Grasping for Terra Firma

There is a lot to say. There is nothing to say. I swing wildly between the idea that it’s all been said, but even so, perhaps my own yawp out into the universe is what I need to stop feeling angry and disconnected.

The election brought relief, but not much in the way of joy. I am angry in a way that will inform my activism for the next 4 years. There are few laurels upon which to rest. Still, it’s time to take a beat before formulating the next plan.

Our family is in month 10 of quarantine. We have managed to keep relatively healthy. My daughter was due to come off her chemo drug next month, but after her last follow up, it will be another six months. We can’t risk the tumors coming back and a major surgery being needed in the middle of a pandemic, especially since Minnesota is starting to experience an uncontrolled surge in cases and hospitalizations.

Graphic: A drawing of a house with smoke curling out of the chimney next to a tree.

We worked hard to make the house brighter, painting and changing lighting, in a effort to make it through the winter without losing our minds. My husband’s home office went from a dark space to a bright, airy room. He cleaned out his downtown office – they don’t want workers back in until the middle of next year. So far, we’re doing okay. But we owe a lot of it to delivery and grocery store workers, the unsung heroes of our daily lives.

Last month, I fell into a swamp of a depression. With my daughter in one room taking her virtual college courses and my husband downstairs working, I felt like I was haunting my own house. I was writing here and there, made it through a couple of rounds of a flash fiction competition, attended a virtual writing conference and pitched my current work-in-progress to agents. It felt like more of the same old writing dance I’d been doing for years.

Graphic: Skeleton head with a mortar board. I'm old! I'm going back to school!

Most decisions in my life seem like they’re made in an instant, but usually are the result of something that has been simmering for years on a back burner. I decided to go back to school. At the ripe old age of 53, I’ve been accepted into an MFA in Creative Writing program, which I start in January. The funniest part was contacting the University of Iowa for my 30-year old transcript. Thank goodness they didn’t want my GRE scores, especially since scores before 2015 are not accepted.

I haven’t been writing here, because I’ve been angry and depressed. In order to move forward, I had to make some intentional changes. After being on Twitter for a year, I decided to quit last week. It wasn’t making anything better and it was making me decidedly worse – angrier, more entrenched in my viewpoints, and more anxious. I returned to the old idea of asking myself “Is this helpful?“. It really, really wasn’t.

Graphic: Woman with headphones on asleep at her desk. Me, trying to make a podcast. Snoozeville!

My idea to do a podcast is dead on arrival. I simply wasn’t good at it, cringing at my boring monologues. Still, one of my goals for this blog is to make it as accessible as possible. I’m still learning how to do that, but one thing I’ll start adding next week is a recording of the blog post at the top of the page. More people are listening to podcasts and audiobooks, so I thought it might also be more convenient.

This blog, heading into its 9th year is anemic and needs a boost. Blogging may not be a thing anymore, but it’s my chosen media platform (and now, my only one). Long enough to have substance, but short enough to be digested in a few minutes. I’ve been disconnected from blogland as well as everything else, so I apologize if I haven’t visited your blog or even responded to some comments. It’s not you, it’s me.

So maybe I write this only to say, I’m back. I’m shooting for weekly posts with recording. I’m going to start reading other blogs again and I’m going to try to make this an activity that is more helpful to me and to you.

Let’s reconnect. Let’s be helpful to each other.

Missives from The Green Study in Quarantine

This is the 11th draft blog post I’ve written that may never be published. What do you write when every person you know is some combo of depressed/okay/depressed/not okay?

I went for an early walk this morning. I’ve been having a bad couple of days mentally, while stalking news on the internet, Twittering angrily, otherwise feeling paralyzed and despondent. Our family had been getting a lot of good news recently, the cupboards were stocked, and I’d been doing some writing work about which I was mildly pleased. Still, I found myself just turning over and over in my head the idea that things would continue to decline in this country, that the boiling point would just keep boiling. That there was a reckoning ahead for even the most mild-mannered and conscientious among us.

