A Mind of One’s Own, Minimal Square Footage Required

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I’ve been riding along the last couple of weeks as if someone else were at the wheel. I stare out the window as the landscape speeds by, lost in thought, lost in ideas, but not really lost at all. It’s the kind of drifting that loosens the nerves, unclenches the fists, allows the mind to be frivolous or deep, shifting from moment to moment.

Books are in stacks about the study. I’ve meandered from one to the next, from Virginia Woolf’s loosely compiled speeches in A Room of One’s Own to Tim O’Brien’s exhausting Tomcat in Love (it’s hard work wanting to like a book and being quite unable to). Frigid temperatures kept me pacing relentlessly, doing housework, muttering to myself and occasionally putting on 45 layers to venture outdoors, until I fog-freeze my glasses and stumble back inside.

This is what it always is – the malaise of being at the halfway point of a six month Minnesota winter. Seed catalogs have started arriving. My blog reader piles up as relentlessly as the gardening chore list. I cannot keep up. It would require that I shove my fuzzy, drifting thoughts back into a box and bring a level of focus and commitment to the moment.

My mind drifts to friends, on and offline. I think of Ruth, fighting to manage and beat back her cancer and of Sandy, pondering the idea of home. I think of Kiri fending off anxiety each time she looks for a home to buy and of Bill, unraveling after years of employment. And there’s Amy and Jen, dealing with the challenge of jobs that shift and change from day-to-day. I think of my grandmother, whose faithful canine companion went to sleep on Monday and never woke up. I think of my husband, who just moved offices for the zillionth time, new cube, new building, same relentless job. And of my daughter who is home with the flu. Again.

They’re all in my constant peripheral vision. But at this moment, life stands still. I pretend I’m isolated and that John Donne was wrong. I’m an island – staying quiet, introspective, self-reliant. I’m composting, letting thoughts and ideas sink in until something meaningful emerges and I have the energy and optimism to share again. With about 15 minutes of decent sunshine, humidifiers sputtering and tons of mental manure to shovel through, it takes longer for something worthwhile to grow.

canstockphoto22778900Overhearing my husband, on the phone with a cousin talking about family history, prompts me to Google my relatives. I read news clippings about the murder of my maternal grandfather, a man I met once in 1974. He gave me molasses cookies from Alaska and a 1950s children’s book about an agreement between the Alaskan Eskimos and the Laplanders called Reindeer Trail. It takes me a few more family name searches to remember I’ve done it all before, this grasping for roots, for connection. They’re all stories to me, not memories.

It’s an aimless sort of thrashing about, trying to shake off stagnation, to raise a hint of a ghost of a whisper of motivation. Phhhtt. Writing becomes an aimless exercise in creating things that I edit until I hate them. I begin to mock writing advice in my head, ending each conversation with an erudite just shut it!

I forccanstockphoto12183645ed the study window open, slivers of ice falling from around the frame. The sun gives the illusion of warmth, but the air is sharp. I can hear cardinals singing, sighting a flit of brilliant red before the glass fogs over. I stand a moment longer, breathing icy air, before closing the window and sealing myself in again.

A little music for the rambling mind:

32 Comments on “A Mind of One’s Own, Minimal Square Footage Required

  1. It’s been bloody freezing here too, as in -27 celsius with the windchill. Makes me want to stay in bed and on the odd day I do. My cats love it, of course.

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    • I get very restless if I can’t be outside, but we have a stint of warmer weather over the next week, so I look forward to getting out more. I do not love my cats at this point, who are vocal, needy toddlers as well as constant hurdles anytime I walk anywhere.

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      • One of mine has become extremely vocal lately, especially in the middle of the night. Grrrrr …

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        • Pete the Tomcat likes to start making noise around 3am. We have a routine. He yowls, I threaten to turn him into a hat and he curls up at the end of the bed and gives me another hour or two of sleep before I accidentally kick him off and he begins his breakfast complaining.

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        • Sounds like Sundance only we go through the routine 2 or 3 times and I threaten to turn him into a quarter pounder with cheese.

