Dealing with Envy

If envy turned you green, there are days I would look like a cucumber.

At the moment, I’m reading Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. In it, she talks about how difficult writing is: how you sit down each morning in front of the blank page, and you have to fill it. She describes her writing routine, which involves writing in the morning, revising in the afternoon, in a room of her house in rural Connecticut. And I find myself envying her.

This is what my writing routine looked like yesterday: In the morning, I got up and prepared for class, which involved grading the papers I had not gotten to the night before. I went over my lesson plan, made sure I knew what I would be talking about that day. Then I taught my morning class. Back for lunch and to drop off my laptop. Then I taught my two afternoon classes. Then I went directly to physical therapy — usually I would have office hours, but it was the only time this week I could schedule an appointment, so I moved my office hours to another day. The physical therapy helps me so much — makes it so much easier for me to do my teaching and writing — that I don’t want to miss a week. Being able to write without back pain is a wonderful, wonderful thing!

Then I had time to run to the grocery store for oatmeal and sugar, and when I got back, it was time to Skype with one of my graduate students. Then dinner. Then a bath. And then, finally then, at about 9 p.m., I sat down in front of my computer, honestly feeling a sense of despair because I had not been able to write for about a week — all the other days had been even busier. Finally, I had time to write, and I didn’t even know if I wanted to.

But I started anyway, because one of my mottoes is “Do it anyway.” So I started, and then I was up writing until midnight, because once I started, I didn’t want to stop. I need to get back to novel revisions, but first I need to finish all the administrative work that one is given at the beginning of any semester. I’m almost done, but in the meantime, I wanted to write something else to clear my head — so I’m writing a fairy tale, called “Red as Blood and White as Bone.”

But envy . . . I envy other writers their time, their space, their financial resources. Their awards.

The way I’ve found to deal with envy is to tell myself, quite sternly, “All right, you can have everything she has. But you have to be her. Do you want to be her?” And when I think about it, I realize that I don’t. Do I want to be Dani Shapiro? No. She seems lovely, but no. Her childhood was a mess, and while my childhood was a mess too, at least it was my childhood, my mess. Would I have wanted to go to Sarah Lawrence, then get married and live in rural Connecticut? Sure, I hated law school, and sure, it was difficult getting through my PhD. But the furniture of my mind includes Alan Dershowitz and Derrida, and I would not trade that furniture. Not even for more comfortable furniture.

I want to be the writer I am, not the writer she is, even if that means being less successful. Even if it means working very hard, and being tired all the time. And trying, day after day, to find the time to write . . .

There is a day, in the life of every writer, when you realize that you have to cut your own path through the forest. That day, you look at the trees in front of you, and you feel your heart sink with despair. Because you just don’t think you can do it.

And then, you start to do it anyway. One tree at a time, one word at a time.

Bay 4

Accessorize Accordingly

“Remember who you are. Accessorize accordingly.” –Justine Musk

I love this quotation from the fabulous Justine Musk. It sounds like fashion advice, but of course it’s more than that. It’s life advice.

The first part says, remember who you are. Not discover who you are, but remember . . . because you are that already. You may have forgotten it (have you forgotten it? I bet you have, even if only a little.) I forget who I am sometimes. I think, I’m a teacher and a mother. Which is true, but those are not who I am: they are what I do. I teach, I have a daughter. But who am I when I am not teaching, when I am not with my daughter? And at other times I think, I am tired, or I am lonely, or I’m in the dark. But those, again, are not who I am. They are temporary states.

So who am I, at my essence, in my core? I am a storyteller. I am a sorceress whose magic is words. I am those things even when I am a teacher, or mother, or tired, or lonely . . . You get the point. What are you at all times and everywhere? That is what you are. All the other things are only partial, or only temporary. What you want to remember, and keep remembering, is the core.

And then, accessorize accordingly. We usually think of accessories as small, almost trivial things: jewelry, perhaps a purse or hat. But we know, or at least those of us who care about such things know, that accessories make the outfit. And of course the word has a use outside of fashion: you can be an accessory to a crime. An accessory is something that helps, or supplements, something else. So who are you, and what will help you be that, stay that, remember that?

