Vulnerability: The Art of Falling Forward

The state of being a writer is sometimes a mercenary one. Everything is material, even the most raw moments of one’s life. Over the last seven and a half years, I’ve exploited myself, without mercy, to write posts about the many (many!) lessons I’m learning just being alive as a human.

canstockphoto40288322I took a hike yesterday morning on a regional park trail. Five feet from the trail stood a young doe, busily munching away at foliage. Her head jerked up and she looked at me with dark eyes, her long ears flicking. I stood stock still. She went back to eating. I crept a little closer and stood still again. She glanced in my direction and continued snacking away. It felt like a reward for patience, to be allowed to stand there and watch her.

It occurred to me, for just a second, to pull out my phone and take a picture. There was a choice here: to fully have the experience or to try and create a facsimile of it, likely sending the doe running off into the woods. It wasn’t a hard choice. Pictures rarely re-create an experience and what was the point? On the road behind me the park shuttle, with its open cars, began to pass by. The doe remained despite the shrieks of the shuttle’s passengers. Ooh, get a picture!

Writing is my version of getting a picture, but with more lenses at my disposal. I can shape a narrative, cut out the boring bits, use this word or that. It is still an attempt to capture time, but the very process is a safari. What I discover is usually the point of it for me, not the subject itself.

At times, this blog has felt like a confessional and at others, a practice in seeing the lesson in every nook and cranny, to redeem moments that may seem bereft of any usefulness. The intent was always to sharpen my writing skills and writing here has done that to some extent, but it has also made me fearful that I am incapable of writing anything else.

Fear has been a big player in my mind lately. It’s been a tough eight months. My mother-in-law died, I had a health scare, we had to euthanize a pet, and then there was a medical crisis with my daughter. When it comes to life stressors, I’m racking up some frequent flyer miles. It’s left me open – tears in front of strangers, writing raw words in public, a sense that I am always in recovery from something. And the constant interaction with friends and family and medical professionals, while necessary and/or appreciated, has laid waste to my inner sanctum of solitude and quiet.

canstockphoto82616Part of me wants to close up shop for the season, shutter the windows, batten down the hatches – emerging only when I have my shit together, my composure composed, my armor firmly in place. But I know that is a feeling born of fear – a fear that I somehow won’t be regarded a serious writer or person, because I have shown vulnerability.

Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

If there is anything I find intolerable these days, it’s living a life based on fear.

We see the outcomes all around us, when people live fearful lives. Our entire culture is a feeding frenzy of fear and anxiety. Our politicians exploit them. Advertisers feed them and sell us the “cure”. The wannabe sociopaths see opportunities for gain. I’ve lived a tight, quiet life of barely controlled fear and anxiety for decades, but I tend to do a lot of things that cause me more anxiety on purpose, in the hopes that I’ll become less sensitive to shame and self-consciousness. No dice thus far, but vulnerability is a habit now and somehow, I have to believe that it is a good thing.

…and that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.

Audre Lorde

It is my usual way, after a life event, to evaluate how I should move forward – as if I can prevent the next crisis by living a better life, being a better person. It’s a superstitious behavior on my part that has no impact on the random nature of life. I am also tempted to isolate myself, to regain a sense of privacy and decorum, but I know that’s a long ago voice in my head whispering protect yourself, don’t let anyone in, don’t get hurt, be invulnerable.

I know that it’s in my best interest to stand still, to not indulge distractions, to not steamroll my emotions, or ignore the bruising nature of being open. I recognize my fears, but I refuse to engage on their behalf. I feel the creeping anxiety of not being seen canstockphoto13006520as fearless or strong or serious or professional, the very same defense that would prevent creativity, connection, and compassion. Self-protection, taken too far, becomes a prison.

Life is improv. It only gets better if you stay open, say yes, follow new threads, stay in the moment. You will look foolish, seem silly at times, perhaps lose the respect from those who prefer non-messy humans. But you will be living, in the words of Brené Brown, with your whole heart.

Bone Weary

When the ambulance pulled away from our house the night before last, my shoulders slumped forward. The painful spasms that wracked my daughter’s body and impinged on her breathing had passed and she, with my husband, were chatting away, as if she’d not been screaming a mere half hour before. I locked up the house for the night, kissed and hugged them both and crawled into bed.

