It was at a relative’s funeral over 15 years ago that I began to wonder about my ability or inability to love. The spouse of the deceased, an awkward and unlikable man, cornered me. He began to explain my relatives to me in critical terms. She doesn’t know how to love. They are such cold people. He would never understand love. Grieving requires latitude, so I stood there, numbly, and listened as he described the people I loved as terrible. And maybe they were.
I’ve written before about my upbringing and childhood. And it is only significant in the fact that it had consequences. I was a sensitive, shy kid in a household where tears and really, any emotion, were mocked or ridiculed or punished. When I laughed I was too loud, when I cried I was being too sensitive, when I was sick I was faking it, when I was angry, I was unjustified. Toughen up was the order of the day.
So I did. I took up sarcasm and cynicism as weapons and armor. I worked when I was sick. I cried in private. I muffled my laughter and subdued any excitability. I smoothed out the sheets until there was not a wrinkle in sight. I grew up, muted and self-conscious of any outward indications of emotion.
I did well in the Army. No drill sergeant could yell me into anything more than a look of stony silence. I’d stare placidly as my bunk was torn apart and an angry man got up in my face screaming about my worthlessness. It was nothing to me.
Once I started college, I couldn’t relate to the excitable undergrads and buried myself in work. The cracks were beginning to show. I began to suffer chronic depression. The emotions that I’d suppressed had begun to curl inward and were finding their way into toxic relationships and self-destructive behaviors that left me gasping for air.
But I was tough. I could survive. I could make it through anything, especially the self-generated miseries. Two decades of muted smiles and disdain for anything sentimental or emotional. I was still me, sensitive to not only the moods and whims of others, but of the environment, of sounds and smells and shifts in the wind. I just had a hard shell.
This is what we’re told as children – grow up, toughen up, be like an adult. A generous interpretation is that we fear for these little, soft beings going out in the world. So often, though, we’re re-enacting our own childhood pains and fears, wishing on our children a kind of protection we never had.
It would be easy for me to say that being in a happy marriage and having a healthy child was what changed me. It did. How could it not? But the change began happening before he came along and she was born.
It started with decisions. A decision to leave a dead-end job that made me feel stupid. A decision to leave a relationship that would have gone nowhere, a relationship that made me feel inferior and worthless. A decision to leave a town where I’d worked through a lot of permutations and none of them fit.
Then there was therapy. Talking about things I’d never talked about, to a person who didn’t have a horse in the race. Crying a lot. Often feeling worse than I’d ever felt in my life. The cracks became canyons and I feared I would never get out. But every gaslight was extinguished when the therapist leaned in, with a quizzical look on her face and said “You do understand that they were trying to hurt you, right?” The elemental difference between feeling worthless and not.
I’ve softened over the years. It’s uncomfortable to me still. Sometimes I’ll hear myself laugh and I’ll think stop that cackling, a phrase I heard repeatedly as a child. But I split my heart wide open when I committed to a marriage. I laid all my vulnerabilities out on the table when my child smiled her first smile.
The softening of middle age isn’t just happening around the middle. I seem to be leaking tears and flashing smiles at the most inopportune moments. It feels like an odd awakening to the exquisite beauty of this fragile existence.
I will never be an effusive person or greet Valentine’s day with much more than a grimace. But my family is well-loved year round and I laugh a lot these days. I’m at a point where repairs are no longer underway, my psyche no longer under construction.
There’s a peppy little song by Cathy Heller called “Gonna Be Happy”. The lyrics are saccharine sweet, but there’s a line that has burned itself in my brain.
How can we set each other free?
I’ve been thinking about this as I go about my day. I’ve been watching people – at the grocery store, at concerts, walking their dogs, talking to their children, using their walkers, and blasting their car radios. And that line pops into my head.
It’s realizing that a smile can make a difference in a person’s day. It’s understanding that most people are not out to intentionally hurt us, that we are all on our own orbital paths and sometimes that makes us careless of other humans. It’s assuming the best, giving the benefit of the doubt, of attributing things not to malevolence, but to inattention.
It’s love turned outward. It’s that moment when it cannot be contained and wrangled into submission – when the impulse to smile or laugh or cry is no longer embarrassing or shameful. It’s startling when it happens. My first thought is always “Who is this weirdo and what do they want?” But defensiveness obscures my vision, makes me miss the moment, the connection. Curiosity is the antidote and is, in some ways, the best gift of love we can offer each other.
February is Black History Month in the United States. It’s the month when everybody hauls out their Martin Luther King memes, goes to see “Selma”, and tells themselves, See? I’m not racist. Much like Women’s History Month, it feels like slapping a band aid on a wound that won’t stop bleeding. But if awareness is the first step to getting ourselves out of this cultural morass, of evolving as a society, there’s a whole world of written works to lead the way.
