The Green Study

Thawing Out from the Deep Freeze

Life, after a few days of -30F temps, is returning to normal. With no frozen pipes, a working internet connection, and each family member off in their own corners, no one died or killed the other – the best possible outcome for a polar vortex. While I would wish this weather on no one, I have a slight dread about the thawing out, the required assimilation with the rest of the world, the lack of excuses to not be social.

canstockphoto7748457In the past, I would have likely come down with some mysterious, communicable illness that prevented me from say, using the phone or making eye contact with other humans. These days, I just drop out of sight for a bit. Most people who know me get this. Or they simply don’t notice. Either way, they’ve been conditioned not to be alarmed. Should I ever live alone again, no one would be alerted of my death until the smell hit the neighbors at the end of the street. C’est la mort.

You’re weird…no, you are!

Being the planner I am, when I saw the predicted temps a few days back, I stocked up from the grocery store, rescheduled appointments, and let people know I’d be absent from meetings/groups. Part of me thought things would be cancelled for safety reasons, but Minnesotans seem to take pride in denying whatever weather scheme is in play. And it would not be the first time in my life I’d been called overly-cautious.

While I rarely change my mind once I’ve arrived at what I think is a logical decision, I do spend inordinate amounts of time doubting myself. When meetings were not called off and people were saying things like I’m braving it or this is nothing or when I was a kid…, I went down my defensive, self-doubting rabbit hole, because that is where I live. Inevitably, because I’m overflowing with rationality, I ended up on well, screw them.

That seems to be as far as I take most of my inner arguments. Maybe it’s because I can’t be bothered or that fitting in/getting along/going with the flow hasn’t rendered much in the way of reward. I’ll say something contrary and friends will say you’re so funny, mostly because they don’t know what to say to a 90 year old curmudgeon in a 51 year old brain. From the outside, I’m a suburban housewife in flannel shirts and jeans. I am the very definition of ordinary, yet every day, at some point in the day, I feel like a weirdo.

canstockphoto57758935This sense of never quite fitting in, is part of the human condition. Introverts usually have an easier time of weirdness – it’s subverted by lack of exposure. I’m the normal-looking person you might start to chat with at the bus stop, lightly grousing about the weather, and ten minutes later we’re in existential fisticuffs about the nature of human existence. Small talk is for novices. My weirdness is camouflaged by mom jeans.

Unpopular Culture

As a writer, I sense it’s important to keep abreast (or two) of current culture and events. I am less and less interested in this idea the more I read Twitter. After awhile, there is a sing-songy nature to outrage and wit and pictures of animals in clothes and repeating memes. This is about as much current culture as I can handle.

canstockphoto2767026In the evenings I’ve been huddled under my blankets, reading Lord Tennyson’s poems out loud. To no one. I’ve been thinking about rhythm in language and the oral traditions of storytelling and if this might not be useful for strengthening my ear for language.

I have no interest in sports, religion, fashion, reality TV, except as peripheral academic interests – literary allusions to be read or employed. Analogies others can understand. Connections that create a broader picture. It’s being a writing mercenary – life is only to be observed and written about, but I’ll skip the participation trophy. Elementary report card comments clearly define my future: She seems very reserved and not a great participant. She would rather work than have free play time. She gets so carried away with reading books that she forgets to do her other work. Yeah, there was no way I was ever going to be a fun-time gal at the tailgate party.

Intuition Examined

canstockphoto20489745.jpgSocrates allegedly said the unexamined life is not worth living, but one can go too far. And there is little about my life or my character that I have not dissected, ruminated over, or researched. The problem with this approach is that at some point, you no longer give credence to your intuition. Everything becomes a Google search, a process of finding multiple sources, a constant skepticism directed at one’s own thought processes. In reasonable doses, this is a good thing, and would have a huge impact on the national discourse, should more individuals practice it.

Intuition is not a namby-pamby new age concept. It’s simply the culmination of your knowledge and experiences disguised as a feeling. People like to feel superior by demanding “facts over feelings” while having no real understanding of emotions and their role in our survival and decision-making abilities. We get very silly when we try to base everything on data alone. Myopic science is not much better than mysticism when it comes to judgment calls.

