2022: Better on Paper

Neon pink and green computer upload bar going from 2022 to 2023.

Much like my personality, 2022 looked a lot better on paper than in reality. It turns out that in 2022 I became the repeater of tales. Oh, did I already tell you that story? Three times? I’ve started doing this chuckle that makes me cringe, but seems reflexive and unstoppable. I now officially have a belly, which makes it feel uncomfortably like someone is sitting in my lap every time I sit down. Not prone to being slender, I was always going to end up here, belly chuckling while I tell the same story I just told five minutes ago. This is not to say I’m not making a game effort of caring about my health, my conversational abilities, or whether or not I chortle myself into a heart attack. But I can’t say I’m caring caring. It’s been a rough year or five.

It’s human nature around this time of year to assess where you’ve been or where you’re going. I had to pull out my planner to see what the hell I did with 2022. Apparently, I took a lot of people to doctor appointments. I taught some workshops. Showed up regularly for a writing group. Continued with my grad school courses. I wrote a lot, but it didn’t feel like much. I worked out, which felt like a lot but didn’t look like much. I volunteered, mostly because it gave me a license to complain about the state of the world. No one could answer my griping with “if you don’t like it, do something about it.” Well dammit, I did. Problems solved, right?

A red and black clock winding around itself.

We’re constantly exhorted to be present. Now I’m so present, that last year and the next are not real to me. I don’t feel the urge to meticulously plan at the moment. Perhaps, too, I’m firmly in my winter of discontent and not strolling on the sunny side of the street. My ambition needs a lot of vitamin D. But I’m not all self-denigration and snarky-ness. I have a lot that I’m grateful for at this moment. My daughter, a year after stopping chemo, is thriving and preparing to move out into the world. My mother moved from out-of-state and for the first time in 40 years, we live close to each other. I’m feeling the “circle of life” thing acutely these days.

There’s been some grappling with semantics in my head when it comes to the way forward. Goal is such a mismanaged word. Resolution sounds like passing legislation. I’ve settled on intention over the last couple of years. It feels very Gen X of me to use such a squishy, noncommittal word. Goals: Whatever. Resolution: Never set goals again. My intention has crystallized into: Spend my time and energy in ways that support my values. It feels more like a foundation that informs everything above it.

I’m not fond of bumper sticker philosophies and feel unadulterated shame when I utter them aloud. Be present. Breathe. I’m basically reciting the secrets on how not to die. Next: put one foot in front of the other. There is, however, something about having a quick set of reminders or mantras to keep yourself on the path. In a world that wishes nothing more than to have your attention everywhere, all the time, staying on track has become pretty damned important. I’ve been thinking a lot about what my guiding principles need to be for this next year. I’m going to share them here so that friends and family alike can mock me next year.

Woodcut of woman writing at desk in front of laptop. Dragon is coming out of screen.

Do work that is meaningful to me. I started off with do meaningful work, but that is undefined and doesn’t stop me from getting co-opted into someone else’s idea of meaningful work. This isn’t a high-minded concept of altruism. It’s a reminder that I either a) need to make sure my time and energy is spent in ways that serve my values and b) I need to re-frame things that feel like chores in a way that underscores their importance to me. e.g. I want to clean the bathroom, because I value having a clean house versus I have to clean the bathroom. Meaningful work to me involves writing and supporting other writers, learning writing pedagogy and developing curriculum, and promoting writing workshops. My own writing means revision, revision, revision, and finding an agent for my novel. Some things have to fall off the list. My organization volunteerism is the first to take a hit. No more leadership roles that require meetings and administrative work. My role as a full-time parent is downshifting to on-call status. Meaningful, but no longer all-encompassing.

Dark blue heart filled with pictures of green veggies.

Eat well. This means something different to each person and is part of a bigger picture. For me, it means not eating after 6pm so I can sleep. Eating a home-cooked, nutrient-dense breakfast, because it’s my favorite meal. Beans and greens. Whole foods. Non-heartburn inducing foods. Gradually eliminating meat and caffeine from my regimen. Likely becoming a very farty person which will continue to support my destiny as a suburban hermit. Continuing to hone my skills as a gardener so that I don’t have 265 tomatoes, 45 onions, and 3 carrots (not good at the planning!). I like the phrase eat well because it speaks to a level of self-care I’ve not afforded myself for the last decade. It’s affirming and not loaded with all the garbage language of fad dieting and fat bigotry.

