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.
Today’s post comes to you courtesy of a rather truculent mood. Editing will have me sanding down the sharp corners, vaguing up the specifics, and trying to eke out some sort of lesson from it.
A cumulative song is one that starts out with a simple verse and then each verse is longer than the verse before. A classic example of this is “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” that begins with There was an old lady who swallowed a fly; I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – perhaps she’ll die! The song builds progressively until the final, much longer verse:
There was an old lady who swallowed a cow;
I don’t know how she swallowed a cow!
- She swallowed the cow to catch the goat,
- She swallowed the goat to catch the dog,
- She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
- She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
- She swallowed the bird to catch the spider;
- That wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her!
- She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
- I don’t know why she swallowed a fly – Perhaps she’ll die!
There was an old lady who swallowed a horse;
…She died, of course
I enjoyed the macabre ending, because that might actually be the lesson. Really, though, I see it as a metaphor for my life at the moment. After aimlessly meandering through decades of life, I became determined a few years ago to be more deliberate in how I spend my time. This isn’t to say I intended on spending every minute of every day in bliss. It meant that I would make deliberate choices about how I spend my non-household/chore/to-do list/obligation time. I can usually manage this for about a year or so and then something happens. I swallow a fly.
Cut to a year later and I’m a seething ball of resentment who seems to find less joy as each day goes by. What happens? I learned the phrase scope creep from my husband, a computer programmer who has, in the course of his career, worked on corporate projects in an ever-changing environment where there are too many meetings, too many bosses, and too many shiny objects to distract people. The simplest project can be turned into 45 PowerPoints on various aspects requiring more people, resources, and unending bagel-laden confabs (he just told me that they don’t eat bagels anymore – it’s mini-cupcakes). And accountability nowhere to be found.
In my life as an underemployed writer/feckless homemaker, there is no distribution email list to spread the blame. I am the cc and the bcc. If my life becomes an unwieldy mess, I have to put myself on probation. When I suddenly find that my intention to become a better writer is getting sidelined by activities only tangentially related or when my intention to contribute to my community is suddenly me on a committee talking about catering menus, that’s scope creep. My intentions are in sight, but a mile or two back.
It happens slowly. I’m a relatively competent person and a problem-solver. My knee-jerk reaction to any situation is to jump in and try to add value. My jerk reaction is to write a resentful post about it later.
So I’ve hit that magical resentment point where I have to pull back, retract the tentacles, pull the fingers out of one too many pies. While I still make the mistake of saying yes, I can do it, I’m getting much faster at saying, in the words of a friend’s son, ALL DONE NOW.
This year, I’m kicking off the age that the average American woman goes through menopause by rewriting my mission statement (this broad really nows how to throw a party). Mission statements are now part of the corporate self-actualization process along with vision boards and copious amounts of organizers and Post-it Notes. Still, some of these things are useful. If you can’t enunciate why you’re here or what has meaning to you, how do you ensure that you’re spending your time in meaningful ways? Like writing an incoherent sentence that demonstrates the difference between you’re and your.
Eliminating scope creep is a challenge. It means taking back a yes or twenty from other people or projects and giving those yeses to yourself, your projects, your time. And if it sounds a bit self-involved, it’s a damned sight better than putting the things that matter to you aside, and resentfully doing everything else. Nobody wants that person at their meeting.
In the cool mornings preceding the sunny dog days of August, I can sense a hint of autumn. This spurs me to give the house a good once over before school starts, before I find myself with hours of solitude for writing once again. Sometimes the mind needs a good clearing out as well. My brain is a jumble sale and this blog post represents a little pre-fall cleaning.
Gratitude is always a good start. I have a lot to feel grateful for from this summer. The large tumor discovered in my daughter was benign and despite the frightening time in the hospital, she has recovered enough to scare me with driver’s training. Friends and family came out of the woodwork to be supportive and kind as our family went through this.
I am grateful to the friends who went on walks with me, exchanged emails, sent cards and in general, knew how to be comforting without being irritating. I am grateful to my writing group who kept me in the loop, even as I was frequently absent. I am grateful to my friends in the League of Women Voters who took up the slack of my volunteer activities when I couldn’t follow through. I am grateful to my friend and Army buddy who makes me regularly laugh during our Skype calls. I am grateful to my friend and life coach who offered to be there in any capacity, even as I had trouble processing coherent thoughts.
And thank you to the readers here, who offered kind words and empathy. And stuck around to read my messy, emotional posts.
