamic—defensively thinking about something in abstractions such that it becomes disembodied—was central to my 11 on-and-off years with anorexia, and even my current struggles with anxiety and OCD (not unrelated to the anorexia, but I’ll save that for another time). Food was everything I thought about. It was the object of my focus, of my craving at all times—intellectually, but of course, physiologically, too. I kept food at a distance from myself, situating it as a constant other, an object of craving that I always knew was there—separate from me, something I thought I could control. Being hungry all the time made my body feel like something else, an idea, an object. It kept me from actually feeling, being, alive.

Looking back on that time as the person I am now—someone who not only eats enough but also wants to grow and be happy—I can see that my biggest fear during those years was embodiment. The stuff of life that makes us human—in the bodies we inhabit. Connection, compassion, love, loss.

Our culture makes it hard not to fear embodiment, especially for women, I’d argue. We are told to eat this, not that. Wear this, not that. Move our bodies this way, but not that way. As film critic Laura Mulvey wrote in her iconic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” “[W]omen are simultaneously looked at and displayed… they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” In a traditional framework—the one Mulvey is using—women’s bodies are typically regarded as objects, as ideas, as vessels for what she calls to-be-looked-at-ness. This leaves many of us clinging to our bodies, trying to follow the rules about our bodies that we’re given by the outside, so that our bodies can be legible to the outside. So that we can be beautiful, worthy of being looked at. For many of us, this narrative was rarely critiqued; or, even if it was, how easy is it to internalize a belief that resists everything you were ever taught?

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“The Male Gaze” causes women to possess “to-be-looked-at-ness.” Hi Ryan Gosling!

Learning to meditate has been my life’s greatest healing practice thus far—for my anxiety, OCD, insomnia and more—but it has also shown me just how much I fear embodiment. Sitting with myself brings up terror. Each day during my practice, as I try (an infinite number of times) to focus on my breath, my mind panics, and I feel it clinging to thoughts that try to jostle me out of my body. Experiencing that anxiety—the push-pull between my body and mind—is almost always unpleasant, but it reminds me to see my thoughts (particularly my anxious ones!) as separate from my body, as fleeting, flexible. My body, too, of course, is fleeting. And OBVI mortality is my #1 anxiety (I freak out about death on a daily basis probably). But the practice of actually SITTING WITH THAT ANXIETY, and feeling it, is meditation, despite the belief that meditating necessarily = inner peace. Meditation creates a space within which being a body can’t be rendered into an idea. 

BODY ≠ IDEA

I should admit: I often hate it when I meditate—the act of doing it. I hate sitting with my body, being with it, of it. I feel uncomfortable—physically, emotionally, intellectually. But that doesn’t mean I buy into the thoughts that challenge me to step outside of myself. I receive whatever it is my mind gives me, and go onto “accept” the thought if the invitation appeals. The scariest thought of all, perhaps, is that we always have the choice to either receive—or gently turn away from—everything we are given. But we all certainly have the power “to eat” what we are given, and not to think of everything as earned.

The 25 Best & Worst Things That Happened to Me at 25

I haven’t written a blog post in a couple of weeks. I have been feeling—admittedly—a bit stuck. My psychiatrist often encourages me to notice the relationship between this creative paralysis and the status of my anxiety levels, as she is led to believe  that I am less willing to produce work (of any kind) when I am feeling most anxious, rigid, obsessive about order. Ironically, my OCD slash anxiety mind is always trying to convince me that order is paramount. And with order will come creativity. Then will come fulfillment. Then will come happiness. Then, then, then.

Then, incidentally, is one of the words most central to anxiety.

Of course, I disagree with my shrink. Anxiety makes me who I am OK?! That’s what I usually say in response, at least in my head. And sometimes, I do what feels like a genuinely successful job of convincing myself that sweeping the floor five times every day is necessary for my well-being. Other times, I notice that my “itch” to clean the floor is so stubborn that it never feels assuaged, even when it’s scratched with a compulsive ritual. The desire for order is simply a nag that will never relent. In those moments, I wish I could simply relish disarray and drink in the chaos as fuel for my ideas. 

