Do I have to be a mommy to “opt out”?

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 24, 2007

I’m crazy in love with my two sisters’ five kids. I feel like helping to raise them would give my life meaning.


Dear Cary,

My younger sisters each recently had two babies apiece — two boys on one side, two girls on the other side. There’s also a fantastic 7-year-old in the mix. I have, quite frankly, fallen in love with these children.

I am not a big lover of kids in general. When I was little I never dreamt about babies. As a teen I hated baby-sitting and did office work to make extra money. I married (then divorced) a man who didn’t want kids. At 35 my biological clock has finally kicked in, but I’m unlikely to have my own; I have hormonal health issues and there is no man in the picture, nor a lucrative career, nor a healthy savings account that would make single parenting or adoption feasible.

But being with my sisters’ kids has been this amazing, heart-opening experience. They say that the love a parent has for a child is overwhelming and unconditional. I must be feeling some small portion of that. They are gorgeous, utterly imperfect, joyful, maddening little people. And they are ours — the next chapter in our family’s story. Incredible.

I understand for the first time the importance of generational history — how children represent hope for the future, and why some families really function as clans, fiercely protecting their own. I wasn’t raised with those values. I missed the value of extended family and blood connection. But now, for me, that is changing.

I had a plan, after my divorce, to get myself out of my financial hole and go teach or volunteer in Asia or maybe New Orleans. I would see more of the world (I’ve already been to five continents, but is that really enough?) and maybe help build some schools or distribute food. And then I would move out West and live on the side of a mountain and hike every day and write a novel and move in with a guy who looks like the Marlboro man. If I wanted to, I could take off in six months to a year.

But now all the babies have been born. And I find myself not really wanting to leave the East Coast because I don’t want to miss anything with these kids. When I think about being far from them, or gone for many years, my heart just breaks. And doing what I’m doing now, my single, working-gal routine, being an auntie who mails gifts and visits on long weekends seems silly and pointless too. (If I am going to work an unsatisfying 9-5er, why not live near the people I love?)

My whole career, I’ve been working for nonprofits or groups in the business of helping people and the planet. It seemed the best place to put my energy, but it has been frustrating and unsatisfying. The world seems just a sick, sad, unfixable place. I don’t feel young and idealistic anymore. I feel like circling the wagons — around my nieces and nephews.

I am thinking of moving closer to one of my sisters to be more fully a part of these kids’ lives. I would find a decent job that pays the bills, but nothing I have to devote myself to 100 percent. I would save my best energy for being part of an extended family, and find my pleasure (and challenges of course) there.

I’m wondering, is that lame? Is it lame to “opt out” of career and travel to help take care of someone else’s children? Am I avoiding growing up by refocusing on my family of origin instead of going out into the world and forming a new life and a new family? Is it selfish and insular to prioritize hanging out with my family over helping others in the world? Will I be the old spinster aunt who borrowed someone else’s life instead of having her own? Would I be vamping these children to meet my own emotional needs? Would I be stunting my own creative and spiritual development? Would I be acting out of fear? Abandoning my dreams?

It’s not like I’m considering “opting out” to have my own kids. The “mommy wars” aside, most people understand that choice. But who opts out to be an auntie? I fit a certain profile — mid-30s career gal with lots of sexual freedom and few financial obligations. Should I not be enjoying “the prime of my life”? Experiencing my freedom, climbing the career ladder, reaching my potential, traveling the world, making some art or buying some real estate? Or looking for my next man on Match.com and pricing out fertility treatments?

But if it’s really true I’m just here, in the unlikely and meaningless circumstance of being alive on a planet, doing my thing day in and day out, until I kick the bucket and am forgotten by time, then why not give the very best of myself to the people I love the most, i.e., my family? Here are five beautiful kids, to whom I am profoundly connected, who will need plenty of love and financial support to make their way in this insane world. I could devote myself to their well-being, like any good parent. Except that I’m not their parent, and they aren’t my kids.

Is that lame?

Optin’ Out Auntie

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Dear Optin’ Out,

I don’t think your idea is lame at all. I think it’s courageous and decent.

Nor do I think you are avoiding growing up. I think you’re accepting who you are, how you feel and what you want. That is growing up. Growing up involves recognizing that who we really are doesn’t always fit the categories of value that we have learned through studying history and sociology.

A century ago, doing what you propose would have seemed perfectly sensible. Now, strangely enough, it seems a little daring. Now, as always, you have to decide for yourself.

I think you have largely decided already. But you are thinking it through and sharing your thoughts, trying to make sure it isn’t the wrong decision.

I think it’s great. Trust your instincts and your emotions. Accept who you are.

Must I make an argument for the utility of your decision? No, I don’t feel that I must. I am not a utilitarian. But I do think that our instincts are often powerful and wise, and that when we do what we are drawn to doing, social good sometimes comes of it. Can I prove that? No. Nor do I think we can always know what social good might come from our inclinations. For instance, we might be driven to write, or paint, or play music, not to change the world but to make ourselves happy. In the process, however, much unexpected social good might come. On the other hand, I might have an intense personal desire to rob your house. I would not argue that social good would come from that.

But do I want to really want argue about any of this? No. I just think that if you’re worried that you’re letting the world down, you can let go of that. The world is bigger than we think.

In fact, this impulse you have in no way implies that you are leaving the world or forsaking it. You are not a separate thing from the world, someone sent here to fix the world. You are a part of the world. It’s the same world telling you to do this that was telling you to do the other. Your impulse to help raise your sisters’ children is no more or less valid than your impulse to help strangers. If you were to ask where these impulses come from, I think you will find they all come from the same source: You have a burning desire, a passion, to act according to your conscience. Acting according to your conscience satisfies your sense of who you are. So keep following your passion wherever it leads you. If you feel in a few years that you are needed elsewhere, you can change yet again.

Frankly, your profile of the “mid-30s career gal” does not sound very attractive to me. Having had a taste of business life, I would think many women would find the same thing that many men have found — it kinda sucks. So why do it if you don’t have to?

Why not do what makes you happy?

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Do I love my wife enough?

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAR 4, 2005

I’m a middle child, abandoned by my eldest brother. Did I marry just for security?


Dear Cary,

I am the third of five children. My oldest brother, by six years, ran away from home repeatedly during his teenage years. When he finally reached adulthood he flew the coop for good. As far as I know, my parents weren’t abusive, irresponsible or neglectful. We were a typical middle-class family in a typical middle-class town. By all accounts my brother was a smart fellow. Yes, he dabbled with pot and hung out with some rough kids but nothing beyond the norm.

Twenty years later I’m a 35-year-old husband and father of two. Looking back, I believe I may have responded to the incidents involving my brother by developing an exaggerated need for acceptance based on a deep fear of inadequacy. After all, my thinking goes, if my brother wasn’t able to stand up to this world, what hope have I? Granted, this is all navel-gazing self-assessment, but it feels right to me … this week.