The only way to step off of this incapacitating ride is to shut the information off and do one concrete thing. Something tactile, something with a start and a finish, something mundane and ordinary. One thing at a time, doing it only for the purpose of doing it. I found this difficult. My mind was bouncing from one subject to another, all with a sense of alarming urgency. I brought my mind back to the dishes. I thought: I am doing the dishes. This is what I’m doing, I’m washing this thing, then the next. It was a relentless battle to pull my thoughts back into the moment.

I did that one thing and then I sat down and wrote a thank-you note to my daughter’s oncologist. She’s been doing well, scans are coming back clean, and she will go off the chemo drug in a couple of months. A year ago, the tumors had come back with a vengeance. Two months later, she was in surgery again. Right now, she’s a high school junior taking full online college courses. She passed her driving test. She got accepted into a university orchestra. She looks well and healthy and happy. I had to send gratitude to someone for that.

For the last few months, I’ve been on Twitter. I’ve opened, closed, and reactivated my account numerous times. It really is quite the shithole. As an unknown writer, social media is a must in terms of marketing and finding markets. I’m not adept or prolific enough for it to have much worth right now. On occasion I’ll come across another writer, a cause worth helping, or something that makes me laugh. I haven’t yet learned to avert my eyes from politics, which is the most ugly, polarized conversation one could ever see. I don’t think I wanted to know this much about the country or its citizens. But you can’t unsee it. Many of us are really quite stupid creatures.

I’m reading SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. Much like reading about the 1918 pandemic in Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, I’ve learned there is an incredibly steep learning curve for humanity. Even crows manage to pass on generational lessons. Humans? We make a good show of it, but as soon as we get scared, we revert to unevolved amoebas. Don’t argue with me, biologists – I do know there are better analogies.

So perhaps that is the crux of the problem – the focus on human foibles and flaws. The nihilist in me has gleefully shouted see, nothing matters!  This is where religion might have proven of some use to me, but once you stop believing, you’re no longer going to leave cookies out for Santa Claus. I’ve tried to explain this to my handful of religious friends. There is no mechanism in my brain that will allow me to believe in a grand puppeteer. I’d have to pretend and that seems like a lot of wasted energy.

Yesterday I read an excellent article in The Atlantic by Ed Yong titled “America is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral” talking about conceptual errors in our thinking. Really worth the read and bizarrely reassuring to me that what I’d been feeling and experiencing was common. I finally stopped washing my groceries after reading Derek Thompson’s “Hygiene Theater is a Huge Waste of Time“. We still don’t go into retail stores. We use Shipt for Target and pick up our groceries already shopped for us from the local grocery store. No one outside the vet who put our cat to sleep in May has been in our house. Even then, she was in the garage.

Today I showered in the 15 minutes between my husband’s work calls (the bathroom is next to his office). I vacuumed upstairs on my daughter’s break between classes. I haunt the space between her bed/classroom and his basement office. Some days, I work in the garden, but the joy of that usually dies in late July with the emergence of bugs and heat. Some mornings I drive out to a regional park and take pictures of birds, quickly putting on a mask when surprised by a hiker rounding the path.

I participated in NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Competition and did fairly well on the first challenge. Waiting to hear back on the second in October. I am pitching a novel at a writer’s conference in October, doing NaNoWriMo in November, rejoined an old writing group, am working with a fantastic writing partner, and generally getting my writing groove on – between or through bouts of self-doubt, artistic pretension, and self-loathing. Feels about right.

I’m finding it hard to get into the blogging groove. Every well-formed thought is mired in sludge. I keep moving forward  – so slowly as to be undetectable to the human eye. But I’m here, you’re here. Let’s make the best of it.

Make some new blogging friends for starters. Check out Stephe Thornton at Manuscript. Head. Drawer. Snack on some enjoyable book reviews at Bookmunch. Enjoy historical bits and bobs by writer Victoria Blake. And lastly, drop the link to one of your favorite blogs in the comments to help make more connections.

