Owning Perfectionism

Tyler McRobert

from Unsplash via Tyler McRobert

23 August 2016
11:11am

Sydney

T. –

I found an article with 31 days worth of “LifeHacks” to improve daily experiences. I got stuck on Day 3.

Day 3: Stop striving to achieve.

We all have a tendency to work too much, lose our balance, and, ultimately, our joy in life. It’s the unhealthy feeling that if we don’t do something productive every day, we’ve somehow failed. So allow your perfectionism to rest. Slow down, and know that life is okay the way it is, right at this minute. As you eliminate the need to strive and be perfect, surrender to the universe. You’ll begin to appreciate and focus on other, neglected, priorities that bring you joy.

It’s not the concept that stopped me. I completely agree with 95% of those observations. What gave me pause was the sentence: allow your perfectionism to rest.

If I take out that one sentence, the entirety of this paragraph applies to me. Which makes me think: doesn’t that actually mean that the entire thing applies to me as a whole, but that singular sentence is my blindspot, the thing I don’t want to look at?

I thought: I’m not a perfectionist. I don’t have perfectionism.

As I see it more clearly now, I thought wrong.

*

Perfect was a dirty word. I remember walking down Academic Row at Muhlenberg, speaking to my Philosophy advisor’s wife, who quoted “The good is the enemy of the great,” and even as I scribbled that paraphrased insight down into the back of my notebook, already thinking “yes, but the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

What is good gets done. What is perfect almost never appears.

*

I took the Myers Briggs personality test three times in college. Each time, I was an E/INFP (oscillating back and forth between E/I, but always sitting within 5% points of each other).

In 2012, I moved from P –> J.

At first, this was a shock to me. I don’t like the label “judging” (J). I resonate with perception (P). But I was also unclear about what constitutes the P/J split.

I’m still not clear on the technical delineations between them. But I know that every single piece of information I read about INFJs fits me like a glove.

“Beneath the quiet exterior, INFJs hold deep convictions about the weightier matters of life.”

“INFJs have a knack for fluency in language and facility in communication. In addition, nonverbal sensitivity enables the INFJ to know and be known by others intimately.”

“Their amazing ability to deduce the inner workings of the mind, will and emotions of others gives INFJs their reputation as prophets and seers. Unlike the confining, routinizing nature of introverted sensing, introverted intuition frees this type to act insightfully and spontaneously as unique solutions arise on an event by event basis.”

“INFJs place great importance on having things orderly and systematic in their outer world. They put a lot of energy into identifying the best system for getting things done, and constantly define and re-define the priorities in their lives. On the other hand, INFJs operate within themselves on an intuitive basis which is entirely spontaneous. They know things intuitively, without being able to pinpoint why, and without detailed knowledge of the subject at hand. They are usually right, and they usually know it. Consequently, INFJs put a tremendous amount of faith into their instincts and intuitions. This is something of a conflict between the inner and outer worlds, and may result in the INFJ not being as organized as other Judging types tend to be. Or we may see some signs of disarray in an otherwise orderly tendency, such as a consistently messy desk.”

I think this was one of my first flares of the internal-external conflict of processes and perfectionism.

*

During my PhD, I had this constant internal debate: I could be doing so much more.

I didn’t have a good structure, a good organisational system for doing work. I didn’t meet my deadlines. I didn’t practice the type of dedicated writing time I wish I had. I didn’t develop my arguments deeply. I spent the final few months sewing it all together like a fraying patchwork quilt with uneven measurements.

One of my best friends (S.) is doing her PhD right now, and I’m amazed at the amount of knowledge she possesses in her field. Last week, I told her: “You know so much more about your field than I knew about mine.” She said, “Yes, but I’m doing a research degree. Yours was a practical degree.” It doesn’t do anything to assuage the feeling that comes up: I could be doing so much more.

*

This is the blog post I’ve wanted to write for years. It’s in response to the way I’ve engaged with my undergraduate studies: which is to say, I’ve been detached. I’ve missed deadlines. I’ve stopped caring. I’ve neglected to push myself. I’ve reached for the comfortable conclusions, and have stopped short of the unique perspectives. I’ve dropped a few innovative thoughts in here and there like seasoning, but have never curated them fully enough to bring out the real complex flavours.

I’ve met my deadlines well enough. I’ve skated by.

This is in response to the way I felt during my PhD: this is not enough. This is not what I really want to say. I could be saying so much more, and it could be so much more meaningful. There could be so much more truth.

*

This blog post is an argument I have built up over years of having to defend myself to other people.

*

“You’re being too hard on yourself.”

I’m not.

I’m so not.

I’m so absolutely not.

In fact, it has often been the opposite: I haven’t pushed myself far enough. I have let myself get away with murder. I have procrastinated. I have sat on my hands. I have been lazy.

“That’s ridiculous: how can you be lazy when you do so many things? Surely now you’re definitely being hard on yourself.”

Sometimes the doing-of-so-many-things is a way to hedge my bets: To spread my investments in multiple areas so that I’m certain to see return. To prevent getting too attached or too involved. To allow my disparate skills to develop – because I’ve doubted that one area can hold my attention.

