Monday, February 23, 2015

Painting by numbers

Imagine a person running on a treadmill, running running running, hamster-style, burning up energy but staying in the same place. Imagine that the treadmill is in a room with no windows, no TV or anything else to look at. The person is running running running, looking at nothing. Running for the sake of running, running because they feel as if that’s what they’re supposed to be doing. Running as ritual; running as offering, or penance.

This was me for the first two months of this year. I was quasi-busy doing all of this stuff. Literally running, working out non-stop (my motto was “ABBC – Always Be Burning Calories”) and radically stripping calories out of my diet, until I’d lost 16 pounds in less than a month and a half. Dutifully completing daily half-hour Spanish lessons via the Duolingo app on my phone (because the night class I’d originally signed up for was cancelled at the last minute), no matter how busy the rest of the day was. Most days, I’d get up at 5 a.m., commute an hour and a half to work, put in nine hours, cram in a Spanish lesson while burning bonus calories on a lunchtime walk, commute an hour and a half home, help cook dinner, and work out till bedtime at 9:30. Wake up, repeat, with more running and working out on the weekends.  

I knew at some point I’d hit a wall, mostly because it’s not like me to live life in this ordered, disciplined, busy way. In this (what feels to me like) over-achieving, checkbox-checking sort of way.

Yes, I had things to talk about. On the phone with family, out with friends, I could easily chirp some tidbit such as, “Yeah, 16 pounds so far!” or “I’ve been learning Spanish” or “I’m signed up for a 10k in March” instead of talking about the things I felt were really going on with me, the things that don’t ever seem to easily shoehorn into most normal conversations.

I liked the way these things sounded – so normal, so unlike the consternatingly ethereal or abstract, introspective writerly things that actually occupy my mind most of the time.

I felt like a fraud saying them. (Think of Beldar and his Conehead family trying to impersonate humans; that’s what I feel like a lot of the time.)

At the end of each day, I could lie in bed and smugly think about how I had lost another pound or two that day, about how I’d kept up my study-Spanish-for-at-least-half-an-hour-every-day resolution. The little tracksuit-wearing parrot avatar that serves as my “coach” on Duolingo would say to me, in a cartoon bubble at the end of each half-hour lesson: “You’re on track today! Good job!”

But here’s the catch: Every hour I spent on the treadmill, running on the trail or (at night) on the sidewalks of our neighborhood, every 45-minute stint in the basement doing a workout tape – or even every half hour I spent getting really good at guessing the correct answers on a learn-Spanish app, if not actually learning how to construct my own sentences – was time that I did not spend doing the one thing in the world that I am legitimately good at: writing.

At the end of the day, I was a person who was now X pounds lighter, and who now knew a few words of Spanish.

And there is nothing remarkable about that.

(Note: I am not saying that you shouldn’t feel good about yourself if you are losing weight. Also note: I am not saying that it’s not awesome to learn a new language.

I’m saying that I focused exclusively on these things for what feels to me like a long time, to the point of neglecting the parts of the world that light up my brain. I’m saying that, like many things in life, I took New Year’s self-improvement nerdlery to a weird extreme, and started to feel kind of like an automaton.)

You can tell me that it’s all about the little steps that add up, the little Buddhist grains of sand. You can say, “What did you expect was going to happen in two months? Or even a year?” Let’s assume I had kept up my good behavior until the end of the year. OK, maybe best-case scenario I’d have the svelte and enviably toned body that I would most like to have. Maybe I’d know enough Spanish to blunder my way through a Spanish-language novel with a dictionary by my side. That’d all be great and awesome for me, here in my little life.

But who cares?

If I were to die today, would I be satisfied thinking that people could say: “She got down to a Size 2 – a Zero in some stores! – and her grasp of basic Spanish grammar was not bad. And also she used to write, I think, but she stopped doing that.”

Hell no.

***
In the midst of doing all of this hamster-running-around and scratching my head over Spanish-sentence syntax, I launched a small writing project to no fanfare.

The fact that no one noticed or cared that I created this new site is hilariously ironic, considering the fame-related theme of the project: I conducted “interviews” with myself, about writing, each interview focusing on a particular well-received or (what I consider to be) noteworthy short story of mine. I positioned myself as “a famous writer” (with glamorous sunglasses and feather boa to match; yes, I did a special photo shoot just for the new site).

It was sort of a joke, but mostly serious – the “interviews” allowed me to reflect back on how I got the ideas for each story, why I wrote it the way I did, and gave me the space to expand on recurring themes in my work as well as to share “behind the scenes” backstory nuggets that for some reason I just plain like to share.

The response, as I half expected, was a resounding yawn. I know this is partly to do with the fact that I really have only one channel through which I can share my creative writing with anything resembling a “public”: Facebook, land of the “TL; DR” responses to anything longer than two paragraphs. Also, somehow writers make up a smaller proportion of my overall friend list than they once did. And, for better or for worse, writers are always the ones who have gotten me best.

