It’s been a productive week at The Green Study. Every surface is covered with books, files, and random Post-It notes. The white boards have hastily-scrawled notes and lists. After weeks of struggling with insomnia, I stopped struggling and sometimes I was up at 2:30 a.m. writing. It reset my brain to be up at odd times and ideas started pouring out. This post is a reflection of that – a little bit of everything.
It’s the Spirit of Intent
I spent a lot of time doing work for the League of Women Voters this week. Things are stepping up as we get closer to the midterms. I felt a strong desire to focus on these nonpartisan issues, even as I felt the dark cloud of partisan hackery above, preparing to rain down on all our heads.
Some days it seems like too many ethically-challenged, bad people are gaining power and steam. I was lucky enough to come across the feed of writer, A.R. Moxon, who also has a blog. It was this thread that made me think about the spirit of each of the various tribes of people – what direction were they moving in? What future did they think awaited them? Who did they choose to follow? What was the intent, the outcome, the process? Who were they becoming in that process?
And what about the idea of bad people? Is it helpful? Politics is not a useful framework for defining our spirit. It is not Survivor or a team sport – there are no true winners if we cannot find common ground and serve the common good. And this is evident from all tribes – the fierceness, the words and memes meant to cut someone down to size. We are responsible for who we become as individuals. This week, I want to be like the women in my LWV chapter who have served the cause of voting rights for decades – dedicated, steadfast, deliberate, singular in purpose and thoughtful in words.
We get to choose which spirit we follow and embody.
I was contacted by JKS Communications, publicists who work with a writer I admire. They’d seen the blog and wondered if they could send me some of the books they were representing, in case I’d like to talk about them here. This never happened to me before, but let’s just say I did a giddy little dance around the house. I believe at one point I picked up a book, stared at it lovingly, and whirled about belting out “the hills are alive…with books”. When I babbled excitedly to my husband and daughter, they both glanced warily about the study, as precarious stacks of lit magazines and books were everywhere.
I told the representative that I don’t write reviews. I just write about what I read. I waited for a response. And she was perfectly lovely about it. This is all to say that I’m going to read a couple of books and likely will tell you about them, but for the sake of integrity, felt compelled to be up front about it. Plus, I’m still a little giddy.
One book that I didn’t get gratis, was by a blogger who I have been following for a couple of years. Dave Astor blogs at Dave Astor on Literature and I’ve enjoyed his wonderful posts, rambling through literary connections and themes. He has a nifty little tome called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia. My only complaint was that each chapter left me wanting more. Maybe next volume, Dave.
My One Thing
There was a Billy Crystal movie in 1991 called City Slickers. In a scene between Curly, a crusty old cowboy and Crystal’s character, Mitch, he talks about the meaning of life.
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: That’s what you have to find out.
I was 24 at the time so I sort of, kind of, understood, but not really. The characters in the movie were on the cusp of being middle-aged. As I move from the middle to just straight-up aged, I’ve been struggling with a sense of purpose. It feels like it’s been this way always – likely an innate part of the human condition. The challenge is getting out of my own way, cutting through the imperfect perfectionism and procrastination. I have awkwardly begun to do what I want to do.
Dirty dishes sat on the counter, my daughter ran out of jeans, my family foraged for their own meals, and the cats scratched their own bellies. I was writing. I wrote and wrote and wrote, consequences be damned. I submitted a short story to a lit mag and didn’t throw up from anxiety. I came up with a plan for November’s National Novel Writing Month. This time I’m writing a big sociopolitical novel that I’m very excited about. The world did not stop spinning on its axis because I ignored my chores. My child did not need bail money. My husband was able to find things. Nothing happened except for one thing.
Life got easier. All the things that I’d been wrestling with, from feeling sort of useless as a human to getting enough exercise to my exhaustion from heavy social interaction. It all faded away to the background. I had finally brought the right thing into focus. My one thing. I brushed away the fleeting thought that I’d wasted a lot of time getting here. If you’re a writer, I rationalized, it’s all research and material, no matter what you’ve been doing.
If you’re doing NaNoWriMo next month and want a writing buddy, you can find me on the site at MMJayne.