So here’s where it gets sticky. I think I may have gotten married simply because my wife loves me. The prospect of a doting partner seemed too good to pass up, so I didn’t. And the life we’ve created together is wonderful in many ways. She’s a fantastic mother to our miraculous children. We live a very comfortable life and spend more time together as a family than most. But I’m not sure that I love my wife. It pains me to say it. I like her very much, but I don’t miss her when she’s gone. I don’t know if this makes it any clearer, but I don’t yearn for her. And I don’t think I ever did.

Where does this leave me? I cherish my family and don’t want to lose it. Should I soldier on under the “Nothing’s Perfect” banner? I think I could be happy enough. But is happy enough … enough?

Reluctant to Run Away

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Dear Reluctant,

It may not be necessary to your happiness to love your wife in the way you think you are supposed to. And it certainly would be foolish and cruel to announce one day that you are abandoning your family simply because you’re not sure your passion is of the correct wattage. So I think the wise and thoughtful thing to do is to delve into this absence you have discovered, to come to know its nature and its meaning.

What if it is true that you married your wife less because you loved her than because you wanted to be loved by her? That would not necessarily be some shameful revelation upon which the union and all its issue must perforce be scattered to the winds. It would be, rather, a fortunate realization — one that complements your larger sense of yourself as a middle child deeply wounded by your oldest brother’s desertion. Sometimes we seek to be desired rather than to be the desiring one because we cannot risk another idolized, idealized figure walking out on us. It would be too much. So we seek safe harbor.

I’m a middle child myself. I’m next to the youngest of five. I find comfort in the confines of compromise; I say, I’ll go if you’re going. I wait for a traffic signal before walking. But all the while — and I’m not sure if this is just me, or if this also is part of the middle child’s dilemma — I’m keenly aware of the opposite of nurture in my nature, the jealous will to extermination buried under an affable skin, the drive to excel that threatens the order. We do tend to explode, don’t we? We do so much for others and then we blow up, suddenly, when we don’t get enough in return — when our unwritten contract is violated.

So I express my crazy will to excellence as service to others. It’s safer that way. Hence, duh, big surprise that I would become the empathic writer of advice, no? — aching to dazzle and amaze, but all the while maintaining that virgin face of humble service!

Ah, the middle child deluxe!

I recognize your doubt about the intensity of your own emotions, but I wonder if it may not be so much related to your birth order itself as to your grief over your brother’s departure. Did you ever grieve his going? I mean really grieve it? Perhaps there is more feeling there than you thought. Postponement of such a thing can sort of put everything on hold, as though all our feelings were in line at the post office, waiting to be weighed, stamped and canceled. Maybe you have a lot more feeling to do yet before you can feel everything you feel for your wife. When was the last time you broke down and cried unexpectedly?

So, just to be clear: If you were to leave your wife and children, you would be not only be repeating your brother’s abandonment but also setting out on a likely fruitless journey. Whatever feelings you seek reside within you already.

You’re at a crucial point in your life. You could easily make the wrong decision. So I urge you to look at your history and understand why you’re stuck. You seem right on the verge of understanding. Somewhere close at hand, perhaps among the stifled tears over a brother’s departure, I think you will find the passion and yearning that you seem to have misplaced.

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How should I feel toward my father?

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, Jul 20, 2011

I thought I knew him. Then he loaded up his U-Haul


Cary,

I had a really boring suburban life for a long time, wishing that something would make it interesting. I had a good relationship with my family and I thought that my parents would stay together forever.

Then we got hit with a hurricane.

After the hurricane I spent a lot more time talking to my father. We talked before but this seemed different, like how I thought the father-son deep(ish) discussions were supposed to go. He didn’t seem as happy as I had previously thought, but I assumed that was due to having 5 feet of water wash through our house, which makes for a somewhat more stressful existence. A lot of the time we spent after the storm was gutting the entire first floor, talking about his childhood and mine and what my plans for the future were. During our discussions I got the impression that my parents’ marriage wouldn’t last forever, so I steeled myself for the inevitable to occur.

Flash forward to a week after my 18th birthday in 2006, and I come home to my father packing up a U-Haul and leaving my mother. He left her a note (that I probably shouldn’t have read, but I think most people would have in my situation) saying that he felt that after I was born most of my mother’s love went to me and he felt left out; it was basically a page and a half of selfishness.

He showed me the apartment he was supposed to be living in (I called it a “small studio” but others might call it “I can go from my bed to my toilet in less than 10 steps! How convenient!”). I later found out that he had been cheating on my mother for years … multiple women with other kids, swinger parties, basically everything I thought he was above as a person. He is now remarried and his new wife has two kids and I can never really forgive him for what he did, but I do my best.

Last year, when I was stationed overseas, the day after my birthday I posted a Facebook message thanking everyone for their kind wishes and he left me a reply saying, “I knew there was something special about yesterday,” and this year … nothing. I don’t think he did it on purpose but no phone call, no text, no communication whatsoever. I don’t even know exactly how I felt, but I think I could best describe it as numb, though I don’t know if it is a numbness to him in general, or if it affected me even more than I thought it did at the time. It has been five days since my birthday and I still haven’t talked to him and I don’t know how to bring it up. On the one hand I want to call him out on this, but if I do that I don’t know if I will be able to stop myself and I will finally get up the nerve to ask him how long he was philandering and if he thinks I deserve an apology for cheating on my mother.

She was his wife, but she is still my damn mom.

Honestly, I don’t really have a specific question regarding this situation, I could just use some advice on what to do from here because I know I am going to have to talk to him eventually and I don’t really know how slighted I am supposed to feel about this situation. After reading that letter I don’t want me getting pissed about him missing multiple birthdays to be construed as being as selfish as he turned out to be. I guess I just would like to know how much anger I am warranted to feel toward him after everything that he has done. I feel emotionally conflicted and like I said before …

Numb

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Dear Numb,

I remember my father’s series of small apartments after he left my mother. I remember the meagerness and poverty, his effects strewn about, the boxes on the floor, the absence of furniture, the absence of a life. It was devastating, actually — that he had chosen this over us. I remember trying to be encouraging and upbeat. “Wow, this isn’t so bad. It’s kind of a nice place. Look out this window!” Yet it seemed bleak and incompetent. It was such a fall. Those dismal apartments, one after the other. That one in Miami on Biscayne Blvd., kind of a swingers pad, with a pool and I’ll always remember that smell of newly delivered furniture, cooking oil, eggs recently scrambled or made omelet-style, the simple food smells of a man cooking for himself, living a strange little life that was supposed to be exciting and carefree but which seemed lonely and pointless.

Yeah, I remember that. I remember wondering how I’m supposed to feel about all this. That tiny, damp little “studio” in the back of an old woman’s concrete block house near the University of Miami with the room air conditioner. I lived there for a summer jazz session while he … where was he? Was he at his mother’s? I think he was in his mother’s house on Mary Street, that house that later became the object of so much conflict when he sold it while my brother was still living in it.

