This Skein of Brittle Self-Awareness

It’s one of those nights in NYC when it’s too hot to sleep. It’s hard to even breathe. So in the night, I sit down here at my kitchen table to write. The way I used to, when my horizon was so wide open I was drowning in loneliness.

Which is apropos, because today I felt an old lonely feeling, the sense of an inability to relate to people in a way that seems to come naturally to others. Since I’ve been a child, there’s been something withheld about me, something cynical and fearful, a spiteful, sensitive creature that spits at the world.

This is who I am. An imperfect, arrogant, overly self-aware asshole who wants to be loved.

I remember the first time my father took me to a baseball game, and as the people around me cheered and followed crowd protocols and shouted good naturedly at players, I sat, withdrawn, and did not understand. A burly man bantered with my father and informed him that his son was a Vulcan. Though he meant it in friendly jest, it felt to my overly sensitive self like an attack. Something was wrong with me. I seemed unable to exhibit some innate male marker.

Sometimes I wonder if I have some mild inability to comprehend certain social cues, an inkling of autism. Or perhaps some deficiency of testosterone or some other naturally occurring trait that people sniff off each other like dogs determining one another’s character by sniffing each other’s butts.

I’ve never been interested in the things that seem to be normal things to be interested in. My attention is often elsewhere.

As an adult, this has become a strength in my work, in that I’ve discovered that I have an ability to lose myself in an isolated drive to get things done.

But there are some times, like today, when I am reminded of my deficiency. Why can’t I just relax, say an offhand remark that will make a stranger laugh, remove this skein of brittle self-awareness that inhibits me from relating naturally to others?

This is my curse, and perhaps it is my blessing–the fundamental flaw that defines my character. I will never be that burly man at ease with his place in the world, savoring a baseball game in a stadium. I am condemned to be forever hungry, nipping at the heels of an internal wilderness, sitting silently in a stew of conflicting emotions, conveying little, waiting for some distant moment when I can curl my understanding into a word on a page in a stranger’s heart.

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No Apologies

I’ve decided I will no longer apologize–neither to myself nor to my anonymous audience here–for failing to write on this blog. Part of getting older entails sacrifices and necessary shifts from idealisms of youth and hobbies once held sacred. Writing for most of my burgeoning life has been a method for me to cogitate and develop independence of thought, but most importantly, to relieve myself of loneliness and give voice to an inner life long held silent.

But now I am married and professionally immersed. Though I don’t have many close friends in NYC since I moved here five years ago, I don’t generally have time to feel lonely. I continue to develop and refine my philosophies, but that development now either takes place amongst discussion with colleagues at my school, at education conferences or events, or on my professional blog, Schools as Ecosystems.

So while I do miss the personal and introverted creative explorations/exorcisms I once performed regularly here on this blog, I won’t allow myself to be burdened by guilt that I am compromising some essential aspect of my existence. The reality is that I am developing in other ways, and such is as it should be, because it must be, and it will be.

Smoothing Out the Kinks

The Path

I’ve sustained an injury that has prevented me from running most of this summer, and in some ways, the story of that injury serves as an adept allegory for larger issues ongoing in my life.

First, for those of you (i.e. ALL of you) who haven’t been following this blog since 2005[1], I’m a runner. Not a marathon running-check-my-heart-rate[2]
kind of runner, just someone who runs. Because it brings joy and fosters well-being. I don’t run far, but I run fast, and I like running alone and somewhere peaceful, like by the water or in the woods.

I had major shin splints in high school while running track and cross-country, and discovered (thanks to a well-informed employee at my local shoe store) that I was over-pronating, so I got a shoe that fixed me right up and has served me well in the 15 or so years since, such that I haven’t ever sustained ANY injuries until now. Pretty amazing for a runner, apparently. That shoe is the Brooks Adrenaline GTS, and I highly recommend it if you are a runner and require more support in a shoe.

Two years ago, I got swept up in the barefoot running craze, as I have documented on this here blog, and shucked my ample GTS cushioning for the unsupportive, callous inducing barefoot lifestyle of running. Not completely barefoot, mind you — I’ve been running in Vibram FiveFingers. It was rough at first–it took me a whole summer to adapt– but once I broke in my feet and adjusted my form, I fell in love. Not only does barefoot running appeal to my philosophical biases for self-sufficiency and natural principles, but it also just feels really good, as it seems to better stretch and work out your feet and legs during a run.