Thank you to the Writers’ Studio, a group of lovely and talented people I joined in September. Having that space to read, write, listen, and talk about writing has encouraged me to embrace my one thing.
Thanks also to Amy, who has bravely embarked on a nonfiction collaboration with me. I love that our connection has found new ways to expand and grow.
And last, but definitely not least, thank you for reading, subscribing, or commenting. As I close in on this blog’s seventh anniversary, I marvel at how much the online world has changed since I began, but that I still enjoy writing here. With so many things grabbing our attention, it becomes harder to find community and connections. Anything we do to improve that, from connecting with bloggers on the other side of the planet to giving each other an encouraging Like or Hell, Yeah in the comments – these things do make a difference.
Last weekend, I had an existential crisis. It was a turning point. We all have them, especially when we hit middle age. Do I hold on fiercely to all that I knew before, or do I adapt to current realities? Do I insist that the tea kettle with the duct tape, whistle that sounds like a bird being strangled, and scorch marks from 30 years ago is worth holding onto or do I buy a newfangled electric plug-in thingy that shuts off automatically and keeps my house from burning down? Do I continue to back up my laptop and workstation to thumb drives and external hard drives, or do I soar into the cloud?
I value pragmatism, but mine is exacerbated by an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it mentality. I’ve restrained myself by waiting years to buy the latest gadget. You know, until all the bugs are worked out, the price drops, and everyone has stopped yammering on about it. And this is the good fortune I’ve sailed on – no catastrophic failures or unrecoverable data.
I don’t buy anything with an i in front of it, because I like to be able to change a #$ !@ battery myself without calling in a tech team. I like messing about with Android developer options and not dealing with proprietary, hamstringing restrictions. My Creative Zen MP3 player is ten years old and has been disassembled and reassembled numerous times. It still works and I use it every day. My workstation has been wonderfully stable with Windows 7 for years.
My unlocked LG smartphone was purchased on Amazon and I had to cut down the SIM card from my old phone to make it work. Over the years, I’ve learned how to hack and strip down bloatware on phones and computers. I’ve upgraded memory and added second drives. I’m not a whiz – I’m just not afraid of breaking things. And I know how to find instructions. My husband is a tech guy and is forbidden to touch my computers or phone. I like solving things myself.
So one would think that I’d not be so resistant to change. But this is where age comes in – resistance is growing. I can feel it. Maybe it’s the sheer exhaustion of the last twenty years, where technology has changed so quickly that one feels like it’s constantly adapt, adapt, adapt. There is a sense that consumerism is often driving “needs” for products more than actual need. And again, if you have a stable system that meets your needs, why upgrade?
I am reminded of my grandfather, who would have celebrated his birthday this month. He loved listening to Big Band music – Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. He never cared for newer music. I think about that a lot – this idea that we get stuck in a certain time. A time when life felt simpler, when we remember being happy and carefree. Music is a strong trigger for memory. If I hear the J. Geils Band, I am reminded of summer nights, driving my Monte Carlo with the windows down. Until the tape cassette had to be turned over.
Sometimes I have that sort of nostalgia for technology. I miss my Nokia E73, a solid little phone with a physical button keyboard. It didn’t feel like plastic, didn’t require man hands to hold, and had a little notification light that blinked to let me know I had a message. I didn’t need or want internet – I just wanted my emails and phone messages.
As I’ve been stepping up my writing game, I’ve been getting in my own way. My redundancy system of syncing my laptop and workstation through USB drives and memory sticks has impeded my work mobility and makes me nervous that I’ll forget which system I need to sync to. Using Scrivener for my novels and Word for shorter pieces means I’m dealing with different file types and sometimes find myself writing novel scenes in Word, to be cut and pasted into Scrivener. This is all to say that my aging brain is prone to freaking itself out with anxiety that I’m going to delete large portions of my work.
This weekend, I upgraded my workstation to Windows 10, cursing every step of the way. The new approach to technology is to essentially take as much control out of the user’s hands as possible, forcing various forms of indentured servitude to tech companies. Some people delight in this carefree process. I do not. I have to spend the next month hunting up hacks for a zillion little things I hate. This is not to say it’s a bad system, but change itself is becoming something I don’t handle as well. And that depresses me a bit.
