#44 Transitions, part 1: The fundamental ambiguity of being human
A three part series on what to do when you don't know what to do
“To be an honest human being is to be in a state of tension. It’s to be in a state of ambiguity…[but] we feel the effects of this ambiguity, and our knee-jerk response throughout history has been to feel like something’s missing…we recognize a lack in ourselves and our strategy’s been if only we can come up with the right philosophical rationalization to make us feel like we understand the world perfectly, then the ambiguity’s going to go away. Then we’re going to be complete as people. We’re going to fill that lack. What Simone de Beauvoir is asking here is, What if we’re never meant to be completed as people? What if we’re never meant to fill that lack?” - Steven West, Philosphize This! Episode #106, Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity
First, I heard yesterday that Johnny Cash almost threw up before every performance he ever did and I almost throw up when I send these. Every time.
As some of you know I’m in the middle of writing my second book which has the working title Lost is a Place. It is kind of a book about recovery, like this newsletter is kind of a newsletter about recovery, but it’s mostly the book I needed about four years ago when the center of my life stopped holding, and it all felt like one large failure or one big punishment or both those things and so much more and nothing at all. People often think lost starts when we lose things, but my center stopped holding on a mountain of accomplishment. I got interested in lost not because I felt so lost when I lost things, which I did, but because I felt so lost when I had them too.
I’ve talked around this subject and sometimes directly at it in this newsletter, but I’ve also wanted to keep a lot of the things I was working out within myself and on the page separate and for the book. That’s been helpful and it’s probably a good business plan, but it has started to feel like a dam has formed inside me in the shape of that book, and all my passion and all the new ideas and all the things of consequence I want to talk about are a collection of debris behind it, stagnating. And so I’ve decided to use this newsletter as a way of working out some of that material the same way I used my old blog to work out some of what ended up in QLAW, and trust instead of hoard.
“Hanging on to your work is like spending years writing the same entry in a diary. Moments and opportunities are lost. The next works are robbed of being brought to life.” - Rick Rubin, The Creative Act
This is the first of a three-part series on that subject, on being lost and in transition, focusing on the later parts of my own experience, the last two years. This essay is about living fully into liminality and accepting what Simone de Beauvoir called the fundamental ambiguity of existence. The second will be a list of the things I found useful over the course of a life transition that seemed to have no end or purpose. The third will be on creativity and allowance. They aren’t really three pieces that build on each other or anything like that, they’re just three pieces connected by my own experience, that I want to write to get on with my process already.
March 2021. The day I knew I was not going to work at Tempest (the company I’d founded and was, until February 2021, CEO of) anymore I was in Mexico. If I were a different kind of person I might have known before, but I’m naive when I should be suspicious and suspicious when I should be curious so it wasn’t until I was sitting in a palapa drinking bitter black coffee and Trying To Relax on Vacation But Checking My Email Anyway that I considered the gravity of the situation.
What happened was I got an email from Google, and Google told me a document I’d made that had my job description in it was being edited, and then Google showed me a summary of changes which were just a collection of strikethroughs, deletions, ablations. Google asked me if I wanted to go into the document and see the changes for myself and I said Why not, which is how I managed to see, in real time, both my role being reduced to nothing, and a conversation in the comments between the new CEO and the head of HR about my future at my own company, or lack thereof. There’s that scene in a Christmas Carol where the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows Ebenezer Scrooge his funeral and it horrifies him because the mourners are not really mourners but shitposters who are glad for his death. And that is the only thing I can think to use as an example so you understand what being in that document was like, like being ghost at my own terrible mean funeral.
I think this happened toward the beginning of my vacation but I can’t remember because I can’t remember much from that time. I can’t remember my feet on the ground or the water on my skin or how I took a breath or anything that would suggest I was alive and there. But there are pictures that prove it so I must have been. I know I slept a lot. I know I kept choosing not to fight for my job or my company or my future or my reputation, and that was in part because I was exhausted and in part because I believe in moving with reality and in part because fuck them.
A week later, a Thursday, still March, back in the U.S. and staying at a friend’s, I slept until noon and then I woke up. I took a shower. I did my hair. I put on a button down shirt, three gold chains, bright pink lipstick, and I joined the board meeting of the company I’d built surrounded by people I’d hired; a pariah. I sat serious yet smiling on camera, silent and nodding, and I was rewarded for that. For my calm, for my reserve, for my professionalism. What an adult they said after I essentially resigned without protest or verbosity, which they thought was a choice I had made but was really a freeze response to an unfolding I could not metabolize.
The next day I went back to my mom’s house in Fresno where I put on her blue fleece robe and stayed in it for as long as I could. Unhinged is a good word to describe this part of my life, and I don’t mean that pejoratively. Unhinged is the description I place like a crown on that woman’s head because she was regally out of her fucking mind.
