Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Pity, party of one

I wish I could say that I spent the last weekend in a welter of creative activity or a dreamy musing lull, or basking in the fine glow of epiphany.

I do wish I could say that, but I can’t.

Because, actually, I spent the last weekend taking a hit of the self-pity pipe, and I’m still feeling the hangover.

Like many (most?) people, I have a secret vice, one that poisons my days and clouds over the moon of my nights. I am addicted to comparing myself to other people, and then berating myself when, inevitability, I don’t measure up.

I suppose if I dig deeply enough, I could find the roots of this behavior in (where else?) childhood. Emigrating to another country shifts the sands of who you thought you were, what you thought you wanted, so my parents compensated by wholeheartedly embracing the mores of their new country. And that meant constantly monitoring the behavior and gains of the neighbors in order to orient ourselves, figure out where we stand (but only in relationship to them), figure out what we lack (but only compared to what others have and value). Contentment meant that you weren’t trying hard enough…surely, if you looked with a critical enough eye, you could find something that was not right, something that needed fixing, or effort, or an apology. That was American ambition, in my mami’s eyes. Making sure you were never satisfied, never stagnant, never done yearning and reaching. Satisfaction was the refuge of the lazy.

For years I took this as unexamined gospel about how to live. Every party could have been good, had it not been for the underspiced food, or lack of dance music. Every holiday could have been celebrated, if only Tio Pedro hadn’t been late with the whisky, and the sun would have come out, and we’d had a bigger crowd and…

I’m sure you get the idea.

As a child, this never affected me all that much, to be honest. Perhaps I was protected by a child’s incurable optimism and sense of wonder, perhaps I assumed that dealing with the unfortunate downside of every desire was an adult’s job. I noticed the fleeting sourness beneath their smiles, but I didn’t really compare them to anything or anyone back then. I just luxuriated in my enjoyment.

I do remember feeling a certain dread about becoming an adult, however. Adults never seemed to be wholeheartedly glad about ANYTHING.

Of course, we model what we see, and before long, I was a master of this insidious little habit. As Shakespeare said, “desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope.” Nothing was ever quite good enough…someone’s work was always better, cleaner, more inspired, more imaginative, and that instantly detracted from my own. I learned to view my own life, my own thoughts, as a narrow festering swamp of mediocrity, while everyone else was reflected in glistening healing waters. It didn’t matter how happy I had been with my efforts initially. Once I saw the work of others, I knew that mine was all utter, unrelenting, useless crap and idiocy. Forget learning from others. Forget allowing the creativity of others inspire my own dreams. Clink, clink—the chains of failure and feeling like a fraud are on my wrists again. My inner judge leads me away again.

This is not at all conducive to living a creative life, or to the person I long to become. When I compare myself to others, the multiplicity and playfulness of life becomes grimly focused on one thing, What the Other Person Did. There are to be no other possibilities, no variations on that theme. Any chance of play, of imagination, gets goosestepped into that tiny prison cell. So now I have the opportunity, nay, the DUTY, to berate myself for being the smallest, most mundane person who ever walked the earth. Oh, how I wish I were exaggerating. But I can go from cheerful striding to the fetal position of self-pity in the time it takes to, well, see and absorb anything I wish I had done myself—a beautiful poem, a fluid bit of brilliant wordplay, a breathlessly exciting film or piece of music, a graceful work of art. No appreciation, no love for the form, just the doomed dullness of knowing (in that thudding way we acknowledge all of our most loathed traits) that I could NEVER do anything like that. So what’s the point of me, anyway?

I’m so tired of this cycle, unrelenting pity parties of one, of the ceaseless drone of my faults, like the whine of a fly in my ear. I want to throw back my head in gratitude to the sun, throw open in my arms in love with the productions of time, bow my head grateful that I have a body that can revel, a mind that can think, and a soul that can be excited by beauty and art and dreams. But instead, I compare and contrast, judge myself mercilessly, and fall listlessly into the arms of helplessness. I’ll never be any good, why bother being ANYTHING?

So I pouted my way through the weekend—tumbling into an icy Snowball that froze through all that I ever was, am, and will be.