Writing for Weirdos

Over the last few weeks I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ve been trying to fit into the “writing world” and ignoring my intuition. I’ve done workshops, conferences, classes, and over the last year, it’s been a writing group and getting feedback from others. Each of those things serve a purpose, but they are only peripheral to the writer I’m working to be. It is what it has always been – a solitary experience – and anything beyond that holds the danger of draining much-needed energy.

canstockphoto56792606The combination of being an introvert, autodidact, and a writer is not weird – there are many people like this. But there’s no workshop to tell us hey, you might not need so much of this peripheral stuff to write. There’s no fee to be earned by telling people that. There’s no acknowledgment to say hey, you need to be alone more to get where you are going. There’s no conference to say you really shouldn’t be here. Go home and write. My intuition says these things are not really working out for me and my time is a finite resource. It’s an unsettling acknowledgement, but one to which I need to pay heed.

Keep writing. Stay weird.

Fearless Friday: The Importance of Curiosity

Currently, I’m slogging through Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Braid. I say slog because it’s a challenge, heavy on the math and science of formal systems and their connections. This is the kind of reading I regularly do, even if I come away with a muddied sense of things. How is the world connected? What does this or that mean? I feel an odd sense of joy in reaching middle age with more questions than answers.

Curiosity is a skill like any other. It has to be practiced and encouraged. Children are naturally curious, but somewhere along the way, we teach ourselves to be cynical sophisticates who stop asking why? The culture, too, is teaching us the immediate gratification of having information spoon fed to us. Not asking questions or researching for our own answers impacts our brains and it impacts how we understand the world. Many of us are simply wrong, basing our judgment on faulty and/or incomplete information. Curiosity is the basis of critical thinking. And we need it more in the world than ever.

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.

Teach Our Children Well

mcbd_poster_nameFINAL (002).jpgCuriosity begins as children, so that’s where I’m going to start. Today is Multicultural Children’s Book Day. One of my writer friends, Carolyn at Wise Owl Factory has jan-25-twitter-party-2019-win-bookswritten children’s books about multicultural adoption and has a fantastic website of resources for parents and teachers. Literacy and representation matters. Little humans are curious, but like adults, they are most curious about themselves – how do I fit into the world? Who can I identify with? Who do I look to for example?

As a side note: There’s apparently a lot of free goodies if you pay attention to #readyourworld on Twitter. Great opportunity for parents, grandparents, and teachers.

Curiosities for Grownups, Too

canstockphoto31504305If you want to really challenge yourself, read Valerie Tarico’s latest post “The Righteousness and The Woke – Why Evangelicals and Social Justice Warriors Trigger Me in the Same Way“. I forced myself to read it even as I bristled at the title – I find myself extremely sensitive to the fallacy of both sides, as if they are equal and only two. But her post is very thoughtful, boiling down to a lack of critical awareness when you become so dogmatic in your thinking that no light can come in. That is what curiosity does – it lets in the light, airs out the room, allows space for nuance and change. But more importantly it doesn’t make it easy for us to categorize and dismiss other humans.

On a lighter note, I’ve mentioned her blog before, but Ellen Hawley over at Notes from the UK always makes me laugh. She writes of the sometimes very odd stories that emerge from over there. As a writer, I never read one of her posts without coming away with a story idea.

Curiosity from a Writing Perspective

I’ve learned this year that if I ever experienced writer’s block, I no longer can. One of the exercises we do at writing group is a random selection of subjects and a timed writing session writing either an essay or short story around the subject. I wasn’t particularly good in the beginning, feeling the panic that any effort to time or rush me inspires. I used to poo-poo writing prompts as an individual exercise, because I always had something I wanted to write, even if it were laborious. But not when it came to writing fiction.

canstockphoto31420073One of the tools we use is The Storymatic, a collection of cards containing characters, items, odd situations. We draw random cards and there’s our story basis. It’s a muscle you learn to use – making up things on the spot. We’re training ourselves to be pathological liars on paper. The outcome is not only a stronger skill set, but in the aftermath, I end up with vignettes of potential characters to develop, plot lines to follow, and narratives that could be more.

So be curious about what you’re capable of, have patience, and be open to things you’ve made fun of in the past. That’s a lot of work for me. I make fun of everything and then have to shamefacedly turn around and say, oh, that really worked. The lesson is: what you mock today, might be something entirely worthwhile the minute you start being curious.

