There’s no question you need to acknowledge or understand that human experience is fundamentally emotional and pre-conscious. If you can’t wrap your arms around that or you need to actively deny that, then you are going to continue treading water forever (or at least until you die).
Not understanding the primal in us and the pre-linguistic is to create a desert of the soul that you will endlessly try to fill and populate with other stuff/things from the outside, what is beyond you. That’s the gaping need you encounter sometimes. It’s based on denial and a blocking out of what is so simple and basic about life: you are the creator of your own life, that’s what it means to be truly free, and the connection of your own deep creativity with understanding the world and seeing the power of morality and caring for life as it is allows the creation of a good life. And love is mixed in all over the place.
I have spent much of my life being afraid that I would lose those I allow myself to unconditionally love. You can fear something so much that you actually create it in your life when you least need to have that fear become manifest.
I was adopted as a baby but spent my first few months with my birth mother. She was eighteen at the time. They couldn’t take me away from her without her signing me out to another family. It took close to nine months. I know now that she was on the run some in those early days. Her older sister and brother helped move her around the south and midwest. Finally, she found a place of safety, an innovative home for young mothers grappling with the problem of giving their children up for adoption. A place, too, however, where the object in the end was to come to terms with the problem of raising a child when you’re unestablished in the world and still haven’t become strong and who you need to be.
She managed to figure things out, but mostly with the aid of disinformation from people back home who told the people she was with that the adopting family wanted to stay in touch and allow contact. Etcetera, etcetera. We are creators of our own reality and our own fate, but when people lie to us and when they distort truth to serve their own ends it is a form of rape. She figured things out, regardless. It was better to sign me out to another couple who were older and a bit more established in life.
I don’t carry a conscious grudge against the people who lied to my birth mother, nor do I blame her for finally letting me go. I was adopted by amazing people. I had an incredible childhood. I was loved deeply growing up and my youth was remarkable. I was never a star at anything but I was almost good at a lot of stuff. I loved football, family camping trips, Elvis, fried chicken, Jonny Quest, my two best friends, my dog Oleo, and making peanut butter cookies with my mom.
Still, I’ve never been able to shake the sense that those I allow myself to love will eventually betray and abandon me. Perhaps you can understand how that began for me, but it didn’t stop with being given up by my loving birth mother. My adopting mother was a brilliant intellectual (sorry to sound snooty but it was true). She was a professor of psychology and a revered academic. My father was similar, a professor of math as well as philosophy, specializing in logic and the history of science. I was about five when my mother was hospitalized and treated for what would become lifelong mental illness.
In those days things were still pretty darned draconian and experimental (are they any different now?). They used massive quantities of anti-depressants on her and electro-shock therapy. Friends of my mother have told me she was never the same after that first month-long stay at The Middle Center Institute. She would fumble through the rest of her life chain smoking, drinking too much (although never a drunk), watching far too much TV, and becoming emotionally unstable, hard to deal with, and angry, any time she got too stressed out, which was often.
So I lost her as well, five years after that first loss of my birth mother. Ten years later, my father would divorce my mother. Who can blame him? He moved to the other side of town. Their divorce was hostile and acrimonious. By the time I was sixteen I hardly saw him at all. He remarried. She was to us a classic, nasty, self-oriented stepmother, fifteen years his junior, fifteen years my senior.
My brother, sister and I would take care of our mother for the rest of her life in one way or another. But she wasn’t the woman who had adopted me and made me feel that things were going to be all right after all. My siblings, both younger, never knew that woman who nearly saved me from my self.
Our father was gone as well and never really came back. He had become someone far different and distant than when we were little.
It’s not a story that is mine alone, is it? Those emotions, which so many (most?) of us bury and cover up in order to go on with our lives, or at least try to, are at play on and off in our subconscious and emotional selves every step we take in the world. Other forms of pain are there too, of course — scars and open wounds, gateways to our own mental health, and the cause of so many psychological hurdles and everyone’s eventual battle with sanity itself.
My fear of abandonment and betrayal may well be at the core of my personality. I don’t know, because all of that is generally sublimated and walled off most of the time. It has to be: so that I can function in the world; so that I can be a good husband; so that I can be the best parent possible, all things considered.
I’ve been truly in love twice in my life. Once when I was a teenager. That love was surprisingly profound and as sweet and enriching as anything I have ever felt in my conscious existence. She loved me too, on and off. We had that proverbial “connection.” There was passion. There was joy just being together anywhere. And there was an awareness of how strong our emotional ties were becoming.
Like all things nascent and teenaged, we had no idea, really, what we were dealing with. The deeper my emotions went the more fearful I became of betrayal and abandonment. I tried to hide that, but hiding emotions to me, all my life, is a form of cowardice and lying.
Eventually, she betrayed and abandoned me: at the end of 8th grade; again, in the winter of 10th grade; and, finally, halfway through our freshman year of college after we’d reconnected during Christmas Break. I was going to school on one side of the country and she was on the other. I can say that she broke up with me that last time by not taking my calls to her dorm every Sunday afternoon for six weeks then finally having her roommate tell me that she had moved in with her “boyfriend” and I should call that dorm instead. The only good there is from all the pain I put myself through is that she married that boyfriend three years later and they had eight kids together over the next decade and a half. I’ll leave it to you to contemplate the permutations of the “good” there.