The Listening Post

The listening post during war was an intelligence gathering station focused on monitoring transmissions. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last month – gathering information. I’ve been reading heavily, eating up news sources left and right, reading in-depth articles. I’ve reached the conclusion that we’re truly screwed as a species. That seems facile. Perhaps I could massage it a bit – we’re in challenging times. Spin it up another notch – it’s a great time for creative thinking.

canstockphoto48358399I’ve circled back to a novel idea that I had a couple of years ago and am now putting my nose to the grindstone and churning out words. The sense of urgency is heightened by the upcoming election. This election is probably the most important election of this American’s lifetime. Not just about who wins or loses, but about the very legitimacy of voting in our American democracy.

The voter suppression tactics, some long in the making (gerrymandering), some that have shown up in the last few years (availability of polling stations), and the more recent, blatant sabotaging of the postal service may break our system. And yes, white people, we’re a little late to this game. People of color have been dealing with voter suppression tactics since 1866.

Anyway, these times right now might be later viewed as the good times. Who knows where we’ll be in a year? Writing must happen now.

28114469I just finished reading Margaret Walker’s Jubilee. It is shocking that this book, written in 1966, did not receive more attention and accolades. The author is a black woman who heavily researched and wrote a semi-fictional historical novel based loosely on her grandmother’s stories. The book, which covers roughly the same period and location as Gone with the Wind, is written from a slave’s perspective. It makes me angry that this masterpiece never once showed up on the recommended reading lists in college or in any other predominantly white literary space.

Like a lot of white liberals right now, I’m knee-deep in books about racism. Many were already on my shelves, because my trek towards deliberate expansive reading began a few years ago. I began reading more works in translation, more works by people who had different lived experiences.

As a white woman, it’s hard not to be depressed by the Karen and Becky tropes. Or the 53% who voted for the load in the White House. Or the ones who are now throwing temper tantrums in stores about masks. I never knew entitlement had created so many whackadoodles. And of course, the Whackadoodle-in-Chief talking about those mythical suburban housewives, of which I could be considered one.

canstockphoto53920997I call him a whackadoodle, but that makes him sound less dangerous than he is. Mostly because I think it’s the enablers that bear my wrath. He’s just an organ grinder monkey.  Set up to perform, to distract, to entertain the slack-jawed masses while our rights are being impinged upon, our votes suppressed, our pockets picked clean.

So here we are, in the middle of a global pandemic, with a jackwagon at the helm. I am angry nearly all the time. But it’s an anger that has become tempered, redirected, and incisive. This might be useful. Or it could just be more negative energy out in the world, I don’t know. I often say that emotion without action is just so much noise. Perhaps I’ve written less publicly because it is already so noisy out there.

Despite, or because of, this constant seething state, I’ve become wildly productive. The paralysis in the early months of the pandemic has worn off a bit. Perhaps I got bored with being in that lethargic state. Maybe I’ve got live free or die zipping about in my head. The people who use that mantra, usually gun-waving anti-maskers (sorry New Hampshire), would be surprised how easily that phrase can be adapted to an entirely different ethos.

My adaptation is that I don’t want to live in a prison of my own anxiety or fear. I’m going to be louder, more political, intolerant of views that compromise the health, dignity, or rights of my fellow humans. For people who prattle on about divisiveness, it’s an easy muzzle for those of us who have often valued civility over justice, manners over standing up for others. I’ve always been relatively quiet and introspective, but the alchemy of anger and age is creating an element of fearlessness. It’s go time.

canstockphoto12869795It’s go time for all my creative urges as well. In addition to taking 5 million pictures of annoyed birds, I’m practicing/working on The Green Study Podcast. It’s not going well. I’d hoped to give it a try for September, but when I listened to the first episode, I realized how incredibly boring I sound. How’s that for self-promotion? Anyway, it’s still in the works and at some point in the future, you’ll be able to briefly listen to and then abruptly mute, the dulcet sounds of my musings. I might rename it The Sleepening.

How are you doing? That’s such a loaded question, isn’t it? What’s your mantra?  What are your days like? What gets you through the day?