Last week I went to a book talk given by Colson Whitehead. He wrote the award-winning fiction work The Underground Railroad. The opening to the talk was an homage to Black History Month. An eleven-year-old girl sang “Glory” while historic pictures of the civil rights movement in the Twin Cities showed on a screen. It wrung me out. I had to discretely wipe away tears and do my old-lady-digging-in-her-bag-for-a-tissue bit.
Much of what we believe and who we associate with is grounded in childhood experiences. I was a white kid from a poor midwestern family, where alcoholism and domestic violence were defining characteristics. I knew three people of color from ages 0-17 and my family had a branch of the racist variety. I heard a lot of slurs and “jokes” growing up. I didn’t understand most of them. I saw the “Roots” mini-series when I was ten, which was pointlessly jarring without mature context and I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird twelve hundred times. But I had not yet entered the world.
I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
When I joined the Army and went abroad, that changed. When I went to college, that changed. And when I moved to my working class suburb in the Twin Cities where my daughter attends school as a white minority, that changed. I went from not understanding, to the academic “I’m colorblind” stage, to a recognition of the world as it is. Because I am white, I will never be privy to a complete understanding of the issues at hand. Empathy can only carry one so far. But it doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try.
I just finished reading A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, a collection of essays edited by Sun Yung Shin. As a writer, I can often miss the message due to the medium. It’s an uneven collection and oversold itself with a quote on the cover that suggested it would be life-changing. That would be the case only if you’d never read anything about racial injustice and didn’t watch the news for the last decade. Still, there were several solid essays that made it worth the read.
American racism has many moving parts, and has had enough centuries in which to evolve an impressive camouflage. It can hoard its malice in great stillness for a long time, all the while pretending to look the other way. Like misogyny, it is atmospheric. You don’t see it at first. But understanding comes.
Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things
I just finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and it is a reminder that sometimes fiction finds the truth more accurately than facts. It’s a dense, wonderful book that I didn’t want to put down. The story explores the issues of race through the experience of Nigerian immigrants to England and to the United States, places in which no matter where a person is from, they become “black”.
The first time the history of slavery hit me in the solar plexus was after reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. When I finished reading it, I sat stone still for an hour, book pressed to my heart, awed and overwhelmed. Colson Whitehead, a delightful speaker as well as a gifted writer, made me laugh. He had a similar authorial thought to mine when reading Morrison’s work. I’m totally screwed. He managed to do just fine, though. The Underground Railroad was a merciless read and an artistic masterpiece.
Reading outside one’s experience often has the surprising effect of connection, not just understanding. Our basic humanity is one and the same. That a white woman could identify with the main character in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is not as odd as it sounds. We all choose to see (or not see) people the way we do and ofttimes, it is not as the complex human being they are – it’s the great sin of stereotyping, so that we do not have to expend our energy being curious.
When Chimamanda Adichie talks about the danger of the single story, she reminds us how easy it is to rob others of their dignity through a single narrative thread. And how important it is that we restore it. It starts with the silent turning of a page, of willing ourselves to read outside our metaphorical and literal borders.
Additional Nonfiction Reading:
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
- Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
- The Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Rediker
- Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
- The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
- The Grey Album: Music, Shadows, Lies by Kevin Young
- The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist
In the United States, a precinct caucus is the smallest unit of politics one can participate in – it’s the beginning of the beginning.
Last night, the Republican and Democrat caucuses took place in little class and conference rooms all over the state of Minnesota. I have always considered myself an independent and in the distant past, voted for whatever candidate I felt would be best. These days, moderate Republicans are like unicorns and independent parties keep putting up fringe operators at best, so last night I went blue and attended my local precinct caucus for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (Democrats in Minnesota).
In a fit of pique after the 2016 election, I had joined the nonpartisan League of Women Voters (LWV). They focus on voting rights and community issues, which appealed to my sense of egalitarianism (wasted in the current environment, but old habits die hard). I was dipping my toes into the pool of activism. I’d always been politically informed, a nerd who read The Economist and Foreign Affairs, but joining a march or going door-to-door made me shrink away in horror. And meetings give me a shiver of revulsion.
Current events being what they are and simply being pissed off enough to overcome my personal inclinations, I typed up the voting rights resolutions (items you put forward to be added to the party platform) supported by the LWV and packed myself off to the precinct caucus.
The last time I attended any caucus was about 20+ years ago, while I was attending the University of Iowa. I was working three jobs and trying to get through college. I’d gotten out of the Army with some vestiges of Republicanism, but had given up religion and was turned off by the conservative morality police, so I attended a Democratic caucus down the street from my apartment. Like most of college, I have little recollection of the proceedings.
