Surprise (Advent for the Skeptical and Weary, Part 5)
I started this series because I started this season feeling skeptical and weary. If you want to catch up, I’ve written about my petulant Christmas card process, seasonal depression, the difficulty of hope, and being burnt out on giving and serving. Also: whiskey, crappy chocolate, and our troubling President-elect. Yes, it’s been merry indeed.
What I haven’t gotten to yet is surprise.
I ended my last post with a conundrum…
I am a maybe-unconventional, often-skeptical, later-in-life-convert, but all the same—at this point, I’m probably an incurable Christian. I really believe what Jesus said about choosing a life of love/service/humility over wealth/power/status. I really believe that we find joy and freedom in putting our petty egos and self-centered agendas aside to love others.
Earlier this year, however, I came to a point when I had to admit something to myself: I was trying to find joy putting others first, and instead I felt like I was suffocating. I had made a lot of choices—for the sake of love—that, taken in sum, felt like they were killing off some vital part of me. I intend these sentences with zero martyrdom. My life choices were my own, and made consciously and with agency.
After a lot of thinking, I made some new choices and I changed my life.
I left my service-oriented job. I told some people I loved that I couldn’t give them what they were asking for. It was true: I actually couldn’t. I stopped contributing to our household financially, at least for a while, and I began treating writing as my job, which is what I’d always wanted to do. I started leaving the kids with my husband once a week so I could travel two hours to the wonderful Catapult to hang out with other writers. One weekend, I left my family for four days to fly across the country for a writing conference.
It felt very selfish, and also, I felt like I was alive again.
And so what, really? In some ways, that’s the story of feminism; that’s the now-clichéd story of Eat Pray Love (which I did devour in 2007, it’s true), that’s the story of a hundred thousand people on the other side of therapy. And the truth is, it wasn’t as selfish as it felt like it was: My happiness wasn’t coming at anyone’s serious expense. No marriages were ending. No kids were being abandoned. I’m still on great terms with the organization I left, and I teach there sometimes.
Still: It left me questioning whether a life of service really leads to joy.
Asking, also—because my kids are still pretty young, and I’m still pretty tired—what to do in Advent, a season of giving, when I have nothing left to give.
So here’s the thing I haven’t given any credence in this series:
Amidst all my troubled questions this month, there have also been surprises.
Part of me hesitates to share them. If this were a literary work, like a personal essay or a short story, what I’m about to share might be what you’d call an “ending I haven’t earned.” Meaning: an ending that comes out of nowhere, conclusions reached too quickly, which can seem contrived. But it didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, and anyway, it’s not a literary work, it’s a blog entry and a record of my life the past few weeks, so I’m just going to write it.
As I said in a previous post, I find it useful just to say my questions and frustrations out loud sometimes. Not even to “love the questions,” as Rilke said. Just voice them, which creates a space.
Asking these skeptical questions this month has created a space for things to float up that I knew and forgot.
What came was surprising to me.
More than a decade ago, I read a book by Madeleine L’Engle called Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. It changed the way I thought about many things—among them, this:
“If the work comes to the artist and says, ‘Here I am, serve me,’ then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, ‘Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake’.”
Again and again in my adult life, I’ve been afraid to believe that making art “counts” as service.
This fear is beyond weird. For so many of us, books saved us. In childhood years, or adolescent years, or any other desperate, isolated, trapped years for the rest of our lives, books saved us because someone offered us an idea that changed the way we thought, or we just realized we weren’t the only weirdo with our particular brand of weird. I even lectured about this once—how sometimes the best answer to suffering is beauty.
Yet people starve and wars burn and children die in Aleppo, and (more appropriate to the job I left) recovering addicts in the suburbs look for spiritual homes where no one will judge them. Books seem like “mere trickles” next to burning children and overdosing mothers, but whenever I’ve tried to serve at nonprofit organizations—the obvious settings for service—I eventually dread going to work every day. It feels like something in me is being smothered.
Making essays and stories and books can be painful and scary in a different way, but I never feel like I am smothering; I feel more alive, not less. I have seen that this thing I do alone in my room also brings pleasure to other people sometimes. Once in a while, total strangers read things I write and then write to me to tell me they were moved; that they feel more alive, not less.
Maybe my problem is not, after all, with the idea of a life of service. Maybe the difficulty is accepting the way I am suited to serve.
* * *
On the question of what to do when a “season of giving” finds you in need of receiving.
Obviously—and anyone in a helping profession must learn this truth eventually—any life of service must involve intentional self-care. Must. (For Christians, Jesus himself modeled this when he frequently left everybody to be alone in olive groves or mountainsides.)
It’s not like I haven’t tried self-care. Especially because I’m prone to wintertime depression, I know I need to do certain things: exercise, and sit in front of that light box, and eat well, and get some time alone without kids needing things from me, and various other things.
All that helps, but truthfully, sometimes it isn’t possible to get enough energy-replenishing things to equal the energy going out. It just isn’t. Especially with young children. No matter how helpful your spouse is.
Therefore, I’ve been praying like a child this Advent. I stand in the shower, which is one of the only places I can be alone, and I silently, grumpily bark at God: “I don’t have any more energy for taking care of people. I am spent. I’m trying to take care of myself the best I can. It is never enough. Something is missing. I NEED YOU TO DO THE REST. It’s Christmas and I’m planning all these surprises for other people. I NEED SURPRISE.”
If, to my nonreligious friends, this sounds childish—yes, it definitely is. On the other hand, maybe it beats the alternative many of us choose, which is trying to maneuver the people around us into making us happy.
I asked myself—just as a form of play, in my tiredness—if I actually did have a Christmas list, what would be on it? The things we want as adults are so much more complicated than art boxes and remote control robots.
What I wanted was to be with my tribe. To spend time for pure pleasure with my faraway writer friends, the people I met and loved in grad school. As I mentioned in a previous post, my husband and I have settled in the place we grew up, in the suburban heart of Long Island; this is a lonely place to be a writer of literary-type things. I missed my people. In a heartaching kind of way.
[These people in this photograph are some of the many souls I miss. I stole the picture above from the blog of my friend Matthew Landrum, who is the guitar player in the red shirt, both a gifted poet and musician. That mountain of black clothing holding a fiddle is me, eight months pregnant.]
I wrote in my first post about feeling sucked dry. I knew in my bones that seeing my people was something that would fill me up again; I wanted this for nothing more than my own pleasure. However, it was not something that was within my power, at this moment, to orchestrate. And I did have people to take care of, and didn’t have the luxury of dwelling on this. So I left it there. Where I will continue to leave it until my next post: the final installment of Advent for the Skeptical and Weary.