The Green Study on Spring Break

I started writing a blog post called “What’s Keeping Me Awake, Pt. 2” to follow on the heels of a post about a sleepless night. Last night (since it’s 3 am already), I tossed and turned listening for our sick kitty. The vet is coming today to end our tortoiseshell’s long battle with kidney disease. It’s the first time we’ve been able to say good-bye to a pet at home, but the time between scheduling the appointment and the actual appointment is a vast space. It’s been such a long, sad winter in our home and I’ve had enough of it.

The Green Study will return on April 1, 2019.

canstockphoto1508295Instead of writing what would be a continuing narrative of unhappy posts about dead relatives, dying kitties, and a middle-aged lady’s health anxieties, I’m going to take a break, let things settle a bit, get through today, get through medical testing in the next couple of weeks, get through the last dregs of winter. There is so much immediacy in my life that I’m writing without circumspection and that feels like showing first drafts to my mother. I adore the editor within, but right now she’s too busy googling medical scenarios, feline and human alike, to be of much use.

Since this post will be up for a couple of weeks, I don’t want to leave on such a melancholy note. My aching gratitude for the humans and pets with whom I’ve shared a life is in the form of grief right now, but like the spring that reveals bright green shoots on the trees, it will give way to hopefulness and warm memories. And perhaps writing which will honor those lost during this long-enduring winter.

Until then, I leave behind a smattering of unrelated thoughts.

Media Diet

I’ve been off Twitter for a couple of weeks now and ended some video streaming services. The math of doing fewer enervating activities adds up. I feel better and I’m more focused. I hit a couple of main news sources in the morning and at night and leave the punditry and digital sophistry to others. You never know what you don’t need until you stop using it like you need it. That should be profound, but it just sounds like a bad sentence. My editor is completely checked out.

On the Reading Docket

78223I’m nearly through a 900 page lit course called The Art of the Short Story. To sum it up, with Flaubert everyone dies, Flannery O’Connor hates humans (not a single likable character), Poe likes convoluted sentences, and the 1800s killed writers at a young age. I learned more than that, while also becoming suspicious of the idea that good literature has to be realistic and miserable. After I get through the stories by Welty, Wharton, and Woolf, I’m going to read some lighter fare – Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warnings and Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas. Well, lighter than Faulkner and Oates, anyway.

This week I revisited W.S. Merwin’s work The Shadow of Sirius. Merwin, an American poet, passed away a few days ago. There is something striking about the passing of what I call the “gentle poets”. Mary Oliver died earlier this year. It takes a moment to adjust to the quiet pace and the light maneuvering of language. We have become so battered against the rocks of cruel and incurious public discourse that first reactions to gentle poetry is a snickering cynicism – as if nothing matters over 280 characters or 20 second sound bites. To read poetry is a deliberate return to tenderness, a rebuke to the world too enamored of its own edginess.

To the New Year

By W. S. Merwin

With what stillness at last

you appear in the valley

your first sunlight reaching down

to touch the tips of a few

high leaves that do not stir

as though they had not noticed

and did not know you at all

then the voice of a dove calls

from far away in itself

to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you

here and now whether or not

anyone hears it this is

where we have come with our age

our knowledge such as it is

and our hopes such as they are

invisible before us

untouched and still possible

               *****
The New New Year

canstockphoto9109848.jpgConsidering how the year started and how it is currently proceeding, I’m all for resetting the holiday to align with spring. What did that old Roman god Janus know about the long Minnesota winter, when looking forward and back is just more snow? Spring is when energy rebounds, optimism in the form of daffodils and tulips arise and large rabbits deliver chicken eggs. Humans are weird. This particular human needs a reset on the year. Until that happens, I’m off to get myself sorted.

See You in the New Year!

 

What’s Keeping Me Awake

Of late I’ve had an uncomfortable medical issue related to repeated heartburn. It’s gotten much worse and I have to go to the doctor. But not, of course, until I’ve googled myself into a full anxiety attack. It’s after midnight and I’m tossing and turning and just a little terrified – because so many roads lead to cancer and I’m 51 and I still have a teenager at home and I don’t want to die.

Several years ago, I had an irregular mammogram and I had to go back for another test. It turned out alright, but afterwards, I sat in my car sobbing for a good half hour. The palpable relief that I’d still be around for my kid made me crumble. After researching my latest symptoms, my insides are quaking with fear. My symptoms suggest that whatever I have, I’m about to go on a medical diagnostic journey.