I don’t completely recall how those various strange abodes came into his possession, but there he was, with his entourage of cardboard boxes and his war medals, evicted, divorced, moving on. Why? It seemed so stupid. It would have been simpler for him to stay in the house. But no, they couldn’t get along.

What was I feeling? Wanting to be supportive yet actually angry, puzzled and hurt, ashamed that he seemed diminished, no longer Dad, head of household, man of the house, reduced to man of the tiny studio apartment trying to get chicks at the pool to come up to see his “digs.”

It’s not something you want to see your dad do. And yeah, it was around the time I turned 18 that he first moved out. It’s a big letdown, a big hole in the gut; it’s not like anything you’ve experienced thus far.

And if your dad wants you to go see a therapist to help you deal with the divorce, well, that’s just creepy. Maybe you want to punch him but you don’t want to go to therapy especially at his suggestion because you’re not the one with the problem, and you didn’t make this problem, he made it by moving out, so why should you have to go to some creepy therapist and talk about your feelings when your feelings should really be directed at your dad?

Right?

Which is the point, really. That he fucked up and you’re angry with him and that’s a really, really hard thing to confront with a parent. I never did tell my dad how angry and hurt I was for him getting divorced like that. I believed at the time that the adult thing to do was to understand, not to be angry about it and certainly not to blame my parents, but to understand. Well, there’s a difference between blaming your parents for your lot in life and being angry at them for making boneheaded moves. So yes, I was angry at my father for years, but fighting to retain my love for him, and so dancing gingerly around the issues, pretending to be encouraging and charmed by his chosen existence when really it made me sick to see it. It made me sick to see my father and his two brothers all leave their wives and begin a dicey and peripatetic existence going from apartment to apartment and girlfriend to girlfriend or wife to wife. It was confusing and alienating and I didn’t like it but I was afraid to confront them because they were the elder men.

This fear of the elder men in the family goes deep. I had no idea how much power it had until years later. I had no idea how paralyzed I was. But I am not alone. Many men are afraid of their fathers. We do not know where they get this power over us so we pretend that they do not really have this power over us but, Oh, they have it. They have it in spades. Even my father, wiry, bespectacled, diminutive and professorial in manner: Oh, I feared him mightily! We may be angry but afraid to say we are angry for fear of violence. The father holds that violent edge, that family privilege, the nuclear option. You never know. My father was a strangely elusive but explosive man, given to surprising outbursts. And you never knew what was going on in his head.

He’s dead now.

I never confronted him. I never had that epic battle that sons and fathers sometimes have, where they finally let out that mixture of anger and tenderness, rage and pity that characterizes the relationship.

So what kind of conversation with my dad would I have wanted? If he were here today, I would like to hear him say that he did it for himself. He’d had it with living for others. He wanted to live for himself. Right or wrong, it was his decision to begin living for himself, and he did that, and it would have been helpful to hear him say that forthrightly.

Instead, when the subject of the divorce arose, we heard his painful self-recrimination and regret.

So if I could do it differently, or if I were in your shoes, what would I do? I would be frank and open about my feelings whatever they are. That doesn’t mean necessarily confronting family members about it. It more means being frank with yourself and those close to you about what you actually feel. Don’t try to figure it out. Accept it. Accept what you feel. You may feel impulses that morality prevents you from acting on. That’s OK to feel.

I can say with certainty that there is no correct way to feel. We men seem to think that if we want to be a certain kind of man, we may feel only a certain way. But a good man feels what he feels.

By feeling what we feel, we come to know ourselves. Then our true nature arises serenely and almost without notice. Then we need do nothing but trust our instincts. We become authentic.

And how does this vaunted authenticity come about? Slowly if at all. We keep going over it and over it, like sanding wood. More is revealed with every pass.

As to the numbness: I suspect you fear the torrent of tears that would erupt were you to say how you feel. You may need someone to yank it out of you. Like it’s stuck down there in your throat and a professional has to use his slim jim.

That’s one way to think of psychotherapists. They get inside the locked vehicle of your psyche, but with your permission.

It took me years before I could trust another man to listen to me cry. Are you kidding? I know. It’s icky. But eventually it was a matter of either let these feelings of shame and anger and outrage and humiliation and pitiful hurt show, cry them out in front of someone, demonstrate to someone just how deeply I was hurting, by way of saying, OK, this is me, this awful shambles you see before you, this sobbing shambles of a man, this is me, this is my state, this is what I’ve come to … or who knows what I would come to, walking around numb, as you say, from a lifetime habit of not feeling.

If you want to stop being numb you have to start feeling.

Basically, whatever you feel is appropriate.

We men have a code. We are supposed to feel certain things in certain situations. But the truth is, we feel what we feel. Even though that sounds dumb.

The stereotypical “sensitive male” is easy to ridicule. There was a lot of bogus “showing your feelings” in the 1970s. You don’t have to “show your feelings.” You just have to feel them and know what they are.

In my 20s I thought, If you are a real man, you will feel this way about this and that way about that. You will have learned the code. But you never really do.

This is what we men go through.

What do our fathers want from us and for us? What is expected?

What are we supposed to do and feel?

We never really know. We just feel what we feel. We try to stay true to ourselves and to the ones we love. That’s all we can do.

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Attracting the wrong women

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 23, 2003

There’s a kind of girl I like, but I don’t seem to get anywhere with her because I don’t speak the “cool people” language.


Dear Cary,

It’s been about three years since I started messing around with the online personals, after a tough breakup. During that time there was a nine-month relationship with a girl I met through friends who was “nice” but not exactly passionate, and we’ve deescalated into friends. Besides that, my dating life, though busy, has consisted of short episodes of e-mail/phone/dinner, rarely more than two dates, and that’s it. It’s almost always my choice not to continue, because it seems like I meet the same type of woman over and over again — in real life or online. I’m a pretty steady healer-type and people who respond to me in a romantic way tend to be high-strung, fairly insecure and fearful to an extent greater than I want to have a future with.

There’s another type of girl out there whom I see, make contact with and occasionally get responses from. This is the cute-as-hell, supercool, awesome, funny, smart sort of woman who really does it for me (and everyone else). We might go out on a date or two, but they don’t seem very interested. I think there’s some sort of language I don’t speak — the “cool people” language — and I know that to relate to the kind of women I want in my life I must speak it, but I don’t understand a word. This is getting to be a real bummer on me, and it’s hard on women who think we’re starting something and then get (gently) dropped.

I don’t start much of anything anymore anyway — seems sort of pointless with this broken record cycle. My amorous feelings are generally either dormant or anguished at having been woken up by someone who’s not interested. Can you offer some perspective, perhaps some changes to make or other ideas? My occupation and hobbies don’t put me near women on an activity-oriented basis, so the personals seemed like a good idea but it’s just not working out, at least not the way I’m approaching it. I know these things take time, but it’s been so long since I’ve been able to say the L-word and mean it in every sense.

