It’s hard to write from a place of depression. Whatever anyone thinks they know about depression, they can really only know their own. Mine comes in many shades. This particular one is a verdant green. The gray dullness I feel is made more pallid by the contrast of a lush Minnesota summer, when the rain has come at all the right times.
Already I – have become tired of such a deep-colored summer.
In the grove the masses of royal fern – have grown up to
their full height and
I suppose such things as beetles, frogs, and blue-green
dwarves are walking.
This greenness like a sea
must have totally dyed the expression of my eyes.
Sei Itō, Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry
It’s like being in the middle of a really great party, but no one can hear or see you. I feel untouched by happiness, retreating further into the recesses of my mind. Life becomes this out-of-body experience and I used to fear that if I didn’t hold on, force myself back out, I’d just drift away. But my energy is low, even while my brain generates worst case scenarios by the second.
I’ve long ago abandoned the idea that I should feel this way or that. This is emotional freedom. My life is now constructed in such a way that my depression isn’t a spectator sport. I can pull weeds without expression, fold laundry mindlessly, make a meal in silence. I can think my dark thoughts and not have to apologize or try to ameliorate the worry of someone else. I can go dark and quiet and unnoticed.
My experience gives me the edge when it comes to the regular dead space that overtakes me. I know it will end. I’ve been through this so many times, that I know I will likely wake up tomorrow in an entirely different place. This keeps my depression from becoming something more dangerous. It makes it less dramatic or interesting, which is something I don’t take for granted.
Some depressions I slide into, requiring days of numbness to finally force my acknowledgement. Some, like where I’m at now, happen snap-quick when an incident knocks away my self-assurance, uncorking tumble-down thoughts that I was filled with at a young age. I am not good enough and making mistakes just proves that.
In this case, I said something that I thought was funny, but I hurt the person’s feelings. I apologized and maybe in a differently-wired brain that would be the end of it. We moved on from it, but I stayed with the thought that I am mean-spirited and that I can’t trust myself to be around other people. That I can’t trust other people.
It triggered an anxiety attack. I would not be loved unless I made myself more worthy. How do I make myself worthy? Strive for perfection. Strive to be better. I put myself through a punishing workout. I worked harder getting the house in order. I tried not to speak unless necessary. Intellectually I know I’ve gone off my nut, but intellect is only one part of the human operating system. In less than 24 hours after an innocuous exchange, I am in the murky waters of depression.
Sometimes a depression is already brewing, in search of a trigger. I never know if I’m in the beginning or at the end, until the fog lifts.
I have a family history of depressive and personality disorders. Some of us have chosen medication and some, like me, have willingly allowed ourselves to live with it. And in some cases, embrace it. Not being a hugger, I’m willing to give it a pat on the arm and think, get on with it.
It may be my superstition that if I give up the fog, I may not have the sharp clarity and energy that follows. It’s a common rationale for manic-depressives, unwilling to treat the depression because the treatment dulls the mania. With a milder version of it (cyclothymia), I am less willing to give up those moments when intricate thoughts wend themselves through my brain and words hurl themselves onto the page.
To an outsider, it might seem an untenable life and in the early years, when my life was less stable and circumstances more dire, it was. I would desperately try to medicate myself – booze, smoking, men, food, shopping, gambling. But at some point I made different choices and one of those choices was figuring out how to make room for my brain chemistry. I found people who didn’t press when I wanted to be alone. I sought help when I couldn’t help myself.
I learned to give myself permission to just be and observe. It has become a meditation unto itself. I unwind the monologues that run through my head, acknowledging with gentleness each twisted perspective, diatribe, miscue, mistake, and loads of dubious self-pity. I’ve learned to tease myself “Yes, yes, you are a horrible person. Yes, that trip to Greece with the drunken boyfriend was a huge mistake. Yes, you really are quite the lumpy hausfrau. Yes, the world is an awful, awful place.” Yes, dear, lay it all out on the table.
And all these things that have been tucked away, the failures and the embarrassments, lay there, inert and powerless. And I see them for what they are – old stories. It reminds me of the Alfred Hitchcock short story collections: Stories to Stay Awake By, Stories to be Read with the Lights On, Stories to be Read with the Door Locked. These are my depression stories and I know them by heart.
And soon, they will shuffle back to their shelves, the fog will evaporate and I will remember the other stories where I do the best I can and that is enough.
Lately, as the airwaves and data bytes have been poisoned with yet another presidential online freak out, I’ve been reading the comments from various sources. People say things like if you get hit, you hit back harder and he’s just fighting fire with fire.
It’s emblematic of any toxic relationship I’ve ever had – from a friend or family member or romantic partner. It’s that person who overreacts to any slight, who doesn’t speak to you for days or even years after you disagree with them. It’s the one you laugh nervously with as they castigate and upbraid someone who crossed them. It’s that person who jokingly hints if you upset them in any way, they’ll tell your worst secrets to anyone who will listen.
