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FEBRUARY 1, 2012 5:27AM

How I STOPPED living on the edge

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The edge of the knife doesn’t have to be drug or alcohol use, dramatic love affairs, criminal activity, or anything so extreme and crazy/insane as that. In fact the mundane can be so much more harrowing and insidious. It’s what you allow to go on in your mind that’s going to kill you, or not.

A few weeks ago I wanted to finish a post for this blog. I basically had it all written but wanted to read it over for errors and add subtitles or section headings, something my sister taught me to do on longer posts. It wouldn’t have taken more than an hour, and I wanted to get up a little early. But my mind was suddenly blaring awake and it was 2 a.m. and I got up. I quietly made some coffee—I live in a studio with my son—and sat at the computer to write.

And I’m no stranger to this. I’ve done it before 10,000 times if I’ve done it once. I finished the post and guess what? It was about 3 a.m. On any other day I would have stayed up reading back-posts of Cary Tennis’ advice column on Salon, or otherwise soothing my frequently overcrowded mind. But all of a sudden I looked at the clock and thought, crap, how am I possibly get through the day? I teach high school in the Bronx, I have a 10 year old, and I had Spanish that night until nine o’clock.

I lay back down and had some hallucinogenic-quality dreams then got up again at five—I still had work to do for my job—and proceeded to have one of the worst days of my life. I got home from Spanish with my son at 9:30 and thought, no, I’m not doing that again, and went to sleep. The day had been treacherous. I had thought I was going to lose it. Break down. Weep. Curse out the kids. Something. The students had been horrible. They feel when you’re not on top of it and they go in for the kill. And anybody’s whose never taught has no idea the restraint it takes not to say the wrong thing.

I woke up the next day almost ecstatic because I had slept, and made it through something. And I guess that’s the essence of living on the edge, the relief you experience at having made it through. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my little brushes with insanity that had to do with alcohol and drug use, horrible relationships—my son was born in Manhattan on the day before 9/11 by the way, and I was by myself, for various complex reasons, while the dad was across the country, inebriated. I had an emergency C-section and proceeded to raise my boy by myself. That’s edgy.

But I still find that it’s my daily, normal life that’s bound to kill me the most. And on that morning after the one with the 2 a.m. wake-up call, I decided, that’s enough. Nothing is worth it. And the big difference is I used to bring on the edge, all the time. I did it in the places I went and the people I associated with and the way I saw things, all the time. I don’t know if I went to it or it came to me, it just always seemed to be there.

When I worked in an office after first coming to New York, I hated the job. It was a nowhere kind of administrative position but what was worse was that they treated me as if I were an integral part of the company. I understand that’s something many people would value but the problem was that kept the job from being the mindless day-position I wanted it to be. They expected allegiance and involvement when I wanted the equivalent job of a ticket-seller at a movie theater—something that required no thought. I wanted to write. And write I did, but I started trying to create whole, separate days for myself. I did it by getting up at 4 a.m., which is fine. But then I started pushing the night back even further. I got up at 2 a.m., 1 a.m., 12 midnight, until finally I was sleeping for just a few hours when I got home from work and staying up most of the rest of the night.

I was madly hyped up, I remember, and I’d put entire days in, at night. I didn’t have my kid then, so I’d write, do laundry, cook, and go swim laps at the Y all before showing up at the office at 8. It was a double life and the only way I could be happy at that time—I earned my pay and I lived the life of a writer. The only trouble is that I drove myself to near-psychosis, paranoia set in. I even started seeing things in my peripheral vision. Things got knotty at my job because my behavior was even more erratic than before. I was younger at the time. The job wasn’t complex. I got away with it.

I could never do that now and I don’t want to. I remember when I was in Bangkok once in the earlier years, before I came out to NYC. I had taught in Japan and thus had the opportunity to travel quite a bit in Asia, which I did by myself. There was some sort of torrential downpour at one point, the kind that makes small rivers run in the streets, and then it had stopped. I remember I saw a mouse that had somehow escaped the torrent in a street gutter. It was up on the side of the curb, soaking wet and breathing desperately hard. It had that escaped-death kind of look, wild-eyed and still.

I saw myself in that damn mouse and stood looking at it for the longest time. I even wrote to the guy I was closest with then and told him about it, in writerly detail—he ended up being the dad of my son.

I didn’t want to be that goddamn mouse, as much as I identified with and felt sympathy for it. Really, no way. And even though I was trying so hard to get somewhere at that point, and I think that’s why I felt so strongly desperate, and even if I did kind of get to many of the places I wanted to go, it wasn’t enough and that’s why I got impatient, and still do.

I was telling my son long stories last Sunday as we walked through Central Park. We always seem to land on a theme, and I told him about the day he was born, and how I didn’t even have a job, and how I started babysitting with him, and then got accepted by Teaching Fellows and got to be a teacher. He said it seemed as if it were one whole, long evolution, how I didn’t have anything at first and then I got to baby-sit, and teach. He said the next step is that I would be a writer, publish my novel and be a writer.

