I haven’t written in months. I haven’t walked in months either, in large part because when I walk the words come and in order to keep the words at bay I can’t walk. I don’t have time to write, I’m busy in an (ass-kicking) job. I have two kids. I have a husband and 9 pets and 20-something indoor plants, not to mention a house with two yards to keep up. I can’t walk because I can’t write because I’m too damned busy.
Unfortunately, I can’t not. Because as Brené Brown told me this week (she told millions, really, but in my mind I’d like to think she was really just talking to me), creativity stifled is not benign. It metastasizes and becomes the foundation for frustration or rage or depression. Or, chronic pain. And anxiety. And weight gain.
I’ll be damned if Brené Brown didn’t just shine a light onto the fact that pent up energy plus stifled creativity, for me, equals chronic pain and anxiety and weight gain. Ten years I’ve been chasing the core of my physical issue and there it is.
Although I had a brief respite from the “I’m too busy to write” line of thinking when I was so desperately broken all I could do was write (and walk), the fact is I’ve been too busy to write since I started teaching eighteen years ago. And I really got too busy when my first son was born eleven years ago, just about the time the pain started and just about the time I started to make excuses for why I could not create beauty–for myself, for my marriage, for anything besides my children and my work. And just as Brené said, all that inherent creativity did not lay benign; it metastasized into my left ear and now, years later, my whole left side practically folds in on itself, often in pain. My creative center draws me ever inward as if to say, “Listen to me. Make time.”
Tony Bennett tells a story about a time in his youth when he drank too much and what snapped him out of it, saving his life and his career, is when someone told him he was “sinning against (his) gifts.” To an Italian-Catholic, especially one who is somber and thoughtful, not much more needs to be said. My health and my most powerful means of expression, not to speak of my extended family and friends who I barely see because I’m just so damned busy with work—I’m sinning against all these gifts.
Sadly, I wasn’t even conscious of it until Thursday when I got word that my childhood friend lost her husband to cancer. Forty years old and a widow, living across the country with three young boys and no husband to help her raise them into men–my friend lost her husband and I did the only thing I know how to do: I wrote her a letter.
And as I wrote that letter God said something like, “Really F***-face? No time?”
I thought of Tony Bennett and replied, “I’m not even mad you are calling me a F***-face. I know you are saying it with Love. And you’re right. You’re so right.”
Somewhere in the writing of that letter, in releasing the heavy emotion around the tragedy that is the loss of her husband and writing on behalf of our friends about how deeply saddened we were about it, I realized exactly why Tony Bennett stopped drinking and started singing. If he didn’t, he would knowingly sin against his gifts. It’s one thing to do it and not realize it, but the moment you realize it, the game has to be over. My friend lost the love of her life; he can’t live his gifts anymore; she’s so heartbroken she won’t be able to for a really long time. But me? I can live my gifts. I can honor them and nurture them. And I can start right now.
The question is, what took me so damned long to realize it?
My work with students is important. It is valued and valuable. They smile with me every day. We hug when one of us feels down. At least once a week they clap for me, all of them, all together, clapping for me because of something I taught them. And now I’m also working at my school in a wider-reaching capacity, helping teachers who want to more effectively reach their students. Most are receptive and grateful, appreciating our time together and the efforts I’m making to serve. I do important work. I work diligently and thoughtfully.
Frankly, I work my ass off. And, in giving everything to my work and reserving none for self-care, or marital care, or familial care, I’m sinning against my gifts.
But, the fact is, working hard at my job is just another excuse. Really, I could hide anywhere: in my children, in my husband, in my community. What I’m hiding from is not just my gifts, but also the ability to express my real art: The art of vulnerability.
I am not a literary artist. I’m have not studied the craft and have not developed a particularly advanced vocabulary. I am often way too verbose and likely write in such a way that makes my English teacher friends and colleagues cringe. I am not an artist of or with the written word; I am an artist of the heart. I feel deeply, know intuitively, and express vulnerably. I articulate, for some anyway, what they feel but don’t quite know how to express. And when I do it, I am vulnerable. In fact, when I do, I Dare Greatly.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
When I walk along the water on my dirt path with my squirrel-seeking dog, those “daring greatly” insights come. Every time. My body is nourished and my heart opens and the words come, the words I have to say out loud even if people cringe or laugh or mock. They come every time. Sometimes they are about love, sometimes they are about my children, sometimes they are about teaching…whatever the lesson of the day is, the words always come.
And sometimes, more often than not, that scares me. In those moments my heart is so open and the light is so bright that I end up face-to-face with my vulnerability and it rocks me. My greatest gift is my willingness to be vulnerable and to say what’s in my heart, nay-sayers be damned. However, the more fearful I become of my own vulnerability, the more time I put between vulnerability and myself. When that happens I may be protected from the nay-sayers but the fact remains I’m hiding from a gift God has given me.
And that, my friends, is when I really sin against the gift.
I now realize that in order to nurture my gift, I have to be willing to live in the uncertainty of my gift. I have to stand in my art of vulnerability. I have to Dare Greatly. And that scares me. But if I don’t do it, if I continue to hide in my excuses, I will waste this precious life I’ve been given and I’m just not willing to do that anymore.
I say, here and now, that this day marks the concerted effort to Dare Greatly every day. Even when it’s hard. Even when I’m afraid. Because others can’t and I must. I’ve been given a gift and I want to honor it with the openness and light and attention its due.
Brené Brown, like it or not, you are now my role model. I blaze my own trail wearing the shoes you helped me find.
And that, God, is what I call honoring my gift. I trust you’ll have my back. And if you have to call me F***-face in the future, I hope it’s over some other mistake and not the fact I’m repeating this one.
Vulnerability, here I am.
(photo taken from The Budda’s Face, which I found as I was struggling with writing this post and turned to Facebook for distraction. It was in my news feed along with the quote by Pema Chodron, “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” A sign, if I ever saw one.)