Sometimes they’re hard to recognize. They’re overly effusive and friendly and you slip into what you think is a comfort zone. And then you disagree with them or suggest that something they did was perhaps unkind. Snap. First a momentary chill, then fiery hot words meant to wound and hurt and dismiss. If you’re the target, you have that sick knot in your stomach and if you have any introspection at all, there’s the potential for gaslighting, so shocked by the reaction. Maybe it was me.
I’ve long ago left behind or limited relationships that contain that kind of toxicity. It’s fairly astonishing to hear that people think this is a legitimate or healthy way to conduct oneself in the world. But we see and hear this in a lot of disputes – the escalation of property disputes, road rage incidents, the excess use of lawsuits, and workplaces where employees are kept in check through vindictiveness and emotional intimidation.
Growing up where retaliation was swift and disproportionate, intended to diminish and wound, rather than teach, I learned to be a soother. Never too offensive or loud or noticed. One hates to admit that the dysfunctional childhood lessons help in some ways, even while hindering in others. I have a radar when it comes to toxic people and a skill for walking on eggshells, which sometimes deluded me into thinking I was special, until the day I said the wrong thing.
People rationalize an awful lot of behavior in order to support a political ideology that is unable to stand on its own without tipping the table, confusing the issues with personality, and turning the public discourse into a cesspool of grudge matches. There has been a lot of talk about this last election, that people voted values, not policy. This particular value sticks out at me – the idea that no slight go unchallenged.
Some of the people who say things like hit back harder purport to be religious. The whole turn-the-other-cheek philosophy a vague lesson best left to the wussies and pacifists. I think about how little courage is required to react and lash out and allow your anger to go unchecked. And what fortitude is needed to pull back, take a breath, think about the issue at hand, and respond civilly. Or not at all.
Despite my ideological leanings, this kind of behavior can be spotted all along the spectrum – the lashing out, name-calling, and pointing out the behavior of someone else to justify one’s own. This is where I call bullshit on those who advocate bootstrap personal responsibility from everything from economics to health care, yet accept no personal responsibility for being utter wankers.
In my world, I assume that any words coming out of my mouth, regardless of what is being said or done, are my responsibility. The justification of they did it first never worked in elementary school and it sure as hell shouldn’t work in the grownup world.
Sometimes I whinge on about writing. Sometimes I whinge on about aging. Today, I do a little of both over at Kasmin’s Redesign Life for Real Change blog with “The Writer and the Tortoise”.
Since it’s summer, my family and I have indulged in some low rent binge watching – namely the profligate Marvel Universe on Netflix. On the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., humans undergo a process called Terragenesis in which they evolve through one method or another into inhumans – humans with enhanced powers. In the show, The Ghost Rider is another character who gains the skill to become a fire-hurling head of flame.
My head has felt surrounded by flames on and off for a month now. I’m going through peri-menopause, on my way to being done with my childbearing years. Every two minutes, I feel like I’ve just opened an oven door in front of my face – prickly heat, the sweat, then the cooling off and chills. Insomnia is putting me on edge and writing is interrupted by chaotic thoughts hopping through my head, like frogs on lily pads, leaping from one random word to another.
Normally, I wouldn’t bother writing about “lady issues”. But there is some glee in doing so when we have a president who is viscerally offended by any bodily function of a woman. He’s expressed his heebie-jeebs about menstruation, weight, breastfeeding, using the restroom, children – anything that mars his puerile focus on beauty queen attributes. I’m not really interested in reading about other people’s bodily functions, hygiene or bathroom habits, but I know they exist and don’t act like a ten-year old afraid of girl cooties.
It is euphemistically called a change of life. Metamorphosis is the word that keeps cropping up in my mind. Will I shed my skin? Will I become something worse, lesser, weaker, older? My body seems no longer under my control, with the unregulated thermostat turning the furnace on every time I get the least bit comfortable. Now that I will no longer be a fertile being, is this the time when primordial husbands look for eggs elsewhere?
My body has been through a lot – all the running, marching in combat boots and gear, martial arts training, childbirth, endless menstrual cycles. I calculated that in my lifetime, I’ve had a period at least 400 times. 400 times of hormonal changes, fat loss and gain. 400 times when sappy commercials made me cry, I’ve blurted out the wrong thing, I’ve lain on the couch with a heating pad, bottle of ibuprofen, and a box of tissue. My body has been in a constant state of change, but this time the change will stick.
