Stuck

Dave's kissing spotWhat happens when the old ways of tricking yourself into action no longer work? I promised my writing group that I’d send them a new piece by the end of this month. I had been feeling stuck and needed some deadline, however fake, to get myself writing again. It usually works.

Not this time. I can see too easily through the ruse, having tried it too many times, I suppose. Or maybe this time I’m up against some questions I cannot avoid and still hope to get unstuck.

One: Do I really want to be writing? True, I have enjoyed five years of it. I like it as a means to express myself, to get my thoughts together and out in front of some people (a few, anyway). On a good day I can even convince myself that it is doing some potential good, helping people, teaching, healing wounds.

I like the craft and the challenge of it, and I can see myself improving. People seem to like my writing, unless they are just being nice, and I think that I actually am becoming a pretty decent writer. But, as with the visual art I used to do, I have never felt like it is something I am so driven by I could not stop doing it. Do I keep on? I’d like to.

The next question, one that has really got me stuck, is this: What do I write about? I am thinking in terms of writing fiction, mostly, and that has usually been about making stories out of my lived experience—more specifically, my love life. Those were the stories I wanted to tell. I could never figure out what else to write about, and could never understand how some writers seem to have a magical ability to write of things completely outside their lived experience. I am in awe of that skill. I don’t seem to have it. Not yet, anyhow.

This brings me to question whether I have anything new to say or any desire to make up new stories. And it makes me realize, slightly shockingly, that I have almost no interest anymore in the stories I’ve been working on for the past few years. They don’t seem to matter much. This feels suddenly not so much about my writing, but about my life.

You are the love of your life...yes youThe thing is, sometime in 2015, I stopped being interested in my romantic life. I stopped dating, stopped pursuing relationships, stopped caring if I was single, stopped getting crazy over sexy boys, stopped having sex, stopped even thinking about it, any of it. It just all went away.

This is partly a good thing. A big part. My obsession with being in relationships, in having a boyfriend, in having sex, had been a constant in my adult life from the time I came out more than 30 years ago (and there were quite a few torturous years before that as well). For all that time, I remained aware of my status as single or partnered, getting some or not, of keeping my body in shape, of pursuing constantly, of doing crazy and risky and ridiculous things, and judging myself for all of it.

What a heavy thing to carry for so long! Upon discovering I’d put that burden down somewhere along the way—not sure where or when exactly—I felt immense relief.

So much of my happiness and sadness had been tied up in the question of my coupling, and it became clear I had been living with a lot of mental pain for almost all of that time. Sure, I was happy in the moments things seemed to be working great, but those were fleeting. How much did I invest in the pursuit; and worse, how much in the trying to hold onto or recapture something good?

I came to realize the most basic of truths: This was not a source of happiness for me. It just wasn’t worth it.

Thinking back, I can remember starting 2015 with the idea in mind that it might be the year I gave up sex and romance. This was at a time I was still ostensibly happy seeing someone I liked a lot, mind you. It wasn’t about that. For some strange reason, I just got the idea in my head that it no longer mattered. It wasn’t important. I’d had a good run, and now I might want to stop working at it. Maybe forever, maybe for a while. It was not a concrete goal, just an idea, and I didn’t share it with most people.

Do You Want to Sleep with Dave X Robb?I did joke with a friend that I should have a going-out-of-business sale, and that showed I was maybe not so ready to give it up after all. But I didn’t announce the sale, or the plan, if there even was one; I just gradually stopped thinking about the same old things.

A few big things happened last year that no doubt supported this wish I’d planted in my own head—losing that guy, having big health problems, making huge leaps on my spiritual path—and it kind of happened without effort. It’s easy to not have sex, a lot easier than needing to have it.

I’d certainly entertain the idea of dating or partnering with or just having good sex with someone, and chances are I will do at least one (maybe two, probably not all three) of those things again someday; I’m just not willing to put in the effort. I don’t care that much. I like not caring about it, I really do.

Which brings me back to the writing. I find that I don’t care about my characters. Their problems seem relatively meaningless. Stay together, break up—I don’t care what they do.

A wise teacher once said to take the thing that is stopping you from writing, and make the writing about that. Well, I guess that’s what I’m doing right here. How this translates to my fiction, I’m not quite sure, but I am starting to form some ideas. I’ll send this to my writing group and see what they say.