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Don’t even get me started about how anxious litter makes me.

But perhaps that’s unrealistic. Maybe I can just notice that I love order, that my love for order is often unproductive, and try my best to shepherd my attention back to trying to write, trying to brainstorm story ideas, trying to read poetry. With trying, the metric of order is irrelevant, and therefore moot. So here I am: trying.

This blog is the result of my attempt to create structure around creativity, to give myself an external entity to which I was accountable for creation. If I am merely forcing myself to write in a vacuum, it simply will not get done. Why? It’s not because I’m not-Type-A (because I am), but because it gives me a perennial source of self-loathing. With something else, and ideally someONE else, asking something of me, I tend to deliver. Problem is, my blog is mine.

Enough ruminating: it’s my FUCKING BIRTHDAY! 6:46pm now on my 26th birthday. I have been inside all day on the phone with my health insurance company (I know) and eating salad too quickly and getting a stomach ache and then Instagramming myself in a sardonic anti-Trump hat. I have felt paralyzed by anxiety so I chose to do nothing—except things that felt vaguely self-care-y but also kind of ripe for rumination. So now does the vicious cycle make a bit more sense?

To me, the mere notion of a birthday explains it all. I don’t know about you, but my birthday brings up a lot. Most of all, it makes me want so very badly to be a kid, and to feel so profoundly at a loss for how to believe—experientially—that I am aging before my own eyes and also an infant who wants the world to stop turning and time to freeze. But now that I’m 26, I know that the world will continue turning regardless of my internal tantrums, and that PUSH-PULL of self-awareness is what makes the propulsion of anxiety continue to hum.

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How I feel inside on a regular basis: bad and boujee.

So, on this special day, I am taking the opportunity to RECOGNIZE AND HONOR my anxiety, but also alchemize it into creative energy—and a new blog post for you all (thank you to my 74 regular readers around the globe).

Straight-forwardly, I am presenting 25 of the best things that happened to me in this BIRTH YEAR, and 25 of the worst things that happened to me. These are not THE best or THE WORST—just a sampling of some, and so please don’t feel offended if you believe the lists to be non-comprehensive. They are also not in a particular order. I doubt anyone would care enough about any of this to be offended, but you know, you gotta put it in writing.

BEST THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO ME AT AGE 25

  1. I told the entire world about my experience navigating a secret Adderall addiction.
  2. During the week my grandfather was dying (read on for the “worst things…” list), I got to see my dad undergo a familial trauma, and the experience brought me so many feelings of clarity and empathy about him as a person.
  3. I internalized that I had built a financially and spiritually sustainable career as a freelancer.
  4. I became closer with my best friend from college—inarguably even closer than we had been in college. (I hope she never leaves nyc but I think my hope will not come true).
  5. I inched closer toward normalcy in the eating realm, and can now say that I rarely enact anorexic behaviors (and even thoughts). AND that doesn’t make me hate myself (that much).
  6. I snuggled with a cat that didn’t scare me even though I’m terrified of cats.
  7. I moved into a beautiful two bedroom apartment with my sister/best friend and it feels like the sanctuary of my dreams.
  8. I said “I love you” to a man that I loved.
  9. I had my TV debut on the Today Show lol.
  10. I started writing a TV pilot and then stopped writing a TV pilot.
  11. I realized I liked networking because really it just means having drinks with people who are cool.
  12. I laughed harder than I had in a long while kick-ball-changing down the soup aisle of a CVS with my sister.
  13. I went to the American South for the first time and ate barbecue.
  14. I drove MULTIPLE TIMES on the highway WITH A DRIVER’S LICENSE and WITHOUT MY PARENTS.
  15. I upped my dose of Zoloft.
  16. I ate a really good steak. Several.
  17. I started this blog, lol to the fact that I was just trashing on the creative process.
  18. I realized I didn’t want to write poetry anymore, and then realized ANEW that I did. (Yesterday, 3/27/17).
  19. I quit a job that wasn’t serving me even though it was easy and good money.
  20. I gave good life advice to a damaged 10 year old with dubious values.
  21. I started paying my own health insurance in my pursuit of 100% financial independence.
  22. I got to see my bff’s (see #4) mom give a talk on Leonard Bernstein and it was really inspiring and moving.
  23. I started brainstorming article ideas with a greater sense of what I was doing.
  24. I worked for MONTHS on a book proposal and then decided to ditch the project.
  25. I realized the importance of having fun and that burning yourself out into an overworked depression isn’t righteous.
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Lest you forget I blogged about my on here before #tbt.