This is not the story of how I lost something, or even of my grief, but the story of what happened when just like that, the thing I had yoked my identity, entire future, success, career, income, wealth, self-worth, life structure, love, reason for being, way of knowing my place in this world, etc., exploded. It was there on a Wednesday and gone on a Thursday and it took all the furniture and the photo albums, the kids and the friends and the house. I didn’t see it coming and I had not planned for it at all and I did not know what to do.
I was tired and empty but I was also feral and furious and finally suspicious so I changed the password on my old website and I started to delete everything I’d ever written from the public domain. I harvested. I made a new website and I started a new blog and I set up this Substack you are currently reading.
I imagined, or rather schemed, a future of doing the same thing I’d been doing. Writing so many books about addiction. Going back to school to get my PhD and some letters behind my name to make me more serious. Getting hired by a competitor? Everything I considered was panicked and it didn’t deviate from the course I had set a decade earlier. I might have said to myself or to my friends or to my therapist or to you: The universe has something new and wonderful and mysterious in store for me, as evidenced by this bullshit. But inside I plotted to not do something new, to keep doing what I had done, because so much had been invested in it and maybe I only mattered if I was talking about alcohol or sobriety. Maybe there was no point to me but this and so it just had to be this.
But then two inconvenient things happened that made those plans for staying the same impossible, which were that I stopped giving a shit entirely, and no opportunities came anyway. It occurred to me that a person could feel really free in this situation, the slate being wiped so clean, enough savings to really let yourself get open to finding the next wonderful bigger thing, a very trusting editor that didn’t take away your existing book deal. But I was not one of those people. I was just fucking scared. I just wanted none of it to be happening.
It’s hard to, in a short-ish essay, explain what that first year was like. I vacillated and cycled furiously. I inhabited the wise Self who trusted the whole damned process, the one who knew I was becoming the next thing and who could truly understand everything that was happening had its place, its own secret meaning. I fully comprehended that caterpillars lose their form before they become butterflies, that they turn into goo, and that I was that exact goo, my form dissolved. I inhabited the animal self too: The one who just wanted solidity and instruction, a next thing to do, an answer, an end; the one who pitched a series of delusional and half-baked ideas of what she’d do next to her agent and friends. There was sanity and insanity, certainty and fear, acceptance and rejection, forgiveness and rage, and they were all mixed up, rendering me into an unreliable version of myself that was paradoxically no version at all; a ticking, barely breathing thing. I might say on a Sunday: “This is wonderful” and mean it, and on Monday I might wish to be hit by a bus and mean that, too.
I had never known myself without a next thing, without a job or a way to prove my worth through objective contribution. And there I was with no plan, no next step, no comeback or anything like that, and I couldn’t force myself to even conjure the idea of conjuring the next thing. That article on languishing started trending around then, and it was so laughable because languishing sounded like a beach vacation compared to what I had. What I had was a total loss of the plot of my life. What I had was nihilism interspersed with moments of a cheap, fleeting hope I kept trying in vain to tether myself to. I wanted the next new thing already, because the next new thing, so all the books said, would retroactively heal what had been broken, transmute all that lost and grief into a firmer set of bones from which the rest of my life would flesh.
There is a formula to these things.
In other words, I kept trying to create a new fixed identity, or rather waiting for a new fixed role in the world, in order to escape the absolute horror that is living in between. Liminal. I might not have rationally believed that my life only had value if I was doing what came after or making something of what had come before, but in my spirit or my animal body or whatever courses through you that accounts for your actual state of mind, it all felt like such a waste. Like a lack of something I was supposed to have. Like failing at my failing.
In the Three Commitments, an audio recording of an eight hour talk given by Pema Chodron, she explains how we are, as humans, “a whole consensus reality that resists the fundamental truth of our situation,” and the fundamental truth of our situation is that it’s completely ambiguous, ungiven unstable uncertain. Our resistance to that ambiguity, as she puts it, shows up in the creation of a fixed identity. We solidify into versions of ourselves, into the lives we lead, as a way to protect us from what’s actually happening here (chaos, all the time), and that when this fixed identity crumbles—when we lose our job or relationship or a person or whatever it was that gave us an illusion of control, or how to be, or our place in the world—it’s a crisis. We feel like we are coming undone and falling apart and that we have made some grave mistake because we don’t know who we are or how to be anymore. So we scramble to build the next identity, the next version of ourselves or shape of our lives, because to actually give into the nature of all our reality, which is that we don’t know what’s going on and we never have and we never will, is too much for most of us to bear.
I listened to that talk in November 2021, eight months later, still in my robe. It was maybe the third or fifth or tenth time I had heard it and I had never picked up on this part of the the talk—the passage about our consensus reality and losing our shit when we lose our identities—because my identity was in tact in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, any of the years before when I would have listened to it.