Death anxiety has been keeping me awake as I approach my 50th birthday. All that time under the bridge and I can still feel the rapid heartbeat of knowing that in an instant, I could be dead. I’ve had death thoughts all my life, part and parcel of a family gene of mental morbidity. They mostly come to the surface when I’m under a great deal of pressure or anxious about something. They pass as I finally get sleep and eventually wake up to the day with gratitude – that I made it through the night.
I don’t dwell long in that place – I know it’s not helpful. But these days the thrum of my anxiety isn’t waning. It is staying at a rather constant, exhausting level. This is where the desire to do something drastic and different arises. Anything to relieve the idea that this is it. That my life has culminated in a mere pittance and that any hopes or dreams I have are on a timer. It gets dark in my head, before a challenger arrives.
The challenger is this moment. In this moment, I get to sit in my study and write. I look past the happy cat snoozing on the window seat, into a green space with grape vines and flowers growing. My teenager is whiling away the morning in a horizontal position that seems to shift only slightly throughout the day. My husband, who has surely had his own death thoughts, is downstairs working, on the phone with his colleagues. I’ve had a good breakfast and there’s a full coffee pot.
What is it that would make this experience better? Do I need something or have I become so accustomed to scrabbling for more, I don’t know when to rest? The idea of rest, of not fighting so hard to be disciplined or accurate or on time or willing, bothers me. Yet I wonder if it would make me kinder and more joyful and less anxious. I’ve always wondered if we all aren’t just trying too much. And maybe that is the secret to being happy as one ages. To not try so hard.
I think about my lifetime pursuits thus far. What was I looking for? For me, it has often been safety. This is a sad realization on my part. I would do anything to be safe, not surprised, not noticed – just safe. I grew up with unpredictability, so I needed to be my own rock and I’ve spent a lifetime being careful. I keep waiting for that crushing, regret-filled moment when I see it all so clearly – what I’ve missed out on because I was safe.
That moment may never come. I will likely never be a wild woman, a revolutionary with fiery ideals and bold actions. I won’t be making history. As I sweat through another hot flash, I think about what might be released from my pores – fear, anxiety, pain, old memories, regret, disappointment. Perhaps this is the change that is really happening – that I am becoming unknown to myself again, because everything that has defined me is subject to question.
The school bus had been gutted, seats replaced by plywood that would make a table and then a bed platform and then a bathroom stall. My stepfather was always coming up with creative ways to use cheap things he’d acquired, a forerunner of the reuse and recycle crowd before it became trendy. The school bus into a camper was the most odd, and where we’d end up living for a time while he turned an old gas station into a house.
Our first vacation in the bus was to a lake and campground in Iowa. As a child, it all seemed a grand adventure to me, unaware of the incongruity of a school bus parked amidst RVs and tent campers. I think my mother and stepdad were heady with accomplishment, even as my mother snapped at us to sit down and stop making so much racket, a common refrain in the early years.
It must have been an adventure to my parents, too – lit with the possibilities that if a school bus could be a camper, then all the other things could be something else, too. Every dream was fraught with danger, though. The gas station cum family home became a prison to us and we had to leave him and it. For years the school bus camper sat, incapacitated, off to the side, a centerpiece in a garden of weeds.
This year, my husband, daughter, and I decided to rent a cabin a few hours north, where we’d been many years ago, when my daughter wasn’t yet afraid of spiders or boredom. The cabin is primitive by Minnesota standards, where cabins have quickly taken on the size and cost of a second home.
It’s early in the morning. I ended up sleeping on the couch to spare my husband the jet engine snoring that has become a hallmark of my middle-aged years. It suits me fine, since I can get up at 4, make coffee and write without waking anyone. There’s a chill in the air this morning, but I sit outside comforted by the rustle of birch leaves and rat-a-tat-tat of a yellow-bellied sapsucker that has chosen a metal sign to announce his presence.
On our way to the cabin, we stopped at a restaurant to get a late lunch. We’ve had this habit over the years of avoiding ubiquitous Subways in favor of the local habitats – diners that are also collectibles dealers and bus stations and post offices and, in the past, the only Wi-Fi connection in town.
This particular diner had a bar downstairs. At two in the afternoon, patrons slid past the diner counter mumbling “Is the bar open?” as if it were the password to a speakeasy. We sat at the counter instead of a table, something I insist on, having seen too many 1950s movies and knowing in my writer brain, that it’s where we witness more.
Small town diners remind me forever and always of a diner I worked in as a teenager. Almost every small town diner has the taped-up, yellowing handwritten signs letting you know that they don’t take checks or that you can buy whole pies for a very hopeful price. There’s the shelf of mugs for the coffee club, handmade goods at the front counter, embroidered framed pictures about your biblical blessings and others that bless the meat you are about to eat, by covering the surrounding walls with dead animal heads, watching over you as you eat their progeny.