The Art of Napping in a Pandemic and Other Disorganized Thoughts

As my family and I enter our 4th month of quarantine, I have to say we’re doing well. When I say well, I mean that we’re all relatively healthy and we have not murdered each other in our sleep. It’s a small house, but each person has their office/hangout/project space clearly demarcated. We check in with one another briefly throughout the day and then we go back to talking to our friends, work, teachers. The last few weeks have been the longest period of stability our family has had in a great while. No medical emergencies, no dying pets, no late nights dealing with chemo drug side effects, no urgency whatsoever.

2020MrsCardinalI’ve been letting myself unravel. The house is messier and I’ve don’t flip out when two minutes after doing all the dishes, dirty dishes mysteriously appear on the counter tops. Projects lay undisturbed for days. I’ve built myself a fortress of books, all carefully piled off-screen. I’ve spent hours in the yard taking 4,523 pictures of plants and birds and bugs. I’ve taken to manically humming King George’s “You’ll Be Back” from Hamilton when I work. Da da da dat daaaaa dat da da da da ya da.

Writing is a desert. Tumbleweeds blow through where my creative urges used to roam. A swarm of anxieties have stripped the bones clean.

Oddities spring up. I gave myself a buzz cut for the hell of it. I’ve always wanted to try it. I look like a lumpy, silver cantaloupe. It’s unflattering, but feels wonderful.

2020RobinFrenchI’ve gotten back to working out regularly. I have a lot of workout equipment from my taekwondo days. Last week, I dragged out the heavy bag and hung it in the garage. I wrapped my hands, put on gloves, and went to town on the bag. My anxiety levels are much lower this week.

*****

In the middle of all this, unexpected joys lighten the day. My local library finally opened for curbside pickup of requested books. I always have long list of hold requests and due to the pandemic, many of the books requested were from the early part of the year.

I was notified that my first hold had come in: Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney. Argh. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to read one more damned thing about pandemics. The book has been oddly reassuring. All this nuttiness, with the politicization of even the most basic public health measures has happened before.

2020ToadIn 1918, there was a revolt about vaccines, people ignored social distancing, refused to wear masks. It didn’t turn out particularly well for many of them. I feel like somewhere down the line, in the history books that follow, the present day yahoos will be immortalized as idiots and gaslighters. And that is my bittersweet pill to anticipate.

*****

A sense of time has been lost. Days and weeks go by, barely acknowledged. I am reminded of a TV sci-fi episode where the crew is stuck in a time dilation field in space or Groundhog Day with Bill Murray – every day is the same, with only slight variations as we gradually learn to expand our world in this bubble.

*****

2020RedRose2One of my anxieties was that my daughter would be going back to school in the fall. While she is not immunocompromised, she is definitely immuno-curious. With a chemo drug used for rare tumors, there are a lot of unknown factors and she’s picked up two viruses in the last six months. She attends a public high school with 1600 students. Fortunately, she was accepted into a state university program for her junior year and all of the fall courses will be online. I can breathe a little easier.

It is this kind of thing that alternately makes me feel happy and guilty. I know that this pandemic is having an unequal effect on people. I know that the choices we’ve been able to make for our family are not choices that everyone is able to make. I also know that risk assessment is different for everyone. This is, of course, the problem. This pandemic will last longer, the economic impact will be greater, and the enmity we have towards each other will be exacerbated, because it seems like we’re working towards diametrically opposed ends.

*****

2020Coreopsis2I’ve taken to napping in the early afternoon. I lower the shades in the study, put on an audiobook or podcast, lean back in my chair, prop up my feet, and snort myself awake 20 minutes later. It’s lovely. I always said I wasn’t a napper. Now I’m a fully committed one. On my way to these siestas, I listen to David Sedaris read Calypso or the podcast The Stacks (if you’re a book lover, this podcast is fantastic). It amazes me how little it takes to feel those moments of joy. It’s as if you’ve told the world, have yourself a seat, I’ll get back to you in 20. It seems to make life just a little more manageable.

What are you doing during the pandemic?

What helps you deal with anxiety?

What has given you joy?

