The hunger divide between writing meaningful stories and writing what I am capable of feels like a gaping maw now. A novel draft I wrote in 2012 seems limp and unedifying. Great novels come out of periods of strife and war and social upheaval. My little domestic drama on paper seems out of step.
I lay in bed last night rewriting my entire novel. It had power and endurance and spoke to the demographics and polarity in our nation – the great canyon between urban and rural, educated and uneducated. It could not be read without raising one’s fist and yelling, “Hell yeah!” It was deep, with a whiff of posterity and the flavor of critical acclaim.
Then I pulled up to my keyboard this morning. The Post-It on my monitor yelled at me: Tell the @#$! Story. I need that reminder these days when my ambition gets ahead of my skill set. Every other day, there’s some new thing I think I should be doing with my novel. I nearly rewrote the entire thing in first person, partly because of this blog. Over the last five years, readers have consistently told me they like my voice or my authenticity and I wondered if my novel would be more readable with that voice.
Except that it’s not my story. The words and pages belong to Madelyn and Jamie and a rural town in Iowa. They could give a rat’s ass about politics, so mired in their own personal shit, up to their ears in self-destruction and self-loathing. Their story is how they find their way out. It’s a story of redemption and the murky waters of forgiveness. Our story, the one in which a personality disordered person turns the national dialogue into bickering and toxicity, has no exit strategy. And happy endings take on quite a different meaning.
I’m a nobody blog writer, an amateur novelist, one of a million dotting the literary landscape. A shrub in a forest of Redwoods. Why do I have an ego that says I should be writing bigger? And do readers always need to read bigger? I have no doubt that some startling, long-lasting work will come out of this period in history. And when colleges get around to updating their classics list, books written during the Trump era will be on it.
I’ve been reading Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel, edited by William Zinsser. My writing tip #234: Don’t read books on writing while trying to write a novel. First of all, it usually sheds bad light on whatever you are writing and secondly, it can make you overly ambitious. The novel I am writing was never meant to be bigger than it is. While there may be unintended insight or themes that emerge, it is not going to be the muckraking sociopolitical novel of which I daydream. Maybe next time.
Perhaps this will all be a mistake. I’m an imperfect perfectionist, the covert kind who looks careless on the outside, but demands creases and no slouching on the inside. The kind of perfectionist whose whispers gnaw away and slyly suggest that perhaps my mother was right. It feels like I’m making an intentional mistake – knowing that there are more important things to write, knowing that there is more at stake in the world than ever before.
In a moment of clarity, as I wandered about the gardens this morning, I thought about how the real trick to anything is to fully commit to it. Ten years ago we started ripping up our lawn bit-by-bit, replacing grass with perennials. There were many times when I doubted it would ever look like the English garden I fantasized about, but each year, I took up more lawn, tried different plants, and dug in with all the enthusiasm of a novice. I hit a point of no return and for many years, our yard looked like a bad idea.
It doesn’t look like an English garden now. Not enough sun, too many tree roots and the grass is still determined to retake its ground. But I love it. Plants are maturing and things that I’ve moved and divided and tried again and again are finally filling in space. It’s pretty and colorful, and it gives me pleasure. Even though I’ve done my best, it doesn’t match my fantasy and won’t make a magazine cover, but it has become something unto itself. A labor of love and persistence.
I learned in improv comedy workshops that if you commit to the sound, the word, the actions of your partners, it becomes real to the audience. They are in the moment with you and nothing outside of that matters. If I write the story as well as I can write it, maybe I will have the good fortune of a shared moment.
Perhaps, in the scheme of things, sharing moments with others is pretty damned important. If we can imagine solidarity and connection, there’s a possibility we can bring that into the world. Isabel Allende wrote, “I think I write so that people will love each other more.” Who needs to write any bigger than that?
After wrecking my knee once again, this time by gardening misadventure and not running, rain has provided a welcome reprieve and excuse. I’m chugging through desperate re-writes to get my novel out to a lovely group of beta readers and a couple of agents by the first week of June.
Since I’ve established a hard deadline for myself, I have been busy cleaning windows, rearranging closets, volunteering a few extra hours, sewing on loose buttons, reading obscure texts, and listening to writing advice podcasts while sharpening garden tools. All in all, this would be considered quite productive if any of it actually involved writing.
I wonder if I’m always going to be fighting this battle of distraction. It seems even technology can’t be blamed. Now I know why the classic writer was either going on walks or putting their liver through its paces. It’s lovely to have all those thoughts floating about one’s brain, but quite another thing committing them to paper. I have a mental image of wrestling each and every word to the ground, until they are forced to stand in a row and make a blasted sentence.
It’s easy to get distracted by the current chaos in politics as well, each headline more alarming than the last. I am not particularly surprised by much of it. People voted for a man who has all the diplomacy of a wrecking ball, in addition to a personality disorder that deems every occasion an opportunity to blame, brag, or bloviate.
