Recently, I wrote a personal essay about my vacuum cleaner.
The assignment was to sit down and write about anything within three feet of me. I didn’t intentionally choose the vacuum cleaner, but when I finished the piece, the vacuum was a central part.
Like a great many other things in my life, I have failed to master the vacuum. All of its buttons, switches, and numerous functions are lost on me. I simply want to swipe it across the floor and have the carpet be cleansed. But there it remains, in the closet.
It struck me as odd, that a simple household object could be assigned so much meaning, but I decided to roll with it, and I received the grade I wanted on the paper.
A personal essay class is bound to get, well, personal. I am a somewhat shy, aloof individual, and coupled with less-than-stellar self-esteem, I tend to doubt myself quite a bit. I am a textbook example of a perfectionist. In another class, we are reading Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott which is a combination of writing advice, humor, and life advice. At one point, Lamott states, “Now, a person’s faults are largely what make him or her likable… Preoccupation with self is good, as is a tendency towards procrastination, self-delusion, darkness, jealousy… [Your characters] shouldn’t be too perfect; perfect means shallow, and unreal, and fatally uninteresting.” In the following chapter, Lamott dives into “shitty first drafts,” basically giving aspiring authors permission to write work that’s just downright awful, with the hopes and intention of revising it later.
My Fiction Workshop is an entirely different animal. The first major assignment was an “experimental” story. My professor insisted that the stories didn’t have to make sense, that it was almost desirable for them not to make any sense. This troubled me. I use writing to assign meaning to the seemingly random and chaotic things that happen to me (to everyone, really). There is no plot in real life, no guarantee that the bad guy will be punished and the hero rewarded. There are not even distinct heroes and villains in real life. No matter how hard I try to be a good person, there is always the possibility that I will be a dark chapter in someone else’s story. The reason I write is so that I can create my own closure, my own happy ending, if that’s what I desire.
I am definitely not saying that every single fiction piece should follow a cookie-cutter pattern with a discernible beginning, middle, and end. However, for me personally, I need my writing to make sense because so many other facets of life do not make sense.
When I think about big questions I have, questions beyond, “Why did the author make this choice?” or “What is the theme of this essay?” I am baffled and angry. I know many people who have a “Let go and let God,” sort of attitude. But God isn’t going to write my papers.
Prayer may not bring water to parched fields,
nor mend a broken bridge,
nor rebuild a ruined city.
But prayer can water an arid soul,Mishkan T’Filah,
mend a broken heart,
rebuild a weakened will.”
My relationship with God or a Higher Power in general is nebulous. Back in the good old days before COVID, when I could go to the synagogue and be with other Jewish people with whom I share many traditions, songs, and camaraderie, I felt a bit more connected. It was easy, watching my fellow congregants turn around and face the back of the sanctuary during “L’chah Dodi,” or putting their siddurs against the Torah’s covering when it was passed through the congregation.
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in my own life, to eschew all concepts of a Higher Power, certainly any kind of deity that would have anything to do with me. As I drive to campus, I think about the emails I need to answer. In the shower, I think about what I’ll wear once I’m all dried off. When I’m on the phone with someone, I’m thinking about what I’m going to make for lunch.
Mindfulness is about being present in the current moment. It is basically the practice of training your mind to stop ruminating on the past or worrying about the future so that you can just enjoy where you are right now. Despite my extensive rap sheet of treatment and therapists, I’ve never been able to give mindfulness a fair shot. “I don’t have time to be mindful! I’m a busy college student, and I’ve got side projects I need to think about, and I work, and…” while these are true statements, they are also bullshit excuses. If I’m trying to engage in conversation with my family and friends, I don’t want to only give them 50% of my attention because I’m thinking about something completely unrelated to the conversation at hand.
As I move into what is typically the most difficult time of the year for me, I need to begin to practice mindfulness now more than ever. I can get myself completely unwound thinking about questions that can basically be reduced to, “Why does God let bad things happen to good people?” and “Why is the world unjust?” Then, like Dudley Dursely on his birthday, I lose sight of all the good things in my life.
I’m realizing that God can be anyone or anything I choose, so long as I am not God, and I choose an entity I can believe in. The God of my childhood was punishing and cantankerous, a distant, silent presence who didn’t have much bearing on my day-to-day life. Finding God could be likened to walking through the thrift store. There are so many options, various one-of-a-kind garments, some ugly, some nondescript, and some that grab your attention. You don’t know what you’re looking for, you don’t know what you’re going to find, or if it will look good on you or even be in your size. Sometimes, you leave without finding anything. But you keep going back because you believe you’ll eventually find the right thing, and when you find the right thing, be it a worn-out cardigan in your favorite drab color or a hot-pink mini dress, you feel confident and comfortable. The key, for me at least, is to never stop looking.
When I am struggling to find the perfect turn of phrase for a piece of writing I’m working on, I have to remember that no first draft is perfect. The ideas will come when I am ready to receive them. My Higher Power, the Creative Spirit of the universe, doesn’t speak to me explicitly, but She nudges me in the right direction. Much like driving in the dark, as long as my headlights are on, I can see just far enough ahead to keep going, and I have faith that I will reach my destination.