Water, Water Everywhere

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Dear Water,

I know what you’re talking about. There’s a kind of person who shines, who is quick and bright and hard to catch, around whom it seems that life is sweeter, lighter, faster. And you want to ride in their cars and go to the parties they go to. But when you get in the car suddenly you’re like a bag of concrete in the leather seat, dusty and inert, and they look at you and you know they’re thinking how heavy you are and how unpleasant it’s going to be to have to carry you on their backs all the way up the steps of the glamorous house up in the Hollywood Hills where Ice-T lives.

All I can say is, you have some choices. You can be the slightly uncool guy who’s always in the background, as if silence and shadow followed you around; there’s a penumbra of uncoolness about your head so that it’s almost hard to see you even in the bright sunlight. You can be that guy if you want, if you feed on this action and you can stand not to be in the spotlight, can stand being the driver, the fetcher of cocktails, the one who always goes for beer.

I have been cool and I have been uncool, and cool is pretty good, but uncool is better. Cool is too much work; you have to be an athlete of ennui, a virtuoso actor of sweet nonchalance, you have to look as though where you just came from was the most fabulous place in the world except for the place where you’re headed to. You can do it if you study the movies. But you will always be pretending that you don’t wake up lonely and afraid in the middle of the night.

For all I know, maybe you don’t wake up lonely and afraid in the middle of the night. What do I know? My guess is that you’re an introverted sensing type who’s attracted to flashy extroverted intuitives. (As who wouldn’t be?) So by the time you’ve formulated a sentence about the weather they’ve already summed up the history of condoms and what’s wrong with Madonna. It’s dizzying and fun to be around them, but you always feel a step behind. Well, you probably are a step behind, but your steps are bigger and more solid.

Here’s a thought: If they have something you want, why not try to find out where they get it, and then see if you can get some yourself. Go to the places where they go. Listen to what they listen to. Take some of their drugs. See their movies. Because you have to start to feel the way they feel, and the cultural productions they consume contain the shape of their feelings and attitudes. You might be able to enhance your intuitive sense of where they’re coming from if you immerse yourself in their cultural milieu.

And, if my wild guess is correct, and you’re more oriented toward sensing, you can do stuff they can’t do. What can you do? You can take all that money you’re making doing some boring, solitary, analytical job and get a big house and have big parties where everything is just right. You might always be the Gatsby in the background, making sure the caterer gets tipped. But at least you’ll be in that bright, dizzying world.

I know this may be a little more elliptical and all-encompassing than you were hoping for, but I think your small problem represents a lifelong orientation, so you might as well think big.

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I’m losing my friend. It feels like a breakup

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 12, 2012

After 15 years, suddenly she’s moody and unreachable — and I think it’s her boyfriend’s fault


Dear Cary,

I’m sure you’ve had letters similar to mine, but I’m sure there are others who might benefit by knowing it’s not just them who’ve dealt with a toxic friendship in their lives. I’ve dated some toxic men; one who was a verbally and emotionally abusive alcoholic. I dated him off and on for about two years. During that time, I was aware that he was not the right one. When I finally had my fill of his BS, I walked away from the relationship. It took Al-Anon and some counseling for me to see the light and gain strength to move on, but I did move on. I have not dated anyone seriously in over three years. Had a few dates but nothing that really clicked.

I’ve had a friend (L.) for about 15 years whom I grew close to due to our part-time jobs in retail (we both moonlight there) and I also lived one street over from her until she moved down a few streets to another house. She has been married five or six times but I’ve only known her last ex-husband. He seemed like a nice guy and she has kids with him. She also had cheated on him (according to her and others). She has dated R. for about five years. R. is a recovered cocaine addict who went through rehab four times before becoming and staying clean and sober. He attended N.A. meetings until he no longer had to (due to court dealings). In the beginning, L. seemed really happy with R. and she and I seemed to get even closer due to some illnesses and surgeries she had a couple of years ago. R. was somewhat supportive when she had cancer but was totally not around when she had her knee replaced later that same year. It was around that time that I suspected that he was not the great guy she thought he was. I had felt like L. was a sister figure to me. We did have a bond and there was a sister love there, for sure. Then, this past year (July to be more exact), L. started to act moody and unhappy. She was short with me at work and didn’t talk much. The following week she apologized to me and things seemed better. Then, only a few weeks later, she comes to work one night and acts angry at everyone. She would hardly talk to anyone and she was trying to give all her work hours away that week (apparently due to personal issues). When I left that night, I told her to call me if she wanted to talk. She called me the next day to apologize again for her behavior and said I was her closest friend and that she should not treat me that way. I was sure whatever the issue was, it had nothing to do with me. She was fine for the most part but you could still see this edge to her that wasn’t settling. Later (while at her house to drop off something), I tried to talk to her about her behavior and how even co-workers had asked me what her problem was. I urged her to talk to a counselor if she could not or would not talk to me. I told her that I loved her and cared about her and that she knew she could call me. She said she knew these things.

Even though she knows these things, her bizarre, hot-and-cold behavior has persisted since this past summer. She sort of blew off my birthday and we didn’t do my birthday lunch until about a month later (and invited co-workers from her day job whom I didn’t know that well). I’ve always taken her out to dinner and given her a card or small gift. I felt slighted and disrespected with how she handled my birthday this past year as we had always done dinner together with just the two of us before.

I’ve known for quite a while what her problem really was and it’s a boyfriend who I believe is not only controlling, but emotionally and verbally abusive. Another friend of hers got engaged around the time she started behaving weird, so I also think that contributed to her overall attitude and behavior. Since that time, it’s a 50-50 chance on what her mood will be. She will be aloof, removed from people or act perfectly fine depending on how she is feeling about her guy. For Christmas, he gave her a ring but made clear it was not an engagement ring and that they were not getting married. She wants marriage (why I’m not sure) and he does not. She has vowed not to live with this man, but last week told me that they were going to move in together later in the summer. I suspect that she will see even less of her friends than she is now. We used to talk regularly on the phone. She has called me a time or two in recent weeks, but I have vowed to not call her unless she calls me and I need to return her call. To sum it all up, I’ve been treated badly by this friend. She has been short, hateful and downright ignored me at various times during the last five or six months. True friends don’t treat people in this manner. And while I can see that the boyfriend is the real issue, I can’t sit around and wait for her to see the light. I’ve returned to my Al-Anon meetings as I’ve found that the principles taught also help with other relationship issues (even those where there is no substance abuse). In reality, her guy might be clean and sober but he’s no longer in his own meetings, which would help him stay centered. He abuses and controls L. who then takes out her frustration on the very people who love and care for her the most.