WORST THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO ME AT AGE 25

  1. I lost my health insurance through my parents :( tbt.
  2. My grandfather died.
  3. I started getting panic attacks again.
  4. I worked for MONTHS on a book proposal and then decided to ditch the project.
  5. I thought I wanted to be a TV writer and was all set to UNDERSTAND MY IDENTITY and then I realized I didn’t want to do it.
  6. I started thinking way too much about death on a regular basis because of my anxiety.
  7. I had several moments of doubting myself and the career path I am choosing and it gave me a lot of emotional pain and physical discomfort.
  8. I stayed up for an entire night self-flagellating about a typo I’d left in one email that someone didn’t notice.
  9. I realized the body is fragile and complicated and ever-changing. (Best thing too, not on the list).
  10. I continued indulging my seltzer addiction, even though the CO2 isn’t good for alkalinity.
  11. I didn’t discover what I want to be doing with my life.
  12. I failed to figure out what kind of writing will make me happy.
  13. I treated my ex-boyfriend unfairly in several occasions, and one particular one comes to mind where I regret my behaviors.  
  14. I didn’t read a single book cover-to-cover with attention and care.
  15. I didn’t appreciate my family vacation enough this summer.
  16. I didn’t do anything for the Clinton campaign and then sat around like a depressed fool when Donald Trump became President and have continued failing to be an activist because I am too anxious and paralyzed to move in any direction.
  17. Donald Trump became president. (Sorry to everyone else to whom this happened: e.g. everyone.)
  18. I let time go by faster than I wish I’d let it go by.
  19. I fell out of touch with some of my closest friends and feel an absence of a cohesive social group in my life, and feel guilty about my role in not cultivating it.
  20. One of my best friends and I are not as close as we used to be and I feel sad and weird about it.
  21. A close friend of mine died of cancer at age 25 and I never got the chance to tell him how much he meant to me, nor did I pursue the friendship as much as I wanted to. I had been afraid.
  22. I realized how much I’d taken my family’s (now dead) cocker spaniel, Eli, for granted during his life, and that I fear intimacy even if I think I don’t because I am so afraid of loss.
  23. I didn’t write an amazing article for a prestigious magazine that I’d never written for (e.g. The New Yorker, New York magazine, etc.). This is a goal. Let me know if you have ideas.
  24. I felt jealous of people a lot who deserved whatever it is they got that I was jealous of. #mudita
  25. I got a lot of stomach aches that are psychosomatic.

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Now, that was a difficult exercise. I didn’t plan these items before I wrote, nor did I really edit these lists. I wanted it to be a kind of #automaticwriting a la Andre Breton. This would drag on if I analyzed why it was difficult, so I will refrain. But I will say that it was interesting how much easier it was to generate “bad things” than “good things” (duh! The human condition!). Furthermore, it was even more fascinating to notice that most of the negative things I wanted to say were THOUGHTS: I realized this, I didn’t do that, I wish I had done this, and so on. It was very difficult to bring myself to actually stop and say that an event or experience was bad in and of itself.