My outrage meter blew a fuse and now I just want to know that the people not besmirched by this person’s conduct are still doing real work in our government – like handling the fact that the threat of homegrown terrorism is as high as it’s been since 9/11. Or backing down Texas, which thinks it should get federal money despite its discrimination against Planned Parenthood and consequently against the poor in its state. A discrimination which has resulted in a higher number of unplanned pregnancies needed to be covered by Medicaid in Texas. It really beggars belief.
It hit me that I’m counting on the much-maligned civil servant to keep our nation from turning into a third world turd hatchery. I’m counting on people who have been insulted and blamed for everything from long lines to confounding paperwork, to keep coloring within constitutional lines. We don’t have the leadership capable of reasoned and steady trustworthiness. We must rely on the sluggishness and lack of agility of government to slow the man-made disaster of our executive branch. That’s right, the IRS and DMV and AARDVARKS (I really hope somebody is using that acronym) are our last line of defense against autocracy.
Mother’s Day came and went with the usual commercial hullabaloo and media coverage. Since it is the most popular US dining day, I stayed home, enjoyed being left to my own devices by my family and gardened. News bits and bobs ran the gamut from how hard mothers have it to the “why not me” defensiveness of the those without children, fathers, etc.
Since most holidays strike me as over-the-top bullshit which I generally ignore, I spent my time thinking about the defensiveness that emerges in response. As much as I enjoy being referred to as a breeder and moocher and victim in my role as a mother, I have to wonder at the anger. Mothers have bankrolled psychiatrists and psychologists for years, but it’s usually the children of said mothers and not a generalized anger.
Perhaps it is a backlash to the cult of motherhood, Hallmark, and all those gauzy recollections of warm, caring humans that may or may not have been true. I recall being very defensive in my 20s, as all my peers were getting married and having children. I hadn’t planned on either of those things for myself and felt like there was something wrong with me. I could be very snide in my defensiveness. But then I grew up.
I am still occasionally defensive about one thing or another. To me, it’s a tip off that I have some thinking to do. What’s really going on? Am I not happy with my life choices? Am I scared? Am I in pain over something? I’ve learned over the years to listen to people who are defensive and automatically think what’s really going on here? Contempt for other humans is neither healthy nor laudable. People who are genuinely pleased with their lives don’t feel the need to attack others or justify their choices.
Between listening to the audiobook, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and reading Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman for my English learner tutoring gig, I have gotten some great reminders about writing. I like big words, because some of them just roll off the tongue and make language more interesting. I also have an interest in word histories. Sometimes this gets in the way of writing well.
I have a regular conversation with the students I help, as well as with my own child about writing. Writing gets treated as a different language from speaking and this is why it becomes so difficult for some people. People who are extremely coherent and expressive verbally suddenly feel tongue-tied on paper. The exercise I do with English learners is to have them say the sentence they want to write and then once they’ve written it, have them read it out loud. It’s always different from what they’ve said. Then I have them say it again and write it down verbatim.
When I am well and truly fighting with my words, it’s because I think I have to write something different than what I intend – bigger words, more poetic, flowing sentences. I have a sign on my computer now. Tell the @#$% story. Stop being a writer and be a storyteller. It’s amazing how words drop away and sentences shine with clarity.
Time for me to get back to it. The rain will stop and I’ll be distracted once again by the siren call of my garden.
Of late, I’ve really loathed my writing on this blog. Despite this, I hit that Publish button each time, a twitchy trigger finger serving my need to be read and to be heard. This need has thrown me off, as has the public discourse. I’ve been less thoughtful and about as reflective as Narcissus. I’ve been lacking in scope and imagination.
Currently, I’m reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen about a double agent following the fall of Saigon. The author describes the final, brutal scenes of people fleeing, trying to catch the last flights out. Everything relies on chance, of getting the paperwork, of knowing the right people, of having enough money to bribe and cajole.
I read a post by Tim Miller yesterday that has me thinking about luck. It defines so much of who we are and is, for the most part out of our control. Whether our souls are born into white or brown bodies, in countries ravaged by war or in the grips of poverty. Who our parents are, what they know and what they have to give. The vicissitudes of life. For every success story, there are hundreds of tales of struggle and suffering and attaining a mediocrity that could only be enviable by virtue of deprivation.
I love John Lennon’s “Imagine”, because it speaks to ideas beyond the framework of warped politics and dominionist theory. It calls for the very thing we, as a society, seem to lack at the moment. Imagination. Imagination is what fuels empathy and problem solving and optimism. The people in Washington seem so small and petty – lacking in both ethics and creativity. They speak the language of limitation and blame. They use mangled metaphors and hyperbolic rhetoric that says nothing, means nothing. Cowardspeak.