As usual, Madam wouldn’t let me live that way for long. She demanded my immediate attention to the serious matters of play, of singing, of laughter. I defy anyone to remain depressed after 500 renditions of "The Itsy Bitsy Spider." And walking with her in the dark reminded me of a half-forgotten quote; It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. All weekend, I’ve been cursing the darkness—the lack—of celebration, of friendship, of joy, of writing. I’ve been parched, sawdust stinging my tongue. Pressing my nose to the overflowing glass of everyone else’s warm glowing abundance. Feeling frozen and helpless.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. I can continue to light my tiny candles—on my blog, creating small celebrations to mark the importance of everyday, learning from those further along on the Art Path, taking responsibility for filling my empty well. I can be a small church (not a great cathedral) and really pay attention to the great ebb and flow and throb of humanity’s heart, and my own.

Fine words (I think, I haven’t compared them to anyone else’s yet.) But I’m still not sure how to avoid the trap of self pity and envy in the future? How does everyone else deal with this?

Time to stop wallowing. Now I need a shower.

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Blogger Laini said...

I had this kind of weekend too -- a floudery lost kind of weekend, when the lostness just feeds on itself and intertwines with guilt over not accomplishing anything, and all the while it's like a big hourglass is sifting away and life is slipping past and I'm neither out living it, nor producing enough art to merit NOT being out living it... which just makes me want to watch tv and pout. My post, as I said, was a self-pep-talk, and it helped a little, but I'm still not wildly deeply into my next project. Just got to keep at it and know I'll fall in love with it if I keep going. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

4:32 PM, March 14, 2006  
Blogger Bohemian Girl said...

consider that YOU are one of those people that inspire others, that cause one to go into a self pity party by comparison of YOU.

you are so entirely talented and your writing never ceases to bring me to awe.

come over here and i'll give you a hit from a fun sort of pipe.

huh? did i say that?!? *hand over mouth*

4:42 PM, March 14, 2006  
Blogger megg said...

I understand!!! In my family, my Mom ALWAYS apoogizes for everything - no matter how wonderful it is, she finds something wrong to apologize about. It's not as much about comparing ourselves to others, it's about finding the flaws before anyone else might. It's a tough TOUGH way to live - and difficult to remember that everyone struggles with comparisons - it's not easy. I hope that your daughter is teaching you how to live in each joyful moment. be gentle with yourself!! xo

4:44 PM, March 14, 2006  
Blogger Letha Sandison said...

I can totally relate to every word of this!! I think that, to a degree, every artist does this, compares themselves. It can be so hard not to compare yourself to others, to find and remain true to your own voice. To TRUST yourself and your own art.

You have a special contribution that only you can make. You just have to turn off the old tape that tells you that you're not as good.

When I get in that cycle, I try to just listen to it, tell myself that I don't need to buy into it anymore, trust that I know what I am doing in my art and then fake it until I feel better.

You are a beautiful writer...just keep writing!

11:44 PM, March 14, 2006  
Anonymous Jennifer said...

On a day that feels very similar to the way you are feeling in this post, I'm thinking that sometimes a small church is as good as or better than a great cathedral. It is SOMETHING, and that matters. All we can do, in the end, is try -and that is what you are doing here (in your honesty, at your blog, within your very well written posts). I know what it is to doubt and also, to be a mama trying to write and listen to her creative voice. None of this is a piece of cake, but "simply" showing up is a pretty big deal. And here you are.

11:33 AM, March 15, 2006  
Blogger Cate said...

What an absolutely beautiful, well-thought essay! You spoke to me at such an intimate level and your honesty just radiates! I struggle with those kinds of comparisons myself--thank you for giving my discomfort over that inclination a voice!

This: "No appreciation, no love for the form, just the doomed dullness of knowing (in that thudding way we acknowledge all of our most loathed traits) that I could NEVER do anything like that. So what’s the point of me, anyway?"

And this: "I’ve been parched, sawdust stinging my tongue. Pressing my nose to the overflowing glass of everyone else’s warm glowing abundance. Feeling frozen and helpless."

Simply brilliant.

Keep lighting those candles. You may be a small church but you are most definitely a mighty one. I'd rather visit a small, cozy church than a drafty cathedral ANY DAY of the week!

12:19 PM, March 15, 2006  
Blogger chest of drawers said...

I absolutely know how you felt growing up - sounds a lot like my family. I grew up feeling constantly guilty for not liking the way my parents spoke about others, I felt trapped because I didn´t want to join in.
You will feel better soon - every time those feelings arise give yourself a certain amount of time to compare and when the time is up, go and find something better to do. We all have these feelings, some of us are just better at keeping them a secret.

1:20 PM, March 15, 2006  
Blogger M said...

