I often read material that makes me question my own intelligence. Sometimes it is deliberate and I hunker down with a notebook and work my way through a book or article and hope that I come out the other side with something that will add to my own writing abilities – a new practice, some new vocabulary, a stronger sense of the story that I want to tell. Occasionally, I find myself imitating a voice and I have to write it out of my system until my own voice re-emerges.
Reading has always been the gateway to writing for me, as it is for most writers. It is both solace and teaching tool, the prickly critic’s voice and the admirable storyteller. These days, I’m more deliberate in my choices and I often force march myself through work that is, well…work.
For readers who read for the sheer pleasure of it, force marching oneself through a book sounds painful and unnecessary. For writers, it’s one of the routes to expanding one’s repertoire, vocabulary, style, and rhythm. Some writers read and write exactly what they like. They seem the happiest with their work – the process holds value and pleasure for them. I am the insecure, constantly striving type who spends more time thinking about what kind of writer I should be, instead of working with what’s in front of me. It’s a flaw, but not a fatal one.
The forced march through literary canon has inevitably led me to what I think of as dudebro writing. There are several things that characterize dudebro writing in my mind: leaving no amount of minutiae unexplored in the narrative, Gordian knots of literary devices, a rabid fanbase which gives the work a bad name, cardboard female characters, vocabulary that puts things just out of reach of the casual reader, and an unending fascination with all matter of human effluvia. Oh, so you’ve read Infinite Jest too?
I’m sure I’m being reductive. I don’t eschew this sort of writing. There is always something to learn, but it often comes at a price – usually at the cost of the reader’s ego and sometimes at the cost of the story. As a rule, I avoid writing book reviews because I don’t want to see everything through the lens of criticism, nor do I want to diminish someone else’s creative enterprise. It’s hard to write, in a neutral manner, about a book one loathes and admires simultaneously. Recently I finished Brian Birnbaum’s Emerald City, which was sent to me by JKS Communications. I’ve read several debut novels sent from them over the last year or so and it has been a great learning experience.
Mr. Birnbaum’s novel carries the definite echoes of David Foster Wallace in the sheer denseness of detail. Usually I take notes while reading and this book made me fill up pages – mostly of vocabulary and terms I hadn’t heard before. If you have one iota of insecurity about your level of intelligence or lean a bit puritanical when it comes to drugs, sex, and bodily fluids, this might be something you pass on. If you like wordplay and densely-packed sentences, are jonesing for DFW prose, and bend a bit toward the salacious, this might be for you.
That sounded like a bit of a review, didn’t it? There’s no accounting for our reading tastes. What appeals to and invigorates one reader, might put another in a coma-like nap. Fortunately, the democratization of publishing leaves room for all manner of writers and readers to find each other (Emerald City comes from the publisher Dead Rabbits, of which the author is a co-founder).
One of the things I’m coming to terms with as a writer, is that I’ve spent far too much time aspiring and not enough time being. Reading tougher work has improved me as a writer, but it has also made me more paranoid about being older, not having an MFA, and not being smart enough to pull off a good bit of literature. My imposter syndrome has gotten more agile and wily. Now, any knowledge I gain from challenging reading serves more as a reminder of how obviously incapable I am of producing good work myself. You’re rockin’ it, imposter syndrome. Bring on the procrastination. We’ll make it a party.
Fall and the start of school is like a second start to the year – a time for clearing out, cleaning up, and getting on with things. Last year, I joined a writing group. This year, I’m doing a little less group and more focused writing, with less judgment and more curiosity. Seeing what is in my writing, not what I think should be. Maybe that will be enough.
If you’re in the mood to read harder, check out Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge. 2019 is just about up, but keep an eye out in December for the 2020 challenge.
Literary journals have become my not-so-secret pleasure for reading “up”. It’s a lot of bang for the buck – covering a multitude of genres from journalism to poetry. My favorites are the Paris Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Missouri Review, A Public Space, and the Kenyon Review.
Today’s post comes to you courtesy of a rather truculent mood. Editing will have me sanding down the sharp corners, vaguing up the specifics, and trying to eke out some sort of lesson from it.
A cumulative song is one that starts out with a simple verse and then each verse is longer than the verse before. A classic example of this is “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” that begins with There was an old lady who swallowed a fly; I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – perhaps she’ll die! The song builds progressively until the final, much longer verse:
There was an old lady who swallowed a cow;
I don’t know how she swallowed a cow!
- She swallowed the cow to catch the goat,
- She swallowed the goat to catch the dog,
- She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
- She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
- She swallowed the bird to catch the spider;
- That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!
