t a bookstore in Santa Fe called The Ark, you can buy a crystal for anything. Heartache? Try some rose quartz. Need clarity? Citrine will manifest it. Self -worth? Rhodonite. Guidance? Hollandite. The shop is filled with books on magick and astrology, organic gardening and witchcraft. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to the Magic Box, Giles’s magic shop in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The crystals perch in glass cases organized by type with cards that describe their uses, a curated consortium of physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual voids. When friends come to visit, I bring them to The Ark, and every single one of them finds something that they need. “More than 60 percent of US adults hold at least one ‘new age’ belief, such as placing faith in astrology or the power of psychics, and 42 percent think spiritual energy can be located in physical objects such as crystals,” a Guardian article about the disastrous mining of crystals in Madagascar informs me. The article was trying to discover: whence these crystals? But, looking in the mirror as I idly roll an amethyst (for intuition) across my face, my question remains: whence our faith?
We are in a woo Renaissance. New Age ideas and practices, many of which were adopted or flat-out appropriated from thousand-year-old Eastern traditions or Indigenous ceremonies—yoga, crystals, sage smudges, incense, meditation—are a zillion-dollar business in America. Sage smudging has become so popular for cleansing one’s space of perceived toxic auras that white sage has been overharvested, making it difficult to access for Indigenous people who have used it for centuries. Crystal mining is destroying the earth and miners’ bodies just as coal mining does. Like our faith in supplements, in exercise, in dieting, our faith in woo is scientifically unsound and yet unshakeable. We dabblers and new believers are in the process of colonizing even spiritual practice, even the mystical. A final frontier.
The global pandemic only makes our faith stronger, as our awareness of being sick or the potential for getting sick grows. When I say “our” faith, I include myself, drinking the murky herbs my acupuncturist, Kelly, makes me, rubbing green moxa cream into my skin, wearing black tourmaline (to dispel negative energies), placing huge weight on the words of yoga teachers. All of which suggests we are looking to heal ourselves, and we are looking for something to put our faith into, seeking some kind of meaning. Or at least, I am.
After I moved to Santa Fe—and wasn’t I drawn here at least in part for the New Age bounty, the healing air, the woo paradise?—I began seeing a therapist named Lara. Her Psychology Today profile lists Enneagram Coaching and something called “Eclectic,” and her long, wild gray hair conveyed wisdom, something witchy. When I told her that I wanted to be a writer but couldn’t figure out how to make that a career path, she recommended The Artist’s Way to me, mentioning that she’d found it helpful in her own life. I was skeptical of Lara, as I am of all therapists at first, and skeptical of the Enneagram, and skeptical of The Artist’s Way. I remembered it from working in a bookstore, where it sold regularly and I’d mentally filed it under “not for me” between The Secret and Men Are from Mars. As a writer, it is easy to be skeptical of self-help as a genre. I can smell manipulation on the page.
An early chapter of The Artist’s Way, the 1992 self-published bestseller by current Santa Fe resident Julia Cameron, discusses the importance of “filling the well.” “As artists,” she writes, “we must learn to be self-nourishing. We must become alert enough to consciously replenish our creative resources as we draw on them—to restock the trout pond, so to speak.” After reading just a few pages, I got sick to my stomach. My well felt bone dry. I didn’t like admitting it, but I felt totally depleted creatively, and like I had nothing to say. “Any extended period or piece of work draws heavily on our artistic well,” she writes. This had somehow never occurred to me. I had recently finished my first book, research and writing that took six years followed by months of waiting on permissions, after finishing an unrelated dissertation and a PhD, and somewhere deep down I feared that I might not know what to write next. More realistically, I was overwhelmed by teaching, freelance writing, and finding my groove in a new life, figuring out how to (just barely) support myself after grad school without full-time employment. I was busy trying to figure out how to be a person, how to live, and writing about that life didn’t seem possible in any determined way that I was used to. The next day I tried Morning Pages, the best-known technique from the book: “three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness.” Cameron warns that the process of writing them is “apparently pointless.” Groggy from sleep, pen in hand, I had no idea how I was going to get through all three pages. Possibly the notebook I was using was too large. Chelsea brought coffee to me in bed and, seeing how daunted I was, gently said, “You don’t have to do it all.” “Yeah, I do,” I said, all my rule-following, over-ambitious, over-functioning baggage strangling the words.
I wrote the first three pages and continued to follow the protocol, week by week, for twelve weeks. I had checked the book out from the library, not ready to actually own something like this, and took the library copy with me to a Wyoming writing residency. In Cameron’s view, by doing the pages (and you “do” them, you don’t “write” them), you listen and hear the currents of your own ideas, and then you transcribe them. Listening is a form of acceptance, yielding. Writing, creating, becomes a mundane act. The pages operate as a habit like brushing your teeth—or maybe more honestly like flossing. A little painful, a little messy, but a vital form of maintenance. For me, and I imagine for many other over-achieving, hyper-educated millennials supporting ourselves after graduating into a world where full-time employment, let alone benefits, are hard to come by, Cameron’s emphasis on creativity as a daily habit, an ongoing process, a subterranean space within your own consciousness, can be a real relief.