More accurately: I’ve doubted that one single area (or job, or role, or circumstance) can hold me – and all of the elements I comprise.

Recently, I’m finding myself proven more and more wrong. But that’s a recent development. And it does little-to-nothing to retrain the decades of muscle memory that tell me: I cannot do justice to my complexities by staying within the boundaries of one single field of focus.

“Maybe you feel like you’re lazy because you’re not focused (i.e. because you do so many things).”

False.

I am always focused.

I am hyper-focused on at least seven levels of awareness simultaneously. What I’m often not is: challenged. When I feel hemmed in, or fenced in, or boxed into a single scenario, I get bored from the lack of challenge. My muscles are not utilised. They atrophy. I get lazy.

“You need to give yourself a break.”

I don’t know what I need. I think I need to slow down, definitely. I think I need to dive deeper. I think I need to be honest with myself about what I need to focus on in order to feel fully challenged, alive, and utilised. I think I need to spend more time with people who ask me questions like: “Are you challenged? What are your zones of genius, and how can we put you there? Do you feel utilised? Let me tell you how I see you adding value…”

I think I need to stop always filling the space. To stop always filling the time. To stop always trying to achieve. Growth for growth’s sake is cancer.

“You have a PhD. Clearly you’re very accomplished.”

I have a PhD because other people deemed my work good enough to graduate with a degree. I have accomplished the task of fulfilling other people’s criteria.

I didn’t graduate with a poetry collection completely ready for publication. I have spent 12+ months deconstructing and sewing together a new collection that I’m happy to publish as my first book.

Just because I’m happy doesn’t mean I’m satisfied.

There is so much more I have to give, so much more I have to do, so much more I have to be. I use “have” here as a verb of possession, not an imperative. I don’t have to do anything. But I possess contributions, and I feel discouraged when I hold back from offering them fully.

“You do so much already. How can you take on more?”

I think this is the crux of my internal dialogue right now.

*

The more I’m describing is not a measure of volume. It’s a measure of quality.

My investments of energy have a high rate of return in my life right now. But I know the levels I’m investing are not sustainable. And I know they’re stretching me thin. So much of this is in response to my father’s comment when I was nine: “I know you like singing, and now you’re playing the flute and the guitar. At some point, you’re just going to have to pick one. You can’t do it all.”

Even remembering this statement, a throw-away comment, brings up so much resistance in me.

I stopped working last year in order to pursue the possibility of professional performance. I picked up consulting roles because I wanted to hone my strategic contributions. I’ve taken on a directing role because I can no longer listen to a soundtrack without following the visions in my head for how to make it manifest. I am still writing, while working, because there are too many things I can’t keep myself from saying.

There is this impulse to create, to build, to hone, to develop, to learn, to explore. All of this is different than growth for growth’s sake.

*

I think where things get slippery is in starting to recognise that this is a type of perfectionism. It’s not Type A vs Type B personality classifications (because I am a card-carrying Type B).

I got onto the train and told all of this to S. I said, “It’s crazy, right? I mean, I’m not a perfectionist.”

She said nothing.

“Right?” I pressed. “It’s ridiculous.”

She said nothing.

I know this type of silence. I sigh.

“Okay.” [pause for brain reconfiguring]. “Am I a perfectionist?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Right.” I said. Meaning: fuck.

*

The insights from S. made a lot of sense.

Speed is a type of perfectionism. When you see something wrong, you want to address it as soon as possible. It’s not just about problem-solving, either. It’s also about when you see an opportunity arising. It’s a perfectionism of process. This is how quickly your processing and reflection happens. You want to get it done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Speed. Speed speaks to me. I get that. I want to go deep, and I want to go deep fast.

This is also true of any kind of communicating, with other people, or just with yourself. That’s more about efficiency than speed. You have a focus and an eye for accuracy. You want to skip past all the stupid stuff at the beginning in order to get to the good stuff.

Dear B.,

I’m laughing at myself on the inside for writing this letter. Well, not really laughing so much as possibly cringing — but let’s pretend it’s amusement for all intents and purposes.

I have this thing (besides a running count of how many paragraphs I begin with “I”)… I have this thing about friendships. For me, they have never fully landed (or settled, or rooted, or cemented) until both parties can reflect on their friendship from a meta-level. Why are we friends? When did we become friends? When was the first moment you really know that I knew you? The questions vary. It can be as simple as reflecting  where the two people met each other. Or as complex as your survey question: what is my role in your life? What am I to you?

Typically, these meta-friendship origin story analysis moments crop up randomly. Often, when enough time has passed to look backwards. When certain comfort levels have been reached. (“You know when I knew we were friends? When we drank wine out of plastic cups on that bus trip.” “Really? For me, it happened much later than that. I guess I was your friend before you were mine.” –> true story. This happened. I find these origin story inequalities hilariously honest.)

This means, in most instances, the  friendship has to unfold to this moment. That takes time. Which completely pisses me off.

There’s a site called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which has an entry for the word “adronitis”:

“Adronitis. (n.) frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone — spending the first few weeks chatting in their psychological entryway, with each subsequent conversation like entering a different anteroom, each a little closer to the center of the house — wishing instead that you could start there and work your way out, exchanging your deepest secrets first, before easy into casualness, until you’ve built up enough mystery of the years to ask them where they’re from, and what they do for a living.”

