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Lessons from a Long Year

editorial by Chris Lott

Friendship -- Writing -- Fatherhood -- Work -- The Ridiculous -- The Sublime

Sometimes friends have to go their separate ways, regardless of the strength of their friendship and the nature of the events they have lived through together. I still harbor hope that it doesn't have to happen to all friends. Sometimes it even has to be a bitter parting, with the accompanying ugliness of resentment and self-righteousness. This past year saw the loss of a few friends for varying reasons: physical distance, my own inattentiveness, inevitable changes wrought by growth and romantic attachments. I take my fair share of blame for every one of them, even when I felt I was acting in the only way possible, out of self defense. I also continue to believe that the new year will bring not only new friends to replace those that have passed from my life, but also new growth and development that may even allow me to resurrect a few of the old.

I almost gave up writing this year, and not in the normal, pissed-off, burn-the-notebooks kind of way that I have in the past. This year I gave the whole enterprise long, serious thought, without seeking the advice of others-- which I always later realize is just a way of seeking approval and encouragement for what is, essentially, a very lonely pursuit. This time around I weighed the pros and cons of writing, questioned my motives and abilities, considered the impact (or lack of impact) that the words I've produced have had, examined my schedule and accomplishments, and eventually came to the conclusion that I was wasting my time.

Before you think this was a hasty or common act, you must realize that this is a process I have gone through before. For many years I played the guitar. I pursued the goal of becoming a musician with the nearly single-minded obsession that I believe requisite to becoming top-class at anything. I knew (and know) that guitar playing was, for me, an all or nothing kind of activity. After years of playing, reading, studying and practicing, I sat down and seriously considered what I was doing. My rate of progress combined with the late age at which I had started and my rather small pool of talent convinced me that it was time to cut bait. I stopped playing at that moment, sold my guitars and amps, and have never really looked back since. This was the same feeling I was having about writing, and I knew that if I did stop, it would be for good.

But I didn't quit. There is no miraculous aspect to this story, no sudden revelation or insight. There were a number of small things that convinced me to keep going, some of them as recently as yesterday. A woman I talked to about her own writing, a fantastic poet who probably had no idea that she was talking about me, told me that she had quit numerous times, sometimes for years. After all, she told me, if she doesn't want to write, why should she? Common sense that is commonly ignored. I can't count the number of writers I know who feel they must write every day, produce x pages per month, etc., yet who don't write at all or very little. Why torture themselves? Either write or don't write, but torturing oneself about it does no good and, in fact, makes it worse.

Another acquaintance, writing to someone else on a mailing list, spoke of not publishing until one was older. Maybe you won't write a few good poems you otherwise would have, he wrote, but you will write many more good poems later. Publish if you want, but don't let it drive you-- write for the joy of it! Again, common sense that is commonly forgotten.

Finally, I became acquainted with the work of two writers that made me forget about my own struggle with being a slow, young writer., Mark O'Brien, a journalist who also has an extensive web-site, spends his days sealed in an iron lung, but manages to write astounding material that has more life than many of the young turks I read today. Christopher Nolan is mute, spastic Irish writer who has to write with a "unicorn rod" strapped to his head to type out the keys. Yet he is able to tap out something like: "Breasting along gold limousines, tinted glass creating able access to mighty loot. Certain fresh tingles romping through my heart, as crippled I manage to bite into the Big Apple." Here is a man who, if you consider the typing speed, probably has the equivalent of 1/2 hour per day to write, but he is writing award winning books! And, one last example, Jean-Dominique Bauby, crippled by a severe stroke, composed a book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly entirely through winking to an assistant. And it is a beautiful, astounding work. All of them are/were writing in circumstances which could easily lead to doing nothing at all, if not outright despair and suicide... who am I to complain, quit, or judge my own potential?

