No-Regret Living

canstockphoto0381252Her steps alternate between a lost foot fall and a shuffle. We walked and talked and on occasion she would reach out and grab my arm for balance, even as she gripped the handrail on the other side. I was pleased that she ate a whole sandwich with relish. A show of appetite gives one hope.

She asked numerous times “Do you have time?” I cringed inwardly, thinking of the many times I dropped off groceries and medications, or scribbled out quick checks for her bills and dashed out the door onto the next task.

On her table, a little notepad is filled with times that she scrawled while on the phone with me. She asks me again what time I’m picking her up for her appointment and when is Halloween.

Time. All at once it is infinite and finite. She remembers moments as a girl in the small country school. She calls me someone else. Her mind is a slowly lapping wave, leaving a memory or a word or a moment along the shore, returning to the sea with less than what she brought. Moments threaded with anxious repetitive questions. Moments knotted, as she struggles to untangle thoughts and find words.

I get lost in sadness at times and then she comes back, joking and smiling and calling me by my name. I know to become present, because those moments matter. They won’t matter in a day or even moments from now. They won’t be remembered by her. But they matter here and now. She is happy, unafraid and at this very instant, in the company of someone who loves her – the kind of moments we often wish for and sometimes miss in a blink.

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Turning the Kaleidoscope

canstockphoto10851004For the second time in a year, I’m packing up files from my study. I worked as a manager for a small company for many years in a variety of configurations from a downtown office, to part-time, to a home office, dependent on my parenting stage and business economics. In March, I handed off all those files to another delightfully competent human being.

Today, I’ve been clearing out my school PTO files and supplies, having decided to resign as president of the organization to focus on life at home. When it comes to organization, I’ve got mad skills. Things are labelled and filed, sorted and categorized. I can generally find things when I need them. I can take boxes of paperwork and like some sort of home makeover show, an hour later, they are part of a system. What I lack in people skills, I overcompensate for in filing.

A person is never as bad or as good as they believe they are. Despite a pattern of being in leadership roles, I am very impatient with myopic thinking. At some point, exchanges get unpleasant when the veneer of civility wears thin under stress. I’m not proud of this and I have often wished I were better at dealing with people. What if I don’t need to berate myself about that anymore?

I’ve been pondering those social skills, as I let go of yet another vestige of social interaction. My role had me interacting daily with parents, teachers and administration. Now I will be a SAHMWLANFOIHOFHEOH. Sorry, I think stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) is reductive, like most labels, even if I feel happy that this is a choice for me. But I’ve hit the point of no excuses for not getting my first novel revised, a second novel drafted and writing to my heart’s content.

I daydream that my husband and I will start off the day, lying in bed and talking quietly. I don’t have to leap up and “get things done” at the crack of dawn. I think about sitting down with my mother-in-law sipping coffee at leisure. I don’t look at my phone. I’m not in a hurry. I listen attentively to stories I’ve heard a thousand times. I imagine smiling as my daughter re-enacts whatever 5th grade drama happened that day or talks excitedly about the cool mod she just added to Minecraft. My mind is not drifting. I’m not fidgeting. I’ve been writing all day, so I am present, in the moment with her.

Who will I be without the busy-ness? Will I learn to slow down or will I, as my friends and husband insist will happen, find something else to fill the space up with? I never knew I was that kind of person. I love solitude, but often my solitude is still doing, not being. Can I be okay not constantly being in service to a cause or a task? Will I find the sense of uselessness overwhelming? Will I get over the feeling that without work or volunteerism, I’m a self-indulgent prat?

The answer to many of those questions is that I will likely be the same person with the same need to be the same way. What do I do with that?

Turn the kaleidoscope just a notch.

A lifetime of organization and juggling – how can I redirect those skills? I’ve begun forcing myself to read about the routes to publishing, having lived comfortably in denial that I’m even close to that stage. But I have a long learning curve, so I’m trying to educate myself along the way. There’s a lot of pieces to it, from marketing and promotion and public appearances. Contracts to figure out. Covers to pick. E-books to mangle.