No matter what way I’ve been running at the news, limiting it and curating my sources, I still end up feeling depressed and powerless. It’s because I’m allowing other people to define the framework of my thinking, an involuntary conscription into the culture of hate, blame, and winning at all costs. No imagination required.
We need people with big ideas and courage. We need people who don’t see a zero sum game in everything. We need philosophers and mathematicians and scientists and artists and poets. We need people who spend less time looking down their own pants to see whose is bigger and more time staring off into the sky thinking “what if?”
I’ve not written much about politics after my steady stream of posts following the election. I do not like our president. I think he is a mean, petty, oddly incurious person who lacks personal integrity. I think he has surrounded himself with similarly intellectually stunted, corrupt individuals. No one is for country. Every man and very few women for themselves. There is nothing to inspire imagination, only dismay. There is no voice from Washington that lifts us up, makes us believe, lets us know that there remains life in the already maggot-riddled corpse of this administration.
It is about money and power and I believe that it has corrupted absolutely. While I’ve learned not to rise to every click bait news story, I have only to read the president’s own words to know that there is something wrong. It takes on Shakespearean proportions – the madness, the twisted family relations, the jesters, and insidious narcissistic defensiveness and lying. Richard III is now occupying the Oval Office.
Tolerance. This is a word that gets thrown back and forth so much that it no longer means what it means. I keep being told that I need to respect other people’s beliefs. But I don’t. I respect their right to have them, as long as they are not impinging, legislating, or proselytizing to me. Ann Coulter, Richard Spencer, and Company can speak wherever they can afford to speak. I don’t have to respect or tolerate them. I simply won’t show up or listen, nor do I need to indulge the fools who do.
Frameworks. How we’re taught to think and speak about things. We should be vigorously questioning these right now. All forms of media and sundry self-identifying humans are trying to limit us, limit our imaginations, tell us how to see the world, how to frame the news, and our experiences. We have to be deliberate in widening the scope of what we see, of our awareness and of our empathy. Petty humans are being extraordinarily loud right now – at a frequency designed to disorient and overwhelm.
This is where it ends for me. I’ve felt so small and tense for months now. For every news story, I feel the heat rise up into my face. I splutter. I feel contempt. I call my representatives. I make vows to join the fight. But I’m tired. I’m tired of being a pawn in a petty, destructive game. I’m tired of being emotionally manipulated by entities that could not care less for my existence.
I’m going for the big ideas. The belief that we are here to alleviate the suffering of others. That we are here to practice kindness and empathy. That we are here to learn from our mistakes. That we need not be parrots for demagogues of any ilk. That we are not letter designations and labels. That we are not markers in a political and morally bankrupt casino, where the house always wins.
Our freedom depends on us not following orders, not buying in, not nodding our heads numbly in agreement. Our freedom depends on us not allowing ourselves to be corralled and manipulated and categorized and polled. We are not stakeholders, consumers, demographics, or voting blocs. We are not collateral damage.
We are, above all other things, human beings with potential. It is easy to forget that, easy to forget the marvelous things we are capable of and the boundless compassion we can nurture. The games of public one-upmanship do not render our lives irrelevant. I almost forgot. I almost forgot that my imagination does not end at recycled political solutions and pithy sound bites and orchestrated divisions and borders.
Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
These are my current news sources, an update to the too-long list I created shortly after the election. While I tend to favor print editions over digital, even with these, my average cost is $17 per month combined on hard and digital copies. :
NPR (audio and digital, daily) – They don’t run with the latest outrage, which means when news stories hit their air waves, they’re less reactive and more balanced.
Foreign Affairs (paid print edition, 6 issues/year) – Big picture thinking needs the big picture. Great source for American foreign policy issues from people who actually think in-depth about them.
The Economist (paid print edition, weekly) – A lot of bang for the buck. Need reading glasses for the small print, but jam packed with information about technology, business, and money issues. It’s a weak area of knowledge for me, so this magazine is good for familiarizing myself with the terminology and current thinking.
The Atlantic (paid print edition, 10 issues/year) – Long form writing from outstanding writers. Covers everything from the political to the cultural.
The New York Times (paid digital, daily) – Fairly clean online edition. Actually still looks sort of like a newspaper and not a multimedia pile of vomit. While taunted as being a liberal paper, I find its reporting to be more evenhanded and in-depth than some of its cohorts. Comments tend to be well-informed and better expressed, regardless of partisanship.
The Washington Post – (Cancelled paid Digital) Click bait titles – more reactive and less thoughtful, comments often allowed on news articles, and distracting, ad-laden pages.
CNN – (Digital) Messy front page, reactionary, poor editing, and incomprehensible mix of infotainment and advertising. Mixed media mess. A case of getting what you pay for.