This year I suddenly became a father. My children, Althea (5) and Galen (6), live with their mother. I see them regularly since, until recently, they lived just a couple of doors down from me. But until this year, I have never really felt like a "real" father. I'm sure this is tied to the fact that this is also the year that I suddenly felt like a real adult for the first time too. This year I realized the ties of father to child, the responsibilities, the grief, the elation-- all the emotions that I felt distanced from before. I suddenly understood that sometimes I just have to drive home crying because I yelled at one of my children, or live with the feelings of inadequacy when I don't feel that I am able to provide them with something that they should have.

At some indeterminate point in the last year, I was suddenly satisfied knowing that I would probably be staying in this town as long as my children are here. I have opportunities to go elsewhere, but even a hefty raise in salary could not compensate for distance. The winters may be cold and the options for entertainment small, but I can pick my children up from daycare, watch them perform in plays and sports, and just be there for them in ways that no money or plane tickets can ever make up for. The effect of being an active parent is clear on my children already. If missing the opportunity to work and live in a warmer climate means the opportunity to have my daughter see me in the crowd before she MC's a class play and see her face light up with the security of having a loving father who is there for her, then I'm the winner by far.

Almost all of us have to work and, as much as I dislike it, I imagine that not having to work has just as many problems associated with it. The paradox is that, at the same time, I don't know anyone who is working who doesn't want to stop working. Which is probably because I haven't met any of those mythical people who actually like their jobs and don't want to be working somewhere else.

This year marked my new Zen approach to work. I do what I can when I am there, trying as hard as possible to think only about work, and leave all of those obligations and responsibilities at home when I am done. This probably seems simple to those who have already figured out how to do it, or even nonsensical to those who would never consider bringing their jobs home... but a personality like mine combined with the requirements of a job like the one I currently have is a recipe for ignoring everything else in my life.

We live in a ridiculous culture. A few years ago I experienced an "episode" of sorts. I came home after a long day dealing first with patrons at the university library where I work and then with cliquish grad students in a class I was having. By the time I got home I'd had it... I ended up laying on the floor in front of the stereo where I passed out for about three hours from the sheer ridiculous stupidity of it all.

Things have only gotten worse since then. I don't claim to be all that smart and I know that I am often as strange as the next guy, but things seem to be getting out of hand. If I still passed out from the sheer stupidity of things around me, I would never wake up at all! Is it really necessary to have television commercials where two living parodies compare scoops of cat shit to inform us as to which one "clumps better"? In fact, is it really necessary to have commercials at all? I would certainly pay a fee each month to have the few hours of television I watch each week be commercial free and, considering my distaste for the inanity of most commercials, splitting that money between advertisers would result in their making much more money from me than they would otherwise!

Our society is the most informationally rich and most intensely uninformed in history. Can we really call all of the television programs on now "news shows" when they cover such important issues as "Good Twin, Bad Twin" and "Elevator Danger"? The newspaper industry is dying a slow death and magazines of substance are at best stagnant and at worst dying or becoming just that which they are supposed to oppose. I don't wonder when it will end, but how.

I search for sublimity in much the same way that I sometimes still search for faith and, of course, the deliberate nature of such searching almost guarantees that I won't find what I am looking for. But sometimes, despite my best efforts, I am blessed with a small experience or a short moment that reminds me not just of what I ceaselessly search for, but why I go on at all when so often I don't want to.

Describing these generally intensely personal incidents will only send the reader scrambling for a dictionary to see which definition of sublime *I* am doing: seeing my daughter's face as she searches for me in the crowd before a recital, disappointment replaced by joy when she spots me, there like I promised I would be (and, incidentally, like my biological father never could be for me); both of my children jumping on their napping father and waking me with a barrage of tickling; re-reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time since childhood (when I read the trilogy at least five times) and not only recapturing the same feeling of magic and wonder, but being reminded of how powerful any kind of writing can be when it is done with enough commitment and passion-- the possibilities of which caused me to start writing in the first place; even my best friends and I drinking ourselves sick, having a tearful hour of confession and then being driven home in the back of a pickup...

All of these were, for me, moments of mystical sublimity. I hope that the new year finds each of your realizing your own.

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