Wow...another post that resonates with my own issues. Seem to be finding a lot of those this morning! Not being good enough is something I've been dealing with for a long time as well- what is that?! I often find it hard to believe in myself and my ability to do anything, despite what I have already accomplished. Must be a product of our parents' generation, something they've unintentionally passed down and we are here to sort through it and hopefully not pass it on any further.
You are a brilliant writer and maybe something from this cycle has helped in that. I find affirmations help me in the moment or positive reflections of what you have done and who you are, but of course I want a quick permanent fix which is impossible. Keep lighting the candles and showing up, it will all work out.

1:24 PM, March 15, 2006  
Blogger la vie en rose said...

what a bummer of a weekend...and that will happen sometimes...to all of us. but look, you've already found the goodness from it--something to release, a lesson to learn, beautiful words to share with fellow bloggers journeying through the same jungle of self-pity.

3:10 PM, March 15, 2006  
Blogger Yummyteece said...

I think "Not good enough" (or at least the emotional resonation we all have with that phrase) is inherantly designed into human beings.

It seems to me that the way to best combat it is excatly what you've done here. Declare it. Point at it. Say "here is a moment where i feel not good enough", and by doing so, you let the sun stream in to yet another dark corner.... and the light spreads, from candle to candle... from blogger to blogger... from strong woman to strong woman, until we all suddenly look around and find we've become a collective fire of 'really damn awesome!'

As someone who has spent TONS of time deep in the "not enough" pity party.... I love what you've written here.

And while in the moment, "not enough" will feel VERY true to you, it's clearly NOT to us (your dedicated readers and cheerleaders). :)

8:07 PM, March 15, 2006  
Blogger melba said...

I am so glad you left comments on my blogs! I spent some time checking out your blog. I feel you... really. I wish I had time to read more posts. It is late and I have library group with my son in the morning. Send me an email when you get the chance (I would love to hear about your vision for a gathering) and I will fill you in on justBe...

11:09 PM, March 15, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much--just reading that you all go through variations of this too is SO helpful, because you all manage to create in spite of it...and create incredibly beautiful things!

Laini: This whole blog feels like a self-pep-talk to me. And yep...just keeping going is usually enough to fall in love for me as well.

Boho Girl: You should know about inspiration...your work and your voice and YOU inspire me everyday.

Megg: That's an important distinction...trying to disclaim myself before someone sees the flaws first and thinks that I'm too...what? confident? I'm always waiting to get knocked down a peg.

Letha: That's really great advice, and something I need to remember always--that I can listen to the voices without buying into them, and keep faking it until it becomes real.

Jennifer: Definitely...showing up is more than I've managed to do for years, and it's waking me up to an astonishing degree.

Cate: I keep going back to that small church idea from the poem I posted last week for Poetic Thursday--something about it really resonates with me, and I think you hit on it...it's intimate.

Chest of drawers: That's such a tough one for me...knowing how to just wallow for a time without drowning in it. I need to keep thinking about when the "turn" takes place.

M: I want that quick fix too, damn it! But I'm slowly learning patience. And I've just started affirmations. Let's see how long they take to kick in. ;)

Michelle: It's wonderful to untangle something and see it turn into something like grace. I see that in your writing all the time, and it helps me.

Teece: I love the image of all of us passing the fire until we're consumed by our pretty damn awesomeness! And the positivity on all of these blogs really makes me believe (for the first time) that even with stumbling, we can achieve our dreams.

Melba: Thanks so much for stopping by...I know all about being busy with a small one. :) And I will send you an email--I don't know how much help I can be with a newborn, but I'm very interesting in the idea of gatherings for women.

9:24 PM, March 16, 2006  
Blogger kelly rae said...

you are brave to say so beautifully what many of us feel. just by saying it, don't you feel more true and free? by acknowledging, and reflecting on what you're feeling, you're able to give it a voice. sometimes when i'm feeling off, i just allow myself to feel that way, fully feel it, for a few hours, a day, or whatever. i give myself permission to feel whatever it is i'm feeling without trying to stop it for a given amount of time. when the times up, i move on. you have a beautiful talent as a writer. i just happened upon you blog from Laini's site and you have real talent. incomparable talent. as i read your words i wish i could write like you!!

9:53 PM, March 19, 2006  
Blogger pinkcoyote said...

wow. your words are so important. i too have an infant and a one handed typing life. we sing the boa constrictor song (peter paul and mommy...) thousands of times per day. it is difficult to get creative time in for me. i can very much relate to your story-and am super inspired to keep trying to get my art out in whatever way possible. i'm new to your blog and grateful i've found you through what is such an incredible collective of women.

2:24 PM, March 20, 2006  

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