The injury that has reared its evil head is a muscle strain in my right leg, which tells me that something has been wrong for some time in the way my right foot has been striking the ground. The symptoms are inflammation right under my kneecap and–especially–on point of my hip. When this started up, I first tried to run through it, but it only got worse. So then I gave in to the inevitable and stopped running to see if some R&R would make it go away.

It didn’t. I tried running after a break of 2 weeks and it flared right back up, as if it had never subsided. The frustrating part about this is that the summer is the one time during the year that I can finally run consistently almost every day and get myself back into shape. What happens when I don’t run? Beers go straight to my belly. It’s disconcerting how quickly my gut begins to protrude. Now, yes, I COULD go to a gym, but that goes against my aforementioned philosophical bias for self-sufficiency. Plus, I just think they are nasty and don’t want to be around a bunch of stinky strangers when I work out.

So my belly has been slowly distending as I’ve been waiting, fruitlessly, for my injury to subside. I finally realized that I had to do something about it. But I’m wary of doctors, and I’m skeptical of the ability of a doctor to tell me much that I don’t already know. I decided that I would find a good deep tissue massage therapist, instead. I like getting deep tissue massages, and I get them for myself as a treat once a year or once every 2 years, depending on my budget. I see it as a necessary “defragmenting” of my body, a way to purge built up tensions and knots that accumulate over time. But I’ve never gone specifically to a masseuse for the purpose of physical therapy for an injury, so I wanted to make sure I got one who was decent.

I found one via a quick Google Maps search for “deep tissue massage,” and after checking out her website and seeing that Trey Anastasio had given her a positive review, I figured she must be aight. She was. She pinpointed some major knots in my back I wasn’t even cognizant were there, as well as introduced me to the incredible pain that is the IT band massage.

She informed me that as an active person, I should really be getting a massage more frequently. When I delicately let her know that I can’t afford such luxuries, she charitably gave me an insider tip about using a “foam roller” to give self-massages[3].

I don’t know about you, but I’d never heard of these things (probably cuz I’ve never gone to the gym). Given my proclivity for self-sufficiency, it certainly seemed right up my alley, so I went ahead and ordered me one. They’re cheap.

I’ve started using it, and let me tell you, rolling around on your IT band is no joke. It’s incredibly painful[4]. It brings tears to my eyes. But it’s made it fairly apparent to me that my right IT band must be getting strained and perhaps at the heart of my injury, because there is major pain all along it. I’m thinking that if I continue to iron it out, it should do much to alleviate the strain keeping me from running.

So I ordered me a new pair of Brooks Adrenaline GTS 12. I’m not giving up on barefoot running completely, nor do I blame it for the injury, though I think it played its part (I’ll get more into that in a moment). I plan on easing back into running with daily foam rolling as physical therapy, and the increased cushioning of my running shoes to help to ease the strain. Once I’ve gotten back into rhythm, I want to go back to my Vibrams, though I might never go back to full-time barefooting. I’ll see how it plays out. All I care about, at the end of the day, is that I’m running.

What are the causes of the injury? Is barefoot running to blame?

There’s a number of factors that could have played into it. They are as follows:

  • During the school year, I run more and more inconsistently as the year progresses, due both the shortened days and coldness of winter, and because of an increasing exhaustion. Teaching special education in the South Bronx, in case you didn’t know, is demanding work
  • When I did go out for a run, I was most likely going out harder than I should have, given the time that might have elapsed since the last run
  • I wore old dress shoes with heels to work intermittently, and I had a bit of a walk from the train station. I generally tried to wear a barefoot style shoe that I have, but they look kinda funny, so when I wanted to look good for whatever reason, or if there was ice on the ground, I wore my dress shoes
  • I am getting older. I know 33 isn’t that old, but I ain’t no spring chicken anymore, neither. I may not be able to get away with the same level of body stress I once could
  • A few months ago, I sliced open my big toe on my right foot, had to get 7 stitches, and apparently severed some kind of nerve, because I can no longer bend the toe completely, which may have subtly altered my running form
  • I think either my legs are different lengths, or my hips are askew[5]

Any or all of these factors, combined with the reduced support of barefooting, could have easily resulted in the strain that I have incurred.

Well, OK, so now that I’ve thoroughly bored you with the details of my diagnosis, how does any of this serve as an allegory for other life issues, as I suggested at the outset of this post?

Basically, it has to do with the principles of myofascial release that I’ve learned from my massage therapist and from foam rolling. When you hit a point of stress, you press on it until it relaxes, then you iron it out through the length of the muscle, kind of like rolling out dough. It’s akin to exorcism. By calling out the point of stress that had been hitherto unnamed and stepped daintily around, you then force it to abandon its temporary abode. The longer that you’ve ignored this encroaching negative spirit, the more painful it is to dispel.