The garden took a hit this year, but nature did its thing and the few moments I was actually at home, I enjoyed seeing the bees and butterflies flit through. A writing friend of mine attended a climate change leadership conference and asked to write about my bee-friendly yard. You can read that here. I had a mind-boggling conversation with my neighbor who acknowledged that lawn chemicals were not a good thing – while standing on his treated lawn. There is a serious amount of cognitive dissonance between our habits and the changes we need to make to ameliorate the damage we’ve done.
My writing is beginning to ramp up to a period of productivity. Call it the autumn effect or the going-back-to-school effect. I’ve been experimenting with a few writing practices, as well as regularly submitting work. I picked up one of the practices from Benjamin Dreyer, author of Dreyer’s English. He suggested copying passages from great writers, or writers you admired. I was curious about this and when Toni Morrision died earlier this month, I pulled out my copy of Beloved. This is one of the novels that made me want to be a novelist. It’s the kind of book where you have to sit for an hour after reading the final page. It felt like a spell had been cast on me and it took awhile to shake it off.
I’ve begun copying a page a day and I see Mr. Dreyer’s point. The way we process language is much different when we write it, rather than when we read it. From the standpoint of writing, you start to feel the bones of the book when you write out each word, sounding it out in your head, acknowledging punctuation and phrasing. I’m finding it useful and improving my longhand writing while I’m at it.
I got rejected by a novel-writing group I applied to and I’ve decided to take it personally. Not really – just ran into some virulent genre writers. I write literary fiction which apparently is code for I write whatever the hell I want and is unappreciated by those who have staked a claim in sci-fi, romance, or mystery. Not to cast aspersions on those particular markets, but there is something easier about being able to say I’m this-kind-of-writer or that-kind-of-writer. You have lots of company. It must be comforting.
Rejection is my theme this year, but I’m glad of it. It means that I’m working at things, being more brave than I’ve been in the past, and pretty much living outside of my comfort zone. I’ve also applied to a writing mentorship program with slim odds. I’ve reached the point where being mentored instead of mentoring might be useful, at least in terms of getting through novel revisions and rewrites.
As I approach my eighth year of blogging, I think about the fact that it’s amazing we blog at all anymore. The instant pithiness that feeds some social media platforms has changed how we communicate, how we use the internet, and what we’ve come to accept in terms of context and nuance. I have a personal resistance to simplicity and am immediately suspicious of messages that are reductive.
It’s perhaps made me less vulnerable to worrying about stats and more concerned that what I write adds value. It’s added less value than I’d like, with so much self-referential writing and something I will be looking at moving forward. Of course, I think this same thought every year. And here I am. Still writing. Still blogging.
I spent the last couple of weekends on the shore of Lake Superior, taking advantage of dropping off and picking up the kid at camp to get mini-vacations in. We’re not having a vacation this year – too many medical appointments and catastrophes keeping us busy at home. So we take a night here or there, even splurging on a hotel room with a balcony view of the lake. It didn’t go as planned – these moments never do. The trick, I’ve discovered, is to find those moments in between all the disrupted plans.
As usual, I popped awake at 4 a.m. I made my coffee, grabbed a blanket, and went out onto the balcony. Orion was hanging low in the sky over Lake Superior and a full celestial buffet of stars stretched out beyond the harbor lights. On the ground, two floors below, there were rabbits. At one point, I counted about a dozen of them. It was an odd thing. The grass along the lake walk trail was stubbly and mowed short. But the rabbits seemed quite content to hop between patches of grass. A few even explored the rocks on the shore. Seeing an eastern cottontail standing on a large rock near the lake was sort of funny. I wonder what it thought of the expanse of water.
The night before, I sat, like a creepy spectator, watching people traverse the shore. Humanity observed. A gaggle of teenage girls gathered under a light and took turns taking pictures of each other. Boys clambered atop rocks while their friends took pictures and egged them on. Earlier in the day, a group of young women were snapping selfies at the end of the canal pier, leaning up and considering climbing up on the concrete wall to get a good shot. I hustled my family away, muttering I’m not diving in if one of these dumbasses falls off the pier.
I try to resist the old lady in me that simply can’t comprehend the picture-taking craze. From an anthropological standpoint, I suppose it’s the modern “Kilroy was here” – trying to establish our presence, our significance in a universe where we’re proportionally as important as specks of dust. People say it’s all about likes and views, but what are those, except attempts to feel like we matter in a world that is largely ignorant of our existence?
I’ve been reading Emily Esfahani Smith’s The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. The nihilist in me scoffs – well, no matter what we do, it doesn’t really matter, does it? But I’ve taken the author’s point that if we’re here, our lives only have the meaning with which we imbue them. This is the whole purpose of religion, social media, and storytelling – to have rudders in this tumultuous pond we call life. But if the stories we create about our lives, be it through words or pictures, take on more weight than curiosity about life beyond our personal selves, then we are living a life based on finding bandages for our insecurities.