Here’s hoping. 

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This is an amazing, heartfelt, emotional piece of writing--I was with you every step of the way, especially when you described that shivering wet mouse. What a metaphor! You are clearly a gifted writer. I know the rigors of balancing writing and paid work and motherhood, even single motherhood (I am now married again, but was divorced when my oldest kids were 3 and 4 years old.) You don't even KNOW how tired you are. That will hit you later. But the writing makes everything possible. And you know what? all you have to do is keep knocking on those doors. It took me a long, long time, but I finally published a memoir three years ago, and then, after 25 years of trying to sell novels (5 still remain unsold), I published one myself and then, a month later (just yesterday!) I received an offer on a novel from Penguin. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the idea that I am a "real" writer. But the thing is, you're writing. Therefore, you're a writer. Publishing what you write, any way you do it, is just what happens after the best part of the journey. Best of luck!
That's the thing with adult kinds of commitments.

They tend to be 24/7. A young child. A demanding career. The fact that they are consuming is what makes them interesting and rewarding. But there isn't enough left for yourself, outside that structure.

Throw in writing, and that makes three. I've done maybe 1 1/2 and that was more than enough for me.

The recognition that you have to take care of yourself. Huge.

Best of luck.
Madness of one kind or another always comes from devoting oneself to "advancement" instead of "contentment."
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Oh, I hear you sister!! I have always been a hard-core night owl and as a Mom it's my hardest battle to be up and going all day and then still feel that I can have "my time for me" at night. Having passed gracelessly through menopause, my body now wakes me up at all hours of the night - not in a good way!!! I have had those, "what's that" exhausted halucinations when I start seeing things creeping around the edge of my peripheral vision...I am so lucky to have an early bird husband who lets me sleep in on weekends! This was so beautifully written - you keep me with you every step of the way. And that poor mouse! That image will be with me every time I have one of those "I'm getting washed away" kind of days. Excellent read!!!!

PS. Your son is so wise...so like his mother.
You will someday. I used to have a life like yours. Teaching, union president, mother and stepmother. I thought I was healthy. I power walked every day during my lunch break or before sun up. But my body broke down in my late 30s. I jettisoned husband #2 and took my remaining child with me on a year sabbatical. Got MA, taught some more, got PhD, taught some more, ten years as a prof traded for another ten back in public education as a principal, semi-retired early and taught at a local community college. I started writing down stories I'd been telling and more private things. But I never found the time needed to do it well. Finally, when one of my short pieces came in 10th place in the memoir classification for Writers' Digest on the same day I felt compelled to tell the Dean how she should be running her curriculum, I quit altogether. I'm lucky. Early social security and state teacher's pension gives me enough to subsist on. So, at 62, I started to write for real. I'll be 65 soon, and it has been a great three years of becoming. You'll do it. You will find a way. I hope you don't have to put it off until you are 62.
"It’s what you allow to go on in your mind that’s going to kill you, or not. "

yes, yes, yes, yes...YES! I struggle with those damn voices in my head every day. Ugh.

What a stunning piece of writing!
I'm doing everything now, and I haven't really thought too much about how it's weighing on me...it's more how it weighs on my husband. My son somehow is more supportive. Here's to those novels, for all of us. I believe there are enough readers for all.
you call it a "2am wakeup call" but that doesnt make sense to me. it sounded like you stayed up late. so "wake up call" is ambiguous here.
I know what you mean about nerves & stress making it hard to sleep. mind racing. when I get new ideas or go on new adventures, I tend to get that mind racing thing some nights. I remember once I scheduled 2 interviews in the same day & my mind raced the whole prior night. the interviews didnt go overly badly but they didnt go overly smoothly either. people can sense stuff. they pick up on bloodshot eyes even subliminally. it didnt help that I said one of their questions described a "stupid" scenario. what I meant was that in that scenario they were describing, the software was behaving in a stupid way. but that didnt go over too well. ouch! anyway, as we get older we just cant push our body the same way. I find that if Im even off by 1/2 hr of sleep on some nights, I can feel it the next day. & I notice how much my brain starts to shut off at bedtime & cant stick it out any more. anyway, lack of ability to sleep suggests that one is cramming ones day or mind with too much & need to back off. quiet time! thinking about nothing! letting the brain wander!
Sometimes it's hard for me to even rollover in bed each night. I admire you for doing the writing thing (which is truly harder than people think), along with everything else on your plate. Hang in there!
When I was in my twenties, I worked two jobs (one full time, one part time) and went to college part time. I had no days off. I was sick all the time. I wanted so much to get my degree. Thank God I did that then, because I could never do it now. God bless you and your child. Keep on writing!