Nothing Magical About It

I’m going to pull one of the struggling writer’s favorite procrastination tricks out of my hat today: writing about writing. And maybe a little self-loathing sleight-of-hand, some sawing in half of my writing time, juggling of all the wrong priorities, and the hypnotic allure of social media. My lovely assistant, Pete the Tomcat, will be licking himself disdainfully in the corner.

canstockphoto5631497It’s hard to admit that I’m a little stuck right now with writing. I know this because when I went to writing group today, I was full of insight and unsolicited advice. I get all sage and knowledgeable when my own writing has stalled out. Despite the kind and generous members of the group, I returned home irritated with myself and the sound of my voice. Take your own damned advice, lady.

At the bottom of this crockpot of simmering emotion, is a strong sense that I’m failing myself. I need to start fighting above my weight class. I write safely – cutesy stories that amuse, personal essays that if, by god, I haven’t mastered after 8 years, I may as well give up the ghost. The novels are still mostly unseen by others.

Tomorrow I’m gifting myself a day with no social media. Whatever rage and impatience that is borne of my personal frustration will have to pour itself into characters and story lines. Action will have to lead me out of this wilderness of self-loathing. I regard it as singular progress that I don’t just hit the bottle or eat an entire cheesecake or return to my halcyon days of chainsmoking while thinking deep, but unwritten thoughts.

I have to write myself right. See you on the other side.

canstockphoto17581973 (002)A special thanks to my writing group. Each time we meet, your generosity, humor, and bravery remind me of the many reasons why I write. Thanks so much!

The Happy Depressed Place

Perhaps I’ve learned to cope too well with depression, that it has become this natural place within which I can comfortably reside. I felt the descent last week and knew where I was going without a navigation system. The Bird Box of emotions. Unlike the idiot children who have attempted to drive blindfolded as a challenge, I have learned to feel my way through without, potentially, doing damage to others. I know what I need. Solitude, some good books, sleep, and a to-do list that can wait. I need to roll in some bubble wrap, stick myself in a dark corner, and commune with the latent voices of words on a page.

canstockphoto0322864It is likely no coincidence that as the temperatures fall below zero in the middle of a Minnesota winter, the gray skies serve as a tipping point. The furnace runs nonstop like the recitation of personal failures that tugs me into a downward spiral. Being older and marginally wiser has helped me read the signposts, rally the troops, and downshift to self-care. This is, I suppose, the luxury of my life – it is now slow enough to sense the slightest change in mental breeze and to respond accordingly. I no longer have to hit bottom to take action, which is rather surprising to this procrastinator.

Admittedly there are still lessons to learn. One must not be on Twitter if one is depressed. I need to embroider that on a pillow somewhere. It should be said I spend most of my time on Twitter blocking people or reporting them…and then blocking them. They’re not even remotely near my timeline. I just see their comments on other people’s posts and do it, in the hopes that someday, the comments will be filled with erudite, complex thinkers with impulse control. Who’s the idiot now?

36679056I finished reading a book and started another over the last few days. I read R.O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries. It was an odd read in some ways. So many of the newer writers have a staccato style of writing and I wonder if that isn’t a reflection of our Tweeting/texting culture. Still, the story was compellingly told and like most good novels, I finished it feeling rather unsettled – it will stick with me for a long time. This morning, I spent several hours reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise. I’d never read any of his work (it was on the should list), but found myself silently grinning at his wry observations.

That’s a sign that the slump is ending – the ability to find pleasure has come back. I will have to crawl out of my hole, reconnect with others, get myself back on track. Part of me wishes to stay a little longer, out of sight, unconcerned with social expectations, but I have work to do. Work that does, in the end, contribute to my sense of well-being. Back to editing novels, back to volunteering, back to my writing group, back to striving and struggling to be better at the things that matter to me.

watercycleIn my earlier years, I would likely have benefited from medication. Perhaps I would have been less self-destructive and less difficult to deal with in relationships. I just didn’t have the knowledge or understanding and life from 20-40 goes at a much faster clip. I never knew I was depressed until I’d blown up a relationship, had a confrontation at work, or drank/eaten/smoked myself senseless. Even then, I had to focus on picking up the pieces – mending or grieving the relationship, working twice as hard at my job, berating myself for binging. The cycle I could never see because I was drowning in it.