After that long period of time, my youth, where the world appeared as a force in every mirror I encountered, and I sensed I might be lost in a limbo that I would never really understand, I spent a good decade (my twenties) on a rollercoaster where I managed to make a lot of rational decisions that were both good and bad for me. The whole time that was happening I understood that somehow I had one piece of knowledge in my pocket that would get me through everything: I knew that I was stuck being the sole creator of my own reality. I’d gone through lots of despair already in my short life. Besides losing at love so many times, I’d lost friends to suicide and drug addiction. And I knew so many people who were unhappy and couldn’t figure out what to do with their lives.
I knew as well that being creative and facing life straight up was the only truth I could see in front of me. Understanding there are no external answers that can “save us” or “make life meaningful” was the key to everything. Each of us creates his or her own meaning. Each of us creates his or her own life. It’s that simple. Nothing’s easy. In fact, I don’t care if you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth or you are the product of a teenage pregnancy and you’re growing up on some bombed out, dead-end street where every day life feels more and more and more dire. Things are stacked against all of us. You may not see that. You may think that other people have it so much better than you. You may compare yourself to that kid on that dead-end street and think, “Thank God. There but for the grace…” But you’re wrong. Everyone of us is screwed as long as we think our lives are dependent on others, and that being in the world is scary, or that we can’t succeed at anything without the help of others or a so-called “lucky break.”
Yup. We’re all screwed from the moment we’re born and we will remain screwed until we learn that it’s always been about being creative and making your life what you want it to be. I don’t mean to insinuate it’s easy once you realize this. In fact, it’s often harder to create the life you truly want than to let life dictate the terms of your existence. But there is nothing more satisfying than to spend your days being creative, being truly free in a world that is both insanely beautiful and undeniable stupid and cruel.
I think often of the weird idea that everything is determined for us and that free will is an illusion. I think too about those who believe there is no such thing as real altruism, that no one does something for others without expecting something in return (an insidious form of determinism). I ponder as well the whole idea of “The Secret” and the “law of attraction” — ask, believe, receive. If only life were so simple. If only human beings were so connected to Nature (I refuse to put “outside” forces into any other terms here). And I truly don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings here, but the idea of religions everywhere that belittles human beings and posits some omnipotent supernatural, magical man-like spirit-ghost is antithetical to what I’m talking about here.
Each of us is singularly creative and a force unto ourselves. There are hundreds of creative talents. Being creative is not just about the arts. Creative talent realized spawns growth and more creative talent. I began my creative life loving books and ideas then moved to writing poetry, journaling, telling stories, trying to write a novel, and playing music. One of my two best friends growing up became a great adventuring field scientist and photographer. My other best friend was a star high school athlete, then a salesman and an entrepreneur and a husband to a woman who couldn’t have children. He raises dogs these days and had three separate knee surgeries that have all been unsuccessful. He’s as happy as my scientist buddy. His creativity goes into loving his wife and his dogs. It’s generally always true that creativity and love go together.
My junior high music teacher had multiple sclerosis. She would die an early death, but once said to me, “Don’t just follow your heart, make your heart follow who you are.”
Creating your own life is not some dramatic, fancy, guaranteed transcendent act. None of us will ever fly. Only a few of us get to have sex with Pamela Anderson. I had a conversation with a guy on a bus a few weeks ago who said he didn’t want to make love to Beyoncé, he just wished he could take a nap with her. A woman behind us piped up and said she’d could die and go to heaven is she could make love to Beyoncé then take a nap with her.
Me, I just wish I could have had a short time in my youth where I could slam dunk a basketball. I was 5’11” at my tallest and could get my whole hand above a ten-foot rim. But jumping with a basketball is a lot harder. Still, I could out-jump guys who were 6’8″. My sons, years beyond a point where I might have figured it all out, suggest that had I wanted to be able to slam dunk I would have needed to train really hard, and that most basketball players who make it all look so easy have been training their whole lives. I am glad my sons are so wise. They are better than me at being alive and happier too in their twenties than I ever was.
But this essay isn’t just about being creative and understanding that you are in charge of your own place on earth and that free will and freedom itself are possible only when you understand those things. There is also the question of “the good life.” It’s not enough to be creative and to understand that you alone build your reality. The most creative people I know of are teachers, especially teachers of kids under the age of twelve. Bad teachers are more creative than they realize. Doctors, nurses, accountants, human resource professionals, coaches, etc. are often extremely creative in their day-to-day jobs. But are they happy? Is their life good?
Making decisions, doing a better job today than you did yesterday, solving problems–hell, just identifying problems–everything becomes part of your creative process when you begin to think creatively. But “the good” is something completely different. And “the good life” is something even more different. Here and now, nearing 2020, I can say that I understand what the good is and I know I am living a good life. I understand how so much of my life and my mind have toiled below the surface of things and that I only overcame all my fears about love and intimacy once I fully understood that all those negative emotions were being created by me and me alone. I wasn’t afraid of losing someone I loved, I was afraid of how that would make me feel about my self.
