Today is the Monday of the last week of my third semester of school. I have just one semester left. This was what I worried would happen.
I mean, I worried that everything would seem to pass too quickly. "Too quickly" because I had it in my head that these would be the most fabulous, most expensive years of my life. I thought of these two years as a potential peak.
This semester, though, has been rough. I think these are growing pains; I just wish grad school would let you take a few years off while you went through stuff like this because it’s hard to do the work you want to do when you’re crying every day that you have no idea where your work is going.
I always think of this kind of phase as exactly comparable to weight training. (I try to compare everything in the creative world to things in the bodily world because, despite my yoga/ jogging/ gym-going/ weight training efforts, I am about as naturally unathletic as people come. Thinking about working out gives me a good reference point for failure. ) When you are weight training, and you’re building a new muscle, you wake up the morning after a hard workout sore all over. The idea of moving your body again when you’re sore like that seems impossible. Sometimes — and screw what trainers on TV say about “everything is possible” or whatever bullshit they say — it really is impossible to do another workout. You have to take a day off. But then, as long as you keep working at it for literally MONTHS, your body starts to change and you notice hard muscles where they didn’t used to exist. But you had to have some trust that muscles were going to come; they’re not built overnight (contrary to the claims of every infomercial ever).
So it is, too, with creative muscles. I might write through a painful series of essays that read to me like total failures (every day I come to an exercise mat I can’t — I mean I CAN’T — do a pushup, so I do these silly half pushups that feel like total failures), but I have to trust that I’m building some new kind of writing super-muscle. I’ve already learned that I overuse phrases about “the sounds of cicadas oozing thick in the sweaty summer air” — so I know I’ve made some improvements.
My writing body right now is molting. Molting is ugly.
And that’s all well and good and everything, but molting in the middle of my graduate school experience feels like a waste of time. I don’t get half as much done as I used to do before this stupid molt started. Graduate school is expensive. I want to be squeezing as much out of it as is humanly possible. (Weight training pun-metaphor intended.)
I brought this up with Jill last week and she said, “You need to invent a good mother."
“I have a good mother,” I said, suddenly worried that something in my writing had made her think that I came from a broken home.
“Oh, I know, and you can keep her. But you need another, imaginary mother. You need one who is in charge of your house where you live right now and will tell you, ‘You are finishing a book, and that is enough. Let me make you some snacks.’”
Finding the rhythm of “enough" and “try harder” has always been a difficult balance for me. I’m good at goal-setting — I’m practically a Pinterest board of self-improvement*. I believe that most of the time things are perfect exactly as they are. I also believe that a certain lift-yourself-up-edness is not only fun, but will necessary for survival.
Right now, though, I probably need a little more “enough.” When I woke up this morning I thought I would blog about all the things I was going to try to do to make this last week of the semester really pack a punch. But I don’t need more goals. Where I am — in the living room at 5 a.m. watching people walking their dogs in the dark and the snow, listening to my cat Puppy snore — is exactly perfect. This is enough.
I say this partially because I learned last night my friends Jane and Jesse just lost a family member to an aggressive form of cancer. I'd been following her journey on her blog; it was one of those illnesses that seemed like it couldn’t possibly escalate the way it did — she was incredibly young; beautiful; she’d just gotten married. I am writing about it and linking to it here because the attitude of the blog is one of sharing; it’s about this woman’s capacity for light in the face of something terrifying.
The day after she died, her husband updated her blog with a brief memorial. A small excerpt:
Catherine's example is inspiring. She was never bitter or angry about what was happening. Instead of collapsing into self pity, she showed us all just how much grace a human being facing her own mortality is capable of. She set herself to the things she wanted to accomplish while she still had time.
In the end, we are mortal; we really only have each other, and we only have each other so briefly. Or maybe, not “only.” We have each other; that is enough.
This week, rather than create the list of goals I thought I’d write, I will set only one. When something is ending, whatever it is, you should take the opportunity to say thank you. I will say thank you as specifically and as often as I can. I am a human being who is molting! And really, I could be molting for the rest of my life, and all that would really matter would be that I had spent as much of my energy as possible filling myself with love.
*I keep a workout diary. My artistic goals are Sharpied on Post-Its all over my studio and in my notebooks. I have a tally of the number of days I have meditated in a row in light pencil on the wall by my bed. I TALLY HOW MUCH I MEDITATE. That’s some serious Type-A meditation right there.