It’s gardening season which means that here at The Green Study, the metaphors for growth are in full bloom. It also means that the sun has fried my brains and I have little patience for sitting at the keyboard. Still, with gardening comes the thinking, the settling back on haunches watching fuzzy bumblebees search for the first blooms and June bugs, startled and disoriented when accidentally uncovered.
So these are some quick jots from the week, uneven and random, sort of like my lawn.
It was a tough first week for goal-setting. Sunday was review and re-set day. I’m been feeling physically under the weather, which always makes rocking out a goal more challenging. I bombed out a bit this week, but made progress regardless – more writing done – well, that was it, really. That’s the cool thing about reaching for goals – even if you don’t 100% make the mark, you still get farther ahead. The failure becomes a smaller part of the picture, especially if you get up, brush yourself off and take another run at things.
Every year, we deal with the lawn fetish. Our neighbors fertilize and spray to create perfect green fields. It’s all for appearance. They’re never sitting in it or playing with their kids on it. The cost of that appearance is the fertilizer and herbicide runoff entering our waterways, damaging fish life and adding to that insouciant mix of antibiotics and hair products at water plants.
This year, our backyard, the piece that is not yet a garden, looks like a meadow of wildflowers, with cheery yellow dandelions, delicate white violets and purple creeping charlie. A joyous complement to the white blossoms of the cherry tree and the slowly unfurling red leaves of the Canadian maple. Still, we try not to make our neighbors grumbly, so yesterday my husband tilled up a two foot DMZ along the fence line so I can put in a border garden and mulch to buffer against the spread of color to monochrome lawns.
Each year, we balance what we know against what is still one of the most common and environmentally damaging yard fads – the sea of turf grasses, synthetic chemicals, and excess water used to maintain them. While I certainly have cognitive dissonance in many areas of my life, this is not one.
A lawn is the product of aristocracy going back as far as the 16th century. Since it was before the invention of mowers, peons had to be paid to chop and trim it down, so it required money. In the Elizabethan era, having bad, blackened teeth was a status symbol, because only the wealthy could afford sweets. Maybe the wealthy shouldn’t be trusted as trendsetters.
Perhaps it’s time to look askance at lawns and the chemical companies that enrich themselves, all while poisoning our water sources. I’m happy to leave the butt implants and gold-plated anythings to the num-nuts who can afford them. But in the words of Joni Mitchell, just “Leave me the birds and the bees.”
As to water, there is a one-in-four chance in the US that your tap water is contaminated or is not being properly monitored. But don’t worry, even if your water ends up being contaminated because the city decided to save a little dosh, you’ll still get a bill.
It was hard watching the news this week. The smug grin of Paul Ryan should be downgraded to a solemn face of apology to the nation. He needs to go back to wanking off to Ayn Rand and get out of the business of humans. He and his backslapping cronies aren’t very good at it.
Despite the beautiful weather, I’m crabby as hell. I had to run errands this morning and even walking through a poorly-stocked retail store gave me pause. I felt like I could hear everything – beeping, conversations, more beeping, walkie-talkies, the clickety-click of heels four aisles away, a baby fussing at the opposite end of the store. I felt irrationally angered by the modern, cold noisiness of it all. Maybe that’s what a lot of time in the garden does to me. It makes me resent the time I must spend indoors.
Time to drag my grumpy self back to writing, but soon out into my meadow of color.
What’s got you happy or grumpy today?
I rarely re-blog the work of someone else, but this is a dear friend of mine. We Skype nearly every day, connected by our ability to laugh through tears and to be as awful as we want to be and no one says “boo”. Despite sharing our lives through wires and satellites, this post was like a gut punch. She deftly tells about her day with her smart, frustrating, funny and angry boy.
I remind myself that this too shall pass.
EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.
Missing Easter eggs–taken from fridge–still not found?
This too shall pass.
Two teardrop shaped containers of food coloring found in son’s bedroom. Two still unaccounted for. Mattress now looks like Jackson Pollock vomited there.
This too shall pass.
No clean clothes today…most of child’s pants cut up by scissors or missing. Must remember to check the heat ducts later…
This too shall pass.
Looks in fridge. *Stares blankly* Where’d the chicken go?
This too shall pass.
If you are a happy parent, please stop reading here. If you find fulfillment of life in nurturing and raising your beautiful, perfect little yous. Go away. This is not the blog you are looking for and I won’t be nice about it.
If, however, you have had dark thoughts on miserable, cold days. If you haven’t showered in forever and aren’t entirely sure…
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There are the lies we tell others and there are the lies we tell ourselves. My lies to others tend to be the carefully curated lie-but-not-a-lie that tries not to hurt feelings or unjustifiably cause pain. I don’t lie about myself, although online I tend to be airbrushed. Catch me when I expected to have some solitude or ride my bumper in your oversized vehicle and the sharp edges emerge.
The toughest lies to untangle are the lies we tell ourselves about who we are and what will make us happy. If I were to imagine my actualized self, it would be as an established writer in good physical condition – an autodidact vegan polyglot. And rainbows would shoot out of my ass.