Part of me takes a mocking view, but it is the mentality of an escapee. The bad outweighed the good in the small town I went to high school in – I only associate it with the times the police were called to our house, the very public way in which a family disintegrates. Everyone knows, which is just about as horrifying as it gets for a self-conscious teenager, mortified when kind teachers or employers offer her a place to stay.
The diner I worked in was a refuge of sorts. The owners were terrible business people, but kind and generous to a fault. I was allowed to stay after closing time, playing Ms. Pac-Man on a gigantic arcade machine in the corner with the boss and eating free pie. As in most diners, there was an elderly woman who came in and baked pies every week – hand-rolled crusts lovingly worked at for hours, only to be filled with canned fruit. Best pies I ever had.
When the waitress comes, my husband and I get the meager salad bar. My vegetarian daughter tries to order their breakfast croissant without the meat and egg, with just cheese. The order confuses the waitress and she launches into a long discussion with the cook. They hesitantly deliver what looks like a fried croissant, no cheese. We fare no better. The tomatoes taste as if they’re going south and there is fish next to them – pickled herring, which my Scandinavian husband says is a thing for putting on salads. The pie in the jewel case that taunted us throughout the meal tastes like an under-cooked, soggy Pop Tart.
We cannot revisit the nostalgic comforts of youth, due to either flawed memories or absent any context. Maybe the pie of my teenage days was exactly the same, but in the context of the constant anxiety I had about what was happening at home, it was something of sweet, predictable comfort.
It makes me think how we rarely understand other people’s attachments and are so quick to condemn them. It is only now that I see the optimism in that old school bus, the reason that I’m drawn to diners, the sundry ways we lean this way or that. It means we must tread lightly in our criticisms and mockery, for what we see as frivolous or cloyingly sentimental, could be something else entirely.
The last couple week of blogging hiatus were ostensibly for wrapping up edits on the novel. Life happened, as it usually does, which means my work-in-progress is still in progress. Still, good work is being done and I’m pleased with that.
Part of the challenge of writing fictional characters is understanding that what they see and experience might be entirely different from what actually happens or what another character experiences. It becomes about perception. I think about this a lot in my own life – the weird dichotomy of feeling one is right while knowing one can be completely wrong.
I grew up in a family where dysfunction was served for dinner. My siblings and I are not close, in part because we perceived our experiences quite differently and any discussion of the past ends in argument. My brother and I could be talking about the exact same moment in time and have completely opposite memories.
This is cute in movies and sitcoms, but in reality it’s not so adorable. We talk about a barbecue party where he remembers happily drinking sodas (that we didn’t get to have at home) and I remember being worried about where we’d sleep when the drunken revelry turned ugly and the police were called. We become belligerent about our perspectives and conversation turns combative.
Unreliable narratives abound and it doesn’t end with the personal. We’re seeing our country become more dogmatic and polarized. As the rhetoric heats up, there are those among us who cross the line. And each time one of our “sides” does something reprehensible, we dig our heels in a little deeper, cling to our tribes and cement our perspectives.
Our country is not safe, if it ever was. The anger within has been running rampant, encouraged by public vitriol, unchecked by more moderate voices. The rhetoric has become as emotional and volatile as a soap opera. It’s a reality show that doesn’t stop after the filming. We carry it into our homes, our everyday lives, our perception of our own lives, and of others.
There is nothing to be gained by screaming at each other. It only escalates until someone who is already too close to the line crosses over it. Violence begets violence begets violence. And we tell ourselves, I would never do that. I’m a peace-loving liberal or a law-abiding conservative. But we groom our own thoughts. We have our small conversations at the proverbial water cooler. We nod in agreement, give each other some exclusive sign that we get it and “they” don’t.
The old saying used to be that people shouldn’t talk about religion, politics, or money to keep conversations civil. We’re in a day and age when people are talking about everything, yet ethics have not caught up to the lightning speed of social media. Any form of it from news sites, to Facebook, to YouTube has promulgated this culture of “I am right and you are all so stupid.”
One of my favorite teachers is Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun. Sometimes I think she goes a meditation too far. She talks about the aggression in our thoughts and words. I have a pretty violent sense of humor. I’ll joke about dropping someone with a head kick or back fist to the face. Ha ha – right? Just typing it makes me realize that I might need to work on my sense of humor. She might have a point.
Still, violence in words and thoughts goes beyond jokes. How we talk about one another can be very aggressive. When we label or sort people into groups, this becomes the stepping stone to dehumanizing each other. Once we’ve done that, we’re only a hop and a skip from internment camps and in the case of some individuals, violence.
One of the things I’ve had to learn as a parent is that when in conflict, I have to be careful to confine the rhetoric to the behavior, not the person. When my child carelessly spills something, I might say “that was careless” not “you are careless”. If Hillary Clinton had characterized a set of beliefs or behavior as deplorable, it would not have changed the outcome, but it would have changed the conversation (and quite a few bumper stickers and t-shirts).
