Thursday, June 11, 2015

When We Envy Ourselves

Student writing last weekend on Washington Island, Wisconsin

I gave a small talk of sorts at lunch today, the last full day of a week-long writing retreat I've been teaching. It turned out, as talks sometimes do, to be about something I didn't realize it was about. A student, towards the end, said it so succinctly: "We envy the week." Yes. We envy the week we have just had, already, and it isn't even done.

It's just six of us left, from thirteen last weekend. Six came for just the weekend, which was planned ahead of time. Then seven remained, one leaving a couple of days early. It's been a peaceful, powerful time. It takes tremendous courage and forgiveness to continue writing no matter what arises. All of the people here have been in my weekly classes for years, most of them also in feedback groups, working on longer memoir or book projects. A few cut deep into the things they have been writing around for a long time. All of us got tremendous insights, lots of time to write, wonderful food and compassionate community.

I often speak of the problem of envy, and relate it back to its source: appreciation.
If you covet, are jealous of or want something someone else has, originally, the very reason you would even come to want it, comes from appreciating it. Unfortunately, by the time we get to envy, we've gone past appreciation, past longing and into a grasping state that loses appreciation for what we have and also for the person/thing we are envious of. Finding a balance between longing and appreciation is a powerful and tricky practice.

And at the end of a very good week-long retreat, with very little regret (which is a miracle in itself), out of tremendous appreciation, we joke about making it last longer. Let's plan for next year. Let's see if we can stay another week. What if the ferry breaks down? We've been making these jokes all week, but as we get closer to leaving - less than 24 hours left now - there's a bit of panic in there. How can we take this with us? What will we do without it? How can I make sure it happens again?

This is when my student said "We envy the week," and I then said, "Yes. In fact, we envy ourselves." We want to be us a week ago, arriving, nervous, excited, a whole week ahead. We want to secure a completely unsecure future. We want ground where there is none. We covet the time we have just had, even as we might be ready to go home to our own beds.

There's a great irony in this end-of-retreat syndrome: wanting it to go on forever, wanting it to last, we miss the very last hours of it. Plotting ahead, planning, scheming, feeling sorry for ourselves that tomorrow we go "back home," we don't smell the Lily of the Valley's final bursts, don't feel the small pings of spring rain on our skin, miss the subtle clouds above the sunset.

Do you see what I mean? So ironic. The very thing we want to last we don't actually bear witness to: the present. This is where our suffering is cyclical and ironic. Trying to get more of the present by getting out of the present is useless. So is envying ourselves.

So I implore them in our final hours - let's be as fully here as we can. Being present isn't an easy job - it takes work, play, curiousity and gentleness. Let's keep joking, but in silence, let's really be here. Feeling the longing, the appreciation, and letting it go. 

So whatever is next can come and we can be present for that.

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