The thing that often strikes me about a well-written novel is the eventuality of the characters. The novelist builds, word-by-word, to the outcomes of the characters’ lives. If they’ve done it well, you nod your head knowingly when the character abandons their life, killstreecloudsgrasshill someone, joins a cult – does something extreme or awful. You see the choices they made or how they reacted to the events in their lives, bit by bit, one word after the other.

If I think of my life like a novel, there are so many points where I turned one way instead of the other. My story does not build to a dramatic climax and then ebb back out to sea. I’ve learned to build up to a plateau. It’s neither exciting nor riveting, but it is a safe place – a plateau where I hang about, memorizing the landscape, so I can find my way back the next time.

Fearless Friday: A Journey of Little Battles and Victories

Yesterday, I was saddened to hear of the poet Mary Oliver’s passing. For years, I’ve referred back to her poem “The Journey”. It speaks to one’s internal struggles, while framing that process in a wild, wooded journey.  Most of us do not have lives chock full of drama. We’re ants, just trying to drag that big crumb up the hill, each of us with our own particular battles along the way.

As the cold, gray January drags on, my own particular battle is to not sink into a deep, dark depression. My inclination towards depression means that I honor the smallest of victories. Yesterday, just getting myself out for a walk on a rare sunny day was enough to shift things. A tiny victory that lifted me out of a slump. We each have our own little battles and victories. The trick is to honor our own while maintaining perspective and awareness of others’ challenges.

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.

This week, I’d like to introduce Ranga Rajah, who blogs at Letting Go of Baggages. She sent me her story about a little internal victory she celebrated.

I decided to get some shopping done for my winter essentials. The store I picked had some excellent selection of jackets, shoes, scarves, trinkets, and quality handbags on sale. I picked up a few including a cross body bag.

Before going for the handbags, I had picked a few trinkets and had to hold them in my hand because the cart had large open squares at the bottom. I decided to put the jewelry into one of the bags I was buying.

canstockphoto1878776A salesperson who was arranging the bags saw me putting the jewelry inside the handbag. Comes up, and asks in a very rude manner, “What did you just put inside that bag?”

I showed the inside of my bag. They continued on, “You be careful, there are cameras all over the place. They are on all the time and I am not joking.”

I was taken aback but gained my composure and said, “No cameras can look deep enough and stop people’s intentions. I did not think about negative stuff till you brought it up.”

The salesperson should have taken a moment to think that I put the trinkets in the bag in front of them. While checking for more stuff, that encounter kept coming back to me and I told myself I should leave the cart filled with my shopping, go elsewhere and continue.

I knew I was too upset, therefore decided to divert my attention the books section. I had calmed down by then and decided to end my shopping spree.

But I needed to share my hurt; therefore I mentioned it to the cashier without identifying the salesperson. The important thing for me was to emerge as an emotionally balanced, and a better person. I think I managed it that day.

Thanks, Ranga, for sharing your story.

Normally in this space, I’d add a few blogs that fit in with the theme of this week’s Fearless Friday. Today, though, I’ll share the Mary Oliver poem I referenced at the beginning.

THE JOURNEY

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shoutingcanstockphoto0108300
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver, from Dream Work, 1986

Aging Gracelessly

This was the year I was going to quit dyeing my hair and give into the white hair that has been fighting its way out since my early twenties. To get it started, I got an incredibly unflattering short haircut to let the butterfly metamorphosize into the old lady I was always meant to be. With the extra menopausal pounds, I now look like a potato with a sprig of hair, working my way out to a full pumpkin shape. Occasionally I catch sight of myself in the mirror and just have to laugh.

potatocartoonwitharmsWith all the advice, articles, and products relating to anti-aging, they often fail to mention what an odd ecosystem the aging body is. I watch with bemused curiosity. The random hairs, the delicate balance between hydration and the number of times you have to get up in the night to de-hydrate, your eyeballs sinking in, slowly being swallowed by your eyelids, and how you begin to fade until you look like an old dish towel that’s been through the wash one too many times.

