First of all,
A big thanks to my friend, erstwhile teammate and brother-in-arts Adam Kerpelman for helping me step up my game (and shorten that url). Snazzy, no?
Thursday (12/12) will mark one year that At The Wellhead’s been pumping out that sweet, sweet mind-chiba, and it’s been so good to me that I’m happy to give back to it a little bit with this facelift. There may be a kink or two yet to work out (let me know if you find any), but I just couldn’t wait to show it off.
I’ll make the obligatory first-anniversary stuff as short as possible, but there are a few of you who’ve been around since the beginning, and I want to thank you for your interest, your thoughtful responses, and your support. I had no idea whether anyone would be interested in anything I had to say, but in the last year I’ve developed friendships/pen-palships/bloggerships with people from across the globe, which is rewarding in the extreme.
Conceptually, At The Wellhead was simply an attempt to “establish a social media presence,” because that’s what the world tells aspiring writers they need to do, and I thought no problem, I’ll spend a couple hours and churn out a few lighthearted, witty Prichardisms a week and have a place to point people when I need to reassure them that yes, in fact, I can put one word in front of another in the right order just as often as you need me to.
Then, two days after the first post went up, Sandy Hook happened. “Lighthearted” really didn’t seem fitting, and I haven’t seemed to find a way back since. Hence only 30 posts in the past 52 weeks, instead of 100 or 150 or 200 or more, like many of the bloggers I follow. That’s partly a reflection on the subject matter, sure, but it also has to do with the fact that I’m just a really slow writer – something I’m finally, slowly, beginning to accept.
Some of the time (the month!) since my last post has been taken up with work on this new and improved ATW*, but some of it has been taken up with other work that’s a direct result of the original ATW’s existence. Two people in the last month contacted me about doing some work for them after seeing the blog, and I’ve gotten to a place of confidence with it that I’ve started sending queries to magazines and using certain ATW posts as examples. (And I thought blog writing took a long time per word – writing pitches is brutal.)
I’m also putting a lot of time into the novel again. I’m tired of it dragging on, and am flying to keep up with my newest self-imposed deadline. I’m continually revising stories, and continually filing the rejections.
And of course I have that actual job, job-type job that does pay me money. Which is also going well and generating story ideas that I hope will go places, at some point.
On top of all that, there’s the wedding and honeymoon planning,† and the trying to stay healthy, and the movies, and the thises and the thats and all the other things that make up a life.
So. What does all that have to do with the title of this post?
Mostly that my life is pretty darn good, and that I’m thankful to be doing what I want to be doing with it.
Key word there being doing.
There was a pretty long period of time not too long ago when things were decidedly not going my way. I was waiting around for the tide to turn, waiting for a break, waiting for a connection to come through, to “be discovered,” to trip over a bag of money.
Key word being waiting.
Up to age 22, I led a fairly structured life. I was swimming ten workouts a week by age 14, school was important to me, and I was reading and learning how to write and banging around on the guitar in what little spare time was left. I was a self-professed exemplar of the idea that the more you have to do, the more you get done.
And then, I wasn’t. I finished swimming, and then finished school, and figured I’d take a little break and see what happened.
And by “see what happened,” I meant, “wait for the doors of My Inevitably Incredible Future to open of their own accord.”
I, too, am tired of the incessant banter about the supposed entitlement and narcissism and laziness of The Millennials, but mostly because in my case it’s a terribly accurate description of my life for five-six years and I love being reminded of it about as much as I love showering on Sundays. It got to the point back then that I was watching The Departed several times a week – in the wee hours, unable to sleep, unable to write – because I was unable to bring myself to decide on replacements for the DVDs in the 5-disc tray. (The other four discs were season two of The Wire. Yes, that’s 80% of season two – I watched those episodes a dozen times at least before seeing the season finale.) In six years I’d transformed from an NCAA contender to an insolent layabout perma-cursing this unfair world because I was going nowhere while all my classmates and friends were moving on and up and getting what I’d thought my whole life I deserved just for being the fantastic mister me that I was.
Some stereotypes exist for a reason, and I was one of them.
Anyway, I made it out of that whole thing alive, but still I was thinking that basically, I had a few more decades of life’s-a-bitch-and-then-you-die, and I wasn’t looking forward to it all that much.
