I am far away from home and have been for ten days. I am also working on a project that is loaded with stress; it is very important to my client and to my agency and I am working with people I haven’t worked with before. It also involves a lot of thorny technical issues, an obscenely large budget, and despite our tests and research, we are none of us sure exactly how it will turn out.
So much of what I am doing is tied up with the issue of trust, with how I perceive how my colleagues are doing their jobs. As we all proceed on something that none of us has ever exactly done before, this group of strangers, charged with something that, reportedly, could cause many people to lose their jobs if it fails, we are all a little tense.
A lot of the time, I worry I am falling apart. I thought I had congested lungs at one point and bought an expectorant. I thought I might have a sinus infection but the pain and stiffiness kept moving around my skull. I have had a burning stomach, sleeplesness, a sore ankle, a sore knee, a pimple, and a two day headache that keeps clenching the left side of my neck and the back of my skull.
My hypochondria has been pretty much in remission for the past six months or so, but in the last week it has given me a heart attack, cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s, mellanoma, an ulcer, and a knee replacement.
One of the people I am working with told me, “I have a copy of your book and I can’t get past page two. Every time I pick it up I say, ‘Who is this person who wrote this book? He bears no resemblance to the person I am working with’.”
This is the picture of a person who has done one drawing, a small one of a video camera, in the past ten days. Instead of my usual five mile walk, I haven’t had the time to walk more than a block on my own. The primary moments of brightness I have each day are when I call home and speak to my wife and son. Otherwise, it is a seven-day-a-week ordeal, usually a dozen or more hours a day and then room service and bed.
I’m sure by now you are sickened and repelled by this vision of me. Why am I sharing it with you? Why am I painting this extreme and unattractive portait of myself?
Perception is not reality.
I’m not sure what is. I can see myself in this way –tense, lonely, mortal –and as I contemplate it, it manifests more and more. Everything is seen through this aperture, everything is about extremes and burden.
But I can also take a bath, some Extra Strength Tylenol, a Heineken, some La Boheme, and the knots uncoil, and I luxuriate in the moment. I am not lonely but alone, master of my own schedule and more importantly, my own perception. The air outside is warm, the night is still, the beer is cold, my headache has been replaced with a calm buzzing as my neck grows smooth and limber. The pain is past, the tension not even a memory.
My mind is so powerful.
It colors my world, sometimes blue or black, sometimes yellow or rosy pink. It sees what it chooses to see. It can reduce a day to a battle field or reveal the lifelines in a wilting lettuce leaf. My mind is my spiritual guide and my most savage persecutor.
When I draw, my mind sits at my elbow. It wants to comment on every line and angle, pointing out the flaw, expressing skepticism about how the whole will come together. It can tell me how much worse my work is than that of anyone I admire or how far it falls short of the goals I set.
But with a certain stoicism, born of experience, I can muzzle my mind. I can grow deaf to its judgments about the line I’m watching my pen make. I can postpone any verdict, until I have capped my pen or until the ink is dry, or until I’ve seen it again the next morning, or in a month, or never at all.
My ego is vast.
It is rippling with muscle and micro-controlling. It helps me pass verdict on the work I am doing and those who are working for me. It is being paid to be here, or so it tells me. It has been given the responsibility for keeping my project on the rails. That judgment is so critical, it tells me. There is no time for laughter or frivolity or any sort of looseness –so much hangs in the balance.
And yet, despite its good intentions, my judgment is flawed because it is so unyielding. There are no absolutes, there is no reality, there’s no such a thing as great commercial, a great drawing, perfection, just moments in which this judgment prevails, moments which can pass and be replaced by other opinions, no more absolute, no more perfect.
What matters is Now, not what we imagine will be.
Do I want a Now that is gripped with tension, with fear of failure, with crippling judgment? Or can I just enjoy the sensation of being Me, of being Here, of doing Right, of being Alive?
This is reality. And now it’s passed, replaced with another. I can only live here, despite what my mind, my ego, my fears may tell me. I can only be here, now. It’s a small, achievable ambition.
And now my headache is gone.
Written and not re-read under the influence of a Heineken and a California moon.