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The Bartleby experiment


Incredibly, this was the second result when I googled "sloth photo." More incredibly, you can own it for just $14.40.


"What do you mean, you 'ran out of time'?" I used to ask my students when they requested an extension. "I told you about this assignment two weeks ago. When did you start it?"


"Last night."


"What were you waiting for?"


To this question, I usually got two answers: either, "I was waiting to have an idea," or "I was waiting to feel inspired."


While those who read this newsletter will know I've generally been trying to impose fewer rules on myself, not more, not waiting until inspiration strikes is maybe the one cardinal no-no I'd insist on for creating, or even for just getting anything done. Every artist, athlete, gardener and graduate student will tell you that you cannot wait for the muse to come to you – you must go to it, by showing up in the studio, at your desk, at the piano, in the weight room, even when you don't feel like it.


For that reason, I actually really enjoyed getting these responses from students because they felt like a great teaching moment – it's terrible feeling like you have nothing to say when the pressure is on to deliver, and I had always hoped that by teaching my students that the "good stuff," the ideas, or the inspiration wasn't something you had to have to get started, they could eventually feel more confident in their ability to make something from nothing, just by showing up.


But apparently that little lesson – that usually fell around the first midterm assignment – should have come with the caveat, "Do as I say, not as I do." Because for the last year, "waiting to feel like it" has become my creative mantra. Outside of my job, feeding myself, and some rudimentary grooming, I have been experimenting with waiting to do just about everything until I want to.


This started last fall with weightlifting – I noticed I wasn't really looking forward to the gym anymore, and I wasn't really enjoying my workouts. I wasn't even enjoying the hearty breakfast I got to eat afterwards. So, I stopped going! Instead of waking up at 5:30, I woke up at 7 or 7:30, ate a simple, modest breakfast, and walked my dog. I felt great.


Then in December, it was time for my next newsletter. But...I didn't feel like writing it. The timing fell right around the anniversary of my miscarriage, and the last thing that felt helpful or therapeutic or even interesting was trying to craft my grief into some artifact for others to consume. So I didn't do that either. "I'll pick it up next season," I thought.


But when March rolled around, I also didn't feel like it.


Gradually, this circle of waiting seeped into music, into cooking – I stopped practicing guitar or piano. I stopped going to yoga. I started scraping meals together instead of crafting meals I loved. I let dishes pile up for days, instead of tackling them every morning. I hit snooze more, let a few more days pass between showers...


What was happening?? After releasing my first album, one of the things I've made that I'm most proud of, instead of my energy continuing to gush outward, to buoy the album further to more people, to finding gigs or other musicians to play with, everything was turning (or maybe collapsing?) inward.


I'm sure many of you reading this are thinking what I'm describing is just textbook depression. And I certainly wouldn't deny that that must be part of it. As my therapist likes to remind me, tending to grief and trauma is a bit like tending a garden. You can "do all the work" – the crying, the processing, the journaling, the therapy, the support groups, the EMDR – only to find a month or a year or a decade later that there is a new crop of blackberries taking over the south corner, or a wasp's colony that's installed itself around the back. Grief and trauma will not always need your constant attention, but they will need your periodic attention.


And the anniversary of the miscarriage did hit me hard.


But I still think something else was happening. Something bigger.


In fact, I know at least one other something else was happening – in March 2023, I found out I was pregnant. As I write this, I am still pregnant – 40 weeks to be precise – and am waiting to go into labor.


No book or single experience I think will ever make someone like me an expert on pregnancy or parenthood, but one thing I've learned from watching many friends bear and rear children is that no two pregnancies are alike. One artist and former collaborator I deeply admire staged a solo dance performance just a few weeks before she gave birth. And it was very clearly what she needed. This surge in creative output was something she needed to do – as a capstone, as an insistence on her artistic self in the midst of a big transformation. It was beautiful.


But I could not feel more different.


For me, pregnancy (including the longer-than-planned road to getting pregnant) has been an extended object lesson in waiting. Waiting for the first healthy ultrasound, waiting to want to eat something other than boxed mac n' cheese, waiting to hear the heartbeat for the first time – so much of the baby industrial complex is devoted to inventing milestones ("TODAY your baby is as big as a lemur, tomorrow – they're the size of a bichon-doodle!"), to fill the space in between your first positive pregnancy test and delivery. But pregnancy is one thing you simply cannot rush. It takes the time it takes, and no matter how much you "know" about what is to come, it doesn't change the fact that it has not happened yet and the changes you're anticipating will only come with time.


Of course, you don't have to look too hard to find things to do that give the illusion of control, that make you feel like you're somehow advancing or progressing or getting ahead. The baby industrial complex also loves pummeling expectant parents with lists – shopping lists, to-do lists, reading lists, recipes. If just... waiting... for your baby to grow and arrive feels intolerable, let me tell you the internet will supply you with no shortage of shit to do and buy.


And while I have certainly fallen prey to some of these lists (ask me how many different articles I read on 'what to pack in your hospital bag,' except don't because I'll never disclose that publicly), I have tried to sink into the waiting too. It's almost a cliché at this point, but we really don't have to wait for much anymore – entertainment, food, test results, communication. In the world's wealthier societies we've wrangled about as many timelines to our will as humanly possible (and still we seem to be hungry to wrangle more). Sunrise, sunset, the phases of the moon, and the growth of a zygote into a living, breathing, human are just a few vestiges of timelines we cannot crunch or bend.