As a person who sees the world in words and tends not to find meaning in visual representations, it’s hard not to judge someone who pops out their phone camera at the drop of a hat. But my curiosity demands that I work through my judgments, that I try to figure out why someone does something. There are times when the selfie-taking is disruptive (concerts) or dangerous (on the wall at the end of pier) or disrespectful (Auschwitz). Mostly though, it is uninteresting, poorly framed human distraction. An imitation of life.
But then, I’m a writer. What is writing but an imitation of life? What is it but a desire to feel relevant, find meaning, craft my own story? What is the difference between this essay and a selfie? Not much, except in this essay, I’m much younger and thinner.
At the height of the late 80s and early 90s dudebro corporate culture, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was its epitome. Self-assured and self-congratulatory people were scooping up planners, taking management seminars, and aggressively putting up workplace posters. I was too busy finishing an Army tour and limping through college to be much concerned with organizational effectiveness, even as I waded through bureaucratic inefficiencies on a daily basis. I was born a woman into a poor working class family, so suit ties and fraternal backslapping and BMWs seemed a tad repulsive and Stephen Covey got tossed under the very same bus.
Nearly 30 years later, I meet a woman in the course of my writing life. She’s energetic, intent on learning, a good listener, and positive about her life and interactions. My first reaction was irritation. My second was envy. My third – curiosity. What motivates her? How does she operate from such a place of positivity? How does she make others feel welcome and heard? I knew that it was a far distance from where I was currently residing. One of her secrets? That old manual of hair gel, firm handshakes, and relentless optimism – the porn of personal success, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
I have a particularly bad habit of aggressively rejecting ideas until they seep into my self-consciousness, roll around in my head like a tennis ball, bouncing off this idea and that. A few days, months, or years later, I think hmm, I might try that. It drives my husband nuts. He makes a helpful suggestion, I stomp on it, and then six months later I do it and exclaim “I can’t believe I didn’t do that sooner!” It really takes the wind out of his I told you so, because enough time has passed that I’m convinced it was originally my idea. Yeah, still married (shaking my head with disbelief).
It’s been a few years since I recognized that I do this and I’m starting to think I need to work on it. The learning curve in my brain is barely perceptible as a curve because it stretches out over years. Now that I’ve tripped into my 50s, I think I might need to speed up the process a bit. This is aided by the one habit that will, I hope, eventually save my bacon. I’m always learning and I actively pursue wisdom.
This morning I took the 7 Habits Personal Effectiveness Quotient Assessment. I was as honest as I could be, which is brutally, occasionally unfairly, honest. It’s all in the perception and my self-perception is not kind. Needless to say, I can show up on time, but I couldn’t get anyone else to show up with me. And I’m not being particularly effective in pursuing success as a whole. Maybe I need to finish reading that book.
I just finished reading Daniel Goleman’s Focus: The Hidden Drive of Excellence. It started out well for me, but took a turn into the corporate world that had me reading at light speed, just so I could get to the author’s conclusions. I walked away with a handful of interesting concepts that will likely show up in my life a few years down the road.
This self-improvement bender I’m on is par for my life. I was feeling pretty self-satisfied until life events knocked me for a loop. In order to re-engage, find my way back to the path, I start to research for inspiration. It might be a person, a book, a random thought from four years ago. I do think that slowly, awkwardly, I’m getting wiser, but I’m beginning to realize that the goal is not where it’s at. My joy is in the process. Being there. The process is where we spend most of our time. If it can’t be joyful, we’re dooming ourselves to all the struggle and few of the benefits.
It’s odd to realize my joy comes in recognizing how little I know, how much more there is to learn, and that there is no being done. For years, I viewed this propensity for self-improvement as a result of never feeling like I was enough. Sometimes those early messages embed themselves inside our psyche and we, like moths to the light, spend our lives trying to get close to that warm feeling of perfection, no matter how damaging or dangerous.
After reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, I’ve been thinking a lot about how small I’ve been living. In a heated discussion with my teenager, she said “You’re such a rule follower!” It stung and then I had to think about why that would bother me. We’re often torn between who we are and who we think we should be. The failure to embrace who we are, the struggle to resist it, the efforts we make to counter it – it’s exhausting and sometimes destructive.