Going to the doctor is like going to the gym. Getting through the door is the hardest part. BarrenTreeBWI’ve been fortunate up to this point in my life to have the luxury of infrequent visits to medical establishments. The downside is that nearly every interaction I have with medical personnel is when something bad is happening. I always leave with a new syndrome or condition, feeling much worse off than when I arrived.

When you have the luxury and fortune of good health and things start to go awry, you realize what a coward you are. I’ve never had a dental cavity – a combination of genetics and compulsive brushing. I imagine the first time I get one, I’ll become the biggest baby ever. Yet I know people who have chronic conditions, who have to line up their medications every day, and who have more replacement parts than original and they are still wildly successful at being human beings.

Here I am, though, so filled with fear and anxiety that I cannot sleep. And I know logically, it will only make things worse if I am tired. How do you find a sense of peace or calm in all of this? How do you let go of the visions of death that dance before you? How do you not tearfully hug your husband and daughter as they go out the door to have their Mondays?

On the outside, I tend to under-react in times of crisis, even as my brain is riddled with anxiety. I imagine tomorrow morning will be like any other day. I will close the door behind my family and begin to count the minutes to calling the doctor’s office. They will ask who my primary physician is and I will mumble “I don’t know”. I have a feeling that by the time diagnosis is over and I’m on some sort of treatment plan, cancer or not, I’ll know my primary physician’s name and a few specialists’ names as well.

It is my nature to distance myself, to stand outside of myself in the middle of fear. It is why I’m writing now. Writing gives my story, with all its unanswered questions, some shape, a measure of control. Or at least the illusion of it. Over the last month, I’ve been reading a lot of the classic short story writers and their bios. Quite a few of them were dead in their 40s, with hundreds of stories written. But they never felt the pride of that. They just did it until the TB or syphilis took them.

In the midst of my fears, not having been published turns out to be the least of them. Sometimes it’s good to have those kind of realizations, when all your priorities suddenly sift away, leaving only the large, important things. For me, it will always be my family.

canstockphoto1218783I’d been feeling depressed over the last month or so – the side effect of a long winter and the loss of my mother-in-law a few months ago. I’d been wallowing in self-pity about my inability to be a prolific writer. Sporadic writer is more like it – whinging on about being a caregiver of sick cats, of having no sense of self beyond the drudgery of laundry and dishes and ferrying people about. And how it felt like such a big deal to allow my brown hair to be sheared off to reveal the silvery gray beneath a few weeks ago. I am a little ashamed about that now. How trivial and superficial my anxieties can be.

Writing this reminds me of the ability I have of finding the upside to things. This fear, this insomnia-ridden anxiety, shoves aside my petty concerns, makes me open my eyes and see what is true. I hope I remember this in the cold light of morning, watching as the clock ticks closer to office hours.

Digging Out

Unintentionally, I stopped writing. Like the earth under layers of snow, I felt weighted down by the auspices of winter and the world at large. The news of the day is unrelenting, painful, infuriating. To make the choice to ignore it, means choosing to exercise privilege – a momentary state that many of us are in – aware, but untouched as of yet. Indulging ourselves with entertainment and distraction, because we know not exactly what to do. We send money or protest out into the world and then turn inward, safe once again, comforted by the knowledge that we did something.

canstockphoto14933208I’ve been feeling a lot of discomfort about that and my forays into social media are coming to an end. There are always those who go on about its usefulness and of staying “in the know” and the value of connection. I suspect that they have great mental filters, that their skin is thick – that they don’t internalize things. They are able to take away more from it than what is taken. It’s funny how physically tough I can be, but will lay awake at night because some rando on the internet insulted me.

When I was a child, I was frequently told I was too sensitive. It took a long time out in the world to build an armor of sarcasm, a facial expression to scare off men, women, children, and pets. I focused on being physically adept and stronger, because that was another kind of toughness. I developed a dark sense of humor, learned to laugh harshly when I was frightened or despairing. But the tender part is necessary to who I am. It is not going away. And it feels battered.

canstockphoto28476729FOMO (fear of missing out) is an easy disease to catch. I love learning – reading about all kinds of things and people. The information age is a heady, addictive time – to have access to anything I’d like to learn. The learning is a shell game though. What one gains in quantity, one loses in quality. The faster and easier information is acquired, the less permanence it has. My brain is cycling shorter and shorter. In essence, I feel less capable of the nuanced thinking that produces meaningful discourse and art. I’m spending far too much time arguing in my head with bytes of pithiness.