- She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
- I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – Perhaps she’ll die!
There was an old lady who swallowed a horse;
…She died, of course
I enjoyed the macabre ending, because that might actually be the lesson. Really, though, I see it as a metaphor for my life at the moment. After aimlessly meandering through decades of life, I became determined a few years ago to be more deliberate in how I spend my time. This isn’t to say I intended on spending every minute of every day in bliss. It meant that I would make deliberate choices about how I spend my non-household/chore/to-do list/obligation time. I can usually manage this for about a year or so and then something happens. I swallow a fly.
Cut to a year later and I’m a seething ball of resentment who seems to find less joy as each day goes by. What happens? I learned the phrase scope creep from my husband, a computer programmer who has, in the course of his career, worked on corporate projects in an ever-changing environment where there are too many meetings, too many bosses, and too many shiny objects to distract people. The simplest project can be turned into 45 PowerPoints on various aspects requiring more people, resources, and unending bagel-laden confabs (he just told me that they don’t eat bagels anymore – it’s mini-cupcakes). And accountability nowhere to be found.
In my life as an underemployed writer/feckless homemaker, there is no distribution email list to spread the blame. I am the cc and the bcc. If my life becomes an unwieldy mess, I have to put myself on probation. When I suddenly find that my intention to become a better writer is getting sidelined by activities only tangentially related or when my intention to contribute to my community is suddenly me on a committee talking about catering menus, that’s scope creep. My intentions are in sight, but a mile or two back.
It happens slowly. I’m a relatively competent person and a problem-solver. My knee-jerk reaction to any situation is to jump in and try to add value. My jerk reaction is to write a resentful post about it later.
So I’ve hit that magical resentment point where I have to pull back, retract the tentacles, pull the fingers out of one too many pies. While I still make the mistake of saying yes, I can do it, I’m getting much faster at saying, in the words of a friend’s son, ALL DONE NOW.
This year, I’m kicking off the age that the average American woman goes through menopause by rewriting my mission statement (this broad really nows how to throw a party). Mission statements are now part of the corporate self-actualization process along with vision boards and copious amounts of organizers and Post-it Notes. Still, some of these things are useful. If you can’t enunciate why you’re here or what has meaning to you, how do you ensure that you’re spending your time in meaningful ways? Like writing an incoherent sentence that demonstrates the difference between you’re and your.
Eliminating scope creep is a challenge. It means taking back a yes or twenty from other people or projects and giving those yeses to yourself, your projects, your time. And if it sounds a bit self-involved, it’s a damned sight better than putting the things that matter to you aside, and resentfully doing everything else. Nobody wants that person at their meeting.
In the cool mornings preceding the sunny dog days of August, I can sense a hint of autumn. This spurs me to give the house a good once over before school starts, before I find myself with hours of solitude for writing once again. Sometimes the mind needs a good clearing out as well. My brain is a jumble sale and this blog post represents a little pre-fall cleaning.
Gratitude is always a good start. I have a lot to feel grateful for from this summer. The large tumor discovered in my daughter was benign and despite the frightening time in the hospital, she has recovered enough to scare me with driver’s training. Friends and family came out of the woodwork to be supportive and kind as our family went through this.
I am grateful to the friends who went on walks with me, exchanged emails, sent cards and in general, knew how to be comforting without being irritating. I am grateful to my writing group who kept me in the loop, even as I was frequently absent. I am grateful to my friends in the League of Women Voters who took up the slack of my volunteer activities when I couldn’t follow through. I am grateful to my friend and Army buddy who makes me regularly laugh during our Skype calls. I am grateful to my friend and life coach who offered to be there in any capacity, even as I had trouble processing coherent thoughts.
And thank you to the readers here, who offered kind words and empathy. And stuck around to read my messy, emotional posts.
The garden took a hit this year, but nature did its thing and the few moments I was actually at home, I enjoyed seeing the bees and butterflies flit through. A writing friend of mine attended a climate change leadership conference and asked to write about my bee-friendly yard. You can read that here. I had a mind-boggling conversation with my neighbor who acknowledged that lawn chemicals were not a good thing – while standing on his treated lawn. There is a serious amount of cognitive dissonance between our habits and the changes we need to make to ameliorate the damage we’ve done.
