I Can Do This
October 17, 2011
One benefit of recuperating is that you have to rest a lot. In ordinary life, just like so many of us, I tend to push myself beyond where I should, though I’ve tried to learn to rest when I need it. And since I’m not a television watching type (which, after all, is far from restful), I’ve been reading a lot. In fact, since I started reading again – sometime last week – I’ve read four magnificent books. Michael Chabon’s memoir, Manhood for Amateurs – a gorgeous series of short essays that was just what I needed when I couldn’t read for more than, say, fifteen minutes at a time; the thoughtfulness, the wryness, the incredible style – everything was so very pleasing. Next, Nicholas Rinaldi’s The Jukebox Queen of Malta, set during the World War II continuous bombardment of Malta by the Germans and Italians that went on for years, with magnificent, fully-realized characters, in a rich, vibrant setting. Ann Packer’s Swim Back to Me, a series of astonishing short stories about the smallest of life’s moments that signify.
It was a scene in Ann Packer’s “Her First Born” that forced me to pause and think. In it, Lise, a woman, whose first child has died in infancy, is pregnant with her second child. Her first marriage imploded in the aftermath of that tragedy; she and her second husband are preparing for labor, readying the new baby’s room, with the death of the first child always, always in the background. While she is in labor, hard labor, she tells the midwife, “I can’t do this.” The midwife tells her that’s the wrong message to give herself; the wrong attitude to maintain: “You have to think you can,” she says. For Lise can, in fact, give birth. And she must, because with labor, there’s no way back, there’s only the way through. After the midwife’s admonition, she says, “I can do this, I can do this. . . and then she does.”
During these past several weeks, I, too, have said, “I can’t do this,” that I can’t do what it takes to recover. But, just like Packer’s woman in childbirth, I, too, have no choice. There’s no way back for me either; there’s just the way through. And like every other woman in my position, I have no choice and I do have what it takes.
I’ve never heard my granddaughter Julia say, “I can’t do this.” And the fact that she hasn’t ever said it has made me wonder why those words come into my consciousness so very often, not only in terms of recovering from this operation, but also when I’m in the throes of, say, finishing a book. I can say that Julia was born that way; she has always been a girl with an indomitable will; a girl willing to work and work at something until she perfects it; a girl who sets herself tasks (writing a horror film) and who accomplishes them.
When she was little, I once took her to a local playground. She hadn’t yet perfected swinging from one ring to another – there were six of them and I’m sure there’s a technical name for them, but I don’t know it. I’d hoist her up onto the first ring; she was too small to reach for it herself. She’d do the best she could. And then she’d do it again, from the beginning. And again. And again. Most caregivers understand that kids either want to do something much longer or much shorter than you’d like them to do it. Well, on this particular sunny day, Julia wanted to swing and swing and swing. And I was ready to move on. When I suggested we go, she said, “I’m not finished yet” and so we stayed for in fact we had the time. All that day, frustrated as she may have been, she never said, “I can’t do this.” She never gave up. All she said was, “I want to try it again.” By the time I had to take her home, her palms were rubbed raw, but even that hadn’t stopped her.
Who can say where this tenacity comes from? But I do know this: her parents have never questioned her ability to do something (as mine did). They’ve never questioned whether what she’d chosen to do was worth doing (as mine did). They’ve never ridiculed her for her mistakes early in her learning of a task (as mine did). They’ve never imposed their desires upon her (as mine did). It isn’t that she’s been constantly praised – for we know that parental praise makes kids dependent upon that praise. It’s that they communicate to her that her efforts (not only her achievements) are worthwhile. They’ve reported to her what they’ve observed: Look at that! You can now swing on five of the six rings! What progress you’ve made! And they’ve let her find her own source of strength deep within.
When I was a young writer, I doubted my ability, and my capacity to bring a book to completion. I was giving a talk somewhere in New York, no doubt, about Virginia Woolf, and I saw a crude hand-lettered sign in the shape of an arrow, with the words “Yes you can” within. It was just lying on a table. And I stole it – it’s the only thing I’ve ever stolen. I felt I needed it. I learned that what I needed to do was replace the internal
“No you can’ts” I’d internalized with a “Yes you can.” I know that this sounds all New Age-y. But the point is, why spend so much time telling yourself you can’t, when you can spend the same amount of time telling yourself that you can, or that perhaps you can, or that you might.
Last night, my husband and I saw the movie “The Photographer,” starring Reg Rogers, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Anthony Michael Hall – watching DVDs in early evening, another perk of recovering. And what a splendid movie it was, and I recommend it highly.
The film is an allegory about what happens to many creative people. A photographer, whose first show is a resounding success, believes that he’s lost his touch. It’s time for him to have a second show, and he has nothing. He finds a packet of ten powerful photographs and decides to pass them off as his own. And beyond this, I won’t tell you what happens. But after a Pilgrim’s Progress kind of descent into hell, after finding a host of people to join him on his journey, he learns that he’s been so obsessed with his inability to create, that he’s missed every opportunity for a photograph that has come his way.
And, yes, in thinking about my own process, in working with writers, I’ve learned that we waste so very much time wondering whether we can, in fact, do it. What a phenomenal waste of time! Better to admit that everything we create will be a pale shadow of the ideal work we wish we could create, and get on with it. Because, just like recovery, just like childbirth, there’s no way to back out of creating once we start. There’s only going back. There’s only finding our way to the other side.