And you’ll see that certain experiences I put in both lists—ah, the clichés abound! But really, reflecting on shit makes you see that pain and pleasure are usually NOT occurring in isolation. If they’re not coexistent, they’re certainly intersecting in some way.

With that: happy birthday to me. I hope you enjoyed this self-referential list, the fruits of my labor trying to alchemize death-anxiety on my birthday into a blog post. May it give you insights!

Awful but cheerful: Sunday Reflections on Elizabeth Bishop

 

One of my best friends and I share a special understanding of and appreciation for Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. “Your voice is kind of like hers,” he said to me once—about my poems, but also how I speak generally, my tendency to describe things ad nauseam. In particular, I often become fixated on describing my memories, revisiting past experiences near-compulsively, trying to make them come alive again with excruciating detail. I miss painting for this reason; it gives me a vocabulary to express, not just render, light; to linger over the emotion and tone a simple object can communicate; to express the fact that looking at the East River on a cold, spring evening illuminated by bright sun can send you deep into devastation.

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A cold spring: a March evening in 2015, when the light contradicted the temperature. #incipience

Bishop understands that something deep is communicated when you describe the spars of ships as “burnt match-sticks,” as she does in the identifiably early work, “Large Bad Picture,” from her first collection North & South. Bishop may be retrained in directly expressing her own emotions in her poetry, but she makes her descriptions come alive like a painting does, all of the feeling in each stroke.

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After many years of admiring Bishop —calling her my “favorite poet”—my best friend and I finally admitted to one another that we think some of her poetry sucks. It felt like a really intimate disclosure at the time, today less so. But I guess I often feel afraid to admit that people I admire have aspects of themselves that don’t ring true to me in some way—whether it be their work, personal choices, how their habits interact with their politics, etcetera. It’s not dissimilar to the way you might feel when you read in Us Weekly that a child celeb you loved is now actually a coke head. Anyway.

Sometimes, Bishop’s emotional guardedness falters and the poems’ defenses feel kind of off-putting; in “Large Bad Picture,” Bishop describes the (large and evidently bad) painting’s row of “scribbled… black birds” as “hanging in n’s”—n’s as in the letter. The way kids draw the contours of birds flying in the distance, sloped arches resembling m’s more than n’s to me. The irony of the poem—that it’s Bishop’s own aestheticization of, or at least affection for an image she thinks is “bad”—becomes less sharp as a result of descriptions like these. There’s something too clever in the bird contours being likened to n’s. It’s almost too self-aware, too conscious of the effect of its guardedness. Bishop’s smart descriptions keep her at a distance. Sometimes it works better than other times.

Once, in a college paper (this sounds sort of like one but I am trying this new mode of writing about poetry in a more “personal” way—hence blogging!), I referred to Bishop’s primary “mode”— her poetics, if you will—as being characterized by disposession, which I guess is not unlike disavowal. Scrupulous description of something—an experience, an object—in a way seems more like an attempt to possess, to capture, rather than dispossess. But Bishop’s constant resistances in emotional register and perspective indicate something more radical than representation.  Poetry is perfect for Bishop because she considers language an autonomous subject in and of itself, one in which she can invent her own experiential and imaginative epistemology. Description can be a way to question, rather than state, what an experience is actually like.

This afternoon, I found myself reading Bishop’s poem “The Bight,” which bears the italicized subtitle “On my birthday.” It’s always been an important poem for me, especially around this time of year—just before my birthday, which inevitably always occurs during “a cold spring” (the title of my favorite Bishop collection). I returned to the poem today because I was writing a birthday party invitation for myself, and wanted to include a quotation; I was also considering the fact that today would’ve been my grandfather’s 84th birthday. He died recently, in August 2016.

