The Joy of Writing

There is a Romanian tradition to present children – on their first birthday – with a tray full of things. The saying goes that whichever three things they pick first are the ones which would be guiding them in life, or helping them make a living. Families fill the trays with useful tools, art objects, money, food and jewellery. You’d find a book near a hammer, needle and thread, a little musical instrument maybe, a paintbrush, golden ring, bread, wine… yes, some are tricky.

They told me that when I turned one, I picked a book and a pen. Nobody remembers what was the third object or if indeed I did pick a third. Never mind. The book and pen have shaped my life. It’s true, I like to read and write, I like ideas, I like to teach.

Of the way too many pages I’ve written, lots were filled with sadness and anger, some with funny stuff, much with research which they made me write in a dull academic style. I’ve thrown many of the personal notes away, all that remains with me is the memory of their therapeutic sense. Academia managed to get me so fed up with its nonsensical rules that now I don’t find the will to reshape my dissertation into a book, although academics and profane people alike agree it is quite a good and interesting research. All in due time, I reassure myself lately – which is more than a year ago, when I thought it’s not worth completing this project at all. Let’s say I’m evolving.

Of the books I’ve browsed so far, some novels are certainly worth reading for their beautiful language and ideas; histories have taught me a great deal and helped me make connections between ideas across centuries and subjects; and then there were those which didn’t really tell a story or explained much: journals. Steinhardt’s untranslated Jurnalul Fericirii (which I’d name Counting the Blessings), The Assassin’s Cloak (an anthology of the world’s greatest diarists), and lately, The Journals of Fr Alexander Schmemann.

Penetrated with joy as if joy was a perfume, or a shining light. Simple words about everyday life, about encounters with nature and people and feelings. Good journals inspire not with the craft of sophisticated stories, but with the truth of the mundane, with that essence of life called honesty. When one keeps a journal, there’s no pretenses, no lies, no hidding. A journal forces one out of denial and into the light. A journal is a tool of self-discovery and forgiveness. A journal brings peace to its writer, even if transitory – it also brings joy and communion to the reader lucky enough to peek through the pages ultimately revealed to the eyes of others.

My journal has filled many notebooks, scattered now in the four winds – its pages burned or buried under piles of garbage in the City dumpsters. Some thoughts are here, but for how long? I have a tendency to dispose of stuff, it feels to me like nothing is so important as to remain ‘engraved’. Is it because I don’t think highly enough of myself? Maybe. Does it matter? Truth is, much which I’ve written so far has not been necessarily good or loving or kind. The very fact that I put it on paper though has helped enormously to make me calmer, better and more loving. Lost as they are, those words have managed to bring joy back into my life – and for that, I am grateful to have been given the gift of words to being with. The book and the pen have not been wasted on me, have they?

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Act Now

Procrastination is a sign of depression. The more I come across such instances (examples in my life included), the more convinced I am this is so. When you’re enthusiastic about something and you have the energy to do it, you just go do it – right? From reading a book to cook a good meal to develop a business plan, you can’t wait to get it started. Procrastination is a constant delay of an action which you could start right away – but you don’t, for no clear reason why not. The reason is you don’t feel motivated enough.

Both “motivated” and “enough” describe the state pretty accurately – or rather their opposites: un-motivated and not enough.

For instance, I have a few projects in mind now, some of which are already started, some which I could start develop right away. I don’t work on either. It’s mainly because all presuppose that I trust myself to do it and/or I can see a point which excites me to complete them. Re-write some parts to finish the book manuscript from my PhD thesis. I would do that to get an academic position or to promote a small tourism business I’ve been thinking about. Otherwise, it’s not worth going into the trouble of revising a manuscript. I have come to not like or trust the academia, do getting a job in its midst doesn’t provide the motivation. To start the tourism business, the main problem is I don’t trust myself to make it successful. Thing is I listened too closely to a few (close enough) people who subtly discouraged me: do you think it’s gonna work? What if you don’t have enough customers? How are you gonna battle the big sharks, the other tourist agencies? There have been others who encouraged me too: go for it! That’s a great idea. You’d be so good at this.

