What’s under all that crap?

someone hiding under the covers

I’m curious: now that you’re four months or so into the process of slowing down and doing less , washing the metaphorical dishes in your psychic kitchen sink, if you will, and clearing off the piles of metaphorical papers on your psychic desk top, if you will , what are you uncovering?

, Dan Owen, in the comments to post on Monday, April 12

I have been thinking about Dan Owen’s question in the comments of Monday’s post since shortly after he wrote it, and finding answers, or ideas serving as leads to them, everywhere I turn, ever since.

Okay, to be completely honest, I’ve been thinking about these things on and off for much, much longer, but in my usual perverse way, having someone else pose the question spurs me on to actually structuring my thoughts and putting them down in some kind of semi-orderly fashion.

So, with all of this excavation, this decluttering, this clearing away of physical crap and mental distractions like, oh, the pursuit of livelihood, what am I finding underneath? Thus far, the answers seem to be “the usual” and “more layers”, which is to say, “the usual.”

The usual, Part 1: Fear, love and the tender heart that threads them together

Here’s a good-times truism, and I’m only being half-facetious: when one finds oneself getting angry, outraged, incensed, self-righteous, smug, or any other feeling that is not either fear or love, there’s probably fear rooted just underneath.

To make things even more delightful, unless the fear is of being eaten by a bear or some other immediate threat to survival, it’s probably attached to some need for love. When I act like a jackass, deliberately withholding love, even though (or worse, because) I know someone wants it, it’s about fear.

And “love” doesn’t always present in the moment as a grace-taxing apology for a major transgression or showing up at a friend’s house at 6am with your truck to move their piano cross-town; it can be as simple, and excruciatingly difficult, as an acknowledgment of success. The Chief Atheist (rightly) used to accuse me of throwing compliments around like manhole covers, and he was right: in my world, achievement was a zero-sum game; ergo your success diminished mine; ergo to me, offering praise felt like cutting off a non-returnable piece of my arm and handing it over knowing that if you did anything with it at all, you’d glance at it ever so briefly before tossing it mindlessly over your shoulder for rats to gnaw on. Or something like that. It took years of working with my first-shrink-slash-astrologer to even make a dent in my fucked-up scarcity mindset, and realistically, it’s something I’ll likely struggle with for years to come.

However. My hating it doesn’t make it go away any faster. To the contrary, my hating it makes it even less likely that I’ll be able to overcome it and move into the happy space where my friend Bonnie truly does reside1, a place where “Any time I see someone succeed I am happy, for it affirms my belief that I live in a world where success is possible.” Nobody gets to the happy place by blowing past the bullshit that stands in-between; the only way to it is through it, and brother, there are days when in-between might as well be a three-mile, naked wade through a razor-lined vat of gelatinous battery acid.

Most days, though, the walk is uneventful, the pain points are easily overlooked and the scrutiny easily avoided. This is where you actually can score big payback if you, I believe the expression is “double-down” on the observations.

The usual, Part 2: How many layers of protective coating can one person have, anyway?

Why am I craving this second cup of coffee? Am I really wanting more caffeine in deliciously bitter delivery form, or do I want a do-over on my first cup, a reboot of the day?

Now I want a cookie. Or do I? Am I hungry for this taste, this size, this shape, this texture, this many calories of energy? Or am I hungry for some not-doing? For, specifically, some not-doing of this? Or maybe for a reminder that yes, I can treat myself and treat myself well. (These are SCD-legal cookies; it’s a whole other discussion when the thing I want is an “illegal”.)

How is it I’ve found myself back on the Twitter home page/in the Facebook stream/checking email again? Again? Again? What am I looking for? What am I avoiding? Where do these two things overlap?

Of course, sometimes checking email is just checking email and a cookie is just a delicious treat. The trick, and yeah, the pain, is in the awareness. It was not The Goody-Good Times staring down my Best Year Yet failures from 2009 and realizing that they were almost identical to my failures from 2008; of all the things I hate (and because I lack the enlightenment to view them with dispassionate interest and/or compassion, I hate many), I probably hate wasted potential the most. Drives me batty.

On the other hand, there they are. Clues! Instructions, even! On what to do next, or at least, what you might want to take a look at.

So for me, Dan Owen (and anyone else who’s interested), under that addiction to coffee, to the Internet, to Comfort TV, to certain controlled substances, is fear: of what happens when, if, when I finally do write a book and it’s my turn to be judged by everyone and (probably) found wanting. Of giving my best and my all to what it is I have said I want for so long now and not having it work out, whatever that means. Of money turning me into a lonely  ogress, as I have seen it do to so many of my loved ones before me. Of not being enough, definitely. Of not being loveable, most likely.