I was starting to think of myself as a writer, working to support myself, but what would I write, how would I keep writing, what was there to write? I have always written from my own life: intermittent, unfinished diaries when I was a kid; notes passed obsessively between my friends in junior high and folded into origami envelopes and decorated with secret code names; and then later long letters to my girlfriends, more journals, so many college papers, annotated playlists. And I had spent six years writing all through grad school—seminar papers, journal articles, a dissertation. But once I started morning pages, I realized that my ideas come slowly through living my life, not through some kind of directed attention. I couldn’t just plow my way through this writing, like I had done as a student. I had to wait for it to come.
After a few years of adjuncting, grading, and editing, my mind and time consumed by the demands of others’ writing and thoughts, I found a job that allowed me time and space to do the waiting that my writing demands, working twenty hours a week as an archivist for Bruce Nauman, a visual artist. In interviews, he describes his career in terms of waiting, wondering what an artist does. After finishing art school, he started teaching and had a lot of free time.
That left me alone in the studio; this in turn raised the fundamental question of what an artist does when left alone in the studio. My conclusion was that I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever it was I was doing in the studio must be art. And what I was in fact doing was drinking coffee and pacing the floor. It became a question then of how to structure those activities into being art, or some kind of cohesive unit that could be made available to people.
His work from this period, the late-1960s, includes now-famous videos like Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square, Bouncing Two Balls Between the Floor and Ceiling with Changing Rhythms, and Playing a Note on the Violin While I Walk Around the Studio. In these videos, a lanky young Nauman paces the studio on camera, giving himself some kind of assignment, like walking around a taped square on the floor, bouncing balls, or playing a violin. He says, “At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product. The product is not important for your own self-awareness. I saw it in terms of what I was going to do each day.” These activities, these non-products, are now owned by places like MoMA. They sell for millions of dollars, an irony of the art market: that creative practice, pursued for its own end, can also be valued as a form of capital to acquire. That the market is hungry for your creative endeavors, your spiritual reckonings.
Art, a category that includes writing, is a practice that doesn’t necessarily need a product. Rather it is a way of thinking or being, one that I had previously only allowed myself in spare moments at my retail job at the bookstore. All the notes I was writing to myself and shoving in my pockets while on the clock at $7.25 an hour were the seeds for my first book, but I didn’t discover this until years later. The permission I needed to allow myself the space and time and apparent aimlessness of a writing practice, what Cameron calls a flow of consciousness you can dip into, was sitting right there on the shelves at BookPeople, but I hadn’t found it yet.
Becoming aware of oneself, turning inward, is uncomfortable, and many of our activities exist to numb us to this discomfort. Yet self-knowledge is the gateway to insight: quiet reflection is the space where insight can occur. Often such reflection is viewed as recursive, navel-gazing, self-indulgent. Self-care is a new perversion, a neoliberal project: caring for the body and mind primarily to make them more productive, useful in the marketplace. Employers encourage it. What about just taking care of yourself, healing through time and awareness? Who has the time? And lurking a little deeper under this scarcity, an iceberg of white guilt: what right have I to take care of myself, my mind, my body, when mine is the body of the colonizer? Of course self-help feels indulgent to me. Everything does. Existing does.
I balked, but was also intrigued, when Lara suggested that what I sought wasn’t a career but a spiritual path: to know my own mind and to rely on it. To find inner wisdom and follow it. She pointed me to an online Enneagram test, which indicates that I am a type 6: the Loyal Skeptic. At heart I do not trust anything, including and especially my own heart. I am afraid and worrying and anxious, always strategizing and grasping for control, and I constantly poll the people around me when I try to make any decision. Wondering how to be an artist, I looked to the artists I’ve worked for, and to books with clear instructions and activities. At Lara’s suggestion, I completed an entire “Life Design” module from the 1979 self-help book Wishcraft, which involved making detailed lists of the attributes of my ideal environment, my ideal day. I made a chart of the activities I find most enjoyable and rated them along the axes of “Mind, body or spiritual?” “Alone or with someone?” “Planned or spontaneous?” “Fast or slow-paced?” I learned that what I most wanted was time, hours and hours of it in which I could read or walk or have deep, meandering conversations with others, with myself. I wanted to be an experiential sieve, filtering experience through me without trying to direct it. For me, this is what it means to be a writer, to make writing the center of my life. While art is often framed as a business, a career path, or a series of accomplishments with external rewards, I remind myself that my real work is to be less oriented toward specific goals and more open to whatever moves me. To yield, over and over. To accept that I must continually indulge the universe.