I write this and can already hear the protests about loving yourself and the cruelty of a youth-obsessed culture and how it’s inner beauty that counts. Blah, blah, blah. Beauty has never been an aspiration of mine. I went through the motions when I was younger, but could never really pull it off. I was average and bookish and looked like I was playing dress up when I attempted anything feminine. So I stopped trying. I focused on getting and staying fit and that worked for awhile. Until it didn’t. Injuries took longer to recover from and I started to not want to interrupt a day of reading and writing, with, you know…moving.

peopleachesandpains.jpgYour 50s and 60s are where you get to reap the rewards and punishments of life choices. Every illness, bump, odd intestinal feeling is now accompanied with the anxiety that this is going to be what gets you – a tumor, cancer, some weird infection that incapacitates you and makes you a burden to everyone around you. I mean, it’s going to happen eventually. There are people who use this uncertainty as a launching pad for unmitigated daily joyfulness. I am not one of them. But I stay curious and occasionally have a laugh about some of the more ridiculous aspects of being human.

Still, I feel it’s my duty to make some sort of effort towards health. I’d like to make it until my daughter, now a teenager, is in her 30s. You know, after all the bad boyfriends, fender benders, and years of therapy to undo the damage I’ve done – when there is a possibility that I could call her out of the blue and not hear her eye roll at the other end.

Sochildgirlwomanaging this brings me back to aging. I believe in leading by example as a parent and sometimes I’ve gotten it right, sometimes not. Now, I need to navigate the aging process, the last third of life, the accumulation of good and bad decisions, and whether or not I can still make better ones.

I sense that I’m at a tipping point. Over the last year, I gave up on planned diet and exercise, choosing instead to focus on my creative life. There have been immediate consequences. I’ve suffered insomnia, heartburn, panic attacks, low energy, weight gain, and low spirits. I’m having trouble rallying the troops to get back to good habits. I reverted to childhood – comfort foods, burying myself in books, dreaming of a day when I can feel successful, productive, whole, loved. It’s elemental. All that growth, all that learning, and the moment I stop trying, I become the bespectacled silent girl with a book who loves mashed potatoes and cheese and spends a lot of time daydreaming.

My life coach friend will likely be irritated reading this. She likes to point out progress when I’m in one of my discouraged moods. It’s true, my life is taking a different shape. In some ways, that shape is returning me to who I started out being before the vagaries of family and society became internalized. There is a reason that parallels are drawn between adolescence and middle age. Hormones in reverse. Everything is up for grabs. Suddenly you have to start thinking about potential and possibilities again.

The ride this time is accompanied by a lifetime of lessons. Some of those lessons are about limitations and disappointments. And there’s a lot of here we go again...it’s a little exhausting to think about getting on the right track, making a change, getting my shit together so that I don’t completely fall apart, so I can age gracefully. I hate that phrase. I was never graceful before, why do I have to start now? I’m a mess of habits and emotions aavocadocartoonnd moods. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in months. Things are wobbly and I don’t remember why I went into a room half the time.

Age gracefully my ass.

I’m going to age just the way I’ve always lived – curiously, awkwardly, and one can always hope, slowly. My life will continue to be the three steps forward and two steps back dance that it has always been. I’m just going to look like an avocado doing it.

Fearless Friday: Learned Empathy

This morning I did my best to avoid a particular cashier lane at the grocery store. My local grocery store proactively employs people with differing abilities, whether physical, learning, or social. There is a young woman who bags and likes to have loud, occasionally inappropriate conversations with anyone, anywhere. I am a jerk in the morning. I don’t want to talk to anyone, anywhere. I tried to pass by unseen, but the cashier called out to me. “I can help you here!” I smiled weakly and turned back into the lane.

canstockphoto3618060She yelled down at me from the end of the conveyor: PAPER OR PLASTIC? and I silently handed her my cloth bags, already feeling the irritation grow. WHAT’s YOUR NAME? MINE IS _____. I mumbled something about not being awake yet. NOT AWAKE YET? THAT’S A FUNNY NAME. I could feel my face grow hot as people in the lanes next to us turned to look. I’m simultaneously ashamed of my self-consciousness, lack of compassion, and growing hostility towards this woman, who obviously could not read social cues. Where was my empathy and understanding? I suspect it was in a cup of coffee and a few hours of silence. In the moment, it completely abandoned me. I could hear her yell as I exited the store. BYE NOT AWAKE YET!