I’ve deactivated Twitter, cancelled Amazon Prime, locked down Facebook (I have to maintain it for a volunteer organization I work for), and am returning to the simple life of a writer/blogger/reader. I miss my brain before Twitter and Facebook. I miss being able to sit with stillness. Some people are able to do it all, but I am not one of them. An introvert in the world is an introvert online. There is only so much time and energy. And I want to reclaim mine.

The Ballad of the Unhappy Tweeter

It sits like lead in the belly – the impotence of social media.

Write a thoughtful response. Delete with frustration.

Write an angry response. Delete with embarrassment.

Witness the stupid, the self-important, the self-righteous.

Performative -isms.

Bragging about their gods and guns and wokeness.

Flippant. Send brightly-colored hearts and smiley faces and special punctuation.

Passive-aggressive positivity.

Faux patriotism.

Pledge your fealty to the troops who suck sand for suited men.

Chuckling on the golf course about loopholes.

Copy, paste, copy, paste.

Meme, meme, meme.

Faux intellectualism.

Self-identifying conspiracy theorists, Christian, libertarian, bro, coward, crypto-fan, cultist, racist, misogynist

who want to be inside the bodies they deride or subjugate them to the state.

Fondling their threats of violence in the shape of guns.

1A is for thee, but not for those others.

2A as self-esteem.canstockphoto10130744

Copy, paste, copy, paste.

Meme, meme, meme.

To leave the platform is heresy.

You will be unfollowed.

You will be untethered, unpublished, unimportant.

As you were before the crowd entered your brain.

Deactivate

The room empties.

You plant your feet on terra firma.

Rendered invisible, but able to see once again.

cropped-canstockphoto9028280.jpg

Where the Ego Fears to Tread

I just finished reading an essay on Medium by Meghan Daum, “My Life at 47 is Back to What It was Like at 27“. I’ve been thinking a lot about change and the idea that who we were is always going to be who we are. For someone like me, who is always striving to be better – a better parent, a better writer, a better human, the idea that our essence will remain essentially unchanged throughout our lives bothers me. Perhaps I’ve begun to see the threads of my life that lead from the wood library floors where, at age 9, I’d sit with a pile of books, to the worn, overstuffed reading chair in my study next to a table fairly groaning with to-be-reads at age 51.

Yesterday, I stopped in the drugstore and for the first time in two decades, looked behind the counter to see how much cigarettes cost. It’s a new habit I’ve been practicing – trying to notice things that I don’t normally look at in my daily routine. There was a time when I knew exactly how much cigarettes cost. I smoked until I was 30. Even when I was broke in grad school, I’d scrape together the money (sometimes all in coin) to buy a generic pack of menthols.

canstockphoto13455198.jpgWhat I lost in lung cancer potential, I gained in weight. But in the intervening years since my last smoke, how much has really changed? Is it just the external trappings – from an apartment to a house in the burbs, from the worst girlfriend ever to a less-than-awful wife? From a dog caregiver to a cat caregiver? From someone allergic to children to someone who feels the awful, wonderful deep love for a child. From someone who bounced to whatever job paid more to someone who will be lucky to ever be paid again.

Sometimes it scares the hell out of me – what if this is it? And that question may be the thing that has definitely never changed. It’s the same startling thought I had when I was 18, 28, 38, 48…what if this is all I am? What if I never become a published writer? What if I continue to live an obscure little life? What if the potential I believed I had was all a myth? What if this is all there is?

It’s no coincidence that the heavies are catching me this week. I finally got the last layer of hair color sheared off. I’ve got a Dame Judi Dench thing happening on my head. And I can’t pass a mirror without being a little startled. All the color is gone, replaced by a silvery white. I rarely wear makeup and suddenly I have a better understanding of my grandmother’s blue eye shadow and intensely red lipstick. I am a faded photo of myself. I thought, well, this is me until I’m dead, just picking up more wrinkles and arthritis along the way. Get used to it. 

canstockphoto39088457.jpgAnd then I laughed. There are some things that haven’t changed – my smirking, dark sense of humor. My ability to have the worst thoughts and then let them go. The likelihood that I will be trying to self-improve right up to the moment of death. Oh look, her last Google search was “How to be more productive in hospice”. That in my deepest, darkest moment of despair, I have an inkling that I’ll have a new plan tomorrow.

I’m not the most mentally healthy person. I compulsively overdo everything – food, shopping, TV binging, saying “yes” – less and less as I age, but I can still put away half the kitchen on a bad day. I run a continuous cycle of depressed-okay-depressed-okay- mostly okay. I’m not particularly accomplished at anything, but I know a little about a lot of things and I spend a lot more time doing what makes me content than I did before. My special skills involve list-making, the ability to do heavy physical labor, swearing in several languages, rationalization of just about anything, and my inclination to occasionally bake good homemade bread.

