StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Lightening Up in Manhattan

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on March 10, 2010

So I had to wait around all yesterday morning for the AT&T guy to come fix the DSL line that was downed in the snowstorm that hit New York the week before last. It totally threw me off my game. Mornings are my Tea Lounge writing time. I got almost nothing done at home (I did get an early workout in, though) so it took all day to fish my self-esteem out of the sewer.

And it turns out it was the phone line that snapped, not the DSL cable! So now I have to wait around all day Friday for the Verizon guy. Can’t wait to see what depths my mood will sink to then.

Our house is beautiful but it’s old and dark. By the time I could leave it and get on with my day, I knew that Tea Lounge – which Julius says looks like an opium den, but which is afterglow-luminous compared to our own House of Ushers – would be filled to capacity with freelancers and the hosts of newly unemployed. Cocoa Bar was my only option and it’s pitchy as a charnel ground. Add to it that I would be reading up on Van Gogh in there (read yesterday’s post).

So, as you can imagine, I was running a really positive energy by the time I left Brooklyn for last night’s dharma class at New York Insight Meditation Center in Chelsea. I’d meditated beforehand actually, so my mood was a little better but I still wasn’t 100%.

That is, until I got off the F train at 23rd St and walked up 6th Ave. When you live in New York long enough, it’s hard to see it with outsider’s excitement, but something lit up in me and I saw it with the awe of the proverbial ingenue, stepping out of Penn station with her white gloves, straw hat, and valise. These very same downtown canyons, speckled with the lights of high-rise offices and apartments, were my stamping ground for many years, but now I walked down them with a vigor I did not have in the days when I was dragging myself to and from day jobs, which all too often ran late into the night.

Right there at 24th/6th was the Starbucks where I spent so many mornings, writing for two hours before heading into work at 9. Naturally, my coworkers hadn’t had a morning of creative writing, much less sitting meditation, behind them by the time they ambled into the office. At most, they’d glug down a mug of coffee and set their jaws for battle.

Yes, battle. I don’t know if it’s New York or if I just worked in the wrong places, but I have never seen such rampant office skullduggery anywhere else. The two most common maneuvers I witnessed people making were, one, brandishing bullwhips with little to no cause or, two, keeping their heads down and taking lashes lest they lose their jobs. I was never one to take either tack, but I was both fascinated and freaked out by all the everyday S & M around me.  It was a complete corruption of the lives most people (except bad people of course) deserve to live.  I’m eternally grateful that now I could walk these streets without fresh bruises.

I have a friend named Gina who is getting her masters in counseling psychology at the age of 43.  For many years, she’d worked in similar places and lost many jobs.  She’s not the least bit lazy but, in such enervating environs, her energy would shut down; she’s braved life in third-world countries but she’d catch herself crying on the subway or in the bathroom stalls of her office building in Midtown; she’s extremely thorough in almost everything she does, but she’d make buffoonish mistakes, especially when she’d force herself to buckle down and give the boss everything she demanded.  Now Gina is in school, subsisting on loans, and living in a meditation commune in Williamsburg that she found out about at the organic food co-op she belongs to, even though she’d never meditated before living there. Having seen the other side, she’d rather go to hell than back to where she was.

A couple years ago, when I told her I was considering leaving behind the uncertainty of freelance life and crawling back to the cold comforts of offices like a dog to his vomit, Gina painted a little vignette for me that, if I’m smart, will keep me freelancing forever. At the time, Gina was doing a minimal-commitment internship at CUNY Graduate Center at 34th/5th. According to her, the hallways look like coalmines. Inside the office where she did her project, they kept one solitary plastic plant. After all, they needed at least some semblance of decoration and, as there were no windows, all the real plants they’d tried had died, what with their only sun being the fluorescent ceiling lamps. She said the admin staff’s faces sag with their spirits. When they want to step out for a cigarette or just some fresh air, they have to sidestep the onslaught of pedestrians on 34th and 5th. When they look up, skyscrapers block the sunshine and blue sky.

My life has so much more ventilation now, I could weep with joy just thinking about it. And last night, it was like I was seeing 6th Avenue for the first time. These days, I’m only there once a week for meditation class. And now the city lights were as shiny as sudden revelations.

We started class with a 45-minute meditation. You’re not supposed to hang on to thoughts when you’re on the cushion but I couldn’t help but brood about writing. It was the whole why-can’t-I-write-fiction-these-days bête noire that I’ve been boring my blog readers with for months now. But this time something truly amazing happened.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who has bodhi tree-level experiences when I meditate. In fact, most people who say they do are usually full of shit. For instance, I once worked on a writing assignment with a formerly famous Hollywood actor who claimed to be a Buddhist. (Note: this wasn’t Richard Gere. Trust me, this guy was the furthest thing from Richard Gere.) I was with him all day, every day for a week at his apartment in Los Angeles and never once did I see him meditate. I’d invite him to meditate with me but he’d wander off to the other room and go watch Ellen or whatever. But when we’d be out with his friends, he’d brag about how he was, say, meditating in New Mexico and all of a sudden the sky turned purple and lightning rampaged across the sky and he sat still under these conditions and came to the conclusion that he should direct his career energies toward being on shows like Torchwood or the new Doctor Who.