Once I decided my purpose was to find meaning, I began to Google that purpose. “Logotherapy” is the word for therapy to help people find meaning in their lives: the lifelong quest for self-reliance, inner guidance I realized I was looking for with Lara. I found Chelsea’s copy of Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy on our bookshelves, in the section I’d labeled “Self-Help/The Cosmos,” which housed my Enneagram book and books on astrology and mindfulness, a miniature woo section. The author, Viktor Frankl, was imprisoned in a series of concentration camps during the Holocaust. In a setting where human life was treated as if it had no value, he gained insight into the importance of finding meaning in your actions, even under the most nihilistic conditions possible. Unlike Freud, who believed humans to be driven by “the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts, or in merely reconciling the conflicting claims of id, ego and superego, or in the mere adaptation and adjustment to society and environment,” Frankl believed that every human life and decision has meaning, and that human beings are driven by a desire to find that meaning or sense of purpose. Yet at the time of the book’s writing, the late 1940s, he found his patients suffering from “the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives . . . They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves.” I can relate to this void, this inner emptiness, this sense of meaninglessness. Frankl’s patients were responding, presumably but not exclusively, to the violence and horrors of the Holocaust, but for me, meaninglessness arises out of a sense that the world is being destroyed by human-made climate change, that the violence of white supremacy ravages the lives of people of color, and that as a white woman in an affluent country my existence contributes to both the destruction of the planet and the violence of white supremacy. Even the writing I contribute is an example of this. Not to mention the bare fact that death comes for us all. So what meaning or purpose could I possibly find? Why should I spend my time reading self-help books, meditating, writing about both, while the world burns?
Lara encouraged me to meditate and sit with the tension of searching for meaning in a cruel world. After listening to Pema Chödrön’s How to Meditate on my walks, I found myself drawn most often Tonglen meditation. I say to myself, on each inhale, that I am breathing in suffering, and on each exhale, I am breathing out a release from suffering. It is intentionally the opposite of what you might automatically do when confronted with suffering, either your own or someone else’s. Instead of trying to dispel or dissolve suffering, I mentally take it in, suck it in, breathe it into every cell. Even specific sufferings. I breathe in my headache and all the headaches of the headache sufferers of the world. I breathe out a relief from my headache and all the headaches of the world. I breathe in my irritation and all the irritation of the world. I breathe in my anger and violence and all the anger and violence of the world. I breathe in my exhaustion and the exhaustion of every tired being. I take it in, and I give something else back. What is this if not prayer?
As a kid, growing up in the Catholic church, my nightly prayers got longer and longer, became more and more specific. I rarely prayed for myself, having been schooled in the virtues of so-called selflessness. Instead, I thought of every instance of pain I had witnessed in others and brought these up to God. Unless I engage in magical thinking, I know Tonglen does nothing for other people. Their suffering does not decrease when I imagine myself breathing it in, and it is not released when I imagine it releasing on the exhale. But, if I understand the intention behind it, it does make me a more compassionate, empathetic person. I feel my own headache and think of all the people who have headaches, people who might not have the chance to rest and try to recuperate. I feel my own exhaustion and relate that to the people all around the world who are overworked and tired. I find an inner awareness of my own pain and then turn my awareness outward, remind myself that I am not the only one suffering, that indeed suffering is part of human life.
Suffering is like a gas, according to Frankl. It expands to fit any space, even if it is a small suffering, and it can also be highly concentrated, as in a concentration camp. But to compare suffering is ineffective, says Brene Brown, a sociologist and pillar of the self-help universe. The suffering of another does not diminish my own. To be aware of another person’s suffering can help put our own in perspective, but it does not lessen it, or make it a less valuable tool to find meaning, Frankl would say. Pema Chödrön writes, in the late 1990s:
Times are difficult globally; awakening is no longer a luxury or an ideal. It’s becoming critical. We don’t need to add more depression, more discouragement, or more anger to what’s already here. It’s becoming essential that we learn how to relate sanely with difficult times. The earth seems to be beseeching us to connect with joy and discover our innermost essence. This is the best way that we can benefit others.
In other words, self-help is a way of helping others. And to avoid self-help, to avoid this search for meaning and purpose in one’s own life, is to make oneself unavailable to others and to causes beyond the self. Selflessness, then, is a hindrance to compassion, to a recognition of our embeddedness in relations with others. For Frankl, responsibleness (this is the word used in the English translation, not “responsibility”) is a fact of human life. “In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.” We are responsible to others for our actions and inactions. The purpose that I seek might be an awareness of this responsibleness, of how all my decisions affect other people, affect the earth, affect all sentient and non-sentient beings.
If, in the face of human cruelty and destruction, we come to believe that there is no justice, that everything is random, then it follows that our own actions have no meaning. But the recognition of injustice actually undercuts this kind of nihilism. To recognize injustice is to long for justice, for a more just response or action to be taken. That longing gives us purpose. Thus our lives have meaning, and they can either be working for justice or not working for justice, i.e., allowing injustice. This is similar to Ibram X. Kendi’s argument about being not racist vs. being antiracist. In the world as it is, every person’s perspective has been and will continue to be shaped by racist ideas. These ingrained prejudices cannot be eliminated by denying their existence, but by actively choosing in every situation that presents itself to acknowledge and act in opposition to them. There is no neutral stance. There is no meaningless life, or action. Every action belies responsibility to another, or a refusal to acknowledge your own responsibility. Crucially, these positions are not stagnant or stable, but change every time we make a choice, speak up, stay silent. Like art, or faith, they are practices, not identities.