Really good friendships are hard to find. I’ve been there for L. always and don’t feel like I’ve ever let her down but I can’t say the same about her for me. I would never, ever let a man come between her and me, but that’s exactly what’s happened here. I want her to be happy and she’s always had a guy during the entire time we’ve been friends, but this guy has her brainwashed. He doesn’t want her to spend time with me or even her kids. That seems plainly obvious to me.

This whole situation has hurt terribly. In some ways, it’s just as painful as letting go of a romantic relationship. You don’t expect your friends to hurt you as badly as a guy can. Maybe, in time, she will see the light. In the meantime, I realize I need to be around more positive friends — ones who don’t take out their frustrations on me instead of the person who is really upsetting them. It’s so very hard to move on, isn’t it?

I would appreciate some advice and tips for accepting this situation as it is because I don’t see any possibility in the near future that she will leave this guy.

Thank you.

Hurt By a Friend

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Dear Hurt By a Friend,

This letter contains two important things, things that are hard to learn, things that are painful to accept, hard, priceless little gems that point to bigger truths. One is how the principles of Al-Anon can help in relationships where no drugs and alcohol are involved. The other is how friendships can be just as painful as romantic relationships.

I love that those two things come out here. That is why I chose to print this letter, because while I may not have any brilliant answers for you, people who read this letter and think about it will see the patterns here and may recognize similar things in their own lives and may be moved to take action that will free them from those patterns.

Frankly, for me, reading this letter mainly just makes me realize how bad a friend I’ve been over the past few years. When I think about how I treat my friends, well, it’s not pretty. I’m so thoughtless and self-involved! I am! It’s terrible! I am a terrible friend! I have no time for my friends! I’m so wrapped up in other things! I’m over-scheduled! I’m obsessed with my “work.” And if you ever do get me for dinner or lunch or just to hang out, I’ve got one eye on the clock; I’m thinking about some story or some song.

I should be in a band. I should live in a tribe. I belong in a supervised unit. I’m not much good at being a secular adult. It’s really kind of pathetic.

But I go on. I write my column and do my stuff. It’s all very magical and cool. But I am a terrible friend. So that’s my resolution for the New Year: I’m going to be a better friend. So watch out if you think you are a friend of mine! I’m coming for you. I’ll be on your porch! I’ll be hanging out in your backyard! I’ll be throwing stones at your window!

See, that’s my model of friendship; it’s something I crystallized when I was 12 and hasn’t changed. When I was 12, I knew how to have a friend. You rode bikes around and played with stuff and talked. That was a friend. Sometimes you snuck out at night. You had adventures. You explored stuff, like broken ships’ hulls, and swamps and forests, and you captured small invertebrates and studied them. That was a friend. What is a friend now? I dunno! Someone you have dinner with? I hate the having dinner with! Having dinner with is not fun! Dinner is what you have to quit playing and come in the house to have! Dinner is something your friend can’t come out because he’s having! Why is everyone always having dinner? I don’t want dinner! I want to go out in a boat!

Having dinner is too adult. I want beanbag chairs and an outdoor swing. I want party treats, noisemakers and funny hats. I want cake and a screaming fit.

Seriously, I think everything I know about friendship I learned when I was 12 and I’d like to go back to riding bikes and playing war and talking about nothing we understood.

Except I don’t like to ride bikes anymore. That’s the problem, see? I don’t even know how to have fun as an adult even if I had friends to have fun with! I don’t like riding bikes anymore because it’s not fun. Now it’s work, it’s a way to get to Petaluma in only five hours, it’s sanctioned races and funny shorts. What’s fun for me now? Going down to the seawall to watch the sunset. We have a pretty-new friend, Madison, who joins us on the seawall for the sunset. That’s our fun. We have a few other friends, too, and they know who they are and how badly we treat them. But mostly, it’s us cleaning the house and me frowning over numbers.

Every therapist I’ve ever been to asks me what I do for fun. Are they trying to tell me something?

But enough about me, right? Because you see what’s going on here, right? You see why I’ve got no friends? Because it’s all about me! You come looking for a sympathetic ear and I turn it all to me. Isn’t that typical?

Sorry. But look, you’re the strong one here. You’re going to be OK. That doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t hurt. They are. And you deserve to be treated well. But you know, going to Al-Anon and all, you know the limits; it may be time to mourn the passing of this friendship and find some people you can have fun with. Your friend is caught up in something that you can’t fix, and you know that. And you know that toxic relationships can seem a lot like drug addictions: The person is irritable and moody, unreliable, disappears on you, doesn’t show up, is erratic, misses work … just like a drug addict.

You know all this from your Al-Anon meetings. Wow, thank God for Al-Anon.

So what I want to give you is some encouragement to go out and enjoy yourself and find some new friends who appreciate what you have to offer. You know the drill. You’ll be there for this friend of yours when she comes around, if she comes around, but you’re not going to chase her down. You can politely decline invitations if they’re not going to be the one-on-one situations that you require. You don’t have to sit with a bunch of strangers like some out-of-towner.

You were her best friend. That meant something. Now she’s lost to you. So mourn that. Mourn it deeply. It was a beautiful thing. Mourn that thing but do not go chasing after her. Be strong. Turn to others who are happy and healthy and can enjoy your company and make you laugh.

Pray for her, if that’s what you do. Offer her Al-Anon. Let her know that if her relationship ever gets to be too much, there is a group that can help her. Just let her know it’s there, and be willing to take her to a meeting if she ever wants to go.

And then let it be. Take some heat off yourself. There are people out there who want to be friends. There are people out there who know how to be friends. (God knows I don’t!) So look around you and let some friendships happen. Let them happen.

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Will our words ever be heard again?

 

Write for Advice

We write and we write and we write on the Net, dispensing thoughts and advice. For what?

 Cary’s classic column from  WEDNESDAY, FEB 4, 2009

Dear Cary,

My problem is that we have a one-day cycle in our writing, in our lives. You read our problems; then people read our problems in your column. Then people read our responses, but then the sun comes up again, and all our writing goes down on the cycle, to oblivion.

I go nuts trying to give good advice to your letter writers, and also trying to provide wisdom and info in other Salon topics. But it all washes away after a single day. Smart, thoughtful posters get their say, but raging ding-dong posters get away with their silliness, because it all starts over again every day.

I always have imagined that future historians and archaeologists will read Salon, and gain insight on our society. But, Lord Almighty, we have so many words on our World Wide Web, and so many people!

Classical civilization had fewer writers than we have now, and even fewer whose work has survived. It is possible for a person to read every single surviving written work from all of Greek and Roman literature. Now, though, yikes! Overall, we generate as many words in a day as all those surviving classical works.

So! My question: Will anybody ever read what we write here, after today? I am sure our writing will persist in the World Wide Web, but will anybody ever read it again? Will our best, well-meant advice ever help anybody else in the future? Will our detailed knowledge ever help anybody in the future? Or do we just get filed, permanently?