My writing is beginning to ramp up to a period of productivity. Call it the autumn effect or the going-back-to-school effect. I’ve been experimenting with a few writing practices, as well as regularly submitting work. I picked up one of the practices from Benjamin Dreyer, author of Dreyer’s English. He suggested copying passages from great writers, or writers you admired. I was curious about this and when Toni Morrision died earlier this month, I pulled out my copy of Beloved. This is one of the novels that made me want to be a novelist. It’s the kind of book where you have to sit for an hour after reading the final page. It felt like a spell had been cast on me and it took awhile to shake it off.
I’ve begun copying a page a day and I see Mr. Dreyer’s point. The way we process language is much different when we write it, rather than when we read it. From the standpoint of writing, you start to feel the bones of the book when you write out each word, sounding it out in your head, acknowledging punctuation and phrasing. I’m finding it useful and improving my longhand writing while I’m at it.
I got rejected by a novel-writing group I applied to and I’ve decided to take it personally. Not really – just ran into some virulent genre writers. I write literary fiction which apparently is code for I write whatever the hell I want and is unappreciated by those who have staked a claim in sci-fi, romance, or mystery. Not to cast aspersions on those particular markets, but there is something easier about being able to say I’m this-kind-of-writer or that-kind-of-writer. You have lots of company. It must be comforting.
Rejection is my theme this year, but I’m glad of it. It means that I’m working at things, being more brave than I’ve been in the past, and pretty much living outside of my comfort zone. I’ve also applied to a writing mentorship program with slim odds. I’ve reached the point where being mentored instead of mentoring might be useful, at least in terms of getting through novel revisions and rewrites.
As I approach my eighth year of blogging, I think about the fact that it’s amazing we blog at all anymore. The instant pithiness that feeds some social media platforms has changed how we communicate, how we use the internet, and what we’ve come to accept in terms of context and nuance. I have a personal resistance to simplicity and am immediately suspicious of messages that are reductive.
It’s perhaps made me less vulnerable to worrying about stats and more concerned that what I write adds value. It’s added less value than I’d like, with so much self-referential writing and something I will be looking at moving forward. Of course, I think this same thought every year. And here I am. Still writing. Still blogging.
I spent the last couple of weekends on the shore of Lake Superior, taking advantage of dropping off and picking up the kid at camp to get mini-vacations in. We’re not having a vacation this year – too many medical appointments and catastrophes keeping us busy at home. So we take a night here or there, even splurging on a hotel room with a balcony view of the lake. It didn’t go as planned – these moments never do. The trick, I’ve discovered, is to find those moments in between all the disrupted plans.
As usual, I popped awake at 4 a.m. I made my coffee, grabbed a blanket, and went out onto the balcony. Orion was hanging low in the sky over Lake Superior and a full celestial buffet of stars stretched out beyond the harbor lights. On the ground, two floors below, there were rabbits. At one point, I counted about a dozen of them. It was an odd thing. The grass along the lake walk trail was stubbly and mowed short. But the rabbits seemed quite content to hop between patches of grass. A few even explored the rocks on the shore. Seeing an eastern cottontail standing on a large rock near the lake was sort of funny. I wonder what it thought of the expanse of water.
The night before, I sat, like a creepy spectator, watching people traverse the shore. Humanity observed. A gaggle of teenage girls gathered under a light and took turns taking pictures of each other. Boys clambered atop rocks while their friends took pictures and egged them on. Earlier in the day, a group of young women were snapping selfies at the end of the canal pier, leaning up and considering climbing up on the concrete wall to get a good shot. I hustled my family away, muttering I’m not diving in if one of these dumbasses falls off the pier.
I try to resist the old lady in me that simply can’t comprehend the picture-taking craze. From an anthropological standpoint, I suppose it’s the modern “Kilroy was here” – trying to establish our presence, our significance in a universe where we’re proportionally as important as specks of dust. People say it’s all about likes and views, but what are those, except attempts to feel like we matter in a world that is largely ignorant of our existence?
I’ve been reading Emily Esfahani Smith’s The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. The nihilist in me scoffs – well, no matter what we do, it doesn’t really matter, does it? But I’ve taken the author’s point that if we’re here, our lives only have the meaning with which we imbue them. This is the whole purpose of religion, social media, and storytelling – to have rudders in this tumultuous pond we call life. But if the stories we create about our lives, be it through words or pictures, take on more weight than curiosity about life beyond our personal selves, then we are living a life based on finding bandages for our insecurities.
As a person who sees the world in words and tends not to find meaning in visual representations, it’s hard not to judge someone who pops out their phone camera at the drop of a hat. But my curiosity demands that I work through my judgments, that I try to figure out why someone does something. There are times when the selfie-taking is disruptive (concerts) or dangerous (on the wall at the end of pier) or disrespectful (Auschwitz). Mostly though, it is uninteresting, poorly framed human distraction. An imitation of life.