At this point in my life, it’s all about the reach. I’m reaching towards my actualized self, trying to build actions into my daily life that are in the right direction. That’s the hard part – as exciting as the end game might sound, it is the smallest part of the whole process. The hard part, the boring part, is the action.
I’ve been adding new habits over the last few months – running and language studies. I attended a pitch conference that made me talk about my work, even in its disheveled state. After experiencing a small measure of success, I had the letdown. What now? What’s the next step? I began to think about the process of turning internal bullshit into reality.
Assessing where I was should have been easy, but I found myself repeating old excuses or justification for why I hadn’t made progress. I have years of experience in lying to myself, so it took a willingness to say “hey, you know that’s not true”.
There are a couple of things I believe, but didn’t take to heart. One is that if something is important enough to you, you’ll make time for it. I was always telling myself I didn’t have time, but when I looked at how I was actually spending my time, I knew it was a lie. This is an important thing to think about, because it tells you several things:
- Maybe I don’t really want this thing I thought I did.
- Maybe this other thing I do is more important to me, and
- How much of my life is on autopilot?
The other thing to think about is why you want to attain the goals you do. What need does it fulfill? Is it something you still want? I had an experience with a book proposal at the writers’ conference. I’d been carrying around this idea for 25 years and when I decided to let it go, it carried with it more than the idea, it carried my reason for wanting to do it – an old burden of shame for not finishing a master’s degree. Pruning one’s goals to those that really matter is so helpful.
I had a discussion with a writer friend the other day about what need writing fulfills and where one needed to go with it, instead of blindly reaching for what we thought we should. Maybe the act of writing is enough or maybe we want awards or monetary compensation. Maybe we just want a few readers. It’s important to be specific about your goals, so that your actions support it.
I want to be published and paid for it, so I have to create a body of work, write and edit daily, send out queries, etc. That’s a lot of work to do if, at the end of the day, what you really wanted was a few readers or to see your writing in hard copy – both attainable without all the excess work and money. If you are not doing the actions to support what you think you want, you need to be honest about what you really want or you need to make a change.
Over the course of my life I’ve been an irregular regular exerciser. Solid workouts for weeks and then nothing for a whole month. This seemed an intractable and constant problem for me. I read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and started to think about what throws me off positive habits. His flowchart “How to Change a Habit” is useful. It made me realize that I might need a more specific goal and extrinsic reward for working out. Yes, it did my brain good and woo-hoo, I could lift so many pounds, but I had to be honest that this was not enough of a motivator or else I’d be consistent.
I recently started and finished an 8 week to 5K training program. Having a specific goal, an automated workout to follow and a compulsion to finish was very helpful. On top of that, I gave myself a reward at completion – new running shoes and a t-shirt that says “Less Talk, More Run”.
For a year, I followed a plant-based, vegan diet. I felt lighter and like I had made a real effort to integrate my personal ethics regarding animal life by pairing it with action. I felt good and enjoyed the food I was eating. And then I stopped. Holiday food belted out its siren call and I crashed myself upon the rocks, less like a ship and more like a sea lion lolling about, reveling in its layers of warmth.
These are goals I return to, again and again. And maybe a pragmatic person would say, hey, if you can’t stick with it, maybe this ain’t your game. But there’s a learning curve and each time I set goals and miss them by a quarter mile, I figure out what works and what doesn’t work. I get better at it. And the fact that I return to them over and over means I’m doing something more often than not.
It’s reset time at The Green Study. I’m starting a new program with specific goals, time frames, metrics and rewards. For the next 21 days (May 1-21), I’m putting some new habits in place. Autopilot is being disengaged. So for the next three weeks, I am going to be intolerable. And I plan on writing about that here.
If you want to ride along with me for the next 21 days, think about one tiny, daily habit that will help you towards a larger goal and drop it in the comment section. Think about how it works in your day, what obstacles you might run into and how you’d counter them. Decide on a reward and think about who or what might help support your goal. And if you have experienced success, pass on your tips!
Let’s do this thing.
With the heated-up rhetoric about a war on religion, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ve kept my status as a non-believer on the down low. Most of the people I know are believers of one ilk or another. We’re polite with each other and very rarely does the issue of theology come up. We’re not in college anymore, so having deep conversations on the nature of the universe has been replaced by discussions about our crappy health insurance, should we be so lucky to have some.
Today my family did what it usually does. We went to visit my mother-in-law at her nursing home and then went out to lunch. We returned home ready to unwind. My husband took his Sunday siesta. My daughter played her viola in the garage. I went out and started working in the garden beds, which usually entails me staring at bugs and birds a lot. Tonight I’ll be reading, he’ll watch TV and she’ll be playing some more until I tell her to knock it off. It’s a simple, low drama, casual dress routine. I thought about how other people spent their Sundays.
