It’s been nearly a month since I’ve written here. For some people, this would be an indicator that they were being wildly productive elsewhere. For me, it runs parallel to everything else in my life. So I return, disorganized and unkempt, my decompensation complete after a year of crises.
I woke up two weeks ago feeling as if every joint in my body was inflamed. My hands were stiff and painful. There was stabbing nerve pain in my knees. I walked as if I were 82, not 52. It sent me into a depression. After so long of keeping a stiff upper lip, of caregiving, and chauffeuring and tracking down medical research and working hard to make sure everyone in my circle was cared for, fed, loved, paid attention to over the last year, my body and brain said enough already.
Writing stopped altogether. I buried myself in books, frequent naps, and long stares into space. I walked a lot and when my feet hurt and my eyes stung from the cold, I walked some more. I slowly unraveled the strands of my depression. It’s February in Minnesota. I consider it the worst month – 4 months of winter behind, 2-4 months ahead. As I’ve written about numerous times, this last year was situational hell with medical crises and family losses. And menopause has got me in its grip – miserable and unpredictable. So, there are reasons.
In this Instagram marketing world, there’s a temptation to wait until everything can be repackaged into a neat story, complete with a moral and pics to prove it. But sometimes the only way to find one’s way through the story is to write about it, to just start telling it. We’re in love with stories of redemption and miracle outcomes, but those are movies and reality shows and late night commercials, not life. Life continues in all its uneven messiness, where the best victories are slivers of light – moments when we are able to exhale.
Things are quiet now. My daughter’s health is stable and we have a month or so before the next battery of tests. I’ve got a long list of self-care things I must do to regain my health and sense of purpose. I approach everything the same way (which can sometimes be an issue): Make a list of problems I’m trying to solve, do research, break it down to concrete steps, line up resources, and start walking the plan.
It’s time to exhale.
There was a moment in time a couple of weeks ago when I was binge-watching episodes of Leverage while playing Freecell, eating, checking my email and text messages, and rage-reading Twitter feeds. I had a brief insight, a moment standing outside of myself, seeing a kind of desperate escapism at play. I was numb, distracted, and when I stopped all activity and sat still – utterly, utterly depressed.
It was time to wake myself up, to stop sleepwalking through my emotions, and to take some responsibility for the quality of my life. Compassion allows for the fact that this last year was the worst of my life, but when does self-care lurch into self-medication and then stagger into self-destruction? For me, it’s when I can’t remember my days. What did I do yesterday? I have no idea.
It’s a hard road back from the Land of Numb. I take preventative measures – delete the games from my computer. Log out of everything so I’m forced to log in – one step in mindfulness. I make myself get back into an exercise routine – the pain and muscle aches end the detachment from my body. I force myself to do one activity, one step at a time. I do it initially, resentfully, repeating the mantra it doesn’t matter if you feel like it, just do it.
I started to think about distraction and escapism and self-care and how it all gets conflated and confused. There’s a whole economy built around the idea of self-care with few definitions on what that truly entails. The Venn Diagram that includes self-care, distraction, consumerism, entertainment, and addiction is a giant black circle with slivers of light at the edges.
Our brains are so overwhelmed not just by our own human predicaments, but by the constant influx of information and messaging. Maybe the paralysis of mindlessly entertaining ourselves is all we can manage. I think about Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. We have so many diversions to choose from, so many choices to make in our lives, that paralysis comes rather easily. As Schwartz explains, even when we make choices, our satisfaction is less because if our choice is not great, we think about all the other ones we could have made.
I’ve taken to asking myself a lot of questions about what I do with my time. Does this support my intentions for myself? Do I feel energized or drained after this activity? Is there something better I could do? What am I avoiding? There are times when taking downtime is a necessary part of life, to let your mind zone out or wander, to be purely entertained or engaged. But how much time? When does comfort become a coma?