In “The Bight,” Bishop doesn’t directly probe what she is feeling on her birthday (always a weird feeling re: mortality, IMHO), but instead renders the “awful but cheerful” scene of a bight, the harbor-like space between two headlands: we sense the dredge’s “dripping jawful of marl,” pelicans “like pickaxes / rarely coming up with everything..” The water is “absorbing, rather than being absorbed.” The bight, Bishop tells us, is “littered with old correspondences” and filled with “untidy activity / Awful but cheerful.”

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Bishop takes the time to ask whether the water is absorbing or being absorbed. In this world, it’s not surprising that there is emotional guardedness. All of her emotion comes out in the act of description—in regarding and effortfully describing the contradictory, “awful but cheerful,” signs of chaos, entropy, and aging in this natural element that is both teeming with life and decay.

I wonder, often, to what extent I rely on using a heightened vocabulary to express my observations as a defense mechanism. If I am constantly seeking to describe what’s happening around me, am I ossifying my experiences into narratives rather than living experientially? Am I keeping myself at arm’s length from real intimacy? Or am I indicating my own vulnerability by expressing my resistance to it? A resistance communicated by trying to “possess” experiences in language. A clinging. A fear of letting go.

I’m not sure what the answer is, and I seek to explore these questions all the time, on my own, in therapy, with friends. But today I leave you with this question: is there any better way to express how you feel on your birthday than “awful but cheerful”? I doubt it.

Can irony and acceptance coexist?

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art 4 art’s sake (hat tip 2 the mobil mini mart :D)

Part of my conceit in starting this blog was to recognize the role irony can play in the process of acceptance.

What do I mean?

To me at least, part of the reason capital-A Acceptance seems so daunting is because it feels like it has to be pure, all-consuming. A capital-D Decision. No turning back.

If I accept the fact that I gained 15 pounds last winter, that means I have to be content with my body image, and likely commit to staying this weight for the rest of my life.

I somehow assume that if I’m going to accept something about myself or something that happened, I can’t also account for any lack of acceptance, or any other feelings that challenge the acceptance. I don’t know where I learned this assumption. Here are other examples:

  • If I accept that I didn’t get enough work done today, I guess I’m accepting that I will always be a lazy loser with nothing good on my CV.
  • If I accept that I was a bitch to my boyfriend, I am resigning to treating him terribly forever, and to always having bad relationships.
  • If I accept that I forgot my friend’s birthday, I am recognizing that I am a categorically forgetful person and self-absorbed friend.

We associate acceptance with the negative stuff. It’s rare to feel the urge to accept the fact that something went really well at work, or that you had a great revelation in therapy. The dictionary definition of acceptance is: the consent to receive. When good shit is happening, you really don’t take the time to CONSENT to receiving it. You just receive it.

As of recently—and it’s a process—I’m beginning to envision acceptance as something much more holographic. If I gain 15 pounds, I can accept it, but part of accepting it can be that I can also feel bad about myself and want to lose weight. I can also simultaneously accept that I might then ALSO feel judgment about wanting to lose weight, “because feminists shouldn’t hate their bodies.” Then I may find myself reasoning that each person’s feminism is complicated and unique, and that patriarchal conditioning has affected me in ways I am not in control of. I can also simply accept that I feel more comfortable when I am 15 pounds thinner, and let that be that, even if it’s superficial. All of it can be there. Acceptance isn’t tidy or static. It is messy and dynamic.

Let’s just be clear that none of that is pleasant or even feasible much of the time. And for that reason, I think I use irony as a defense mechanism to make the process of acceptance easier for me, in all sorts of contexts. Examples help: I constantly make reference to my psychiatrist in casual conversations with not-close friends; I say things like, “tbt to my eating disorder” or post Instagram selfies of myself doing physical therapy exercises.

Perhaps, on some level, I feel uneasy about how much I need psychiatry, or ashamed of the fact that I used to be anorexic, or nerdy for allotting twenty minutes of my evening ritual to picking up a washcloth with my feet in order to strengthen my toes.