As an introvert, I have to prepare myself for events. I’m usually filled with nervous anxiety, don’t sleep well the night before, and find myself issuing mental commands: Breathe. Relax your shoulders. And then the reassurances: It’s only two hours. It will be fine. In the case of this precinct caucus, it wasn’t just a case of showing up and listening. I had to speak as well.
My suburb has 14,000 registered voters divided into eight precincts. Statewide, Minnesota has a slight majority of Democrats over Republicans, so statistically, my precinct caucus should represent around 800 Democrats. 15 people showed up. Low-level participation during a midterm year is common to both parties. A woman told me in 2016 that you could barely move through the hallways, it was so packed.
The 15 people ranged from 30-80 in age, all of us having the blotchy pale color of a six-month Minnesota winter. We were ensconced in puffy clothes that made us all blobbish, wearing shoes with traces of road salt on them. This is the red carpet of an involved citizenry. Due to the small number, we were all automatically delegates to the next meeting. Yay?
We followed the rules of order and an agenda, while being interrupted by politicians popping in to give their mini stump speeches. They all seemed a little breathless, as if they were attempting to go to every one of Minnesota’s 4,117 voting precincts.
The first major bit of business was doing a straw poll for gubernatorial candidates, since ours is on the ballot in the fall. I was one of two uncommitted voters in the room. It’s early in the process for me to determine who I’d support. And I simply hadn’t done the research.
When it came to resolutions, I had five. There were only two others from the rest of the room. One was from an elderly gentleman who shook slightly as he spoke – he wanted a moratorium on factory farms. I knew that there were lobbies in our surrounding states to do the same, due to the health issues and the pollution of waterways. His resolution passed.
I went through three voting rights resolutions: automatic registration with the driver’s license (an opt out system rather than the current opt in), pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-old voters (raises early voter participation), early voting using actual ballots and not absentee ballots (saves money and less confusing to voter). Then two government accountability resolutions: no more omnibus bills in the state senate and house, must follow single subject line rule (with the exception of major finance bills which have a lot of moving parts) and transparency in electioneering communications (currently if ads don’t say “Vote for” or “Defeat” in Minnesota, advertisers don’t have to identify themselves).
All my resolutions passed unanimously. A slight victory, since these resolutions will have to go through many more filters before having a shot at making it into the state’s party platform, much less any actual legislation in the very far future.
The last resolution was done on the fly by a man hastily filling in the form. He was talking about school referendums and I didn’t understand what exactly his resolution was, despite asking for clarification. Since I did not have the opportunity to do any research, I abstained from the vote. It, whatever it was, still passed. Easy crowd.
I walked into the caucus with apprehension, but I walked out as the precinct chair, a delegate, and an election judge. I am reminded of a magnet on the fridge that a friend gave me: Stop me before I volunteer again. I am an introvert, but I’m also tired of the loudmouths having all the power. Our system suffers when the extroverts and impulsive blabbers dominate.
It was a big question among my introvert friends last year. How can I make a difference without being loud? I remember a sign that showed up at marches: “So bad, even introverts are here.” The world has become so hostile and angry that people like me want to retract our limbs into our shells. But now is simply not the time. Better to counter the impulsiveness of shameless self-promoters. Just breathe, relax your shoulders, and step into the world, resolutions in hand.
I don’t watch award shows. I find the whole self-congratulatory process on top of wealth and celebrity status a tad nauseating. The State of the Union is not much different and this year, like anything Trump touches, it will be way worse. The problem with this weed of a president is that everyone keeps giving it light. Weeds like the light. They flourish and take over all the good soil, choking out anything that is newsworthy and meaningful. This year, I’m taking my light elsewhere.
Despite the fact that I’m a political junkie, I hate reality TV and the denizens that occupy it. Since our government and media have turned into The Real World: Washington D.C. Edition, I’ve learned to cultivate my news sources. Pundits and conspiracy theorists scrawl on whiteboards with bizarre connections and fallacies every time this president opens his mouth. Even respected journalists have lost their ever-loving minds reporting on every fart he emits. This is where information is not empowering. It’s enervating. It leaves us all just a little besmirched and exhausted.
The State of the Union sounds important, but it’s not. Especially when the windbag that is speaking is always talking. This guy can’t shut up. We’ve heard all his stories. We’ve heard his memes and talking points. We’ve seen his beady little eyes and flappy jowls a zillion times in the last two years. He’s a bore. He’s a bore that has, to his delight, sucked all of the air out of the room. At this point in a social event, I would have acted like I needed a smoke, gone outside, gotten in my car, and driven away with the lights off, so I wouldn’t be noticed.
