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.

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.