Tag Archives: Dani Shapiro

The (Bargain) Price of Freedom

Image by blue2likeyou

On Sunday afternoon, I bought myself 60 minutes of Freedom.

I clicked on a small icon on my desktop – a clock with a shield in front of it. A pop-up window appeared and asked, as if it were the simplest matter in the world:

How many minutes of freedom would you like?

Hmm, I thought to myself.  All three kids were napping – hallelujah! – and my husband was upstairs, watching the Eagles and the Redskins, ready to attend to whichever child woke up first.  And there I was, just me, alone at my cluttered desk in the basement.

How many minutes of freedom would you like?

60, I thought.  60 would be enough to get some writing done before I had to get back upstairs to fold laundry, to wipe runny noses, to start chopping the onions for the soup.  60 was the right number.  Less than I wanted, maybe more than I should have asked for on that rainy afternoon with a house full of sick kids.

How many minutes of freedom would you like?

I entered “60.”  I clicked “OK.”  And just like that: Freedom.

Or a 21st century version, at least.  Freedom, you see, is a computer application that disables your Internet for as long as you ask it to – up to eight hours!  My iPhone upstairs, Freedom running on my computer, my kids asleep, my husband on guard.  Just me and my computer-rendered-typewriter.

And here’s what I did:  I opened up a Word document with an old, ailing essay and polished it up.  I wrote.  I edited.  I added some words.  I took others away.  I tried to shape a story out of a collection of anecdotes.

While I was writing, my monkey mind prattled on as it always does.  And my right little finger twitched toward the Alt key and my left index finger toward the Tab key so that I could escape from my writing into the wilds of the Internet.  To shoot off that email to Stephanie about dinner on Saturday, re-categorize last week’s blog post into “parenting” and “writing” instead of “living,” update my homework assignment on Meagan’s Facebook page, check the YourTango writer’s guidelines to see if this essay would be a fit, look up how to spell contrapposto, look up the definition of ad hoc to make sure I was using it properly.

But Freedom wouldn’t allow it.  Freedom kept my fingers where they were and my eyes on my essay.  And, oh, the liberation – the freedom! – of being able to just write – no chance – no excuse – to stop.

I first learned about Freedom from Dani Shapiro at our writing workshop at Kripalu.  Afterward, my friend Elizabeth pointed me toward an essay Dani had written about it and about the ways the rabbit warren of the Internet threatens to derail her writing.  First an e-mail, then a thought about a chest of drawers in the novel she’s writing, then a form for summer camp.  She writes

Had Jane Kenyon (or Virginia Woolf, for that matter) lived long enough to be told to build a twitter platform, she might have resisted. She might—as many of us do—have found ways to build a fortress around herself, a cathedral of peace and silence. She would have emerged from that cathedral…only in her own time, and at her own bidding. Or so I like to think. Yet, whether rose quartz, blindfold, earmuffs, spiral-bound notebook, or a small cabin off the grid, still, we all need help, sometimes. The noise in our heads is growing louder, and louder still. We all have good days and bad days, don’t we?

I feel like I need that help Dani writes about.  And I’m grateful to know that Freedom can be mine for the bargain price of $10.  I’m still in the midst of my free trial now and am certainly tempted to shell out the money for the full application.

But I’m left wondering: how free am I really if I need to pay an invisible man inside my computer to grant me what my will power can’t?

Do you have will power where the Internet is concerned?  How much would you pay for freedom?

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A Song of Myself

Image by andyarthur

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

I spent this past weekend at a remarkable place, studying with a remarkable teacher, with two remarkable women by my side.  I learned so much about myself, about writing, about the ways my body (or maybe my brain) craves Diet Coke and chocolate after a few meals of tempeh loaf and steamed kale.

As I reintegrate into the rest of my life – coming home, as I did, to find a wonky Internet connection and sick kids – I feel like I’m just beginning to process the lessons of the weekend.  Dani shared so many delicious morsels about memoir and emotion and writing from “the memory of feeling,” but one question in particular is buzzing around at the front of my mind today:

As writers, what do we do with the contradictions in a life, especially when that life is our own?