But then, I’m a writer. What is writing but an imitation of life? What is it but a desire to feel relevant, find meaning, craft my own story? What is the difference between this essay and a selfie? Not much, except in this essay, I’m much younger and thinner.
At the height of the late 80s and early 90s dudebro corporate culture, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was its epitome. Self-assured and self-congratulatory people were scooping up planners, taking management seminars, and aggressively putting up workplace posters. I was too busy finishing an Army tour and limping through college to be much concerned with organizational effectiveness, even as I waded through bureaucratic inefficiencies on a daily basis. I was born a woman into a poor working class family, so suit ties and fraternal backslapping and BMWs seemed a tad repulsive and Stephen Covey got tossed under the very same bus.
Nearly 30 years later, I meet a woman in the course of my writing life. She’s energetic, intent on learning, a good listener, and positive about her life and interactions. My first reaction was irritation. My second was envy. My third – curiosity. What motivates her? How does she operate from such a place of positivity? How does she make others feel welcome and heard? I knew that it was a far distance from where I was currently residing. One of her secrets? That old manual of hair gel, firm handshakes, and relentless optimism – the porn of personal success, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
I have a particularly bad habit of aggressively rejecting ideas until they seep into my self-consciousness, roll around in my head like a tennis ball, bouncing off this idea and that. A few days, months, or years later, I think hmm, I might try that. It drives my husband nuts. He makes a helpful suggestion, I stomp on it, and then six months later I do it and exclaim “I can’t believe I didn’t do that sooner!” It really takes the wind out of his I told you so, because enough time has passed that I’m convinced it was originally my idea. Yeah, still married (shaking my head with disbelief).
It’s been a few years since I recognized that I do this and I’m starting to think I need to work on it. The learning curve in my brain is barely perceptible as a curve because it stretches out over years. Now that I’ve tripped into my 50s, I think I might need to speed up the process a bit. This is aided by the one habit that will, I hope, eventually save my bacon. I’m always learning and I actively pursue wisdom.
This morning I took the 7 Habits Personal Effectiveness Quotient Assessment. I was as honest as I could be, which is brutally, occasionally unfairly, honest. It’s all in the perception and my self-perception is not kind. Needless to say, I can show up on time, but I couldn’t get anyone else to show up with me. And I’m not being particularly effective in pursuing success as a whole. Maybe I need to finish reading that book.
I just finished reading Daniel Goleman’s Focus: The Hidden Drive of Excellence. It started out well for me, but took a turn into the corporate world that had me reading at light speed, just so I could get to the author’s conclusions. I walked away with a handful of interesting concepts that will likely show up in my life a few years down the road.
This self-improvement bender I’m on is par for my life. I was feeling pretty self-satisfied until life events knocked me for a loop. In order to re-engage, find my way back to the path, I start to research for inspiration. It might be a person, a book, a random thought from four years ago. I do think that slowly, awkwardly, I’m getting wiser, but I’m beginning to realize that the goal is not where it’s at. My joy is in the process. Being there. The process is where we spend most of our time. If it can’t be joyful, we’re dooming ourselves to all the struggle and few of the benefits.
It’s odd to realize my joy comes in recognizing how little I know, how much more there is to learn, and that there is no being done. For years, I viewed this propensity for self-improvement as a result of never feeling like I was enough. Sometimes those early messages embed themselves inside our psyche and we, like moths to the light, spend our lives trying to get close to that warm feeling of perfection, no matter how damaging or dangerous.
After reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, I’ve been thinking a lot about how small I’ve been living. In a heated discussion with my teenager, she said “You’re such a rule follower!” It stung and then I had to think about why that would bother me. We’re often torn between who we are and who we think we should be. The failure to embrace who we are, the struggle to resist it, the efforts we make to counter it – it’s exhausting and sometimes destructive.
There is a point, though, when you say okay, this is who I am, how do I make it work in my favor? What’s the upside? I would tell my little teenage rebel that mama doesn’t need bail money, for starters. It’s a quick turn of the kaleidoscope or, as Stephen Covey would say, a paradigm shift. He says paradigm a lot. It’s a pretty cool, intellectual word, especially if you pronounce it with a silent ‘g’ – and don’t just read it on the page and then drop paradiggem into a conversation. Let’s hear it for the heavy readers out there, hey-o.
I have a rather large stack of books about the meaning of life, how not to suck at life, and why my life could be so much better. This is, I’ve finally realized, my happy place – feeling so down and out that I hit the books in search of inspiration. Even a book that uses the word “synergy”. If the author uses synergistic, though, I’m out.
