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 thoroughyly 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.

Draft No. 13: Opening Gambit or Death Knell?

A pocket watch laying near pile of autumn leaves.

In January this blog will be entering its 11th year. Blog. I can’t even say the word without chagrin. Substack is laughing off-stage, with Twitter and Instagram spewing out witty one-liners and memes and giggling about that old broad over there getting ready to write a blog post. Snort.

This is a special place to me and I feel ashamed of its neglect. Over there in the corner, covered in cobwebs, are the 12 drafts I wrote and never posted. Up in the attic of this blog, there are dusty WordPress Freshly Pressed awards, stats that used to seem impressive, and a couple of dick comments that got deleted. That is the old world. I pull up my reader. Who’s still around? I see old friends with whom I’d exchange comments. We’ve all aged, our blogs looking worse for the wear, the graying Classic editor, the temperamental and annoying Block Editor who won’t shut up while you’re trying to write.

This is where I learned to write in public. I made friends as real and as important to me as in-person. It’s where I met friends who will likely be lifelong (it might be because I’m old and lifelong is not really that long). This is where I learned that a friend I’d been communicating with died from lung cancer. Where I manned holiday comment boards in a group effort to provide company to those who needed it. This is where I met the lovely people now in my writing workshop. This is where I wrote curmudgeonly posts about the holidays and my first (and only) tattoo. This is where I grieved the death of my grandfather, several pets, and tragic world events.

Ten years and all this blog gets from me is an occasional perusal, as I go to Twitter to get my adrenaline hit of rage and to send profane memes to politicians. This disloyalty has been rewarded with a tinny voice in the back of my head that says, each and every day, I should write a blog post. Off and on over the years, I’ve had to review my reasons for maintaining a blog. These days, mired in an MFA program, writing groups, and writing-heavy volunteer work means that the writing habit is there. The blog no longer serves that need. So what am I doing here?

Cartoon drawing of man with chaos in his head.

The bumptious hamster wheel of modern life means that my attentions are fleeting. I jump from app to app to app. Screens light my face more than the sun does. I task switch 460 times in a single hour. And complete sentences are…what was I talking about? I can analyze the underlying metaphors of a narrative, but don’t ask me how I’m feeling today. I will stutter. I will struggle to form a coherent thought. Perhaps that is what this space should be for me now – being forced to form coherent thoughts around the life that I seem to only be tangentially living.

The last few years have been hard. From my daughter’s medical crisis, the loss of my mother-in-law, both my cats, and of course, the things that are wearing all of us down – politics and the pandemic (and fuck the opportunists who have conflated the two and killed so many of us), I’m just soul-tired. The most exhausting process is recognizing the tiredness, standing back up, and saying, how can I make things better? Rinse and repeat ad nauseam. Perhaps the reason I’m soul-tired is that I haven’t been writing the muddle in my head out enough. Or at all, really.

Perhaps it is because I have never communicated so much with so many in such a variety of ways. Many of us are struggling. When I get the texts, e-mails, phone calls, and Zoom requests, it is my nature to want to be present. It feels the least thing to do for someone, a simple message of: you are not alone. But I’ve begun to recognize my limitations and started disconnecting a couple of days a week in the hopes of finding what, in my own brain and body, needs attention. And then I remember this blog. This dusty, stale little blog that has seen shinier, more social days.

Autumn Leaf

As I write this, it feels like an alien experience – putting what’s in my head into words. Not saying it out loud, not chopping it into a tiny Tweet, not saying oh shit after I send out an irretrievable email with typos. I will write it and then I will go outside on this windy, autumn day and feel the sun on my face. Then I will read it again, trying to fix inevitable typos and muddied thoughts. And then I will send it into the chorus of voices that is the internet.

It is, perhaps, a start to remembering my own writing voice again.

Who is out there still? How have you been? Are you still blogging?