True letter from April this year.

*

In the span of 6 weeks between February and March, I met four men who I desperately wanted to become close friends with. Each of them challenged me, each of them felt resonant in a different way. I loved them as soon as I met them. And I spent a large majority of that time period over-analysing everything I said to them. Not wanting to jump too far ahead of myself, not wanting to scare them off, or appear to be too intense. It was a difficult holding-back from saying: “It’s fine. I know we’re best friends. Can we just agree to that destination, and then go through the process of getting there?”

In that same time period, I met with a close friend from Circling for an early morning breakfast meeting. I shared these feelings with him. I’ve probably told this anecdote in so many ways, to so many people, in so many contexts. But it’s going to stick in my personal history as one of the most impactful moments of my life. He listened, patiently, to all of my excitement over these connections, and all of my fears that they would leave, that they would find me “too much,” that they would — at a basic level — be scared off. By everything.

He said: “You are asking for intense relationships. You ask for that, because that’s exactly what you want. You don’t want anything less than that. So why do you presume that they want anything less than that either?”

“You can’t be too intense for people who appreciate that kind of intensity. So stop being afraid that you are.”

*

I’ve gotten more insight out of that conversation than just cementing those friendships (for the record, 3/4 of those connections are now my best friends in Australia). I also started to reflect on the apologetic nature of being “too much” in other areas: work, life, relationships, writing, ambition, skills, ideas, questions, philosophising.

I stopped over-analysing my conversations with people. When I felt the conversation going off-track, and I felt myself holding back, I trained myself to take at least a 5 minute hiatus. And then return to the conversation, saying “What I really mean to say is…”

Cut through the bullshit. Cut through the toe-ing around. Just find a way to say what you deeply, deeply mean.

I wrote a unreasonably deep cover letter (to a job I didn’t ultimately get) that finally described the core of who I am as a worker, as a creative, as a rational thinker.

I learned to stop molding myself around other people’s expectations. I learned to lead with what I know my deepest skills are. I learned to describe them more coherently to other people.

I learned to stop worrying about being “too much” and to stop the constant pressurised refrain of “not enough” underscoring all of my actions.

I’m learning, instead, to build frameworks and goalposts that are perfectly tailored to me. Not based on any external — or even internal — expectations. But based on a day-by-day process of becoming. Adaptable to what I want to build, to how I want to push myself, and what new areas I want to explore.

I am not “allowing [my] perfectionism to rest.” But I am also not barrelling through growth just for the sake of it.

I am slowing down. I am learning not to fill all of the free space with “achievements.” I am learning to say no to things instead, to allow that free space to open up.

And the things I say yes to — those become the fuel and the burning desire that propels everything else (mindfully, reflectively, gracefully) onward.

More soon. There is still fire in this topic for me.

M

 

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But are they friends?

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Dr. Neils Garden, Edinburgh 2016

9 June 2016
8:14 am

Sydney

T. –

Sometimes I can’t distinguish Monet from Manet, but I know they both painted flowers. Georgia O’Keeffe painted flowers, too, and people said they were vaginas. I think it’s more than that, but once you’ve seen it, it’s difficult to unsee it. Van Gogh cut off his ear, and all they talk about now are his sunflowers and the starry night. I think of him and his letters to his brother, and I remember almond branches. (T., 2 November, 2013)

I have two types of married neural pathways.

  1. I mix up things (of the same general type) that begin with the same letter.
    1. (Meringue, marshmallow, marzipan was a classic triptych).
  2. I mix up people (in the same general area of knowledge) that I’ve learned about at approximately the same time.
    1. (Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and someone else I can never remember these days. That mix-up used to happen all the time.)

It’s currently happening to me with directors and sci-fi.

Last night, I asked A.: “Do you think Joss Whedon/Wheaton and Will Whedon/Wheaton are brothers? Do they even have the same last name? Is it Whedon or Wheaton? Or both?”

It’s confusing, because Joss is one of 5 brothers (Samuel, Matthew, Jed, and Zach). Surely one of them could have been Will Wheaton.

But, no. A.: “They’re definitely two separate people. As in, they don’t share DNA. And they have two different names.”

To which I replied my burning questions: “But… do you think they’re friends?”

In my mind, Joss Whedon, Will Wheaton, and J.J. Abrams are all friends. Joss and Will are probably married together in my mind because of neural pathway mixup category 1, while J.J. gets thrown in because of neural pathway mixup category 2.

Then, we have Stephen Dunn, Mark Strand, and Mark Doty. And yes, that’s how it maps out in my head when I think of similar words and sounds. I know these poets, distinctly. I’ve written letters with Stephen, and shared breakfast with Mark D.

And yet, almost every time I read a poem by one of these poets, the other two pop up into my consciousness like the angel and devil on my shoulders. They are all sewn together, because of how and when I learned of them.

*

10 June 2016
11:26 am

Sydney

T.-

A letter within a letter, because my thoughts are not finished.