It would be easier if we could simply adopt a stance or belief system that rendered all of our actions meaningful and moral. This is one way that religion has been used throughout human history: plausible deniability. But the work of antiracism, of compassion for others, of finding meaning and purpose, is ongoing.
I’ve seen four or so therapists over the years, and each of them has, without my asking, offered me numerous book recommendations. My therapy almost always involves homework: reading, worksheets, activities. I learned from my Austin therapist about the work of Kristen Neff, who wrote the book on self-compassion. Like many other researchers in the field of empathy, Neff has demonstrated, scientifically, that we cannot feel compassion for others without first having compassion for ourselves. But in a world where time is commodified, even self-compassion, like self-care, becomes a form of work or labor. In Santa Fe we have an oxygen bar where you can buy air to breathe by the minute. At the Loretto chapel, my Catholic mom bought a small St. Joseph statue to help sell her house. The dangers of religion and self-care are the same: consumerism. Things with ostensibly good intentions are so easily co-opted into malignant or degrading things. They become indulgences, false but tangible mercies you can buy.
Having lost our faiths in god, in religion, and in humanity, we put our faith into things. But, as ever, it’s the practice that matters, not the objects; it’s the doing, the action, the activity, the yielding. Just like indulgences, the practice is more important than the thing, but we just want to buy it, to achieve it.
Self-awareness, that primary activity of the artist, has in recent decades morphed into self-making, a kind of work. The self has become a product, a brand, a thing to put our faith into. We use work as the route to a meaningful life, a purpose, but work is fundamentally bereft of meaning under global capitalism. Heidi Geissler, in her novel drawn from her work as a seasonal associate in an Amazon warehouse, writes about becoming less and less of a human being at a job centered around increasingly meaningless objects and actions. One in 153 Americans works for Amazon. Longing for any kind of reprieve, Geissler starts to think of the restroom as a retreat, “a place that belongs at least a tiny bit to you, here in this gigantic hall. A place that’s not transparent, where no one checks on you, where it’s quiet and the light’s not too bright.” Through the breakdown of language in the working world, the self becomes either consumer or worker, but not human being. Not even a cog in a machine but a function in a digital code. She begins to write on the job as a form of resistance, a way to be “rescued.” Geissler’s job at Amazon asks that she cease to be human, or at least become less human, in order to fulfill her duties. Capitalism asks the same thing of each of us, and the artist’s role might be to resist that. And so my quest for meaning is a matter of life and death for me, but it is also my work as an artist (and the work of all artists, or even, as Frankl might suggest, all humans).
On the one hand, I was taught that work is drudgery. My dad took the train downtown to Chicago every day, in winter leaving before the sun was up and coming home after dark. He’s an accountant. His work sounded terrible to me. But that was what work was: terrible. My parents say, frequently, work isn’t supposed to be fun. All work sucks. Micki McGee, author of Self Help, Inc, quotes self-help writer Marsha Sinetar:
Perhaps [the idea that work is drudgery] evolved out of the Puritan ethic, which kept people’s noses to the grindstone, grimly slaving away from sunrise till sunset. A respite was needed—not so much from the work, as from the attitudes behind the work, which were based on a deep antipathy to joy and playfulness.
Or, more bluntly, as Matthew Desmond writes in the New York Times 1619 Project, in America, human enslavement is the origin of our idea of what “real” work looks like. Or, as the motto read over the gateway to the concentration camps where Viktor Frankl was imprisoned, Arbeit macht frei: Work makes you free. As long as working conditions are better than enslavement, better than a concentration camp, we’re doing great, work is easy and pleasant by comparison, and don’t you forget it. It could be worse.
Maybe the artist’s work is to figure out how to be human without defining humanity in capitalist terms, in terms of labor and product and consumer. Nauman says:
It is easier to consider the possibility of not being an artist. The world doesn’t end when you dry up. What you are to do with the everyday is an art problem. And it is broader than just deciding whether to be a sculptor or a painter. It is a problem that everybody has at one time or another. An artist is put in the position of questioning one’s lifestyle more than most people. The artist’s freedom to do whatever he or she wants includes the necessity of making these fundamental decisions.
I am still haunted by the Richard Scarry book What Do People Do All Day? I ask myself this all the time. When I am doing my paid work, for Nauman, or my creative “work,” or my household tasks, or trying to relax, I am wondering if this is what I am supposed to be doing. In the various jobs I’ve had over the years—bookseller, barista, adjunct professor, dance teacher, receptionist, archivist—I’ve never known if I was filling the time properly.
