“Do those bells always ring?” I ask. It is turning six, and my time is up.
My therapist looks up from his iPad and smiles, “Only this time of year, you can hear them better.”
“They sound so clear,” I say.
The church isn’t far away, just a block up the street. I am embarrassed by my lack of awareness. I’ve been seeing this particular shrink for over a year, and never once noticed the bells that ring timely after each session is through.
Jack is kind enough to assure me I’m not the only one who hasn’t noticed the bells. That he, himself, can’t hear them most of the year when there are leaves on the trees. And it’s not until after the leaves have fallen, do the chimes actually resonate with him — filling the air with a hopeful tune, during a season that sometimes feels apologetically bleak. Still, it is my second winter of not noticing the beautiful-sounding bells, and somehow it feels inexcusable.
A year ago, I found Jack on a database of other psychologists — a website set up like any other social media or dating site. I’d been therapy-free for over ten years and was living, what I believed, a normalized and healthy livelihood. I saw myself as a functioning woman, who on occasion would experience short bouts of panic when I would bite off more than I could chew. I defended these intermittent episodes as part of my eccentric personality and intensity, always pointing out that passionate creatives were not the boring type.
I held a regular job, I was in a stable relationship, I had no addiction issues, and I was managing stress through productive outlets such as exercise, making art, and communicating with my partner. I was apprehensive as I browsed the site, still contemplating Do I really need this type of commitment, right now? I could certainly think of all kinds of other ways to spend my time.
In Jack’s profile picture he had combed-back hair, a Czar-style beard, and a contented smile. In the sub-caption below his image, he had included Buddhism as his religious orientation. Normally, I would’ve rolled my eyes and thought, Great, another guy trying to be groovy, and skipped on to the next profile, to a woman with thick glasses, unruly hair, and discerning eyes — the type I had mostly been familiar with in the past, with whom I’d developed patterns of ending sessions abruptly, after being told my storytelling habits were interfering with the “real work” of habit-breaking. However, it was when I got down to the first line of Jack’s ‘About’ description, it struck me how much his definition of health hit home for me.
“I believe our mental health ‘symptoms’ are often our psyche’s way of calling us to a different way of living. Each struggle in our lives is an opportunity for self-awareness and personal growth.”
In my email, I tried to explain why after so many years I wanted to start seeing a therapist again. It was a well-rehearsed explanation, one I had practiced and recited many times over when convincing myself and others that I finally had my shit together. After all, I knew myself best, and I wanted him to know that even though he was an expert in his field, I was the expert of what I needed to thrive.
Reluctant to make that first appointment, I was still skeptical about the effectiveness of counseling and wasn’t convinced that some stranger could advise me on how to better live my life. Though part of me felt like I just had to stop feeling sorry for myself, pull up my bootstraps, and get on with it.
We agreed to weekly sessions, with me guiding the process along. He would listen, while I would tell my story. This was the arrangement I initially requested, since all my previous experiences with therapists ultimately began as another case study for them, and ended with expensive and unsolicited advice I didn’t feel inspired to take. I was upfront with Jack, “I don’t take pills. I can detect psychological babel and impending diagnosis a mile away. And I am in complete acceptance of my well-formed habits.”
Completely unfazed by my disclaimer, the weeks went on, with Jack becoming the sounding board and, I, the storyteller. Sitting in his socked feet with a mug of herbal tea warming his hands, I felt like I had finally found the uncritical and attentive audience I’d been looking for. Or should I say, agonizing over? You see, not only was I a thirty-three-year-old woman, who was adamant about being the sole proprietor of her life, I was also a woman confronting the reality of being an artist.
Being an artist was not at all like what I had expected or romanticized from an early age. Having not published anything significant by the age of thirty, I felt I had reached failure status. I had begun to believe that somewhere along the line I must have missed my calling and opportunity, and would be better off re-focusing my efforts on more practical things, like making a steady income and having health insurance. I suspected all those lawyers and accountants I knew who moonlighted as jazz musicians, had been confronted with similar conflicts and doubts. And I wondered if I did have it in me, to just give up and walk away. Shrug it off, like it was some kind of phase.
It was a similar kind of lucid reckoning, which led me to Jack. Scared of everything at once, I became afraid of my changing perspective and worldview. My imagination which had always been my vehicle for escape was now just a way of coping. And at other times, my own worst enemy. The news, in particular, became a source of great anxiety for me, as my mind would spin directly into the worst case scenario.