Both my husband and I grew up attending church. He has fond memories and connections to his Lutheran church – a church attended by his neighbors with a strong Scandinavian bent to it. I grew up and was baptized in the Seventh Day Adventist church which at the time was pretty fundamentalist and in the 70s, literally preparing for the second coming.
I attended church on Saturday with very strict rules about not working, not playing with friends, and not eating things with cloven feet. I memorized the Bible and did what I was told and believed everything that the pastor said. We were a poor family in a wealthy church. When we got scholarships to attend the private church school, my mother took us out of the school I’d been attending Kindergarten through 6th grade and stuck us in a school where girls couldn’t wear pants with pockets and rock and roll music was forbidden.
The next year we moved to a community with no Seventh Adventist church. That was the end of my churchgoing. It wasn’t the end of my belief system, but as I got older and read more and met more people, I knew that religion in and of itself did not provide the answers to many of my questions. Every few years I’d go through a church search, attending Catholic, Methodist, Universalist, Episcopalian and some church where I was creeped out because we had to hold hands in a circle in the park.
Perhaps it was that I’d begun to read more history and took an interest in Eastern religions which seemed to have more wisdom and fewer rules. Or it could be that my introverted introspective nature began to dominate and anywhere people gathered was where I didn’t want to be. I decided that I didn’t know if there was a God, but since I didn’t know, I didn’t want to spend time trying to sort it out or hanging out with people who knew they were right and wanted to tell me how wrong I was.
Having a child returns the issue to the forefront. In respect to my husband’s beliefs, I told him he could take her to church if he wanted. But by the time she was old enough, something changed my mind and I think, his as well. She asked a lot of really good questions. She asked so many good questions that I couldn’t bring myself to lie about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.
This got her in a little trouble along the way. One of her friend’s parents called me. Your daughter told my child that I was lying to him about Santa Claus. I was mortified and secretly proud. I apologized and then talked to my daughter about how families have different belief systems and that we need to respect that.
It got me in trouble on the way, too. In parent education classes, when we talked about the holidays, one mother was horrified that I’d essentially ripped my daughter’s childhood out from under her. Never mind that we have lovely holidays with our own family traditions. And that her kids were constantly in meltdown/ sugar crash mode, while mine had a pleasant, consistent temperament. Yeah, I judge a little when attacked.
It hit me the other day that I’ve raised a skeptic with critical thinking skills. I don’t know how I feel about that. It sometimes gets suggested that nonbelievers of deities are lacking in beliefs in general. But we have some pretty strong beliefs and we’ve passed them onto her. Be kind and considerate. Be stewards of animals and the earth. Work hard. Appreciate your good fortunes. And believe nothing without verification from multiple sources. It’s no surprise that she wants to be a scientist (with a side job as a violist in a movie soundtrack orchestra).
There is something to be said for the sacred and taking the time to honor being alive, being here with whatever patchwork of friends and family we have. There is something to be said for turning off and tuning out and slowing down and being grateful. Right now I’m sitting here and I can hear mowers and blowers and trimmers in our neighborhood and I think that maybe it’s a bit of a shame that not everyone has a quiet day. But it’s always an option, with or without our Sunday best.
How did you spend your Sunday?
I love to run. I wasn’t built for it – short, muscly, a little knock-kneed and uncoordinated. I started to run in high school track. I was slow, but I could finish the race. I got put on the 3000 meter run, because regardless of placing, you’d get points for the team at a meet if you finished. During the track award dinner my senior year, the coach said “Michelle gets an A+ for effort”. At the time I thought it was damning and faint praise. Now I think it sounds like a pretty good gravestone epitaph.
One year we were challenged by our coach to run 100 miles over the course of the winter. He called it the Arctic 100 challenge. My brother and I were going through our Rocky phase, swallowing raw eggs and bouncing around like we were fighters and then we’d run through snow, slip sliding on icy small town sidewalks, the snot freezing inside our noses.
In the Army, I ran a lot of hills because I had to and the Presidio of Monterey was nothing but hills. I could finish. And I was still young enough that the late night binge-drinking and that early morning cigarette before P.T. didn’t incapacitate me.
Afterwards, in college, I lived in an apartment building surrounded by prefab condos and hills. I was trying to quit smoking for the 492nd time and decided to start a regular running program. The very first stretch of the run was a steep uphill jaunt. I was usually sucking wind by the time I got to the top, but I knew if I made that hill, the rest of the run would be okay.
In my 40s, I started training in taekwondo. With a lot of heavy footwork and kicking, running had to take a backseat to the many injuries I was getting. My sparring partners tended to be teenage boys about a foot taller than me. I ended up with a black eye, turf toe, pulled muscles, wrecked quads. Running just made it worse, since I was using many of the same muscle groups.