In other words, same-old same-old.

But each time around the mountain I have a slightly different view of it, and feeling towards it. In my oh-so-slowly-dawning awareness, I feel the beginning of what might be the promise of eventual compassion and detachment, not bullshit, human, take-my-ball-and-go-home detachment, but a release of attachment to outcome and with it, the potential of opening my heart to love on a more steady basis. Or, um, on a basis. Yeah, that.

It is crap. But come on, it’s pretty hilarious crap, isn’t it?


1I swear, it took me years to believe it, but it is true. Which is not to say Bonnie doesn’t have her own issues; she’d be the first person to admit that she does. But man, are they not this, and boy, while I wouldn’t trade, I really, really hope to experience this state of being some day before I die.

Image by xJasonRogersx via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. You are fast becoming my favorite monk, Colleen. All the signs are there: daily practice(s), mountains, boulders, minimalism, homemade yogurt, and sitting outside the gates waiting—prepared, and waiting (is it un-waiting since you are constantly moving, doing, writing?). As much as I feel empathy for the grief/fear/envy–I’m also deeply impressed and moved to a kind of (our brand of) reverence when I watch you un-wait; you are inspiring. Sending good vibes your way.

    1. I think we can be moving and waiting at the same time: possibly the only true multitasking. Because I wait for answers while I move through my life, doing stuff. (Although I guess you could get all Yoda on my ass and say, “Go or go not; there is no ‘wait.'”

      But you are too nice to call me out on that. I thank you for your continued and very real support.

  2. hello, i just thought i would point out that maybe the next cookie, the next dive in to the social stream is not about avoidance but looking to fill a need. Maybe there is some pleasure you get there that you do not find in other places. This is neither bad nor good it just is. If the pleasure gets in the way of other activities that are necessary then it should be limited but if it does not detract from the day maybe, just maybe it can be allowed

    1. Absolutely! As I did not make clear enough above, “sometimes a cookie is just a delicious treat.” Maybe the “just” is what tripped up the communication. But a very valid point.

      It’s not about denying so much as it is about awareness. Or at least, that’s what it seems like from here.

  3. Hi Colleen,
    Fear and crap. Neat. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has fear and crap inside. Here is a poem from Marin Sorescu that sums up this state and what you are doing despite it.

    I pulled on a suit of mail
    made of pebbles
    worn smooth by water.

    I balanced a pair of glasses
    on my neck
    so as to keep an eye
    on whatever
    was coming behind me.

    I gloved and greaved
    my hands, my legs, my thoughts,
    leaving no part of my person
    exposed to touch
    or other poisons.

    Then I fashioned a breastplate
    from the shell
    of an eight-hundred-year-old

    And when everything was just so
    I tenderly replied:
    — I love you too.

    (Translated by Paul Muldoon and Joana Russell-Gebbett)

    Write the book. I’ll read it.

    1. Fantastic poem. AND I learned a new word.

      Although now that I re-read your comment, I wonder: am I doing things in spite of fear and crap, or because of them? Reframing opportunities are everywhere—ain’t it the truth?

      Thanks for the show of support. Books on the way this year. I swear to it.

  4. Hi Colleen. Fear is noisy. I’m telling myself I’m going to put a book proposal together. But I can only do it now that I no longer care that much whether the proposal would succeed in getting a publisher, nor whether, if published, the book sold much. I’m 53, as I have said, and I feel that just trying would be the success. So age is good for something.

    1. Age is good for many more things than I suspected. As a pipsqueak, I thought all those old-timers were delusional, talking about how they’d never go back to their 20s or 30s (unless, of course, they could take along their hard-won wisdom.)

      Now? I’m on Team Ladygeezer.

  5. Wow…that was amazing and as Angie noted, you just summed up life for most of us. I couldn’t have said it better – and very seriously, I couldn’t. But I found myself in almost every word – kind of comforting. I’ll read the book too.

  6. Awesome writing style, almost as strange as mine ;)

    Any time I see someone succeed I am happy, for it affirms my belief that I live in a world where success is possible.”

    That just made my day, because I do believe in unlimited potential, no matter how cheesy that sounds.

    And yeah – to hell with fear, vaporize it to dust and smile…

  7. Colleen-
    I was sitting at my desk today battling the fear that is f***ing up my love life at the moment. Fortuitously, I checked in with your blog.
    “The usual, Part 1: Fear, love and the tender heart that threads them together”
    Just reading the title made me feel better and maybe, just maybe, not alone with my tender heart.
    Many thanks.