I feared the world was going to shit. I feared dying young. I feared any provocations that would lead to war or violence. I feared people knowing too much about me, and in turn judging me based off of assumptions. I feared that I wouldn’t succeed as a writer, and time would run out. I feared I would forever sit passively, and never say anything at all. And I feared, I didn’t have a story inside of me worthy enough of being told.
Even when I would dream, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had nowhere left to hide from fear. It would find me in abandoned buildings, beneath furniture, and behind trees and rocks. Exposed and vulnerable, I was sure there were but a few choices left for me:
I could meet my fears head-on. I could keep wrestling with what I’d been attempting to say for years. Or, I could be a coward and redirect my energies toward other goals.
Becoming aware is often associated with being on a path — the path to becoming an enlightened individual. Unfortunately, in the age of motivational memes and digital gurus, “being woke” has become a catchphrase (and writer’s nightmare!), and “being mindful”, an overused cliche. Self-help and “soul work” have become trendy, and anyone who has experienced any challenges in their life is now able to make an income as a professional speaker/blogger/life coach/influencer. All of a sudden it was like every fearlessly-opinionated, college-educated, entitled white woman had become mindful — Oh, and the luxury of sitting around thinking about yourself! And being mindful for a man; it was a great way to pick up chicks.
Even in department stores, you could find t-shirts with perky little messages — CHOOSE KINDNESS; I HAD A DREAM, BUT NOW I’M WOKE, YOGA DOESN’T TAKE TIME, IT GIVES TIME; NOT ALL WHO WANDER ARE LOST — paired with other misappropriated illustrations of arrows, the “third eye”, Sanskrit text, and other symbolic elements that were once reserved for those with a truly sacred connection to their belief system. And heaven forbid Googling books or philosophies to answer life’s questions unless you wanted to become a target to every psychic, or self-publishing ad out there.
When truly engaged in such a personal kind of work, there is no room for rationalizations or blame. Mindfulness begins by slowing down and quieting your consciousness, so you can be aware of the present moment. When you become open to this way of seeing, there is no past or future quandaries to ball you up, there is only the acknowledgment that you may exist and that others may, too.
You also learn to acknowledge that you are not weak for seeking out and accepting guidance, but rather a person who believes the evolution of humanity is actually propelled by this kind of mindfulness, as well as knowledge and the work of individuals. As the spiritual teacher, Osho, once said, “Truth is not something outside to be discovered, it is something inside to be realized.”
Being honest with oneself is only the beginning. For the path is long, and there is plenty more to discover within. For some, this may take a lifetime. For others, much longer.
Occasionally, when sitting in the waiting room before each session with Jack, I make the faux pas of initiating eye contact with others who have also stumbled their way to counseling. These are typically brief encounters, especially with those who have not yet gotten past that initial feeling of shame, which inevitably befalls those seeking out professional help. Because unfortunately, in the independent American psyche, we have an ingrained stigma associated with asking for and accepting counsel. Whereas, in other cultures and societies, it is viewed quite differently.
Whether it is asking for divine intervention, honoring elders who possess knowledge and understanding beyond your own, or even requesting guidance from a higher place, there are many more places in the world where places of counsel lie at the center of communities and is a large part of a society’s routine, tradition, and belief system. In contrast, within our mainstream American culture, seeking counsel can have an institutional and solitary feel, it can be both personal and impersonal, and it can be more diagnostic than it is holistic.
In these brief encounters, while waiting for counsel, I’ve realized we — me and my waiting room comrades — are connected in two important ways. First, we are both trying to hide what we feel is broken inside of us. And also, that each of us is filled with a lifetimes worth of unique stories and experiences, and all we want is assistance in determining which of our stories and experiences define us, and which ones don’t. Or, if we are truly an accumulation of all this narrative stuffed into one consciousness than we just want to know: How do we accept and love ourselves for who we are?
Before I started working with Jack, I believed I was doing my own mental health work by cathartically writing about my experiences and disguising them as fiction. I was completely unable to tell a story, without hiding in some way. This was before I had accessed the ability to pause or put my insights into coherent forms of self-expression. This was before I understood that my inner-truth should be the place I was tapping into and that it would be the most relevant writing I would ever do. This was before I recognized that writing only feels and becomes impossible when you are constantly in motion, and when you believe that everything has already been said; every story told.
It wasn’t until I started vocalizing my story honestly, did I begin to see the world in which we live, not simply as a place made up of brutal truths always working against me; but as a world made up of over 7 billion other individuals, also trying to figure out why they are here. That we are all, every single one of us, seeking validation and some sense of solidarity, as we reckon with our time and purpose on this planet.
The work I have done in the past isn’t all a loss. The unfinished manuscripts I’ve scrapped won’t completely go to waste. If anything, they are the start of other stories. Stories I am finally brave enough to tell.