I think about empathy a lot and how a true master wouldn’t ration it. Wouldn’t pick and choose who was deserving of engagement based on whether or not I’d had my morning drug of choice. Empathy is a skill that, like any skill, grows with practice. And practice is sometimes uncomfortable and forced and against all our inclinations. Empathy allows us to flip the script. I wouldn’t have been doing her a favor by engaging – she was not the one with the problem. I saw in a flash, that I was both insecure and petty and it made me less empathetic and kind than I like to believe I am. Next time, I have a chance to do better.

I think we all have empathy.

We may not have enough courage to display it.

Maya Angelou

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.

One of the gifts of reading is increasing empathy. Hearing or reading about another person’s experience and perspectives, letting them sink in, without preemptive judgment, is a gift to oneself. This is the wonderful thing about the blogging world – so many worldviews being shared. Opportunities abound for us as readers to expand our world, understanding, and empathy for fellow humans. So today I’m sharing some of the blogs that have expanded my worldview.

Robyn at Blog Woman! Life Uncategorized is a citizen of the Cree and Michif Nations. She is passionate about indigenous peoples issues in Canada. I’ve learned a lot from reading her blog and now, her Twitter feed as well. “What’s Under the Fight to Do Right?” encapsulates why she does what she does.

RJ at RJsCorner describes himself as “an Independent thinking highly functional person who is deaf and has some Aspie traits.” He has himself on a rigorous blogging schedule, with each day covering a different theme and a wide range of subjects. His post “Never Stop Learning” is part of his 10 Pillars of life – not only has he continued to learn, but he is unerringly, a teacher as well.

Randall at Midlife Crisis Crossover blogs about traveling, comics, and movies. Here’s the funny thing – I’m not particularly interested in comics or movies, but I really enjoy reading his blog, which is often a breakdown of exactly those things. But strong writing and his obvious enthusiasm for his subjects are a winning combination. As someone who likes to keep up with things a bit, I especially enjoy his roundup posts like “My 2018 at the Movies, Part 1 of 2: The Year’s Least Best“.

Torey Richards, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Florida, writes at LMHC: Sharing Information and Exploring Human Behavior. The blog is a hybrid of clinical information, case information, and the writer’s personal experiences, which makes for interesting reading. Sometimes the posts are about intense, potentially-triggering issues. But blogs like these, about mental health conversation and information, are part of the antidote to the stigma and silence that have plagued our society with regard to mental health issues.

These are just a few of the blogs I follow that have broadened my perspective. Thank you to those bloggers and the many more who open windows to their worlds.

What’s your empathy look like? And where do you go to broaden your world view?

Acts of Reader Gratitude

Gratitude is one of those words that has become tainted and overused over the last few years. Gratitude journals ballooned into full-blown humble-bragging on social media, ad nauseum recitations of beautiful children or perfect autumn days or that special cup of coffee. I feel immense gratitude for the things and circumstances and people in my life, but also feel grateful that I can, for the most part, keep it to myself. The joy for me is not in the telling, rather in the being. But there is one form of gratitude that I prefer to share over all others. Saying thank you to others.

This week, I burrowed into my reading chair under a couple of blankets with the Virginia Quarterly Review. I read “Stepping Up” by Sylvia A. Harvey, who wrote about the children of imprisoned mothers and the grandmothers who raise their grandchildren. It was enlightening and painful and I sat for awhile after, my eyes welled up with tears. It made me think about the all the different perspectives – the children aching for mothers, the grandmothers struggling to do the right thing, the mothers, living claustrophobic lives of regret.

Empathy. I cannot emphasize enough how grateful I am to writers who tell the difficult stories and help us see the world. Those who sit with strangers and coax the words out of them and arrange them in such a way as to touch me, hundreds of miles away in my cozy suburban life. To move me to tears, to want to do something, anything to right the ship of social and criminal justice. A single story as a way in to thinking about criminal and social justice reform. I have come into the practice of turning impotent frustration into action. One of my favorite organizations is The Women’s Prison Book Project, so I’m getting ready to send more books, but there is much more to be done.

canstockphoto1787242Criminal justice and social reform has been the fight of many social activists over the years. It’s true that so many things require our attention, our anger, our involvement. It can be overwhelming. But I’ve found that if I shut out the “shoulds” and focus on learning about one issue at a time, and pair action with that knowledge, I can be more useful as a citizen. Over the last couple of years, I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to know about voting rights and campaign finance reform. While I continue to work on those issues, I’ve found my attention captured by the prison system and incarceration rate in this country. Time to learn more.