Or perhaps creating distance from certain parts of my life that involve discomfort is part of accepting them. It seems paradoxical that self-acceptance could involve disavowal of my pain or self-deprecation. And maybe these behaviors really do just come from insecurity. But maybe that’s also OK. Acting out of insecurity doesn’t mean you aren’t working on yourself. The real challenge is accepting how uncomfortable that is.

Let me just say that I know next to nothing about most of this. I’m just narrating along the way. Rather than thinking of acceptance as an endpoint, or happiness as the result of X, Y and/or Z, I am just often checking in on myself—my attitudes, my habits, my relationships—by seeing what comes up in the distance that irony, by definition, creates.

I believe it is possible to be a happy, healthy, person devoted to personal growth without committing earnestly and singularly to a green-juice-lentil-chip-yogi lifestyle, punctuated by daily arm-balance Instagram posts and infinite permutations of a gratitude hashtag.

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HOWEVER, I have completely asked a family member to photograph me in Eagle pose for my Instagram so that I could post some pseudo-spiritual and saccharine caption about the process of getting stronger and the role that #presence plays. And you know what? I also fucking love green juice, lentil chips, and yoga. AND much of the time when I buy 8 dollar green juice, 4 dollar lentil chips, or 30 dollar yoga classes, I make fun of myself for being self-indulgent or elitist or narcissistic or dumb. And you know what else? It doesn’t feel like abuse—and I accept that too.

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While I like green juice, I don’t think I feel grateful for it.

When it comes to the irony I bring to my (legit? authentic? earnest?) love of wellness trends, I think I am trying to disavow the fundamental narcissism of self-improvement as a thing. It’s not that I am not making fun of yoga, a practice that I love quite genuinely, but the cultural capital it carries with it, one that is contingent on being privileged in innumerable ways. The idea of being a white NYC-gurl who doesn’t question loving yoga would make me feel like a cultural appropriator and an un-self-aware exercise biddie. And that, I hope, I am not.

Irony often is a mechanism used to create distance, to cause alienation. As Wayne Booth said in The Rhetoric of Irony, irony is “a very messy subject” as it introduces “conflicts of fact.” When I listen to Kesha and get goose bumps, but then post a Facebook status about how ridiculous it is to get goose bumps when listening to Kesha, I contradict myself, I introduce conflicts of fact: I suggest that I somehow doubt the fact that Kesha is an artist I actually love.

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That’s Wayne Booth.

But I think, at least in part, that the partial disavowal, and the humorous friction it creates, is part of figuring out what the fuck it means and is to be who I am. Humor, to me, is empowering, even if it can serve as armor. I don’t think we need to be ashamed of the need, sometimes, to be guarded.

Thus, here’s to the value in”repudiation and reversal,” as Booth would put it. To close, I’ll end on an overused Walt Whitman quotation that feels relevant: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Rather, I’ll add just one last quote by another dead white man: Wallace Stevens said, “The poem must resist intelligence / Almost successfully.” I love this idea of ALMOST SUCCESSFUL RESISTANCE. Imagine resisting yourself almost successfully—enough to incite a gentle, productive back and forth between different parts of yourself.

Imagine self-deprecation and self-acceptance existing in some kind of bizarre harmony. Imagine a perpetually unsuccessful state of resistance, two things against one another, teetering back and forth. Their mutual instability is what creates something resembling stability.

 

A Valediction Forbidding New Year’s Resolutions

As someone who struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), I admittedly adore the times when external structures in the world validate my itch to find and secure order.

Let me give you an example.

I find the morning to be, categorically, the best time of day. In the morning, the day is clean. It is new. It is discrete, and in its discreteness, it is full of potential—the potential for order.

The morning says, “Get the fuck up. Start fresh,” even when my brain chemistry wants to drag me back to laze indolently in the dust of yesterday. There is discipline in the voice of morning, but it is looking out for me. That kind of discipline is radical.

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Yet despite my arguably dysfunctional love of compartmentalization, I have always thought the notion of setting New Year’s Resolutions is a load of shit.