There’s another useful tool, often used in relationships. It’s avoiding the use of universal terms. You never take out the garbage. You are always so slow. Republicans are hate-filled. Democrats are freeloaders. Men are thick. Women talk too much. Having children is selfish. Not having children is a curse. We’re all morons. Okay, that last one might have some validity considering the state of things. But those broad brushes serve to isolate and entrench us into untenable positions.
The people who I trust least are the ones who know they are right and will insist on it regardless of any evidence to the contrary. When it comes to national politics and the invisible monetary machinery at work, most of us are ill-equipped to be right. That we argue and squabble about things of which we know little, would be amusing if it didn’t lead to people shooting other people.
When I was a kid, I read a fable about two neighbors fighting. They were having a conversation about the neighbor who lived between them. The first neighbor insisted the middle neighbor’s hat was red and the second insisted it was green, until they came to blows over it. Spoiler alert: it was a two-sided hat. To update this, I’d make it MAGA on one side and The Sierra Club on the other. They could only see it one way from their perspective. Both were right and both were wrong.
I’m not going to draw false equivalencies here. I’m not that fair-minded. But it is a reminder that we only see things from one perspective. Because of this solipsistic fact, we are not the best arbiters of truth. We have to be willing to acknowledge that our opinions, attitudes, and beliefs are hindered by the unreliable narrator within – that’s the first step out of the antagonistic mess we’re making of our country.
Resources I Return to on a Regular Basis:
Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication by Sharon Strand Ellison – I randomly flip this book open and instantly find some piece of wisdom that I can practice throughout the day.
Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion by Jay Heinrichs – This book always reminds me that I’m not as smart as I think I am. And I like that.
Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön
Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim G. Ginott – The communication skills in this book are invaluable and not just for parenting.
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish – Another parenting book that teaches universal communication skills.
The Green Study will return on June 15th, 2017.
It’s down to the wire on getting my novel draft out to some amenable friends and family for reader input. Thanks to my skillful procrastination, this will be like writing my senior thesis in college, except that I won’t be running to someone’s office, reeking of all-night coffee, cigarettes and stale sweat, clutching a mangled stack of papers. Fortunately for my beta readers, I will only be repelling the postal carrier and she’s used to that.
Until my return in a couple of weeks, I leave you with the latest bits and bobs from my brain. I’m having a clear out so that I can wrestle my unwieldy novel into compliance.
On a holiday to honor and memorialize the war dead, you can also get futons 20% off. I tend to agree with some veterans that Memorial Day should never have been moved in the 1960s to create a three-day holiday weekend. I associate the smell of barbecue with the day, more than the stench of war. I say move it back to May 30th and create a three day voting weekend during a warmer time of year. Let’s make voting a bigger deal, in order to truly honor those who have fallen.
Yesterday, I went off to do my favorite thing – peruse a used bookstore. It’s a couple of miles away and I have never left without a stack of books. Half-Price Books opened at the end of a little strip mall ten years ago when I first left a full-time job and it became my bit of escapism.
My daughter and I spent many hours wandering about the bookstore, always making discoveries. She’d find the latest in a series she was reading and I’d discover a collection of stories from a favorite writer. It was the thrill of the hunt, the surprise discoveries on a random table that made it a pleasure. The more jumbled a bookstore, the happier I am.
Yesterday, I stood in front of an empty storefront, a realtor’s sign taped up haphazardly. I could not explain the feeling of sadness that came over me. A sense of loss. My daughter grew up with this store, toddling about the picture and activity books until her teenage slump into the young adult novel section. I’d grown up here too, moving from parenting advice books to gardening tomes to the last few years of writing books.
Enough has been written about the demise of brick-and-mortar stores and the death of bookstores. For me, this feels personal. I was thinking about the fact that if I ever made any decent money, I’d open a used bookstore in my area. Bookstores tell me about the culture of a community. My community just opened a shooting range, Dunkin’ Donuts and has five drugstores within a 5 mile radius. I’m a stranger in a strange land.
It’s raining this morning again. The windows are open and Mr. Cardinal is making a racket from the fence, letting all know far and wide that this patch is his. My husband and daughter are asleep. The cats have resumed napping after breakfast and the coffee is still fresh. A moment of gratitude to start the day. And then back to writing.
Thank you to readers, old and new, for reading, liking and/or commenting on posts at The Green Study.
You make blogging a genuine pleasure!
The hunger divide between writing meaningful stories and writing what I am capable of feels like a gaping maw now. A novel draft I wrote in 2012 seems limp and unedifying. Great novels come out of periods of strife and war and social upheaval. My little domestic drama on paper seems out of step.