I live a good life now, finally, because my wife and I take care of each other every day and we travel together and have strange conversations over great meals every night. We spend lots of time working alone, but we also spend plenty of time talking about our grown children and figuring out how we’re going to spend the small amount of money we have on our house and our life in general. We take walks together most days. We have friends. Our sons still like us (it would seem, anyway) and visit when they can. We have a cat and a dog who probably enjoy our company as much as we enjoy their’s. And we help out our neighbors when we can with whatever is needed — from loaning them tools to taking care of their pets and their mail when they travel to shoveling their walks in the winter. And they help us out as well.
All of that makes for a pretty good life. It’s great, in fact. But there’s another aspect of things I realize these days that’s much more important. I don’t hate people. I don’t feel superior to people. I don’t compare myself to anyone (except maybe Jack Kerouac or Ernest Hemingway…and I know I’m not an alcoholic and loco about life because I never figured things out). Judgement of others comes out of that deep subconscious mind we all have. That’s the wounds and scars and memories of being made to feel bad about ourselves, worthless, inferior, and trivial.
It’s funny: I think pretty much everyone has to deal with those feelings in one way or another as they grow up. Maybe our lives are really all about overcoming those feelings of insignificance and unworthiness. Certainly, the realization that you create those feelings for yourself is a fundamental reality that should get you over the hump. However, I write all of this knowing it took me decades to figure myself out.
I’m making a pesto pizza tonight and a mushroom pepperoni one as well. We’ll watch a baseball game on TV and futz around online, maybe email a couple people, chat about the weekend. That’s all that matters to me as I finish this essay up. We get to have another dinner in the air and then will probably go to bed early.
Sleep is never easy for any adult. I used to have a drink before bed. Then it was two. Then maybe three. At one point I realized I was just drinking from six on when I started making dinner. Now I don’t drink. Sleep is sometimes good. Sometimes not so…But even insomnia isn’t a big deal for me anymore. It’s a time to calmly think about the future and to think through my goals and aspirations. Sometimes I think about all the stupid stuff I’ve done in my past or I create a list of the ten decisions I made that were wrong but got me here anyway, which is where I want to be without a doubt. All that fucked up shit in your past equals being here now.
I meditate occasionally. I read and re-read the book “Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior,” and sometimes I get a huge amount out it, other times I feel like it goes over the edge and only approximates what really counts for truth and wisdom. I’m sure the author Chögyam Trungpa wouldn’t have it any other way.
I don’t write any of this to offer you wisdom to take like a pill or an antidote. I’m just sharing my understanding of things. You have to figure out your own path. I just know that as long as you look outside of yourself for answers you’re not going to get where you want to go. Even if you’re religious this is true. If there were a god of any kind worth anything at all you would find that god as a part of you in all the forms that anyone with half a brain and an inkling of creative energy can conjure up. Looking to a supposed higher power, though, seems to me a bit dangerous. I always hear Oprah talk about how the important thing is to realize there’s something bigger than just you out there. Yeah, well, duh. It’s called everything else. But everything else is not you. Who are you, Oprah? Did you get all that money and influence and fame from believing in something bigger than yourself? Or did you get it all because of your wonderful, creative, joyful spirit and your ability to reach out and touch others with your love and intimacy and empathy?
Somewhere in all of this are the ideas of personal responsibility, knowledge, accountability to everything outside the self, reason, diligence, learning, hard work, empathy, passion, and epicurean pleasure of all sorts. There is as well the darkness that lies in each of us and the ability to doubt both ourselves and others — and life itself. There is wishing too (besides dunking a basketball, I wish I had the talent to play piano or improvisational lead guitar) and fear and hope and envy. But we’ll leave all of that for another day. It’s raining right now, and the wind is blowing hard, but the pear tree out my window bloomed overnight and the trees across the road are all green with new life. After rain like this tomorrow morning everything will be feisty and moving to bloom. This world I live in will be horny and looking to create. Which brings me back to love.
Love is the most creative thing you can do with your mind and your nervous system. Don’t just love your spouse and your children, love life, love this moment, love the next five minutes, love the next person you see, love your boss, and love that politician you think you despise. Understand what you’re doing every time you look at something and register it in your mind. Understand how deep you go and ask yourself how far inside you’ve gone and whether you can go any deeper. Shut up for a while. Turn your screens off. Make a pizza from scratch. Go masturbate without porn. Have that second piece of chocolate or that third scoop of ice cream. Read a poem out loud in a room by yourself in front of a mirror. Try to meditate while you walk to the store. Start taking pictures of something weird with your cellphone. Don’t make it clouds or trees or beautiful people or food or pets. Make it mundane and usual. I like photos of my right foot on escalators. My youngest son, who taught me the importance of this exercise, likes to do five second videos of running water…in sinks, bathtubs, showers, from hoses, spigots, and fountains. My right foot is one thing. His running water is quite another.