I had a big audition last night. I was nervous, not in the style of what if this doesn’t go well, and why is everyone looking at me? but more in the style of I really want this, and I also really want to be okay if I don’t get it. It was for a substantial role, in a new theatre company, for whom I’ve never auditioned before. Lots of material to memorise, lots of music to practice, lots of layers of character to try on, and lots of people to introduce myself to.

When I walked into the audition room, the director came out from behind the table and gave me a hug.

I’ve met him before, twice. He is friends with my friends. He has seen me sing in two shows, and he’s Irish (so I think I feel quite a kindred spirit in him, purely from the call of our respective Celtic homelands). He is lovely, and I respect him. I want to work with him, and I want to work for him. At the information night for this musical, he said: I value good work, and I will make you work hard. Through the rehearsal process, I look for the potential you have within you, and I promise I will bring you to that point by opening night. This is not verbatim. But it’s how his words translated in my head. It was about discipline, and work, and heart. And I enlisted on the spot.

When he came towards me, I thought we would shake hands. I thought this is a nice greeting. He didn’t need to stand up. I thought I don’t know the other two production team members. I’m nervous for them to get to know me. But I do know him, and he’s coming over to shake my hand, and that feels like a very nice acknowledgment.

And then he opened his arms, and then he hugged me.

It’s not a secret that my mind works through a million thoughts a minute. At our meditation group, our friends ask me to articulate my emotions, and laugh when it takes me a minute to think of them. I have to think about how I feel, I tell them. And they laugh, patiently, because they know me, and they know this to be true. I get to my heart through my head.

But he hugged me. And yes, my thoughts were cycling through — but louder than the thoughts, I felt… welcomed. It was an emotional moment, actually. It likely didn’t take much for him to think of standing up and giving me a hug. It’s the first night of auditions. They’re excited. He’s passionate. He saw me, and recognised me, and wanted to share the joy.

And I got the joy. I felt so grateful and so welcomed, and I got all the joy.

*

On the way home, I called his friend to tell her. If I don’t get a hug when I go and audition, he’s going to hear about it, she said. We talked about the show. We talked about the music. We talked about working with people who we know, and don’t know, who we like, and don’t like.

She said: when I first met you, I was really scared.

[Cue M into over-thinking]

No, not like that, she said. It wasn’t you. It was me. I get nervous around people. I’m not good at being in cliques.

I’m not either.

My favourite way to describe this is Stephen’s poem ‘Corners.’ I know you know it.

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Corners by Stephen Dunn

It’s something I recognise almost immediately: someone with a corner person’s taste/for intimacy. It’s the League of Silent, Deadly, Overthinkers. It’s diving into something deeper than surface level conversation. It’s mutual respect for how the quietness of a person can hide the busy-ness of a mind. It’s even the loud, outgoing ones who soften their exchanges into confidential asides by the end of the evening. How the life of the party can show up in the kitchen.

*

I texted the Minstrel today, because I’ve been thinking about him a lot with all of the auditions and music and corner-talks. I think of him and how we met and when we dropped in deep, sitting in the hallway of the Howard Johnson hotel, hoping the buses would just leave without us. We had a corner person’s intimacy, from the beginning. And it shaped how I learned to recognise it in others.

I think of these moments and I taste apple cider, leaning against walls, confiding, allowing the edges and corners to bolster and shore us up.

Once you see it, it’s difficult to unsee it.

Love,
M.

Everything Hinges on the Fact that People Assume Life is Relatively Simple

29 May 2014
11:07 AM
Manila

M.–

My eldest sister ended up staying overnight. That was a load off my chest, although it was quickly replaced by more dread, when our family doctor had this brilliant idea of making me take more tests for a general checkup. I couldn’t get out of it, so that’s how my past few days have been–going to the hospital for tests, visiting S. (who ended up having her gallstones removed), and working on deadlines.

Every night I come home and go straight to my room, stand by a corner and just take deep breaths, swearing, wondering how many days are left until my sister comes home, until the tests stop.

I’ve been thinking about receiving compliments, and how I handle it.

The other day E. told me all about the writers’ festival in Sydney, and mentioned some Filipino poets who were there to read their work. I might have gushed about some works a bit–and E., bless her heart, wanted to buy a book for me. She said that it would make her happy.

My gut reaction was, of course, no. Absolutely not. And immediately I cringed, because that was totally ungracious. To tell the truth, I am giddy with excitement just thinking about it. Books always make for good presents, after all, especially if they come in the mail. It’s just that–I can be quite unbearable and awkward when it comes to accepting something good, as if I always have to ask permission first to be happy about it, to welcome it willingly, to know that it’s allowed.

I ended up blabbering on and embarrassing myself. I shared something I read recently which felt so true: “when people give me compliments I feel like a vending machine trying to accept a wrinkly dollar and it’s just really frustrating for everyone involved.” (x)

But I adore E. and did not want to be a jerk. I told myself, damn it, T., just fucking shut up for once. So I said yes.

This morning, someone told me that the scarf I was wearing was lovely. I stopped and panicked internally, and before I could formulate a proper response, I said, “It’s not a scarf, it’s a shawl.” And then there were sirens inside my head so I quickly walked away.