Who to trust? But maybe not even that is the right question. In the past, every time I planned to succeed in an endeavour, I had to fight the naysayers. I ended up doing that thing just to prove them I can do it, all along trying to keep true to my desire of doing it. The fight had exhausted me to the point of giving up the sweetness of victory, each and every time – and the result was useless for me. I passed the exams to go to architectural school but I did not practice architecture. I finished the doctorate, but I am not teaching in the academia. I immigrated to Canada but I’ve been unhappy ever since I set foot in Ottawa. I have a beautiful family who I fight with every day although I truly don’t want to.

I am very tired, that’s why I procrastinate. The only little joy I’ve found lately was in making little projects for dear friends – but, dear as they are, they didn’t even make the time to meet and pick up their gifts. That’s very discouraging. It’s like being abandoned by friends of the last resort.

The joy would then be found in doing little things for myself. Finish that summer jacket I’m knitting for me. Make some drawings to put up an exhibition just for fun. Put together a little business plan for those tours even if I don’t make money out of it. Do a better job at promoting the sewing course which I started two weeks ago. Enjoy the moments and to hell with those who don’t see a palpable worthy result. These are worthy for my sanity.

And now I’m gonna go skating. ‘Cause it’s nice outside.

The Ugly Caterpillar

She didn’t know what to believe anymore. Serena hadn’t been serene for a long time, so long in fact she had lost track of when she had been truly peaceful. Somewhere in her childhood – that, she had fond memories of, and they kept surfacing like drops of oil in a sea of too deep sorrow.

The sorrow puzzled her at times, especially when she tried to get to the bottom of it and understand. There seemed to be no understanding, no logic to the blockages in her life. She had trusted so much, she had given so much, she had been so lively and bold and honest… and one after one, people had betrayed her, turned around after getting her help, even stabbed her on the back. Situations weren’t better either. Blockages everywhere. Why?

She prayed for an answer. It was all that was left to pray for. And of course, health and a path to God’s way for her children. She didn’t know how to get rid of the sorrow and the anger and all the negative feelings which were dragging her down to the pit, and which were not allowing her to resurface. Every time she tried, another blow. Every little drop of courage and faith got dried up by invisible forces too overwhelming to fight. And she had been a fighter! Oh, the days…

A few days ago, she had looked in the mirror to realize that despite the smile, her shining beauty was gone. She looked not old, but worn out. Where had the glow vanished? She tried to imagine herself in a successful posture at this moment in life. Well, if life had been different, if people had been different, if she had known… she would have been happy now. Maybe. But then would she trade that everything for happiness? Elusive concept, happiness. Trade the real for an imaginary “what-might-have-been”. No. If anything, her children and their lives she’d never trade.

Change me, God – she had read it in a book once. Trade me for another me. Now. Not in the past, not in the future. Now.

She went to bed with same old tears in her eyes, her constant companions. At times, she had been sick of crying – lately, it seemed to be the normal comforting state. I’m still sick of crying, though – she thought. It would be nice if I could miraculously figure out how not to be so sad. She opened the Bible at a random page. Among other passages, she came across the one when Jesus was telling the apostles that anything will be forgiven to people, except for being and speaking against the Holy Spirit. She put down the book and wondered why that passage. She fell asleep and dreamt, as always, of nasty stuff.

The morning came and she could not remember the moment when it struck her. She had sinned against the Holy Spirit. All her depression, all the sinking without resistance, all the giving up the fight were part of the blasphemy. If one did not take care of the Spirit inside themselves, it was an unforgivable sin. A capital one, lack of faith. The biggest tears of her life engulfed her unworthiness and she fell to the ground hoping that God would somehow rewrite that unrewritable passage. Please forgive me. I have no words to ask for this kind of forgiveness, I only have this dirty soul. I have nearly destroyed Your Spirit in me. With whatever is left of it, impure as it is, I’m begging for pardon. Thy will be done.