Insolent Joy

Today I’m going to be daring. I am, in the middle of a global pandemic, national and local rioting, personal sorrows and tribulations, going to write about joy. The last 8+ years, this blog has been a bit of a chronicle. For much of the last couple of years, I’ve felt like a woman of constant sorrows. It would be an easier place to stay, short term. Over the long term, should I become less practiced at experiencing pleasure, joy, light, it will ruin my health, perhaps my relationships, and will fill me with regret at the time wasted. We do not know what tomorrow brings. There is only today. And today, I’m going to focus on joy.

amenonmememeIt’s a fine balance between refreshing the inner sanctum and recognizing the pain in the world. It is possible to do both. I know I could break and then I’ll be no good to anyone. And I want to be useful in this world, not just a handwringer or an ostrich. I have some basic tenets to keep myself from going off the deep end (and these coincide with how I deal with depression).

Deal with Your Own Reality

SparrowatFeederI should be protesting. I should be volunteering. I should, should, should… I have these thoughts fifty times a day. My reality is that I’m exhausted. My reality is that I have big worries on my plate inside my own house. My reality is that I’m barely figuring out how to help myself, much less anyone else. I need to accept that I have limitations. Once I do that, then I can figure out how to help someone else on terms that I can meet.

And I did.

Help Someone Else

Through Pandemic of Love, an organization that connects people in need with people who can help, I was able to help out a family hit economically by the pandemic. On top of that, they were living in an area where the riots had blown through. They’d just gotten back from cleaning up some of the mess. I asked “What are you most worried about this morning?” and I was able to offer help. The beauty of helping someone is that it is never entirely altruistic. It takes you out of your self, out of your own sorrows.

Look for Beauty

BeeI’m learning photography the hard way. For all these years of gardening, I decided I’d learn how to take pictures. I got the kit. I have the instruction manual. I am awful. Enjoy as I start seeding pictures into the blog. Look for the blurry and slightly blurry plants, ghost birds, off-centered bees, and flowers I can’t remember the names of. Enjoy. I know I will.

I’ve been listening to Traci K. Smith on The Slowdown podcast. I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t take in as much poetry as I should, considering my love of language. These snippets of living language have been inspiring and comforting. I turn to books that are balm for the soul like Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights or a collection called Poems to Live by in Uncertain Times. I’ve also watched Some Good News (hosted by The Office’s John Krasinski) and listen to the Kind World podcasts. Anything to balance out the onslaught of bad news.

Keeping up with the news, or not.

As glued as I’ve been to the news, I’m focused on learning. So far, I’ve learned that there are more whackadoodle conspiracy theorists posing as normal humans than I first suspected. The fact that they’ve remained hidden as long as they have is suspicious. I think it might have to do with Cornflakes, a confederate battlefield, and pitching signals – especially the right ear tug.

dandelionI’ve met a lot of racists in my life, but I’ve never met someone who belonged to an antifa organization. I’m an organization of one, decidedly against facism. That this president wants me to be designated a terrorist seems right on point for 2020. He’s Tweeting from his bunker, which I imagine to be full of toilet paper, blaring televisions, and blubbering sycophants.

Watching the news, drinking in the feeds, trying to sort the loons from the dimwits, it really can make a reasonable person quite nuts. If you’ve hit the angry, spluttery stage (me about three years ago), time to step back and give yourself a break. Let your brain settle into normalcy, use good judgment, call a friend, take a nap, do a logic puzzle. Then when you return to the news, you’ll realize how absolutely nuts the world is and stagger off the grid for even longer.

In the face of uncertainty and anger…

There is something revolutionary about focusing on solutions, on what we want as a society and doing things that help that. There’s no point in arguing with people who are proud of their accidents of birth – in what country, with a particular skin color, with whatever anatomical arrangement. There’s a lot of weird braggadocio on the internet. That’s how they’ve chosen to see themselves and how they classify others. That’s not your problem.

GaliumEven though we’re being pummeled with political rhetoric, life is not politics. Your minute-to-minute isn’t red or blue. It’s who you are as a rational, compassionate human being. You get to be that. This is why I think of it as insolent joy. It’s defiant. People would like you to be unhappy. They’re unhappy and they can’t think of any other way around that than to ensure that others are miserable as well. You can be impassioned about the world. You can work to make a difference. But you don’t have to be miserable 24/7. No victory will happen with that kind of energy.