So now my work is in the cloud – backed up prodigiously on both laptop and computer, but automatically. My collection of USB sticks is just a pile of has-beens. And I’ll still do my weekly backup on an external drive. One would think I was safeguarding Facebook data or something. Only, of course, in a way that actually has some safeguards.
Change is difficult. Technological change, doubly so. But I know it isn’t going to end and I have to break down my natural resistance to change in order to not become as defunct and useless as a tape cassette.
It’s been awhile since I wrote a Fearless Friday post. I’ve been waking night after night, plagued by insomnia and have decided to no longer fight it. So here I am, at 3am, trying to figure out a positive, encouraging post to write in the face of what seems a damning political and cultural scene. But life goes on and no matter what happens, so must we.
Welcome to Fearless Friday.
Fearless 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.
Earlier this week, I wrote about becoming radicalized as a moderate woman. In another forum someone suggested that it should have happened much sooner. Once I got over my bristling at the comment, I put some thought into it.
When my daughter was little, she seemed like the slowest person on the planet. I was always the last parent waiting to pick my child up from school. She’d wander about talking to her friends, visiting other teachers, watching other kids putting on their boots and coats instead of putting on her own. We’d need an hour of lead time to leave the house, just so she could finish her conversation with the cat or change her socks. Again. It was often a source of irritation.
It hit me one day, that I’d been very much like her, but in a different way. I was always careful, trying to be prepared and when I was rushed, I would become clumsy and forgetful. And no amount of cajoling, badgering, or yelling would change that. I learned patience. I am still very much like that as an adult. You can’t hurry me along. I am very resistant to external influence and I insist on doing my own research. People arrive when they arrive – just keep the door open for them.
Put a Little Kindness in Your Life
I want to give a shout out to Donna Cameron, whose first book was released this month. A Year of Living Kindly: Choices that Will Change Your Life and the World Around You is a culmination of Donna’s personal experiment to live more kindly. I have enjoyed reading Donna’s blog over the years – it’s one of those online places where you come away with substance. For all my kvetching about social media, it’s important to remember the writers and sites that actually bring something positive to the table. Congrats, Donna – your book is at the top of my reading stack!
Look Away from Power, Nourish Love
Today, I’m finding comfort, as I often do, in the words of James Baldwin. His words strike through me with clarity and precision.
One must say Yes to life, and embrace it wherever it is found – and it is found in terrible places. … For nothing is fixed, forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.
The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.
James Baldwin, Nothing Personal, 1964
For me, this is a reminder of the impermanence of all things, except for love. No matter what is happening politically or culturally, we must continue to nurture the connections around us in earnest, to find meaning in the mundane. We should not neglect these things in payment to a bigger cause.
Lift Others Up and Be Lifted Up
A couple of days ago I listened to Betty Folliard, founder of ERA Minnesota, speak about the renewed interest in passing the ERA. A large percentage of the population believes it actually passed years ago. It did not. It requires ratification by one more state (Come on Georgia or Virginia – you can do it!). She talked about the history of the ERA and about her experiences working on The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in the United Nations.
She was full of energy and optimism and I sat in the back of the room and thought How do you maintain that in the face of everything happening now? She’s been working for decades on these issues. And there I was, feeling all depressed and grumpy about the whole two years I’d been actively engaged in local politics and voting rights. What a dilettante! I realized that I’d been seeing too many of the schmucks in the news and not paying attention to the leaders and fighters among us right now.
It’s important to identify real leaders. There is a tremendous difference between power and leadership and current events behoove us to know the difference. My goal is to get my ass back up, dig into stories and books that will inspire me, and get on with the business of justice for humans and for our planet. If the fight never ends, it never ends. I still want to be in it.
Who are the leaders that inspire you?
Do you have any blogs or books to recommend?
All week it’s felt like “Today in Pecker News”. A Supreme Court nominee talks about his virginal pecker. A sitting president’s pecker is described in a porn star’s tell-all book. A once-beloved sitcom star’s pecker finally gets jail time. Disgraced peckers are finding their way back to stages and directing gigs and political appointments. And we get to hear and read all about it. It’s exhausting and demoralizing, as if peckers think they run the world.