And, does it matter?

Frequent Wise Man

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Dear Frequent Wise Man,

We do not know what will be left of our culture.

I do imagine that in oral cultures a great deal of brilliant talk was made and all of it is lost. I imagine that Homer composed poems more brilliant than any that were written down, and they are lost. I imagine that throughout time seers and sages have solved the mysteries of the universe while drunk on wine or high on hallucinogens, have seen it all and tried to convey it but had no tools with which to do so, and therefore countless moments of wisdom and genius, perhaps the very keys to the universe itself, have been glimpsed and they are lost.

If you have ever had the sensation of comprehending for an instant the totality of the universe and thinking, I’ve got it! I see it! I understand! and then slinking sheepishly into the house an hour later with only the fuzziest recollection of what you have witnessed, then you can imagine how many times this has happened throughout history, how many solutions to the world’s ills, how many poems of crystalline brilliance, how many mathematical proofs, how many perfect melodies and glistening poems and fantastic, indescribable visions of universal harmony have come to our ancestors and our brothers and sisters throughout time meditating high on mountaintops or walking along dirt paths from village to village or sitting in forest shacks and caves, or journeying in ships across vast oceans or contemplating the enormous desert sky, and you can imagine the tragedy or humor implicit in this: that it all has been lost. I imagine that many who have taken psychedelics have seen, in an instant, the very core of existence, but have not had the mathematics or the physics or the poetry to convey it, and so those visions are lost. I imagine that in the pubs of Ireland poems are composed daily by farmers in their cups and they are lost by the morning. I imagine that in New Guinea seers know with utter certainty the secrets of the universe but do not trust us or do not know us or figure we wouldn’t understand anyway, and so these secrets of the universe will die with them and be lost.

At the same time, as we prattle on endlessly in our way, I imagine that software of ever-increasing subtlety will be devised to ferret out important truths from the staggering mass of words that now pile up like a digital landfill, clogging the servers of the world. I imagine that everything we have written on the Net will eventually be retrieved, sorted and priced, valued according to its originality and wit.

But does what I imagine bear any relationship to the actual future we race into as though sliding down an icy mountain? Will what we say here ever really be unearthed and used? Will there be a need for it? Are we just playing out the old fantasy of immortality, dreaming that our words will live on? And, as you say, does it matter?

I do not know, but you and I and all the rest of us go on dreaming, trying to see the order in chaos, to glimpse the perfection at the edge of madness, look for the souls of trees and hear the voices of clouds and see in each occluded heart some echo of divinity. I know that we keep on talking and writing and it goes somewhere. Perhaps in that universe that even now is spinning backward from our own, our words are coming back out of the spring air and into our mouths and back into our brains where they will lie dormant, as if never spoken, until the pre-universe universe contracts sufficiently to cause another Big Bang, and it will start all over again, and after millions of years fish will climb the rocks and grow lungs again and apes will pick up tools and invent language all over again, and again as they speak and speak they will begin to wonder, Will this ever be heard again? Will future generations benefit from all our thoughts and visions? Does any of this really matter? And again the apes will go to psychiatrists and lie on couches and fill the air with doubt and uncertainty.

So it goes. Our uncertainty and doubt extend to the infinite sky and throughout time, shrouding perfection, blurring truth, undermining what feeble faith we can muster, reminding us that we are both divine and mortal, that we live both inside time and outside time, that we are creatures of many worlds, and that we will always wonder, and always try to cheat death, and always listen for the echoes of our words in every strange town, on every strange mountain, in every strange dream that comes to us in the night.

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I get distracted by the Internet when I try to write

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 30, 2008

Every time I start to do my assignment, I find myself surfing the Web instead!


Dear Cary,

I am taking a creative nonfiction writing course, and I’m supposed to be working on a piece about what I ate for breakfast. The problem is, every time I sit down at the computer to work, I start compulsively reading the election coverage online, sometimes spending two hours or more on variations on the same five articles. I am ashamed of my lack of self-control in this area. It is really unusual for me, because in my normal life I am a very capable person. I am a stay-at-home mom of two boys, ages 8 and 6, with a great marriage. I keep a neat house, get the kids to school on time, and fix organic, gourmet meals. But in this one area, this writing class, I can’t seem to do the task in front of me.

I have always been a terrific student. I have a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago, and until I got married, I always figured I would finish my Ph.D. and work in research or teach somewhere. Instead, I decided I wanted to be home with my kids and fix up our house. I learned to garden and bake pies, and basically dug my heels into domestic life. It suits me, as I am basically an introvert who likes to take care of people. I am happy here, but I see my kids growing up and not needing me as much, and rather than stifle them with overattentiveness, I decided to take some classes and get a hobby, as they say. The sewing class is going great; I’ve made a skirt and might work on curtains next week. But the writing class, the one I really care about, has me totally stumped. I can’t seem to stop myself from clicking on the Google news page. Cary, is this self-sabotage, or simply escapism? What should I do? I’ve read that all writers need a lot of time to just sit and stare, but the Internet news is just wearing out my brain to the point where I can’t work at all.

I’m afraid that I am not allowing myself to do the one thing I’d be really good at, maybe for fear of failure, or just because it seems too selfish. My mother worked at a high-powered job throughout my childhood, and my parents were divorced, so I have issues about being ignored as a kid. I swore that I would be the mom who made cookies and was always there when you needed her. The problem is, my kids don’t seem to care one way or another, since they’ve never known any different. Cary, I feel sometimes like a doormat or a dishrag, like I am wasting all of my potential, and no matter how many Terence Conran house books I read or Julia Child cookbooks I memorize, I am still not getting what I need.

I think I need this writing thing way more than I will admit to myself. So, how do I let myself just do it, without all of the distractions? On the other hand, am I just kidding myself with this fantasy that I might have great untapped potential? Maybe I should just accept the choices I’ve made and be happy planting tomatoes.

Stumped

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Dear Stumped,

There are certain things you’re just going to have to assume from the outset. Assume that your writing is important. Assume that you have the right to do it and that it’s necessary and important. Assume that something has happened in your life such that you must attend to certain moral, aesthetic and philosophical needs, or that you have reached a certain passage, or phase, or that you have been blessed, contacted by aliens, touched by God, whatever works, however you want to put it. Something has happened. You have received a call. Assume whatever you need to assume in order to answer the call.

That is what I would suggest.

For that’s what it is: It is a call. It might not be clear exactly what it is yet. But something is calling you and you have to answer the call. It might be frightening to answer — it might be asking you to face certain fears about your own competence and value. It may be asking you to take up a challenge. But I believe that whatever it is you are trying to accomplish, it is best to begin with your own motivation and your own desire, and work from that place, rather than concentrate on the phenomenon of distractions and try to eliminate them. You will find more energy in focusing on your objective than in focusing on defeating the distractions. Now, it’s true, as a tactical matter, I often have to turn off my browser. I have to sit in silence. I have to find places and techniques. But the main thing is to find the deep emotional or spiritual hunger that fuels our creativity. Assume that this is important and you will find it easier to take the necessary steps. And as I said, you may be called to difficulty, to facing fears.

