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I’m just getting back to my routine since returning home from two weeks on a writer’s residency in Maine, and instead of posting an AT MIDWEEK on Wednesday, the way I generally do, I’m sharing this with you today. It’s the end of January and I’m finding myself doing a deep dive into this question: why do I do things the way I do them? Why do I KEEP doing the things I do in the exact same way and expect different results (definition of insanity). I’m not turning into a lifestyle wannabe guru-type, believe me, and I think that these questions can apply to anything, from the way we cook to the way we take care of our bodies, to our work, to the way we think about the future. I’m in process on my next book, On Permission, and I’m noticing the same trap-falling that I experienced in writing my first three books. On Permission is a tender subject, and whenever I talk about it publicly, I invariably get a lot of nodding heads because it’s about the one thing that humans do that no other species does: create. Make art. And then we label ourselves: writer, musician, cook, painter, sculptor. And then we go to the next step and slap ourselves with the external labels that worm their way into our souls: successful artist, failed artist, hopeful artist, forgotten artist. I will go so far as to say that every one of us reading this — literally — has heard the internal voices scream: You can’t do X…that’s what your sister does. Or Who do you think you are to write that story? Or Your grandmother was the baker, so don’t for a split second think you can step into her shoes. Or You can’t be serious….you’re not a poet.
Banal, maybe, but a serious thing whose trickle down impacts the way we think about ourselves and our worlds and the people around us. It drives competitive distraction in this age of social media with creatives flip-flopping all over the place in order to get #1 spots on Audible or the book reviews, or to increase Instagram numbers or simply because we have yet to figure out who the hell we actually are. It unleashes anxiety — I have lived with anxiety for most of my life — which can be creatively debilitating. So, I leave you with this question: who are we as creatives if we are not ourselves?
I have been a forever follower of Rich Roll since the day that his first book landed on my desk when I was editor-at-large at Rodale Books. Over the years, I’ve come to trust him implicitly as a podcaster, a compassionate thinker, a seeker. He’s truly one of the greatest interviewers I’ve ever come across because of this one thing: he listens, and moves through the world with integrity. Transparency: I’m not an ultramarathoner, and the farthest I’ve ever run was two miles before my back gave out. I’m also not a vegan, although I absolutely think a lot more about it than ever before now thanks to Rich. Over the years, and because of Rich, I’ve found my way to the writings of Anna Lembke, Gabor Mate, Mirna Valerio (who is now a friend and has been a student), Julie Piatt, Susan Cain, Jud Brewer, and so many others who have changed so much of the way I think about the world, my place in it, and my responsibility to it. This week, I listened to his conversation with Mel Robbins — a conversation I’ve resisted for so long because I also (is this because I’m a New Yorker? I don’t know.) can fall into spates of cynicism everywhere from the table to issues of trauma and addiction, and the quality of my own work. My fuse for anything that might be considered self-helpy is very short (I finished college in the mid-80s and had a crystal-laden ex whose behavior was reprehensible; she thought I was just being judgey.). This isn’t that; it’s just very wise. I listened and was gob-smacked.
My friend, the brilliant poet Maggie Smith, has started a Substack called For Dear Life. I’ve just finished reading Maggie’s memoir — coming in April (and there’s a rumor that we might be in conversation together about it) — and everything this woman writes is a gift. Please do subscribe, and then work backwards: read everything you can of hers again — Goldenrod, Good Bones, Keep Moving — as a foundation. Beautiful, life-giving language.
While I was away in Maine, I found myself longing for soup—a lot. It was cold, damp (Maine; winter), and I found myself watching a video of my friend Hetty McKinnon making Lo han Jai — also known as Buddha’s Feast or Buddha’s Delight — which is, she says, at the heart of Cantonese Lunar New Year. Not technically a soup, but decidedly soup-ish, this is a kaleidoscopic dish of delicious, nutrient-dense vegetables and tofu: lotus root, green vegetables, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, carrots, mushrooms. As I said to Hetty, if she lived next door to me, I’d be a vegan.
I’ve fallen down a musical rabbit hole with a Nebraska-based duo/sometimes trio called The Wildwoods. Mostly acoustic — they swap between guitar, mandolin, banjo, upright bass — their harmonies are as tight as the Everly’s and while their own music is stunning, they are particularly stellar at covering counterintuitive classics like Fleet Foxes’ White Winter Hymnal and The Cure’s Friday I’m in Love. Head over to YouTube and watch everything they’ve videoed.
I won’t say why or what or who, but a few years back, I broke up with yoga on a 106 degree day in a dingy, spartan $1800 room under a flight of stairs in a central California spiritual center perched high above the Driscoll berry fields (it’s where Sue and I were sleeping; the only ventilation was a floor-level window, which had been kicked in by a raccoon and held in place with blue electrical tape). Over the years, I’ve missed it; my body has missed it. The mind-quieting was really important for my overactive reptilian brain, not to mention all the good that it did for my body since I basically sit on my ass all day, every day, and do this (write). I decided to go back to yoga just as every studio in America closed because of Covid. My dear friend Tara introduced me to the work of a guy named Tim Sinesi, who posts on youtube a series of really good yoga lessons — they are as hard as you want them to be, and as clear as if you were in a room with him. (Also, he’s not hard to watch; I may be gay but I’m not dead.) I’m starting over again this weekend, from square one. Maybe you’ll join me.
Finally, there are a few last minute spots open in my winter memoir workshop at Fine Arts Work Center. It’s online and asynchronous, so you can be located anywhere. If you are at work on a memoir or creative nonfiction, please consider joining us: it begins on Monday.
That’s all for this week…..Have a lovely and relaxing weekend. What will you be doing?