I had the pleasure last week of reading David Puretz’s The Escapist, which was sent to me by JKS Communications. The protagonist/anti-hero is self-medicating, incapable of dealing with the reality of his life and sets off to find his father, a veteran of the Iraq War. The protagonist is alternately self-destructive and introspective, but learns and experiences enough to make this a satisfying read.
Debut novels can be hit or miss and I was wary of reading another drug-fueled odyssey, which is usually the purview of male writers – especially those of the David Foster Wallace era. In The Escapist, the anti-hero is just sympathetic enough, the writing is strong, and the story is engaging. Bonus points for lack of misogyny and rare masturbatory or bodily effluvia references (not a prude, but how much does one need to know about sputum and semen?).
Self-medication as escape is nothing new. I come from a long line of self-medicators – booze, smoking, drugs, more booze. I sobered up in my mid-20s, gave up smoking when I was 30, but there was always food and an addiction to running shoes and books. And for this writer – the productivity-killing need to research. For some people, it’s sports or religion or patriotism or political ideology or fashion, whatever makes the answers easier, life more palatable, something to subvert our fears and anxieties and any other untenable emotions.
Some of these things are perfectly healthy, but anything can be a way of detaching from emotion or reality. I’ve become intensely curious about life with all of those things stripped away. Our addictions, distractions, comfort blankets, the groups we identify with, and the cozy philosophies – who are we without them?
Writing is an escape of sorts, but these days I don’t know if I’m running away from or toward it. I guess it only matters that I’m doing it, anchored in a moment, neither here nor there. I keep thinking about the path and how a writer lives two lives, moving in the world and then living on the page. And that my fears have often allowed one to supercede the other.
I’ve started reading The Authentic Life: Zen Wisdom for Living Free from Complacency and Fear by Ezra Bayda. The first chapter was all about facing fears head-on and he ends it with a prescient quote from Chinese Zen Master Wu-Men: When the mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best moment of your life.
Wishing you some of your best moments in the week ahead!
Almost eight years ago, I published my first blog post. It came on the heels of challenges I had created for myself – training in Taekwondo, learning how to climb rock walls, pushing myself to write publicly. I’ve given up martial arts and rock climbing, but I’m still writing. My challenges are different now. They usually involve trying to get a good night’s sleep and not letting my anxiety overrun my sensibility.
I just finished reading Dinty Moore’s The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life. It’s a short, inspirational read – a reminder of some basic tenets of being a writer. I’ve been thinking a great deal about a quote in the book by Ezra Bayda: Your difficulties are not obstacles on the path, they are the path.
My path in 2019 was the most difficult of my life. It started off with a family death, spiralled into personal health problems, the loss of a pet, crescendoed with my child’s medical crisis, and has now found an uneasy holding pattern of doctors’ appointments and testing. I’d begun sleeping, finally, in this last week for more than three hours at a shot, loaded up on melatonin, soothed by a white noise machine. Maybe, my brain said, things will get back to normal.
We found out yesterday that the chemotherapy drug refill my daughter needs is out of stock. One company in the world makes it. I had a panic attack while on the phone with the specialty pharmacy. My heart was pounding louder than the hold music. How often had I been here in the last year? Anxiety steamrolling me, brain racing to problem solve, catastrophizing in “what if” land.
Normal? What the hell was I thinking?
“When/if…then” thinking always catches me off guard. I realized that I’d been telling myself when things got back to normal, I’d get back to a stricter writing practice. I’d exercise more regularly. I’d be more careful about what I ate. I’d catch up on correspondence. I’d sleep better. I’d be able to think more clearly – be less hostile, be more compassionate – be a better person.
While I’m not someone who is inclined towards drama, it occurred to me that this waiting is a living death. Because what if “normal” never returns? I’m getting older. My peers are getting older. Illness, death, change – it comes to us all and it accelerates as one ages. Time is a finite resource for a human being.
This morning, I re-read a 1993 Paris Review interview of Toni Morrison. She talked about her early writing life. She was a working single parent with small children. She wrote in the early hours and no matter her level of organization, she always ended up writing on a small square of her desk or table. Within those limitations, she created beautiful works of art.