In facing your fears, I advise this: Guard against contemporary assumptions about cultural value, particularly our assumptions about what it means to be a writer. You are trained in anthropology. So look at our culture as an anthropologist would look at it. Notice the beliefs we express about writing and writers. Observe how we revere certain writers and vilify others. Notice that we seem to harbor some primitive belief in writing as a magical act; notice how we behave toward certain writers as though they were shamans or gods or priests; notice how as we do this we also devalue our own native abilities and thus become consumers rather than producers. Notice how we devalue our own desires to write, buying into such notions that only a select few are called to do this holy and sacred thing. See how undemocratic that is. Notice how much hogwash we are wading through. Keep all this in mind as you begin to write.

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Also pay attention to what conditions allow you to write and what conditions hinder your writing. Where can you go to write? Can you park your car on a lakeside, sip a cappuccino and write? Can you take a trip and write? Can you sit in an attic room and write? How much time can you put aside to write? Can you use a timer? Have you tried free-writing? Is it possible that the nonfiction class you are taking does not offer productive methods? For instance, if you were simply told to go home and write about what you had for breakfast, it might be that such a thing does not work for you. I do not know if I could write about what I had for breakfast. I might feel compelled to think about it too much. Maybe if you started with, “Today for breakfast I had …” then words might follow. You might end up writing, “Today for breakfast I had a fucking hard time of it.” Or “Today for breakfast I had none of your fucking oatmeal.” I don’t know. You might find things arising that you did not expect. It is fun to see what words come. You might find anger and pain arising first. That is often the case. It may be that you do not want anger and pain to arise. That might be why you are not writing at all. If so, you may be helped by the support of a group. You might look around in your area and see if there are any groups that follow the writing process movement, or the Amherst Writers and Artists method.

Oh, here is something else: Part of writing seems to involve rebellion. One challenges the gods; one steals fire; one dares to create; one plays Prometheus. I note that you say you have been a good student. Good students do what they are told. Writers do what they are not told; they have to tell rather than be told, so a bit of rebellion is involved. Being a good student might be holding you back. Being a bad student might be better. It is fun to be a bad student for once. Be a bad student by disobeying the teacher. Try giving the teacher what she does not want. Try being bad. Try writing badly. Just put a mess of words down.

Let it go.

In other words, in order to overcome this habit of distractions, I recommend that you focus first on becoming who you are as a writer, and that you embark on a journey. I recommend that you enact a long-term plan, not just to start writing but to become a writer in the world. Join the worldwide community of writers.
Writing brings great rewards. It makes us happier. It entertains us. It allows us to know others in a unique way. It manifests what is hidden or unexpressed. This makes our lives deeper and more interesting. So, to paraphrase Baudelaire, get writing! Whether by wine, by poetry or by virtue, no matter! But get writing!

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I’m 22 and stuck! How do I break out?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY, NOV 22, 2009

I think I’m a writer, but fear paralyzes me


Dear Cary,

I feel paralyzed and stuck in a rut. I recently graduated from college without a clear path and a hazy focus at best; I am lost and confused and can recognize that I self-sabotage any efforts to find my path and start my journey. I truly seem to be my own worst enemy yet I am clueless how to escape this vicious cycle.

Since a young age I have deeply desired to be an “artist”; though my true passion is music, it seems my natural ability lies in storytelling. Despite my limited attempts at creative writing, I have received quite a bit of praise and encouragement from my teachers and peers. Yet I feel guilty for wanting to pursue such, what I believe to be, a narcissistic path — that of the artist. I also have an interest in pursuing psychology, which is clearly the more acceptable path according to society and my parents, but only as a fallback. I think I would be selling myself short by not giving writing a try, yet I feel ashamed wanting to apply to an MFA program.

My immense fear of failure affects me in many aspects of my life. I rarely, if ever, take chances. If I do not feel I am in a safe and welcoming environment or if I am not positive I can succeed, I simply do not try. In regards to romantic relationships, I push people away and often am too afraid of rejection to go on a second date. I long for love, but I do not allow myself the chance to experience it. Similarly with my writing, every now and then I can get a few hours of productive work in, in which I feel open and excited, yet afterward I am consumed with self-condemnation.

I seem unable to make a decision by myself. I am always asking permission, whether it is from my parents or my friends. I rarely do what I want, so often preoccupied by what others will think, expect and want from me.

Whenever I appear to be on a streak of positive thinking and proactive habits, I find myself struck down by my own head. I am terrorized by an endless loop of destructive thoughts in which I tell myself I’m a fool to think I could ever be a successful writer, that I’m a spoiled brat for wanting to do so, that no one could ever love me.

When I am not working at my soulless and demeaning job as a waitress, I busy myself with television and the Internet. When I run out of shows to watch and blogs to read, I am filled with a sense of terminal dread and panic, a gnawing sense of avoiding something, but I can’t seem to face it. I feel the clock ticking, ticking, yet I lay frozen in my bed, staring at the ceiling.

Only alcohol seems to free me of my inhibitions. I drink pretty regularly to open myself, to afford a few hours of simple pleasure, yet the alcohol just as often turns on me, resulting in weepy self-pity or a nostalgic, heady swoon for the recent past if not for memories that never existed except in my imagination.

I so desperately want to upstart my life. I want to experience this world as much as I can — love deeply and fully, express myself, live without wondering “what if?” But something inside me is preventing me from change and so clearly doesn’t want me to find inner peace, yet I don’t know what it is. How do I move from here?

Dazed and Confused

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Dear Dazed,

I sense that you are on the cusp of letting go of your adolescent dependence on fitting in and belonging, and you need a great challenge that will propel you over the canyon. Its depth terrifies you as you peek into it and see how high you are. You think of how groundless you will be when you step off the cliff. But you need to step off the cliff. Your soul cries out for the unknown. You need nature and danger. You need something outside yourself that is not ego-related, that is not your guilt-ridden ego trying to perfect a beautiful image to be admired by others; you need the wild self not ruled by need for approval; you need a skin that is unknown; you need the growling bear of your inner truth, your soul erupting, trying to be born. What dread beast is this?

You must find out.

You must take the journey to the underworld. It is not a metaphor. You must get outside yourself and encounter some dangers and some strangeness. (Isn’t it sad that adults today, trying to protect their children from anything alien, have them chant “Stranger Danger”? Isn’t that emblematic of our sickening obsession with the pristine and antiseptic?)

This is what I understand today about our necessary progress out of adolescence into adulthood: We must face confusion and surrender to it. We must face the unknown and grapple with it. We must go into nature and experience its alien embrace. We must lie down on the earth and allow our cruder nature to be held.

So go somewhere. Maybe you need to sit in a bus station in a quiet dusty town where no one knows you and wait for the bus to take you farther away from everything you know. Maybe you need to sit under the stars in the middle of the night, or sit in your room in the middle of the night, empty your mind of ego and allow the voices of the world to speak to you. If you sit quietly and listen, if you allow yourself simply to see what appears before you, then you will begin to find your way. The night may tell you strange, unbelievable things. It may tell you things that don’t seem suitable to you. That’s exactly the point. You need the strange and alien voice of nature and the world to leaven your stagnating and suffocating soul.

At the same time that I speak in these poetic terms, know that this action is empirically necessary; it is not hocus-pocus. It is emotionally and spiritually necessary. Our culture’s language for such things is depleted, so it is no surprise that we laugh at the idea. Our cultural forms of adulthood are corrupted and geared to the continuation of military and industrial power. So it is hard to find the confidence and support you need for this time-tested journey out of adolescence.

Yet you must go into mystery and struggle. It is right there in front of you. You are right on the cusp of it. Your agonies are proof of this. Your agonies arise because you are fighting your own growth. The world is calling you. The world is telling you to grow.

The world is alive and wise and full of grace and power and savage beauty. Open yourself to it. Lie on the ground and open your legs to the sky. Lie in the sand on the ocean and let the waves cover you. Stare deep into the immensity of lost time and slow light traveling on a slow train across the cosmos. See the bigness of it. Find a tree and sit before it and ask it where to go. Do these things. Put yourself in the world. The world will answer you.

If you are to be an artist, what you learn and gain through this will be what you offer, what you craft. What you take from this will be your gift to the world.

There is no need to be cynical. Nor is there time to be cynical. You and I both know how much stupid crap there is in the world. Do not allow it to make you cynical about your own miraculous being. The crap in the world is about power and control and wealth and status; as such, it is an outgrowth of fear, the ego’s silly fear of dissolution and nonexistence; the crap in the world is not the world’s essence; it is our fear-filled distortion. Surely moguls and hustlers fill the streets and boardrooms; surely the bullshit machine of need hammers at us day and night to buy more, to keep these fearful moguls in trade; surely there is plenty of crap in the world. But the world is not crap. The world is glorious. The world is an out-and-out miracle. The world is yours. The world is calling to you.

Creep out into the night on your hands and knees and look around. Listen to the leaves snoring away their chlorophyl dreams in the night, waiting for the recharging dawn. Listen to the congregation of dew collecting in its pews. Listen to the whispering stars. This is your world. Let it strike you dumb with awe. Let it speak to you. Let it guide you. Do what it says. It will take you where you need to go.

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Stolen words

Write for Advice

 

Cary’s classic column from

My boss uses what I write in e-mails as his own. What should I do about it?


Dear Cary,

I’m an in-house copywriter/creative director with a small technical company, working for a boss whose communications skills, to put it delicately, are not his greatest asset. Lately I learned he’s been passing off my writing (not ad or brochure copy, just conversational e-mails on internal issues) as his own. I’ll write him a note on a topic, and later on that same note will land in my in box as part of a forwarded e-mail conversation chain — only now the note has his name on it. It’s happened several times that I know of.

I’ve always thought of him as a fundamentally decent fellow, and I sense he does this more for expediency’s sake (“Why bother rewriting this opinion that I share, when I’ve got this version sitting here?”) than to lay claim to my thoughts and words. Still, they are my thoughts and words, and I worry that by keeping my name out of these conversations he’s limiting my ability to benefit from people’s reactions to my ideas. Besides, I’m a writer: Even within the quasi-professional forum of interoffice e-mails, it feels like plagiarism.

Am I overreacting? And if not, should I confront him?

Accidental Ghostwriter

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Ghostwriter,

Here are some suggestions: Stop giving your boss great lines that he can use and call his own. Do your job on the brochures and the official stuff, but stop giving him stuff for free. If there are people you want to impress with your ideas, send your ideas directly to those people. Or if there’s a discussion you’re having with your boss and you can predict that it’s going to widen to include others, if you suspect he’s going to steal your material, suggest that that you include those people to whom he’s likely to send your material. Ask, what other interested stakeholders are there? You know, act like you care.

Either suggest they be included, or just cc them as though you thought that was the normal thing to do, since you know they’re interested parties.

Don’t be telling your boss not to cop your copy. He won’t get it. He’ll just think you’re being a pain.

You might also review just what you were hired for. Did you get a job description? Did anybody ever tell you what your job was? There is probably some expectation that you provide “other written materials.” These e-mails could be considered other written materials. You just want credit for it, right? So I’d find some way to let others know where it’s coming from — like, by cc’ing them before your boss steals your stuff.

And I would beware of your own personal motives that are tripping you up, too. Hey, I know about this: You want to do a great job of writing e-mails because that’s what you are. After all, you’re a writer. So you could be tricking yourself into giving your stuff away because you’re so damned good and you can’t help it, and you can’t help trying to impress your boss. I know what it’s like to be a writer. It doesn’t matter who the audience is. You’re still going to sweat over a few sentences until they’re perfect.

Bosses in non-media companies are so weird. They have no idea what it’s like to be a writer. They are just so weird. How do they even get through the day without being able to communicate?

Who knows. But they do. I guess they do it by hiring people like you.

Don’t pick a fight with him, but don’t be a sap!

WhatHappenedNextCall

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Our person of the week: Eva Finn

First, I’d like to give a shout out to the other featured writers, some of whom I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting at Cary’s first Creative Getaway. It’s good to see their faces again and inspiring to witness the success they’ve achieved with their writing. Going to the Creative Getaway and meeting Cary and Norma changed my life. I knew I wanted to do more with my writing but I didn’t know what. Cary was very generous with his time and counseling. After asking me a few really good questions about what I wanted to write, because seriously, I had no idea, he suggested young adult fiction might be a good area of focus for me.

I didn’t know that that conversation would lead me, five years later, to writing a blog that gives advice to young women. But I always loved Cary’s Salon.com advice column, and his book, Since You Asked. I felt a very personal connection to him through his writing and always thought he was better than any psychologist I ever had.

Which brings me back to what I’m doing now. I made a lot of mistakes in my 20s and sometimes wish I had done things differently or had had more guidance. I started the blog, Wisebefore25.com so young women could avoid some of my misfortunes. The topics range from finances, to boyfriends, to roommates, to family, to sex, to entertaining and beauty tips. But most of all, the goal of the blog is to help young women feel better about themselves and know that they’re not alone.

I also hope to finish a young adult book I’ve been working on. Not surprisingly, it’s a coming of age story. I plan on enlisting Cary and Norma to help me self-publish it once I’m done. It will be great to have their passion, devotion and inspiration once again.