There is a point, though, when you say okay, this is who I am, how do I make it work in my favor? What’s the upside? I would tell my little teenage rebel that mama doesn’t need bail money, for starters. It’s a quick turn of the kaleidoscope or, as Stephen Covey would say, a paradigm shift. He says paradigm a lot. It’s a pretty cool, intellectual word, especially if you pronounce it with a silent ‘g’ – and don’t just read it on the page and then drop paradiggem into a conversation. Let’s hear it for the heavy readers out there, hey-o.
I have a rather large stack of books about the meaning of life, how not to suck at life, and why my life could be so much better. This is, I’ve finally realized, my happy place – feeling so down and out that I hit the books in search of inspiration. Even a book that uses the word “synergy”. If the author uses synergistic, though, I’m out.
She persevered. There it is, the epitaph for my gravestone. One would think the outcome would be pure, unmitigated success for all the trying I do. All the workouts, reading, goal-setting, and writing I’ve done in my lifetime would suggest a svelte, erudite, accomplished human being instead of this awkward lump just trying to get through the day without tripping over herself. It turns out, the only way I see positive outcomes is by redefining for myself what success actually means.
The last month and a half, I got steamrolled by a family medical crisis. Before that hit, I’d been training for a 5K, improving my nutrition, writing up a storm, and feeling pretty good about the direction my life was taking. I was able to see some progress and was learning to focus better. Then life happened and training runs became sitting vigil in a hospital. Writing became short missives in dealing with my fear and anxiety. Good nutrition became whatever showed up in gift baskets. Sleep was 15 minutes in a chair or on a polyvinyl couch, manipulating airline pillows so my neck wouldn’t hurt.
The primal fears never came to pass – this time, we beat the odds. Our bags are unpacked and we are home as if nothing ever happened. Life is normal again.
Two days after we got home, I started training runs and counting calories. My heart wasn’t in it. I wrote a few blog posts, opened my novel on the computer 246 times and closed it again. I still wasn’t sleeping well. I stopped running, I stopped tracking, I stopped writing. It was hard to care. I felt defeated, because it felt like all the work I’d been doing had been for nothing – I was starting over again.
A naturally sunny person would revel in a good medical outcome and having the opportunity to start over again. But I am more a dark-side-of-the-moon person. It takes a lot of effort to move into the light and to embrace positive habits. Worthiness is not second nature. It requires a lot of self-talk and a one step at a time approach, which is exhausting and infuriating for someone who lacks patience. This is all to say, that it’s hard (and yes, hear that with the requisite tone of whining).
The formula for starting over or starting anything is always the same: do one thing. And then do it again. Once the one thing is habitual, add another thing. Give it a little time. Review, adjust the things you do if some habits are working better than others. Re-jigger habits until you’ve ironed out the bumps. Do the next thing. So simple. So incredibly difficult.
The first step for working out for me is always showing up. Arrange to meet a friend for a walk. Go through the doors at the gym. Decide to stretch for ten minutes on the living room floor. Do the thing. I did the thing. I went to the YMCA, got on a treadmill, left 20 minutes later angry at the world. It was a terrible run. I felt awful. Everything hurt. I felt I’d lost so much ground just in the course of a month. So I went home, binge watched a terrible TV show while eating my body weight in ice cream.
The next day, I met a friend for a walk. I could hear myself blathering on and had an out-of-body experience of wanting to tell myself to shut up. It was our usual patter, but I wasn’t in it and was happy when it was over. Normal felt awkward.
The following day, I showed up at the gym again, arriving out of sorts and planning on feeling like absolute shit again. I galumped my way onto an elliptical for warm up and begrudgingly shuffled over to a treadmill for an interval run. As planned, it felt awful. But not as awful as before.
Rinse and repeat.
The encouraging bit of this tale would be to announce that I’ve just come in first place in a 5K. But that would be a lie. I’m not sure I could even finish a 5K at this point. I’m begrudgingly heading to the gym this morning with apprehension and no small degree of grumpiness. But I’m doing it. I have a high tolerance for doing things, even when grumpy. A nicer spin would be to call this resilience.
Eventually, I know it will be better. But part of me feels the foreboding sense that life will force me to start over again. And I’d be right, because that is the nature of being human. Something will always happen and knowing that, I know the skill of being able to start over is indispensable and necessary. Perseverance is the gift.
I have to remember that gift when I lift weights and feel like a weakling or when I write and seem incomprehensible or when I’m trying to be kinder and call someone a dipwad while driving or when I count calories only to discover I could have fueled a small factory with what I ate. Sometimes success can’t be outcomes. Sometimes it just has to be in the trying and the doing. Dragging oneself, kicking and resentful, into the light is sometimes the best we can do.