I did, however, take a couple pieces of advice, and started doing things. Little things at first, but before I knew it I had full days and nights and weekends, and even though nothing that amazing was happening at first, I felt like I was getting traction again for the first time in years.
When I sat down to start writing again, in mid 2011, the first order of business was convincing myself, really internalizing at a basic-understanding-of-the-world type of level, that nothing happens overnight and nothing’s for free.
The year before, when I returned to meditating, my first thought was to get a zafu, one of those round buckwheat-filled meditation pillows. Since I was serious this time around about meditating, my first thought was the obvious, modern-American, Amazon-one-click thought: I needed all the meditating gear I could get my hands on pronto, STAT – the timers and cushions and stands and incense holders and three-dozen or so new books – before I could really begin.
My second thought, somehow, was instead to set a goal: if I meditated every day for a year, I told myself, I could get a zafu. I started with three minutes a day and went up a minute a week, until I was at 20, which is where I’ve stayed since. After 370 days (I went cumulative instead of consecutive after a tumultuous couple of days of travel and hotel rooms), I ordered the zafu, and while I have to say it was a nice change from the folded-over feather pillow I’d been using for a year, I wasn’t exactly The Old Man with his lamp in A Christmas Story over it. Because I’d gotten used to the fact, for the first time in my life, that you don’t need a bunch of crap to do a simple task.
The thing grew on me, though, and today it’s one of my most prized possessions. Maybe that’s poorly said from someone who’s actively engaged in trying to sever his attachments to things via the teachings of the Buddha, but honestly it’s the first inanimate object I’d grab in case of fire. Well, I might grab The Drawings of Bruno Schulz first. Or the early edition Faulkner that Erin got me years ago. Or my limited edition Cien años de soledad. Tough choice now that I think about it. Depends on where they all were in the room…
Anyway, point is that the zafu approach became my model for pretty much everything else I’m doing these days. And what I learned in that year of zafu-less sitting was that, to use a hackneyed phrase, “the work is its own reward.”‡
The thing about hackneyed phrases, as I’ve said before, is that they’re easy to roll your eyes at until you try to actually live up to them. I certainly don’t stay in that mindset all the time. I get frustrated and feel like I’m stuck in quicksand and that I’m never going to amount to anything quite often, but at least now I know there’s an antidote to it, and that the antidote is not anything I need to get or to start doing or to do differently. The antidote is simply to keep sitting, keep writing, keep running, keep whatevering, just as long as it’s keeping doing and not falling into wishing or hoping or waiting, and just as long as you do it as if there were no “anything” to amount to, no result to accomplish outside of doing that one thing well.
Most importantly, the antidote is to remember that
Which lets me do a better job in the first place, which is better in the long run.
Constantly reminding myself of these things is why I’ve been able to do so much in the last two years, why my writing’s come as far as it has and why, instead of just thinking it might be fun to be a writer, I’m finding the joy and reward in being a person who happens to write a lot about a lot of different things.
Sitting in meditation is the best way I know how to do this, which is why, to circle back once again to this post’s title, it’s at the top of the list of things I’m inexpressibly grateful for.
Which, since we’ll finally be discussing it, I should start by saying is a pretty short list.
First, I don’t use either of those words – “grateful” or “inexpressibly” – lightly.
“Inexpressible” is one of those funny words whose use subverts its meaning, like “indescribable” or “ineffable.” We have this contract in English that when you say, “The sunset last night was indescribably beautiful,” I acknowledge that you’ve described its beauty quite well. Everyone has a pretty good idea how an “ineffable sadness” feels, even though “ineffable” means not-effable – that is, not-utterable, not-expressible.
Above and beyond The Zafu Approach and The Antidote, there are many more life-dimensions in which meditation has inspired a revolution of thought and attitude. But for the most part, the nature of those gains and changes are for me beyond language. Many many many people much smarter and much farther down The Path than I have tried to describe such things, have spent their entire lives trying to, and while some of them do a moving job detailing certain aspects of their experience or what their practice has led them to do or realize, the final answer is pretty much always, “You have to do it for yourself to know what we mean.”