I lay in bed last night rewriting my entire novel. It had power and endurance and spoke to the demographics and polarity in our nation – the great canyon between urban and rural, educated and uneducated. It could not be read without raising one’s fist and yelling, “Hell yeah!” It was deep, with a whiff of posterity and the flavor of critical acclaim.
Then I pulled up to my keyboard this morning. The Post-It on my monitor yelled at me: Tell the @#$! Story. I need that reminder these days when my ambition gets ahead of my skill set. Every other day, there’s some new thing I think I should be doing with my novel. I nearly rewrote the entire thing in first person, partly because of this blog. Over the last five years, readers have consistently told me they like my voice or my authenticity and I wondered if my novel would be more readable with that voice.
Except that it’s not my story. The words and pages belong to Madelyn and Jamie and a rural town in Iowa. They could give a rat’s ass about politics, so mired in their own personal shit, up to their ears in self-destruction and self-loathing. Their story is how they find their way out. It’s a story of redemption and the murky waters of forgiveness. Our story, the one in which a personality disordered person turns the national dialogue into bickering and toxicity, has no exit strategy. And happy endings take on quite a different meaning.
I’m a nobody blog writer, an amateur novelist, one of a million dotting the literary landscape. A shrub in a forest of Redwoods. Why do I have an ego that says I should be writing bigger? And do readers always need to read bigger? I have no doubt that some startling, long-lasting work will come out of this period in history. And when colleges get around to updating their classics list, books written during the Trump era will be on it.
I’ve been reading Paths of Resistance: The Art and Craft of the Political Novel, edited by William Zinsser. My writing tip #234: Don’t read books on writing while trying to write a novel. First of all, it usually sheds bad light on whatever you are writing and secondly, it can make you overly ambitious. The novel I am writing was never meant to be bigger than it is. While there may be unintended insight or themes that emerge, it is not going to be the muckraking sociopolitical novel of which I daydream. Maybe next time.
Perhaps this will all be a mistake. I’m an imperfect perfectionist, the covert kind who looks careless on the outside, but demands creases and no slouching on the inside. The kind of perfectionist whose whispers gnaw away and slyly suggest that perhaps my mother was right. It feels like I’m making an intentional mistake – knowing that there are more important things to write, knowing that there is more at stake in the world than ever before.
In a moment of clarity, as I wandered about the gardens this morning, I thought about how the real trick to anything is to fully commit to it. Ten years ago we started ripping up our lawn bit-by-bit, replacing grass with perennials. There were many times when I doubted it would ever look like the English garden I fantasized about, but each year, I took up more lawn, tried different plants, and dug in with all the enthusiasm of a novice. I hit a point of no return and for many years, our yard looked like a bad idea.
It doesn’t look like an English garden now. Not enough sun, too many tree roots and the grass is still determined to retake its ground. But I love it. Plants are maturing and things that I’ve moved and divided and tried again and again are finally filling in space. It’s pretty and colorful, and it gives me pleasure. Even though I’ve done my best, it doesn’t match my fantasy and won’t make a magazine cover, but it has become something unto itself. A labor of love and persistence.
I learned in improv comedy workshops that if you commit to the sound, the word, the actions of your partners, it becomes real to the audience. They are in the moment with you and nothing outside of that matters. If I write the story as well as I can write it, maybe I will have the good fortune of a shared moment.
Perhaps, in the scheme of things, sharing moments with others is pretty damned important. If we can imagine solidarity and connection, there’s a possibility we can bring that into the world. Isabel Allende wrote, “I think I write so that people will love each other more.” Who needs to write any bigger than that?
After wrecking my knee once again, this time by gardening misadventure and not running, rain has provided a welcome reprieve and excuse. I’m chugging through desperate re-writes to get my novel out to a lovely group of beta readers and a couple of agents by the first week of June.
Since I’ve established a hard deadline for myself, I have been busy cleaning windows, rearranging closets, volunteering a few extra hours, sewing on loose buttons, reading obscure texts, and listening to writing advice podcasts while sharpening garden tools. All in all, this would be considered quite productive if any of it actually involved writing.
I wonder if I’m always going to be fighting this battle of distraction. It seems even technology can’t be blamed. Now I know why the classic writer was either going on walks or putting their liver through its paces. It’s lovely to have all those thoughts floating about one’s brain, but quite another thing committing them to paper. I have a mental image of wrestling each and every word to the ground, until they are forced to stand in a row and make a blasted sentence.
It’s easy to get distracted by the current chaos in politics as well, each headline more alarming than the last. I am not particularly surprised by much of it. People voted for a man who has all the diplomacy of a wrecking ball, in addition to a personality disorder that deems every occasion an opportunity to blame, brag, or bloviate.
