Standing Behind the Waterfall

Life eight months after leaving the law

Seljalandsfoss, Iceland 2015

I have been drumming my fingers since my last and first post, wondering what I might write about next on Medium. I find online writing tends to rub off corners, to convert detailed, fleshy stories into gleaming but lifeless symbols.

It is not easy to write honestly.

I just read this old post by elle luna titled The Crossroads of Should and Must. It’s a useful and compelling read for any creative, intelligent person who is experiencing conflict between the self s/he feels pressured to be and the self s/he truly is.

I came across Elle’s post after taking her class on finding your passion. I don’t love the word “passion,” but Elle’s class was a useful exercise in discovering what is driving me in life. One of the things Elle has you do is to post your photos and notes on the wall. The tactile quality of paper and seeing my own handwriting made this a creative process. I think doing this exercise digitally would be too cerebral, more about data-processing than about the encounter.

My wall during Elle’s class

After clustering my photos and notecards on my wall, I was surprised to find there was nothing among them to suggest that I identified as, say, a “potter” or a “writer.” Rather, my words and images clustered around abstract words or concepts. Neurotic. Interdisciplinary. Ambitious. Explore.

Aha. Hm. Now what? What am I supposed to do with these words?

I struggle constantly with the battle between my linear thinking and my open thinking. My linear thinking goes like this: If you like pottery, keep taking pottery classes and maybe you will open a pottery studio one day. My open thinking, on the other hand, goes like this: Pottery is awesome. It’s similar to ballet, and swimming, and all sorts of things. Who knows where this will lead?

It feels safer to listen to my linear brain. This is, after all, the side of my brain that comes up with Solutions, Conclusions, and Answers. There is a lot of comfort and security in knowing. Coming up with a plan makes me feel good; it feels like I have been productive.

But I have spent a lot of my life coming up with conclusions, and I have decided that logical conclusions do not always guarantee satisfaction. Enjoy writing but don’t know what to do with it? Go to law school. Enjoy cooking? Start a food blog; become a food writer.

These are the types of answers you come up with when you take some fledgling creative interest and apply linear thinking plus ambition. For the creatively inclined, this type of thinking makes it too easy to become what Julia Cameron calls the “shadow artist”:

Young writers may be pushed toward lawyering, a talky, wordy profession, or into medical school because they’re so smart. And so the child who is himself a born storyteller may be converted into a gifted therapist who gets his stories told secondhand.
Too intimidated to become artists themselves, very often too low in self-worth to even recognize that they have an artistic dream, these people become shadow artists instead. . . . Unable to recognize that they themselves may possess the creativity they so admire, they often date or marry people who actively pursue the art career they themselves secretly long for. . . . . Shadow artists often choose shadow careers — those close to the desired art, even parallel to it, but not the art itself.

Now, I am not advocating for every lawyer or doctor out there with a childhood interest in drawing to quit their profession and become a starving artist. And I do not believe that a young artist is incapable of thriving in a traditional career, if she or he so chooses.

But there is something to be said for listening to one’s true self. Authenticity, for whatever that word is worth. I see many people ignore that nagging voice inside for a variety of reasons, some more real than others. Many feel trapped by career-marriage-house-child.

There is nothing wrong with any of these things. I am married. I would like to own a house and have a child one day. I also understand fully the concrete reality of these and other obligations. I have some of these obligations myself, and they weigh on me daily.

But, but…that nagging voice inside? It does not disappear, no matter how successful one’s career, how fantastic one’s partner, or how wonderful one’s children. The voice may get locked up in a room somewhere. It might wither and shrivel up. It may be sublimated into some other socially palatable form. But it does not disappear.

The question, my question, is: How do you respond to this voice? For me, the obvious yet difficult first step was leaving the law. I needed space to evaluate everything going on in my life and to try different modes of being.

But leaving was just the first step. The much more difficult endeavor was the uncertain abyss that followed.

I am excited about pottery and writing. But I still feel lost and uncertain. It is hard to describe this state of being in words. If I were attending a meditation retreat in the mountains, it might be easy to describe this inward state. If I were to choreograph a dance, I could express my uncertainty.

But I am not on a retreat or on a stage. I am in the city with my husband and birds. I attend brunches with friends and enjoy the occasional happy hour. After a discussion about work politics gone awry, it feels out of place to talk about my nebulous “inward state.” More, talking about this inward state is not always productive. Sometimes it is better to hide it, to hold it close to myself so as to ward off prying eyes or questions.

Elle Luna writes:

This solo inward journey has been called many things throughout time — the myths call it the labyrinth, the abyss, the forest, and the night journey.

The “solo inward journey.” Or, as I like to think of it, the dark night of the soul. The “dark night of the soul” is a phrase attributed to a poem written by 16th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross. The poem begins:

En una noche oscura,
con ansias en amores inflamada,
(¡oh dichosa ventura!)
salí sin ser notada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.
A oscuras y segura,
por la secreta escala disfrazada,
(¡oh dichosa ventura!)
a oscuras y en celada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.
En la noche dichosa,
en secreto, que nadie me veía,
ni yo miraba cosa,
sin otra luz ni guía 
sino la que en el corazón ardía.

My amateur and literal translation:

On a dark night,
With the longing of inflamed love,
(Oh blessed joy!)
I went out without being noticed,
My house now still.
Safe in darkness, 
By a ladder secret and disguised,
(Oh blessed joy!)
Hidden in darkness, 
My house now still.
On that blissful night,
In secret, no one saw me,
And I saw nothing,
With no light or guide
But that which burned in my heart.

While St. John’s poem is religious in tone, the phrase “dark night” has expanded beyond Catholicism to refer to some great and internal crisis, during which a person questions all which he or she has previously held to be true.

I tell you now. These days, I am not lightly flitting among clouds of unicorns and rainbows. I am not depressed, per se, but I am very much sober. I feel more alive than I have since college (ten years ago!), yet my obligations and self-doubt are much higher than they were for 21-year-old me. I crave solitude intensely, even while I do not have the courage to leave town. I want to tell you, but I also want to keep things to myself. I have explained everything, but I can explain nothing. If you stand behind a waterfall, in that dark, slimy crevice, and you feel the heavy water bearing down and slapping you in the face, the sun peeking at you between the slits, it is like that.

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