Okay, I didn’t cause the weather to abruptly change last night. But I feel I got a message: as far as creative writing goes, blogging about my own thoughts and experiences is all I’m supposed to do for now. Now, it’s not like this communication came in words. It’s not like Buddha slipped me a note while I was dutifully breathing. It’s just that I noticed that I was exhausting myself trying to write in genres (fiction, playwriting) in which I was clearly blocked. Moreover, I was devaluing a genre (blogging) in which I wasn’t blocked, in which I could write for hours on end every day and tell much more entertaining stories.

But blogging? That’s so plebian! Anybody can do it! “What about the fine arts?” I’m ashamed to admit I’d been thinking this. In fact, these things have been on my mind for at least seven years, ever since I got that letter from Billy Hunt. He was on the board of a theater in Chicago where I worked for several years. I wrote a play that had a micro-run there, which he couldn’t attend, so I sent him the script. The play was about a young man, who was trapped in a print of a Monet painting that he didn’t wish to leave since this fantasyland stood in such delicious contrast to the replete disappointments of his real life. There were autobiographical elements to the play but it was almost all made-up. However, Billy, who hardly knew me, sent the script back to me with a scathing review, saying it was well written but “what impresses people is imagination” and “this play was so clearly based on your life.” He proceeded to say, “Nobody gives a fuck about your life,” and “find somebody other than yourself, Kyle, in writing…and life!” Shortly thereafter, I left the theater (for reasons that had nothing to do with him) but Billy’s letter has stayed with me, even though I proudly made a mini-bonfire of it before I moved to New York.

Some people say I should have a thicker skinned. But you can’t help what stays with you and what doesn’t. Believe me, I’ve done my damnedest to exorcise that letter with everything from satire to primal scream. But it stuck and I went years thinking I was a lame excuse for an artist if I wrote about my own experiences.  Pursuant to Billy’s letter, I tried living by Toni Morrison’s maxim: “The ability of writers is to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and to mystify the familiar is the test of their power.” But I couldn’t write from the void of unfamiliarity.  And I tried.  I tried.  But the plain truth is that the muse wouldn’t let me. No matter how much I parked my ass in a chair. No matter how much I free-wrote. No matter how much I begged.

And last night’s meditation told me to give up the struggle. Don’t write fiction (unless specifically instructed from within). Don’t write plays (unless specifically instructed from within). Just blog (as specifically instructed from within). As I sat in meditation, I remembered dozens of heroes who had to forfeit one dream in order to be fulfilled beyond their wildest dreams, in ways they couldn’t have imagined when they were entrenched in their former stubbornness. I remembered how Mary Hayes Grieco said, “Humility is taking one’s rightful place in the Universe,” and I knew what the Universe was telling me and I know how I’d wanted to do something which seemed grander but which was going nowhere.  I remembered reading an issue of Poets & Writers a long time ago where one writer said she kept wanting to write an epic of Scandinavia but a little voice in her head kept telling her, “Write about your divorce.” She rebelled and rebelled but the instruction to write a memoir about her divorce, which she had thought so frivolous, did not abate until she surrendered to it. From there, she ended up writing the most meaningful book of her distinguished career and the book sold epically.

So I gave in last night.  I began to breathe easier. I don’t have writer’s block anymore. I guess, in actuality, I haven’t had it in a while. I’ve been blogging. It may (or may not) be an inferior genre, but it’s mine. I don’t even know how good I am at it. But I like it and the words flow and it feels like it’s what I’m supposed to do. You can expect more posts out of me.

After meditating, one of the wonderful instructors, Charmaine Henderson, did a dharma talk on the Jhanas in the Theravada Buddhist tradition in which New York Insight is based.  She mentioned two venerated teachers of Insight Meditation Society founder, Sharon Salzberg: Goenka and U Pandita.  I can’t remember the quote she gave from Sri Satya Nayan Goenka but I did recall that Goenka didn’t start out as a holy man.  He was a businessman who came to the dharma (or, dhamma in Theravada) because he wanted to learn how to meditate to relieve his stress headaches.  (It’s no coincidence that he’s popular among today’s Manhattan practitioners.) But I did write down a quote she gave from Sayadaw U Pandita, a teacher who has been instrumental in bringing Buddhist teachings to the west:

“If you can keep your mind in balance, soothing excitement and lightening up depression, you can be sure that wisdom will shortly unfold on its own.”

This is exactly what I experienced last night.

I felt so much lighter by the time I got back home.  I turned on the news and laughed as I saw that Sarah Palin is telling crowds in Ohio that Isaiah confirms that God has crib notes too.  I clapped and howled with glee when word came that Nancy Pelosi might have already secured the votes she needs for the healthcare package.  I cheered even louder when I heard that Rush Limbaugh said he’ll leave America if healthcare-reform passes (Attention, fellow MoveOn members!  For this reason alone, we need to pass healthcare reform!).

I was back to my old self.