I fell asleep to the rhythm of their voices going back and forth, wondering if I’d ever feel well-rested again. I’m exhausted and this morning I’m trying to remember how I find my way back to a life where saying “I’m tired” is not an auto response.

canstockphoto10766394There are always the basics. Sleep. Movement. Hydration. Nutrition. Giving the body alternately the rest and fuel it needs to function optimally. So I start there. Beyond that, depression looms, a shadowy companion of sleep deprivation and constant anxiety. I can’t afford to indulge it at this point, so I try to remember the basics of taking care of my soul: solitude, writing, reading, music, gardening, running, the meditative braiding of words, movement, rhythm, silence – the solemn tending of Wordsworth’s inward eye.

Great art is often more about what you remove or leave out than what you add. Life, too, can be like that. I’ve started the process of cutting things away. It’s easier to do this when something dramatic happens, because priorities crystallize. Everyday life is full of scope creep. The hours are siphoned away by social media or fussing with picayune details of housework or being lured into further consumerism with artificially planted ideas of need.

Sometimes the jolt of fright that comes from a major life event can pull you out of the morass of mindlessness. Sometimes you choose to drown in a cesspool of distraction. It’s 50/50 for me these days – a push-pull of adrenaline and numbness.

canstockphoto16093077It is telling that as a child raised walking on eggshells, I become more placid as the stakes rise. I am deadly calm in the face of screaming, blood loss, hysteria. I’m the person you want with you during a mugging, but not necessarily there to help you through a cold (shake it off, dammit). My bedside manner is perfunctory if you go on too long. I’m wired to pull you out of a fire, to put salve on your burns, but irritable if I have to hear your retelling of the tale once again. I am the flow chart of next steps.

After the dramatic peaks have passed, the landscape flattens. I recognize the topography – a land of dulled-down plateaus, of depressive vulnerability, of self-recrimination. I try to re-frame the perspective, seeing it Edward Abbey-like, as a wilderness that is a necessity of the human spirit. It’s necessary to go through the desert in order to recognize the need for replenishment – to appreciate the small oases that one encounters.

canstockphoto3611259We’ve had the kind of emergencies lately that require a go bag. It sits in the corner, ready to be grabbed at a moment’s notice – toiletries, a change of clothes, critical medical documents, and that ubiquitous need of modern living – a tangle of chargers. I had thought about unpacking it over the last week, but after having to call 911, it will remain.

When I was in the Army, we used to be put on readiness alert duty. Wherever we were, whatever we were doing, we’d have to be able to report to post within 30 minutes, in uniform, with our packed duffel and gear. We’d sign out our weapons and be ready to head to the field for an unspecified duration. We were a ragtag lot, showing up disheveled and occasionally hungover, depending on the hour of alert. The relief was palpable when we could stand down.

I was young then, responsible for my own readiness, and there was an assumed end. Now I’m older, responsible for a child, with no end date in sight. Now is definitely canstockphoto11858226.jpgharder. Tired is the default mode. Sometimes I buy into the bootstrap myth – that whatever state I’m in, I should pull myself out of it.  But the real trick and wisdom is knowing when to ask for help, when to lean on others, when to let go.

Sometimes too, it’s just allowing yourself to rest for a bit. Sure, rally the troops. Reorient yourself to the mission. But first, a nap.

The Space Between

It took two minutes for the pediatric oncologist to shatter our high. The large tumor found in my daughter was benign and we’d just begun to process our relief and decompress from many nights in the hospital. He stopped us cold. The tumor has a 50/50 chance of recurring, of showing up in other organs, and has a chance of metastisizing as malignant. She had to go through more diagnostic testing. And here I sit, mere hours away from this doctor telling us the results of the latest PET scan. The space between knowing and not knowing.

canstockphoto0912560There have been a lot of spaces like this over the last few weeks. Before this medical drama, I’d been pondering spaces between, mostly from a creative perspective. I’d had trouble settling down to write, often wandering out into the garden to pull weeds or getting distracted by a lit journal. In the past, I’d chide myself for being a typical amateur writer, easily dissuaded from doing the thing which I needed to do in order to be what I wanted to be. Until recently, the spaces between were called procrastination and dilettantism. But I am my own spin master. The space between would hold value.

I decided to lean into it. What was happening between writing sessions? What was happening when my brain unraveled a bit, let down its guard, daydreamed? The answer is obvious to me now – I was writing the next story. Not everything is about writing, but at this particular point in my life, I want it to be. It’s something that keeps me afloat with hope for who I can still become. Or at least it was.

canstockphoto50379204Now the space between is a barren land. Gripped by the worst fear I’ve ever experienced in my life, my brain dare not relax. Daydreams are now nightmares about will readings and empty rooms. There is no inherent value except to keep me at the edge of the cliff. It’s an unsustainable state without there being damage.