In 2014, I wrote a short monologue about spending time in a city clinic titled, “We All Come From a Long Way Off.” It was picked up by a small online publication called The Milo Review, which disbanded not long after its release, making my cynicism of digital media grow ever stronger. It seemed like everyone on the internet had the same dream of being a writer, and if you couldn’t be a writer than the next thing to become was an editor, publisher, vlogger, or your own brand.
Every form of publishing seemed to be headed in a similar direction. Generations of writers who spent years toiling, just to see their work in hard copy, were becoming founts of the past. Now anyone could put their stream of consciousness out to the public instantaneously, after supper. And they did, to the extent where you could scroll through pages upon pages of blog posts, without finding anything of substance to read. I was both fascinated by this new outlet of expression, and concerned by where it might lead.
It was a changing world and I was pretty certain my soul would suffer if I bought into. It felt superficial and wrong. I had wanted to be a writer ever since I could remember and was invested in life as an artist even if it meant blazing my own path, not emulating or following others, not being “liked” or “followed” in return, and speaking my truth that may not necessarily align with the truth of others.
Between the “How To’s” and the fake news, the propaganda and the lists of useless facts, the celebrity updates and the beauty tips, of course I wondered who was going to actually weed through all that information, and care enough about a story they stumbled upon about a city clinic where they perform abortions and provide healthcare to immigrants? Like the characters in my story — the nobodies — no one seemed to be itching to read the work of a nobody.
The immediate gratification of an audience validating your worth and intellect, whether you receive praise or criticism, is addicting. And not having to labor at your craft or wait out the rejection letters, allows you less agony. But that’s when you remember that being an artist is just as much about sitting with yourself (and your sometimes mad ideas) and craft, as it is translating your visions into a work of expressive art. And ‘yes’ sometimes it is agonizing and painful, but on the spectrum of all the other emotions, sensations, and realizations you can experience in a moment, or a series of moments, the agony and pain in the process shouldn’t be the only thing fueling you as an artist.
I have always believed that to be a writer you have to, first, have something to say. And second, you have to be able to tell a decent story. Over the years, I have been instinctively drawn to unacknowledged people and populations, because their stories can be so incredibly powerful and heart-wrenching, and can reach you in a very real and humanistic way. The unsung heroes, and the ones who sacrifice more than will ever be given credit for. The ones who will pass on and be forgotten.
It makes me sad to think about all the unwritten stories we lose each day because we don’t take the time or make the effort to be quiet enough to listen to others. How much could we learn about ourselves and our relationships with others, if we spent more time listening, and less time being afraid of the quiet and the different? How much more could we say as writers, if we were to free ourselves from the stringent labels and the industry and the economic constraints, and look at life again as a nobody?
And I would bet, when it comes down to it, a mindful nobody has a lot more to say than a somebody who takes every opportunity to speak and make themselves heard.
I can tell you what I am afraid of, but first, let me start this fire. After all, in stories about creation, there is often some reference to the important part fire plays at the beginning of a story.
Last night my husband, Nick, filled the wood box, so I need not concern myself with such things. He is thoughtful like that — always considerate of others and how he can lessen their burdens.
To start a good fire, one cannot just chock a stove full and strike a match. There is an art to building a good fire, which men like my husband take pride in; just like there is an art to the carefully stacked woodpile he tends to every spring in preparation of the next burning season.
Behind the barn and sugar house, row after well-balanced row of cordwood is neatly stacked beneath a tin roof covering, so it has time to cure into fine firewood. More routine than obsession, heating with wood in New England is a cycle that runs parallel to our lives — an interdependency which sometimes feels intimate, when I squat in just a bathrobe in front of the Alpine casting and feel the familiar warmth moving up my thighs and across my face. I rip and twist pages of the Sunday Times or local Herald, and use the hatchet to break up kindling — always with the grain, and never against.
Inside the sooty gut of the stove, I make sure to leave space between the paper, sticks, and smallish logs, to allow for the movement of air; for air is essential in feeding fires. I tend to rely on the classic teepee shape to start all of mine. While Nick prefers the cabin shape, believing it is more structurally sound when it comes to adding another log or two.
As the blaze grows, the door to the stove is closed, but not completely. We have found that if you leave the door slightly ajar, a natural vacuum will occur. And if you listen closely, you can hear the hollow whir of air being sucked from the room, through the stove, and up the flue, making the fire hotter and stronger.