I think about her writing in that little space with limited time – creating a universe of love, joy, hate, pain – weaving together the threads in a poetic yawp to the world. We can make choices in the spaces between troubles and limitations. I’d gotten so overwhelmed by the big, scary stuff that I’d stopped making the small choices that would bring me joy. Writing in that 15 minutes before the next doctor appointment, going for a short run, napping near a sunny window, digging out a recipe book and cooking a good meal, writing a thank-you note to a friend, sinking into a book.
It’s hard to unravel the idea that to write, I don’t need a huge expanse of time, a clean desk, the recommended amount of sleep, an uneventful day or ten. It’s hard to believe, that after so many years of an interrupted life, that I still allow circumstances to override this visceral need to put chaos on paper. This forgetfulness is always how I arrive here: depressed, cynical, often simmering with a vague, low-energy rage. Writing is how I survive, even thrive when life eddies about me.
So this path, full of potholes and thorny briar patches and distracting squirrels, is the path. And the only way forward is mindfully, pen and notebook in hand.
There’s a quip about the cure being worse than the disease. No need to tell me that at 2 a.m., when my child is keening with stomach pain. We’re in the wilderness now – trying a relatively new drug not tested on children, for rare tumors with no proven treatment path. My kid is filling up the bingo card of side effects. And each day, I am supposed to hand her the drug that does this.
My husband and I sit up with her for the next two hours, hoping that the cramping recedes quickly. Eventually, the pain passes and she is finally able to fall into a deep, restful sleep. I am wide awake. I’ve sent a message to her doctor. This is untenable for the long term. Any ideas?
Now that she is comfortable again, I am introspective. What am I becoming? I don’t sleep well anymore, even when a night is uninterrupted. I have copious notes, dates and times of this medicine, that reaction, what works, what didn’t. I’m on constant alert, vibrating with anxiety and now, caffeine. My stress hormones have cozied up to my menopause hormones, so every five minutes, I flash into a drippy sweat.
I’ve read every article and study I could find about the drug, the tumor, the side effects. After reading about one side effect treatment regimen, I asked the doctor if we couldn’t try a particular drug. Reading the same article, the doctor said sounds like it might be an option and wrote the prescription. Criminy, they realize that I only have a liberal arts degree, right?
But this is the speed of science. As quickly as one protocol gets established, four more options pop up. That’s a good thing, but it means everyone has to be read in, constantly.
While I consider myself a relatively intelligent person, I’m no genius and the fact that our role as parents in her care is so outsized, really freaks me out. It has served me well to stay in the moment, except in the moments after a crisis has passed. Groundless again. My brain doesn’t know whether to stay on high alert or to relax. I am afraid to relax, as if my tension were a shield against calamity.
I think about the beginner’s mind from Zen Buddhism. If I looked around me, with fresh eyes, at this very moment, what do I see? My daughter is sleeping well. As is Pete, our old tomcat, with his little snores on the floor, near my feet. Snow is falling outside, muffling the city sounds. I’m tired, but healthy. The house is warm and smells of coffee and last night’s stew. My husband is able to work from home after the long night. I explore this moment, writing here, grateful that I still can. Open your eyes. Breathe.
I was thinking about advice on recharging phone batteries. With lithium-ion batteries, the lifespan of the battery doubles if you partially charge and discharge the battery. Then there’s parasitic loading – when you are using an item while it’s charging. It can induce mini-cycles, causing part of the battery to deteriorate at a faster rate. The writer in me wants to wring a metaphor from it.
Being a caregiver or a parent can be like this. You have to keep going, no matter how low your battery is. The only protection against deterioration is finding the time when you are only charging. The moments between crises have to be more than just time when bad things aren’t happening. This is tricky – the space between shaking your fist at the sky and noticing how beautiful it is. Enjoying the buoyant, cool water just before you feel like you’re drowning.
So this morning, I practice. I fold laundry at the kitchen table and watch the snow fall. I listen to Dar Williams sing “After All”. You catch your breath and winter starts again…
…and the long night falls away.