Cartoon drawing of a pumpkin with muscle-flexed arms.

Exercise regularly. I’ve worked out my whole life. I am one of those people who actually likes a good workout. However, it is disconcerting to work out as if I’m an athlete, yet look like a human pumpkin. It’s a combination of aging/hormones/living in the sandwich generation – caregiving for both children and parents. But I’m coming out of that phase and it’s time to turn my attention to my health. My challenge isn’t a lack of training or knowledge, it’s a lack of consistency, combined with that whole thing above, the eating bit. Subject to depressive cycles, workouts are the easiest way to give my brain a needed boost. Catch-22. When I’m on the downswing, the easiest thing to do is nothing. My intention for this next year is to do something, anything on the regular. It means tracking workouts so that a two-day break doesn’t turn into two months.

At my last workshop we discussed setting writing intentions. I asked the question “What do you want to have done by this time next year?” The answers were as varied and delightful as could be. Self-knowledge, starting small, and a positive framing are foundational ways to get where you want to go – and plenty of compassion and forgiveness when you have to hit the restart button. My hope is that next year I won’t have to look at a calendar to see where the time went, because I will be living with intention and not just because someone told me to breathe.

What are your intentions for 2023?

Angry Birds – Swan Lake Edition

Cheer on one of my personal swan-saving heroes!

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The story I am about to relate is entirely true. I have no proof beyond a few still photos and a panicked ‘before’ video. Now that I am home and pond scum-free, I’m not even sure I believe it happened. You be the judge.

🦢🦢🦢🦢🦢🦢🦢

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The Comeback Old Lady

Wire waste basket with Freshly Pressed WordPress logos in it. Out with the old.

Hello kids. After being absent for a long time, I rambled through some familiar blogs and realized how difficult it is to find blogs since WordPress stopped doing much in the way of connecting bloggers (adios Freshly Pressed, Discover). The message being: Bloggers, make your own damned friends. Times change and so must I. Despite the thousands of subscribers to this blog, I’m guessing only about 50 are still alive, occasionally blogging, and/or just reading blogs on the can. We have a lot to grab our attention and time and maybe it’s just the olds hanging around. However, I’m determined to liven things up around here. Got any ideas?

If you’re about and still blogging, please drop your site link in the comments. I’ve noticed a lot of the people I used to follow are no longer on my list. I’ll try to start highlighting blogs on the regular, so let’s reconnect.

For people who have not yet been exposed to my scintillating wit and foul mouth, I thought I’d revisit what this blog is generally blathering about. I’ve been writing here since January 2012 when I took that knot in the pit of my stomach and spit it out on a public page. Because of that, I will never be a politician. I’ve babbled mostly about writing, depression, holidays I hate, a little bit of politics, and a whole lot about turning into an old lady. I wrote through my daughter’s medical crisis, the loss of pets, grandparents, in-laws, and most of my marbles. I’ve held writing contests and spun off a fantastic writing group from people I met here – a virtual group that has met for the last year.

Cartoon of fall forest with fox, pumpkin, rabbit.

The blog itself has suffered some neglect since I started working on my MFA in Creative Writing. I’ll soon be done with that and starting more teaching/coaching for writers. In the middle of this pandemic, I managed to create and facilitate writing groups. I am working as a mentor for young writers and in January, I’ll be starting a short story writing group, focused only on short form fiction (any genre). I will continue to blog about writing, but also all the usual random rigmarole that pops into my head.

The world is going to hell in a hand basket, but for now, I’m intent on being a good literary citizen and working to support and create communities that remind us that no matter what anyone says to divide us, we are connected. This is a roundabout way of saying I miss you fellow bloggers and readers.

Let’s begin again.

That First Step is a Doozy

A black and white silhouette of a woman putting a finger to her lips. Shhh.

