The Feel Better Book: what to do when you feel overwhelmed

First, resist the impulse to make a list. Well, okay —maybe you have to make one list, just to get some illusion of control. But not two, or three, or four, ordered by importance, and definitely not a rewrite of any list in an effort to organize it better by using highlighter or red felt pen.

(Obviously, there’s a little projection going on here. But maybe you have similar tendencies? In which case, read on.)

Forget about the lists. Admit you simply have too much to do, because unfortunately, you’re only one human being. Give up trying to change that, to be better, or at least good enough, to keep up with successful people whose lives look organized, doable, under control, admirable.

You’re not one of them, possibly because you care too much about too many things, because you focus on what should be done instead of what can be done, because you think about what people need instead of what you want. So really, it’s not all bad in the big scheme of things; at least you have good motives. Or maybe, like me, you just screwed up your earlier life, so now there’s hell to pay. Still. Either way, let’s just admit it: our kind of list is overwhelming.

So stop thinking about it, for just a few minutes. (God knows, it will still be there later.)

Resist the impulse to crawl in bed unless you really need a nap, in which case, take one. (If you find yourself dreaming about the things on The List, though, realize that’s a sign that you really need to try something different!)

Don’t resist the impulse to cry, because that means you will have to find a Kleenex, which will get you up and moving.

Just get out of the chair and start walking around, doing stuff at random—it doesn’t matter what: walk down the hall, find the Kleenex, eat a carrot, gather up one bag of trash, put a new light bulb in the fixture that’s been out for six months. Wash one dirty dish. It doesn’t matter what you do: just keep moving. Sort one pile of paper into bills and junk mail. If you find a real letter in there, rejoice at the miracle and answer it. Brush your teeth. Go open the door and stare outside for the first time in weeks. Vacuum one room and leave the vacuum there.

Don’t finish anything. Don’t stay too long in one place. Just keep moving.

I’m convinced that this is the only distinguishing characteristic of people who accomplish stuff: They may be overly responsible deep thinkers and worriers too; the difference is that they Just Keep Moving.

Try it. I just did, and not only does my house feel a little less like a landfill, the list got shorter while I wasn’t obsessing about its length. Also, between the bag of trash and the light bulb, I took time to write something on this blog for the first time in months, and thus have made a start on one of the book projects I’ve had on my back burner to-do list for several years: The Feel Better Book. I know there’s an audience for this title.

But I’m resisting the impulse to move it to a front burner list: I’m going to keep moving, taking care of whatever I find in my path, knowing that I’m at least doing something, trusting that in the big picture, the good will prevail even if I’m off duty.

Grace, after all, is a gift—not something we can acquire like an item on a grocery list, nor can we extend it to others by pursuing a chore list, no matter how well thought out or correct that list might be.

Maybe what we really need to do isn’t even on the list. Maybe it’s waiting to be discovered, somewhere down the hall.

Just keep moving, and keep looking. I know it makes me feel better, whenever I remember to do it.





Posted in Perfectionism, Psychology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Right here, right now

Faith is a choice we can make, like recovering addicts, one day at a time. There is no evidence of what’s ahead, only the certainty of what we leave behind: the deficiencies of selfishness, fear’s corrosion of body and soul, the ultimate monotony of evil.

Faith is a decision to live as if God exists—without the coercion of heaven or hell, without proof, without even hope, really.

Faith is rather an act of love, a choice to reach for the good and to wait for it, even when we must do so blindly in this dark, deceptive world—even if there turns out to be no such thing.

When we have said no to all the imposters, with their accusations and their evidence and their rule-bound, shriveled hearts, faith is what remains: a longing for something beyond what we already know, for a world in which entropy is reversed, where life strains toward conscience like plants toward the sun, where meaning can be infused into matter.

In recovery, they say just “do the next right thing.” How does an addict in an evil world even know what that is—and yet we do, don’t we, even if the next right thing is as limited as saying no to the next wrong thing.

Or to the next wrong idea about ourselves, or the next wrong belief that our society or culture or institutions or family—or our internalized versions of them—offer up. The thing about deception is that no matter how sophisticated the presentation may be, it is detectable upon closer examination: it always smells a little off, like it’s made some kind of toxic plastic, no matter how good the paint job on the surface.

It’s all about sniffing out the motive, and deception’s motive is predatory. We can learn to identify predatory people or ideas by paying attention to our instincts—even when the predator lives in our own heads. Ask yourself: Where is this line of thinking taking me? If you realize that you’re being clubbed and dragged into some isolated emotional corner where only fear awaits, you can simply choose not to go. That’s the beauty of the truth: when its light shines on deception, you realize that the power of the adversary’s illusion depends on your buying it.