I struggle with this notion of work as drudgery when I work from home. Some of my so-called work is writing, and the practice of writing involves much more than sitting a keyboard and typing away. To write I need to be reading, an activity I find pleasurable, and thinking, which can look like doing nothing. I need to do mundane things to take my mind away from the writing, as that seems to be the only way I can write. I sew, I garden, I walk, I bake, I clean and tidy, I stare into space. None of these looks like work as I imagine it. In the afternoons, I do what I call my paid work, which is mostly data entry. Typing the same information sometimes hundreds of times into a database. This is more like the drudgery of labor that feels correct. But it requires so little mental attention, I can listen to audiobooks or podcasts while I do it. Then I am doing two types of work at once: I am reading, which means I am writing, and I am also doing my paid work. Just like when I walk and listen to a Pema Chödrön book, I am getting my cardio, but I am also learning how to be a person. The cleaning and cooking and sewing are types of labor that we traditionally view as unpaid, non-labor, because a) they occur in the house, b) they are in the sphere of women, and c) they haven’t been valued or compensated by our society in the West for a long time. These are activities of caretaking and maintenance that people now are more inclined to view as work, as labor, but they are also just the necessary ablutions and mendings and makings of being human. Even these feel, to me, self-indulgent.
In an interview, I asked Harmony Hammond, the last artist I worked for and a friend, if she felt like her work was selfish. Like taking the time to focus on her artwork was somehow self-indulgent. She replied:
Selfish isn’t the word that I would use. Of course I protect my time. I’m very structured about my time, or I wouldn’t get anything done . . . I think what I’m more aware of in relation to time (other than there is never enough of it), is “privilege.” I have an awareness of privilege. To be able to work, even as a single mom, or when I was commuting and teaching, to somehow be able to do my work, to be able to do what my passion is, and be recognized for it, is a real privilege. Yes, I have to set boundaries; yes, I have priorities, and the work is the major part of my life, for sure, but other things, like teaching or the martial arts that I did for so many years, they’re part of the work too. I don’t separate what I’m doing outside and what I’m doing inside, or what I do in the house from what I do in the studio. For me, they just kind of flow together and feed each other. And normally it feels pretty good, unless I get too anxious about something. The multitasking can get out of hand.
Time is a privilege, and the way we use it can be privileged. (Time can also be a curse. “Willoughby Sharp: Who is your art for? Nauman: To keep me busy.”) And Hammond’s work as an artist isn’t separate from her hobbies or her paid work or making her home. I feel deep kinship with her last sentence here, about multitasking. I also relate to and remember vividly how she told me most days she works in the studio and around the house until she “collapses.”
The blessing and the danger of life as an artist—of life for many working people in the era of the Internet, of what Jonathan Crary calls 24/7 capitalism—is that we have trained ourselves never to stop working, to see nothing as separate from work. Crary writes:
Because one’s bank account and one’s friendships can now be managed through identical machinic operations and gestures, there is a growing homogenization of what used to be entirely unrelated areas of experience. At the same time, whatever remaining pockets of everyday life are not directed toward quantitative or acquisitive ends, or cannot be adapted to telematic participation, tend to deteriorate in esteem and desirability.
Chelsea just looked over at me from across the bed to say, “It’s 11:30 and all we’ve been doing is working.” It’s Memorial Day, and we talked about taking the day “off,” but instead all morning I’ve been here writing about work, while she edits art books for her job. We are choice examples of what McGee refers to as the artistic work model for the postindustrial labor force, in that we “are accustomed to working without supervision”; “find ways of motivating [our]selves even in the absence of compensation” (hand-raise emoji); “typically work out of [our] own workspace”; “blur the distinction between work and pleasure.” This blurring has become the reality for many more office workers as companies shifted to remote work since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic. Rather than reduce the amount of time they spent working or make more space for reflection, many people increased their productive hours by working from home. They could begin working immediately upon waking, work through meals and work while trying to care for their children. The space for the nonworking self became smaller and smaller, as the space for working took over the space for living. For some, though, in particular for minimum wage restaurant workers kept home with unemployment, the stay-at-home orders gave an opportunity to question the unrelenting work that had kept them busy for all their adult years. Many of them, given a moment to pause and consider the course of their lives, have chosen not to go back to work at all, resulting in what some are calling the Great Resignation, and what the news calls a “labor crisis.”
Self-writing, like making a self, is a form of labor, and it is a recursive one at that. Essayist Pam Houston writes, “Sometimes I feel like a cannibal. Sometimes I wish there were five minutes of my life I didn’t reinvent as I went along.” When I find myself rereading a notebook I wrote in six months ago, unable to remember the self that wrote the words, I feel like a cannibal, like I am devouring my past self to feed my current self. Houston’s friend Jane quotes Adrienne Rich to her in response: “What kind of beast would turn its life into words?” It’s hard for me to realize that every experience I have, every thought I have, will eventually be written down and mined for use in an essay like this one. That in order for my writing to be true to my life, nothing can be sacred, or rather, everything must be. Writing, what Eileen Myles calls “living twice,” is empowering, a chance for reinvention, for changing the narrative, and it is also hollowing. What is left of me off the page? And yet this is what I desire, for the writing to contain the fullness of my life. Nauman says:
I struggle a lot with those issues. It seems as though more of my life is concerned with things I care about that I can’t get into my work. It is important to me to be able to get these things into the work so that the art isn’t just something I do off in the corner, while going hiking in the mountains remains separate. I want there to be more continuity; going hiking isn’t doing art, but I want the feelings that I have there to be available in the other parts of my life. I don’t want the art to be too narrow.
