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January 28, 2007

It's no surprise to me, I am my own worst enemy

While looking through boxes of Yale-era crap, I came across a letter written to me by a beloved professor and friend, in response to some angst-filled missive of mine. It's fourteen years old, but parts of it could have been directed at me yesterday -- it's full of good advice about how to manage my anxiety and despair about grad school and life in general. I'm keyboarding it in here because I want to share the insights with anyone reading; because I want to remind myself that these have been longstanding problems; because I want to remember that Bob cared about me enough to give me such wonderful advice; and because now, as I am about to go back to graduate school, I need to take this advice to heart.

At 21, I just wasn't able to do what he suggested, and in fact I burned out and left grad school after a couple of years. (My marriage ended, too, but that's another story!) At 35, though, I think I can do all this. I'm already meditating, and I know that his time-management advice will work if I let it.

So, herewith, a perfectly brilliant letter:

Jan 9, 1993

Dear Rose,

Your letter arrived just before I began my holiday peregrinations and I have had time to turn to it only since I returned two days ago. I am sorry to hear of your miseries, particularly your yeast-illnesses. It is particularly unfortunate that you should be so afflicted in the first half-year of your marriage, especially as your husband will be gone in the second half-year. Your anxieties about graduate school are perfectly normal; your illnesses are not, except for you. I have two practical recommendations that will help you, and I urge you to adopt them.

You must understand that you are a high-anxiety person. Most good students are. You hide it effectively from others and, perhaps, from yourself. But anxiety -- I am sick and tired of all the bleating that goes on about "stress," but "stress" would do -- lowers your resistance to disease. That's why you get sick so much, even when you are watching your diet. True, you are more vulnerable to illness than most people. But one reason you are more vulnerable is because you are of a nervous disposition. You are stuck with your physiology. You can do something to counteract your anxieties.

I recommend two things: meditation twice per day and scheduling all your class and study hours in advance, by the week.

First, meditation: there is no better way to let go of nervous thinking, even (especially) the nervousness of which you may not be aware. If you are Christian, look into "centering prayer." There are good books on it by Thomas Keating and by Basil Pennington. Otherwise, try books by Lawrence LeShan -- he's a meditation-for-mental-health type -- or Philip Kapleau's Three Pillars of Zen, which has meditation instruction for beginners in one of its later chapters. Simple techniques are best. Simplicity is difficult, but best. Twice a day, morning and evening. "Doing something you enjoy," like listening to music, is no substitute. Meditation is hard at first, because the mind won't shut up. But in the long run, it is much better.

Second, set up a schedule of class and study hours per week. Under-schedule your time, rather than over-schedule it. When you've done your time for the day, then you can quit. You can do more, if you want, but you need not.

This will accomplish two things, if you have the mental discipline to stick with it. First, it will help you banish anxiety. When you work, you work as well and intelligently as you can, and you save your best hours of the day for work. Once you've punched out your time clock, you are free. Refuse to succumb to anxiety about "I should do more." The work is infinite, but your time and energy are finite. If you give yourself ample free time to do other things you enjoy, your mind will stay fresh over the long haul of the term. Second, working-when-worn-out functions under the law of diminishing returns in two senses. You accomplish less per time and effort on that day, and it wears you out so that you accomplish less per time and effort on days to come.

Yes, grad students have to push themselves, but not into illness and despair, like you do. Push yourself into new works, new authors, new kinds of thinking. Or think of it this way: what you learn in that extra hour per day that soon wears you down and out would, if allowed to accumulate over the semesters, amount to only one more semester of course work. In truth, you will work more effectively over the medium and long runs by not overworking in the short-run.

If you can stand it, you should take one day off per week. Schedule 25 hours of study time maximum over 6 days, plus your class time, and give yourself the rest of the time to take care of yourself (in all senses of the term). By the way, schedule meditation daily, too. Once you've put in your four hours per day, or once you've finished a 2-hour slot, STOP. Treat graduate school like a job. You like it more and do better at it if you take these steps to reduce and control anxiety and keep your mind and heart fresh for the work. 25 hours of intellectual work per week, by the way, is A LOT OF HARD WORK. Save time to piddle. Piddling can be very productive.