I return here, unsure of how to proceed. Writing this blog has always been an exercise in being present, but distant. I’ve written from wherever I’m at, but writing itself, putting life in words, is an exercise in putting emotions at arm’s length. My family is having its worst best year and it will carry on into next year and perhaps, beyond. This is unfamiliar territory, this landscape of worst fears. My anxieties have always nibbled at the edges, but now they are front and center.
As I’ve written in previous posts, my teenage daughter has been seriously ill. After two major surgeries this year, we are now moving into the chemotherapy stage. I don’t want this blog to become a recitation of medical victories and setbacks, but now I understand why people write them. It becomes your life. How is it possible to write about anything else? In fact, how is it possible to do anything in the midst of this? I’ve been unable to focus enough to read, to really write much, to do anything but read dense medical articles and try my best not to be steamrolled by what if, what if. It’s funny that the what ifs never include positive outcomes. How very me.
Perhaps life would be easier if I believed in higher mechanics at work. But the pain of seeing my bright, beautiful girl struggle makes it better that I don’t. The rage and bitterness would consume me. I’d rail at the sky gods and pulpit liars. I’d be unforgiving. Thoughts and prayers indeed.
I’ve always been drawn to the tenets of Buddhism and Stoicism, lightly adhering to the idea that what is here is it. What is now is now. Never have your life philosophy tested. You will discover a derelict home and how little you’ve done to maintain it. You’ll find there are foundations of styrofoam and duct tape, leaky pipes, and an overabundance of distractions/fixes that no longer do the job. You’ll slap up a foreclosure sign and walk away. Time to start over.
Yesterday I read a chapter in Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times and it hit me – nothing I was accustomed to doing for comfort/distraction/numbing in my life was working anymore. I was suddenly and sharply aware of a nightmare I have of falling off a cliff, before I jerk awake in a sweat. The sense that all that was before and all that would come after no longer mattered. But there is no waking up, no relief to discover I’d just fallen asleep on my arm, drooled on my pillow. I’m awake and groundless at this very moment.
I grew up in poverty, plagued by its cohorts alcoholism and domestic violence. I struggled to put myself through college by serving in the Army for four years. I quit smoking. I overcame years of dysfunctional relationships to meet and marry a wonderfully kind and smart man. I went through a dangerous labor and delivery to introduce my daughter to the world. I trained in martial arts in my 40s – bruised and injured sparring with behemoth 18-year-olds. But nothing, nothing in my life is as hard as this moment right now.
How does a person live in this space? I’ve asked friends who have had similar life experiences. How did you do it? The blank look on their faces said it all. They just did what they needed to do. I wrote in my last post about the exercise of stating exactly what one is doing to bring the current moment into focus. That little trick stopped working a few days ago when I found myself mentally shrieking Woman folding clothes while trying to fend off another round of laundry room sobbing. It started to seem more like a defense against thinking unpleasant thoughts.
There is, at the heart of all this contemplation, a concrete reason to keep learning how to work with my own mind – I will be a better person, a better parent, a better partner if I can live well with uncertainty. My thinking brain is a construction site – all activity and planning and loud machinery. It does not provide solace. It does not expand compassion. It does not cultivate courage.
So I’m learning all over again – how to meditate, how to silence the raucous noise, how to sit still. This insistence is also an insistence to be courageous – to recognize I have no control, no soothsaying powers, no magic remedies. To face that no amount of chocolate or bingewatching or reading or writing or housecleaning will distract from the sharp edges of my life.
I re-read this post and thought well, this certainly sounds like you’re making things about you, you narcissistic twat. To write about my daughter at this point would invade her privacy and likely shred me. She is who I want to be if I ever grow up – self-possessed, funny, and honest. I take so many of my cues now from her. Still, it’s not on her to make me a better person. I have to do the work. I have to practice. I have to be mid-air, still able to breathe, still able to comfort, still able to laugh. I’ve been in flight, trying not to notice the lack of a parachute or wings. The trick is to not look down.