 

I forgot

John_Travolta_Bubble_BoyAs you might have figured out even before I did, this ride ain’t over. The funny thing about it is, I always knew there was a chance—a good chance, even—I’d have to do some chemo, but I had really and truly almost forgotten. I was so fixated on healing from the surgery, and so excited to be putting my life back together and feeling good and weighing 140 pounds, I just forgot. I really did.

So, it’s not a setback or a disappointment (though to be told I would be fine without any chemo would have been fabulous), it’s just the next step in my recovery saga, a step I had temporarily forgotten about. I’d like to think that shows the power of my mind and not its feebleness. As I’m fond of saying, we get to choose our beliefs; so, I’ll go with “powerful mind.”

The routine comprises IV infusions of 2 drugs—one the first Tuesday, then both drugs the following Tuesday, then a week off. Each 3-week cycle constitutes a “round,” and I’m to do 4 to 6 rounds (probably all 6 if I’m tolerating things okay). This is mostly preventative, to wipe out any small traces that might have been left behind after surgery (even though all the margins tested clean post-surgery, you never know) and to ward off an emerging recurrence. Better safe than sorry.

These drugs are known for all the side effects you’d associate with chemo, and will leave me with a depressed immune system, so I need to be careful to avoid sick people and old food and germs, kind of like The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, if you’re old enough to get that reference. (Wasn’t that John Travolta’s first big film?)

Another part of my ongoing treatment will be periodic CT scans. I had my baseline scan last week, and it did seem to show some suspicious fragments, which just goes to show the doctor knows of what he speaks. I’m fortunate to have one of the country’s (if not the world’s) leading sarcoma specialists caring for me. My initial visit with him lasted 2 hours, which felt like a luxury. Great guy. I got a copy of the post-visit report he sent to my regular physician, and in it he called me a “delightful man.” Well, well. I feel delightful, but I don’t think I’ve ever been called it.

Deee-LiteIt’s not clear yet how this will affect my life for the next 4 months. I may be able to work on a reduced (more reduced than I already work, that is) schedule, or work from home, or maybe not work at all. I expect I’ll do pretty okay. I’m hoping to keep teaching at the meditation center on Mondays. My energy level is likely to drop, but I expect I’ll still be up for lots of visits and maybe out-of-house socializing as well. Lucky for me, I love lazing around on the couch reading and napping and welcoming visitors.

So, the adventure continues. I’m approaching it with a sense of curiosity and hope, not dread and doom (kind of like my approach to the presidential primaries, come to think of it). It’s what I’ve got to do.

Leap day

pool_closedAT SOME POINT, I’M going to have to admit that I have crossed the line between recovering from surgery and being a normal person. (Well, my normal.) How do I know where the line is and when I’ve crossed over? I feel like I have. Not in every way, but in most ways. I’m no longer in pain, aside from the near-constant muscle ache associated with rebuilding my sliced-through abdominals. (It’s amazing how much those muscles do for us! I never realized.) My stamina is good, not great. No swimming or yoga or long bike rides yet. My body is not the same as it was, but it will never be the same.

My stream of visitors wishing me well and bringing me food and flowers and driving me to appointments has dried up, as it naturally should, leaving me with boatloads of gratitude and friendships old and new that I’ll have to take an equal role in sustaining. Oh yeah, that. This is a good development. It means I have to start actively participating in my life again.

I’ve been passively social, you might say. For so long, I was waited on, pampered, treated so well, with no need to make plans or decisions for myself, with no calendar day holding more than one or two easy things to do. I was healing, and that was enough. Now, I’m not only tying my own shoes; I’m doing pretty much everything I need to do to get through my suddenly busy days. This is good, too.

GameOfLife1How did I get so busy so fast? I went back to work two weeks ago, a little sooner than originally planned. I was kept busy with a big freelance copy-editing job and studying for an exam. I sorted through a lot of medical bills. I did the laundry and cleaned my house. Life, in other words.

I’m done with the freelance job, and the test was taken last night, so I suddenly find myself with time opening up again on this, the “free” day we’re given once every four years, possibly to make more room for squeezing in the summer Olympics and a presidential election.