My dojo (school) closed and I decided after four years of having the crap kicked out of me, I was done as well. To compensate, I took some circuit training classes, which included a lot of jumping and knee work, until I could barely step off curbs or go down stairs without stabbing pain. The injuries to both knees took months to recover and I was depressed about the idea that I might not be able to run again. Again, this caught me by surprise.
It strikes me as odd, this running thing. I’ve never been fast. I don’t look like a runner. I don’t even have any competitive ambition except against my last time or distance. I sweat like crazy, my face turns all red and at nearly 50, there are parts of my body moving independently of any muscle. Still, as soon as I felt ready, I started to run again.
Today I finished an 8 week 5K training program. I did my last run slowly, steadily, and strongly. I’m starting a 10K program next week. It makes no sense to me – this love that I have for something I’m so incredibly unsuited for – it has become this touchstone that I return to again and again.
Perhaps it is my unsuitability, my lack of speed or grace, my inability to wear stretchy, breathable running clothes with aplomb, the lack of competitive drive, that makes it all appealing to me. It does not require much from me except that I show up and that I keep going. Sometimes that seems like a pretty good metaphor for life.
Is there something you love to do that makes no sense to you?
In 1993, I dropped out of grad school after one miserable year. I was a failure, barely surviving academically, juggling three jobs, in over my head in so many ways. I make jokes about it, but when I pitched a nonfiction proposal to an agent last week, she asked about my education. I was truthful and while she was interested in my proposal, I could tell that I did not have a good “platform”.
For nonfiction proposals, agents and publishers want someone with a platform. A platform is the writer’s expertise, background, and being a known entity and expert in their field. I was a little proud that I could pitch an idea on the fly, except that it really wasn’t that spontaneous. And it was never my first intention.
While in grad school, I came across the published journal of a Russian woman who had disguised herself as a man and fought in the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. She was the first known female officer in the Russian military. She had a difficult upbringing. Her mother hated her and at one point, had tossed her out of a moving carriage. She survived, but from that point on, her mother had no part in her care.
The story appealed to me not only as a veteran, but also as someone who was engaged in an ongoing battle with her own mother. It found me at the right time and stayed with me. For nearly 25 years, I’ve kept notebooks, collected research materials, and always planned to write a historical novel someday. The agent pitch I did at the conference brought clarity to me. I didn’t have the chops or the credentials for writing nonfiction history.
I went to the library last night to work on a writing plan to follow up with various agents. While I’m still working on a novel, I thought I’d take a look online to see if there were any other research materials available for a fictional work on Nadezhda Durova. I sat back, stunned. An American writer had written and published a historical novel about her just six months ago.
Dreams, delusions, disenchantment. I’m quite adept at spinning my own story. A story I’ve carried with me all these years – of failure and struggle and the possibility of writing my way to redemption – a story of rationalizations and justifications. Of never fully feeling the pain of the moment in which I am told or learn, once again, that I’m not good enough. All these years, I’ve been disappointed in myself, maybe even a little ashamed. But I had a good idea and maybe that would redeem me.
I am always reminded of that line by The Talking Heads “How did I get here?” The tale of my academic life is one of happenstance. When I joined the Army at 17, being clueless and uninformed, I wanted to be a French linguist. I had four years of high school French and being a linguist sounded more enjoyable than company clerk or truck driver. The demand for French linguists in military intelligence was, of course, not particularly high. They needed Russian linguists. Okay then.
After spending a year in intensive Russian language training at the Defense Language Institute, I moved onto more training, a permanent duty station in Germany and when my four years was up, I gladly left. The shortest way to a degree meant taking Russian, because I was able to transfer a lot of Army credits. So there I was, on track for a degree in Russian studies. As far from parlez-ing as I could be. Even further from writing.
I finished a four year degree in a subject that had never been part of my “when I grow up…” narrative. With no clue as to next steps, I applied to grad school. In the English department. The admissions rate was about 7% at the time. Applying to a program tied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was like spitting in the wind. I didn’t get in, but I did get accepted into the Russian Department.
It took me a year to realize that I hated my life, hated school, hated getting up at 3:30am to do a janitor job, go to classes, put in my hours as a research and translation intern, and then head to my job at Target.
The final straw was after I had to do a presentation on Russian morphology. In Russian. The professor pulled me aside at the end of class and said that he was going to do me a favor by giving me a B-, instead of the C that is considered failure in grad school. I was going through complete misery just to scrape by on someone’s favor. And paying thousands of dollars for the honor. Time to quit academia and start working fulltime.
The years that followed were progressive administrative jobs, still carrying my notebooks and research materials from Iowa to Minnesota, into a home I share now with my daughter and husband. Since focusing on writing the last few years, the possibility of writing that historical novel seemed closer than ever. Until last night and seeing that Linda Lafferty had written The Girl Who Fought Napoleon.