I read articles about post-traumatic stress experienced by parents who go through a medical crisis with their child. I know I’m experiencing it. Reliving the moment when the ER doctor said there is a mass in her midsection. Reliving the moment when the surgeon said that there was a 95% chance it was malignant. Unable to sleep well, needing to be in constant motion, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Hyper-vigilance, alert to the slightest sound, standing over her at 2:30am to see if she is breathing, much like I did the first time she slept through the night as a baby.

There are several bird nests in our yard. We watched, as one by one, fluffy robins began canstockphoto49843428to fall out of the nest in their first attempts at flight. The mother robin was nearby interrupting her coaxing chirrs with sharp chirps of warning. The father swooping past to ward off predators. We watched baby cardinals being fed in turn by mom and then dad. They built their nest in a bush at eye level alongside our driveway. Despite all the activity, the sound of the garage door, the yard work, the mother forced herself to sit on those eggs, alert but motionless. The space between laying eggs and hatching them and sending fledglings off in the world is one of constant vigilance.

I read about post-traumatic stress not because I wish to avoid it, cure it, tamp it down. I only want to be aware of what is happening to me. I’m a fairly unshakeable sort who is now shaken. I feel a fundamental shift in my mental state and I know, at some point, I’ll need to make choices about who I become because of this shift. It’s early yet, but the future seems more uncertain than ever. Can I find value in this space? If I can’t, it will take years off my life, feeding the fear that has dogged me the older I get – that I will waste time.

When we returned home, after many nights hearing the beeping of monitors, the changing of shifts, the weak moans from the bed, it was apparent that nothing else mattered. And it might not again. It’s hard to care about weeds or workouts or washing. My husband and I have become mother hens, constantly milling about, checking up, never out of earshot. We have whispered conversations about meds and pain and temperature checks, even as our daughter has regained her color, her appetite, and her teenage eye rolls.

canstockphoto9520842I called up friends, went out for walks, even managed to get in a few workouts. But these posts are the extent of my writing. Somehow, I have to get back to writing fiction. A friend from my writing group said that she was sure that this time would prove valuable to my writing and she couldn’t wait to see what I would do. This might seem a mercenary perspective, but it was something that I needed to hear – to be reminded that regardless of outcomes, there will be value in this space between. I just have to be willing to look for it.

Update: The scans came back negative, so onto a monitoring plan. Thanks for the kind wishes and bearing with me as I posted my anxieties. Hopefully, I can get back to writing my usual rambling posts.

The 5% Girl and a Lesson in Empathy

After spending the last ten days in parental purgatory, we got a call yesterday morning. The huge tumor found in my daughter has been fully removed and after being told the odds were 95% that it would be malignant, Mayo has determined that it is benign. We were very lucky. Only 150-200 people are diagnosed with this type of tumor in the U.S. each year. Random. Like the cells that mutate for no damned reason into something that kills. I haven’t slept for more than an hour at a time for days on end, so getting on the internet seems like a questionable choice. But I’m here to say thanks for all the kind wishes.

canstockphoto3491219I found myself writing in second person over the last week. It’s an unusual POV to pick, but second person puts distance between the reality of life and the compulsive desire to write about it. I was unable to have conversation with people. All words led to I’m so scared and inevitable sobbing. So I tried to find ways to write around the margins of this terrible thing that was my reality, this waiting to see if my beloved child was going to be in the fight of her life or if she got to go home to resume being a teenager, a classical violist, a friend, a classmate. Our girl.

So, like any writer, I start with observations.

Many mornings, I drove home at 5am from the hospital. We’d been sleeping there every night, but in the early morning hours, I was the only one awake and restless. The city streets were clear and I rolled the windows down and felt the crosswind, quiet and cool. She wanted me to get her tennis shoes, even though they wouldn’t fit her swollen feet. I knew I probably shouldn’t be on the road, so I forced myself to focus.

The last mile before home, tears started to leak down my face. By the time I reached the driveway, I was heaving and wailing. Too many hours of saying calming things to her. Too many hours of somber conversation with medical professionals. Too many hours of my husband and I in waiting rooms starting sentences with “I don’t know how we…” Trailing off, because we can only afford to be in that moment.

canstockphoto7428433I thought about what other drivers saw on the way back to the hospital. A blotchy-faced middle-aged woman barely driving at the speed limit in her Prius. They couldn’t know that she was barely fending off terror, that she’d spent the previous day waiting through hours of surgery and recovery of her daughter, that she was in shock and despair. How often had I cussed out drivers, thought the worst of them, assumed that they were this or that?