When Chelsea reads my writing and sees the major scenes and minutiae of our lives on paper, does she feel cannibalized? Or does she feel seen and reflected? What do I feel? Self-reflection can be self-indulgent, narcissistic, but it is also the only way to know the self, to write the self.
Lara assigned me some homework two years ago, and I still haven’t done it: an aimless walk. “Go park on Garcia Street and wander aimlessly for thirty minutes, then write about it.” I didn’t know how to take an aimless walk when she gave me this assignment, and I still don’t now. And I’m still thinking about it, and still feeling guilty that I haven’t done it. She’s not even my therapist any longer, but the assignment hangs over me. (Perhaps that conjunction should have been “because.”) What is the point? Not having a point is the point, I remind myself, unable to put on my shoes. Lara once asked if I ever played hooky, and I said, “Oh, last Sunday we stayed in bed and watched The Crown.” She laughed and said I didn’t know what hooky was. And maybe she’s right. Maybe when I’m not always working on a bunch of things I don’t know who I am or what to do. When I started The Artist’s Way I hadn’t even gotten to the point of what could be called writer’s block. Instead, I panicked that I might experience it at some point in the future and set about solving a problem I did not yet have. I forgot how to be aimless—or I only knew how to be aimless when I was paid to be doing something else, like selling books or interning at an archive or guarding the computer lab. Even now, I feel I can work on this essay without guilt only when I am simultaneously scanning photo-graphs for my paid work; the archival-quality scans take forever, the hum in the background reminds me that I am not just focusing on my own stuff. My best ideas arise in my freest time, which is the time I’ve sold to others.
Aimlessness is not something I was taught to value, not something our society values or even recognizes as a thing. It becomes laziness. Self-care, Audre Lorde wrote, could be a political tool: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Simply existing, especially existing as a part of a marginalized group, is a form of resistance. But of course, self-care as Lorde envisioned it has been commodified, Goopified, and sold by white women back to white women. It is championed by companies who seek not to care for living beings but to optimize the human machines of their labor force. I do not know that preserving my body is a political act of good. I am taking up space when I publish a book. I am using up valuable natural resources.
The “artist’s date,” the other tool Cameron offers in The Artist’s Way, is way less popular, based on my experience and a cursory survey of other artists I’ve talked to about the book. Many readers don’t even recall the date. Cameron asks that once a week, you find an hour to do something just for your “inner artist,” who is a version of your inner child. Go to a museum, go to a garden: basically, go on an aimless walk. Every way I tried to do this task, it turned into an errand. As with the aimless walk, which kept turning into a good chance to get some cardio in, I couldn’t get in my car without figuring out how I could also swing by the library, or the grocery. I ended up wandering the aisles of Big Joe hardware for a full hour, just looking, taking it in. The hardware store employees kept asking if I needed help. And I did need some chicken wire for our garden, which they cut for me. Errand accomplished, somewhat inefficiently. In his book about millennials, Malcolm Harris writes, “Free time can always turn to productivity, so when productivity is properly managed, there is no such thing as free time.” The artist’s date became mercenary. And it was another pressure, obligation, task. The whole point was openendedness, freedom, aimlessness, wandering, and what comes of it or doesn’t. As I try to cultivate aimlessness and find the ability to play, what am I doing but cultivating my productivity as a writer?
For a stretch of time after we moved to Santa Fe, when I wasn’t sure how to make money, I turned all of my hobbies into enterprises. Sewing turned into a clothing business. My little garden became our vital food source. Everything had to become “productive.” If I didn’t have a full-time job as a professor, I would have to make up for it in side hustles. Some might have told me that the months following my dissertation defense could have been an opportunity to rest, to transition. But I would have told them, “I have to pay rent.” “There has ceased to be any internal necessity for having rest and recuperation as components of economic growth and profitability,” Crary writes. “Time for human rest and regeneration is now simply too expensive to be structurally possible within contemporary capitalism.” I didn’t know how to rest, and I still struggle on weekends not to spend the whole time creating new projects for myself. What is self-help if not a source for more projects?
This is feeling like an old realization, a re-realization. In Sheila Heti’s book Motherhood, a book outwardly about grappling with the decision to have kids or not, but which I read as a kind of self-help and a manifesto for the creative process, she writes:
I want to take up as much space as I can in time, stretch out and stroll with nowhere to go, and give myself the largest parcels of time in which to do nothing—to let my obligations slip to the ground, reply to no one, please no one, leave everyone hanging, impolitely, and try to win no one’s favor.