Organization. Check. Research and asking questions. Check. Dogged determination. Check. Going outside my comfort zone. Always. Detail-oriented. Indeed. Public speaking. Been there, done that. Direct, no nonsense communication. Perfect for business.

Oh yeah, and that whole writing thing? I’m on it. Hours when the only jackass I have to deal with is me.

And there it is. Just a tilt of the head. Shift perspective. Nothing lost and everything to be gained.canstockphoto10260761Some resources online for the path to being a working writer:

Whatever

I haven’t read John Scalzi’s books (yet), but started reading his blog several months ago. He’s a busy writer at home and on the road. He’s also opinionated with an edge that I admire. He is the kind of working writer I’d like to be – straightforward, hands on and in charge of his career. And I love his no-nonsense blog comment policy.

Disappearing in Plain Sight

Francis Guenette has published two books and blogs about the ups and downs of writing and self-publishing. I enjoyed reading about her experiences navigating everything from blog tours to life near the lake…with bears.

Let’s Get Digital

David Gaughran writes about the world of self-publishing. It is an eye-opening blog about navigating the rough waters of self-publishing, from the perils of vanity presses to the jaw-dropping tactics of traditional publishers. He is a great resource for the writer entrepreneur.

Catherine, Caffeinated

I’ve been reading her blog for the last year and at some point will read her Self-Printed: A Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing. What I enjoy most about her blog is that she seems to be having fun in a process that is often painted as complete drudgery.

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Quitting Bad

canstockphoto8155142The straws stacked up higher and higher. My daughter has an ice skating accident and loses consciousness. My stress fracture from the summer makes a reappearance in the form of throbbing toes. My mother-in-law falls down and can’t get up and I have to call 911. An afternoon in the emergency room. A meeting. A flurry of activity. Demands for this and that. Confrontations. I simmer, I burn.

Driving to the grocery store, it finally hits me. I can stop this frantic spinning. I can stop being and feeling responsible for so much and for so many. I am not a necessity. People will find their own way.

Japanese ink painting. The Sumi class is my weekly quiet oasis, practicing, experimenting, breathing into each stroke. Today, everyone talked and stood around. My oasis – a space and time that stands everything still and silent, just the strokes of the brush –¬† was gone. I scrunched my eyebrows and tried to ignore them. Leaf, stem, leaf, petal. Breathe.

The headache began.

Emails poured in, the phone vibrated itself across the table. Questions, requests, plans, excuses.

I barely see my family. I barely feel my life.

My mother-in-law looks tired. Changes are coming and she knows there’s no stopping them. She seems defeated and a little lost. I know our time together is a short certainty.

I try to hold the disparate pieces of my life together. I organize, I call, I email. I try to plan for eventualities.

My writing pours into memos, emails and flyers. Empty printer cartridges fill my garbage can. I don’t save the files. I’ll never want to read them again.

I call the senior services coordinator. She’s heard it all before. The fall, a walker, a life alert pendant. I’m all business. I ask the right questions, schedule appointments, make a list. I’m good at that.

And back to the school, to pick up my daughter, the whole reason for much of this busy-ness. I hug her briefly as she passes into her tweens.

Back to emails and phone calls. My family is downstairs. Together.

Enough. Finis. Everything goes. No returns.

My last email of the day. I quit.

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Mission Possible: Un-Volunteering

canstockphoto6447962It’s been some rough and tumble weeks for this introvert. In my second and last year presiding over a parent teacher organization, I’ve spoken to, shook hands with and done presentations for more people in the last 3 weeks than I have in the last 6 months. Summer haze gave way to nonstop activity within the first few weeks of the school year.

Give me a need, a project, an event. Within 15 minutes, I can give you a solution, a time frame, a list of supplies, 4-5 ideas, and details that hadn’t occurred to anyone. I can foresee what some of the obstacles might be and have already come up with workarounds. By the 30 minute mark, I will have made requisite calls, sent out emails and ordered whatever was needed.