Luckily, I’m far less likely than most people to be motivated by any sort of “audience” reaction, or the lack of one. I’ve seen friends give up on artistic endeavors due to a lack of positive response, or any response, and this honestly baffles me. I understand feeling discouraged when something that revs you up doesn’t seem to interest anyone else at all – but for me, the initial impulse to create isn’t extinguished by anything external. I’m either passionate about it or I’m not, period.

As far as I’m concerned, folks can be be confused, or underwhelmed, or mildly annoyed, or put off, by any project or writing of mine. That isn’t going to stop me from doing it. I’d do it even if I were alone on that hypothetical “desert island” everyone’s always talking about. I’d do it even if I looked into a crystal ball and saw that I would always be toiling in obscurity.

I don’t create things because I want to get a pat on the back, or even a “like.” And while I also understand that it can be good to get feedback from people whose opinions you admire – getting a positive response should never be your reason for creating something. In my opinion, passion motivates art – not approval.

***
The miscarriage hit me hard. I haven’t exactly tried to hide that. It devastated me.

The recurring infertility since then has devastated me, too. (“You’re more fertile after a miscarriage!” everyone said. Yeah, tell that to my barren womb.)

I’m aware that this grief had something to do with how gung-ho I was about working out – I was both angry at my body for failing to do what I most want it to do, and reclaiming it as something that’s mine, as something that’s not merely waiting to host someone else.

It gave me immense satisfaction to see the numbers on the scale change. It gave me the illusion – maybe not completely an illusion – that I have some degree of control over my body. Mind over matter.

I knew I was overdoing it last month and possibly running the risk of knocking my hormones out of whack; some dumb, angry part of me did that on purpose, as if it’d have been a betrayal to my former baby to get pregnant again so soon. When my period came as expected, I imagined giving my never-born baby a virtual high-five.

Hey, miscarriage messes with your mind, man.  

I also know that part of me fell sway to this pretty American-seeming idea that life will be A-OK if you rise and shine, eat a good breakfast, take care of all the household chores on schedule, work hard, take your vitamins, pay the taxes on time. Read the paper every day, mail your grandmother a birthday card, drink eight glasses of water a day. Like a lot of people, probably, I had come to view these things as secular rituals – be a good-enough citizen, and you’ll be rewarded with a good-enough life. The Gospel According to Martha Stewart.

I did all of those things, and more.

This month, I wasn’t as angry and made a good-faith effort at getting knocked up. Come ovulation time, I cut way back on exercise and ate a little more. My weight fluctuated up and down a pound or two, but I didn’t care; my body was once again ready to become a selfless vessel for someone else to live in. Gentle walks, plenty of folate. Some atheist approximation of prayer.

Our timing was perfect. We’d done everything just right. I even had some hopeful-seeming symptoms, not that this was exactly new. (Sadly, many early-pregnancy symptoms are the same as regular old PMS ones; the same hormones are surging through your body either way.)

My period came. I was in a restroom at the mall; from the speakers in the ceiling came the song that goes “Been around the world and I-I-I… I can’t find my baby,” and I lamented that so many pop songs have the word “baby” in them and can therefore – to an infertile woman – seem to be about actual literal babies.

I made my way back to my car among the minefield of babies in strollers and indoor playgrounds crawling with kids and baby barber shops and racks of onesies.

And just like that I no longer cared about all the checklist things. I went a couple days without exercising. I ate a bunch of junk; on our way home from our toddler niece’s birthday party, I stopped at Rite-Aid and bought sundae makings: full-fat ice cream, chocolate syrup, honey-roasted peanuts. I made a bowl of “ice-cream soup,” like Pee-Wee Herman sang about on his show.

I went two days without doing my daily Spanish lesson. My parrot coach pestered me via notifications and emails; I ignored him.

This morning, for the first time since Jan. 1, I didn’t weigh myself. I’d been doing that every morning and dutifully recording the number (along with a frowny face every time I gained a pound) in this leather-bound journal that says “2015” on it. The only items in the journal, for each day of the year so far, are my weight and details of my menstrual cycle (ovulation-kit results, when my period started, the length of my “luteal phase”).

But I’m more than my weight and the vicissitudes of my menstrual cycle. I’m more than these numbers. These things should not be the only record of my days.

Yeah, I still want to be thin(ner). Yes, I’m still fired up to learn Spanish, especially with a new Roberto BolaƱo book being released (posthumously), one that I would love to read in the language in which he wrote it – words that he chose.

But I’m done with focusing on numbers. I’m done with check boxes. I don’t care if I gain a pound or two back, or if it takes me most of the year to reach my goal (~30 pounds). I’ll have fewer terrestrial things to say to people as a result of resuming my focus on my writing, but that’s just fine. I was never any good at inhabiting that realm.

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