  8. Hi Colleen,
    New reader here. You are thought provoking. I want to help but what good will it do?

    I appreciate your writing. Thank you. (I’ll read your book also)

    I have an idea you’re not going to listen to this (maybe with good reason) but …. find (see) what you are attracted to, that supports you (makes you feel good) – animal, vegetable or mineral. If you support it as well … you’ll find love.

    Again, thanks for sharing.
    Have Fun,

  9. Gee…gee…gee…omigosh wonderful writing. I’m going to sail through my weekend with wild floppy sails and splashing waves hitting me in the face in my mind – all because of what you wrote.

  10. What else can I say? You’re the best.

    I love discovering and uncovering these kinds of linkages. Humans are such metaphorical creatures. When a dog is in pain, he howls; when a human is in pain, she goes out and buys a Prada handbag. The sales clerk, a dog lover, doesn’t put his arms around her and say, “I know it hurts, but I love you.” Instead, he says, “Have a great day!”

    I told you about the client who, some years ago, walked into my office, looked at the towering piles of paper on the floor and every desk surface and crammed into all the custom bookshelves I’d built for that very purpose, and said, “My, you ARE busy, aren’t you?” This should have been a moment of great triumph for my neurotic self – you could say he had been working for 35 years for that moment to arrive – “finally, SOMEBODY recognizes how busy I am! Why I don’t have time for a girlfriend! Or to call my mother! Or to cook a meal for myself!” Instead, though, I felt ashamed and horrified, and I remembered an insult someone had paid me years earlier: “You’re too smart for your own good.” Brother, were you ever right.

    When I began to dis-entangle this – one of many – aspect of my neurotic coping mechanisms, I realized that there were two audiences for the theater of my own busy-ness: other people, and me. Other people asked less of me, and expected less of me, when they saw how busy I was, and “letting people down” was like drinking hemlock to me. They were grateful when I said yes, and having people value my involvement was fuel in the engine of my self-regard. But, like you, I have my own fear of scarcity, and seeing all those piles of paper, the dishes piled high in the sink, gave me a sense of abundance – after all, a guy with nothing would surely have nothing to show for it, right? In American culture – at least right now – we say that “simplicity” is a “value” but we actually view it as merely an aesthetic. The empty tabletop, it turns out, looks terrific in photos, even when it feels lonely in your living room.

    Like many people, I almost wept with relief when I discovered David Allen’s Getting Things Done. One of his fundamental ideas – that getting all that crap off your desk was the start to getting it off your mind – was the only practical tool I’d found that satisfied my need for a narrative that didn’t feel humiliating to me. I didn’t want to be the guy fastidiously doing the dishes while everyone else at the party sat in the living room laughing at each other’s jokes. I didn’t want to be the dweeb polishing his immaculate desktop because he had nothing else to do. I wanted to be free to “live life,” even though in reality I couldn’t find my car keys half the time. In fact, if there was one thing I wanted to avoid, it is this thing that actually happened to me: I was making an elaborate dinner for a girlfriend – in her kitchen! While she watched! – and washing dishes and pots as I went, when she said to me the least sexy words in a man can ever hear: “My father washes as he cooks too.” I felt like telling her the truth: “I once went four months without washing dishes: is that the guy you’d rather date?” GTD made it clear that keeping your desk clear isn’t just a coping mechanism; it’s a tool for achieving the greatest level of calm, efficient productivity possible. It enables you to create psychic room for those snappy comebacks that you’re gonna need: “What happens when—if—when I finally do write a book and it’s my turn to be judged by everyone and (probably) found wanting?” Yup: they’re out there, make no mistake about it.

    I say this last because I’m not willing to go along with your closing statement: “It is crap. But come on, it’s pretty hilarious crap, isn’t it?” I have any number of hilarious stories I tell about my neurotic shortcomings, but I try never to lose sight of the life-destroying power my fear has, and the real pain I’ve caused myself and the people around me as a consequence. I try to cultivate perspective about this, but on balance I think it’s better to howl in pain than not. Then do the dishes.

    1. Hi Dan,
      Awesome, inspiring post! So glad you shared so much and so beautifully. Sorry about the neurosis and all (and it certainly is no fun to cause pain in others – or yourself) but your comment here has got to be insightful and dare I say helpful to many others. Thanks.

      Questions… With such a beautiful understanding of who you are now … do you have a vision of who you would like to be tomorrow? Do you spend time with the vision? If so, how? If not. why not? I’d like to know. Have fun, Jim

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