How apropo this concept is to our emotional lives, is it not? In terms of my own life, I’ve been under a lot of stress. This year in my job was easier in some ways, but harder in others. This is something I’m still trying to work through and write about. And I’ve been letting many of my feelings remain unvoiced. And over time, those feelings began to get knotted, and embedded, and tangled, and then began to seep into and infect other areas of my life, such that eventually all I knew was that I felt tired, unsuccessful, unsensual, unmotivated, and uncentered.

This dim feeling and lethargy has pervaded even my summer, and in this way, my injury serves as its allegory. As if the strain in my leg embodied the strain in my heart. I had gotten to a point where I felt as if I could no longer write, no longer run; in short, I had lost my mojo. This wasn’t any form of overt depression, by the way. It was more like something that lurked behind every day, but was easily subsumed behind the hustle and bustle of my busy mind and life. In this way, it gathered. It gathered, and I ignored it. This is how storms gather in our bodies and in our hearts.

And so the allegory of this injury is the allegory of an emotional life. We must go to our points of pain, and we must lay them bare, push them down until they run. And that alone is not enough. We must then pursue them, all the way down along the path from which they’ve mounted, until we have pushed them out, evicted them, banished them. But we must be ever vigilant, for each new day brings new barbs of tension, and the longer we ignore them and wish them away and pretend, the deeper they embed themselves. Until we find ourselves, one day, in that place of hopeless despair, and must reach for help from another, and others reach down their hands to us and help us back to our feet, and then inform us, gently, that the path to healing is our own, and we must go back to that place of darkness alone, but here is a gift of knowledge to support you on your journey.

Here, this is my gift. Thank you for following me thus far.

1 Before blogging, I sent out emails of my writing. I have most of those logged here as well, dating back to 1998

2 I did purchase a heart rate monitor recently, but I’ll post more on that later

3 Just as a side note, now that I’ve found her, I will certainly go back to her when I am able to afford it. I highly recommend her if you’re in NYC.

4 Painful doesn’t quite do this feeling justice. It’s not quite pain, so much as being extremely uncomfortable and wanting it to stop. It reminds me of the feeling of sitting in an ice bath up to your hips. Our gym at my high school had a giant ice bath, and after a few minutes, right before you go numb, the same feeling of burning discomfit hits you. You have to force yourself to stay in until it goes away.

5 Interestingly, I haven’t really thought about it until now, but when I was younger, I ran to jump over a tennis court net, and my foot got caught in it, so I landed right on my hip. I was too embarrassed to tell my parents about it, and though it hurt for a while afterwards, eventually it went away. That’s the exact hip that is hurting now. Possible I may have fucked it up that long ago and it just showed up now after moving to unsupportive shoes.

A Remembrance of the Power of Words

Sometimes I forget the power of language, how the very transmission of words onto a page or into another set of ears can cut or mend the very fabric of my life. When bad things have happened to me, I feel like I can trace their development to specific utterances. And by that, I don’t mean that words are necessarily magic incantations, though they certainly can be, when woven intentionally and powerfully by poets and the like. What I mean is that when I’ve said certain things, I’ve changed my own habits of mind, thus altering my behavior. This subtle shift in decision-making, initiated by the concrete translation of thought into words, alters my own awareness, either inhibiting or abetting my actions.

So I’ve re-remembered that I must be careful what I speak. Careful not in a paranoiac sense, but in the sense of a constant vigilance against speaking things against other people that I would not feel comfortable broadcasting to the whole world. This is the sort of talk that I’m usually fairly resistant to, as I’ve always disliked gossip. But perhaps the environment of a public school has lowered my immunity. Whatever the case may be, yours truly feels the need to be more guarded against speaking negative words. Because when one has uttered a negative word, it results in a subtle alteration of mind and body that spreads ripples into the world.

I want to strive to speak things that add value to life, not detract from it. I want to speak words that mends wounds, not creates them. And this does not mean that I would shy from speaking a hard truth when it is necessary–but rather that those hard truths must be delivered directly to the person that needs to hear them.

I’m not speaking against venting. I suppose there will always be a time and place for that. But venting needs to be done strategically, with brothers or sisters in arms. And it needs to be done with the ultimate goal of productive action, the ultimate goal of healing.

But mostly, it seems that the best strategy is to attempt to deflect negativity from others, while keeping personal negativity directed inward. The downward spiral of negativity is avoidable only by speaking the right words, the words that mend, the words that heal, the words that are vetted and chosen to make the world a place worth living in for another moment.