My outrage meter blew a fuse and now I just want to know that the people not besmirched by this person’s conduct are still doing real work in our government – like handling the fact that the threat of homegrown terrorism is as high as it’s been since 9/11. Or backing down Texas, which thinks it should get federal money despite its discrimination against Planned Parenthood and consequently against the poor in its state. A discrimination which has resulted in a higher number of unplanned pregnancies needed to be covered by Medicaid in Texas. It really beggars belief.
It hit me that I’m counting on the much-maligned civil servant to keep our nation from turning into a third world turd hatchery. I’m counting on people who have been insulted and blamed for everything from long lines to confounding paperwork, to keep coloring within constitutional lines. We don’t have the leadership capable of reasoned and steady trustworthiness. We must rely on the sluggishness and lack of agility of government to slow the man-made disaster of our executive branch. That’s right, the IRS and DMV and AARDVARKS (I really hope somebody is using that acronym) are our last line of defense against autocracy.
Mother’s Day came and went with the usual commercial hullabaloo and media coverage. Since it is the most popular US dining day, I stayed home, enjoyed being left to my own devices by my family and gardened. News bits and bobs ran the gamut from how hard mothers have it to the “why not me” defensiveness of the those without children, fathers, etc.
Since most holidays strike me as over-the-top bullshit which I generally ignore, I spent my time thinking about the defensiveness that emerges in response. As much as I enjoy being referred to as a breeder and moocher and victim in my role as a mother, I have to wonder at the anger. Mothers have bankrolled psychiatrists and psychologists for years, but it’s usually the children of said mothers and not a generalized anger.
Perhaps it is a backlash to the cult of motherhood, Hallmark, and all those gauzy recollections of warm, caring humans that may or may not have been true. I recall being very defensive in my 20s, as all my peers were getting married and having children. I hadn’t planned on either of those things for myself and felt like there was something wrong with me. I could be very snide in my defensiveness. But then I grew up.
I am still occasionally defensive about one thing or another. To me, it’s a tip off that I have some thinking to do. What’s really going on? Am I not happy with my life choices? Am I scared? Am I in pain over something? I’ve learned over the years to listen to people who are defensive and automatically think what’s really going on here? Contempt for other humans is neither healthy nor laudable. People who are genuinely pleased with their lives don’t feel the need to attack others or justify their choices.
Between listening to the audiobook, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and reading Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman for my English learner tutoring gig, I have gotten some great reminders about writing. I like big words, because some of them just roll off the tongue and make language more interesting. I also have an interest in word histories. Sometimes this gets in the way of writing well.
I have a regular conversation with the students I help, as well as with my own child about writing. Writing gets treated as a different language from speaking and this is why it becomes so difficult for some people. People who are extremely coherent and expressive verbally suddenly feel tongue-tied on paper. The exercise I do with English learners is to have them say the sentence they want to write and then once they’ve written it, have them read it out loud. It’s always different from what they’ve said. Then I have them say it again and write it down verbatim.
When I am well and truly fighting with my words, it’s because I think I have to write something different than what I intend – bigger words, more poetic, flowing sentences. I have a sign on my computer now. Tell the @#$% story. Stop being a writer and be a storyteller. It’s amazing how words drop away and sentences shine with clarity.
Time for me to get back to it. The rain will stop and I’ll be distracted once again by the siren call of my garden.
Of late, I’ve really loathed my writing on this blog. Despite this, I hit that Publish button each time, a twitchy trigger finger serving my need to be read and to be heard. This need has thrown me off, as has the public discourse. I’ve been less thoughtful and about as reflective as Narcissus. I’ve been lacking in scope and imagination.
Currently, I’m reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen about a double agent following the fall of Saigon. The author describes the final, brutal scenes of people fleeing, trying to catch the last flights out. Everything relies on chance, of getting the paperwork, of knowing the right people, of having enough money to bribe and cajole.
I read a post by Tim Miller yesterday that has me thinking about luck. It defines so much of who we are and is, for the most part out of our control. Whether our souls are born into white or brown bodies, in countries ravaged by war or in the grips of poverty. Who our parents are, what they know and what they have to give. The vicissitudes of life. For every success story, there are hundreds of tales of struggle and suffering and attaining a mediocrity that could only be enviable by virtue of deprivation.
I love John Lennon’s “Imagine”, because it speaks to ideas beyond the framework of warped politics and dominionist theory. It calls for the very thing we, as a society, seem to lack at the moment. Imagination. Imagination is what fuels empathy and problem solving and optimism. The people in Washington seem so small and petty – lacking in both ethics and creativity. They speak the language of limitation and blame. They use mangled metaphors and hyperbolic rhetoric that says nothing, means nothing. Cowardspeak.