We’re curiously often incapable of empathy until we find ourselves with the child crying on the plane. Until we have that bad day when everything seems to go wrong. Until we lose a pet, get a bad diagnosis, make a wrong turn. We pass each other in grocery stores, shuffle our feet impatiently at the ATM, cast knowing glances at other bystanders. It’s so much easier to be empathetic in theory than in reality.

canstockphoto832346Blurry-eyed, I dragged myself through the hospital cafeteria, I looked around at all the families, some comforting themselves with gentle inside jokes, others looking haggard and unseeing. Out of context, I know that I would have seen them differently, perhaps with a hint of judgment or irritation that they were too noisy or unfriendly or inattentive to what they were doing. When we are out in public, we do not know each others’ stories by appearance, and sometimes even by actions. We have to have the imagination and empathy to extrapolate a story. A kinder story.

In the days ahead of unraveling and recouping and processing, I hope that I remember this lesson.

The Dime and the 5% Chance

It’s the end of the school year and you’re feeling pretty content. Your teenager walked across a stage, receiving honors and awards for her first successful year in high school. She’s getting ready to attend a prestigious summer orchestra camp. You’re proud and excited for her. Your husband is working on replacing the old deck out back. Your own life is trundling along pretty well – the garden is looking good, you’ve submitted work in hopes of being published, you are a training for a 5K. You read the news and get angry, but in your own world, life is pretty damned good.

The Friday before your daughter is supposed to leave for camp, you decide that you canstockphoto18514868better take her to the doctor. There were a couple minor fevers earlier in the week and she’s seemed pretty tired lately. You laugh with her in the car about something silly. The sun is illuminating the day in brilliant greens and blues. You think she just might need some more iron, but other than that, her bags are packed and she’s looking forward to playing her viola with other chamber musicians.

24 hours later, your daughter is in the oncology ward of a children’s hospital, bags of blood pumping into her, a doctor saying that there’s a 95% chance the mass is malignant.

The expression “life turns on a dime” means that in a short, precise turn, one’s life changes course. Overnight, our lives have completely changed. We learn to sleep in chairs. A noisy breath wakens us immediately. We tell our stoic girl that it’s perfectly okay to cry. We cry in loud, noisy outbursts when we get stolen moments alone. We must be stoic, too, nodding understanding as nurses and doctors and radiologists and surgeons explain to us in detail the next thing and the next thing and next thing.

canstockphoto21982117This is my life now. There is nothing else. Everything else is just going through the motions, playacting at writing or housework or social interaction. Shadows of life before. After writing solipsistic essays for many years, I find it difficult to think in terms of “I” at the moment. It’s all “we”, because our little family now moves in the same direction. Shift to the hospital, shift back home, and back to the hospital, like a school of fish streaming in one direction, then the next. All moves coordinated by the next set of labs, the number on the thermometer, the beeping of machines.

My writing skills are put to the test, writing updates to family and friends – calm missives that don’t reflect our primal fears. My introversion takes a back seat to communication. My independence evaporates in coordinating cat feedings with friends, passing off volunteer commitments, and taking offers of help. We call on friends we’ve been out of touch with, hold back relatives who would cause stress, and break down in front of complete strangers.

This is our life now. We turned on a dime. The 5% chance that this is a sprint and not a marathon. The 95% chance that we’re gearing up for a long haul. Numbers – those logical, strict little things now measure hope.

We are lucky. We have good health insurance. We live in a metro area with a lot of medical expertise. We have supportive friends and family. Our daughter is an amazing person who has shown us how to be in the face of calamity. The journey to her wellness is just beginning. Writing about this out loud is a way of keeping me sane – writing is how I process the world, especially when overwhelmed. However, I will be mindful of my daughter’s privacy in the upcoming weeks. 

There is a tendency for people to want to give advice at times like these. We have some of the best medical resources in the country and friends who have gone through similar circumstances, so I won’t respond to advice or links or recommendations, especially for coffee enemas. Coffee goes in the mouth hole. Thank you.

This is My Brain Not on Drugs

I’m writing this in a coffee shop. It might not have been the best day to attempt writing in a public space. I knew that my senses were on an acute bender when I went to the Y to get a workout this morning.

I was overwhelmed by the musty smell that concrete buildings sometimes have on a rainy day. Then I had to switch treadmills because the manual button to change speeds (for interval running) wasn’t responsive enough. Then I noticed the seam of my sock was off and I could feel it with every foot strike. In front of me was the flapping, fleshy face of the president popping up on the nonstop TV screens. My treadmill started making a clickclickclick sound as I increased speed. The woman next to me was wearing some sort of musky perfume that made my stomach uneasy. Sensory overload.