I didn’t feel crushed or disappointed. In some ways, it was liberating. Carrying that novel idea was more than just a writing project. It was justification for all that education in Russian language and history. It was redemption for having failed. It was a reason for having wasted so much time and money doing something for which I had little passion. Even the kernel of complicated mother-daughter relationships has dissolved in the face of relative peace I’ve made with my own mother over the years.
Last night, I dreamed of getting divorced from someone other than my husband. I woke up feeling sad and disappointed and bemused. The person didn’t have a face that I recognized, but this morning I surmised his name was Failure. 25 years is a long time to carry shame and I think I’m ready to put it down. There are other stories to tell.
A few weeks ago we visited the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum that had a night art installation by Bruce Munro – lots of light, a little weird music, and a great deal of walking. Throw in the S’more kits being sold around a fire and it was a lovely evening. We walked along dark pathways from sight to sight, under a clear, starry sky.
Light pollution often obscures the sky in our neighborhood, so I took the opportunity to point out some constellations to my daughter. We had to keep finding dark areas to stand in because beyond the actual Munro installations, people were walking around with their phones out, taking pictures of the art.
It’s in my nature to push back against cultural trends and this one, of taking pictures in a “Kilroy was here” sort of way sends my brain off into incoherent, spluttering rants. We noticed this as we traveled the west coast last year. We’d be standing in front of some sight, an animal at a zoo, a zen garden, a perfect view of the ocean and someone would walk up, take a picture , and walk away. I wanted to yell “Have the #$%@ experience – put your phone down!”
Part of this is my particular way of taking in an experience. I can stand for an hour in one spot just watching waves, reading informational plaques and observing people coming and going. My family moves a little faster, so I’ve gotten in the habit of breaking off on my own, finding a bench or a space where no one else is and becoming a rock. Museums are a challenge. I find some work I like and I just want to sit there for a long while, so when I go, it’s more likely to be alone.
I have friends and family who seem nearly maniacal in their picture-taking. One relative has forever earned my enmity for snapping photos of me in the hospital after I had my daughter. I was in for a long stay due to a complicated delivery and having bad reactions to pain meds. After vomiting most of the day and being poked with needles (apparently I only have one workable, ever-elusive vein). Click. Click. My husband had to keep me from ripping out the tubes and strangling her.
A friend explained to me that taking photos was how she processed experiences. As a writer, this is an approach that I can understand. The world makes more sense to me through words than any other way. But there is a compulsiveness with cameras and I see it around me every time I go out in public.
It would seem that the primary purpose of taking a picture is to capture a memory, or at least the shadow of one, so that at a later point in time, one can be reminded of an experience. What if you didn’t actually have the experience? You were there, but not present. You saw something, but you really didn’t pay any attention to it. Then the picture becomes about something else entirely. Bragging rights, a need for validation (look at me, I do stuff and have been places) and the possibility of likes.
There is also the aspect of skill. Very few of my photos are particularly good. When we travel now, I buy postcards, appreciating that someone with more skill and better equipment has already gotten the job done.
Standing on the hotel balcony in Fort Bragg, California looking out at the Pacific Ocean, I pulled out my binoculars and scanned the horizon. Spouts of water! I looked again – more spouting and then I started to see them, dark figures coming out of the water and then retreating. An unusual time of year, but we had lucked upon a pod of whales.
If I had taken pictures, they’d be little more than vague shots of a horizon. But at the very least I would look at them and remember the excitement of yelling for my husband and daughter to come and look. I would remember the chill air and the sound of the waves. I would remember watching until the sun went down and then early in the morning, searching the horizon and finding the pod again, only a little farther north. The thrill of discovery and the awe of nature.
Many years ago we made a 13 state road trip out to the Grand Canyon and back. We saw and did a lot. While staying in Flagstaff, we drove out to Sunset Crater and did some hiking. It was a beautiful day and we hiked through the remains of craters, on paths of hardened lava, passing by a cornucopia of wildflowers and plant life. It was a really good day. I have a couple of pictures, but I have even better memories.
A day later we took a bus tour to the Grand Canyon, since we didn’t have much time before we had to head back to Minnesota. It ended up being a stop, take photos, get back on a bus. I have some photos and very few memories. Absolute worst way to see anything. My daughter, who was seven at the time, remembers Sunset Crater and getting to eat sugary cereal at the hotel. No memory of the Grand Canyon whatsoever.
To me, it says a little about how our brains work. When we integrate and absorb and move in the places we visit, pictures are just tickler files for memories. But it’s gotten to the point where the act of taking the picture is the memory and has nothing to do with content or context.
I know there is no point in railing against this cultural idiosyncrasy. It’s here to stay. I just wonder how it impacts our ability to process the fully dimensional world and what that means for the human brain. My experience tells me that nothing conveys a moment better than a memory absorbed and breathed and lived.