Running at Windmills

Of late, Don Quixote is one of my favorite fictional characters to reference. He chooses to see the world a certain way. He believes things to be more honorable, decent, and moralistic than they are. He is often written as a tragic character, so lost to his delusions that he leaves nothing but disaster in his wake. I like to think about him in regards to perspective – that how we choose to see the world determines how we navigate it. It is in my particular nature to notice the bad in the world, to notice problems in need of solutions. I have, for the most part, used this unhealthy skill for good. I’ve thought about what small things I could do to contribute to the betterment of the world. Less knight-errant and more pragmatic, like a busy homemaker seeing that there is clearing up to be done and doing it.

These days, much of what I do feels like running at windmills, choosing to believe the country/world isn’t approaching some sort of apocalyptic endgame. I doubled down on my work for voters’ rights and am doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work for a nonprofit. I joined another organization fighting for gun control reform. I am in the middle of starting up a virtual writers group. I’m doing my first writing workshop presentation in a couple of weeks. I’ve simply gone all in on things that matter to me. What else can you do as the world burns?

Woodcut drawing of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote on horses.

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

The imposter syndrome weighs heavily on me as well. To move forward, you have to pretend to some obliviousness about failure rates and personal fallibility and all the other things that can go wrong. If you didn’t, you’d be stuck, churning in your own mud. For years and years, I’ve tried different ways of moving forward and have finally landed on something that gives me joy – teaching and mentoring. This is one of the primary reasons I entered an MFA program – to give myself some credentials for something I like to do.

It’s a funny acknowledgement to make. I do not have the sparkly personality of a grade school teacher. My Army buddies used to call me “Chuckles” for my dour pronouncements. My daughter rolls her eyes and jokes “mom ruins everything.” Fun, right? Ask me about your writing though and you are about to have a passionate conversation about the importance of telling stories – your stories. You will also likely get 15 handouts, a list of book recommendations, and some pointed questioning about how you will move forward. I can’t help myself. So now, I’m going to use these odd, reflexive skills on a larger scale and see how that works out. Here goes:

On Saturday, August 28th, 2021, 1-3pm (CST), I am offering The Green Study Writers’ Workshop: “Writing Alchemy: From Intention to Words on the Page”. This is a free, virtual workshop (because you will be guinea pigs) to talk about a writer’s intention, practice, habits, and goal setting. A little presentation, a little practice, and a little conversation to send you on your way, ready to write the stories you want to write. Due to the fact that this is my first time doing this, I’ll be limiting registration to 25 people. If you need some writing inspiration, to get unstuck, or to think about your own life as a writer, drop me a note on this blog’s contact page. I’ll send you a registration link for the workshop until I hit capacity. If more people are interested than I can fit, I’ll plan to offer it at another time. If I survive this. Windmill, here I come.

Woodcut drawing of windmill.

A Writer’s Lament

This is my writer’s place of last resort. It is how I hope to find the way back to my voice. So I write.

I will write through a migraine.

I will write even though I do not know what I have to say.

I will write in spite of the toxic air outside my window.

I will write even though it seems as if the world has gone mad.

I will write knowing that people will believe anything if it suits what they already believe.

I will write even though I am afraid that this is the only place I will ever be read.

I will write at peak loneliness when I’ve been communicating nonstop from this little weird virtual island I call my desk.

I will write while asking myself is it worth it?

I will write even though it has all been said before.

I will write even if I don’t see anything changing for the better.

I will write when I may not have the skill or the insight or a goal.

I will write the evidence of my existence.

I will write a momentary spark, a word into the universe.

Because I know you’re out there writing too.

Or painting, or singing, or dancing.

I write because this word, with your dance and their song, is a counterweight to all that weighs on us.

Survival is bereft of meaning.

The meaning is ours to write, to yawp into the universe, in the hope that it echoes back to us.

You are not alone.