She persevered. There it is, the epitaph for my gravestone. One would think the outcome would be pure, unmitigated success for all the trying I do. All the workouts, reading, goal-setting, and writing I’ve done in my lifetime would suggest a svelte, erudite, accomplished human being instead of this awkward lump just trying to get through the day without tripping over herself. It turns out, the only way I see positive outcomes is by redefining for myself what success actually means.
The last month and a half, I got steamrolled by a family medical crisis. Before that hit, I’d been training for a 5K, improving my nutrition, writing up a storm, and feeling pretty good about the direction my life was taking. I was able to see some progress and was learning to focus better. Then life happened and training runs became sitting vigil in a hospital. Writing became short missives in dealing with my fear and anxiety. Good nutrition became whatever showed up in gift baskets. Sleep was 15 minutes in a chair or on a polyvinyl couch, manipulating airline pillows so my neck wouldn’t hurt.
The primal fears never came to pass – this time, we beat the odds. Our bags are unpacked and we are home as if nothing ever happened. Life is normal again.
Two days after we got home, I started training runs and counting calories. My heart wasn’t in it. I wrote a few blog posts, opened my novel on the computer 246 times and closed it again. I still wasn’t sleeping well. I stopped running, I stopped tracking, I stopped writing. It was hard to care. I felt defeated, because it felt like all the work I’d been doing had been for nothing – I was starting over again.
A naturally sunny person would revel in a good medical outcome and having the opportunity to start over again. But I am more a dark-side-of-the-moon person. It takes a lot of effort to move into the light and to embrace positive habits. Worthiness is not second nature. It requires a lot of self-talk and a one step at a time approach, which is exhausting and infuriating for someone who lacks patience. This is all to say, that it’s hard (and yes, hear that with the requisite tone of whining).
The formula for starting over or starting anything is always the same: do one thing. And then do it again. Once the one thing is habitual, add another thing. Give it a little time. Review, adjust the things you do if some habits are working better than others. Re-jigger habits until you’ve ironed out the bumps. Do the next thing. So simple. So incredibly difficult.
The first step for working out for me is always showing up. Arrange to meet a friend for a walk. Go through the doors at the gym. Decide to stretch for ten minutes on the living room floor. Do the thing. I did the thing. I went to the YMCA, got on a treadmill, left 20 minutes later angry at the world. It was a terrible run. I felt awful. Everything hurt. I felt I’d lost so much ground just in the course of a month. So I went home, binge watched a terrible TV show while eating my body weight in ice cream.
The next day, I met a friend for a walk. I could hear myself blathering on and had an out-of-body experience of wanting to tell myself to shut up. It was our usual patter, but I wasn’t in it and was happy when it was over. Normal felt awkward.
The following day, I showed up at the gym again, arriving out of sorts and planning on feeling like absolute shit again. I galumped my way onto an elliptical for warm up and begrudgingly shuffled over to a treadmill for an interval run. As planned, it felt awful. But not as awful as before.
Rinse and repeat.
The encouraging bit of this tale would be to announce that I’ve just come in first place in a 5K. But that would be a lie. I’m not sure I could even finish a 5K at this point. I’m begrudgingly heading to the gym this morning with apprehension and no small degree of grumpiness. But I’m doing it. I have a high tolerance for doing things, even when grumpy. A nicer spin would be to call this resilience.
Eventually, I know it will be better. But part of me feels the foreboding sense that life will force me to start over again. And I’d be right, because that is the nature of being human. Something will always happen and knowing that, I know the skill of being able to start over is indispensable and necessary. Perseverance is the gift.
I have to remember that gift when I lift weights and feel like a weakling or when I write and seem incomprehensible or when I’m trying to be kinder and call someone a dipwad while driving or when I count calories only to discover I could have fueled a small factory with what I ate. Sometimes success can’t be outcomes. Sometimes it just has to be in the trying and the doing. Dragging oneself, kicking and resentful, into the light is sometimes the best we can do.
The state of being a writer is sometimes a mercenary one. Everything is material, even the most raw moments of one’s life. Over the last seven and a half years, I’ve exploited myself, without mercy, to write posts about the many (many!) lessons I’m learning just being alive as a human.
I took a hike yesterday morning on a regional park trail. Five feet from the trail stood a young doe, busily munching away at foliage. Her head jerked up and she looked at me with dark eyes, her long ears flicking. I stood stock still. She went back to eating. I crept a little closer and stood still again. She glanced in my direction and continued snacking away. It felt like a reward for patience, to be allowed to stand there and watch her.