Unlike real predators, deception can’t close its teeth around you once you realize they are just phantom teeth. It can’t own you if you don’t marry it, if you make a choice to wait for something better, something you can wholeheartedly give yourself to because it never tries to drag you anywhere.

Faith is something we choose by rejecting the predator whenever we recognize where it’s taking us. Even when we are mobbed by fearful thoughts, judgment, and self-blame—even when we can see no way out, and even when there is no way out of some hard fate in reality—we can still choose what we love, what we hold to and hold out for. To be disappointed or betrayed, to lose faith or feel abandoned, is impossible when you make such a choice; love asks nothing back, needs no reward, doesn’t bargain for reciprocity.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that we always feel secure, at peace, calm, wise, enlightened, or even happy. Predators and threats abound, and for the faithful romantics among us, who aren’t asking for a ring and a date in heaven, or even thinking about any kind of life other than what we have here and now, the future can look pretty grim.

But what’s ahead doesn’t matter: faith is choosing not to go back.

What’s continually amazing to me is that every time I make that choice—which is often many times a day—I realize again that I am loved: right here, right now.

It’s the kind of love you breathe in, an intangible drawn into the world through a portal that your love unlocks, the kind of love that resurrects a vision of some home you haven’t yet seen, and shows you how to make it real: right here, right now.

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Faith is like a lover you’re separated from in wartime, someone back home who keeps your picture on the dresser and lights a candle for you every night.

Faith is the partner you long to be reunited with, the reason you went to war, the one who believed in you and promised to wait, even when you left to join this crazy volunteer army, even when your marching orders sent you on what seems sure to be a suicide mission.

You’re somewhere overseas now, separated from faith by an ocean of obligation and threat, and the picture in your bunker is definitely worse for the wear: the edges are curling in the heat and its smiling image is faded by the ongoing assault of elements out of your control: the deoxygenated atmosphere of necessity, the barometric pressure of loss, the relentless advance of the enemy as it ravages the trenches of your mind, lobbing mustard gas and threatening a dirty bomb.

You wonder if you’ll ever see faith again, and how you’re going to explain yourself if you do: you think that even if fate sees fit to bring you home, you’ll be unrecognizable.

You lie staring at the picture, which despite this worldly damage still captures something of the original. You marvel at its innocence, at the purity of its intentions, and feel tears running a clean line down your own camouflaged face—a tiny river of love and connection to everything you hold dear. The enemy’s artillery goes suddenly quiet; even sniper fire seems to be suspended, silenced by the moment’s grace.

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I walk down to the ocean in the late afternoon just as God exhales, and a long-held breath of fog comes to meet me. White and pure, it gathers itself around me like a cataract in some ancient eye, obscuring all traces of intellect. I start to feel disoriented, wobbly, as my feet, kissed by wet sand, are drawn in.

What is it that grounds us, really? How do we even know where we stand?

I look behind me and make out a faint scaffolding built of driftwood that some other pilgrims and sojourners have built, pointing the way back to the ordinary world like the lamp post in Narnia—but it doesn’t comfort me, because what I really long for is somewhere else, somewhere further into this blinding grace of fog, somewhere closer to the sound of waves like a steady heart beating through some surrounding womb, roaring reassurance.

I am not lost here, but I want to be. I want to lie down in the sand, to feel God’s skin against mine without the protection of verticality and the impervious soles of my man-made shoes, but I’m not yet bold enough to act as crazy as I really am.

Instead, I turn back to civilization, trudge through dry sand, crawl into the human exoskeleton of houses and wires and cables barnacled to the coast, and watch the worst Nicholas Cage movie ever made, three times.

Con Air is playing in Japanese on one channel, and then in English, weirdly, on two others. It’s about a vet who goes to prison before his daughter is even born, for accidentally killing some guy in a bar fight. From prison, he writes to his daughter every day and as the movie opens, he’s finally on parole and catching a ride home in a plane full of hardcore convicts.

Suddenly the cable company develops an intermittent power failure and the screen turns to dirty snow, but instead of giving up, I become mesmerized by the pattern: seven seconds of snow, followed by two seconds of movie, repeated through two hours of John Malkovitch, Danny Trejo, Ving Rhames, and Steve Buscemi creating every kind of mayhem possible in and with a Fairchild C-123 Provider, with John Cusack in pursuit on the ground.