I trust that this will find you more rested than when you wrote. Good luck in the coming semester.



Posted by Rose at 07:04 PM | Comments (5)

January 14, 2007

If you don't want to talk about it, then it isn't love

I found, when I tried to find Theodore Roethke poems online, that there are very few of them about. Don't know if that means he's out of favor, or if his estate is very picky, but it did make me want to get him on the web. Here's one that touched me hard today, "Words for the Wind."

I love all of it, really, but especially these bits: "I'm odd and full of love," and "I cherish what I have had of the temporal." I haven't read much *about* Roethke, but I do know that he had many breakdowns. I glean from his verse, though, that he had a very full experience of love, and he gets so much of it across in his words.

Words for the Wind
Theodore Roethke


Love, love, a lily’s my care,
She’s sweeter than a tree.
Loving, I use the air
Most lovingly: I breathe;
Mad in the wind I wear
Myself as I should be,
All’s even with the odd,
My brother the vine is glad.

Are flower and seed the same?
What do the great dead say?
Sweet Phoebe, she’s my theme:
She sways whenever I sway.
“O love me while I am,
You green thing in my way!”
I cried, and the birds came down
And made my song their own.

Motion can keep me still:
She kissed me out of thought
As a lovely substance will;
She wandered; I did not:
I stayed, and light fell
Across her pulsing throat;
I stared, and a garden stone
Slowly became the moon.

The shallow stream runs slack;
The wind creaks slowly by;
Out of a nestling’s beak
Comes a tremulous cry
I cannot answer back;
A shape from deep in the eye--
That woman I saw in a stone--
Keeps pace when I walk alone.


The sun declares the earth;
The stones leap in the stream;
On a wide plain, beyond
The far stretch of a dream,
A field breaks like the sea;
The wind’s white with her name,
And I walk with the wind.

The dove’s my will today.
She sways, half in the sun:
Rose, easy on a stem,
One with the sighing vine,
One to be merry with,
And pleased to meet the moon.
She likes wherever I am.

Passion’s enough to give
Shape to a random joy:
I cry delight: I know
The root, the core of a cry.
Swan-heart, arbutus-calm,
She moves when time is shy:
Love has a thing to do.

A fair thing grows more fair;
The green, the springing green
Makes an intenser day
Under the rising moon;
I smile, no mineral man;
I bear, but not alone,
The burden of this joy.


Under a southern wind,
The birds and fishes move
North, in a single stream;
The sharp stars swing around;
I get a step beyond
The wind, and there I am,
I’m odd and full of love.

Wisdom, where is it found?--
Those who embrace, believe.
Whatever was, still is,
Says a song tied to a tree.
Below, on the ferny ground,
In rivery air, at ease,
I walk with my true love.

What time’s my heart? I care.
I cherish what I have
Had of the temporal:
I am no longer young
But the winds and waters are;
What falls away will fall;
All things bring me to love.


The breath of a long root,
The shy perimeter
Of the unfolding rose,
The green, the altered leaf,
The oyster’s weeping foot,
And the incipient star--
Are part of what she is.
She wakes the ends of life.

Being myself, I sing
The soul’s immediate joy.
Light, light, where’s my repose?
A wind wreathes round a tree.
A thing is done: a thing
Body and spirit know
When I do what she does:
Creaturely creature, she!--

I kiss her moving mouth,
Her swart hilarious skin;
She breaks my breath in half;
She frolicks like a beast;
And I dance round and round,
A fond and foolish man,
And see and suffer myself
In another being, at last.

Posted by Rose at 10:56 AM | Comments (1)

January 10, 2007

Everything comes and goes, marked by lovers and styles of clothes

Here I am, basking in the rays of my flatscreen monitor in the wee hours as I occasionally am, insomnia victim once again. When I was up at five a.m. a week ago, though, it wasn't due to insomnia -- it was because my lover was in town for seven hours. He'd called me a few weeks before and arranged a layover on a London-->San Francisco flight. I was to pick him up at JFK at midnight and drop him back off at seven ack emma. I worried over the course of those weeks that the visit would leave me upset, that it would seem tantalizing but not satisfying. I was deliriously happy to discover myself wrong. I've developed quite a taste for the ephemeral over the last several years, and this turned out to be the ultimate proof of that.

