I even sewed on buttons. That’s how productive I was this week. I wrote a ton, I worked a ton, I ran a ton, and I even sewed on some damn buttons. But last night, just when I was feeling pretty proud of myself for being so "Rosie the Riveter" about everything, and looking to take a break from the busy week and meet up with some of my good friends, they all cancelled, one by one. They all had very good reasons, and it was completely understandable, but still it meant another night where I committed myself to more work, more getting it done, more of the me, me, me.
Between projects, I’d take a break and check my Facebook and Twitter accounts and see how the world was doing. I am friends with a lot of poets and writers on Facebook. In fact, the majority of my Facebook friends aren’t just writers, they’re successful, talented, good looking writers. And this particular week, while I’ve been on my self-imposed (and sometimes not so self-imposed) isolation, my Facebook feed has been full of very good news.
Every time I checked it, there were ecstatic statuses like “My book just got picked up!” “My children’s book just won a big award!” “I just got a giant grant!” etc. And I was really happy for everyone. Really happy. Happy. Really. Until, as the night wore on and I wore out, all of the success started feeling like constant tiny pinpricks. And, to make it worse, if it wasn’t good news about writing or publishing it was pictures of their super stylish, cozy fireplaces. And suddenly I didn’t feel like writing anymore, I felt like feeling sorry for myself. I felt like I should get a full time job being the Director of Feeling Sorry for Myself.
I felt like stomping my boots and crying and saying, “I want my novel to be published! I want to win and award! I want a goddamn real fireplace!” I felt selfish and stupid and super envious of everyone, even the dog (who looked really comfortable and not worried one bit).
(You should know that, really, 99.9% of the time I feel incredibly lucky. Like really, really, incredibly, heart-exploding-bright-lights-and-glitter-and moonbeams lucky. But, this isn’t about that. This is about the other .1% of the time when I feel like a failure.)
I tried to remember my old meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, at the Tibet House in New York City—where I first learned how to be more myself—and what she said about “sympathetic joy.” She writes: “The term is unusual; sympathy is commonly used in the sense of feeling bad for others. Learning to share their joy revolutionizes our thinking about where we can find happiness. Usually we rejoice in what we get, not in what others have. But sympathetic joy is a practice of generosity."
It’s one of the four brahmavihāras (Buddhist virtues). And apparently, I’m bad at it. Something that happens to me when I am faced with a barrage of other people’s good news is, I make a list of all my failures. Here's where I take a deep breath and admit this: The novel that I've been working on for three years--that has so much life in it, so many great characters, small powerful moments, well-crafted rants--doesn't work. And I guess I’m finally ready to say that out loud. It’s hard to admit that something you’ve focused on for 3 years is a failure. But it’s true and I’m better at other things—like poetry, like walking the dog.
Today, I was thinking about my novel and how it's in the closet in an orange box and I believe it's going to stay there until some day I toss it out all together, and I began to sew on buttons. I was overwhelmed with the urge to fix things that I could fix. And fast. I even sewed up a pocket in my blue vest (the dog had ripped it once looking for treats since that's the treat pocket). After I had sewed, and fixed, and written some things, I took the time to read something that was sent to me from two different friends: a poem and a short play. And you know what? They were brilliant. Really, amazingly brilliant. So good I didn't even feel bad about my own sorry self. I just felt grateful to be surrounded by so much talent.
I started feeling better. I put on my long brown winter coat (that I had just sewn two buttons on) and went for a walk. The dog and I walked in the hail and I felt good. When I came back in, I took off the coat and a button cracked in half. It was sewn on perfectly, I had fixed it just right, but even still the button just cracked in half. Just like that. After I pulled the cracked half of the button out of the dog's mouth, I sat on the floor and nodded. Okay, universe, I thought. I get you. Fix, break, fix, break, fix, break...and on and on and on we go doing the hard work and sewing the buttons back on.