When you get older, you can look back and see the patterns of your existence. The people, the jobs, the activities, the resolutions. When I notice them, my current life becomes laughably predictable and I begin to see that I have become a caricature of my younger self. A disembodied life made up of habits and duct tape.

I am gruff about my volunteerism. It’s a little bit of dishonesty that keeps me saying yes over and over again. I act like it’s uncharacteristic of me to help out…grumble, grumble. But I started young, with visits to nursing homes and hospices, food drives, animal welfare petitions. Much had to do with whatever organization I was involved with at the time – church, Girl Scouts, the Army, my daughter’s school.

Then there were years when I just made up shit to do. I went to local nursing homes and wrote out Christmas cards for residents. I volunteered to make a holiday dinner at a domestic violence shelter. I’ve walk-a-thoned and donated and fundraised. I’ve assisted athletes at the Special Olympics. I’m spending days at an elementary school. I’m sponsoring a kid in Ethiopia. Helping out here, there, everywhere…e-i-e-i-o.

It’s all good. Except when it’s not. Except when it’s pathological – a way of defending against the secret belief that I’m a horrible human, worthy only in what I do. I’ve met people on the other side of the fence – people who believe their mere existence is good enough, no matter what kind of people they are. I find them a tad repulsive, yet this is the message we’re supposed to give to our kids. You’re fine just as you are, human.

I don’t believe that mere existence is worthy of esteem, as flawed and pessimistic as that thinking might be. It’s a crowded world with a lot of suffering. If you’re going to take up space, do something helpful while you’re here. You know, tidy up a bit, lend a hand, try not to be a hog about resources. Ensure that your world view is not myopic. Primum non nocere and all that.

In conversations with volunteers, I am astonished at how many things they do. They’re volunteering at churches, schools, hospitals and booster clubs. What astonishes me is not that they volunteer, but how much of their lives they spend doing things for other people. The world needs them, but it comes at a cost. And maybe it’s worth it to them, maybe that’s their schtick.

I don’t know if it’s mine. I’d like to find out how horrible a human being I am when I say “no” to outside activities. Maybe I’ll get a book published. Maybe I’ll finally learn how to do Japanese sumi painting. Maybe I’ll go back to working on my taekwondo black belt. Maybe I’ll discover I’m more patient and kind with my own family when I stop saying yes to everything else.

I want to sign up for a life that is lived intentionally and while it’s not a zero sum game, sometimes it’s easier to start from scratch and make deliberate choices, instead of trying to control knee jerk habits.

There’s an old bit of Army tactical training that comes to mind. When hit by ground flares at night, you move away from the illuminated area, reorient yourself and continue your mission. It’s time for me to reorient myself to some free time and to stop doing this every time someone asks for help:

 

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Doorstep Politics: Sometimes It’s Not About the Party

canstockphoto5811625We’re heading into another midterm election. I just spent 20 minutes on my doorstep talking to the Republican candidate for state representation of our district. While I am registered Independent, I tend to vote heavily Democrat. There was a time when I would mutter that oft-used phrase “fiscally conservative, socially liberal”, but now so many distinctions must be made between social issues I think government should get the hell out of and social issues that impact fiduciary decision-making that it’s no longer sufficiently vague to head off unwanted debate at the pass.

It hit me about 5 minutes into this conversation, how hungry I was for real political engagement. This candidate was a character – animated, humorous – he hadn’t been in the system long enough to turn into a rote zombie boot licking two-faced power suck (seriously, TV, stop doing shows about these assholes). He was earnest, but sufficiently vague for me to think maybe I’ll vote for a Republican. It’s happened before – and not always by mistake.

This candidate reminded me of a first grade teacher I once knew. Quirky, slightly awkward, but always, always willing to talk. We’re so used to the drab, polished demeanor of our national politicians. We get a variety here – they’re complete knuckleheads who say bizarre and reprehensible things (I’m from the state of Michelle Bachmann and Jesse Ventura) or they’re vague and incoherent as if pixie dust will fix the state budget but more commonly, they’re the party’s Stepford candidate¬† – when a slight breeze can blow over their cardboard cutout selves.