Here are some things you can do with your time instead, that will be more meaningful, powerful, and useful:
- Donate to a “sh*thole” country, where real, live human beings like us are struggling to raise their families, find work, raise crops, get an education, and fight disease. Last week, the 12-year-old girl I was sponsoring in Malawi, died of malaria, an entirely preventable disease. I wrote a condolence letter to her family that will likely mean little. What means more, is that I’m sponsoring more children. Save the Children is an outstanding organization, as is Doctors without Borders.
- Here’s an easy one – read a book about immigrants and refugees, about the kind of people who come to our shores and what they experience. Here are a few:
The Devil’s Highway by Luis Albert Urrea
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
- Eat a delicious, healthy meal and get some exercise. If there’s anything I want to do more, it’s to outlive all these old bastards and watch every stupid, destructive thing they ever did be repaired.
- Read a science article. In the face of lies, false reporting, random Facebook opinions, television pundits, knowledge is power. Great sources for good science:
- Join a voting rights organization like League of Women Voters, The Brennan Center for Justice, Rock the Vote, NAACP, and Voto Latino. Voting rights are the bedrock of our representative democracy and the best defense against authoritarianism.
These are the more serious suggestions, but the fact of the matter is, I’d rather do anything else but listen to this blathering mudslinger. The crimes against syntax and semantics aside, I know that whatever he says will be untrue. Who has the time for that?
What will you be doing during the State of the Union address?
It’s a gray day here at The Green Study and on such a day, in the middle of a Minnesota winter, one has to scrabble a bit to lift spirits. I’m going to share with you a few things that are lifting mine.
Sometimes you are really, really funny. Thank you. Here’s a few posts that have given the gift of a good laugh:
“31 brand new animal species discovered by amateur naturalists” by Guy Bergstrom at the Red Pen of Doom
“If my nose is running, my thoughts are leaking” by Ross Murray at Drinking Tips for Teens
“Affirmations” at Tabula Candida
“Becky says things about…New Year’s Resolutions” at Becky Says Things
Books That Make My Brain Happy
I just finished reading Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. I picked this book up at the library after the first essay enticed me (“Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?”). As an indiscriminate reader, I often read above my pay grade. After taking twelve pages of notes while reading this collection of essays, I was definitely in the deep end of the pool.
From vocabulary I had to look up, to literary references to a hundred different writers, this was a challenging read. But a joyous one for me. It re-lit the pilot light for my brain, made me hungry for more. And if, like me, you are on the fence about David Foster Wallace, her essay “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace”, will make you want to revisit his work.
For writing inspiration, I’ve been picking up Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, Ed. by Joe Fassler, and reading one or two chapters at a time. It’s less a “how-to” book than examples from established writers of what inspired them and how their writing reflects that. It’s enjoyable even as I take some notes on more things I need to read.
And I want to say thanks to Walt Walker at Waltbox for referring “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Gunaratana to me several months ago. Mindfulness has been one of those overused words bleached of actual meaning and I wanted to restore it in my own mind. This book is like a meditation teacher without actually having one. Unfortunately, I still meditate to the point where I fall asleep and wake myself with a little snore-snort, but if relaxation were the point, I’d be up for an award.
For much of this winter, I’ve been walking outside or going to my local YMCA. Every winter I hit that point where I get cold and it feels like I’m never going to be warm again. After a foot of snow arrived earlier this week, the thought of negotiating cold and mountains of snow is unappealing. And I’m also feeling extremely anti-social while simultaneously self-conscious, so the Y has all the appeal of a pelvic exam at a teaching hospital.
I decided to pull out some old exercise DVDs and use them in conjunction with my 100 No-Equipment Workouts book. Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve been a fairly regular exerciser, but more importantly, an adaptive one. When I was a broke graduate student, I got in the habit of checking out VHS tapes from the library to get workouts in. I was working three part-time jobs at bizarre hours, so often my workout would be late at night or extremely early in the morning.
Jane Fonda produced a wide array of exercise tapes, but now they just seem like nostalgia. As a 50 year old woman, I can no longer watch people work out in what is essentially sparkly underwear. Plus, after years working with a personal trainer and doing martial arts training, I am more of a stickler about form. For some reason if you wear a shiny thong leotard with skin-colored leggings, I assume you’re a little loosey-goosey on form.
Then there are the Leslie Sansone DVDs with her low impact walk at home program. These are actually useful for those limited space, indoor workouts. They are enough to get your heart rate up and keep you moving. I’ve found myself muting the chatter and playing my own music. I’m pretty sure Leslie never imagined herself stepping to “Highway to Hell”.
I’m usually not challenged on endurance with these DVDs, but I am always challenged when it comes to coordination. I love Latin dance. As a spectator. As a doer, I’m a danger to myself and to anyone within striking distance. However, I have been part-doing, part-cussing, and part-laughing my way through Crunch’s Cardio Salsa. And it’s been kind of fun.