On frigid November mornings, when a dusting of snow has fallen overnight, Nick starts a small fire before he leaves for work. The sun will not have even crested over the valley hills, and I will hear the heavy-handed thump of the hatchet and kindling falling to the floor like the hollow clack of a wooden windchime. Then comes the low rumble of the trusty Tundra warming in the driveway, while Nick sips the last of his coffee, fills his Thermos with his afternoon tea, and leaves a kiss on my forehead.
After he leaves, I can hear the crackle and pop of wood settling in the stove, as I lie in bed thinking about the sacrifices he makes every day in order for me to make art; especially on the coldest days, when his energy is spent trying to stay warm at a job site. He assures me it is not so bad, because the timber frame he has been working on has a small potbelly stove where he can warm up his extremities and his lunch, and the work itself keeps the blood moving and the body warm beneath the layers. But I know metal tools are cold in the hand when you are building outdoors, and that it takes a long hot shower, a good fire, and a warm meal for him to feel like himself again, after a long day’s work.
I can tell you there is nothing romantic about wondering if a job will go as smoothly as planned, whether we will be able to pay our bills every month, or if we will be able to eat well in the coming weeks. Wondering whether the six logs it will take to stay warm while writing a silly essay, is worth it or just a waste of resources and time, is a constant consideration.
“What if it takes a while?” I ask him, worried about my lack of income, my art being decent enough to sell and whether I have the wherewithal to live within these meager means.
“Then it takes a while,” he encourages me. “And in the meantime, we won’t freeze.”
Last year, he ordered eleven cords of log-length firewood — three years’ worth of fuel if our Vermont winters are not too brutal.
When I was three, my father, like Nick, worked various odd jobs so my mother could be home with me and my younger sister, and paint. We lived in a drafty Victorian that had been converted into apartments, with an empty side lot we used for a garden. Across the street was the cleverly-named Frost Free Library which we frequented, since my father’s salary at the ball bearings factory just barely covered the necessities. Books and new clothes were a luxury, as were most toys.
Beneath us lived a young journalist and his wife, who I suspected never argued about money, or about which one worked longer and harder hours and deserved a drink. My father’s back-to-back shifts kept him away from home for long stints at a time, and when he would come home, all he wanted to do was catch up on sleep. He demanded quiet. And when it became too loud to be inside, I would go out to the yard and find a place to sit outside the window of the young couple, sometimes, secretly hoping they would adopt me.
The memories I have of that time are spotty and sometimes laden with sadness or nostalgia. But what I remember most about that apartment and my parent’s marriage, is the pride they possessed and imposed on that space. Not only did my father somehow manage to get a six-hundred-pound cook stove up to that second-floor apartment and install it, but he also preferred the old-fashioned technology and ways of doing things. If he could not fix it, he did not want to own it. If it was broke and abandoned on the side of the road, it posed a challenge. He couldn’t read, but he had a way of seeing how all the pieces fit together that could never be taught. He also found intrinsic value in being the provider, while my mother wrestled with the roles of homemaker, caregiver, and artist.
I remember drawing and playing in front of that stove. My mother would start a fire early to make us breakfast and then would retreat to the enclosed porch where she kept her paints and easels. Before we were old enough to attend school, my sister and I learned to entertain ourselves with pastels and construction paper on the bare floors of that apartment, understanding that quiet time meant it was creative time, and as long as we had food, heat and a bed to sleep in, there was no reason to long for anything more.
Because of these experiences, I can tell you that I have never been afraid of being uncomfortable. For ten years I supported myself, believing that responsibility belonged only to myself. Nick was the one who taught me that it is not a sign of weakness to let others lend a hand along the way and that even though I was a self-sufficient individual, I was still capable of sharing a life and myself with him.
But what about rejection? You might ask. Art mimics life in many ways.
I stoke the fire, fight the urge to do a job search, and settle in to write a few thousand words. It is gratifying, but not sustaining. Compromising my relationship in the name of art is what truly frightens me, and that is why I must acknowledge the sacrifices my husband makes every day. The frosty mornings, the frustrations of day labor, and the tired joints and bones are all reasons why I ask myself, each day, “Is it worth it?”
Nick never ushers a single complaint. He checks the wood box to see if it is full, and the woodpile he “did not stack for nothing.” He helps fold laundry and cook dinner. His little labors of love lack nothing.
To speak of all things is to find value in the details that at their most basic level are connected, and therefore essential. These events and decision that may appear separate and isolated, fold into each other to enrich our lives and give us a more thoughtful resolve as we take on each day.
The vacuum, the air, and the fire — one cannot exist without the other. Just as one cannot just chock a stove full and strike a match.
There is an art to building a good fire. And though it may be seen as a simple contribution, it is never small.