WAIT: I’ll revise that to me an “I-statement”: I have always felt that setting New Year’s Resolutions is a load of shit for me. 

While my OCD-brain tells me to be fucking cray about cleanliness and list-making and other things I don’t even want to admit (e.g. organizing my anxious thoughts into imaginary Punnet-square-like grids), I also am deeply committed to trying to be a happier and less anxious person. Sometimes, my impulse towards happiness pushes me to rebel against my OCD, and it’s awesome.

Today, I am realizing that one such enduring act of rebellion has been to resist New Year’s Resolutions.

According to several reports, approximately 50% of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions; and according to another, only 8% of folks report successfully achieving their resolutions. We live in a culture that loves to slather capitalistic values onto holidays, and those values include extremism and, often, the supremacy of self-improvement trends. If and when there is an opportunity to tell ourselves that we are not enough (or that we don’t work enough, that we don’t make enough, etcetera), it seems the patriarchy / capitalism tells us, “You’re right!”

I should stop here to clarify that self-improvement is a noble practice—one I am after, and think others should be, too. I am also ambitious, and I believe that no one should feel shame in claiming ambition as a personal value. Especially not women. Seeking greatness in whatever form does not make you a Machiavellian biatch. At the same time, wanting to be happier is not LITE or less important than having a million bylines or being on Forbes’ 30 Under 30.

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But recently, my sister and I listened to a podcast about goal-setting (#LOL), one that I found particularly inspiring. The lesson was about setting goals from a place of abundance, rather than scarcity. In other words: what if we set goals by FIRST considering that which we have already created for ourselves and brought into our lives, celebrating those achievements, and articulating further goals that support us in building on our positive change?

It’s a crazy way to rewire the emotional underpinnings of goal-setting. Instead of being like, “I am a fat, lazy, idiot and my goal is to be a skinny, motivated pubic intellectual,” you can be like, “I started a blog this year, and my goal is to continue writing content and building my audience.” I don’t have to call this “abundance,” make a dumb hashtag, or write a love letter to myself and my blog for my gratitude jar. But it feels so good to recognize that I started this blog even when, last week, I felt like a depressed and bloated slob. Already! There is so much power in that word.

It all sounds abhorrently cheesy, and I assure you that I detest New Age platitudes about “abundance” and “gratitude” much as the next “guy.” But I think there is power in the age old adage of “faking it till you make it”—OR: stopping to consider AND directly articulate the stuff you’ve already done, and seeing it as evidence of your in-progress goals.

With that, my M.O. this year is to CONTINUE all of the sustainable shifts I’ve already brought into my life so that I can avoid slipping into the ideology that everything from 2016 is over and shitty, and that I will achieve enlightenment in 2017 simply because January 1st marks a new calendar year. That is fucking stupid.

*~*Life is always ebbing and flowing*~* (a quote by me if you want to gram it or something).

Or, as Heraclitus said, “Change is the only constant.”

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Here are a few of the self-caring changes I have already begun making, and that I will continue in the New Year:

  • I have already learned to drive, and I will continue practicing when I have the chance so that I can feel more empowered and independent!
  • I have already begun a regular free-writing practice to help me feel more joy around my work, and I will continue to do this so that I can let go of the idea that published work is the only work worth writing.
  • I have already gotten better about noticing the times when I am abusive to myself in my head, and I will continue to catch myself when I do it, and to try to be kinder.
  • I have written many poems in the years I’ve been alive, and I will continue to find a place for poetry in my life  even if it is different or less prominent than it used to be.

I have already, and I will continue … POWERFUL SHIT, n’est-ce pas?

I will close with the virtuous final stanza of John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” because I am a terrifying dork, because the image of the circle seems apropos for the message of this post—and because I played on the title of this poem here, and I am self-satisfied about it.

“Such wilt thou be to me, who must,

  Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;

Thy firmness makes my circle just,

  And makes me end where I begun.”