I recently finished This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. She has written many books, but this was the first I've read, and I picked it up because: A) The title caught my eye, and B) I decided reading a book of essays - particularly one that included a story about a marriage - was good homework for me. When it comes to writing, I consider myself an essayist above all else, and the book I am working on about my family will most certainly involve stories about my marriage. It is my marriage, after all, that sits at the center of everything - it is the source, cause and inspiration of all the stories I want to share. So I picked up the book and brought it home, and after finishing the second of 22 chapters, I had to set it aside for a while. The second chapter was called The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life, and it was one of those experiences of reading that had me nodding, gasping, laughing and crying. She wrote about details of her life as a writer that I understood, had only dreamed of and couldn't imagine. She reinforced my love of and passion for writing and also made me feel like a total poser. I had to put the book aside after reading that second chapter because I was, quite frankly, terrified. I was afraid that if I kept reading I would only get discouraged - intimidated by her talent and experience as a writer and envious of her beautiful hardcover book of essays. It wasn't long before I looked in the mirror and said, "Buck up and read the book!" and once I dove back in I was hooked.
A few weeks later, I found out she was speaking in Santa Barbara, and immediately bought tickets. The night of her event arrived, and I marched into the auditorium with my copy of This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage in tow, feeling unexpectedly overwhelmed. You see, I learned a lot about Ann Patchett in that book of insanely well-written essays, and the more I learned, the less justified I felt calling myself a writer. I've never written for Vogue, won the PEN/Faulkner Award or attended the Iowa Writer's Workshop (or any workshop.) I've never written a novel, had my name in the New York Times or been a guest on The Colbert Report. Her entire life has been devoted to writing, and I didn't get going until I was almost 40 years old. By the time she walked out on stage, where she gave a talk worthy of TED that was both entertaining and poignant, I was literally almost in tears. And when I walked up to her table to have my book signed, I could not have been any less interesting or bland. I think I said "You are so funny…this book made me laugh out loud." Nice. Despite my utterly forgettable attempt at a compliment, she happily signed my book and admired my earrings, and I walked away feeling like a great big dork. And a loser. And an idiot.
During this time, I've also been reading Paradise in Plain Sight by Karen Maezen Miller - another book that has me nodding and gasping and having to put the book down when I can't see the words because they are blurred by my tears. Karen Maezen Miller is a friend, and she also happens to be a Buddhist priest. She is not a friend I actually get to see very often, but is never far from my thoughts. I'd bet she actually has no idea how much she influences my day-to-day, how indelibly her presence in my life has made its mark - on me, my marriage, my family and my home. I guess I could call her my spiritual muse. She teaches and guides me just about everyday, just by her being. She is also an exquisite writer, and though her book is small, I have intentionally paced my reading of it in order to absorb each chapter as deeply as possible.
I attended one of Maezen's meditation workshops a few years ago, and she had us hold out our arms and wiggle our fingers. Doing this was supposed to give us a very literal answer to the question, "Where is my life?" The struggle so many of us have is that we believe we should be over there instead of right here - that our "real life" exists somewhere other than where we are, doing something other than what we're doing. Lifting our arms and wiggling our fingers showed us where to look to find our "real life" - right in front of us, in the here and now.
"Where is my life (as the writer I want to be)?"
"Right here. Right in front of you. Standing in front of Ann Patchett and feeling like a yoyo."
I'm not an award-winning writer (or a Buddhist priest), but I am, well, me. And while I sometimes give in to the monumentally unhelpful, unproductive game of comparing myself to others, I have, thankfully, learned how to pull myself out of it before all hell breaks lose. In Paradise in Plain Sight, Maezen says, "It is an awesome responsibility to inherit the ground where you stand." Ann Patchett has her unique place in the world, as does Maezen, my husband and my granddaughter. We all do, and it serves no one to look outside of ourselves and covet someone else's experiences. It is an awesome responsibility to inherit the ground where I stand - it demands my full attention and requires me to let go of irrational, ego-based longings ("If only I didn't have so much laundry I'd have won the PEN/Faulkner Award too!") Thank goodness the writers I admire stayed true to their own course. In doing so, they've shown me the way and inspired me to act - to write and share and give it a go. Even when I lose my way. Even when I forget where I am.