Silence comes easier than exposure. It is perhaps why I’ve written so little here over the last few years. The public discourse has become raw, unfiltered, and not at all circumspect. Revealing, but not necessarily enlightening. We’ve accustomed ourselves to knee-jerk reactions and assumptions in real time, as many of our transactions are in digital shorthand. We’re a few short steps from LOLs to just grunting at each other. Perhaps re-joining the public sphere is my way of pushing back on a world that operates in acronyms. Maybe I’m just getting old and irritable.

Autumn brings on a sweet melancholy that puts me in a state of unrest. I feel the need to clear the decks, wipe the slate, and expunge whatever mental beasties have taken up residence in my brain. So here I am, beginning to write again of self, of life, of finding perspective in order to regain my equilibrium. It’s scarier out here on the information superhighway than it was when I started this blog in 2012. You’ve barely pulled into the lane before you’ve been honked at, cussed out, corrected, and finally, just to make sure you don’t make this mistake ever again, run off the road into a ditch.

I should be at a point of fearlessness. My life is more than half over. There’s no career-building, toddler-juggling, or rat-racing left to be done. Now it’s me and whatever bad habit chickens have come home to roost. Sleep injuries, slackening muscle, and 14 pairs of eyeglasses, each with its narrow purpose (no reading expiration dates-driving in the dark-working on computer combos). This is where I’m at and it sounds, from my description, that I should be huddled in a corner mourning my deterioration. On the other hand, time has sorted out what is and isn’t important in the most inefficient way possible – slowly making me too tired to give a shit about stuff I’ve spent a lifetime giving a shit about.

A beanstalk growing out of a typewriter with a globe on top. Pretty nonsensical.

I’m a few months away from graduating with my MFA in Creative Writing. For those who still engage in the MFA or not to MFA argument, I don’t have any answers. There’s no magic beans for writing and even a degree won’t change that. I will be teaching more, though, which is a surprising joy that I’ve discovered over the last couple of years. I’ve finally given up the ghost on short form social media. It had a deleterious effect on my mental health in terms of anxiety and constant adrenaline shots of rage. I’ve resigned myself to never knowing what anyone is talking about ever again.

It’s a few weeks away from the midterm election. I’m working as an election judge and hoping not to catch COVID or a bullet (insert wry laugh). My mailed absentee ballot was accepted yesterday. I put out the VOTE! sign in my yard. I’m volunteering in a voter education organization. This all adds up to me not having to pay attention to pundit-polling fuckwits anymore. Might keep it as a permanent policy. I’m not delusional about the power of the vote – when a loud minority has worked so hard to delegitimize our elections and suppress voter participation, a vote either counts more than it ever has or not at all. Either way, voting is one of the few things in our locus of control.

Perhaps this is less an argument against silence, rather an advocacy for the judicious application of our voices – where they will be heard or where they are needed. Neither bystander nor chicken little be. And unlike the whiplash reactions of social media, we can take a beat, write a few drafts, break through the hardness and habituation of personal opinion in order to cultivate curiosity. I think the road ahead will become more difficult and there will be a tendency to stratify opinions into intractable, inflexible ideas at the exact moment when adaptability, creativity, and joy are needed to survive. Nobody fights harder for a better world than someone who recognizes the joys in it.

A circus trainer putting his head inside a lion's mouth.

There are fires everywhere and no matter what you do, there’s always someone there to explain how you’re doing it wrong. Perhaps this is why social media is not a good place for most people – you become paralyzed by the possibility that what you say will be judged harshly, no matter the intent. I’ve leaned into discomfort, knowing that I will make mistakes, whether it be in regards to social justice or the environment or well, anything. As a writer, the fear of making mistakes is untenable. We only find our way by making the mistakes first and hoping that a kind friend or competent editor reigns in whatever insensitive, incoherent garbage we create before it hits the public eye.

My writing always starts out as a dear self until the ripples carry me far enough away from ego to get some perspective. I know that by the end, I will have learned something. If you find something here, all the better. I am here, ready and willing to make mistakes. Go make yours.

Sympathy for the Devil

A red fuzzy monster with devil horns.