It occurred to me, for just a second, to pull out my phone and take a picture. There was a choice here: to fully have the experience or to try and create a facsimile of it, likely sending the doe running off into the woods. It wasn’t a hard choice. Pictures rarely re-create an experience and what was the point? On the road behind me the park shuttle, with its open cars, began to pass by. The doe remained despite the shrieks of the shuttle’s passengers. Ooh, get a picture!
Writing is my version of getting a picture, but with more lenses at my disposal. I can shape a narrative, cut out the boring bits, use this word or that. It is still an attempt to capture time, but the very process is a safari. What I discover is usually the point of it for me, not the subject itself.
At times, this blog has felt like a confessional and at others, a practice in seeing the lesson in every nook and cranny, to redeem moments that may seem bereft of any usefulness. The intent was always to sharpen my writing skills and writing here has done that to some extent, but it has also made me fearful that I am incapable of writing anything else.
Fear has been a big player in my mind lately. It’s been a tough eight months. My mother-in-law died, I had a health scare, we had to euthanize a pet, and then there was a medical crisis with my daughter. When it comes to life stressors, I’m racking up some frequent flyer miles. It’s left me open – tears in front of strangers, writing raw words in public, a sense that I am always in recovery from something. And the constant interaction with friends and family and medical professionals, while necessary and/or appreciated, has laid waste to my inner sanctum of solitude and quiet.
Part of me wants to close up shop for the season, shutter the windows, batten down the hatches – emerging only when I have my shit together, my composure composed, my armor firmly in place. But I know that is a feeling born of fear – a fear that I somehow won’t be regarded a serious writer or person, because I have shown vulnerability.
Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
If there is anything I find intolerable these days, it’s living a life based on fear.
We see the outcomes all around us, when people live fearful lives. Our entire culture is a feeding frenzy of fear and anxiety. Our politicians exploit them. Advertisers feed them and sell us the “cure”. The wannabe sociopaths see opportunities for gain. I’ve lived a tight, quiet life of barely controlled fear and anxiety for decades, but I tend to do a lot of things that cause me more anxiety on purpose, in the hopes that I’ll become less sensitive to shame and self-consciousness. No dice thus far, but vulnerability is a habit now and somehow, I have to believe that it is a good thing.
…and that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.
It is my usual way, after a life event, to evaluate how I should move forward – as if I can prevent the next crisis by living a better life, being a better person. It’s a superstitious behavior on my part that has no impact on the random nature of life. I am also tempted to isolate myself, to regain a sense of privacy and decorum, but I know that’s a long ago voice in my head whispering protect yourself, don’t let anyone in, don’t get hurt, be invulnerable.
I know that it’s in my best interest to stand still, to not indulge distractions, to not steamroll my emotions, or ignore the bruising nature of being open. I recognize my fears, but I refuse to engage on their behalf. I feel the creeping anxiety of not being seen as fearless or strong or serious or professional, the very same defense that would prevent creativity, connection, and compassion. Self-protection, taken too far, becomes a prison.
Life is improv. It only gets better if you stay open, say yes, follow new threads, stay in the moment. You will look foolish, seem silly at times, perhaps lose the respect from those who prefer non-messy humans. But you will be living, in the words of Brené Brown, with your whole heart.
When the ambulance pulled away from our house the night before last, my shoulders slumped forward. The painful spasms that wracked my daughter’s body and impinged on her breathing had passed and she, with my husband, were chatting away, as if she’d not been screaming a mere half hour before. I locked up the house for the night, kissed and hugged them both and crawled into bed.
I fell asleep to the rhythm of their voices going back and forth, wondering if I’d ever feel well-rested again. I’m exhausted and this morning I’m trying to remember how I find my way back to a life where saying “I’m tired” is not an auto response.
There are always the basics. Sleep. Movement. Hydration. Nutrition. Giving the body alternately the rest and fuel it needs to function optimally. So I start there. Beyond that, depression looms, a shadowy companion of sleep deprivation and constant anxiety. I can’t afford to indulge it at this point, so I try to remember the basics of taking care of my soul: solitude, writing, reading, music, gardening, running, the meditative braiding of words, movement, rhythm, silence – the solemn tending of Wordsworth’s inward eye.
Great art is often more about what you remove or leave out than what you add. Life, too, can be like that. I’ve started the process of cutting things away. It’s easier to do this when something dramatic happens, because priorities crystallize. Everyday life is full of scope creep. The hours are siphoned away by social media or fussing with picayune details of housework or being lured into further consumerism with artificially planted ideas of need.