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  2. I think you’re in a pre-creative period. Gonna be some good stuff that comes out of this. In the meantime, think about writing about your investigation of your grandfather’s murder. I want to read that story!!!

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    • Actually that’s quite an awful story and sometimes I feel voyeuristic if I reference it, since I didn’t really know him. I’ve seen everything from the autopsy reports to the court transcripts of the man who was convicted for killing my grandfather and two other people. Like most deaths, it seems tragic and mundane all at once.
      I think you’re right about being in a “stewing phase” for creativity. Nothing like feeding the mind and letting the imagination ramble to form ideas.

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  3. After a cruise in the tropics, I stepped onto the light-rail platform at the airport and into my first blast of refreshing Minnesota well below zero air. “Oh,” I thought, “now there is something to write about.”

    I find nothing wakes up my muse better than changing environments, either leaving or returning home. The problem with Minnesota winters though, is you rarely want to leave, except to go someplace warm. Sticking around the house bores my muse so much that she rarely comes around.

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    • I think that’s one of the reasons I cannot go to warmer places during the winter – I’d never be able to make myself go back.

      Changing environments is a great way to shift perspective, but I was thinking how important lethargy and boredom are for one’s creative life. I liken it to allowing my child to get bored. If she’s constantly entertained and in motion, she would never invent or imagine or just rest her mind. It’s a positive spin, I suppose. All I know is that if there were no books, I’d likely sacrifice myself to hypothermia than stay one more moment indoors.

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  4. Two movies, both on Netflix, neither even a blip in pop culture, but both oh so very worth watching on days like these. Bottle Shock and Big Night. I’ll give no plot nor name drop. Just watch them.

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  5. I bought a collection of Flannery O’Connor stories (everything she’s written) when I was in Portland recently. “A Good Man” is such a beautiful, awful story – the kind of story I want to write. The music clip you shared reminds me of John Hammond, Jr – have you heard him? He did a record with Tom Waits, of all Tom Waits songs, that’s one of my favorites. They got together planning to collaborate and just started playing Waits’s songs, and that became the album.

    You sound well: I mean through your writing, because that’s who you are, intertwined right? I was really brought along with this, not just because you gave me a shout-out (thank you for that) but by the very first paragraph. Good imagery of opening the window for some fresh air, and then sealing yourself inside again. I’m going to confront our garage shortly and all the pent-up demons and spirits out there. Love to you and yours (especially your husband). – Bill

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    • “Beautiful, awful” is very apt. I admire the skill to finely tune a story to painful dissonance. And Bill, there’s no doubt in my mind that you are capable of that kind of writing.

      The clip is of Greg Brown, a folk singer from Iowa who created Red House Records, an indie label. I haven’t seen him live, but his music feels like a drive through the Midwest. I’m having a lot of synchronous moments today – like the comments above, reading a book by an author who is reviewing Luanne’s memoir. I’m working on planning another road trip vacation for the summer and on the list is the Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis. This year Charlie Musselwhite, James Cotton and John Hammond are performing together! Still waiting to see what the exact dates are.

      I am feeling well or at the very least, somewhat replenished. Good books, good music and not giving a shit about too much at the moment is a cure-all. Sometimes giving the garage a good clearing out serves as the perfect metaphor for shaking off mental cobwebs. Thanks for the good wishes, Bill and yes, I’m sure you can relate to life on the cube farm. My husband has a remarkable level of patience and even temper when it comes to corporate shenanigans.

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      • Greg Brown, right. Nice piece. Drive through the midwest, good. Synchronous too. My hair stylist would smile at that. Well wishes, hither and thither.

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  6. Beautiful. I find myself almost resenting this year’s abnormally mild winter… I love a REAL freeze and snow and everything being shut down, until I have to go outside and shovel the damn stuff, and twist my ankles on frozen droppings while carrying hay through the corral, and smashing the ice at the top of the watering trough when the water heaters die. On second thoughts … not resenting at all. Although NEXT winter I’ll be ready for a proper one!