I grew up one of those earnest, scrunch-browed kids who always wanted to be “good”. I’ve volunteered for one group or another since I was in my teens. I’d like to believe it was for purely altruistic reasons, but I’m human and psychologically speaking, I was often doing good to be seen as good. Carrying the never-good-enough gene means that one hopes actions can redeem what feels unlovable at the core. Now organizations being what they are, they don’t give a rat’s ass about what broken down esteem made you show up, they’re just glad you did. They need you – a body to fill booths or rosters or boards. If they need me, maybe I’m worth something.

Cut to 40 years later. I’ve continued to volunteer off-an-on with bouts of resentment and the sneaking suspicion that I’ve got it all wrong. In most organizations, women continue to do the bulk of labor and volunteering. In most organizations, the women are white, middle-class, and educated. My demographic – which means that I will automatically feel uncomfortable – a gift of introversion and growing up in dysfunction that makes you wait for the other shoe to drop. So I reach in and pull at the thread. Racism and classicism. Why is an organization filled with all white middle-class women? Finding both a cause and a reason to feel like an outsider – it’s the perfect frisson for the not-good-enough person, because the catch is, when it comes to being white and confronting racism, you will never be enough. Here’s a hanky for those white lady tears. And unless you plan on giving up a penchant for running shoes and grocery delivery, middle class is firmly where your not-so-firm ass will remain.

I have begun to realize how wrong I’ve been about a lot of things. Being good and doing good does not necessarily equate to feeling good for me. Is it supposed to? I’m not really sure, but I look around at my friends and family and acquaintances and I’m confused. Why aren’t they tortured by thoughts of how to be a good ally or trying hard to balance volunteerism with just living their life? What does being good even mean? Most people genuinely believe they are good people. I try to be and sometimes delude myself into thinking that I am, but mostly what I am is someone who is constantly trying to be good and often misplacing those energies.

Green fuzzy monster with horns and black eyebrows peeking over edge of wall.

I laugh at the efforts people put into trying to make others feel shame or fear or disgust or self-loathing on social media. Already there, jackwagons. Self-sufficient monster generator right here. I turned 55 last month and I have skills, baby. Any situation, any interaction, I can turn it into a reflection about what an awful person I am, never one to miss out on a narcissistic, depressive bout of self-flagellation. I go into shutdown mode and I try to figure out how I can quit EVERYTHING. My mind works the rationalizations. Well, I really need to focus on writing. The organization will be fine without me. Some other body will come along. I’m too old to be in situations that make me this miserable. My monsters come with ready-made excuses.

One hopes that a perpetual lack of self-confidence and self-denigration comes across as humble or endearing, but I suspect it is exhausting for others to parry with. You’re fine, Michelle. You’re a good person. That was a great thing you did. It takes an immense amount of self-control to not scream at them: I’m a monster! OPEN YOUR EYES!

Blue fuzzy monster looking surprised with an open mouth of sharp teeth.

Therapy, you say? Oh no, my friends, because you have no idea what else resides inside. Nothing wastes therapy more than…the people-pleaser monster. Just be confessional enough to make them think they’re getting somewhere with you. Shed a few tears. Have a brilliant insight or two into your own psyche. They settle back into their chair and think: god, I’m really great at this. This makes that 100K in school debt all worth it. You think: Maybe I am a good person, I even made the therapist happy.

One of my favorite writers, Anna Quindlen, wrote a column for the New York Times for many years called “Public and Private”. She wrote columns that connected the personal with social commentary. One critic derisively referred to her as a “monster of empathy”. Sometimes I think that’s one of my monsters, too. Empathy is the ability to imagine someone else’s life or perspective. That’s a necessary tool for a fiction writer, but in reality, it conflates your own perspectives with what you imagine to be someone else’s and 50% of the time you are off by a wide mile. It interferes with really hearing what someone else is saying about their lived experience.

Round fuzzy green monster with no mouth.

Last night I listened to the wind in the maple tree outside as I tried to settle my mind. It is amazing to me what a giant mess one can fit into a single, small, unimportant human brain. A gnat on the windshield. Perspective is good, but the thought is never far away – how easy it must be to be bad, to not care, to not get hooked into a moralistic world view of right and wrong, good and evil, to do what only feels good or comfortable. But I’d be deluding myself if I thought I could live that way. I’d be worried that I wasn’t bad enough.