That said, I don't think I've discovered, let alone mastered, any kind of art of waiting over the past nine months. I have twiddled away hours, maybe days, watching dog videos on Instagram. I have consumed daily amounts of television that rival my high school “I love the 80s” binges. I have checked my phone five times in one minute to see if I have any new emails or texts (nope).


But while I don’t think my waiting has been more patient or practiced than anyone else’s, I do think there has been something gained from conscientiously abstaining from doing anything I don't really feel like doing (absent some things I have to do). I've found that the issue with the cardinal rule of creativity is it is just that: it can become a rule or a should. And I think one of the reasons I've gradually been sloughing off activities and slothing up my free time has been a deep need to shed the shoulds.


I was no longer going to the gym because being strong made me feel powerful or confident – I was going because I felt like I should enjoy working out. I was no longer practicing music because I wanted to – it was because I felt that I should. I was no longer devising multi-step weekday meals from CSA vegetables because I liked the way they tasted, but because I should eat veggies and I shouldn't waste food. Almost like a tapeworm, this sense of "should" had started to consume a lot, if not most of my daily activities. So I'm starving the bugger out.


Sure – undoubtedly I have been depressed off and on since my miscarriage nearly two years ago. And yes, I have been fatigued / nauseous / anxious / preoccupied during the biggest, most condensed physiological transformation I have ever gone through. But also, I do think some additional process is underway, either caused by or working with these changes, that is reshaping how I relate to desire and obligation – relationships I imagine will only undergo a much bigger transformation once I become a parent.


In Herman Melville's short story "Bartleby the Scrivener," a clerk at a law office in nineteenth century Wall Street abruptly starts to abstain from his work. His reply, whenever anyone asks him to do anything, is simply, "I would prefer not to."


With these five words, Bartleby sets in motion a chain of events, or non-events, that eventually lead to him dying of starvation in a city jail. He would prefer not to do his job, he would prefer not to leave the office, he would prefer not to eat. Bartleby's inertia is so great, in fact, that his boss (the narrator) moves his office into another building because Bartleby "would prefer not to" leave. Rather than follow a typical story arc with a conflict, climax, and resolution, the story is more or less a steady descent as Bartleby progressively refuses to participate in any convention of modern life, and then in life itself.


I have always liked this story, and often wondered if under Bartleby's depression there was a deeply wry sense of humor: what greater middle finger could one give the greedy, ambitious lawyers of lower Manhattan than simply going limp in the middle of the circus, the way a toddler goes limp when their parents try to get them to do, well, something they don't want to do. Bartleby's experiment is a cynical one of willpower: as if asked what freedoms we have in modern society, what choice we have in the direction of our own lives, Bartleby smirks and trust-falls backwards into the grave. Now, you might be wondering: why would someone who is about to bring a new life into the world in any way want to emulate this literary figure? What hope do I find in it? Well for one, much as I like extremes in literature, I do think we have a bit more agency than Bartleby would have us believe. That said, I also think, and have found, that there is something very instructive about opening up space, maybe even dead space, to ask ourselves what is it in us that really wants to live?


One night a few months ago, when Dan was out and I had the house to myself, I was about to sit down in front of the TV with my dinner as I often do these days, when I thought "I really don't want to watch TV right now." So I wondered, "What do I want?" And I waited for about three minutes. What came to me was a deep, physical desire to be outside after spending ~nine hours in front of a computer screen for work. So I picked up my bowl and sat out on my porch.


The 20 minutes I spent out there eating and staring at the trees were some of the most fulfilling 20 minutes of the past two years. I had no great epiphanies, didn't even come close to something like meditating – and I still ate probably faster than is optimal for digestion, as is my wont.


But I heard birds chirping, cars whooshing, felt breeze. And felt truly free and present in my body in a way I don't think I've felt since before the miscarriage.

As of the writing of this letter I'd say the Bartleby experiment still continues – I still don't touch my guitar much, still enjoy a good boxed mac n' cheese for dinner more often than doctors would advise, and still hit snooze for about an hour most mornings. But I also have a feeling that this waiting, like all things, will not last forever. And I'm excited to see what's on the other side.


Postscript

As I hunker down for the final days of my pregnancy (which will be followed by an even deeper hunkering during the first months of parenthood), the world is exploding in outrage and grief. I know so many friends and activists who would likely love nothing more than to turn away or inwards – are craving a sense of safety and enclosure and cocooning to repair. They would probably "prefer not to" march directly into a line of police, prefer not to have to call their senators, prefer not to monitor 12 different news feeds for the latest information.


But opting out is not an option.


No one (I hope) is reading this blog for expert insights on Palestine or the Middle East, so I'll just point to some helpful resources I've found, that have only reinforced my firm commitment to Palestinian liberation, and most urgently calling for a ceasefire. Even if you are depressed, broke, scared, bedridden, anxious, overworked, or all of the above, there are many ways to advocate for peace and justice. The top two organizations especially have great tool kits and scripts if you're looking for how to help:






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