And Last, but Never Least, the Small Comforts
Good coffee, warm socks, and no flu yet.
What Lifts Your Spirits These Days?
I always find the time at the beginning of the new year to be particularly poignant. It’s around this time that I turn into an internet detective, in search of the people who were, for years at a time, part of my life and then no more. Where had they gone? Who had they become?
As a writer, I put it down to an inveterate curiosity about stories. How did their story turn out? Some of it is predictable. The roommate who allowed her cats to replicate into a plague has postings full of cats. The boyfriend with the boob fetish married a large-bosomed woman. But then there are the surprises – the compulsive gambler now crime investigator. The ladies’ man with his life partner, Steve.
You see the broad arc of their lives and wonder about one’s own trajectory. Have I changed much over the years? If someone looked at my life from the outside would they just nod knowingly and say yep, that’s no surprise. Or would they raise their eyebrows? Really? Wow, I never thought she’d___________.
What isn’t a surprise is how we age. We all seem to be leaning towards a pumpkin shape with lots of gray hair or none at all. I’d go to a Facebook page and it would seem like the person was posting youthful pictures of themselves, but they would be pictures of their children and grandchildren.
It leads me here, thinking about what truly brief lives we live and how many details are packed into those lives. Internet searches are reductive, distilling our lives down to one-dimensional facts and pictures. Whole lives cannot be reflected on a screen. If the devil is in the details, the devil is what makes us who we are.
The picture of a glamorous couple smiling from a beach in Aruba cannot show that they met in a support group for grief or alcoholism. It cannot show the nights of tears or the lack of trust they had to get through in order to become that picture. It cannot show that he’s been cheating on her the last four months and that she has given up on being loved. It cannot show that on the second Tuesday next month, at 7:32p.m., on their way to visit his mother at the nursing home, they will be killed by a drunk driver.
It is only one detail, this picture, a single moment in their lives. It does not tell their story.
To look at a picture is only a short segment of thread in the rich tapestry that makes a human life. Our characters, our weird twitchy little habits, the things that give us pleasure and enrage us, what we think is funny or sexy or ridiculous, what makes us weep – take one human being, imagine those details and multiply it by 7 billion.
Perhaps this is why I sit here, full up on visual images, but famished for stories. It is not enough to see the photo flip book of someone’s life, multiplying and aging and losing shape. I have the momentary urge to write, call, or email. What to say? Can you tell me what happened between Point A, when I knew you as the person who could drink me under the table, and Point B, when you posted a picture of a very large collection of paper-mâché elephants?
The take on this, like most perspectives, is a matter of choice. Let the melancholia wash over me for lost friends and connections. Or realize that what lies behind portends what is ahead. The continued shuffling through more of humanity, the lives we touch and are touched by. The writer’s mercenary safari for more material and character studies.
I’m of the school of thought that the past is past for a reason. That we grow and change and hopefully evolve beyond our initial capabilities. Looking back only serves to remind us of progress and of the many lessons we’ve learned on this journey, with its inevitable end. Perhaps all we can do is bow our heads in thanks to those who, for better and for worse, met us on the road.
I’m struggling with everything right now and when I’m struggling, I can get a little grumpy. I’m still working the microresolutions from the last couple of months, putting in time every day on the novel, and trying to make better choices despite the winter discontent creeping in. But occasionally, I need to poke a few vent holes and let the steam escape.
When I hear people be passionate about whatever they’re passionate about, I wonder what is wrong with me. Why don’t I have fiery rhetoric? Why is everything I say automatically followed by brakes (is this right? is this necessary? is this helpful?). I used to admire people who lacked self-consciousness, who burst forth with whatever emotion they had on the tips of their tongues. It seemed like fearlessness. But that has all changed.
Now that blurting has become a socially acceptable, nay encouraged, form of communication, it’s just irritating – from a President with Twitter diarrhea and an incomprehensible syntax, to the digital lynch mob of ideological purity, intent on destroying people’s careers and lives, choosing the “difference without distinction” approach to all offenses, no matter how minor or grievous.
Is it irony to wonder on a blog, if people talk too much and listen too little?
I just read about Life Time Fitness choosing not to show cable news channels in its gyms saying that cable news was not conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Amen. Immediately people were crying censorship and that the gym was interfering with their time management. Ohforchrissake. News reports stream out of every technological orifice in our society. In waiting rooms, restaurants, on our computers, our phones, even at the gas pump. Take a breather, do your workout, the world will still be turning out shitty sound bites after you walk out the door.
