Until I sat down to this blank screen, I was drifting around the house feeling as though I were in a state of grace. By that I mean, life feels good this minute. Nothing is wrong, and much is right. Miles Davis plays from the speakers in the living room. Soft sunny afternoon air breezes through the open back door. Flowers bloom in the yard. A chicken poaches in a pot on the stove.
My 15 year old daughter is upstairs transferring her movies to a portfolio site we learned about this morning at the Apple store, where I sprang for a new iPhone 6 for her after seeing the incredible “Master Shot” she made for her three week film-making camp last night.
Life sounds pretty cushy, doesn’t it?
Our golden retriever Daisy is lolling about on the floor of the living room trying to scratch her back, resting her back feet from time to time on the back of the couch and looking at me comically, upside-down.
This morning, in the car, I asked my daughter about a friend of hers who left school last year because she’s suffering from anxiety and depression. Another of my daughter’s friends is also suffering from anxiety and depression. And a third. There seems to be an epidemic of anxiety and depression afflicting our youth.
In the car, I felt frustration rising in me again as we talked. It feels like frustration, irritation, but really it’s fear.
My daughter said her friend has no interests. I said, “What was she interested in when she was younger, when you guys played together years ago? Does she like to cook?”
“Does she like art?”
“How about sports? …No.” I answered my own question.
My daughter said, “She likes acting, but she thinks she’s not good”
I grabbed onto that.
“Well of course she’s no good! You have to do it to get good! She’s a young girl! She has to learn it, you have to study that for years before you’re any good!”
I felt so Right, so vindicated. So desperate.
My daughter said, “She’s shy. She’s afraid. She doesn’t want to get up in front of people.”
“But she has to try!” I cried.
And then I sort of collapsed in on myself. Listening to my own words and knowing I don’t follow them myself.
I’ve been a writer who doesn’t write for more than two decades. By that I mean, although I’ve only ever wanted to be a writer and only ever thought of myself as a writer, I’ve been frozen since before my kids were born. A writer writes. A writer must write. A runner runs. Right? A cook cooks. A doctor… doctors.
I do write for a living. I write marketing materials for technology companies. But, my heart’s not it in. I don’t care a fig for what I write about. I’m simply a tool.
When I try to write my Self, for my life, I panic. Anxiety rises like a tsunami inside me. It crushes my chest and makes me desperate. Afraid. Staring at a blank screen, I am assailed by cruel, castigating voices. Somewhere inside of me lives a very mean person who tells me that I’m a joke, that I lack talent, that there’s no point in trying, that I don’t know what I’m doing.
Lots of people experience this. I am not alone. The problem is, I listen to it. My mind becomes a whirl of confusion. I think I have ideas, but as soon as I sit down, they scamper away. They bolt. I’m left with a blur of white noise in my head. Adrenalin courses through my veins making me jumpy, breathless.
It shuts me down. And then I walk away yet again from the empty white screen or the new notebook, defeated, ashamed.
That’s what it is. It’s shame. It burbles up from some dark place and tars me with its ugliness.
This morning, I lectured my daughter about her friend. I cried out in frustration in the role of parent and mother, “But she must try! What does she expect? You don’t learn these things over night!”
It’s not my daughter, nor her friend I need to be speaking to. It’s myself. I need to tell myself these things. And repeatedly.
It’s a bad feeling to be 48 and realize you have not been perfecting your craft for decades because you were too afraid.
I have an 18 year old son and a 15 year old daughter. What kind of message am I sending them when I hide myself away in fear and shame? When I refuse to try? When I let insidious perfectionism paralyze me?
The truth is, I don’t know how to break out. I don’t know how to escape this voice.
And that must be true for my daughter’s friends too. This voice that tells us were not enough. It’s a killer.
I felt I was in a state of grace before I sat down to the keyboard. I love to be in the house when my daughter is home. This morning, we went to Boot and Shoe, a cafe on Grand Avenue near our home in Oakland that makes great pastries. She got a bear claw. I got a scone. I was just so happy to munch pastries beside her.
As we left the cafe, a homeless man asked for money. I gave him a dollar. He gave me a Street Sheet.
He said, “Did you read the sign?”
The sign said, “Hi, I’m Jonathan. I love people. I’ve been clean and sober for 20 years. God bless you.”
I said, “Have you had breakfast?”
“Would you like a muffin?”
“Well, actually, I’d love some shrimp fried rice, right there, next door, that’s where you get it.”
I hesitated, then dutifully entered the Thai place and ordered Jonathan’s shrimp fried rice.
My daughter said, “Oh my God, mom. He really played you.”
I said, “I know. Whatever.” We laughed. The shrimp fried rice was $12. I paid.
We hung out together for hours, my daughter and me. She took movies of me shopping in the grocery store. I took one of her balancing a can of pineapple juice on her head. She wanted me to buy the giant can of pineapple juice. I said, “No, get a pineapple. We don’t need the plastic coating on the inside of that can.”
In other words, it was a normal day. A wonderfully sublime, normal day. I got to hear my daughter’s voice many times. I got to hear her sing a Christmas carol in the shower. I did a little yoga in the morning. I woke up slowly, dreamed about an old friend.
My dog shoved her wet nose in my palm at sunrise, as she does every morning.
I want to tell my daughter’s friend that life is hard. It hurts. But, it’s also sublime.
I can’t easily come to the keyboard. A great deal of pain, shame, and regret arises. It’s true. I hate admitting it. I sound like I’m wallowing in self-pity. Also, it’s not interesting, frankly. I know this is true.
Instead, I should write that the man I bought $12 shrimp fried rice for had a bicycle spray-painted gold. Every bit of it, spokes, chain, and all. And several other possessions arrayed around him were also spray-painted gold.
I want to shake my daughter’s friend and say, “You have to try. Life is hard. It hurts sometimes. It hurts especially when we harm ourselves.” But, it is really me I need to reach.
Come to the key board. Show up. Try. Do something. Anything.
Today, I was thinking about other artists, musicians. When a pianist or trumpet player comes to their instrument, do they think, “I must create or play a masterpiece right now”? Do they think that?
It seems like they’re “allowed” to play… to simply play, explore, experiment.
Maybe I can think of these writings as that play space, a place to simply try. To put my voice out there, for the practice. Then, once I’m doing that regularly, I can tell my daughter’s friends to do the same. Not before.