I don’t write much about my feminist views or experiences as a woman. There are plenty of tales to be told and women are telling them. My experiences have been mild by comparison, so I’ve chosen to do what many people need to do – listen. That a second man with dubious character will be appointed to the Supreme Court in my voting lifetime angers me, though. The world moves forward without us, as old corrosive men dig their peckers in to hold progress back and keep their avarice and entitlement unchecked. What happens when power is not a reflection of the people’s will?
The consequences for speaking up and reporting sexual crimes are so extreme and the incidents of false reporting are so low, that as a human being, I believe the women who are speaking. It’s not bias – it’s common sense. I also believe the men who have come forward to say that Catholic priests abused them. Because I believe power and money and secrecy corrupts.
These days I feel a slow-burning rage. Yes, it’s all well and good to settle down, to not be so reactive to every political pronouncement said by people well past their sell-by date. And that date has less to do with age than mental acuity, some level of self-awareness, some level of empathy for other humans. Their neural pathways are as hardened as their arteries – they don’t know how to think or be any other way. I try to imagine what is going on in some of these people’s heads. They must be so completely insulated from the consequences of their actions that they just do whatever the hell they want – whatever their little club wants them to do. Useless peckers.
What do you do with this rage? At this point, I need to shut off the news. The Republicans are determined to put this man on the Supreme Court, no matter what anyone says. It is likely he will be appointed. I have no say in the matter. I already saw the Anita Hill hearings. I don’t need to see another one of those creepy circuses.
I’m voting and encouraging others to vote. I wrote 150 postcards on behalf of the ACLU to latent voters. I joined and actively serve in my local chapter of the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization focused on voting rights. I’ve donated to the NAACP, the ACLU, the Sierra Club, the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. I’ve written, called, and emailed my representatives and those outside my state. I’ve taught my daughter critical thinking skills and about her rights and expectations as a human being. I have done what any citizen can do within the confines of the law.
Despite all this, I have a sinking feeling. Congress was too busy worrying about somebody’s pecker business to pass any legislation to protect our elections. They were too busy protecting another white guy to take care of the business of our nation. The contempt I feel for them is corrosive. Whatever respect I felt for their offices, their roles has evaporated. Civility, respect, courage, ethics, morals – these things are mocked on a daily basis by people who call themselves patriots and “real” Americans.
I’ve always tried to be thoughtful, think critically, not allow my anger or my self-righteousness to get the best of me. But that is the luxury of a bystander. And the time for that has passed.
Where I’ve Been
Where I was once lackadaisical, I am fierce.
Where I shrugged my shoulders, I now set my chin.
Where I was generous, I set boundaries.
Where once politeness seemed imperative, integrity takes its place.
Where I laughed a little in discomfort, I now roar in dismay.
Where I was embarrassed by tenderness, I steel myself in intentional kindness.
Where I showed up to help, I now grab the reins.
Where once I pursed my lips at your unkindness, I now teach you.
Where I tolerated your gaze and judgment, I now see you are wanting of character.
Where I stood along the sidelines, I now stand up front.
Where I stayed silent, I now speak up.
Where once I stepped back to be measured in my thoughts, I now understand that all sides do not merit equal time.
You thought you could rely on my manners, my gentility, my introversion, my comfort level, your ideas of obsequious femininity.
That you could keep doing what you were doing and I would stay where I had stayed.
But I have seen the future in the eyes of my daughter. And it cannot be you.
It’s been a long few weeks. This morning, as I watched my daughter walk down the street to high school, I felt the tears well up. It seem like only moments ago, we were holding hands, walking to her preschool and my parenting classes while she bounced up and down off the curb chatting away. Time. Sometimes it seems endless, like a languid, humid summer. And suddenly, it’s autumn.