Holy cow. I’ve talked myself into being uber-positive. Sometimes people like me make me sick. It’s how I do my pep talks to myself – I write to you. I’ve been in the dumps a long time and the world is not about to lend me a hand out of that. We rescue ourselves, we rescue each other – that’s really all the world has to be.

As the World Burns

It’s a breezy overcast spring morning shortly after curfew has expired. I didn’t sleep much last night. I live in an older suburb of Minneapolis in a little ranch house with a little yard on a little street. We’ve quarantined here for months, leaving only for grocery pickup, and my daughter’s followup medical appointments. Life and time has stood still, frozen in an endless loop of a mundane activities. Outside a global pandemic continues barely abated and neighborhoods are burning and being looted a few miles away.

Yesterday I cried when my cat’s ashes were delivered. It seems disproportionate to the world at large, but my grief is layered and dense. Some days it feels like I’m a matryushka doll, with sorrows, large and small stacked one inside the other. Too many personal losses and traumas in the last year, too much going on in the world that I felt powerless to make better. To even say it out loud, when people of color are dying at the hands of those hired and trained to protect all citizens, seems the height of a privileged existence, but my experience is the only one I can tell. Of all others, I must listen and learn.

At 2am I heard the nonstop sirens. I check the news. Police station burning, more businesses looted and burned. The National Guard sent in. I worry that it’s near the area where my daughter has her oncology followup appointment next week. Will we touch the rage? Will the rage touch us? For some people, the world has always been burning. I’ve spent a lifetime tiptoeing around rage and violence. Growing up poor with alcoholism and domestic violence taught me how to live on eggshells. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t talk back. Get through the moment.

In spite of, or perhaps because of my military stint, I don’t trust uniforms, guns, authority. But I live under the radar, the color of my skin unsuspected, unburdened by stereotypes except those of gender. Passive and uninteresting. Just enough activism to soothe my conscience. Memberships in the ACLU, NAACP, League of Women Voters. Little cards sent to me to make me comfortable, even when I know that there is no such thing as moral purity, blamelessness. The little cards aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, but they’re all I have.

I signed up to be an election judge this year. I thought, before the last few months, that this would be the only way to right the ship. To help legitimize the election. Doubts plague me and I don’t think anyone, from sociopathic capitalists to fuzzy socialists to bellicose anarchists have the right answers. Like most things, an imperfect system with good intentions requires a good faith effort by its participants. We’re too busy egging each other on and dehumanizing each other to manage that. My own efforts to remain a decent human have faltered in the face of willful ignorance and cynical exploitation. I am constantly talking myself down from self-righteous anger these days.

Another round of sirens. The national conversations have begun about this place that I have come to love as my first real home. The president weighs in, as usual, with ugly, violent language meant to sound tough and designed to throw more meat to his ugly, violent base. Most of the protests are peaceful, but the violent ones will be all that are talked about – a way to further cement the ideas of “us” and “them”. George Floyd called out for his mother before he died. Mama.

I’ve been researching for a story I’m working on. When I was at Glacier National Park a few years ago, I read up on the history of the area. I’ve been learning more about the Piikani Blackfoot Indians and the Marias Massacre of 1870. The massacre of nearly 200 women, children, and elderly men was covered up, lied about, reframed, and revised over and over again. I think about that story every day now when I read the news. Everyone has an agenda, a perspective, an opinion, a reason to highlight this fact and downplay that. But the video could not lie. Mama.

The unrest is not over and like everything else at the moment, outcomes are uncertain. Today I bury my cat’s ashes. This I know. I call my mom in Kansas to let her know we’re okay and to make sure that she and my 93 year old grandma are staying safe from this virus. I follow up on my daughter’s chemo med refill. I know that things will not always be like this. I will try to spend my day thoughtfully, get through more tears, find grace and joy in moments, knowing that the world burns outside. It’s the only existence I can manage at the moment.