Hello my fellow humans. Feeling like absolute shit here. It’s okay. It was bound to happen. The struggle is real, but not insurmountable. I wanted to tell you that I am thinking of you. I am hoping that whatever challenges you are overcoming, swimming, drowning in, that you are not alone and that this is the time when we need to reach out to each other and say Hey, whatcha got goin’ on there? Drop me a note and tell me how you are dealing with floods, fires, viruses, all the other things humans have to deal with…

Here’s a little assessment I wrote on myself:

Anxieties: kid’s illness, menopausal miseries, failure to make progress as a writer, ambivalence about my MFA program, pandemic, wildfire smoke, drought, empty nesting next year.

Current joys: coffee and quiet time in the morning before everyone gets up, surprise cake from a friend, My Dad Wrote a Porno Podcast, Zoom conversations with friends, ripe cherries, naps.

Best Advice I’m Following at the Moment: Take frequent breaks from computer work – rest your eyes and get up and move.

What are your biggest worries?

What has given you great joy/comfort/laughter?

What’s your best advice at the moment for others?

In Which I Become Unquantifiable

Drawing of fitness band and smartphone with statistics on it.

I’ve boxed it up. After four years of consistent and unwavering usage, I have taken off my Fitbit, unlikely to ever be used again. The level of self-awareness from this device has now reached the point of diminishing returns. It just became a habitual accessory with curious bits of information that I ignored.

I recently deleted my Goodreads account, despite having filled lists with hundreds of books. I never wrote public reviews, felt guilty using a reductionist rating system, and wondered why I was advertising a solitary habit that I had done all my life without fanfare.

One by one, I began to look at all the ways in which I was tracking and quantifying my life. Counting calories, making lists, tracking exercise, inventories, writing journal entries. I’ve done these things one way or another since I was 13, keeping a running list of flaws and excesses and not quite getting things right. It is a lifestyle geared towards being better – until the time, energy, and devices become a replacement for a life. It’s a sterile proof of life. Would you know me by my steps, my carbohydrate intake, my reading peccadilloes? Does the nebulous, contradictory shape of my being need data for definition?

Orange and red rays of streaming data.

Perhaps menopause, and all its accompanying mood swings, seismic corporeal changes, and the catching of breath before entering the final third of my life (if I am lucky) has sent me off the deep end. I do not wish to live in a data-driven world, dragging cookies with me from one internet site to the next, ads popping up to tell me just what a screw-up I really am or that despite how messed up the world is, I should be buying this device and make sure I’m getting apps that tell me that I will never, ever be good enough.

It’s frightening to leave my life up to me. Ever since I cut heel holes into leg warmers and wore collarless sweatshirts to do Jane Fonda’s ab blasters, I’ve expected services, apps, people, books to give me the magic answer that will make me good enough. I am capitalism’s most perfect mark. Got a problem? We know you do. Buy this. Listen to the guru. Download this app. Purchase these magic beans.

I’d been staring out of the window watching the birds and squirrels in the yard when my phone beeped to tell me it’s time to meditate. Wasn’t I just doing that? Perhaps if I just let myself be, I’ll be drawn inexorably to what I need. I can listen to myself or make Pavlovian choices, dropping down into a sitting pose on a beep. App deleted.

If I sound strident, I am. It’s uncomfortable – this unregulated, un-tracked being I now inhabit. At 53, I see where I have robbed myself – of joy, of adventure, of passion – in an effort to be good enough. My life feels like a succession of apologies and renovations. At times, when I thought I was reinventing myself, I was just swapping out new tracking methods, different-colored charts, but really it was the same old plan. Stop being me.

In 1982, “I’ve Never Been to Me” by Charlene was on the charts. We used to snicker at the song, saying things like Well, I’ve been to me and it wasn’t that great. Jokes as a cry for therapy. I did therapy too. But I was so concerned that the therapist would think I was a nutjob, that I processed and packaged my feelings. When I told her I was going to stop therapy, she felt satisfied with my progress. I am, when push comes to shove, a skilled liar. Mostly to myself.