I think material things are very important. We ourselves are material, made up of the same elements that make our world. And the material affects us: whether we live in a beautiful place, whether we can wear comfortable clothes, whether we have access to healthy food. I think the phrase “accessorize accordingly” means decorate your life, choose the material elements of your life, in a way that reflects and reminds you of who you are.

So, you know, if you’re a sorceress . . . dress like a sorceress. This is me dressed to teach class, but I call this outfit “Sorceress in Disguise.” If you have the eyes to see it, you’ll see who I really am.

Fairy Tale Skirt

So, who are you? Remember, and then make your material life reflect who you are, deeply and essentially. Dress as who you are, furnish your home for yourself (not someone else’s idea of you). I think that has two important effects: first, it keeps you from having too many material things, because although the material is important, we overdo it, don’t we? It’s because we don’t know who we are, and try to be different selves by buying them. But that never works. And it helps you remember. You can stand in front of a class talking about grammar, but underneath you will know: I am a sorceress in disguise, a storyteller whose words are magic . . .

Crossing Thresholds

I redesigned my website.  Did you notice?

Well, not redesigned exactly, but changed the images, changed some of the organization. I’m also updating the pages.

I suppose it’s because I feel as though I’ve crossed yet another threshold. And now I seem to have arrived somewhere, although I’m not sure where yet. It feels stable, it feels secure, although after the last few years, I don’t quite trust security. After all, we’re on a planet hurtling through space, orbiting around a sun that is itself hurtling through space. Solid ground is an illusion.

But at the moment, the illusion feels rather nice, and I think I’ll believe in it for a while . . .

I spent this summer traveling: in June I went to Budapest, in July I went to Readercon and then to teach at the Stonecoast MFA Program residency. In August, I went to Los Angeles and San Francisco. At some point, I moved into a new apartment, and it sat furnished but undecorated for most of the summer while I crossed over the Atlantic and said hello to the Pacific. I love traveling, and I love living out of a suitcase. But it feels nice to be in my own apartment, which is already almost decorated. It feels nice to have my own furniture, and my clothes in the closet. It feels nice to know where all the dishes are.

We have a tendency to think that whatever we’re living through at the moment will continue forever: if we’re in crisis, we think we’ll always be in crisis. If we’re in a period of stability, we think the floor is solid and will never start shaking and cracking under us. But life isn’t like that, is it? It has its tides, just as the sea does. It’s a continual process of crossing thresholds and entering new rooms. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert said something recently that has stuck with me: she said, we are told to find balance in life, but finding balance means that most of the time, we’re off balance. We only ever achieve balance once in a while. That perfect equilibrium is always elusive, always dependent on our leaning first one way, then the other.

And honestly, we have to lean, because that’s the only way to dance. I think, here, of a ballerina: she maintains the illusion of balance, that perfect en pointe, but she’s only ever balanced for a little while. Otherwise, she’s always in motion, always leaping and turning. As we are. As is this entire planet, spinning through space.

I don’t know where I am yet, but so far I like it here. It feels as though there’s a lot of work for me to do, and of course not enough time to do it in, because when is there ever? But for now, there’s a floor under my feet, and a soft bed, and food in the refrigerator. I’m going to put pictures up on the walls, and paint the cabinets. I’m going to see what work I can do that is worthwhile. Because in the end, that’s what matters. I’m sure there will be more thresholds in my future, more leaping through space. But for now, this feels nice. I think I’ll stay . . .

Cattails 3

The new images on my website are photographs I took at a nature conservancy near Concord, Massachusetts. It’s a wetland, and when I visited, the lotuses were blooming — acres of them. They were like sunshine on the water, under a cloudy sky . . . And the photo above is of me among the cattails. I’m not short, I assure you. But the cattails were very tall.