I packed a whole summer of experiences in the last few weeks. I went to the Minnesota State Fair for the first and last time in my life. I boated down the St. Croix with a friend who has known me for over 30 years. I did the absolute worst interview in my life, which gave me insomnia and crushed my ego into dust. I tried to register voters (the least popular table at a school open house) and wrote pithy comments on a zillion ACLU voter postcards. I frequented bookstores and often fell asleep in my reading chair, book in hand.
I’m a slow processor. It’s taken me a couple of weeks to superglue the pieces of my fragile ego together, after interviewing for a vacant city council seat. There were mitigating factors – it was more like a military board, where there was a prescribed set of questions, no interaction, and a bunch of white guys staring at me grim-faced. 30 years ago, I would have probably aced it. Too many years of learning how to develop rapport and human connection had me little prepared to be interviewed by a room of stenographers, who were literally writing down and grading my answers as I spoke.
I drove away from city hall with the Talking Heads playing in my brain “How did I get here?” I’d tried to prepare for this interview in the way I try to prepare for everything. But I was not prepared to feel simultaneously angry and embarrassed that I had pushed myself to do this thing my heart wasn’t really in – that I’d allowed my ego to speak louder than my gut.
It’s hard to come back from failure and mistakes. But I am my own Spin Master. And my efforts to be an activist, to be engaged in politics, had taken over a good portion of my life. I’d been getting progressively miserable over the last couple of years and while the President would be delighted to take credit for this, as he does all things, I’m not giving it to him. Because we are, no matter what the state of the world, ultimately responsible for the state of our selves. It’s easy to shelve that responsibility when larger causes are on the horizon and to become a mini-martyr in the course of things.
There is an argument that to make a difference, you have to put some real skin in the game. We see the costs throughout history – those who died and suffered or the famous humans who ignored their children, cheated on their spouses, had secret fetishes and addictions of every ilk, yet who made a difference, who went down in history for the one thing that they did really well, whatever it was. But that’s not the path for most of us.
I remember being very irritated by something Brené Brown wrote in her book, Rising Strong. “The ego has a shame-based fear of being ordinary.” She went on to say that this was how she defined narcissism. Nobody wants to think of themselves as being narcissistic, albeit there is a huge difference in degree. But some of us, most of us, are quite ordinary. We’re not building bridges, curing illnesses, climbing whatever tall things we can find. Most of us will never write literature that will be read into the next century or be called the greatest anything (except by those we love, on t-shirts and coffee mugs).
I’m at the age where I know who I am – that I will never enjoy huge crowds of people, I am prone to/revel in saying the wrong thing when I’m irritated, I am never in the moment more than when I am writing, I need shitloads of solitude, I adore my family, and I want to perpetually learn. But then there is my ego. Martyrdom? Sign me up. Hard labor? Tell me where to dig. Endless devotion? Here – have an organ. These are not sacrifices for me. This is business-as-usual, not altruism.
Despite all the jokes about men and their vehicles and overcompensation, I’ve realized that I have my own Hummvee – doing good in order to make up for not feeling good enough. This is ego. This is thinking that it be critically important I be seen as being good – that appearances are more important than the infrastructure. I let my ego take me to a place where I would not thrive, because it sounded important. More than ordinary.
It’s been a messy, messy epiphany – one that I’ve experienced before in varying degrees, but at this stage in life, it really needs to stick. The outcome is that I’ve put some limits on activism and volunteerism and I’m working to change my time to reflect activities that feed me. I joined a local writers’ group, pulled out the many unfinished writing projects, and am getting down to the business of being ordinary.
That’s how I wrapped up my summer. How was yours?
The Green Study will return on September 4th, 2018.
It has become obvious from my last few posts that I’m in a bit of a mental muddle. I turn 51 shortly, which is neither here nor there, but makes me think I could do for a birthday break. The dog days of summer are now here. The cicadas drone on all day and the mornings roar with the croaking of toads and the chirping of crickets until the oppressive heat slows all living creatures to a crawl.
I’ve hit my social interaction saturation point, where the sound of my voice is like that old Volkswagen commercial, except the lyrics are: blah, blah, blah. This week I went to a garden party, which sounds more posh than it was – a fundraiser for a state representative. The governor was there. Being a political junkie and writer, I like to go to these sorts of things and observe politicians in their natural habitats of glad-handing and smiling relentlessly. I hung about the edges of the lawn just watching people and slipped away at the hour mark. I’m toast.
