As a kid, I thought being really interested in something — not to mention being good at it — meant eventually getting a Ph.D. I don’t think I knew then what a Ph.D. actually was, what it entailed, what it meant at all really. I just knew it’s what my dad had. And he was really smart. And I was really smart. So a Ph.D. seemed like a given.
Later, things got confusing. There were other degrees to consider. Who knows what they even were or might have been. International Relations? Rabbinical School? Fellowships? What’s a fellowship? I remember asking the dean who suggested I apply for one, or three. (I didn’t.)
To be passionate about something meant school. Meant degrees, letters after one’s name, and surely many years of study. It took me so very long to see, that to be a devotee of practice is something, too. Something that counts.
This morning, I went for a 20-minute run with my friend, Susa Talan. Susa and I have known each other for 30 years. She is an artist as I am a writer; that is, we are each dedicated to showing up in our own ways. The world screams: Make money! Be the best! Oh my god, “be the best” makes me want to scream.
“It’s not a competition, it’s a doorway.” ― Mary Oliver
As we stood at the end of the driveway after our run, Susa told me about a rat study about addiction. A lone rat in a cage with two dispensers, one filled with water and the other with liquid heroin. Sad little guy drained the heroin dispenser — all the way until he died.
A second cage, filled with rats. Something akin to rattopia, replete with rat toys, rat fun, and rat games. A real, bona fide rat community. And also, the same two dispensers — one with water, one with heroin.
The rats drank the water and had a blast.
In my old job, on my lunch hour, I would leave the office and traipse across the soccer field to the trails that snaked through the woods. I’d walk a while, breathing in the earth smell and looking at the trees, bare in winter or full leafy green in summer or somewhere between, dying or being born.
More than once, I’d experience the sensation of being an animal who’d gone into the woods to die alone. I’d sit down on a log or against a tree trunk, smoke a couple of cloves, one after another, and maybe edit pictures on my phone or just play Candy Crush. Sometimes I’d write. I even wrote some pretty good poems, out there in the woods where I died day after day, alone. A rat with her heroin, sort of.
The truth is, connection and community keep us – keep me — alive. My wife’s here next to me, at my side, with an illness that has impacted almost all of the old ways of being social and in the world; we cannot go play pool or catch a movie or walk to town on a warm evening or have a meal with friends.
So what do we do now, now that we’ve chosen not to kill ourselves completely? Now that we’re nearing nine months since either of us lit up? Now that we’re here, in the middle of the middle of the middle? We could rage against the conditions. We could isolate. I could go all woe-is-me and wah-wah-wah; some days I do. That’s cool — to a degree.
And, there’s an “and.”
We write. We draw. We snuggle and savor. We watch Downton Abbey. We spend money on beautiful things that bring us joy. We laugh about stupid shit and we watch bulldog videos on Instagram. We just got a new book to read together. We talk to our kids. We watch for hawks. She is taking an online drawing class, though I swear she was born knowing how. I hold space for others to show up, where we can meet and practice without having to have any particular background or degrees.
In short, we feel our way, reminding each other — and slowly, slowly, also coming to believe it ourselves, from the inside out — that we’re already more than enough. As are you.
Maybe the only letters we need after our names are A.R.T. They could stand for Already Rocking This.