Being Hypersensitive

Recently, I tried a new face cream. Big mistake. Within three days of starting to use it, I had a red rash across my face. I’d been so careful, too: I’d read all the ingredients, and nothing looked irritating. But there was the rash, red and itchy. I could mostly hide it with foundation. It went away in a few days, and my face looks normal now, but lesson learned. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m hypersensitive.

I didn’t understand that when I was young, which made life more difficult than it probably should have been. But when I was doing my PhD, I came across Elaine Aron’s The Highly Sensitive Person, and later I read Sharon Heller’s Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight, and in both I recognized aspects of myself.

What does it mean when I say that I’m hypersensitive? It means that when I buy creams and cosmetics, I look for those that say “for sensitive skin,” because I tend to react badly to certain chemicals. Like, Red Rash Zone. But I can’t go without face cream either, because I burn easily, and even the wind will make my skin red and itchy. I need to protect it. And natural products are often even worse than what I can buy in an average drugstore — Mother Nature, much as I love her, is a treasure house of irritants and allergens. I don’t react as badly as some people I know: I can wear perfume just fine, although strong smells bother me. As do loud noises. And violence.

Because hypersensitivity manifests itself in all sorts of ways: it means, I think, that you have fewer layers of protection from the world than most people. You are more vulnerable to it. This can be a strength: you notice things that other people don’t. If we were in a room, I would probably intuit your emotions, perhaps even what you’re thinking. I would know from the expression on your face, the way you’re holding yourself. But it’s also a weakness. Things that other people find energizing might exhaust you, if you’re hypersensitive. I find theme parks mildly horrifying.

Because I’m missing some of those barriers, I have to build them myself. Some of them are physical: my apartment, which is a sort of refuge from the world, beautiful and soothing. It has thick walls, and soft carpets, and light that filters in through large windows. Books and art and music. Even my face cream is a sort of barrier. But most of them, and the most important ones, are internal. I have to be able to, emotionally and mentally, find a peaceful center within myself, so I can live in a magnificent city, and teach at one of the best universities in the world. So I can interact with sixty students, being there for them without feeling as though I’m losing myself.

I don’t quite know how I build those internal barriers. I didn’t have them as a child, which made childhood incredibly difficult. Imagine if you’re a child, sensing the world so deeply, alive to beauty, but also every criticism. You live intensely — I still do, and I don’t want to lose that intensity of perception. It took a long time to build them, and some of them are unconscious now. (One of them is kindness, and another of them is politeness, and if you don’t know how kindness and politeness can be barriers, then pay attention the next time someone is being kind and polite. Pay close attention to how you’re being shut out.) But I know that those barriers are necessary . . . And I’ve once again learned my lesson about face cream!

Rose 10

Travel Lessons

Once again, this summer, I’m recovering from jet lag. I’ve done a lot of traveling . . .

This time, I traveled with my daughter to Los Angeles and San Francisco to visit family. Travel is always a disruption, no matter how good you are at it, and I pride myself on being pretty good. I can sleep in airports if I need to . . . But it’s also always worth it, and I particularly wanted to travel with my daughter, so we could learn together the sorts of things that travel teaches you.

I wanted to go out there in part to see an old friend of mine: the Pacific Ocean. Years ago, during a particularly tumultuous period in my life, I had gone out to Los Angeles to take care of my grandmother, who was living in a house by the beach. Every day, I would walk down to the ocean, and we would have a talk, the ocean and I. It’s a very soothing sort of ocean, more so than the Atlantic, although I’m not sure why. Perhaps because it’s larger, and calmer, and seems older. It’s a very sensible ocean, and puts your problems into perspective.

So of course the first thing I did when I woke up, my first morning in Los Angeles, was go down to see the Pacific.

Dora at Pacific 2


The sensation of salt water on your feet never gets old, does it? And then, of course, I introduced my daughter to an ocean she had never met before: Ophelia, meet the Pacific Ocean. Pacific, meet my daughter Ophelia. They both bowed politely . . .

So what sorts of lessons can one learn from traveling, anyway?