She did not feel at all like a caterpillar being transformed into a beautiful butterfly – as a friend had wished her the previous day, trying some encouragement. She opened the email inbox and read a message from a coaching counselor she had written to, and who reminded her the results of a test she had done some years ago. Among your top 5 strengths, you have Command and that makes you instantly unique in my eyes – the counselor wrote. It is very seldom that command is among those top strengths in someone and that means you are truly a natural. Command can be easily misunderstood if overused and you may come across as way too bold and frightening to people who don’t get you.

Serena looked over the laptop. I have been swallowed by a flock of ducks. And I let them sink me. I had stopped fighting, I had accepted their “logic”, I believed when they told me I was too angry to succeed and that I need to do something to fit, preferably calm down.

There is no way to fit. I am no duck. I am a commanding swan, darn it! I let them kill my Spirit. And now I must forgive them all, if I want my Spirit back. The ironic economy of things. God’s, not mine. Right.

There was peace and freedom in that realization. Anger was nowhere in sight. Sadness was gone too. It felt strange. She didn’t know what to believe anymore. She didn’t understand fully but she understood enough. That her life had true meaning, even if still hidden. That she was perfect the way she was, though this was not quite clear either. That she could have repairs and another chance at things. And she could only go up from here.

Mechanics

A man said to me once:

“I’d give anything to know what makes you tick.”

I was playing enchantress, but that wasn’t the reason for which I asked back:

“Why?”

“Because I don’t get you” he replied.

“But wouldn’t that kill the passion, knowing me so intimately.”

“I don’t think so. Your spirit seems to be capable of carrying on the entertainment.” He smiled.

I was left with that smile. He was one of the kindest man I’ve met in my life, a true gentleman. Never laid a finger on me. We had very beautiful conversations together.

Every now and then I come back to his question. In my darkest hours, in the melancholic pursuit of memories, even in the (nowadays rather rare) explorations of future possibilities. What makes me tick? What is there that wouldn’t let go when I feel like I’ve exhausted all ideas, all tries? What is hiding under the deepest layer of my breadth, in that inner chamber I’m not even sure I know where it is, never mind not having visited it, ever? Who am I and why was I born for other than carrying pain which isn’t mine. It would be nice to know. 

I miss having beautiful conversations. There’s so much talk and opinions around. I’m sometimes sucked into the whirl of politics and economics and the “fairness” of things, and I just want to scream 

“YOU’RE SO FAKE!”

so inelegant, so silly, so dumb, so selfish… and I get caught up in the game! It’s unforgivable, this waste of time and energy.

I was born to love. I was born to be with like minded people, courageous and real. I was born for conversations and dance and music and the art of life. And I have allowed others to control my being, my dreams, to tell me what I should say and, more importantly, what I shouldn’t, how I should behave, even how I should feel. Did you know that ‘should’ is not real? Did you know it is the root of all evil and doubt?

I have decided. Love makes me tick. Love for people and things and places. Love for me. Love for God. God is love. God makes me tick. I like that.

A Perfect Day

Back to school today, right? Yes, for some. Not for me any more. 

I used to love school when I was a kid, there was something magical in learning about words and numbers, places and histories (hint: school was a solid institution those days). It also made me feel more likeable: in the culture I grew up in, getting an education was the only way you could stand up for yourself against class equality (no, I have not mis-spelled it). And if you were smart enough, parents would be proud(er) of you – so one was pretty much psychologically bullied into getting a degree of sorts. 

Many years and a few degrees later, I started to teach – I quite enjoyed it. It gave me purpose, it felt like I was contributing my knowledge to the betterment of the young. Alas, the young were less and less interested to learn… anything. Last year, I had four students who cheated on technical drawings (!!!) – basically copied them from one another which qualifies as plagiarism, while nearly a whole class of others failed to attend presentations of out-of-town professional guests who I had personally invited. Guess who was guilty in the end for students’ inability to properly perform? That’s right, me!