When I told my sister what happened, she looked at me disapprovingly and said that all I had to do was say, “Thank you.” I hid my face in my hands because I realised that the moment I walked away, but my feet were already carrying me farther from the scene of the crime, and I just kept on going. Ugh.

Now I’m going to think about it for the rest of the day. Damn it.

“…What should we do with these pains and troubles? Well, if you’re a relatively stupid person, there is one answer that is customarily given, and that answer is read a self-help book. These things are for stupid people; there are some of those people around, and they’ll tell you how to live.

But the elite answer says that anyone who is clever doesn’t need that sort of stuff, and the reason is that life is relatively simple. After all, all you need to do in an average life is: grow up, separate yourself from your parents, find a job that’s moderately satisfying, create a relationship where you can relate to someone, start raising some children, watch the onset of mortality in your parents’ generation, [which] then start[s] to lap at the shores of your own, and then eventually when it gets [to] you, lie down in the coffin and shut the lid politely, and go off into the next world (or no world at all). And it’s simple–who’s got any problems with that?

Well, I think that’s desperately wrong.”

– Alain de Botton on art as therapy

Yesterday, R. and I talked about naivete, and how we approached writing and poetry when we were younger. He said, “I like to think of you as excited about what you were doing then and would have liked to see that.”

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if the important people in my life now–you, R., E., being some of them–have met me years back. If we would’ve been friends. If we would have always mattered to each other, in this universe, this timeline, or any other.

Good morning,
T.

Some Wounds Hurt Forever

24 May 2014
10:59 AM
Manila

M.–

1.
I am hurrying to get things done because it looks like I’m going to stay at the hospital overnight to take care of my sister. Already I could feel the heavy weight upon my chest. I remember a lot of things, but mostly the sight of my grandfather in his bed, and the horrible, sinking feeling of nothing, as he finally closed his eyes for the last time.

I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this, forcing myself to go to hospitals, I mean. The amount of self-control I must summon to keep myself from hyperventilating is dwindling as I grow older.

2.
I suppose some wounds hurt forever.

3.
The other day my friends from ModPo started the discussion for A Shawl. It’s a subpoem from the first section of Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein (“Objects”). A partial phrase went on and on in my mind: A shawl is a hat and hurt and a red balloon.

I said, the imagery of the red balloon has a special significance to me, because one of my favourite short films is Le Ballon Rouge by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse. It was released sometime in 1956. It’s melancholy, it’s cathartic, it’s a lot of things that gets under my skin. Mostly I am enamoured of the idea that the red balloon has a mind of its own. For a child it is a tale of magic, as an adult I feel it is also about how a personal, private joy is fleeting as it is lasting.

4.
A shawl is a hat and hurt and a red balloon–

I have a particular fondness for shawls despite living where I am. I always think of it as an added layer to myself, a protection from the elements, no matter how flimsy the fabric is. A shawl perhaps is a hat, in the sense that it’s an accessory as well as protection from the sun, the wind, the rain. It adds attitude. The shawl is to me, a feminine article of clothing, while the first image that comes to mind when I think of a hat is a man’s hat. By equating the shawl to the hat, perhaps Stein is implying the equality of genders, from the literal (a woman can wear a hat, and a man can wear a shawl) to the metaphorical (the woman can be strong/hard and a man can be weak/soft) to the philosophical (Does one’s gender dictate what one can do or be? Are our roles dictated by society’s norms? Are we classified according to the things we use or the nouns/pronouns we use for ourselves?)

5.
Hurt as a noun makes me think of a wound. Perhaps a person, a body, can be a wound personified, and it is a shawl wrapped around itself. The wound stays, needs time to heal, is a state of suffering. It is here. And after it fades–well, some wounds last forever.

Good morning,
T.

A thing is a thing is a thing. Or is it?

21 May 2014
7:44 AM
Manila

M.–

Just saw this video of a guy who seems to deny any knowledge of what a photocopier is. It’s a short film but is based on an actual legal transcript. You can find out more here.

It made me laugh, and for some reason the repetition of the questions, how one describes the thing, how someone else perceives it–well, it made me think of poetry, somehow. It made me think of Gertrude Stein and her thoughts on naming (See “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” See Naming What is Inside: Gertrude Stein’s Use of Names in Three Lives. See Poetry & Grammar). It made me think of Marcel Duchamp and his Fountain (“the assault on convention“), how he challenges people to examine their perceptions versus that of the world’s.

I am glad you are here again. There is something sacred in the ritual of letter-writing. It’s in the realm of keeping a journal, but with a different kind of intimacy. I treasure both activities. I do understand though the need to be away from this for a while, as we seek to do something similar but in our own private space. Somehow that makes coming back even more meaningful. I am repeating myself, but: I am glad you are here again.

Good morning from my side of the world.

Yours,
T.

Quarantine

Confined to the bed for the rest of the day

Confined to the bed for the rest of the day

12 March 2014
10:15 AM
Manila

M.–

Last night I turned in early (just after dinner) because I felt so sleepy. I remembered feeling a bit itchy but thought it was just the usual dust around the house, what with the renovations and all. Woke up around eleven and went to the bathroom. Saw my father at the dining room and kissed him hello. I put my arms around him, and that’s when I noticed the big red rashes on my arms.