This is the ultimate power of storytelling, fiction or nonfiction. It gives the reader a window into the lives of others. It gives us the opportunity to be better people. I remember many years ago that someone referred to the writer Anna Quindlen as a “monster of empathy”. It was meant to be an insult for the circumspect way she addressed social issues in her column for the New York Times. I think it’s okay to be a monster of empathy, as long as empathy is followed by an action, no matter how small.

canstockphoto6979194My other slight action was to tell the writer of that article, Sylvia Harvey, Thank you. One of the rare delights of Twitter is being able to contact writers and artists and musicians just to express gratitude. The unknowns, the knowns, it doesn’t matter. Saying thank you to people who touch you in some way, just to let them know that their work is appreciated. We’re so quick to critique and criticize, thinking everything we read and see needs our judgmental pronouncements. What about the work that takes us out of ourselves, teaches us empathy, gives us a new perspective, stops us, for just a moment, from being the self-centered, complacent creatures that we can be?

This is a practice I’ve decided to engage in as a regular thing. I’ve written notes, emails, and now Tweets to writers who have made my world a better place through their work. It’s not idol worship or fandom, it’s simple gratitude. This thing they did brought something to my life. Sometimes they write back and I squeal just a bit, so unaccustomed to all these direct methods of communication. Still, the simple act of saying thank you has added to my reading and writing experience – an act of solidarity with those who seek to translate the world into words.

What Writer or Artist are You Grateful for Today?

Trying Too Hard

I’m starting my third day on a focused work schedule, working on short stories and editing. Yesterday day was novel day and the day before I composed and scheduled my blog posts for the week ahead, as well as, and I blush as I write this, prepped a slate of Tweets for Twitter. That’s right – I have to write and edit them in advance – the equivalent of rehearsing a speech in the mirror. I tell myself that I’ll only have to do this until I get better at it, but I suspect the short, quippy, fleeting nature of Twitter is just not in my wheelhouse. I like full sentences. I hate emoticons. I refuse to put the app on my phone. I think about quitting it every time I use it.

GarbagcanpaperThis is not the post I had planned on posting. Inspired by the work of Rebecca Solnit on journalism, Dani Shapiro on personal truths, and an essay by Lu Hsun called “This Too Is Life”, I saw the threads of a post emerging about the responsibility of the storyteller. It was very high-minded and thought-provoking, with obscure references and some cutesy self-denigration, just so I wouldn’t seem like a literary snob.

So all those voices in my head were competing on the page. I had three, four, then five paragraphs. And it was a clunker. I was my high school writer self – all thoughts and finger-wagging and terrible structure. The output of trying too hard always looks like I’m trying too hard. There’s some authenticity in that, but no reason to impose it on a reader. You’re welcome.

Part of the paralysis and bad writing is borne out of my decision to be a “working writer”. Nothing is more damning than approaching the blank page with the weight of 51 years of rootless potential and desperate ambition. I keep missing the lesson that the things that I try least at seem to render the most reward. I put my nose back to the grindstone, flailing about with the most awkward and tiring efforts.

This is, in essence, the story of my life. I will work my ass off with little to no reward but that of having done the thing. Some days, it’s just not enough. But yay, I persist. When I was in high school, I ran track. I was slow. Very slow. So they put me in the 3200 meter run. You would score points for the team if you just finished, regardless of speed. For my senior year at the track awards banquet, I got the award for Best Effort. That’s going on my tombstone.

canstockphoto0404119I’m reading Angela Ducksworth’s Grit with a degree of irritation that comes when someone tells you something you’ve already rationalized for yourself. Yes, persistence and perseverance can win out over talent. But it can also be damned exhausting and demoralizing. I know I will always try, but maybe I wonder if need to dial it back a bit. I’m one of those people who’s always being told to relax. I respond to this in a laid-back and chill manner – bite me.

It occurs to me that if you put too much effort in, too much pressure on yourself, you’re bound to overshoot the mark. This would appear to have the same outcome as not trying at all, but I know there is a difference. Plotting and planning and working at my writing in any sort of methodical way is difficult right now. I’m too used to being a mood writer and I may as well plan on missing the mark for awhile. Discomfort is necessary for growth. 2019 is likely to be the most uncomfortable year ever.