1. Changing your location can change your perspective.

Being on a different coast, beside a different ocean, can change the way you see the world or your own life, your self. I don’t know who said “Wherever you go, there you are,” but it’s not quite true: the self there may not be the same as the self here. Traveling places changes us. The self is not such a solid, constant, reliable thing that it’s unchanged by location, distance.

I think that’s a wonderful thing, really. If we can see things differently and anew, that means we can change. And we can change our circumstances as well. We are not stuck in one place. Travel involves a kind of optimism: going someplace will be worthwhile, perhaps because it will be interesting or beautiful, perhaps simply because it will be different.

In Los Angeles, we went to the Getty Villa, which has a collection of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities. My daughter had read the Rick Riordan books, so she knew all the old gods and goddesses, both by their Greek and Roman names. It was lovely to see a ten-year-old wandering around a museum where she felt completely at home, although she did ask me at one point, somewhat exasperated, if we would ever get to the end of the naked people. No, I told her, because the Greeks and Romans thought the human body was beautiful. Which was met with a typical ten-year-old eye-roll.

The nice thing about the Getty is that the villa is built like a Roman house, with inner courtyards. It’s lovely to wander around under a blue sky, in the cool coastal air.

Getty 1

Getty 2

2. You must see what you can, when you can see it. In other words, carpe diem, because you’re only passing through.

We weren’t in Los Angeles for that long, so we had to decide what we wanted to see. The Getty Villa of course, and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, which has a wonderful collection of dinosaur fossils. I wish we could have gone to the Huntington Botanical Gardens, but there simply wasn’t time. And then we were on to San Francisco, where we went to an exhibit of skulls at the California Academy of Sciences and had tea at the Japanese Garden. The skulls were for Ophelia, the tea and garden were for me.

Garden 3

Garden 12

Again, there simply wasn’t enough time to see everything we wanted to in San Francisco. But we did the most important things, which were spend time with my brother, who introduced Ophelia to Speed Racer, and get a sense for one of the great cities of the world. I hope we can go back . . .

Life is like traveling, of course. (You knew this was a metaphor, right?) You’re passing through, and you don’t know how long you’re going to be here, so see what you can while you have the time. And do what you can, which brings me to the third lesson:

3. Experiences are more important than things.

There’s something refreshing about living out of a suitcase. You realize how little you actually need . . . We traveled with one suitcase between us, with our clothes and toiletries, and a carry-on bag each for our laptops, books, whatever we would need on planes. Whatever we could not replace or do without. Don’t get me wrong, I love my closet full of clothes, but I know that I don’t need them. And although I would not give up my pretty china, I can live very well, comfortably and even elegantly, with a mug, bowl, and plate, as I did for a month in Hungary.

Doing is more important than having. In California, we walked on the beach, watching the sandpipers running back and forth. We ate inordinate amounts of ice cream. We ate crickets. (No, really, we ate crickets. They were sold in packets at the Natural History Museum, and Ophelia wanted to try them, and then of course I had to try as well. Because I couldn’t let her be the only one to eat crickets, could I? I would never live that down.) Back in Los Angeles after our trip to San Francisco, we got henna tattoos to commemorate our trip: a butterfly for me, a dragon for her. Our last day in Los Angeles, we wrote our names on the sand, knowing they would disappear, as the henna tattoos will in a couple of weeks (although right now they are still there, brown designs on our arms.)

It’s the things we do that we remember the most.

Henna Tattoos

Name on Sand 2

4. It’s good to come home.

Home isn’t a place you have. It’s a place you make. It’s good to make a home, and then travel away from it, and then come back to it. I write this sitting at the desk in my bedroom, which still needs work: shelves I need to buy and refinish, bed curtains that need to be put up. I moved into this apartment two months ago, and I’m not done decorating. But already it’s starting to feel like home, like a place I can wrap around myself on winter nights. It’s bright and cozy, and it makes me happy to be back.

So my advice to all you travelers, because you are all travelers, on this planet that is itself traveling through space, is: create a home, and then travel away from it so you can change and return, change and return. That’s what the waves do, and that’s what we have to do, because all life moves in cycles, and so should we. As though we were dancing . . .