And later, “How wonderful to tread an invisible path, where what matters most can hardly be seen.” Embracing these ideas—doing nothing, abandoning obligations, treading an invisible path—and practicing them has the result of making me more and more weird, less and less of a “healthy normal.” Less and less “well-adjusted.” And I don’t want to have kids, I don’t want to have a career, I don’t want to proceed on some well-worn path toward accomplishment. Chelsea and I left Austin, left the academic job market, and moved to Santa Fe in rejection of these paths. The lives we sought were slower, less directed, more aimless than the ones we’d been living. All things a capitalist world doesn’t want us to be. We’ve both changed since moving to New Mexico, leaving the university. We talk about how we got “away,” and how living in this small, somewhat isolated place offers the freedom to be however we want to be. Which was harder to do while paying Austin rent.
Up the stairs of a ramshackle house on top of a mesa in El Rito, where the toilet was composting and the water had to be trucked in from below, Chelsea and our friend, a painter, and I each took what was supposed to be a microdose of LSD. We’d spent the afternoon swimming and were planning to go to dinner for Chelsea’s thirty-ninth birthday, and had gotten to talking about the Michael Pollan book on LSD she’d just read, and lately all our friends seemed to be experimenting with acid, or mushrooms, a Trump-era yearning to expand or contract one’s consciousness. I had never done acid, too busy in my youth getting straight As and going to dance classes and editing the yearbook, refusing to have fun as a matter of principle. I immediately got a migraine. Chelsea, who did a lot of acid as a teen, had an intense, terrible trip. For several hours she was sure she was dying. We had to leave the restaurant because the floor was opening up beneath her, and all the waitresses were wearing white face paint, she told me in a whisper in the bathroom. After driving for another hour through the already hallucinogenic northern New Mexico June landscape, we found ourselves sitting in the car outside a restaurant in Española for two hours. The painter was on his own trip, blithely eating tacos in the back seat, while we watched a chainlink fence, and Chelsea saw time unfolding rapidly, the sun setting and rising and setting in a matter of minutes in the field beyond.
Not familiar with mind-altering drugs, I tried to think of what to say to help her ride it out. I talked about how she was now just like our cat, Gary, for whom every second is a new world, a birth, everything that happens a great new discovery. I was unwittingly channeling Chödrön, or maybe Gary was: “To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.” Or, as Pollan writes, “The great gift of the psychedelic journey, especially to the dying: its power to imbue everything in our field of experience with a heightened sense of purpose and consequence.” Perhaps people are drawn to psychedelics, and to these other New Age practices, because we are at a time when things seem especially without purpose or consequence. LSD disrupts the default mode network, causing us literally to lose our sense of self, our autobiographical narrative, which is why so many people describe their experience as one of merging, becoming one with the world around them, with people and plants and objects. Some find this comforting, others exhilarating, others terrifying.
Later that night, I stopped the car at Chelsea’s insistence to watch the moon rise behind a cliff, first just a sliver of bright light, then a larger and larger slice, with the shadow of the cliff carved into it. “What is happening?” Chelsea asked, eyes wild. “I’ve never seen anything like this before! Have you?”
“I saw a moonrise like this in Wyoming last summer,” I said.
She was adamant. “No, no way, this has never happened before. Nothing like this has ever happened.” Technically, she was right.
In an interview, fiction writer Lauren Groff talks about time and how humans are always fighting against it or trying to understand it, shape it, while animals just allow it to pass, and there are so many signs in the seasons that show the rightness of its passing. It’s a comforting way to think about it. Time is passing always at the same pace, there’s nothing for us to do but accept it, go with the flow. Yet I am so deeply impatient. I can’t off the top of my head think of something I do lately in which I’m not waiting to do the next thing. Writing can be a comfortable way to occupy or exist in time. I don’t watch the clock, I forget to eat, certainly I forget to get up and move my body. Hours float by, I’ve forgotten what they are. Yet starting that timeless process requires me to be willing to take a step out of time, to forego my impatience, and so it’s often hard for me to get there. Because to lose the impatient feeling is to lose a sense of control over my life, my day, my place in the world. Even if it’s a pleasant loss, the voiding of ego, the ego fears it. Easier for the ego to make a plan, a list, a strategy, to come up with a rationale for writing or not writing, for writing while scanning, for reading while walking. All the little paths and trajectories we make up give us end products, or we become the end products, linear narratives with prescribed ends. Living in time as Groff suggests is much harder, murkier. Aimless.
In September, for our third anniversary, we decided to hike to Nambe Lake, a longer trek than our usual one- or two-hour trails. We packed sandwiches and apples and started up between the yellowing aspens. The stream our guidebook said to follow was rushing, full of moss and plants like a jungle. Creeks and rivers and waterfalls in New Mexico usually appear utterly dry, running only deep beneath the ground. Later we learned that snow melt had flooded the path, erasing it and creating a series of new streams in its place, each of which we tried, dutifully, to follow to the lake. We laughed, half enjoying the outing and half terrified, not knowing where we were headed. We had alternating meltdowns. We kept asking each other, “Is this the stream?” until at a certain point I yelled, “NOTHING IS THE STREAM!” When we finally got to the lake, exhausted from wondering for three hours if we were totally lost, the lake was really more of a pond. As a midwesterner, I was deeply disappointed. It was an object lesson. Now when we hike, we try not to get so hung up on getting to the end of the trail that we lose sight of ourselves completely. But the endpoint is always so tempting. That sense of purpose.