There is, I suppose, a diagnosis that would roll up all my sensitivities into a nice neat package that could be ameloriated/dulled/cured by drugs/meditation/emotional eating. That I’m oversensitive to most drugs is not ironic – just a fact. When I got put under for an endoscopic invasion a few weeks ago, I awoke irritably to two women hollering in my face and shaking me to wake up. I did not want my nap, which was acanstockphoto2383460bout seven years overdue, interrupted. This caused some concern on their part. I want to yell “See, I told you!” in response to people who have suggested medication might not be a bad thing for me. They’ve also apparently never heard me wax on about how much I enjoyed Percocet – a brief time in my medical history when I loved everyone and everything right up to the moment the prescription ran out.

Acute senses are sometimes a curse. My family thinks so. Life would be slightly better for them if I didn’t enter every room with “What’s that smell?” People would appreciate it, too, if I remembered them by their names instead of their quirks, smells, lisps, twitches. I do my best not to call them by their idiosyncrasies. Because calling someone one-who-picks-at-their-teeth or the-guy-who-smells-of-mothballs is apparently bad form. This heightened awareness and observation isn’t just irritants. It’s lovely eye crinkles that deepen a laugh or smile. It’s the smell of lilacs floating across a yard. It’s the house not blowing up next to us, because I alert the gas company (true story). It’s also likely what makes me a better writer than I would otherwise be.

canstockphoto60321094Perhaps I’m at the point in life where rationalization seems a whole lot easier than making a change. I can smell leaves burning a mile away, while simultaneously noticing there are two different species of birds calling back and forth, and that the man going by on his bike, playing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” out of little speaker, is on his third pass (I ain’t converting, old man). I’ve finally rationalized that it is a gift, although there are days when I wonder how I function. But I do and I live on to write about the things that flood my brain.

Politics

canstockphoto33544039The media is framing the 2020 election already. Dinosaurs duking it out (and yes, the President is a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Come on, with those hands, it’s too easy). Biden is a Gallimimus (a dinosaur generically known as a “chicken mimic”). Initially I thought that the only thing that would make the race more exciting would be betting pools on who croaked first. But that wouldn’t be exciting. The runner-ups to the Shitty American contest would be Pence and Sanders. You’d have to go two teams deep to find an unfossilized politician with a slightly original idea who wasn’t handsy or repressed or spitting on himself when he spoke. This is going to be another long year/decade.

TMI

I’m all for authenticity and honesty. To a point. Lately I’ve seen conversations floating about the internet regarding how people wash in the shower. This is where I slam my laptop shut in disgust. For two reasons: 1) How you wash in the shower is not any of my damned business. 2) See number one. Most of the time people start these public conversations so they can feel some sense of superiority, goad others into defending themselves, or gain views for exaggerating minutiae into contagious attention. There are things worth talking about because they cause people shame or pain and being brought into the light of day serves to free them. Whether you wash your bits and pieces in a certain order or with a washcloth or loofah is not interesting or elucidating. It does say something about the person who starts that public conversation. I don’t know what, but I’m sure they’ll tell us.

It’s Not Joyce or David Foster Wallace, But Close

44161076I’ll fess up. I’m reading that damned Mueller Report. There are several factors complicating my reading sessions. It’s boring, I’m not a lawyer, and it is not going to change my mind about the current occupant in the White House. Still, I trudge on because neither a sycophantic Attorney General nor a befuddled media are going to “spin” it for me. I’ll see for myself what’s what – and still not know much more than I did before reading this Asshole Odyssey.

P.S. – Remember a while back when I wrote that post about not swearing? Yeah, it didn’t quite take.

Mulchsplainer

I am persistent, but not great at most things in my life. This applies to writing, gardening, running, sleeping (not the no-brainer it used to be). I resist giving up in the face of imperfection. My garden is a rambling, disorganized experiment. I spend hours there, filthy from head to toe, and it still looks like the owners have been on vacation. For months. It’s right in our front yard, where everyone can see, including the man who keeps biking by and yelling at me that I need to mulch. Surprisingly, this is not the same man who bikes by playing hymns down our street. I do live in an interesting neighborhood.

canstockphoto3556994It occurred to me how important it is to love something you’re bad at. I love to run, but I’m not good at it. My face stays red for hours after. I look as graceful as a gazelle if a gazelle were 30 pounds overweight, had knock knees, and clutched its chest every half mile or so. Still, I do it, because it gives me a bizarre kind of joy. And bizarre joy is so much better than regular joy, because it’s all yours and completely inexplicable to others.

Have a Joyful Week!