No matter what way I’ve been running at the news, limiting it and curating my sources, I still end up feeling depressed and powerless. It’s because I’m allowing other people to define the framework of my thinking, an involuntary conscription into the culture of hate, blame, and winning at all costs. No imagination required.
We need people with big ideas and courage. We need people who don’t see a zero sum game in everything. We need philosophers and mathematicians and scientists and artists and poets. We need people who spend less time looking down their own pants to see whose is bigger and more time staring off into the sky thinking “what if?”
I’ve not written much about politics after my steady stream of posts following the election. I do not like our president. I think he is a mean, petty, oddly incurious person who lacks personal integrity. I think he has surrounded himself with similarly intellectually stunted, corrupt individuals. No one is for country. Every man and very few women for themselves. There is nothing to inspire imagination, only dismay. There is no voice from Washington that lifts us up, makes us believe, lets us know that there remains life in the already maggot-riddled corpse of this administration.
It is about money and power and I believe that it has corrupted absolutely. While I’ve learned not to rise to every click bait news story, I have only to read the president’s own words to know that there is something wrong. It takes on Shakespearean proportions – the madness, the twisted family relations, the jesters, and insidious narcissistic defensiveness and lying. Richard III is now occupying the Oval Office.
Tolerance. This is a word that gets thrown back and forth so much that it no longer means what it means. I keep being told that I need to respect other people’s beliefs. But I don’t. I respect their right to have them, as long as they are not impinging, legislating, or proselytizing to me. Ann Coulter, Richard Spencer, and Company can speak wherever they can afford to speak. I don’t have to respect or tolerate them. I simply won’t show up or listen, nor do I need to indulge the fools who do.
Frameworks. How we’re taught to think and speak about things. We should be vigorously questioning these right now. All forms of media and sundry self-identifying humans are trying to limit us, limit our imaginations, tell us how to see the world, how to frame the news, and our experiences. We have to be deliberate in widening the scope of what we see, of our awareness and of our empathy. Petty humans are being extraordinarily loud right now – at a frequency designed to disorient and overwhelm.
This is where it ends for me. I’ve felt so small and tense for months now. For every news story, I feel the heat rise up into my face. I splutter. I feel contempt. I call my representatives. I make vows to join the fight. But I’m tired. I’m tired of being a pawn in a petty, destructive game. I’m tired of being emotionally manipulated by entities that could not care less for my existence.
I’m going for the big ideas. The belief that we are here to alleviate the suffering of others. That we are here to practice kindness and empathy. That we are here to learn from our mistakes. That we need not be parrots for demagogues of any ilk. That we are not letter designations and labels. That we are not markers in a political and morally bankrupt casino, where the house always wins.
Our freedom depends on us not following orders, not buying in, not nodding our heads numbly in agreement. Our freedom depends on us not allowing ourselves to be corralled and manipulated and categorized and polled. We are not stakeholders, consumers, demographics, or voting blocs. We are not collateral damage.
We are, above all other things, human beings with potential. It is easy to forget that, easy to forget the marvelous things we are capable of and the boundless compassion we can nurture. The games of public one-upmanship do not render our lives irrelevant. I almost forgot. I almost forgot that my imagination does not end at recycled political solutions and pithy sound bites and orchestrated divisions and borders.
Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.
These are my current news sources, an update to the too-long list I created shortly after the election. While I tend to favor print editions over digital, even with these, my average cost is $17 per month combined on hard and digital copies. :
NPR (audio and digital, daily) – They don’t run with the latest outrage, which means when news stories hit their air waves, they’re less reactive and more balanced.
Foreign Affairs (paid print edition, 6 issues/year) – Big picture thinking needs the big picture. Great source for American foreign policy issues from people who actually think in-depth about them.
The Economist (paid print edition, weekly) – A lot of bang for the buck. Need reading glasses for the small print, but jam packed with information about technology, business, and money issues. It’s a weak area of knowledge for me, so this magazine is good for familiarizing myself with the terminology and current thinking.
The Atlantic (paid print edition, 10 issues/year) – Long form writing from outstanding writers. Covers everything from the political to the cultural.
The New York Times (paid digital, daily) – Fairly clean online edition. Actually still looks sort of like a newspaper and not a multimedia pile of vomit. While taunted as being a liberal paper, I find its reporting to be more evenhanded and in-depth than some of its cohorts. Comments tend to be well-informed and better expressed, regardless of partisanship.
The Washington Post – (Cancelled paid Digital) Click bait titles – more reactive and less thoughtful, comments often allowed on news articles, and distracting, ad-laden pages.
CNN – (Digital) Messy front page, reactionary, poor editing, and incomprehensible mix of infotainment and advertising. Mixed media mess. A case of getting what you pay for.