In the midst of civic engagement (how I’ve begun to loathe that phrase), I went to the funeral of a man whose 100th birthday party I attended a few months ago. At the time, he was smiling and laughing and talking to all of his friends and family. It was hard to see the funeral in a tragic light, when he left the world on the heels of feeling surrounded by love after a century of life. We should all be so lucky.
Yesterday, my daughter and I worked at a food shelf distribution center, sorting and packaging 10lb bags of potatoes. One in ten people experience food insecurity in Minnesota. As a child of government cheese and butter lines and food stamps, it feels like a good way to spend a morning, but I am tired. I think about this social media idea of virtue signaling and how I’ve exploited it in my writing, talking about civic values and volunteering. I’ve become cynical about my attempts to be a good person, which is a signal in its own right – it’s time for a break.
The field of candidates when I filed for a vacant seat on city council expanded in the last few days from 1 to 12, so I’m bracing for failure. Bracing for Failure is the title of my unwritten autobiography. There is a certain panache to losing well. I always find the lesson, sometimes even before failure has been ascertained. I’ll know in the next couple of weeks where I stand and I’m sure I’ll be back writing about it then.
Until then, I’m withdrawing into my shell with a pile of books, a list of house projects, and a penchant for belting out blues songs without provocation. We’re replacing our deck which has become a regular haunt for woodpeckers, due to the rotting wood and the bug buffet it hosts. Another DIY project that will involve arguments and injury and will be a relief when it’s over.
I hope to return in a couple of weeks recovered from burnout and with a better sense of direction. My energy is going all over the place these days. It’s not anything particularly interesting – just life coming at me from all directions and I need to retreat, rally my mental troops, and prepare for the next charge, wherever that may lead.
Wishing you the happy last dregs of summer!
Time, when it is left to itself and no definite demands are made on it, cannot be trusted to move at any recognized pace. Usually it loiters; but just when one has come to count upon its slowness, it may suddenly break into a wild irrational gallop. – Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905)
We’d made the trip to a mall, because my daughter, who wants to upgrade her wardrobe for high school, wanted to visit Old Navy. This is a store I’ve never shopped at, nor had any particular desire to visit, but then, I’m not 14, nor likely to be accused of having fashion sense. It was, however, located next to a Barnes and Noble and as indicated by my last post, Bibliophile Safari, it served as compensation for being among the shopping marauders of what is, essentially, an Indonesian clothing bizarre.
I believe I have raised my daughter well, but we are a tiresome pair. We hate clothes shopping and swap snarky comments about Old Navy’s connection to child laborers and factory fires abroad. Which leads to a whole discussion about the moral ambiguities of modern living and how it is nearly impossible to live one’s life on a high horse and how we are forced to constantly make choices between our desires and the immoral forces that define them. Still, we leave with three new shirts for her wardrobe.
The bookstore is a surprisingly short trip. She wants something by Schopenhauer, a German philosopher, and we both want a copy of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I am alarmed by the numerous signs and large sections marked Christian literature. It’s been awhile since I’ve been in a Barnes and Noble and that seems new. The section next to it is a paltry collection of all other religions and philosophy. Tribalism is leaving nothing untouched in this country.
Nearby is a Michael’s craft store. It’s been a good five years since I’ve been in one, so we took a stroll through. The smell was familiar. My daughter said she remembered being here. Craft projects for her at home and for my volunteer activities once led us down aisles of paper and glue and sequins at least once a week. The days of watching her fingerpaint everything but the paper, tasting each color crayon to see if they had different flavors, and messy science experiments have been swapped for Assassins’ Creed video games, nihilist philosophy, and a viola.
This last week was my official end of summer. The languid hot, buggy days that slowed everything down, until one day was very much like the next, are over. The next couple of weeks are riddled with appointments and meetings and preparation – for the school year, the election season, getting some writing projects off the ground. I filed my candidacy application for a vacated city council seat, and am now filled with the usual anxiety and internal trepidation that precedes doing anything out of my comfort zone.