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    • I rely on a killing cold to take out garden pests and noxious weeds – a great way to clear the slate for spring gardening. On the other hand, temps that close schools, stall cars and freeze nose hairs are not so enjoyable. I’m sure winter in suburbia is a little different than rural winter! A little more survivalist mentality is required.

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  7. Hi there. You have a lovely blog! I just quit my job (in my forties, too) to become a full-time writer. Unpaid, of course. Still blurting out things like “stay at home mom” when asked what I do for a living, still spending the better part of the morning worrying about stuff like “career”. Sigh. The Southern California winter is wildly different, of course–and your post transported me to some long-gone east coast ones. Thanks!!

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    • Thank you, Penelope! I’ve finally gotten past answering “middle age suburban housewife” with a smirk and an attitude that dares anyone to say anything back to me. Nothing like a little defensiveness to shorten unwanted conversation. I am finally learning to be less defensive about the question “are you published?” We have to start somewhere – writers aren’t born published!

      I waffle back and forth about being unemployed, but this mindset of a linear career never really worked for me. I appreciate this time and opportunity for what it is – a chance to see what works as writer and what doesn’t. It’s also better for our family life – much less chaotic and rushed.

      While I complain about the weather (I think it’s mandated by the state), I do love distinctive seasons and cooler temperatures here in the Midwest. These winters can be a tad long, though. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  8. Winter is long and hard and cold. But I look out and see the sun and it’s gorgeous today. I need to be in it to snap the funk that I think you feel. Strap on some skies and slide through the woods. The only way to fight winter is to embrace it.

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    • I am embracing it. Much like I like to embrace humans. From a distance. With a gesture or two.

      Now that the -35F wind chills have temporarily gone off to bother someone else, I’ll likely get some outdoor time. It is supposed to be 36F/2C on Saturday. Make up your mind, winter.

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  9. I think restless meandering is highly underrated. When would you notice that cardinal otherwise? Yeah, it’s uncomfortable for notorious overachievers (I’m not naming names), but *composting* is the spot-on word for it. Fermenting. Steeping.
    Trust it, girlfriend.

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    • I agree with you. I think of the need for the body to sleep in order to integrate information gained during the day, but also the creative mind’s need to assimilate and allow the drifting of ideas to coalesce. Of course, the moment I wrote this post, that time disappeared in the face of a very sick kid who is now finally recovering. Life. It just keeps interrupting…

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  10. Drifting inside is good, when you can write like this about it. Quite brilliant. Something is cooking…but I hope you’ll get more outdoor time over the weekend. It’ll add spice to the stew.

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    • I was looking forward to a brief respite outdoors, but a sick child took priority. Today, though, a hike and fresh air and a change of venue should give me a boost. The stew might need a little longer on the stove, though!

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  11. You read my mind, in a frozen slump. I’m blaming it on the post dramatic soltstice disorder (aka the holidays, no offense to the real PTSD). The adrenaline has worn off and winter is in full swing. Listless and wittless. Your writing is sharp for someone who is feeling dull. Thanks for the wake up call!

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    • I think I write a similar post at this time every year! I do think the rush of the holidays does contribute to the drop in mental acuity, but I know the weather and being trapped inside with other humans has an overwhelming affect on me. Thanks for the kind words on the writing.

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  12. Ahh – I see I am not the only one. I hope that you are correct — there is composting going on. I have been reading May Sarton’s journals this winter and I see her cycles, so similar to mine, and recognize her frustration. The trick is to let it be, I guess. Thanks for helping me do that. I will go out for a walk.

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    • I’ve been thinking a lot about cycles and patterns. They govern so much of our lives, why not our creative lives as well? Writers seem to be constantly agonizing over fallow periods and I’m beginning to realize that I need them. I will likely never be a write-every-day kind of person. Whether or not that will make me less productive, I don’t know, but I’m trying to be less resistant to the inactive time. That being said, habits are also hard to break, so those fallow periods need some limitations. I’m pushing myself out of it a bit today. Maybe a week or a few days at a time is enough. It’s an exploratory journey at this point.
      And walking does wonders for shaking things loose.

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