Sometimes the jolt of fright that comes from a major life event can pull you out of the morass of mindlessness. Sometimes you choose to drown in a cesspool of distraction. It’s 50/50 for me these days – a push-pull of adrenaline and numbness.
It is telling that as a child raised walking on eggshells, I become more placid as the stakes rise. I am deadly calm in the face of screaming, blood loss, hysteria. I’m the person you want with you during a mugging, but not necessarily there to help you through a cold (shake it off, dammit). My bedside manner is perfunctory if you go on too long. I’m wired to pull you out of a fire, to put salve on your burns, but irritable if I have to hear your retelling of the tale once again. I am the flow chart of next steps.
After the dramatic peaks have passed, the landscape flattens. I recognize the topography – a land of dulled-down plateaus, of depressive vulnerability, of self-recrimination. I try to re-frame the perspective, seeing it Edward Abbey-like, as a wilderness that is a necessity of the human spirit. It’s necessary to go through the desert in order to recognize the need for replenishment – to appreciate the small oases that one encounters.
We’ve had the kind of emergencies lately that require a go bag. It sits in the corner, ready to be grabbed at a moment’s notice – toiletries, a change of clothes, critical medical documents, and that ubiquitous need of modern living – a tangle of chargers. I had thought about unpacking it over the last week, but after having to call 911, it will remain.
When I was in the Army, we used to be put on readiness alert duty. Wherever we were, whatever we were doing, we’d have to be able to report to post within 30 minutes, in uniform, with our packed duffel and gear. We’d sign out our weapons and be ready to head to the field for an unspecified duration. We were a ragtag lot, showing up disheveled and occasionally hungover, depending on the hour of alert. The relief was palpable when we could stand down.
I was young then, responsible for my own readiness, and there was an assumed end. Now I’m older, responsible for a child, with no end date in sight. Now is definitely harder. Tired is the default mode. Sometimes I buy into the bootstrap myth – that whatever state I’m in, I should pull myself out of it. But the real trick and wisdom is knowing when to ask for help, when to lean on others, when to let go.
Sometimes too, it’s just allowing yourself to rest for a bit. Sure, rally the troops. Reorient yourself to the mission. But first, a nap.
It took two minutes for the pediatric oncologist to shatter our high. The large tumor found in my daughter was benign and we’d just begun to process our relief and decompress from many nights in the hospital. He stopped us cold. The tumor has a 50/50 chance of recurring, of showing up in other organs, and has a chance of metastisizing as malignant. She had to go through more diagnostic testing. And here I sit, mere hours away from this doctor telling us the results of the latest PET scan. The space between knowing and not knowing.
There have been a lot of spaces like this over the last few weeks. Before this medical drama, I’d been pondering spaces between, mostly from a creative perspective. I’d had trouble settling down to write, often wandering out into the garden to pull weeds or getting distracted by a lit journal. In the past, I’d chide myself for being a typical amateur writer, easily dissuaded from doing the thing which I needed to do in order to be what I wanted to be. Until recently, the spaces between were called procrastination and dilettantism. But I am my own spin master. The space between would hold value.
I decided to lean into it. What was happening between writing sessions? What was happening when my brain unraveled a bit, let down its guard, daydreamed? The answer is obvious to me now – I was writing the next story. Not everything is about writing, but at this particular point in my life, I want it to be. It’s something that keeps me afloat with hope for who I can still become. Or at least it was.
Now the space between is a barren land. Gripped by the worst fear I’ve ever experienced in my life, my brain dare not relax. Daydreams are now nightmares about will readings and empty rooms. There is no inherent value except to keep me at the edge of the cliff. It’s an unsustainable state without there being damage.
I read articles about post-traumatic stress experienced by parents who go through a medical crisis with their child. I know I’m experiencing it. Reliving the moment when the ER doctor said there is a mass in her midsection. Reliving the moment when the surgeon said that there was a 95% chance it was malignant. Unable to sleep well, needing to be in constant motion, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Hyper-vigilance, alert to the slightest sound, standing over her at 2:30am to see if she is breathing, much like I did the first time she slept through the night as a baby.
There are several bird nests in our yard. We watched, as one by one, fluffy robins began to fall out of the nest in their first attempts at flight. The mother robin was nearby interrupting her coaxing chirrs with sharp chirps of warning. The father swooping past to ward off predators. We watched baby cardinals being fed in turn by mom and then dad. They built their nest in a bush at eye level alongside our driveway. Despite all the activity, the sound of the garage door, the yard work, the mother forced herself to sit on those eggs, alert but motionless. The space between laying eggs and hatching them and sending fledglings off in the world is one of constant vigilance.