Sources that Have Been Helpful to Me:
Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy by Bruce Tift
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris
Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh
Life has started to really take its toll on me. I’m more tired, grayer, weightier, unfocused. There was a brief respite where my ego had time to rise – to think about goals and ambitions and productivity. Productivity. I’ve come to hate that word. It makes us all sound like robots. But robots don’t have children who get tumors. Again. Robots don’t watch their friends go through chemo treatment or their parents suffer from Alzheimer’s or partners in chronic pain. Robots don’t wake up each and every day wondering what that day might hold.
If it sounds as if I’m getting a little dark, stay with me. There is light. Eventually.
This has been a year of unending anxiety and constant resetting of expectations and plans – more than the usual chaos of being human. I found myself constantly saying I just need to find my center. I just need solitude. I just need a few days without menopausal shifts. A week without anxiety. A few nights of good, solid sleep. Then I will feel better. Then I will feel like me. Normal. Balanced.
Pardon me while I break into hysterical, teary laughter.
Depression has permeated my brain. We’re in the middle of yet another medical crisis – a drawn out one that will take months to resolve and may have lifelong impact. A parent’s nightmare. Trauma in slow motion. And still, I rise, I demand, get your shit together, Michelle. It’s an unkind, harsh voice. Who needs enemies with a brain like this?
I turn to some old friends in the form of books. I pick up Toni Bernhard’s How to be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. I read it a few years ago, while supporting my mother-in-law as she wended her way through Alzheimer’s. It was a perfunctory read. Lately, I read with hungry desperation. Tell me how to cope with this. Give me answers.
Sometimes a message reaches you at just the right moment, when you’re an open wound in need of salve. The author of How to be Sick is chronically ill with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. I am not chronically ill, nor I hope, is my daughter, but this year has been a chainlink of catastrophes. Situational depression is to be expected. My little family has felt this in a myriad of ways. But still, we trundle on and we play a lot of card games.
There’s a practice I learned from the Bernhard book that I’ve started using. I’d been swimming in the disappointment of expectation. There was a brief space in time when everyone was well, when routine seemed possible. Then another medical scan revealed its terrible news. Immediately anxiety wrapped its death grip around my brain, as it played out every future scenario. Stuck in the past, throttled by the future.
If there’s anything that annoys me more, it is that every idea or thought is memed now. The be present exhortation is on coffee mugs, t-shirts, people’s email signatures, and one of the first pieces of advice that pops out of anyone’s mouth who imagines themselves to be wise or enlightened. Like a sulky teenager, I tend to react badly to what everyone else says or does. I’m likely to do the opposite, even when it shoots me in the foot. This time, though, I just have to ignore the commodification of an idea and focus on what it really means.
The practice is this: state exactly what you are doing in the present moment (Bernhard credits Byron Katie with this practice). As a writer, I find this interesting and sometimes amusing to do. Woman standing at sink, washing dishes. Person raking leaves. I like the paucity of words, the practice of narrowing the world down to subjects and verbs – seeing the world as it is actually happening, where nothing is before and nothing after. People easily say be present, but this is a practice that requires mechanics. Same goes for meditation. You need the mechanics to start you down the path. Focus on your breath. State what is happening.
I started reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights yesterday. It reminds me that every single moment is filled with life – that there is beauty and curiosity wherever you are, but you have to be there, really there to notice it. I watched as my daughter slid in and out of the PET scan machine. She was swathed in a white blanket and my mind shot back to her crib nearly 14 years ago. I looked down at her round, rosy-cheeked face, her brilliant blue eyes, and her dark, spiky hair. At that moment, I wasn’t seeing radiation warning signs or hearing the beeping of machines. But that memory came with a terrible longing and I could feel the tears well up. It was bad time travel. Woman watching over daughter. Then, but more importantly, now.