I fully realized it about two weeks ago. As I was just starting a trip on my own along the Columbia river gorge in Oregon, I hear my phone ding! An email from the coordinator of the program announcing dryly that there are no teaching assignments for me this fall and no winter course in drawing. It was the easiest thing to get mad – yet I looked straight at the Vista House and I forced myself to marvel at its magnificent location on top of a cliff overlooking the entire valley. The automobile enthusiasts in the 1920s had chosen well this spot for a journey halt.

The morning was simply splendid. I went on the top terrace and I slowly glanced from left to right. The picture below doesn’t even begin to describe the landscape, but what can one ask of a cell phone camera? Frankly, I think it did quite admirably at capturing some of the grandeur.

“Lord, help me to enjoy this day and this trip.” I made a mental promise to myself to let nothing spoil the joy. I let my eyes linger on the colours and my lungs get filled with the fresh air. My head was full of negative thoughts, trying to convince me how inept I had always been at making myself pleasing to the bosses, how terrible a teacher I was, what a failure of a mother I am as my children had chosen to spend their day browsing shops in downtown Portland…

“Stop!” I cried aloud. I closed my eyes tight with anger and then I looked up in the faint hope I might be able to release that. It didn’t exactly work instantly. So I looked up in the air at my imaginary (?) enemy and I said with a smile: “you shall not win today.”

With this determination in mind, I drove further into the woods and I stopped at a few of the waterfalls which make the travelers’ delight on the Historic Route 30. Sad as I kinda was, I didn’t expect the magnitude of beauty which gradually engulfed me with every stop I made.

Latourell Falls looked slim and elegant like a lady all dressed up to celebrate:

I found the Bridal Veil hidden behind tall rocks at the end of a descending trail:

Further down the road, Wahkeena Falls does justice to its Native name as the “most beautiful”:

… By now, my negativity had pretty much melted and had been carried away in the waters. From the base of Wahkeena, I decided to take the Perdition trail up to the Fairy Falls. Little did I know it would take me a good hour of rather strenuous climbing. The first half of the climb was on an asphalt trail – how the heck did they pave that and why, it really makes one wonder.

Then the Perdition lived up to its name as it did not seem to end… Not only that, but in due time I entered a strange domain looking much like Tolkien’s Rivendell.

The trail went up and up. There were only a few daring others following me or descending (and those had encouraging words of “just a few more turns and you’ll see it”). Finally, when I had almost lost hope, the Fairy Falls came into full view. Smaller than I had imagined it. But the closer I drew to it, the more fascinating and mysterious it grew to be. It had a symmetry about it which defied laws of merely physical nature. Indeed, later on that evening when I browsed the photos I had taken, I noticed a round face right in the middle of the falls… spooky!

I drank some water from the river.  People looked at me in a strange way. One said: “I wouldn’t do that.” I thought to myself: “too bad, city girl, you don’t know what clear fresh water you’re missing on – but hey, who am I to teach you anything.” I began my descent. My heart was beating fully alive with the overpouring beauty. There are no words to describe the poetry of the moment. ‘Blessed’ is the closest I can find.

The afternoon was leaving way to the evening when I made it to Multnomah. It is the second highest falls in the U.S. and it is truly magnificent.

As I stood on that bridge separating the two parts of the waterfall, I thanked God for my loneliness that day. I thanked Him for walking with me in the conscientious discovery of pure joy. And I was glad beyond all words and worlds that my own will had not let some stupid small-minded folk spoil the magnitude of the discovery which was to come.

I’ll leave you with this for tonight. Do not forget: if you want to find joy, you will. Sometimes it is a mighty fight against your own judgement – but boy, is it worth it!

As for the beginning of school today… well, it feels to me like time for a change.