I could imagine this guy, years down the road, when our mummy representative finally collapses into a pile of non-pixie dust (the dude has been in office for 4 decades, can I get a term limit hallelujah, please?). The new guy will probably get his teeth fixed. He’ll become more somber. He’ll look less like an uncle you see during the summers at the cabin and more like an undertaker. He’ll be a smooth talker, because he will have said the same thing over and over and it’s what the party leader, who took him under his decrepit wing, said he should say.

He’ll automatically try to reach out and shake your hand when you’re just trying to get to the bathroom. He’ll mistake your purse dog for a baby and kiss it. Whenever he talks to you, you’ll see his eyes darting desperately to the side in search of a teleprompter. His daughter will get knocked up. His son will come out with a documentary on how to be a gay Republican. It will receive a tepid greeting at Sundance. He’ll hire a black Muslim lesbian for his spokesperson to make up for the glaring white heteronormativity of his unwieldy staff (and yes, I meant that to sound dirty).

But today, he’s just this guy who thinks he can make a difference. He laughs and talks amiably. He believes that his country, his state, his town are worth representing. He believes in his ability to be a good representative. I don’t care what party he is in – it reminds me of where politics really should begin. With some hopeful schmuck or schmuckette who believes in stuff. The problem is where it ends up and all the shuffling and unethical compromise in the middle. Did I mention term limits? Term limits, term limits, term limits. Ah, I feel better now.

It took me a couple of decades to get into the habit of midterm voting and I had planned to go this time, mostly for some school referendums. After talking with this candidate, I was reminded of how much I care about participating in this process. No matter what our party affiliations, this man, who I had never met before, who I likely have little in common with, reminded me that we share hope. And we could certainly use some of that right about now.

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Creativity in Suburbia

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Ah, my muse…Crayola.

This month, writing took a backseat to volunteering. Family time took a backseat to exhaustion. Workouts took a backseat to elder care. Introspection took a backseat to distractions and that overused misnomer, multitasking. Depression rolled in, a predictable fog of lethargy and glass half-empty thinking.

We shrug our shoulders with banal bon mots like “Life happens” and “It is what it is” in order to acknowledge that we are giving up control, prostrate in front of the bulldozer of modern living. The minute we complain, someone snipes “first world problems” or “check your privilege”, which is sometimes just a pseudo-intellectual way of telling someone to shut up.

Resistance seems futile. You say “yes” more often than you should. You conform in a million soul-crushing ways. You follow the rules, try to be polite, try to do the right thing. I am a creative person. But after a lifetime of trying to do the right thing and following the rules, I little resemble the person that I’d imagined I’d be – socially unconventional, wildly, artistically prolific.

Choices seem obscured by responsibilities, real or imagined. Arrogance about how one is needed and what one’s value is in the eyes of others, is conflated with a sense of worthiness.

The midlife clock started ticking a couple of years ago. An acute awareness of time, the luck of making it this far, has become excruciating to avoid. I don’t want to be busy – at least not with the sort of shit that eats up our lives. I want to, to quote my favorite movie line, “Get busy living or get busy dying.”

My life is not a particularly hard one by anyone’s measure. What is hardest is that I am living in rote mode – this busy, inane rushing about and trying to do a little bit of everything. It dulls the senses, discounts my good fortune and leaves me listless. This is life in suburbia – a life I appreciate intellectually, but creatively, it’s scrabbling at my throat.

I’ve started paying attention to the many, many “rules” I follow throughout the day – all the things that I try to do right. It’s mind-boggling. Bills mailed on time, flag up on the mailbox. Drive all the way up the orange cones before the kid gets out of the car at school. Put away the cart. Sign and date here and here and here. Say thank you and please. Please hold, don’t call before 10am, don’t mow after 9pm and smile, smile, smile.