I know it’s not really an extra day, it’s just how we name things; but it can be fun to think of Leap Day as a freebie, just as we can celebrate that extra hour we get with Daylight Saving Time. Thinking, What will I do with my extra day? is a good way of reminding ourselves how precious our time on this planet as human beings is. I’d rather do that than treat it as just another day. Don’t we do enough of that already?

Leap-Day-CalendarSo, I’ve decided to use February 29 to get over the idea that I have no time for writing. I’ve been keeping my hand in it over the last few months, what with the Caring Bridge website and, okay, two blog posts on here and some writing in my journal and even some writing at work. I’ve also been reading a whole lot of good writing and sent a couple of short pieces out and edited my friend Alan’s novel.

All of it counts as something—inspiration or contemplation or learning or honing my craft—but the harsh judge within me feels like I’ve not done a lot of “real” writing in all this time, by which I guess I mean fiction. I’ve not worked on my novel or written any new stories. I’ve felt a little stuck in that sense. Maybe I need to find an online course.

But then I tell my harsh internal judge to shut the fuck up. (Applause.) I’ve been busy healing my demolished body, growing a liver, and gaining back (so far) 20 pounds. (More applause.) And nurturing the most wonderful connections with friends and family and my  cat, Emma, studying and teaching Dharma, vacuuming, and working in the yard. The weather has been wonderful!

How we spend our days—yes, this is life.

In the wind

Peter Paul & Mary: In the WindIf you can believe it, I’m still playing my record collection in reverse chronological order. I should be done by now, but I’ve slowed way down. It has been fascinating to wander back through the 1960s, a time before I was collecting records or listening to Casey Kasem (who started in 1970), or making much of any musical memories of my own.

My older sister got her first 45s for Christmas 1968—”Hey Jude,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Little Arrows” and “Les Bicyclettes de Belsize” among them. Prior to that, the only records I recognized from the time were those my parents had. Though I haven’t asked, it seems clear they each had their style and bought their records separately. Mom liked Englebert Humperdinck (Tom Jones must have been too racy) and the Lennon Sisters, and before that, the Ray Conniff Singers and Andre Kostelanetz’s orchestra. Dad bought Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass—Herb, my first celebrity crush—and Peter, Paul & Mary. (Granted, Mom is a couple years older than Dad.)

Currently on the turntable: Peter, Paul & Mary’s In the Wind. I’m so moved by this album, and I’m only now realizing that this trio was my very first musical influence. A quick glance at the album cover shows three attractive, hip folk musicians running around the West Village and performing at the 1963 March on Washington. Bob Dylan wrote the liner notes and three of the songs, including the song that I’m now using to describe my last relationship, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right“; and, of course, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Civil rights and Vietnam were the subject of protests back then, a hopeful time when real change seemed possible, so I gather (I don’t remember much about it), just before the assassinations started. The songs are earnest in a way that might seem quaint to us now if they weren’t asking the kind of simple questions we are still asking today. Especially today, when the world seems completely out of control. And the answer is the same: Love each other.

 

I believe in you

Neil Young: After the Gold RushThe idea of encouragement keeps coming up. I’ve heard a couple of talks and had a few conversations on the subject lately. We should always believe in ourselves, having faith in the greatness of our potential, but sometimes we need a little help. It’s not always possible—especially when we’re feeling down—to self-generate that kind of positivity.

I received a message from my guru the other day. “I deeply appreciate you,” he said. Hearing that opened something in me. It gave me a confidence that I was lacking. Discouragement can be a real impediment to not only our spiritual practice, but to anything we want to accomplish in life. How often have we given up because we thought we couldn’t do it, whatever it is, or that what we were doing wasn’t any good or didn’t matter? Having someone believe in us is so important.

My parents believed in me as I was growing up. I am so lucky in that respect. I haven’t followed a path they might have envisioned for me, but they encouraged me anyhow. They encourage me still.

Dave X Robb and altarThe friends I am closest to believe in me. I choose to spend my time with those who build me up, who shower me with love and affirmation, who help. I have gotten good at asking for help. I wasn’t always that way. Sure, it can be scary—you make yourself vulnerable when you ask for what you need. What if you don’t get it? I’ll tell you: You get the valuable lesson that you can’t rely on that person, and you look elsewhere for your support. Happened to me recently.

Independence is overrated. There is no shame in needing others. And people seem to like it: People like to help. I know I do.