As for the writing, well, there’s a lot of good writers out there and so much of what gets published is the result of hard work, opportunity, and luck  – a secret combo that no one ever really gets sorted. I’m still stuck in the hard work phase, or I should say the pre-hard work phase, because the hardest work is getting myself to do it. Once I’m there, everything is good. Getting there is worse than getting myself to the gym. In fact, I will sometimes work out to avoid writing. That’s wrong on so many levels.

It’s when the jokes get real that throw me off. Less haha-ing and more: oh, shit. Yes, this may be all that there is. Is it bad? Unendurable? Untenable? Not at all. I just feel a bit like a pissed off school teacher sometimes – she had so much potential. I suppose that most humans are guilty of not living up to their potential. I’ve been reading The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn, a very nice collection of short stories, that include not only the story, but a biographical summary of the author. I immediately notice when they’ve died. Atwood is still alive, Borges and Cather had long lives, but Camus at 47, Carver at 50, Chekhov at 44 (apparently I’ve only gotten through the Cs).

Panic mode. Oh my god, if I were them, I’d be dead. I’d have no stories to tell. I haven’t been writing my whole life. No one might ever now that I ever wrote anything besides this blog. Everyone has a blog. Who cares about that? Breathe. There’s nothing to be done now, except to keep moving along like you have the time. No amount of panic will make you write better. Now get back to that short story you’ve been putzing around with for a week.

As my teenage daughter puts it, why would it matter? You’d be dead. Yes, that little cynical apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Still, it matters to me now and regardless of the quasi-solipsistic existentialism that governs much of my personal outlook, part of me knows the power of words. What if my words are what someone needs to hear, to get them by a bad moment, to lift their spirits? It isn’t ego as much as it is paying things forward.

canstockphoto34158490.jpgSometimes I feel like my life was saved by books, that the right words at a particular time in my life, lifted me, gave me heart, taught me empathy, kept me from spiraling downward. Perhaps our essence never changes, but we complete the circle. The words that saved me rooted themselves, became part of me and grew. And now they grow beyond me. Not a bad way to head into the last inning – saying thank you, using my words.

 

Some Words I read This Week that I Enjoyed:

Raymond Carver’s short story,  “A Small, Good Thing

Made me blubber – not always the best selling point, but if you’re in need of a good cry, it’s a good shove in that direction.

Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

I’m not particularly interested in style guides – I use them as reference books for specific questions. However, I’ve just started reading this one and will likely read it cover-to-cover, because of the writer’s sense of humor.

Black Ice

I’m forcing myself out of a frozen shell to engage with the rest of the world. There are times when I need a build up of ideas and energy in my head that is too easily dispelled by any form of communication. Emails and voicemails and texts are piling up. I know the end is nigh for this period of silence, that will likely be followed by a burst of productivity. Sometimes I wonder if nature controls my moods.

canstockphoto19231888.jpgThis week has been the most wintry week of winter. Black ice on Monday, heavy snowfall midweek, and now brittle, skin-freezing temps and wind chills again. A friend slipped and broke her leg. A man shot a school bus driver after a fender-bender on a snow and ice-coated highway. The rabbit that found a winter home near one of our window wells is puffed out to twice it size and gets stared at by giant, hairless bipeds at least twice a day. People make snide comments on Star Tribune weather articles about climate change.

I shoveled the half foot of snow off the drive yesterday and wondered how many more years I’d be able to do it. The aches of the day are knee, hip and back. I’ve always been a work horse and hate the noise and maintenance of snowblowers. I like the dead silence of winter, the barrage of constant physical sensation that forces me out of my brain and into the moment – the numbing of my face, breathing through frozen nose hairs, the bite at my thighs and fingers that mean I’ll be red and burning when I get inside and start to warm.

canstockphoto3182017I’ve never been a daredevil and never really understood those who are. Why climb a mountain? Why jump out of a plane? Why deep sea dive? I’m disinterested in the spectacular physical challenges humans seek out. I’m interested in survival and the daily precipice we all live on – the never knowing when death will seek us out. When I’m out on a winter’s day, I think of how our lives are built on safety nets and backup plans and fail-safes, but in spite all of that, someone will have a heart attack shoveling, someone will fall in their shower, someone will eat a yet-to-be recalled food.

Our daily lives are full of risk. We could do everything right and still have life go south. Knowing that is adrenaline enough for me. And it requires no special gear, no great heights, no training courses. Just a desolate, muffled winter day.

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

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