Holiday cards have become postcard versions of Facebook – a collage of pictures of all the prettiest moments during the year. We get more of these each year, replacing cards that have actual handwritten notes. Just text us with a link next year, so that we can continue to know as little about you as possible, except for your dental work and where you vacationed. I’m thinking about taking pictures when our family has the flu, when our drains in the basement back up, and the last pile of cat barf I had to clean up. People will take us off their list right quick.
After I drink my kombucha-snail slime smoothie, do my Freezer Cold Yogilates, spend an hour saying inane positive things to myself in the mirror (I am a stable genius, I am a stable genius), buff my skin back to my seventeen year old self, organize my spice rack by geographical location of their fair trade markets, Feng Shui my house so that everything faces whichever direction cultural appropriation comes from, and strap on all the devices to monitor just how much of a lazy shit I will be today, I need a nap.
Sometimes when you’re bone tired of trying to improve yourself, don’t you just want to find a self-help guru and tell them to fuck right off?
We’ve had a few atypical days weather-wise here. Last night, I went walking in spring-like temps. I live in a suburb where a lot of streets do not have sidewalks and where the lighting is sparse. Having spent more of my life as a single woman than not, I think through worst-case scenarios. I pay attention to the shadows in the dark, remind myself of pressure points, jiu-jitsu moves, and make sure I know what direction I’d run in.
These days, I’m more concerned about being picked off by an errant driver than running into a criminal with perfect timing. I think getting hit by a car is one of the more ignominious ways to die. To prevent that, I dress up like a damned Christmas tree just to go on a walk. LED lights on a vest with option of blinking when I really want to look like a construction site.
Then last night happened. I passed a man walking his dog with bright blue lights flashing all over his doggy coat and a woman with a vest where two vertical lines of red lights cascaded up and down her front, like she was a human landing strip. Perhaps we’ve just created a more ridiculous way to be found dead.
So what do you do when the dark mood descends? I have a couple of different approaches. Eat until I fall into a carb-induced coma or workout in a manner that suggests I’m preparing for a death match. Today it’s a workout in the hopes that I can follow it up with some heavy duty writing. If you’re a moody person like me, I find it helps to write the dark scenes when I’m feeling grim, to use the emotions already floating about in my head. Afterwards, I feel spent, but marginally better.
Do you find yourself writing according to mood?
I just finished reading a collection of essays by a much-loved and well-respected novelist. And it just made me sigh. All writing is not equal. It’s a new thing, taking a disparate group of blog posts, slapping them together, and calling it a book. Rarely has this been done well.
The struggling writer could only wish for a day when they are so honored and revered as a writer, as a name, that someone would be happy to compile their scraps of writing, make a pretty book cover, and sell them to a large base of established fans, ready to eat them up. The reality seems to me, to be just a little sadder, like the honoring of a formerly beautiful building, just before it’s torn down.
So often these collections are a hodgepodge of journal entries, ordered in such a way that it is like binge-reading a blog. That seems like a fairly unedifying way to spend one’s time and it doesn’t get any better in hard copy. It is not just the ordering or grouping of blog posts that can be jarring in a book format, it is the quality and nature of the writing.
As I write more and more offline, I’m finding out something about myself as a writer. I don’t do the long game well. I write in short, disconnected spurts, even over the course of several hours. This is what blogging has trained me to do. And it’s not good for the purposes I intend.
It’s an indicator of what I’ve spent more time doing over the last five years. There are writers who write books who do not blog, or do so sparingly. Their writing skills are already strongly established. But if you’re coming at it the other way round, your struggles may just be beginning. Mine are.
Writing has changed so much over the last century. I think about the impact of cameras and televisions – the communal knowledge of images. No longer needed were the lengthy descriptions of a sycamore tree or satin dresses propped up by crinoline or Times Square. Scenery is not painted for the reader, but merely referenced. Everything is written in technological shorthand.
This is not to say that change is bad or that we should stay rooted in nostalgia, but it does speak to our attention span and how we process what we read. The trend towards more information and fewer curators, means that our writing is vying for attention in an increasingly scattered collective.
With the advent of social media, or writing in an endless array of formats, it’s a necessary thing to think about what kind of writer you wish to be. It is important in the sense that who you are is what you do and read. Or at least what you spend the majority of your time doing and reading.
Some would say, “Well, hell, I’ll do any kind of writing that makes me money, or gets me published.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the kind of honesty that keeps you from frittering your time away trying to be literary or artistic. To say that I want to produce good, solid work offline that has a few readers, doesn’t make me anymore highbrow or respectable, but it is a reminder about how I need to balance my time.
It’s been too easy for me to feel like I’m getting somewhere, when the kind of writing I’ve been doing is not what I intend. The kind of writing I do on a blog is not the same needed for a novel. I am learning this the hard way and the dissonance can, on occasion, be disheartening.