The Landscape of the Heart

As I watched the screen at my daughter’s echocardiogram, the blips and blobs of color, the scan across the bottom looked like a topographical map. I felt tears welling up thinking about how simultaneously frail and steel-willed humans can be. She has done well with treatment – thriving and thrilled that her stifled independence will soon be unstopped, gushing out in a spate of plans and applications and escapes from handwringing parents.

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I am surprised by my resistance and anxiety in thinking about post-pandemic life. I wonder if I’ve been institutionalized in my own home. The thought of social obligation and interaction, of life slipping out of this time warp where everything is slower, quieter, and less populated, back into the relentless flow of everything, all the time and I think hell no.

Life slowed down enough for me to start making some long-desired changes and I don’t want to lose sight of them. That is a function of my privilege and good fortune, so I understand the mass desire for pandemic life to come to an end. But I think about the 975K+ memorials that have been muted or delayed, the trauma of loss and how it will contrast against the exhilarating celebration of travel and social gatherings and consumerism that will be unleashed in the coming months. Life has been weird, but now it is thoroughly surreal.

We often ask each other: What do you miss most? What are you going to do first? For me, it is only a slight shift. I will go to the library and maybe a coffee shop. Or perhaps a plant nursery. I will meet up with a friend and go for a walk in the park. I feel a sense of dread that I will be required to once again attend meetings in person or meet distant family obligations. I dread that I’ll see my daughter so much less and that she’ll be out in this mad world having her own adventures, many from which I cannot shield her. It’s all normal, they’ll say. I imagine a scene where someone spouts what is intended to be a comforting cliche at me and I completely and utterly lose my shit. Normal? Normal? NONE of this is normal. Normal left the station years ago.

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I’ve experienced a loss of confidence. I’m not the steady, stable soul I’ve always seen myself as. I’m struggling like everyone else. I’m not the voice of reason in the middle of a shit storm. I’m too busy trying not to sink under the waves. This confidence, this swagger that I can always think myself out of a problem, that I will be more composed than everyone around me, has definitely been shaken, stirred, and dropped on its ass. Part of the reason is menopause, which is a tasty midlife treat when you’ve come to expect your body and mind will act a certain way and then one day it doesn’t. One day, you have vertigo, your knees hurt, your anxiety levels seem unmanageable, and you have heart palpitations. The human bedrocks of certainty – balance and a regular heartbeat are no longer a given. You have a sense that your life has irrevocably been altered and your body is no longer reliable and that you will never be unafraid again.

Aging was never that bugaboo on the horizon that I shied away from – I had all the cockiness of someone who could stand upright and wouldn’t get dizzy. The shameless stamina of someone who didn’t forget why they went into a room or what that word was for that thingamajig, you know that one thing…I hate those jokes. It’s not so funny when you can’t count on your own brain anymore. Working on my MFA with people who have fully functioning brains, who are ambitious, who have enough time and energy to play the publication/submission numbers game – well, that’s shaken me, too. I know I just have to keep forging ahead, pretending that I’m still going to make a career of this writing thing, but I know I’ve started late in the game and my number might be up before I see a result.

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As is my modus operandi, I do the research regarding menopause and I’ve started to work on mitigation and modification and coping mechanisms. It gets tiresome sometimes, this attempt to wrench control from the vagaries of aging, a pandemic, and an emotional snake pit of unpredictable outcomes that we call life. I see retribution at work for every time I responded to someone’s stress by telling them to breathe and to take things a moment at a time. Fool. That’s like throwing a piece of yarn to someone who’s drowning. Still, I’m sure I’ll say it again. What else would there be to say?

I have not felt joy in a while. If you are a depression-inclined person like myself, the pursuit of joy must be an intentional act. You have to make space and time for it. Spring opens a lot more than windows for me – it’s the start of gardening, of renewal, of dragging my camera out to the woods and staring up in trees for elusive birds. The spate of cold, gray days is coming to an end and I started my indoor seedlings which is, in my small world, an act of hope and optimism. Perhaps that is the first step back into the world.