And I guess it’s a trick that the mind plays, but as soon as I saw the marks on my skin I immediately felt very itchy all over, and couldn’t stop myself from scratching. It felt like my body has betrayed me, and when I looked in the mirror, I was red almost everywhere–on my upper arms, on my hips, my thighs, my stomach, my neck, my back. We were debating if it’s a simple allergy or just a reaction to the dust. But I can’t remember eating anything different–we all had the same meal for dinner, and everyone else was fine. I can’t remember being allergic when I was a child (chicken? but my memory of that is vague), and I wasn’t going through anaphylactic shock. We decided to change the sheets and spray some disinfectant in the room, though in my mind I am thinking of last Sunday, when I laid on the floor out of exhaustion and stayed there for a good long while (don’t laugh–but I was arranging my bookshelf; it took me hours and I’m still not done). Everywhere was dirty then, and I turned out okay.

I slept for a bit, but woke up sometime around four and started scratching again. When everyone else is awake, and the lights are on, I looked at myself and saw that I had even bigger rashes. My father wanted to rush me to emergency but I vehemently refused. He thinks it’s measles. My sister is wondering the same thing, although she says that I should have fever and cough as symptoms.

Anyway, I am ordered to confine myself to bed. I have already taken a pill for this so I’m crossing my fingers that it will work. Earlier they threatened to make me wear gloves, or at least tie my hands so I’ll stop scratching. You’ll wound yourself, they tell me. I am almost tempted to say that I do that all the time, what, with a mind like this. But it doesn’t look like anyone’s in the mood for a lame joke, heh.

I am enjoying your stories from Iona. Don’t fret too much about cooking, M., or put too much pressure on yourself. I come from a large family, and every day since July of last year we have been feeding a lot of men who are working on the house (and whose appetites can rival creatures of the wild, I’m sure). Taste is important, yes, and making sure that it gets to the table on time. But more than that, what’s important is knowing that someone made an effort to prepare the food. Someone stood in the kitchen for hours creating a meal that would be gone in minutes. That takes patience and caring. That’s special.

Here’s something I hope you can carry with you through the days:

“…I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.”

– M.F.K. Fisher

“I think preparing food and feeding people brings nourishment not only to our bodies but to our spirits. Feeding people is a way of loving them, in the same way that feeding ourselves is a way of honoring our own createdness and fragility.”

– Shauna Niequist

Love,
T.

Grey Morning

On the way home from the hospital

On the way home from the hospital

11 March 2014
7:45 AM
Manila

M.–

I find myself waking up earlier lately, even if I’ve only had a few hours’ worth of sleep. Perhaps just out of a deep desire to make something more of my day.

I am thinking of what you’ve told me, how the days are all we have, really. How they all add up, in the end, and how I need not worry about that at the moment. To concentrate on the now, on this.

Driving home this morning, alone in the car with my father, we are listening to Earl Klugh and talking by way of silence. I stare out the window and look at the grey sky, at the people we pass, at the (still) empty street. I make non-committal noises; Papa does the same.

I relish the moment of peace in what would be an otherwise busy day ahead, and am grateful for it.

We are reading this for the book group:

The Fallguy’s Faith. by Robert Coover

Falling from favor, or grace, some high artifice, down he dropped like a discredited predicate through what he called space (sometimes he called it time) and with an earsplitting crack splattered the base earth with his vital attributes. Oh, I’ve had a great fall, he thought as he lay there, numb with terror, trying desperately to pull himself together again. This time (or space) I’ve really done it! He had fallen before of course: short of expectations, into bad habits, out with his friends, upon evil days, foul of the law, in and out of love, down in the dumps—indeed, as though egged on by some malevolent metaphor generated by his own condition, he had always been falling, had he not?—but this was the most terrible fall of all. It was like the very fall of pride, of stars, of Babylon, of cradles and curtains and angels and rain, like the dread fall of silence, of sparrows, like the fall of doom. It was, in a word, as he knew now, surrendering to the verb of all flesh, the last fall (his last anyway: as for the chips, he sighed, releasing them, let them fall where they may)—yet why was it, he wanted to know, why was it that everything that had happened to him had seemed to have happened in language? Even this! Almost as though, without words for it, it might not have happened at all! Had he been nothing more, after all was said and done, than a paraphrastic curiosity, an idle trope, within some vast syntactical flaw of existence? Had he fallen, he worried as he closed his eyes for the last time and consigned his name to history (may it take it or leave it), his juices to the soil (was it soil?),merely to have it said he had fallen? Ah! tears tumbled down his cheeks, damply echoing thereby the greater fall, now so ancient that he himself was beginning to forget it (a farther fall perhaps than all the rest, this forgetting: a fall as it were within a fall), and it came to him in these fading moments that it could even be said that, born to fall, he had perhaps fallen simply to be born (birth being less than it was cracked up to be, to coin a phrase)! Yes, yes, it could be said, what can not be said, but he didn’t quite believe it, didn’t quite believe either that accidence held the world together. No, if he had faith in one thing, this fallguy (he came back to this now), it was this: in the beginning was the gesture,and that gesture was: he opened his mouth to say it aloud (to prove some point or other?), but too late—his face cracked into a crooked smile and the words died on his lips…

We talked about the importance of a gesture, and of Coover’s rewriting of Humpty Dumpty. I said: I’m particularly enamoured of this piece.