This is certainly not easy. But well worth my life.

Buddha Nature

In order to write something, anything, my mind strives for some overarching purpose. But what is the overarching purpose of my life? Could this be defined? And if it could be defined, would it be worth writing?

It is better, perhaps, for me to recognize that writing itself, like life itself, is purpose enough, worth enough, to enact for it’s own sake – for my own sake – here within this very moment of being. I can write, so I will. I am alive, so I must live.

Writing is an act of transcribing waves of thought into the structured symbols our ancestors developed to amplify their minds. Through this amplification, they – and all their subsequent generations to the point of me at this point of now – enabled this text that sits directly before you on your phone or your tablet or your laptop or your desktop monitor, ferrying this current of my thought to you.

There are so many ways to amplify our minds in this day and age – due only to become ever more exponentially electrified – that it bears questioning as to what occurs when there is much amplification of little mind? Springing from that visualization (big waves circling outwards from a small pebble) comes the possible insight that the eventual zenith of all of this streamlined jetsam and flotsam is no mind. No mind as the end game of much effort applied towards mind amplification. This sounds koan enough that there must be some truth to it.

And as Meta as all of that sounded, it really is just an outgrowth of the overarching purpose from which this thought flow had begun, which of course could not be uncovered until I had allowed it to unfold without consciously steering myself to it. I commenced writing here on this post in order to calm my mind, which was preventing me from achieving the “no mind” of sleep. And in allowing myself to tap, however superficially, into the wellspring of my existence within the here and now, which is being for the sake of being, via writing for the sake of writing, I have found a sort of quietitude that will hopefully allow me to slip into the cover of my dreams. Buenas noches.

Unlocking Wilderness

We tend to lock ourselves in our own devices, then blame others for their design. Fits of animal lucidity that may appear madness to the habituated — such as going out for a run in the middle of the night, fasting for no external reason, or simply typing unpremeditated words into the stillness and emptiness of a blog — are perhaps wholly necessary to maintain some freedom from our own tendency toward confinement.

In the flurry of my working urban existence, as if that were any excuse, I have grown complacent, as I am wont to do, being human, in a perpetually exhausted consumptive silence, threading endlessly through the vision of others amplified on my outdated laptop screen. But there is a wind that speaks from deep within that cuts through concrete and forest alike, past and present, a sort of primal divulging light that trumps all, if it could just be heard. . .

I once struggled to understand the language of the ocean as it laps relentlessly against the shore, like a fish-eyed harbinger of hunger, desire, and the wild thrall that lies just at the boundary of death, a  3D sinuously pixellating sound of the loss of everything that had previously been defined, yet comes back again, never to be fully known except perhaps, fleetingly, as beauty.

Like San Narciso expulgated of meaning, there is simply, terribly what lies here, before us, utterly barren, utterly beautiful, utterly unknowable yet wholly tangible through shizophrenic descent into frenzied sensory and metaphoric experience. Here we touch the subway shuddering plastic lights that flash the graffiti of someone who has long since passed onto their way into everyday. . .

The image words of the ocean wind, cutting through the forest mountain of my mind, take me away to your place of desolation.

Attention

The most valuable thing I may possibly possess is my attention. Everything else from each focal point flows: money, fitness, conversation, love. It therefore follows that the most pernicious power possibly wielded is inattention. Fallen along the periphery of lapsed perception lies barren decay, the detritus of abandonment. Grown all the more eventually loud and demanding in its rifted divisiveness.

Constant, unwavering vigilance is required, then, in the maintenance of integrity. To enlist an oblique reference from past popular culture, in Blair Witch Project, the moment of greatest fear lay not in the unseen scratching or indeterminate wailing in the woods, but in the closing shot of the friend in the basement corner with his back turned, posed monolithically, a presence assumedly known just a minute before but now no longer understood — for one moment abandoned and thus — in a subsequent moment of greatest peril and need — turned unreachably menacing.

In the ghettos of my soul, an unplumbed, thickened viscosity of malformed and unaddressed feelings can so easily build like malignant plaque. An accumulating pile of secondary priorities shoved into a corner of my awareness. My heart must be opened.

Our innards must be aired. Nothing good can happen unless all facets of each compiling moment are appreciated. The path, the journey that we make is hewn from the gravity of a complete and total immersion in what lies directly before us. The earth. The heated, desolate eyes of the public. Our bodies, our tongues, the sound and the light, unforsaken, believed in, cherished, compassionate,

undivided.