Megaphone with words on it like feedback, opinion, and view.

So how does one unravel self from a world eager to define it for you? How does one stop speaking the language of critique and review and feedback? How does one disentangle what it means to be human from what it means to be a citizen, consumer, a content regurgitator?

As part of an MFA program, I am required to do workshops. I hate workshops, but not for the reasons one might assume. Feedback is nominally useful, because most workshop feedback is organized around a disparate group of readers who don’t know the writer’s intent. It’s a messy process and less useful than one might imagine. I decided to no longer read with a critic’s eye and it has changed how I approach the work of others. I approach it with curiosity – what is the writer trying to do? How can I help them do that?

Keyboard with shopping cart key.

This shift in my approach is bleeding over into other areas in my life. Approach with curiosity. The adjustment period is awkward. You can’t miss how people talk or write – all the pronouncements, opinions, critiques about everything. Were we always like this? How have we been trained to see and point out the flaws in the most minor things? I heard the phrase deficit advertising to explain how we are convinced to buy, buy, buy through the calculated strategy of making us feel as if we are not enough. We are vicious critics of ourselves. That’s a problem, but there is probably an app for that.

Is the absence of planning, tracking, and logging in, a plan in and of itself? Perhaps. It feels more like scraping away the distractions to see what is there. Who am I without data? Who am I without the automatic longing for something else and the ongoing, constant data feedback from my life? Does this body still have good bones?

So here I am, a nebulous, unfocused, undefined being. I do not know if I have maintained a good carb-fat-protein ratio. I have not met any personal goals today. I’m not sure how many books I have read this month. Or if REM sleep comprised enough of my night. I do not know how many steps I have walked today. I just know that I am moving in a different direction.

Administrative Note: I have not included a recording of this post and will not for the foreseeable future. I wanted this blog to be more accessible and to provide other options for those people, of which I am one, who get way too much screen time. The problem is, I’m not very good at creating recordings. After trying a lot of different configurations for a duct-taped sort of studio and using free recording software, it still takes an inordinate amount of time and effort. It stops me from writing here, because of the work it will entail. I’m not famous or in great demand or even paid for this. When I am any of those things, I will find someone who knows what they are doing and they can record it. Until that time, I’m going back to the basics of writing.

The Gentle Storyteller in a Violent World

Silence is sometimes preferable to unleashing emotions that are not processed or packaged for public consumption. My silence here, on this blog, has been due to a simmering bouillabaisse of anger, depression, anxiety, and fatigue. I know that I am not alone in this, nor is my angst much different by degree than anyone else’s. I’m either at the edge of tears or letting loose an inextricable profanity.

Cartoon drawing that says "WTF".

I feel frenetically angry these days, to the point that I have a Post-It note below my computer monitor: Be kind. Don’t swear. Listen. Anybody who knows me knows I love some good swearing. But since every meeting or get-together is online, it has become too easy to blur the boundaries between close friends and the board of the nonprofit for which I volunteer. All the faces are flat, the location always my study with multi-directional, disorganized anger banging around in my brain. A mistakenly uttered profanity might be quite jarring in the wrong environment.

Physically, I’m wearing each and every emotion. I wrote this little ditty in my head yesterday when wearing a baggy shirt: All this swathe of cloth, does not have the ability, to hide my rolls of fragility. Yeah, I won’t be reading an inaugural poem any time soon. I’m walking a lot, trying to get back into strength training, but I’m having a hard time making myself care. It feels like something is a little broken, like I’ve just given in to entropy.

Owl in glasses sitting on a pen.

Still, I’ve almost finished my first semester of an MFA in Creative Writing Program. I’ve learned several things. I am further along in my writing skills than I imagined. Secondly, talent doesn’t mean jack if you’re not actively writing. Thirdly, when you solidly believe that everyone around you is better than you at everything, it always comes as a surprise when you realize, Hey, I know something. This has given me some ambition to put together my own low-rent virtual workshop for the fall. 6-10 writers, nominal fee (just so people show up), and covering all the basics of good narrative.