As for “grateful” and its hemophiliac cousin “gratitude,” they get bandied around all the time, especially in certain circles, especially this time of year. Superfluity being the norm in our culture, being simply “glad” that someone came to your party or that you’re in good health or that you have a job is almost taken as an insult.
But check out the origin:
glad (adj.) -Old English glæd “bright, shining, joyous,” from Proto-Germanic *glada- (cf. Old Norse glaðr “smooth, bright, glad,” Danish glad “glad, joyful,” Old Saxon gladmod “glad,” Old Frisian gled “smooth,” Dutch glad”slippery,” German glatt “smooth”), from PIE *ghel- “to shine” (see glass).
Glad ain’t so bad, right?
And “grateful,” it seems to me, should be reserved for things a bit more serious than the parking spot close to the mall entrance.
grateful (adj.) – 1550s, “pleasing to the mind,” also “full of gratitude,” from obsolete adj. grate “agreeable, thankful,” from Latin gratus “pleasing” (see grace). “A most unusual formation” [Weekley]. Hard to think of another case where English uses -ful to make an adjective from an adjective.
If you follow “grace” back just a single step you get to where the superfluity comes in – via God, the superfluitiest of all. Gratitude, “a thankfulness,” also from the Latin gratus, is a gift or “favor” from God. So to be grateful – to be in a state of gratitude – is to be aware of the blessings God has bestowed upon you. And that’s just a bit much for me for how often it’s used. In no small part because the smoothness and shininess of glass (I think of running my hand over a big, thick glass bowl in the sunshine) is an effective way to describe how I feel about the things that I consider boons to my existence.
Those boons include a good number of great people, and many of the experiences and opportunities I’ve had, and I’m thankful for them, and glad about them. But grateful? I don’t know. I have an amazing fiancée, wonderful parents, an awesome sister, and some really remarkable people I call friends, and there’s the ocean and there’s literature, and the way that communing with those people and water and books makes me feel is significantly different than how I feel about the admittedly abundant number of things that fall into the “boon” category.
I could live and love life without the former, so long as I had the latter. But there’s no number of boons that could make up for the absence of the love and connection and increase the latter provide. They are the only conduit I know to accessing what I understand to be the divine, and it’s for that reason that I reserve for them the expression and demonstration of the concepts/words “grateful” and “gratitude.”
I know the world can often seem shitty. In many, many ways it is. Which is precisely why it’s so important to take the time, even if it’s only once a year (and even if it’s a couple weeks late, at that…), to reflect on what it is that gratitude means to us, what it does for us, for whom we feel it, and, most importantly, how you can demonstrate it. Because ultimately, the only way to feel more gratitude is to show more.
So be good to the best people and things in your life, the ones that make you feel like you’re not alone, like the world’s not entirely shitty. Because not only is gratitude best expressed in actions and behavior – not only is it something you do – it’s also a choice. Which is another misleading thing about its definition as a “gift from God.” It’s not a miracle. It’s not an inspiration that comes from nowhere and disappears again back into some ephemeral, inaccessible Divinityland if you don’t use it in a certain amount of time. If it is a gift, it’s one that’s always there, always in reach and always an alternative to sadness, to fantasy, to taking who- or whatever for granted. So choose it, and use it, and get more of it in return.
Anyway, thanks for reading. I’m glad you stopped by.
*Most of which, on my part, was finding new, big, rad pictures for all the headers. Do you know how much fun that is? Forget Breaking Bad or whatever your binge du jour is – flickr and google images are the wormholes to end all wormholes.
†I mean, let’s not kid ourselves – Erin’s doing the lion’s share of it, or lioness’s, whatever – but there are things to do. And it occupies mind space. But for all you who are wondering – it’s going to be grand.
‡In retrospect, this is the lesson that I’ve learned from swimming all those miles for all those years, but at the time, it wasn’t feelings of self-worth and the intrinsic value of joy-through-exertion that I was after – it was making NCAAs and keeping my scholarship. But perhaps that’s how we learn, especially American Millenials – with a carrot. Or “carat,” probably – something shiny and $-valuable, rather than healthy and good-for-you-valuable. And then in retrospect, if we’re lucky, we can say, “ooohhhh, I see!” Maybe that’s just growing up, everywhere, period. It’s certainly a separate post.
Header image: USC Libraries