I've always been an impatient person. There's a photo of me at five years old, pouting because I'm in my party dress, but there is NO PARTY YET. When things finally do happen, I've often hung on to them hard, not wanting to let go -- I can't count the number of restaurants and parties I've closed down. Looking at all that from my current vantage, though, I can see that they're two sides of the same coin, and are both just me wishing I could control the flow of time.

Learning to garden eight or ten years ago started to change that. I got the hang of seasons; realized that winter wasn't simply a blank spot in the calendar for plants, but instead a vital, necessary downtime. I learned that although my beloved daffodils don't last all that long, they really will come back next year. It seemed intolerable at first, that some of the flowers I love most should bloom for such a brief period of time. But now I cherish the first sight of their buds, watch over their transition into flower, and clip the faded blossoms when they're blown so the bulbs will stay strong and store their energy for next year's growth.

Last winter, in February of 2005, Christo put up hundreds of orange gates in Central Park. I'd first heard about Christo many years before, and always said of him in my head, "Isn't He That Guy With the Islands and the Pink Stuff?". When I read about the Gates for the first time, I didn't really understand what the plan was; I didn't hate it, but I also didn't think on it very hard. He was just That Guy. But then the summer before the project went up I read an extended piece in the New Yorker and I GOT IT. There were conceptual drawings of the Gates, and I read what he and others had to say about the project, and I could see it, and I was very, very excited. In the fall the Met hosted a special exhibit on the Gates, with lots of the conceptual drawings as well as examples of the supports and the fabric for the gates themselves. I squee'd around the whole exhibit, vibrating and bouncing. As the date for the opening grew closer, though, I got nervous. I really didn't believe that the gates, in situ, could be as splendid as I'd imagined they would be.

I'd never been happier to be wrong. Somehow Christo knew exactly what they'd look like. As we roamed through the park, all over the park, the gates in place looked *precisely* as Christo had drawn them. But they were even more luminous and spectacular than he could possibly convey on paper. And throughout the two weeks that they were up in the park, an intrinsic part of my enjoyment was my understanding that they were going to GO AWAY SOON. Every time I visited them (and I went several times), I knew that I was seeing something special, something specific, something uniquely located in a time and a place. When I bid them farewell I felt like I'd really appreciated them fully, and would remember them always. Their very ephemerality in the tangible world tattooed their memory on my heart.

Just a few weeks ago I had another burst of appreciation for a once-in-a-lifetime art event, although it wasn't something I'd anticipated or even known about before the weekend it was happening. Down in Soho there is an abandoned building, 11 Spring Street, that's been covered in graffiti for years. It finally sold recently, but the developers gave the graffiti artists a month or so to do anything they wanted to the building, to cover it inside and out with art, before they start the gutting and rehabbing. The artists ran with this, and then opened the site to viewers for three days only. I found out about it just before it opened, but for various complicated life reasons couldn't get there until the last day. I'd known it would be popular, but I wasn't expecting a line that went, literally, all the way around a whole city block. There was no way to get in, and I'd never get to see the inside of the building. And yet? That felt completely okay. Francis and I spent about an hour wandering around taking pictures of the outside, and people-watching, and I knew that the folks who *did* get inside were going to obsessively document everything, so I *would* get to see it. The whole thing just felt joyous. There were artists still working on the building even on the last day, putting up pieces that would last for just a day or two before being powerwashed off the walls. Wheatpaste daylilies, as it were.

And so that brings me to last week. I drove to the airport with my heart hammering in my chest, full of desire and longing and pent-up excitement. But when we finally reunited I felt utterly peaceful. We spent the fullest seven hours I could have hoped for, and when I brought him back to the terminal and saw him off, I found that instead of weeping, I was beaming, filled with bliss. I didn't even have to remind myself of my practice while he was here, but if I had, I might have said to myself, "Listen: This moment right now? Everything is okay. Be here. Be in the moment. Let the future take care of itself." But I didn't have to say those words, because I felt them. I was there, in that ongoing present, and everything was right in the world and I was perfectly, absolutely happy.