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It’s a snoozer. I’ve never made it past the first couple of chapters.

This is not even touching on the legal rules, like not using one’s car as a battering ram when the person ahead doesn’t use their turn signal (my vehicular fantasy). It’s all necessary, these enforced courtesy and safety rules. It keeps us from clubbing each other (for the most part).

Then there’s the Michelle rules: see the big picture, avoid people when I’m pissy, spend time outside, don’t let things pile up, communicate to the point, don’t waste time, stay active and lastly, always lastly, be creative. How much energy does one need to be creative? Apparently more than I have at the end of a day.

I’ve been trying to give myself a psychological makeover over the last few years, within the parameters of the life I have. It has worked on some levels, but when it comes to writing, I’ve been a dung beetle. Pushing the same old shit around without feeling much progress. When asked about my writing, I rattle off the same answer: working on edits on my novel, blah, blah, blahgging.

It’s just pushing dung. If I applied even half the discipline I use in other areas of my life, I imagine that I’d have a new answer.

I laugh when I think about the stereotype of middle-aged women’s fantasies. Mine are more like 50 Shades of Misanthropy. I would like to be alone writing for days on end or finally give in to violent impulses, like ramming texting drivers with my car or delivering roundhouse kicks to people who are rude to cashiers.

Are we done here? Those dishes aren't going to do themselves.

Are we done here? Those dishes aren’t going to do themselves.

I’m waging a mental battle to make room for a creative life. To always have that hunger, that niggling doubt, that sense that wherever I’m at, it’s not where I supposed to be, well, that’s been my life. I’d be the worst Buddhist ever.

The myth that good artists must suffer or live off the grid or be plagued with personal demons and volatile relationships continues to thrive. I’m an ordinary person living, like most people, an ordinary life. Finding that spark, hearing that beckoning amidst grocery lists, soccer games and laundry loads seems daunting. But it’s there, calling out in those quiet moments between errands and getting louder by the moment.

Some guides for making room for a creative writing life:

One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft by Susan M. Tiberghien

The Resaissance Soul: How to Make Your Passions Your Life, A Creative and Practical Guide by Margaret Lobenstine

The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes

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The Siren Call of National Novel Writing Month

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Fall brings the melancholy whisper from writers everywhere: Should I do NaNoWriMo? For those who are unaware of this event, National Novel Writing Month is in November. The Office of Letters and Light, a nonprofit organization, sponsors various events online and around the country to get writers writing. The goal in November is to write 50,000 words, an average of 1,667 words per day. A double-spaced page, average font, has approximately 250-275 words per page. This means 6-7 typewritten pages per day.

Two years ago, I met the 50K goal and finished a rough draft of a first novel. And I’ve been asking myself the same question this year and these are the pros and cons I’ve come up with:

PROS

  • I learned that I can write 50,000 words in a month.
  • It brought a goal-oriented level of focus that I seem to be failing at in my daily life.
  • I got a lot of silly blog material from it.
  • I learned about my weaknesses as a writer (although this was mostly in the aftermath of editing).
  • I learned more about novel construction – story arcs, conflict resolution, foreshadowing, etc.
  • I got to whinge on interminably with fellow writers about flattened butts, hand cramps and dry eyeballs.

CONS

  • That’s a lot of words for one month and if you are a procrastinator who gets hit with a flu bug, you’ll be writing your last 5,000 words in a couple of days and wishing you were not.
  • Cut to two years later and I have still not finished editing my first draft. It is the dark shadow in the study – that thing I feel compelled to finish, which has led to loathing, denial and self-mocking.

¬†NaNoWriMo is a go for me this year. I’m struggling to find my way back to writing, but seem unable to set a clear goal and follow through on it. 50,000 words, 30 days – that’s pretty straightforward. And I can devolve into a writer sapien once again. Showers will be optional, as will other forms of communication beyond grunting and wild gestures. I’m looking forward to it.

 

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