But it was 2021, and I was in crisis because all the things that had made me make sense were gone, and this is when it occurred to me that I might not try to reinvent myself, or grab hold of the next thing to save myself. That I might take advantage of my situation, and instead of seeing how fast I could get out of it, see how long I could stay in it, see what there was to see without distracting myself by building the next version. And in the same way not drinking alcohol gave me passage into a world most people refuse to even try to inhabit, so too did this.
Like I said, I’m writing an entire book about this, so I’m not interested in fleshing this out much more than I have here, and there’s obviously so much context and wisdom and experience left out. I’ve said before this period of my life felt the most hateful, and I meant that. I didn’t have some satori experience, transcend myself in some profound way, there was no aha moment or flashing white light or the voice of God. It was just a during and an enduring, and it was all so very basic and often quite boring. But it was also a lot like visiting a thin place, where heaven and hell and earth get close enough for you to touch all three at once, and I did.
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Sixteen Things Right Now
Lots of creativity stuff. Lots of drug stuff. A good album to listen to while writing. A good horoscope. A newsletter on transitions. An essay on using alcohol to survive your child’s cancer diagnosis. Other things.
I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity, or maybe creativity has been thinking a lot about me, so the first three resources are about it. The book The Creative Act by Rick Rubin. A friend sent me a link to this book last week and I bought it because I’m impressionable and then I listened to it on the trip back from New York and it cracked my head open and also had me so revved up to write and create. So many aha moments and so much playing back and writing down quotes and ideas and so many roadblocks of my own making removed. I’ve sent it to five people I know and each of them were already reading it! It was sold out when I went to buy a hard copy! It’s that good. 10/10, hardest recommend. Rick also did a podcast with Ezra Klein, and that was also very, very good.
“Creativity is like trying to insist that you’re alive.” Last week I subscribed to the Brass Ring Daily which is kind of like Seth Godin’s old blog but written by a lady; tiny bits of insight daily and I’m loving it. This one with a short video of Mike White on creativity (White Lotus man) was so, so good
I started reading Julia Cameron’s It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, which is The Artist’s Way but for retirees and I think it’s also good for people who are on the other side of a major life transition and wondering about what comes next.
This podcast between Dr. Carl Fisher and Dr. Steven Hays on psychological flexibility and recovery, one of the more insightful things I have heard in a while on what makes a successful recovery (not just from addiction); includes a ten minute visualization practice I found extremely useful. The whole thing is extremely good.
“The effect is a bit like putting a glass vase back into the kiln, which makes it pliable and easy to reshape. Of course you can make the vase more functional and beautiful, but you might also turn it into a mess.” An article I truly enjoyed on how changing your mind through psychedelics doesn’t always yield good change.
This NYT article on the same subject.
I can already hear the unsubscribe clicks coming from this revelation but I don’t like astrology (and while we’re at it I don’t get the enneagram and I know in certain circles not liking the enneagram is a sin). Anyway, I think the reason for both of these dislikes are because I’m one of those people who thinks she’s a contrarian who is really just a person that likes to argue, plus I feel like the astrology of late is just like trying to tell me everything is happening because a transit and transits don’t stop. That being said, my friend sent me this horoscope and it was so bang on; at first I thought it was a joke horoscope from a clothing company and my heart was sad but then I realized the horoscopes were written by a real person who is a real astrologist named Torrence Tremayne. So, a new resource to learn too much about myself but also make sense of why I started hiking in the morning this week.
An article on how to say no after you’ve said yes which made me think of a tidbit from The Perfectionists Guide To Losing Control I can’t stop thinking about: when we say yes to something we don’t want to do, we might rationalize it by saying “it’s just a thirty minute coffee” or “just one night” or whatever. The author points out when we commit to things we don’t want to do, it’s not just the time we spend doing the thing we don’t want to do, it’s the lead up to it where we dedicate energy to negatively anticipating the thing, and the time after where we regret we said yes or have to deal with resentment over it. In other words, when we say yes when we want to say no the cost of it is usually more than the event itself.
Imposter syndrome, revisited. “Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”
Other drug stuff: A scientific study verifies microdosing psychedellics helps with depression; Australia becomes the first country to legalize some psychedelics for therapeutic use; a reminder that if alcohol advertising didn’t work they wouldn’t spend what they do; rehab for crypto addiction; alcoholic writers; I let my book website lapse and now it’s a gambling site which I guess is better than an alcohol site but really isn’t
On using vodka to live through your worst nightmare—this gorgeous essay written by one of the readers of this newsletter
A newsletter on transitions by my pal Steve that has a lot of good resources
I stopped reading gossip mags and watching reality TV but I cannot stop reading Hunter Harris and not because of the content but because she’s funny and it lifts my heart to read her
I did a segment for GMA and forgot that I had some Ayn Rand on the bookshelf behind me