Posted by Rose at 05:00 AM | Comments (3)

January 01, 2007

If you don't know what is wrong with me, then you know don't know what you missed

BBRUG tagged me to write up five things most people don't know about me. At first I thought, "Geez, I’m willing to tell just about anything to just about anybody, so there’s not much that’s “secret” or “private” to tell." But as I contemplate this, I suppose there are a few things that aren’t general knowledge.

1. I used to have rheumatoid arthritis. Yeah, that’s the kind that can completely cripple you (and which crippled my mom). It took nearly a year to get diagnosed, and I was sick for about another two years. How bad did it get? I walked with a cane for two years; the drugs I took made me gain weight (steroids), need horribly frequent blood tests (Plaquenil) to avoid liver damage, made me sun-sensitive (again, the Plaquenil), and thinned my hair and made me nauseous (methotrexate). After about a year on methotrexate, though, despite the side effects, I was feeling much better, and my doctor let me try going off the drugs. The RA was in remission! I live with a certain amount of fear that this will come back someday, but in the meantime I am grateful, literally EVERY DAMN DAY, that I can walk around in the city I love so much, and didn’t have to move.

2. I grew up incredibly, appallingly poor. I can’t give you too clear an idea of what that’s like in a paragraph; if you want to read something really sharp on the topic, John Scalzi wrote a compelling piece in his blog in 2005 (in response, actually to people wondering why there were folks in New Orleans who "chose" to not evacuate). Here are some highlights, though: clothes and toys and books from the Salvation Army; government surplus food; my parents never had a bank account (and my mom still doesn’t); we lived in a 30-foot travel trailer, like the kind FEMA crams people into today, for more than twelve years. That last one bears a bit of dwelling on: 30 feet by 8 feet equals 240 square feet. I slept on the couch in the “living room,” which meant that I had to make up my bed every night from the bedclothes (which stayed in a neat pile next to the couch), and strip the couch every morning before breakfast. When I moved out, to college, at 16, my dorm room felt to me like a fucking palace. It wasn’t all bad, though. Perhaps more on this some other time.

3. If I am drunk or tired or in south Louisiana, I will reacquire both my accent *and* my diction from my long-ago southern youth. Which has always meant: I don’t swear, and I say quaint things like “on account of” and “I’m fixin’ to do XYZ” and “right about”. However, on my last trip to Louisiana, I found myself in my car, swearing in southern -- “Y’all are a bunch of motherfuckin’ idiots!” -- sung out in my sugary lilt. And then I burst into peals of laughter.

Ah! Here’s a good one, which comes to mind because of the driving-in-south-Louisiana thing:

4. I like country music. Not just the stuff that is cool to like, like the Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, or Neko Case, or Loretta Lynn produced by Jack White. Nah. I like the highly engineered Nashville three-part narrative tearjerkers and foot-stompers and he-done-me-wrong songs. Before you pass out, I should mention that I *do* still have some discernment; I’d say Sturgeon’s Law holds true there as elsewhere. Oh, but the sweet, sweet ten percent that stands out? Incomparable. Pedal steel and a fiddle? I’m your girl. However: I only really listen to country music IN BULK on the radio, which means driving in a car, which generally means when I'm down south.

5. I sang in various school choirs from 5th grade through the first couple years of college (so about eight years). In high school and college I was in the a cappella choir; in high school I also competed in the yearly statewide individual and duet competitions, which was a little nerve-wracking. You’d prepare a piece for weeks, and then go before several judges (I think it was four?) and they’d give you the first note and then you’d sing and they’d rate your performance. You did this on a parish level, and then you’d go compete in Baton Rouge. I won four scholarship awards doing that, and I still have the medals (which you’re meant to pin on your varsity jacket, and which I, of course, did WITH NO IRONY WHATSOEVER, I WILL HAVE YOU KNOW).

Alrighty. I think that’s about enough for now. I want to hear from Danny, and Columbine, and Katje, and Tori. If’n they’re up to it, of course.

Posted by Rose at 11:35 AM | Comments (2)