The cable signal becomes steady again in time for Nicholas Cage, made up as Hollywood’s idea of Jesus–all cut up in a wife-beater undershirt, with shoulder-length hair–to reunite with the seven-year-old daughter who has never seen him before. “I was going to get a haircut,” he offers, and I forgive Cage his terrible fake Southern accent, forgive the stellar cast for wasting their time on this terrible movie, and forgive myself when my foolish heart jumps at the chance to watch it again, uninterrupted, when it starts to replay at 2 a.m.

My own father never came back from the prison of alcoholism, never sent me a letter of any kind, never beat out the bad guys. My father’s reappearance in my life was announced not by John Cusack, but rather by a phone call from the Ventura County Coroner when I was twenty-three years old.

Now, even four decades later, I am still a fatherless child, waiting for a letter or a sign of any kind. It’s possible that my reaching for God is entirely explained by this psychological set-up, and of course there are many who would see it that way.

But it’s also possible that my particular emotional background simply highlights in me a natural human impulse in us all—to reach for that which is beyond us, to hope for someone who understands us and can help us understand ourselves, to admit the vastness and importance of the unknown, to move forward into a blinding white fog that reaches for us in this strange world, as ridiculous as it is sublime.

Posted in Faith, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 17 Comments

Name It

When your trash-talking inner critic tries to convince you not to write (or for that matter, not to do anything that feels too risky), it can be useful to take notes on its argument. It will basically be trying to convince you to avoid risking judgment, to avoid risking that people will think what you write is . . .

. . .what, exactly? What’s on that critic’s list? Write it down. Name it. Here’s an example from my own archives of self-doubt:

People will think what I have to say is:
new-age drivel,
obvious AND shallow
religious foolishness
too twisted to follow
or to care about,
not engaging,
Proustian, but only in a bad way,
unnecessarily complicated, because it’s
but also wrong:
it’s the kind of obvious that’s just drivel
like something a New York Times critic,
or even an intern in the mail room,
would recognize as trite sentiment
from an elbow-patch would-be-intellectual
part-time community college adjunct,
the poor cousin who comes to the party wearing
an outfit she’s saved up for that is completely
unfashionable, like patent Mary Janes and knee socks
and a handmade dress from a Simplicity pattern
she loved in junior high . . .
Okay, wait, now I’m starting to like this girl.
New York sophistication isn’t everything—
it isn’t even desirable, for God’s sake—
so fuck that!
And if the stuff I want to write about were so obvious,
people wouldn’t still be tangled up by it,
New Yorkers included.
I’m strapping up, with my Mary Janes.

See what I mean? Naming shit can be useful in helping you recognize shit.

Try it.

Posted in Creativity, self doubt, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Student Body

Community College Essay #1: Narratives

One was sleeping alone under a streetlight
by fourth grade. One slept under the porch
with the dogs to keep warm in winter.
One tried to sleep curled in a ball with her brother
in a pile of empty Pepsi bottles on the floor of the car,
hearing coyotes howl in the dark, waiting for their parents
to open the dealer’s door and come back to them.

One was randomly shot at nine years old,
walking home from the school bus. When he
realized no one was going to pull over
to help him, he got up and kept on walking.

One did the reading assignments holding her book
in the oven for light because her boyfriend wouldn’t
allow the overhead or lamp for anything as stupid
as going back to school. Many were beaten or raped
by uncles or fathers or neighbor boys, one when she
was just ten, bent screaming over a log in the woods,
warned not to tell or her family would die, then called
a whore when her mother found her bloodied underwear.

Most were told to sit down and shut up, or taught
that lesson the hard way, in schools that weren’t
much different from jail, to which they graduated.
A few miraculously found freedom in prison, in some
recovery program or writing class that random luck,
or grace, put in their path. More just found a new level
of pain to endure, or a reason to try opting out.
So very many went to war as the honorable alternative
to being dead-end poor, and ended up just dead—
or alive to things even harder to carry than body armor.

None of them expect help.
None of them ask for it.
None of them feel they deserve
to succeed.

They work so hard it makes my heart seize up.

What on earth do I have to give my students, beyond
teaching academic outcomes that look ridiculously
superficial on the syllabus of real life?

Maybe it’s as simple, and as hard, as listening. Maybe it’s
as unprofessional as refusing to red pen the sacred body
of their work. Maybe it’s as human as shared tears, as powerful
as the surprise of respect, striking their path—and mine—like lightning.

Posted in Education, Identity, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

What is “higher education”?