50 Shades of Blue Revisited

Over five years ago, I wrote a post about swearing on my blog. I was a proponent for the judicious use of swear words that served as a point of emphasis or humor. These days, when politicians and pundits regularly use profanity, when prime time television is littered with it, the adolescent novelty has worn off. It is no longer serving much purpose, nor does it give me the joy it once did. People eventually ruin everything. I, too, am people, and have definitely ruined swearing for myself.

canstockphoto8636729Perhaps it is that I hear myself in the car or muttering anywhere public and I have begun to sound as trashy as our current politicians. It is a reminder that neither money nor power nor platform is evidence of human decency or compassionate intelligence. Profanity is the least of it, but perhaps a sign post that bad logic, mundane evil, mendacious lies, and atrocious grammar is sure to follow. I’ve begun to conflate them and question if I need to make a change.

To say that I can be a contrarian would be an understatement. This is why, for the first time in my adult life, I’m considering giving up swearing altogether. I’m not all that confident that I would be able to do it, but if public, political, and entertainment conversation is trending in that direction, I feel the compulsion to go the other. It has gotten so much worse since that election three years ago – the need to express frustrations and fears in the form of cursing. I find that I do it most when I feel powerless or anxious. Sometimes it feels like the only thing that carries any venom.

We’re in the age of words, drowning in opinions and reviews and pundits, flooding our brains with unfiltered information, much of it false or hyperbolic. The language itself is mutating through the lens of liars until words are rendered meaningless. Profanities have been baked into the mix, no longer raw or shocking, only slightly jarring.

canstockphoto11556664Language is a beautiful system of communication and the English language, with 171k+ active words, provides us with so many options. The individual alone knows approximately 20-35K words. I’ve begun to think about the words I haven’t used instead of curse words. Like rapscallion instead of douchebag. Or stinkard instead of shithead. Even the North Korean dictator introduced us to a good word – dotard. As a writer, it would behoove me to expand my vocabulary, instead of using old standbys that made me snicker as an adolescent.

While I was down and out with a cold, I re-watched a goofy science fiction series called Farscape. All the cursing was comprised of made up words (frell, yotz, dren, drelk). And it worked. I realized that it was all tone and context that gave the words their meaning, not the choice of the words themselves.

Profanity itself is not an intelligence marker, nor does it seem any longer to be indicative of my working class roots or my stint in the military. There is not a moral argument to be made. Words designated as profane have always been a cultural construct, but it is their suppression that makes them useful for emphasis or humor. Being common renders them essentially ineffective.

canstockphoto14200558.jpgIt’s time to choose differently. I tend to be judicious in my writing and I prefer no limits, but I definitely need to clean up my conversational skills. My first step will be practicing at home. My cat might finally learn his real name. Then I can level up in public with friends, and the final mastery of the game, driving in metro traffic. I need to look up some better words.

What’s your favorite non-profanity?

Fearless Friday: Beginnings

I started this post series “Fearless Friday” several months ago as a way of sharing other bloggers’ and writers’ work, as I felt the need to be more generous with this space. I’d had the good fortune of a good-sized readership and wanted to spread the wealth. It landed with a thud in terms of contribution and required a great deal of work to put together. However, I can be a stubborn cuss and I think anything worth doing is not only worth doing well, but worth doing long term and with patience. So I start afresh…

It seems fitting to talk about beginnings. We often sabotage ourselves by measuring the present moment through the lens of the past or expectations of the future. Unwritten novels, blank canvases, and tunes only heard in one’s head – this is the outcome of not starting where you are and an inability to shut out the noise of a society that only recognizes endeavors in statistical outcomes. I’ve been thinking a lot more about beginnings and middles – which is essentially process, because that is where any creative person spends most of their time. It is that magical, invisible time when it’s just you and what you’re doing in the moment.

Welcome to Fearless Friday.

Feacanstockphoto13410470rless Fridays are about lives lived in spite of our fears, living a life that is about curiosity, compassion, and courage. If you just got published, something wonderful happened to you, you witnessed an act of kindness or bravery, or you have someone in your life who amazes you, drop your story into my contact page or email it to TheGreenStudy (at) comcast (dot) net and I’ll run it on a Fearless Friday. If you’re a blogger, it’s an opportunity to advertise your blog, but this is open to anyone who would like to share.  These will be 100-300 word stories, subject to editing for clarity and space.

Debut Novels

Over the last few years, my reading has taken on a particular intention – to teach myself how to be a better writer. At first, I delved into the “classics”, never wandering too far afield for fear that my literary education would have gaps. I’m over that. After Joyce and Faulkner and Hemingway, I’m so over that. While my reading has always been eclectic and organic (one book referencing another and another until I’m reading about hissing cockroaches in Madagascar), it is now done with notebook and pen in hand. No matter what I’m reading, I learn something new about writing.