There are writers who switch easily between mediums and their blog compilations aren’t herky-jerky. I’ve read John Scalzi’s Whatever blog for many years and am amazed how quickly he can go from writing a novel, to blogging, to Tweeting and back again. But he has worked for years, established his credentials and skills, as well as having an understanding how to integrate all his platforms. Shit. I have to learn how to work on one scene without creating 25 subplots.
As I put more and more time in on fixing my train wreck of a novel (that’s some good publicity, isn’t it?), I have become more cognizant of what I am accustomed to doing versus what I need to do. There is, despite the struggle, a spark of happiness in my brain about this. It means I have so much more to learn and explore.
I’ve started late. I will not have a lifetime career in which I am honored and lauded because of a large body of work. The opportunity to be blog-compiled will likely never be presented to me, but I’m okay with that, because I have to believe that my best work is still ahead of me.
Are You Doing the Kind of Writing
You Intend to Do?
It was -7F/-22C, not including the wind chill factor yesterday. It took me half the day to convince myself to go for a walk. With the family home for a couple of weeks and driving made less desirable due to ice and subzero temps, I was feeling antsy.
You’d think, after living in Minnesota for the last 19 years, I’d have special cold gear. There would be outfits ritually unpacked each winter – thermal underwear, snow pants and jacket, accessories all matching in color.
Apparently when it comes to fashion, I like free-styling it. So I put on some compression shorts, long underwear pants, sweatpants, two pairs of socks, a long sleeve shirt, a short sleeve shirt, a hooded sweatshirt, a fleece-lined raincoat (to break the wind), mismatched hat and gloves and scarf. I slathered on some lotion and lip balm to cut down on the wind burn.
The first leg of my usual 3.5 mile walk headed west, straight into the wind. I felt the chill down to my bones. I kept having a conversation with myself. You can always go back if it’s too much. I wonder just how stupid I am being. My cheeks are always the first to feel the burn. I pull up my scarf, already covered with the crystals of my exhalations.
My tracks from two days ago are still the only ones on this stretch, crisscrossed by rabbit and squirrel tracks. I found myself stepping the same way, habitual and careful. Slipping in these temps can have a deadly outcome. It brings an element of meditation – each step is the only step you have to worry about.
A large flock of mallards flies overhead. Their conversation fades and I’m left with the sound of snow crunching beneath my hikers. Human beings are scarce and when I pass them, they are assessed quickly.
The dog people are easiest – hastily dressed people shivering, bouncing on their feet as their dog sniffs and putters. At any other time of the year, this would be a relaxing jaunt for them and to the dog, it still is.
I pass an older man. He is carrying a plastic drugstore bag and not dressed for the weather – in lightweight khakis and stiff leather dress shoes. I smile and say “hi”, but he keeps his head down. All I can think is that his legs must burn now, if they have any feeling left at all.
I pass by the empty outdoor skating rinks, the school lot where one vehicle sits, music thumping, exhaust sending up smoke signals. It’s an odd place to make out or sell drugs or do surveillance. More likely, and less of interest, they’re lost. Streets here are often interrupted by cul-de-sacs and sports fields only to be continued on the other side.
I’m in the last half mile of my walk. While I’m surprisingly warm everywhere else, my cheeks no longer have feeling and I know it’s time to get inside.
I pass by the church where I was married. It’s why I still have my maiden name. I am not a believer, but my husband is, so I said yes we can marry in a church, but…Occasionally he makes a pointed comment and I just shrug. I like my last name better than his.
A woman comes toward me carrying a cloth bag and a backpack, glasses iced up from the cold.
“Excuse me, but is there any place close, like a business, where I can get warm?”
She is in her twenties and has a Slavic accent. She was meeting some friends at the church and she got dropped off early, but the church was locked. She’d been out there for nearly an hour and sounded desperate.
I offered to walk her in the direction of a grocery store I knew a shortcut to, but it was still a six-block hike. I looked at her boots – fashion boots that I so often see women in Northern climates wearing and cannot comprehend. Thin black leather boots with a heel and no tread at all on the bottom.
She smiled uncertainly. I can be helpful when I’m in the mood and I felt rather sorry for her. So we began walking to the grocery store. I asked where she was from.
“Moscow. And it’s not as cold there as it is here!”
“Да, это очень холодно.”
I was delighted to practice a bit of Russian with her. She was an exchange student in a program in South Dakota, learning English to be a translator and visiting friends in the Twin Cities. We had a nice conversation, but I could tell she was concerned when I started to lead her across a wide field.
We finally reached the bottom of a small hill and I pointed her in the direction of the store. She smiled and thanked me profusely, likely out of relief that I was neither going to rob her nor try to bring her home to my serial predator boyfriend. I smiled the rest of the way home thinking up all the bizarre options that could result from following a stranger.