I’ve done a couple of writing competitions, which work like tournament brackets. Thus far, I’ve been given an Honorable Mention, and I’ve just advanced another round in a short story competition. Some competitions offer critiques from judges on your piece as part of the registration fee. One of the comments struck a nerve. You’re a gentle storyteller. In any other world, not littered with my literary ambition, this would seem sweet. But it really stuck with me, because the translation at first in my overthinking noggin was “tepid, mediocre, simple”. Oh no! What happened to complex, rich literary narrative that evokes some intellectual pablum and blah, blah, blah… I’ve already written the New York Times review of my first book. And gentle storyteller does not cut it.

Book open on table in woods.

We all have ideas of who we want to be or at the very least, how we want to be perceived. I’m settling into this idea that my writing will never be edgy or evocative or prizewinning. Maybe it will just be a good story. My current novel was described by an MFA professor as character-driven and a quiet, complex story. That will make for a shelf-grabbing blurb. “Boring. TLDR” – Publishers’ Mistake Weekly. Mark this little tea cozy of a book for the remaindered bin. Still, I don’t want to tell this particular story any other way – I like complexity, nuance, subtlety and if it ends up being a bathtub read for someone, as they fall asleep and accidentally drown, well, that’s just good publicity.

As I waited for the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, to see if the Twin Cities will set itself on fire, I thought about violence. About militarized police and mass shooters. As a veteran, I have enough familiarity with weapons to know that I don’t trust them and I don’t trust people who fetishize them. I do know that brandishing weapons makes people lazy. They don’t have to de-escalate, they don’t have to compromise, they don’t have to use diplomacy. They don’t need self-control or empathy or decency. Like the mafia, like gangs, like uniformed units, they conflate fear with respect and think compliance is the only way they can “win.”

Red spiral like the boring inside a gun.

There are likely few Americans who have not been touched by violence – from war, from mass shootings, from childhood traumas. I have now lived in two places where mass shootings have taken place. In 1991, at the University of Iowa, my afternoon Russian class was moved, as hours before, a man who had killed five people around campus, entered the classroom and shot himself. There have been multiple events in Minnesota since I moved here and that’s not counting the police violence. Even they are not immune. In 2015, just a few blocks away, at the city hall, a man walked in and fired upon police at a swearing-in ceremony. They were injured, he was killed. It’s everywhere. Guns are everywhere.

So, what can a gentle storyteller do? Is there a place for that kind of narrative in a world full of trauma and injustice and cruelty? I cannot watch shows or read books organized around violence. I don’t find it interesting or entertaining when it is reality for so many people. I’ve always believed that reading, getting inside a character’s head, helps grow empathy. And if there is anything missing in American life, it would be that. Throw in some critical thinking skills, less hero worship (seriously, when did politicians develop fan clubs?), more responsibility that accompanies freedom, organizing public policy around the common good, then there might be progress.

Image of Tim Kreider's book I Wrote This Book Because I Love You.

It’s a funny thing that I’m a writer, that I’m here now, writing in public. If I could have one secret power, it would be invisibility. Understatement is my brand. I’ve been reading Tim Kreider’s collection of essays, I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. This excerpt sticks with me: “…if you want to enjoy the rewards of being loved, you also have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” I mean, what is writing, but a wish to be understood, to be heard, to be known and loved? People can go on and on about why they do it, but practically everything we do organizes around a basic human need to belong somewhere.

Perhaps telling tales in a mild-mannered way serves as a counterbalance to the rage. The world does not need more anger. The world needs the opportunity to see the possibilities. That this is not it. That we are capable of change. That cynicism is not intelligence. That we cannot be anything more than what we imagine. So, imagine we must. Even if it is with a light touch.