44011737Last week, I finished reading Clifford Garstang’s The Shaman of Turtle Valley, a debut novel that explores cultural and family conflicts (and similarities) when a soldier brings his Korean wife home to Appalachia. What I enjoyed, and learned from most, was the author’s use of first person POV from each of the main character’s perspectives. This can sometimes go awry in a novel, but Mr. Garstang did a good job of writing characters with distinct voices.

This is the second debut novel I’ve read over the last few months, the first being The Fourteenth of September by Rita Dragonette. Both Garstang’s and Dragonette’s novels are by older authors with unique backgrounds – a fact that speaks to me for obvious reasons. The stories they wrote were engaging and kept me reading faster and faster in my anxiety to find out what happens.

Full disclosure: I was sent these books to read by publicists at JKS Communications who represented and were recommended by one of my favorite bloggers, Donna Cameron, with her book, A Year of Living Kindly. Also full disclosure – I’m a very critical reader and a working writer, so I do not write book reviews as a matter of practice. That people still send me books after I tell them this, just delights the hell out of me. I get to read books and talk about them and don’t feel compelled to pander. Yay me.

As a writer, debut novels are also wonderful learning tools. Most people don’t write a seamless novel out of the gate – it’s the nature of writing experience. The architecture of a debut novel tends to be more obvious than in a second or third novel. As a writer, I can nod my head knowingly when I see what the author was trying to do. I can see the inner workings of structure, the strengths and weaknesses, and discover solutions to problems in my own work.

Before the Debut Novel: Shitty First Drafts

First novels also make me think about courage and perseverance. The end piece of a creative work – the marketing and publicity, is the smallest sliver of the whole process. A novel that has been fomenting for decades, worked at for years, edited for months, is the crux of the writer’s life. That’s where the time is spent and the only way to spend that much time and love is to be invested in the process, not the outcome.

The surest route to halting all creative thought is to think about results – the one piece in the process over which a creator has very little control. When my head is full of those thoughts, it seems like a lot is riding on the opening sentence – a sentence that will now not be written because there’s too much pressure. I shut down. The birthplace of a writer’s block.

12543While I hope someday to have my own debut novel, I will forever reference Anne Lamott’s assertion in Bird by Bird that “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.” I am learning to love my terrible first efforts – being in that space where I just sound stupid, like I’m writing a fifth grade essay about the Tower of London (it was dreadful and accompanied by even worse drawings). The willingness to be awful, in addition to reading with intent, has changed my writing for the better.

If you’re a creator, what thoughts stop you from beginning?

How do you counter that?

Any favorite debut novels?

Cold Open

Hello, Internet. I am an average person who writes about average things. I write about head colds and depression and failed writing attempts. Sometimes I dig deep and write about parenting or the military or I really reach and write about how much I hate social media (yes, Alanis, that is irony). I hear Charlton Heston in my head yelling Internet is people!, but I’ve been disconnected of late, so rather removed from the humanity that apparently resides in my computer. I’m also old-ish, so I can only make obsolete references to old songs and actors that you will have to Ggoogle (thanks to Dreyer’s English, I’ve been sorted on the whether or not to capitalize neologisms).

canstockphoto14303156It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve written. Anything. I have a lot of excuses – I was sick, my daughter’s orchestral season has kept me on the run, I’ve had to make some lifestyle changes to counter encroaching health issues. They’re solid excuses, except that they’re not the reason I haven’t been writing. I simply didn’t want to. I got tired of the sound of my own voice. It turns out that my introversion extends to even myself. Shut up already, self.

I’ve spent a lot of time saying nothing and even more time reading, walking, and doing chores. I’m psyching myself up to get ready for a more dedicated strength training program, as well as pushing through novel edits. And as soon as the #@$% snow melts from our April blizzard, I’ll be getting back to work in my garden. So I return here, to warm up my writing skills and re-connect with the many lovely people who apparently live inside my computer. Nano-people.

41048099I’m in the middle of reading Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet. It’s one of those books that tells you what you likely already know, but feels reassuring when someone else says it. After a long winter of anxiety, depression, and sadness, I have found my way out of its shroud. I disconnected from those places on the internet that fueled either depression or rage. I’m limiting my intake of news. I’m focusing on the things that feed me – reading, exercise, being outside, staying in the moment. Listening. Not talking. I still have work to do. Even now, as I write this, I feel a modicum of anxiety. It seems that periods of silence sometimes reset my discomfort in engaging publicly.