I wonder why I find self-help books so comforting. Not because they supply solutions—the ones I read don’t. But I do love lists, I love advice columns, I love listening to my friend who is in AA tell me her advice and wisdom about patience, about accepting things as they are, about letting things unfold. Her AA wisdom, like the wisdom of yoga teachers, hits me right in the gut, even if I can tell that if I try to repeat it or write it down it will sound bogus, or wildly impractical. Lately there are a lot of cult shows streaming in—the Manson family, Waco, Osho. I don’t know if that means cults are on the rise, along with crystals and astrology and self-help and meditation, but it suggests to me that our interest in them must be. Are cults and conspiracy theories gaining in popularity under late capitalism, as we, the precarious, try to find something solid to believe in? I know more than one Santa Fean who moved to New Mexico to work with a guru, back in the ’60s and ’70s. But then the other day, someone started talking, in utter seriousness, about a “laundry guru.” As in: someone who guides you in doing your laundry. This wasn’t a casual mention, this was a workshop that someone paid to take. So perhaps what we think of as a cult has shifted, and our new cults are lifestyle brands, gear, lifehacks. In place of Kool-Aid and suicide, jade vaginal eggs and UTIs. But the ideas I’m trying to practice aren’t about a workshop or finding a teacher or a way to do things right, an answer. Chödrön writes, “We are not trying to solve a problem. We are not striving to make pain go away or to become a better person. In fact, we are giving up control altogether and letting concepts and ideals fall apart.”
Before I got into meditation and The Artist’s Way and all the other woo practices I’ve come to treasure, I already did a lot of yoga. I loved moving my body and losing sight of my thoughts in the midst of it. And when I am lost in my body, I am totally susceptible to the somewhat absurd, often corny platitudes of yoga teachers. Like when Denise suddenly screams out, YOU HAVE A BLUE-SKY BODY, AND YOU ARE GLOWING WITH CRYSTAL WHITE LIGHT! Or a teacher reads some Mary Oliver, some Rumi, perennial yoga instructor favorites. They say things like, “Your thoughts are waves in the ocean. You are the ocean. Vast.” Or, “You are a murky pond full of silt, let the dirt settle until the water clears.” I am so responsive to this way of thinking—the metaphors, the nature symbolism. I like how tangible these images are, and how they connect me and my body to larger bodies—the sky, the ocean—and my feelings to actual earthly phenomena—light, dirt. I am not me, I am just this vessel.
A crystal vortex is a place on earth where significant geologic events have resulted in a congregation of crystals deep in the earth’s crust that have special, palpable currents of energy. This is the best definition I can find online, on websites that use the word “metaphysical” liberally. It is safe to say that most non-Native millennials are using crystals in ways that do not reflect their traditional healing and ceremonial use for Indigenous peoples in the Americas, like Spencer from the reality TV show The Hills covering his body in “hundreds” of crystals to free him from his sister’s drama. The locations of crystal vortices throughout the Southwest, places where people claim to feel the vortices most strongly, often coincide with sacred Indigenous sites with long cultural histories—mountains, rock formations, bodies of water—but these locations continue to be sites of colonization and appropriation as tourist attractions for mostly white visitors and transplants. When we tried to camp in Sedona, Arizona, one of the best-known crystal vortices, passing through from Joshua Tree en route to Santa Fe, every possible campsite and forest road spot was full, and it did feel like a vortex to me, sitting in a line of cars snaking through the canyon, a tourist vortex, a human sinkhole.
Today Chelsea got a book of photos of places across the South where lynchings occurred, but the photos just look like landscapes, grass or trees or dirt, or concrete, like anywhere. You can’t see that anything happened. Blood does not cry out from the earth. She said it seemed like an odd coincidence for this book to arrive in the midst of nationwide protests of the police killing George Floyd in Minneapolis, but then she remembered that such violence is not out of but quite within the realm of the ordinary. The book would always arrive in such a context. No patch of ground is anything but sacred. No patch of ground is anything but soaked in blood. Everything is part of the path. The vortex is in us and around us and has nothing and everything to do with us. People have always cried out that the earth is ending, that this must be it, the final straw, the last days, and now more than ever, and so on, but we just keep going, don’t we, the survivors, from one piece of scarred and holy ground to the next, picking up the glinting shards to carry in our pockets or place on a shelf to remind us of stone, of energy, of powers greater and longer and older and wiser than we’ll ever be. To remind us we are merest flesh. To whisper to us as we fall asleep the only words that bring us comfort in this godforsaken world, “I will outlive you, too.”
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