I know that it’s a matter of days, and I will be looking back on this time with a little sadness. Did I make the most of it? Did I spend enough time with my family? Did I embrace my teenage changeling enough? Family life has patterns. You move in the same space, know each other’s preferences and irritants, but there are days when it just seems like bodies in the same house, unconnected. I see how temporary it all is. In only a few years, it will just be he and I, having to learn to renegotiate our life.
Ofttimes when people talk about mindfulness, they talk about being in the moment and being present. This, to me, is a difficult state to remain in for very long. Sometimes instead of connecting with a single moment, our imagination allows us to connect with all the moments. We see the inexplicable blip in time that our lives are, the pinpoint dot on a radar. There and then gone.
It would be easy to see this as cause for depression, but in my mind, it serves the same purpose as the ocean to our physical beings – a reminder that we are part of something vast and amorphous. This recognition of time, of seeing what has passed and imagining what is before us, is exactly what leads us to the moment. We recognize how unimportant our moments are in the scheme of things, but how very important they are to us. A perspective and defense against ego and wastefulness.
Following my application for city council, I began to experience minor panic attacks. Time is speeding up and I don’t know if I’m doing what I should be doing with my life. I miss my daughter, even as she sleeps just down the hallway. I worry that I won’t be able to make the commitments I’ve made to writing projects, that I will let people down. That the imposter syndrome will become a yappy dog constantly nipping at my heels, never allowing myself to feel a sense of accomplishment, no matter what I do. Faster and faster my thoughts come, downhill, without any brakes.
Breathe. Sit still and silent. Watch the second hand on the clock. Tick, tick, tick. Things come back into focus. Do one thing – one task with a beginning and end. Then do the next thing, beginning and end. Make a list, write some notes, make the amorphous blob of tasks and timing concrete. The knot in my stomach is still tight, but the pounding in my ears has receded. I am here. Right now. It’s okay. Whatever happens, happens. Anxiety wastes energy. The cliches, memes, and self-comforting phrases are now beginning to irritate me. Situation normal. I’ve synced up again.
My teenager rolled her eyes at me. You have a problem. I was leaving the bookstore with seven new books. Piles teeter haphazardly in my study. I read a lot and I read weirdly. I visit the library once a week and I can’t leave a bookstore without new books, even more so when it’s an independent bookseller. It might be a problem, but I don’t care. Today, apparently, is designated Book Lovers’ Day. Uh, isn’t that every single minute of every single day?
This morning my husband asked me why I was reading a university-bound paper on the inventor of the Hmong written language. I shrugged. I was just interested in it. It was too early in the morning to explain the journey. I’d read Mai Der Vang’s collection of poetry, Afterland, which made several references to the Hmong language. I started to look up translations, when I discovered that Hmong written language hadn’t even been invented until 1959 – by a self-proclaimed messiah named Shong Lue Yang, nicknamed “The Mother of Writing”.
What was the point of tracking down any book I could find on the guy through inter-library loans? Curiosity. I’ve written that I’ve begun to see reading as part of my job as a writer. But this was reading without purpose – my absolute favorite kind. I just unraveled a story, sought out the threads, and now will know something I didn’t. It doesn’t end there, though. Like getting caught in endless link-hopping through Wikipedia, I now have more books I want to read. The Shong Lue biography weaves mythology into historical events, so I’ve requested books on Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.
At some point, I’ll be done following the threads and pick up entirely different ones. This organic reading process gives me great joy. It combines my love of research and reading and surrounds me with a kaleidoscope of ideas.
So in honor of yet another made-up holiday, here’s a list of some of my all-time favorites:
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
- The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
- Candide by Voltaire
- Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
- A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
- A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
- Anything by Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain, or Margaret Atwood
- The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider
- The Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison
- Anything by Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and James Baldwin
I have eschewed all social media except for this blog, but have decided to become more active on Goodreads, because reading is so much my happy place. I’m trying to update my lists and will write only nice things about books I like, so I intend on being completely useless as a critic. That being said, I’m not sure how it all works, but if you send me a friend request, I’ll be happy to connect.
What are some of your all-time faves?