Dani led us this weekend in an exercise called “I Remember…” based on Joe Brainard’s book of the same name, a collection of his one or two sentence reminiscences of his childhood and coming of age.  As I recorded my own stream of consciousness reflections, I couldn’t help but think about the ways in which that kind of off-the-cuff writing flows without input from the inner critic.  My ideas moved from brain to pen without judgment or analysis.  What I was left with was a collection of moments which, almost accidentally, started to tell a story about my past.  And the story was full of me and full of my many contradictions.

I decided last night to play with the exercise, to change the prompt from “I Remember…” to simply “I…” and to write uncensored for five minutes.  Here’s what I came up with:

I am a mother.  I am a wife.  I am a daughter, a sister, a friend.  I used to be a teacher.

I am a writer.

I am a vegetarian.  I run sometimes.  I do yoga sometimes.  Sometimes I make a bag of microwave popcorn, dump chocolate chips on top, and eat the whole thing.

I subscribe to The New Yorker, but, a lot of the time, I prefer to read People.  After I read People instead of The New Yorker, I sometimes feel guilty about it.  I talk more about reading The New Yorker than I do about reading People.

I love to read.

I love to talk to my husband about where we might be in five years, in ten, in 25.  I love to dream together.

I feel calmest in a tidy house, in a quiet place, in a room alone.  I rarely feel calm these days.

I like to be by myself.  And then I like to come home again.

I understand that there are things that are good for me.  That make me feel good.  That keep me connected to the people I love.  I’m not usually good at making those things a priority over, say, folding laundry or playing “Angry Birds.”

I get grumpy when I’m hungry.

I love my kids, but I’m never as happy to see them as I am the moment I return after being away from them.

Contradictions again.  And all of them equally me.  I took so much away from my weekend of writing, but my first priority is to think more about what the story of my contradictions tells me about myself, to keep writing my way into understanding.

Who are you today?

Savasana

I went to a yoga class last week for the first time in three years.  It wasn’t a great class – the teacher seemed distracted and her choice to play contemporary music throughout the class distracted me – but I was happy to be there, doing something for myself and for my body.  And delighted by the way the poses seemed familiar to me at the level of muscle memory.  The asanas came back to me like old friends: sun salutations warming my body and my spirit, bringing heat to forgotten nooks and life to sleeping crannies.

But at the end of class, as we made our way into savasana, corpse pose, and the teacher guided us into relaxation and toward meditation, my mind showed its capacity for retained memory once again.  Just as it did years ago when I practiced several times a week, my brain used the occasion of savasana not to release and put a cap on the practice, but rather to spin out of control, like a scratched record playing on the wrong speed.

Okay, okay, deep breaths…my nose sort of itches…focus, K, focus…should I stop on the way home for milk or will we have enough for breakfast?  If we can get through breakfast, Husband can always pick some up on the way home from work…now that Tiny Baby is one, how much milk should he be drinking?…but once he starts drinking milk, it should really be whole milk and then we’ll have to start buying two different gallons: 2% for Big Boy and the adults and then whole milk for Tiny Baby, but I guess it wouldn’t really hurt Big Boy to drink whole milk and I do like the way whole milk tastes in coffee, but I don’t really like it in cereal…when I was growing up we only drank whole milk and now it tastes like cream to me after years of drinking skim…oh, maybe we could buy a gallon of skim and a gallon of whole and then just mix and match…that’s funny…oh, okay, back to breathing…deep breaths…what does it mean to relax your eyes?  If they’re closed, how can they be anything but relaxed?…oh shoot, I forgot to pick up my new contacts today.  I should really go get them tomorrow morning…maybe then I could pick up the milk myself…but which kind?  And will we have enough for breakfast?…is this almost over?  I feel like five minutes have gone by by now…Man, why can’t I spend five minutes just letting thought go?  In Devotion, Dani Shapiro writes about the thoughts that clutter your mind during meditation and how you should let them go without judgment.  Okay, release the thought of milk.  Release.  Releeease.  There we go…am I doing it?  Releasing?  Let me try breathing in on the “Re” and out on the “Lease.”  RE.  LEASE.  RE.  LEASE.  RE.  LEASE.  I wonder if Dani is her full name or if it’s Danielle.  Focusing.  Releasing.  You know, this might make a good blog post.  About how harebrained I am that I can’t even turn off my thoughts for five minutes.  Come on, K.  RE.  LEASE.  RE.  LEASE.  My nose itches again.  Why is it that my nose always itches whenever I’m trying to relax?  Or fall asleep.  Or when I was having my c-section and my arms were strapped down.  That was the worst.  What?  Already?  That’s it?  But I didn’t release without judgment…I wonder if people ever fall asleep during savasana