So I practice. I practice reminding myself of what is. I practice deep breathing. I try not to be so cruel to myself. I write here, because it is my duct-taped practice of Buddhist Tonglen – giving or sending, receiving or taking. When I say the hard parts out loud, I feel the suffering recede. I see that we do our best, all of us. I see that there is beauty to be found in this very moment, in you, in me, in the world. We just have to open our eyes to what is in front of us.
If I saw the Hoarders tv show and one of their clients had nothing but books, I’d think: What’s wrong with that? Like the trundling out of sweaters and warmer socks, autumn sets my brain on fire with the compulsion to accrue books. My husband and daughter just roll their eyes at me and make jokes about my inability to leave the library or bookstores without a stack of acquisitions. I am happily surrounded by books and read incessantly. This is my childhood dream come true.
Unintentionally, I had prepared for a huge book bender. I updated my reading glasses, whittled down my schedule, and started to acquire books at an alarming rate. I’m looking forward to a winter of Oscar Wilde, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, Helen Oyeyemi, James Baldwin, Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Lethem, Joyce Carol Oates, and any other writer who trips my fancy.
The warmup to heavier tomes has been a lot of pithy reading. I read Austin Kleon’s trio of books (Steal Like an Artist, Show Your Work, Keep Going), Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals, and story story collections. Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story collection What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky was full of thoughtful, if not disturbing, storytelling.
I also read another book sent to me by JKS Communications, Blood Creek by Kimberly Collins, an ambitious novel that wasn’t quite my taste, but will resonate with the historical romance crowd – those who like their vixens fiery and their men stoic and often criminal. It reminded me of the books I used to sneak out of my mother’s collection when I was 13 – like Rosemary Roger’s Sweet Savage Love, where the main character is selfish, but too waif-like with a cavernous decolletage to not get her own way, at the expense of everyone around her.
Writing is ramping up as well. I just finished the online Masterclass with Joyce Carol Oates. While her story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” is one of the creepiest stories I’ve ever read, her prolific career is an inspiration and her low-key but dedicated approach to writing resonates with me. 2019 has been a year of nearly constant rejection, from publications and even a mentor program. One would think I’d want to call it a day. But Ms. Oates has some wise words for rejection which I’ll paraphrase here: it’s likely a blessing when one’s work is rejected. It’s not your best work and you don’t want it out there. It forces you back to revisions again and again and again, until what you have left really is good.
So I soldier on. And at the mention of soldiers, I just want to leave this public service note: Flag-worshipping does not make you a hero or a saint. As a vet who served for a wide variety of reasons, including an adolescent sense of loyalty to my country, I’m finding that performative patriotism in this country has gone off the rails – in the old sense, like nutter-level.
I was on a treadmill at the Y the other day. In front of me, an older man was wearing a t-shirt with an American flag that said If this flag offends you, I’ll help you pack. I know it’s not good to wish heart attacks on people peddling on stationary bikes, but it briefly crossed my mind. If you’re a flag worshipper, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t flail about screaming that everyone else is being disrespectful to the flag and then wear it as a crackled, worn decal on your sweaty carcass. I mean you can, but the paramedics are going to have to cut it away to attach the defibrillator pads. I’m sure they’ll be respectful, though.
Fall is often a season that brings about feelings of bittersweet melancholy, much like being in your fifties and still trying to get published. It is a season, though, that begs for poetry. I consider myself a blogger, novelist, and short story writer, but on occasion I hail back to my adolescence and write a poem. Now they are less about being ignored by the boy I liked or morbid poems about dying and more about just fading away. I’m reading Adam Zagajewski’s collection of poems, Asymmetry and they are the kind of poems that make you ache just a little.
It’s been such a tough year, for me, for we humans out in the world. Some of us manage to remain unscathed. We keep our eyes forward, don’t get distracted, know what we’re about on the planet. Some of us have been buffeted by the winds of chance – medical emergencies, financial crises, devastating diagnoses of our health, our portfolios, our relationships. Some of us have internalized the existential dread of what the future holds – dictators, natural disasters, scarcity, randomized violence. We’re taking the news intravenously and it eats away at our sense of wellbeing.
