Irene’s Summer Reads: Episode 2
My daughter made another video about a book. I love how weird she can be. Watch if you like.
On Monday morning I woke up incredibly sick. I tend to save vomiting for once per decade special occasions and that was how I started my day. Filled with fatigue and a full body ached I spent the entire day and evening in and out of consciousness. I not only didn’t get anything done, but felt ill enough that I didn’t really care that I wasn’t getting anything done.
I’m pretty much only doing things I really want to do at the moment. I realize that sounds like bragging or some such but it’s important for this post. And it’s true. My current day job is a mix of spending a ton of time with my daughter and working on freelance writing and podcast projects. These freelance projects happen to be things I’m really excited about and am doing not simply for the money. My theater company, Comedy Suitcase, is opening a new show in barely over a week as part of the 2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival, which means I’m spending several evenings a week working on making comedy with a bunch of really funny people.
Deep in the night on Monday my fever or whatever it was broke and by Tuesday morning I was largely recovered. I can’t say for certain what was wrong with me. It could have been some kind of food borne illness or a stomach bug or some other common thing that I don’t actually understand terribly well. But it has crossed my mind that I was either weakened by or fully made sick from stress.
Here’s a Washington Post article from this past May on potential connections between stress and illness.
I actually do a fair amount to regulate my daily stress management. But the thing I find really fascinating is that positive things can be such a tremendous source of stress, at least for me. Time with my daughter, my theater company, my other creative pursuits are all things I’m really excited to have in my life. I’ve put a lot of energy into getting to spend my time on the things I truly care about. And yet they are also sometimes the most stressful, challenging, and overwhelming things in my life.
It just may be that working hard to have what matters to you be all you spend your time on will only drive you to then work even harder at and care even more about those things. The cost of creative success, then, is caring whole lot about what you do with your time and with whom you do that time. Or maybe I’m still a little feverish and this is all crazy talk.
"Maria Bamford has a mantra of sorts, and here it is: Do the work. Three words, three syllables. An easy, orderly thing. She tells it to herself when she wakes up in the morning, whether it’s at her bungalow in a middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles or at a Holiday Inn in Boston or a Marriott in Bloomington, or any of the other highway-side hotels she hits for one night before moving on. Do the work."
Sara Corbett wrote a brilliant piece for the New York Times about comedian and amazing artist Maria Bamford. The article is really well done, incredibly thoughtful, and does a great job of capturing Maria the artist, Maria the comic, Maria the mental health patient, and Maria the three-dimensional person. I love Maria Bamford’s comedy and I’m fascinated by/constantly doing battle with mental health junk so it’s no surprise this article would resonate with me but I’ve reread it several times and it keeps bouncing around in my head because it’s so full of so much good.
I could pluck a line from each paragraph of this article and write a post about what it gets and how it connects to our human power and frailty. Instead I’ll just suggest you go read the whole article and see what resonates for you. What I would like to touch on is the mantra Maria Bamford shared with this journalist, “Do the work.” That’s some obvious and simple yet next level thinking right there. Focusing on the simplicity of do the work makes continuing to move seem so easy no matter what kind of attacks one’s brain is launching against itself. Focusing on just doing the work creates a straightforward goal and next step in pretty much any situation.
I think a lot of the trick of getting things done is finding ways to not freak out or feel overwhelmed even though if you think about life and the world there are plenty of reasons to freak out or feel overwhelmed. Let’s not list them right because, arghh, full paralysis would inevitably follow. And telling one’s self “do the work” is a very clean way of saying “don’t freak out even though there is no such thing as normal and you may be a horrible person.”
But there’s something more, something deeply embedded in the phrase “do the work” and in this article about Maria Bamford’s life and art. She isn’t trying to find the good of her mental illness or looking for what advantages she can gain from how her brain is wired. Maria has gone in and out of depression, in and out of suicidal thoughts, in and out of being able to connect with the people in her life and not even really being able to connect with her self in any safe way and what she’s come away with is some stabilization in the knowledge that life is hard and all you can really do is the work.
It can be really hard to be alive for each of us for any number of internal or external reasons. Life isn’t about trying to figure out how to be happy or feel good. Life is about acknowledging the hard stuff and trying not to freak out so you can continue to Do The Work.
When’s the last time you were uncomfortable?
There’s a certain approach to making creative work, whether it be theater or music or comedy or literature or food, where the makers push themselves to make audiences and themselves uncomfortable. It can take the form of doing things in front of an audience that isn’t normally done in front of an audience or asking challenging questions or making work that is well thought out but isn’t trying to be harmonious or pleasing. I think there can be real value to this kind of creative work. It can be about risk and discovery and shifting expectations for artists and audiences.
I wonder how this same kind of thinking manifests itself in other, less overtly artistic professions. I imagine there are business leaders or personal trainers who pursue ideas that make people uncomfortable or unsure about potential outcomes. And I’d guess that sometimes leads to interesting discoveries.
Part of me thinks the pursuit of discomfort is a young person’s game. Causing discomfort, either for oneself or other people, just for the sake of causing it loses some of it’s appeal as you get older and hopefully get better at whatever it is you do. It’s a subtle change, though, that moves from trying to cause discomfort to not trying to cause discomfort but being okay if discomfort is caused. It happens when the work is about learning something or doing something differently or exploring something idea about people or the world and being fine with it being pleasant or well-received by an audience. There’s a certain amount of confidence required to know your work can have value even if you aren’t aggressive challenging everyone’s ideas about everything all the time.
Or maybe that’s what we tell ourselves as our muscles stay sore longer and we’re looking for more ways to feel at home.