Instead of releasing thought without judgment, I judged.  I judged my inability to relax.  I judged the inanity of my thoughts.  (If I’m going to use five minutes of silent relaxation to think, shouldn’t I at least be thinking of something more interesting than milk?)  I judged the way my body felt instead of the way my heart and my spirit did.  I judged the practice of yoga for making me feel like I should be feeling something other than what I was feeling.

I think I judge too much.  I think I think too much.

When do you find yourself most alone with your thoughts?  Are you ever able to turn off your brain?  If you are a yogi, does your mind wander during savasana?  (Come on, please tell me I’m not alone!)

Image: Shavasana by Joseph Renger via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.

Balancing Act

Finding balance is elusive.  Heck, defining balance is elusive.  It occurs to me that balance – like happiness, or presence – might be one of those terms that falls under the Potter Stewart “I know it when I see it” standard.  Yup, that’s it, I think: I don’t know how to define balance, but I know it when I see it.

And I saw balance this weekend.  And I felt it.

What started out as a blogging holiday soon turned into a near-complete Internet vacation.  And it was lovely.

I napped.

I read.  (A magnificent book.  Devotion, by Dani ShapiroThanks, Lindsey, for your insightful review which inspired me to buy this book.  And thanks, Corinne, for urging me to move it to the top of my teetering to-read pile.  You were both right: I loved it.)

I ate ice cream.  Lots of it.

I did some writing.

I watched some movies.  (No, not Sex and the City 2.  Alas.  Not yet.)

I watched Tiny Baby take his first wobbly, wonderful steps.

But in seeing and feeling this balance this weekend, something was missing: all of you and all of this.  I found time to do plenty of things I wanted to do, but only when I consciously cut blogging out of my schedule.  The problem is, then, that my so-called balance was a false one because I only found it in taking my Digital Diet to new and extreme lengths.

In the movie Julie & Julia – based, in part, on Julie Powell’s blog recording her attempt to cook all the recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking – Julie explains to her husband how she has come to feel about her connection to Julia Child: “I was drowning and she pulled me out of the ocean.”  Unmoored and rudderless, she feels saved in a way by this connection to a person and to an idea.

And that is the way I feel about blogging most of the time: like writing and reading and connecting with you and with this existential place has thrown me a lifeline I didn’t know I needed.  And I don’t want to give it up.  Not at all.

But how then to find time to do the things I must do and the things I want to do?  Where’s the room for sleeping and reading books and eating a smorgasbord of metaphorical dessert?  Is there room to balance it all?

The tricky part is that I tend to be an all-or-nothing kind of girl.  I’m all in or I’m all out.  And I’m so far in where blogging is concerned that I’ve forgotten to leave room for the other things that nourish my soul.

In Devotion, Dani Shapiro writes: “This was the way it had always been for me: all or nothing, I realized, invariably led to nothing.”  And I don’t want my bloggy All to lead to Nothing.

I need to find that balance.  Elusive though it may be.

How do you balance all of the things that you want to do?  Or do you?  (Is it even possible?)  Which do you usually prioritize – the things you want to do or the things you must do?

Image: Balance Beam by connorreidy via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.