I said: in the beginning was the gesture, and the gesture is this—Coover opened his (metaphorical) mouth to speak, and out came words, and this is what is between us, the writer and the reader—words, words, words.

Perhaps making meaning, finding meaning is a gesture—perhaps the river of words between us is what makes connecting possible. I mean, without words, without a want to speak, how would we ever know each other at all? We could be sitting side by side, or passing one another, and that would be that.

Maybe falling is a gesture, too—born to fall, he had perhaps fallen simply to be born. If Humpty Dumpty didn’t fall, there wouldn’t be anything to put back together, there wouldn’t be a nursery rhyme, etc.

They weren’t able to put him back, no? A quick search led me to this, said to be the earliest version of the rhyme:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
Four-score Men and Four-score more,
Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.

I am thinking that maybe that’s what falling means. To be changed, to go through a change—not necessarily to be broken, but to trust in the act of falling (writing, living), and reaching another state of being.

Good morning,
T.

It’s Only A Passing Thing

10 March 2014
11:52 AM
Manila

M.–

I am working with The Lord of the Rings: The Twin Towers on the background, trying to get through Monday. I don’t feel inspired, and wish I am far away.

I sound like a broken record, and I dislike myself for it. Whenever I’m like this, I put on LOTR. As silly as it sounds it gives me courage, even just a little, even for just a while.

Here, a quote from the movie, which seems apt for today:

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.”

And a bonus from The Fellowship of the Ring:

Good morning,
T.

It Comes From a Heart that is Breathing

14 February 2014
7:30 am
Edinburgh

T. —

Happy Valentine’s Day. I’d like to re-gift you something I gave you last year, so we can also share it with the people who read along with us here: my analysis and breakdown of The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (video is above, email is below).

*

11th February, 2013

Dear T.,
I watched a short movie with Andrew last night, and I would really like you to watch it. Now. Forgive me if you are actually the person who sent it to me, because I can’t for the life of me remember where or how I found it. I had forgotten about it, actually, until I stumbled onto it last night. But take 15 minutes and watch it, because what I have to say next is all about what happens in it, and what it made me realize last night. So I will send this off to you, and start on the next letter, while you watch. Or re-watch, if you’ve seen it already.

To be continued…

Continuing.

Let me unpack the movie first. (which means I am going to spend 15 minutes watching it on mute now.. so we might be watching it together)…

Here is a man who is disengaged, who is working hard (writing, rocking in a chair), who has a great view in front of him, but is getting nowhere. A stack of books. Bollards. Fences and pillars around him. Something is about to happen. We know, because of the impending storm. But when it starts, even the storm cannot move him.

He is not afraid. Does he know, perhaps, that it is sometimes hard to want to live, to want to continue? Would it be easier to be taken, to let go? Something in his body wants to hold on, though, needs to keep hold of the book. Even in chaos he is only running in circles. An infinity of this feeling, which is nothing.

(Andrew takes this moment to note that this is a commentary on Hurricane Katrina, since the beginning is so clearly New Orleans).

He is dropped in a wasteland, where even the words and type have abandoned him, and all he is left is a question right in the middle of where all his work has been. While others all around him are mourning their losses, he makes a pilgrimage on a strewn paper trail and cannot shed a tear.

This. This is my favorite part: the juxtaposition of flight and quicksand, of freedom and the shackles of fear. The black and white vs the technicolor, the transition that we can all recognize as an impending moment of growth, an evolution.

Even before he has set foot in the house, the color is going back into his skin, his cheeks, his eyes can register surprise instead of the blankness of the absence of emotion. He hasn’t even been touched by anything specific yet. He hasn’t fixed the book. He hasn’t met Humpty Dumpty (who is hilarious). He hasn’t danced. He hasn’t done anything. Nothing has changed. Except that now he is in color. Now, he is alive again.

From this point on, I just love the progression of the story. But the part that I am most in love with is this transition: which happens again at the end of Mr. Lessmore’s journey, when he has been lifted off his feet into the air by flying books, when he becomes his book, when the new black-and-white girl shows up at the door and is touched by something that brings her back to life. All of the other parts of this film are details that put the icing on the cake for me. The heart of it is this oscillation between being alive but feeling dead, and the process by which we find what makes us come alive again. Whoever said death is when the body stops breathing is not correct. Death can happen multiple times in one life. Death, I think, is when the soul seizes. Death is when we are no longer being read, when we are not engaging or being engaged with. Death is when our souls are not in flight.

This movie was so beautiful to me last night because it depicts so much of what I have felt. I am alive, I am working, I am writing, but I am not always here. I am not always participating. My heart is not alight, my soul is not flying. But this movie was so amazingly encouraging to me because it showed me the moment of transition: that stories can bring us back to life, that something wonderful can engage us and color us again. And when we are alive, when we are in full color, when we are in flight, our writing is completely different. It can still wonder, it can still worry, it can still question, but it comes from a heart that is breathing. It comes from love instead of fear. And it made me think that no matter how many times we may fear that we have died in our lives, there is still a way out of our black and white existence.