We all need to feel appreciated. This isn’t selfish egotism, or it needn’t be; this is a basic human need, to feel held, to feel like we belong, to know we matter and that we make a difference to others in this harsh world.

I rely on affirmation. It is a big part of why I write, I think. It’s why I am crazy about giving and receiving feedback in writing classes. It feels good to know I am connecting, that I have touched someone, be it a classmate, a lonely gay man in Pakistan who read a short story on my fiction blog, or a lover who saw himself in a poem I read at a salon.

But it only works if they tell you. Otherwise you don’t really know. So say it.

 

Boyfriendable

Bob Dylan: DesireSo, here’s something: When is it better to give up on something you’re pretty sure you’d like in life than to continue the crazymaking pursuit of it? By now I understand that true and lasting happiness is a state of mind, that it doesn’t come from anything external. Still, I do feel happy and at peace when I’m able to arrange my life in a certain way, when I’ve got all the pieces lined up pretty nicely—not perfectly, that would be impossible. Not permanently, everything ends.

I’ve never considered myself one of those people who can never be happy. The more you have, the more you want, they say. One can never be satisfied. I disagree. I actually think it is possible to be happy, at peace, satisfied—mentally, yes, but even in the material sense—that there’s such a thing as enough. In most areas of my life, I am content. I realize how very lucky I am to be able to say that.

The one area where I struggle most is love. Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m loved. I love my friends and my family and my cat and my life; I even love myself, at least sometimes. You know what I mean: I want a boyfriend.

There, I’ve said it.

Was that hard to say? In a way, yes. I have a hard time asking for what I want. For one thing, I see it as a failure to be happy not wanting. And, while I’m learning to be unattached to my desires, I still don’t like to fail at my goals. (At least I didn’t say I need a boyfriend!)

I know I’ve written about learning to be fine with being single. It took me a lot of work over the past few years to get to that point, and to be completely honest, I cheated. I had a crutch, a pretty special man who loved me for much of that time. We weren’t boyfriends. We didn’t see each other all that often, and we saw other people. We both hovered between “single” and “it’s complicated.” He came to my Singles Awesomeness Day party, at which we all celebrated our singledom, and stayed over. I know, right?

You are the love of your life...yes youSo, basically, my being fine with being single was…I wouldn’t say a lie, just not really being put to the test. I wasn’t quite single, not all the way. It was more that I was fine with not having a traditional relationship. And even that’s not entirely true. I wanted more from him and felt like I couldn’t get it (for lots of reasons I won’t get into here), so I adapted. As wonderful as our times together were, that part of it made me sad. I felt like I lost something of myself in the adapting. And I lost him anyway.

When I think about the sadness I experience chasing not only love, but any kind of desire, I have to wonder when it’s worth it. Over the past few years, I’ve been learning to give up attachment to finding happiness outside myself, learning to love purely by not wanting to get something from others, breaking my pattern of grasping after love, abandoning jealousy, embracing impermanence and emptiness…so, in many ways, this boy was a great teacher. I mean that sincerely. He came into my life at the perfect time. And I have to believe he left it at the perfect time.

I am not at all sure I’ll ever find another guy like him, a kind, super-sexy man who made me feel loved and held, understood and accepted so fully. People keep telling me the Universe (they say it like it should be capitalized) will provide for me; they are convinced I will find the perfect man. I hope to, but I can’t count on it. That’s just reality. I’ve set the bar really high. It is one of life’s cruel ironies that by the time one learns how to truly love (and how to screen potential dates really well), the possibilities narrow for lots of logical reasons. I’m not a pessimist, yet I know, just as I know I’ll never make the Olympic gymnastics team, I may have reached “peak dating,” “peak sex,” and “peak boyfriend” in my life. Or not.

Dave X Robb lying on the sand in CarmelBeing with someone unboyfriendable, I’d half-convinced myself I didn’t care if I had a real boyfriend. But I do. I mean it when I say I’ll be fine (more than fine) if it doesn’t happen, but it would sure be nice. That’s my desire.

Some people mistakenly think Buddhism teaches desire is bad. I used to think that. Desire is not a problem; uncontrolled desire is. Is it possible to have desire without attachment? I think so. As long as I can hold my wish without getting all crazy around it, I should be fine. Yeah, so easy-peasy.