I need hope and so do some of you. Where do we find it? Where is the solace, the palliative, the hospice for the walking wounded? I find it written by authors who apply poultices through words, in the faces of people who love me, in telling stories, in walking with the crunch of leaves beneath my feet. We fashion our own life preservers and hope that it’s enough.
It’s been a year focused on mortality – hits and misses, losses and anxieties. Someone of my morose temperament is more likely to start self-medicating than rallying forth. Having given up on drinking and smoking years back and never really taken much to drugs, I’m left to my own devices, which usually involve excessive organizing, surliness, and voracious reading. Solitude has been a fleeting, rare creature for months now. Writing, the beast which I chase in my dreams, still eludes me most days.
It is times like these when other artists save me. I just finished reading Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work and Jill Krementz’s The Writer’s Desk. These are the kind of books – part inspiration, part instruction – that you pick up when time and space seem to conspire against your best laid plans. Maybe it’s a hope that something is contagious in reading about other writers’ lives. I come away feeling less alone and more heartened about the piecemeal fashion in which I pursue writing.
Writing carries baggage for me. That baggage is full of mixed messages: the fears that I may never accomplish what I seek to accomplish and the realization that it all matters so little in the scheme of the universe. It is full of envy and self-loathing, disgruntlement and all manner of desperation. This can be heavy and paralyzing, lugging the baggage along into every writing session.
Like muscles that tighten into a knot, no movement is possible until you relax. There are meditation and Zen practices, most of which have now been repackaged and priced and sold along with a set of knives capable of cutting a car in two. The simplest of these practices, and I offer it to you absolutely free of charge, is to focus on the moment.
I had the most delicious banana this morning, but it took me a few minutes to run through the overthinking that comes with anything I do. First I thought about the fires in the Amazon and wondered how they affected the bananas. Then I thought about how they were predicting that this particular kind of banana would be extinct in ten years, due to various fungi. Extinction made me think about the climate and Greta Thunberg and how adults, in their usually capacity as jackasses, were criticizing and mocking her this week for lecturing said jackasses on their climate paralysis. Then I thought about plastic and the fact that I can’t stop seeing it everywhere, with every product, without thinking about whales’ stomachs.
I was halfway through the banana.
Earlier in the week, I’d lectured a friend on catastrophic thinking and how imagining the worst thing that can happen is deleterious to one’s current state. I didn’t use the word deleterious, but that’s how I’m telling the story. When we’re in the middle of a situation, our brains have this capacity to go completely free-range, snarfing down every bit of anxiety in its path. Bloated with neuroses and catastrophic thought, we rarely take action that alleviates it. Instead we eat ice cream, drink wine, binge watch TV or porn, smoke pot, go shopping, or rage online – anything that distracts us from the bloat.
Three-quarters through the banana.
If catastrophizing makes nothing better and churning in those thoughts brings us misery and paralysis, the only solution is this moment, this banana. It is delicious, I am enjoying it…it is delicious, I am enjoying it. It bears repeating, because already my brain is starting to think it is gone, what next?
And then it really is gone. I missed most of the joy – too busy letting anxieties ramble unhindered through my thought processes instead of having the visceral experience of eating a delicious banana.
Is it not so with any endeavor? How dense and rich would life be if we practiced being in the moment, having the experience, tasting the food, looking at the scenery, rolling words through our brains? Those sentences make me laugh. I’ve been reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. It’s made my prose a tad odd.
The point is, and I am pretending that I have one, is that this can be applied to writing as well. All the thoughts about publication or how it measures against others’ works – all the thoughts about never succeeding or maybe being too old to be in this game – all the thoughts of self-denigration and unworthiness. These take away from the moment you’re in – the writing of a delicious sentence. The picking of a word. The telling of a story. The befriending of a character. The joy of expression.
Write the words. Eat the banana. Be present.
Other Books for Inspiration:
Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön
Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artist Process Edited by Joe Fassler
Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life by Bonni Goldberg
Daily Rituals: Women at Work by Mason Currey
The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes
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.