As we all know by now,  Massive Open Online Courses are slated to transform it, once corporations like Coursera decide how to “monetize” them and figure out how to polish the rough assessment edges on peer review as a way of grading stuff that can’t be done via Scantron without having to pay teachers to (for example) read a paper. So in the brave new world, students will watch recorded lectures of famous professors–say from MIT, a MOOC pioneer–then work their own way through the reading, take tests, and earn credit toward a degree at a discount. Profits should soar because the inconvenience of having to hire faculty, or support bricks-and-mortar campuses, will fade. Lest you think this is some far-off sci-fi future, note that Bill Gates’ foundation is funding the effort, and that it’s being marketed as democratization and accessibility, a savvy frame that makes the opposition look like selfish bullies standing in the way of the poor people who will flock to its open door. But at what cost?

If someone changed your life, if someone believed in you before you believed in yourself, if someone inspired you to learn or to think or to hope, that someone was probably a teacher–and most likely a high school or community college English teacher, working in the trenches of real life, learning the names and faces and dreams of a few hundred students every term, and often keeping in touch with students over the course of a lifetime. This is the kind of higher education that no MOOC will ever deliver, let alone be able to assess.

Out of the blue, I got a message on my machine from my high school English teacher, whose name is, improbably, Ideale. I am sixty-five years old, and even though I’ve been in touch with him only a handful of times since we met at Hamilton High School in 1960, he is one of the most important people in my life–possibly the most important, if I consider the developmental aspects of what he taught me about life and about myself. Our conversations, decades apart, always begin with “I don’t know if you’ll remember me…”; of course I remember him, but the amazing thing is that he remembers me. “You were one of my best students,” he always says–and I soak it up like water in a drought, even though I suspect that every student he talks to makes that A list.

“I found some of your writing, and that drawing you sent me,” he says, “and I wondered how you’re doing. People from all over the world have been coming to visit me,” he adds, with that amazed delight that was always his default response to anything that happened to him. I remember he once told us in World Literature class that the course of his life had been altered when he was our age by falling in love with his wife, Sonia. “I would have become a juvenile delinquent without her,” he tells us, “but instead, I became the man she wanted me to be.” Then, in a moment of inspiration that would be stifled in today’s classrooms, he gazes out the window and tells us, “she had breasts like ripe peaches,” his Italian hands helplessly demonstrating what it felt like to reach for them.

They married at seventeen, I think, and when I asked him the over the phone the other day how Sonia is, he said, “Perfect! She’s always been perfect!” and I can hear his mouth shape into a perfect, glorious smile as he says it. Then he tells me, “Robert flew in–from Princeton! He’s friends with Noam Chomsky,” he adds, laughing. “He liked you, you know.”

“I know,” I say, thinking, my God–how does he remember even his students’ romantic interests, and picturing what my retirement years would look like if I had married Robert in high school. “Tell him I regret that I didn’t reciprocate,” I say, laughing too.

“You should come see me,” Ideale says, and I tell him I’m broke. “I’ll pay for your ticket,” he offers, and I know he means it, even if he says it to everyone. “There’s room for you here.”

“I’ll come if I can,” I say, knowing that I won’t, because I couldn’t bear to see him, because my heart begins to suspect why he’s really called me and is breaking because it’s suddenly clear that he cares enough about me–how does he even remember me!–to let me know that he will be moving on soon.

“How are you?” I say, and he tells me what a wonderful life he’s had, how perfect his two children are, how much he loved his forty years of teaching. He tells me how dismayed he still is by religion, and I smile to myself because this man is the most perfect representative of faith, hope and charity I have ever known. He’s obviously still up on current events because he asks me what the hell “legitimate rape” is, and I can picture him shaking his head. He’s been reading a seven hundred page biography of Mark Twain.

I ask him how old he is, and he says, laughing again, “eighty-six.” I photoshop the mental image I have, adding some Einstein white hair to the forty-year-old I knew who drove a motorcycle to school and parked it under the flag pole in some kind of effort at political balance.

“You should come see me,” he says again, “and don’t wait too long.” This is the part I’ve been afraid to hear, but I try to follow his rational lead as I brace for what I know is coming. He laughs as he adds, “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around–there are a lot of tumors.”

“Are you in treatment?” I ask, and he tells me no, there are too many this time. I tell him I will write to him, that I’ve become a teacher myself, that my life feels like maybe it counts for something at last.

“It’s a wonderful life,” he says, like a benediction. There is only joy in his voice–no trace of fear or regret, and I realize that once again, he is showing me the way forward.

How much longer will teachers like Ideale Gambera be around in your life, or your childrens’, once “higher education” is downsized and redefined to exclude human relationships?

(You can click here if you want to read my letter to Ideale)

Posted in Aging, Education, Faith, Love, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments