Friday, November 27, 2009

Apples and Apples (Envy)

I've been saving this topic. This is my most personal reason for taking a year off the internet. It isn't metaphysics or philosophy. It isn't a plan to write a fascinating book, or to contribute to feminist theory, or even to build a beautiful argument for a simpler way of life. It is simply me, and what in this life is hardest for me.

I presented a thought experiment a while ago, in which I mentioned my "creative drought." That really happened. You might also call it burn out. It started on a Sunday in February, built gradually for almost a year, and then, one day, it overcame. The cause was not really motherhood, and it certainly wasn't the internet. It was more complicated, and less: this strange, deep conflict between working and living that I have spoken of here in so many different ways. At that moment, my work wasn't very good for my life.

I am an accomplished person. I excel. I understand that to be a verb, as in, "to show superiority; surpass others," and it is a practice that I have cultivated. Upon entering any arena, any field, I perceive the definition of success and I chart a course towards it. I take the advantages that I am given, shrug off the failures and, "just keep doing 'til it's done." Historically, if I thought I was not going to be able to succeed in something -- or if I didn't want it badly enough -- I wouldn't particularly try.

This isn't my favorite thing about myself. But it is the quality that has built my resume. It is a quality that makes me who I am. And it is the quality that burnt me out. Even without my practice of excellence -- which, depending on the mirror into which it peers, can also name itself perfectionism, workaholism, ambition, or OCD -- my art is one that slides easily into vanity. With vanity comes envy, and with envy comes distraction, and distraction, when you're trying to make art, is crazy-making.

This morning, sitting down to a post-Thanksgiving breakfast of pumpkin pie, I trailed my two older brothers to an Idaho summer about twenty-five years ago, when we lived for a short time in the basement of a soft rock radio station. We discussed some damage once received by that radio station's satellite dish, wondering if a poor, innocent woodland creature had received undeserved blame. And Jacob and I team-told our favorite bad kid story, about how we once pulled a couple of darts out of the remains of a car wreck on the highway, and Jacob accidentally sunk one about an inch into my thigh, and we worked together, brilliantly, to make sure that no adults ever found out so I wouldn't have to get a tetanus shot. (Never before or since have our unique motives been so precisely aligned. It taught me the definition of politics.) And then I remembered Jacob's records, which he loved, and then he remembered that I had taken one of his records, which he loved, and smashed it with a hammer.

I didn't remember that.

"You were jealous, I suppose," he said. "I really liked that record."

I don't like this memory. I'm taking immediate steps to re-forget it.

And that's why this post is personal. Envy is not digital. My envy is not digital. I have sisters, too, whose very existence has been a frail excuse for my most dangerous mirror-gazing. My sister's body is exactly like mine, except... Whether that is vanity creating envy, or envy creating vanity, it is a sure way to become distracted from whatever you care for most.

My sister in law, Daiquiri, once gave me permission to share her stories, because, as a blogger, she shares them herself, and today I'm going to take her up on that.

Daiquiri is married to my husband's brother. The first time I ever visited their home, I was 18 years old, and Daiquiri must have just turned 24. This now appears to be relevant. But at the time, the difference between us didn't seem to be explainable by something as insignificant as age. There is a Norse myth in which the Norns are said to spin and cut the threads of men: a gray, coarse thread for the laborers, and a finer, colored thread for the craftsmen, and every once in a while, a thread of pure gold for a king.

Daiquiri seemed to have gotten a really good thread.

When I was 18, like one third of college women, I had disordered eating behavior. I couldn't cook myself spaghetti. Daiquiri was hosting Christmas dinner. I had just dropped Organic Chemistry and was mourning the death of my future as a scientist. Daiquiri was a Mechanical Engineer. I was struggling hard with money, bouncing checks and barely staying in school. Daiquiri lived in a house, decorated like a catalogue, with two cars in the driveway. She was beautiful. And she was good at Christmas. And she was blonde.

She was blonde, and I was green, and dinner was not yet on the table when I said something unkind. Daiquiri told some version of these events on her blog more than a year ago, and, with her characteristic generosity, she indicated no fault on my part. But my ability to perceive the human heart is given, not learned, which is to say that I knew what I was trying to do then as well as I know it now. I spotted a weakness, and made an offhand remark, and watched it land. A similar effort to cut someone down a size has occasionally been helpful in the rehearsal room, but I do not recommend it around Christmas. I have deeply regretted it since.

There's a unique relationship, between sisters in law. We are not blood. We did not grow up together. We did not choose to be friends, but we are family. And Daiquiri and I are apples and apples. Even before I began to realize the sort of stunning degree of similarity between us, we were of a kind. Our husbands are like different shuffles of the same deck. Even our courtship stories are similar. It's almost impossible to keep from drawing the comparison.

Ten or twelve years later, I think I would have grown out of that comparison, or at least gotten over the sting, if I hadn't started reading Daiquiri's blog. "You mean," I said to myself as I read about twenty posts in one sitting, "she's also a writer?" And I'm thinking now of my friend Amy Chini, who is similarly competent in everything that I do, and many things that I don't. She's a playwright and a poet, and a very skilled painter -- much better than I am -- and crafty as hell, and she also is a musician whose recording of Hallelujah is treasured in our house because Milo and I both love it, and...oh, yeah, she also cooks. It might be nice to be angry at her for all this, but there she is, in perfect humility, just loving the hell out of me and my imperfections, so there's nothing left for me to do but to survive it, and allow my ego to be obliterated by her talent. In the end, there's no better feeling than that. That's the best part of friendship.

Theoretically, I feel the same way about Daiquiri. And, as long as I'm in a strong place, meaning that I'm already feeling good about myself, I do feel exactly that way about ultra-talented, inspiringly humble Daiquiri. But she also writes a blog. And my ugliest moments -- the moments of deepest insecurity -- are often the ones in which I find myself reading blogs. Lisel mentioned this phenomenon in a comment very early in our blogging month, so I know that I am not completely alone in this. If administered (in)correctly, the tonic of mommy blogs can make you feel completely terrible about yourself. All the other moms sound so smart, and so talented, and they always have these great ideas, and even though they're clearly human in the sense that they have the same experiences that I do, they are inhuman in the sense that they recover neatly from their traumas and wear them like pretty jewelry to their best advantage. I have problems. These other women have beautifully written, blog-sized moral tales.

When I'm feeling alone, I want friends. And I go to blogs. And blogs are not really my friends, even when they are written by my friends.

And here, some of you are saying, "Wow, she has some imagination, thinking blogs are her friends. They're just pixels on the computer screen."

But just as many of you are saying, "Blogs are my friends. She isn't using them right."

We know that blogs do not live or die on the social impulse alone. Daiquiri is a good writer. There's no other reason that I would have kept reading, since her conservative point of view has been a sore thumb in my liberal blogroll, and on half a dozen occasions she has said things that really, really got me steamed. And here it may feel like I'm headed to a revelation about jealousy -- that I'm going to find that my addiction to her blog is actually an expression of the envy itself, but, as always, it's more complicated than that...and simpler. I keep reading her blog because she's a good writer. She's a real writer. Like me.

But we are not only writers.

This is such an elementary lesson, about the dangers of oversimplification. We are not apples and apples. We are people. Daiquiri posts little slivers of herself, for her own entertainment and mine, and for her own edification and mine. Her words have purpose. But they also have virtual life. I can get confused. I can think we are actually talking to one another.

Daiquiri knows from reading my comments on her blog that I can debate politics, and I can. I do. But in person, Daiquiri brought up one of our differences and I almost burst into tears. She doesn't know, from reading my carefully composed words on her computer screen, which issues I can talk about with confidence, and which ones make me panic and fall apart. She didn't grow up with me. She isn't really related to me. What makes us think we know each other? Where did I get the idea that this was real?

This is the point in a post where I usually say, "The internet didn't create this problem. This is human nature, and digital media only expresses it." And then I link the other posts where I've said something to that effect. Except, I can't say that here. The internet did create this problem. The internet is this problem. The strange phenomenon of the virtual serial confessional and her virtual audience IS the phenomenon of the internet.

We are not apples and apples. Mommy bloggers, sisters in law, politicians, actors, directors. We are not equal units of humanity to be categorized and compared. We are people. And we are in great need of one another -- not just the knowledge of one another's traits to go in the little black book of who has what -- but our living vulnerability to one another: our precious ability to be affected, to forgive and to be forgiven, and to share the growth, and change -- and some would call it Grace -- that makes us human.

And there it is. This is the most personal reason for my Year Without Internet. Mommy blogs make me jealous, and I have a problem with jealousy. And now I am at home with these two babies, and it's the hardest job I've set out to do so far. As I face the challenges of full time parenting in a time and place that isn't especially appreciative of full time parents, I need every resource I can get. I can't afford to lose a single real friend to digital envy.

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