*

So. Please read Mr. Penumbra for me. Pick it up, in whatever form you have it in, because that was one of such books. I fell in love with this book so hard, so truly that it crept up on me. I was melancholy. I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to breathe. But I read this book, in bed, at night, piece by piece, and it set me alight again. It’s part of my love for codes, and my love of books, but more than that it’s my love for journeys and meaning and redemption and identity. It speaks to my love for the transition between the old and the new. I once read “The Camel Bookmobile” by Masha Hamilton about a woman who starts a traveling library in the arid bush of Northeastern Kenya. So much of the book is about the tribes’ conflict between the old and the new generations: the ones who need to preserve their history, and the ones who love books and learning and want to leave and learn and explore. And the fact that these categories are not specific to the older or younger generations, but that they are undeniably in conflict. The 24-Hour bookstore speaks to that, but in terms of technology and paper, tradition and efficiency. It’s really beautiful. It’s someone’s amazing manifesto.

And it woke me up.

*

Good morning,
M

Learning, Unlearning, Relearning

3 February 2014
11:48 am

Edinburgh

T. —

I’ve signed up for a new Coursera class: The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education. It is awesome so far. The assignment for this week was to look at what we have had to unlearn.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those  who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

– Alvin Toffler

The assignment:

What is one thing–a pattern, habit, behavior–you have had to “unlearn” in your life in order to be able to learn something new? Please write a 500-word essay about what it was you had to unlearn, any challenges you encountered, and any successes you experienced. 

My answer:

Perspectives of Knowledge – by M.

The habit or pattern I’ve had to unlearn in my life in order to learn something new is really a perspective of knowledge. Since I was young, I’ve had an aptitude for learning, and I’ve never been able to quench my curiosity for learning something new. I have read as much as possible, and my bookshelves at home are filled with notebooks, class notes, syllabi, old journals – all sources of learning that I’ve compiled over the years. Sounds great, right?

Despite the apparent benefits of this habit, I’ve picked up various limiting perspectives about knowledge along the journey. Unfortunately, one of the first lessons I learned about knowledge is that it is a privilege, and a gift – something to be held in highest esteem. While this may not sound terrible, that definition of knowledge quickly diverged into problematic associations: that I had the gift of knowledge more than other people; that what I knew was something to be protected and defended; that I often had more information than other people, and therefore was mostly right most of the time; that those who didn’t question or read or study as much as I did knew less than what I knew – that somehow, their knowledge and perspectives were lesser or invalid.

The whole process of education bolstered me in these beliefs, these habits, these limiting perspectives, because of the applause of test scores, grades, achievements and goals. Most of my education was very straight-forward and linear, which cemented a very black-and-white, either-or perspective of knowledge and facts. Opinions didn’t hold up against Fact – and I didn’t really give other people the chance to influence or transform my own knowledge.

I’m not entirely sure when the shift happened, but slowly my gaze widened from the very focused and closed-down perspective of learning and knowledge – and what swept in was a new-found humility and patience to listen to what other people knewwhat other people valued, and how other people learn and discover knowledge and information. In the process, Philosophy and Poetry, my two loves, highlighted the worthiness of these new, holistic ways of understanding, knowing, and questioning. Without breaking down, or unlearning my previous perspective of knowledge, the subtleties and subjectivity of these two topics would have been lost to me.

One of the biggest challenges has been learning the difference between confidence and bravado, between scholarship and arrogance. Sometimes it can be hard to discern when a strong defense is necessary to support a position, and when to deconstruct what it is I think I know in order to discover the wealth of perspectives and avenues of information that lie beneath the surface. I’ve gone through different phases of feeling 1) empowered by knowledge, 2) ashamed of seeing knowledge as mine or a privilege, and 3) guilty for being so academic in a world that just wants to relate to me authentically (instead of just rationally).

One of the best successes has been how my interest in knowledge and dedication to learning has formed new relationships in my life, both professional and personal. When I stop claiming knowledge as my own, there is more room to share and explore collaboratively. When I stop competing or pitting myself against others in the name of achievement, there is a wider expanse of available resources, goals, and creativity that can arise. Other successes are more emotional: realizing the depth of thought and inspiration that I have available to me; the realization that perspectives and new ways of understanding are unlimited. I feel more empowered now, through this new lens of learning, than I ever felt from reciting facts or getting 100% on an exam.

My new perspective of knowledge doesn’t undermine any work I have done in the past. In fact, I’ve carried over some positive traits from the older patterns: dedication, focus, concentration, perseverance, logic, and an unabiding love of books. But these new, wider perspectives of knowledge have so many more positive patterns: collaboration, novelty, exploration, creativity, flexibility, humility, and a wider breadth of understanding.

*

This week’s question: Who is your favorite teacher, and why? Would you say it’s Al for you? I’d love to hear what your answer would be.

I can barely get my eyes off the paper to look at the screen. I have lots of work to do today outside of Coursera, and outside of my own paper, but when I stop to think, I ask myself which work is more important? 

I can’t wait for next month, when I can just scale back everything and simplify down to those important things. It will be the biggest gift.

Good morning,
M