I’ve given this blog some thought – the why, when, how of it. It remains, after deleting Twitter and just using Facebook to manage a nonprofit page, my only public voice. Who do I want to be on the internet? How do I add or detract from this space? There is nothing in particular I will change here, except to clarify to myself what I want it to be – a slow, calm place with gentle conversation, some humor, and a chance to counter toxicity with thoughtfulness. It’s not faddish or viral or cutting edge. As much as being a replicated contagion seems to be desirable, I am too much of a tortoise. Slow, steady, unwilling to give much shrift to my knee-jerk reactions.

canstockphoto50415411It takes some will and personal stamina to downshift one’s life in a rapidly accelerating world. I resent being hurried. I resent being cajoled or berated by advertising. I’m tired of the perpetual dissatisfaction that saturates a capitalist society. I’m tired of self-criticism. Of criticism in general. I’m tired of being bludgeoned by breaking news and shitty Twitter journalism. I’m tired of reviews and stars and thumbs and smiley faces. It’s a system designed to feed insecurities and fears. It’s fantastic if you’re immune, but most of us, I believe, are not.

One must make a deliberate choice to go slow in this world. And it’s not even really that slow. I’m the driver who stays within five miles of the speed limit while I’m being tailgated by the impatient, the entitled, and the dangerous. I must resist the pressure, drive safely, stay as far away as possible from other drivers, and ignore the rude hand gestures. That seems like a pretty decent metaphor for my life at the moment.

Getting Warmer

This little writing session was all it took. I now have a few post drafts for the next week. It’s a reminder that always surprises me. When you’re stuck or silent or uninspired, all you have to do is start. It might be the shittiest start ever, but giving yourself permission to start where you are can be the beginning of something amazing. Not this post, of course. But something.

My Misery Brought a Plus One

I was almost there. The sadness of loss began lifting and dissipating with the arrival of the spring sun. I acted like a grownup and went to the doctor to deal with my health anxieties. Spring break ended and my family returned to their respective daytime activities. The deck was cleared for productive writing, invigorating workouts, and getting my garden planned. It was a glorious five minutes.

canstockphoto46418801I’m writing here, shortly before I render myself unconscious with an ungodly amount of pharmaceuticals. I’m down and out with a head and chest cold which makes me dizzy and susceptible to laughing at my own jokes. It might be that I already hit the Nyquil. Nowhere on the warning label does it say I should not operate a keyboard.

This is life, as they say. They are assholes. It may be life, but in the moment, when my head feels like it has been split open and my voice is a croak interrupted by paroxysms of coughing, it feels like it is not a good life. It will pass they say (they can now shut their pie holes and return to bad faith arguments land).

canstockphoto181672.jpgSurliness is often my go-to place when tired, sick, hungry, breathing. I have made the execrable error of filling my life with positive people – all of whom I must avoid when surly. I like to let my surliness and self-pity run its natural course, without the shame of it could be worse quips being blithely tossed my way. Unnatural stoppage could turn my feral surliness into something worse – a reasonable, circumspect person who always seems like they have their shit together. That would be wholly unnatural for me.

For those of you who regularly read my posts, I am going to be okay. I received my biopsy result in which the doctor was playing fast and loose with the English language. It essentially said You don’t have cancer. Yet. See you next year. Precancerous cells have put me on a watch list. There are some minor lifestyle changes I can make to prevent further damage. And believe me, I’m making them. If you reach a point in your life when people need to regularly shove tiny cameras in your orifices, you make the damn changes.

Much of the joy has been drained from my life – if my life were all about eating delicious canstockphoto56388854.jpgfood. Which, to be fair, much of it was. Now I must get my jollies from smoothies with raw ginger and greens. No more spicy Mexican, onion-laden Greek, tomato-filled Italian food. I sleep on a wedge pillow, don’t eat three hours before bedtime, drink gallons of water, and stare morosely out the kitchen window, while washing another bowl of lawn clippings for my next meal.

I suppose I should be grateful that I was scared into better health. I’ve lost some weight, don’t experience heartburn, and will likely be able to avoid a lifelong drug regimen. Although, as soon as I began exercising better habits, I immediately got sick. It leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth. But that might just be the kale.

Before I started writing this, I had in mind pithy comments to make about current events, reading I’ve been doing, and other random bits of wisdom. I would have sounded erudite and witty, I assure you. But my head is currently full of mucus. It might be better for me to have a lie-down and hope that the cold medicine doesn’t conk me out so soundly that I wet the bed. That’s life.

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