I read about post-traumatic stress not because I wish to avoid it, cure it, tamp it down. I only want to be aware of what is happening to me. I’m a fairly unshakeable sort who is now shaken. I feel a fundamental shift in my mental state and I know, at some point, I’ll need to make choices about who I become because of this shift. It’s early yet, but the future seems more uncertain than ever. Can I find value in this space? If I can’t, it will take years off my life, feeding the fear that has dogged me the older I get – that I will waste time.
When we returned home, after many nights hearing the beeping of monitors, the changing of shifts, the weak moans from the bed, it was apparent that nothing else mattered. And it might not again. It’s hard to care about weeds or workouts or washing. My husband and I have become mother hens, constantly milling about, checking up, never out of earshot. We have whispered conversations about meds and pain and temperature checks, even as our daughter has regained her color, her appetite, and her teenage eye rolls.
I called up friends, went out for walks, even managed to get in a few workouts. But these posts are the extent of my writing. Somehow, I have to get back to writing fiction. A friend from my writing group said that she was sure that this time would prove valuable to my writing and she couldn’t wait to see what I would do. This might seem a mercenary perspective, but it was something that I needed to hear – to be reminded that regardless of outcomes, there will be value in this space between. I just have to be willing to look for it.
Update: The scans came back negative, so onto a monitoring plan. Thanks for the kind wishes and bearing with me as I posted my anxieties. Hopefully, I can get back to writing my usual rambling posts.
After spending the last ten days in parental purgatory, we got a call yesterday morning. The huge tumor found in my daughter has been fully removed and after being told the odds were 95% that it would be malignant, Mayo has determined that it is benign. We were very lucky. Only 150-200 people are diagnosed with this type of tumor in the U.S. each year. Random. Like the cells that mutate for no damned reason into something that kills. I haven’t slept for more than an hour at a time for days on end, so getting on the internet seems like a questionable choice. But I’m here to say thanks for all the kind wishes.
I found myself writing in second person over the last week. It’s an unusual POV to pick, but second person puts distance between the reality of life and the compulsive desire to write about it. I was unable to have conversation with people. All words led to I’m so scared and inevitable sobbing. So I tried to find ways to write around the margins of this terrible thing that was my reality, this waiting to see if my beloved child was going to be in the fight of her life or if she got to go home to resume being a teenager, a classical violist, a friend, a classmate. Our girl.
So, like any writer, I start with observations.
Many mornings, I drove home at 5am from the hospital. We’d been sleeping there every night, but in the early morning hours, I was the only one awake and restless. The city streets were clear and I rolled the windows down and felt the crosswind, quiet and cool. She wanted me to get her tennis shoes, even though they wouldn’t fit her swollen feet. I knew I probably shouldn’t be on the road, so I forced myself to focus.
The last mile before home, tears started to leak down my face. By the time I reached the driveway, I was heaving and wailing. Too many hours of saying calming things to her. Too many hours of somber conversation with medical professionals. Too many hours of my husband and I in waiting rooms starting sentences with “I don’t know how we…” Trailing off, because we can only afford to be in that moment.
I thought about what other drivers saw on the way back to the hospital. A blotchy-faced middle-aged woman barely driving at the speed limit in her Prius. They couldn’t know that she was barely fending off terror, that she’d spent the previous day waiting through hours of surgery and recovery of her daughter, that she was in shock and despair. How often had I cussed out drivers, thought the worst of them, assumed that they were this or that?
We’re curiously often incapable of empathy until we find ourselves with the child crying on the plane. Until we have that bad day when everything seems to go wrong. Until we lose a pet, get a bad diagnosis, make a wrong turn. We pass each other in grocery stores, shuffle our feet impatiently at the ATM, cast knowing glances at other bystanders. It’s so much easier to be empathetic in theory than in reality.
Blurry-eyed, I dragged myself through the hospital cafeteria, I looked around at all the families, some comforting themselves with gentle inside jokes, others looking haggard and unseeing. Out of context, I know that I would have seen them differently, perhaps with a hint of judgment or irritation that they were too noisy or unfriendly or inattentive to what they were doing. When we are out in public, we do not know each others’ stories by appearance, and sometimes even by actions. We have to have the imagination and empathy to extrapolate a story. A kinder story.
In the days ahead of unraveling and recouping and processing, I hope that I remember this lesson.