Blogging in the New Year

When I have time, I go through the list of followers to see if there are new blogs that catch my interest. There is always an influx around this time of year – resolutions are in play and people have a little extra time on their hands. On a side note, I have always loathed the word “Follower”. It sounds like one is starting a cult. If I were to start a cult, it would be one where no one is allowed to make eye contact or conversation, hugs would be banned, and every book would be THE sacred book. Apparently my cult is a library. But that is neither here nor there. At least once a year, I like to do my version of a blogging advice post. So here it is for 2019:

There is no one-size-fits-all blogging advice. Have at it. Have fun. The End.

Just in case you were reading this post for ideas, I can only share what has worked for me, where I find value, and what my own resolutions are in terms of blogging. I’m soon entering my 8th year of blogging, which in digital terms makes me an old-timer. I’m just about to cross the threshold of 19K subscribers and while I recognize the imprecision of that stat, it’s still an indicator that I’ve attracted a little attention. Even if it’s only a cabal of spam bots.

The About Page

canstockphoto37956792Here’s what happens to me frequently. I see someone has followed the blog, I click on the link and it takes me to a template. I’m a little disappointed. I’m always interested in what people are writing and what they are about. But I get nothing.

If you really want to get things going, have that About page done. I know it’s tough. I’ve seen all varieties of About pages: the third person authorial page, lengthy explanations that gave my scrolling finger a cramp, the dating page (my likes are long walks down the hallway and pistachio-colored slippers), the abrupt “I write for me” scoff, and sometimes, awkwardly, pages that make me wonder if I should comment with a suicide hotline number. I go to the About page to find out what kind of writer you are, what topics you might be writing about, and if you care about your reader.

Caring about the Reader

Caring about the reader is considered a no-no for those writers who truck along on faerie dust and high-minded art mantras. I care about my reader in that I want to do my best work. I want my writing to be relatable and just smart enough so that the reader comes away with something to ponder. I care about my reader by using proper grammar – checking spellings and punctuation. I care about my reader by not spraying universal certainty and opinions. I recognize that my own shit is my own shit and may not apply to anyone else. I care about my reader, because those are the writers I want to read.

Tagging and Other Etymological Plot Points

canstockphoto45824701.jpgI originally wrote this section title as Tagging and Other Mumbo-Jumbo. Then I thought, where does the phrase “mumbo-jumbo” come from? From a language perspective, I began to wonder if it were another one of those racist phrases that came into popular use and that I needed to check. I did – and white people were at it again. It can be tracked back to 1738 when a European went to Africa and mispronounced and mischaracterized an African god and tribal language. A century later, it came to mean nonsense words. The linguist in me is both irritated and embarrassed.

The point of that little story is that blogging can be a learning experience. I don’t think that I’d have kept at it this long, if I didn’t learn something each and every time I wrote a post. There is some learning that is very useful up front. Learn how to write tags, how to add links, and how to link your Gravatar to your blog (so your comments are linked to your blog). These things will help your traffic right out of the gate. WordPress has a fairly good reference forum, but a simple search will dig up a lot of people who have written posts and even made videos explaining how to do those things. It’s a good investment of time.

Blogging as a Gateway Drug

One of my own intentions for 2019, is to write more frequently. I fell down the rabbit hole of comparison when I read about one blogger celebrating her 500th post in under two years. This post is my 471st post – in 7 years. Once I stopped hand-wringing over that, I reminded myself that we have to work at whatever pace we’re comfortable with – and for me, it’s simply a slower pace.

canstockphoto37956766What is different in 2019, is that I’ll be learning how to be a working writer with a schedule, deadlines, and actual submissions. So I’m going to up my game on social media as well – posting more frequently with potentially shorter pieces. It’s an experiment on my part – to balance between social media and offline writing that I’m submitting for publication consideration.

People blog for a lot of reasons. And those reasons can change over time. I started off just because I wanted to get over my fear of writing publicly. Then it was about the habit of writing. Now that I’ve fairly mastered both of those things, my next phase is learning how to keep doing this thing I like doing, while taking my work commitment to the next level. For you, it might forever and always be about wanting to get your thoughts out, or a lure for your YouTube channel, or just a connection to the world. And that’s just fine.

There is no one-size-fits-all blogging advice. Have at it. Have fun. The End.

Wishing You Happy Blogging in 2019!

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