I woke up this morning uncharacteristically optimistic.
Over the last week, I’d been feeling some anxiety, noticing how much my body and face were aging. Thinking about how quickly time is passing by. Surprise heartburn two nights ago had me looking up heart attack symptoms in women on my phone in the middle of the night. My daughter just got her notification for high school open house and several relatives are in the last stretch of their lives. Time and mortality and fear were weighing on me heavily.
The unexpected encounter on my walk reminded me about what a fantastic world I live in. That I could be out on this routine walk in my little suburb and run into a Muscovite, have a conversation in Russian, and then be on my way home. Unexpected and surprising, which is what life really is, if you’re paying attention.
Wishing you a Year Full of Little Surprises & Big Meaning!
I’ve never been someone at a loss for things to write about, but sometimes I wonder at my ability to overthink things. That’s a lie. I don’t believe there is such a thing as overthinking – at least not in a climate where people are egged on to abandon their own thoughts in favor of memes and outrage.
This morning I was reading a collection of essays by Ursula K. Le Guin called No Time to Spare: Thinking about What Matters. It made me think about details. One of the essays was called “Chosen by a Cat”. It was a rather long essay about her cat. At first, I felt an edge of disinterest telling me to move on. But I stuck with it and the more I read, the more compelled I was to finish. Why would an essay about a cat be compelling?
I have cats. One would think I’d have an innate interest, but my cats require a lot of time and care and attention. I’d rather not give my time over to the cat that is not mine to truck to the vet and not one whose random effluvia I encounter on a regular basis. Much like I didn’t want to hear about other babies while mine was keeping me awake all night long. Still, phrasing and details and perspective can make the most dull, inane subject seem interesting.
This post is a bit of a writing practice. Take something ordinary and write about it. Free associate. Meditate. See what comes to you.
Food with a View
Since I am up at 4am, breakfast is a solo affair. Lately, I’ve come to enjoy the slow process of slicing up onions, mushrooms and tomatoes. I toss them in a pan with an egg and some spinach. I eat with leisure, pouring over The Economist or reading essays as the coffee maker burbles out its magic elixir.
When I was young and fantasized about what I’d do and be, I thought I’d be a journalist, traveling the world, taking on lovers here and there, and being an entity unto myself. The snapshot in my mind of this amazing life was me, drinking coffee, reading a newspaper on a balcony with an ocean view.
Here I am, a married suburbanite parent. I love my life and my family. But a little part of me still longs for that sense of possibility and luxury. Making myself a fresh breakfast, reading the news, sitting in my quiet kitchen, my latest lover (of 18 years) dozing a couple of rooms away, a child I never imagined. I’m pretty sure I hear the ocean.
They Grow Them in Cans, Don’t They?
My favorite thing about slicing mushrooms is that they look like what mushrooms have always looked like in pictures. The knife slices easily through them like butter. I throw what looks like a half pound of mushrooms in the pan, but the heat makes them sweat away their size and color until they little resemble how they started.
Until my late 30s, I’d never eaten a mushroom except out of a can. I remember watching an episode of Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” in which elementary students could not identify common vegetables. But growing up poor can be like that. You get cans from emergency food shelters. Cans are often cheap and on sale in large quantities, and they last a long time.
Mushrooms that weren’t a greenish gray seemed foreign to me. I made no connection from them to the pictures, either in storybooks or cooking shows of white, perfectly sliced plant food. I’d never seen or eaten a kiwi, either. Economics and education and accessibility – these change one’s menu and palate.
Alice in Wonderland Shrooms
Once I was at a music festival in Canada. There was a small caravan of the Canadian versions of Cheech and Chong next to our campsite. Like a movie caricature, every time they opened their door, pot smoke would come pouring out. A Canadian being high is an odd thing – how do you get more mellow than mellow?
Several people were eating “magic” mushrooms. They were seeing things and were subsequently paranoid and lost. They stumbled about campsites, disoriented and babbling. I’d never even known that was a thing. With my midwest upbringing (before the advent of rural meth labs and the current opioid crisis), booze and pot were the drugs of choice.
By that time in my life, I’d become a teetotaler. With a family history of alcoholism and a bad reaction the last time I’d smoked pot, I was completely sober amidst a crowd of drum-beating, mushroom-eating stoned drunks. It’s an odd experience, like walking through a circus. Your normal no longer seems normal and you become the oddity.
Sometimes I ride myself about all the navel gazing and self-reflection that I do when writing. The thing is, once you realize the details of your own life – the complexity, the stories within stories, the layers of history and habit, you see others differently. We’re in an age that chooses to gloss over individual details, to caustically lump each other into easy categories. To imagine one person’s life and all the details that make them who they are, we have to look past politics and geography and gender and economics. Details make the story and everyone has their own.