Dear Daughter,

Let’s face it, this Mother’s Day gig is more for businesses than for your mom. Your mom would rather hang out at home than bustle elbow-to-elbow with corsages, pastel dresses and Waldorf salads. I don’t need this day, because being your mother is a privilege and a joy.

I didn’t always think of parenting like this. I grew up believing it was drudgery, dirty hands, noisy squatters who were just bearable – little uncontrollable monsters who made life worse. Children were unending responsibility and to do lists. Maybe that’s why I waited so long to have you – I had to realize that there was another side to the story.canstockphoto13603068What no one told me about was the joy. The joy of watching you grow big and strong and confident. I watched you run across the soccer field this week and felt tears well up. My mind jumped back in time to when you first learned to crawl and then walk and then run, laughing as I would chase you about the house singing “We are the dinosaurs”.

No one told me how much I would learn – about myself, about others and about how to see the world around me. No one told me how much better I would want to be as a human being, in order to be a good example. No one told me I’d spend an afternoon pouring over bug books to figure out what we saw on a walk or sewing a Robin Hood costume because you wanted to be a character in a book.

canstockphoto12183648No one told me how much I’d laugh and giggle at your antics or how much pleasure I’d get having you snuggled up against me, talking about nothing at all. There’s no chapter in the books that would tell me how I’d watch you from the kitchen window, my heart overwhelmed by a song you belted out happily while going back and forth on your swing.

No one told me that when I read a story about the loss of a child, that I’d feel a weight on my chest and a fear creeping at the edge of my mind. No one told me that I’d stop what I was doing, find you and be so grateful for the moment. And that for many moments after, I’d feel my breath catch at the thought of losing you.

There have been many challenges along the way. Most of them had to do with sleep. But those baby days are growing distant in the rear view mirror and here you are, in braces, happily chatting away about this cool computer program you are writing. I am often stunned by how grown up you sound.

You amaze me each and every day with your kindness, your enthusiasm and your open heart.

I don’t need a day. I’ve had years. And I hope for many more.

Love, Your Very Lucky Mom

The Dilettante Writer (#mywritingprocess Blog Tour)

canstockphoto13096454It was a happy coincidence that my friend and fellow writer, Bill at Pinklightsabre’s Blog asked if I’d like to participate in a blog hop/tour/thingamajiggy at a time when I was trying to build up a little more writing steam. It provided me yet another distraction and like any good writer, I jumped at the opportunity to write about writing rather than actually do any work writing. Bill is an engaging blogger and I often read his short, but powerful posts thinking “How does he do that?” Thanks, Bill!

I’m not usually game for blog chain letters, but when I saw some of my favorite blogging buddies doing it, including Ross over at Drinking Tips for Teens, I thought I’d give it the old college/grad school dropout try.

It starts off answering four questions about a writer’s process and project:

1)     What am I working on?

I am dragging myself back to the novel draft I wrote for NaNoWriMo in November 2012. I started a second novel, but the compulsive finisher in me kept being distracted by this unedited binder of slush.

I am slogging through Phoenix Rock page by grueling page. I started out with the lofty goal of writing about the effect of alcoholism on a single family and by the 3rd chapter, was completely bored. So, people started dying. By the end of the book, there was murder, secrets and betrayals. It turned into a soap opera.

As I have the attention span of a gnat, I’m also writing short stories in the hopes of re-launching another blog focused on fiction.

2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?

It doesn’t. Like most writing, the story has been told in a thousand different mutations. It’s just the author’s voice that shapes it differently. So, it’s my voice – one that I am still working on each time I write. What’s authentic, what is worth saying?

3)     Why do I write what I do?

The first novel for me is a stereotype – I have to get it out, so that I can move onto more creative endeavors. It is not based on my life, but it is certainly about the experiences many people have had in families destroyed by addiction. It’s my angry inner child working out issues.

The blog writing I do is about immediacy – whatever weighs on my mind or has piqued my interest at the moment. I started a blog to establish a writing habit and it still serves that purpose, but it has also helped me find a voice and pacing that suits me.

4)     How does my writing process work?

Initially, as a writer, I felt like a failure, because I didn’t write consistently. I still don’t and maybe that’s another good thing I’ve learned from blogging. It doesn’t work for me to write every day, not for my schedule or for my creative flow. Things have to brew in my head and I’ll think about a subject or phrase over the course of several days before writing about it. I’ll carry it with me in the garden or at the grocery store or while I’m running.

According to the advice, I go about everything ass-backwards. I edit while I write. I will work one sentence over and over until the rhythm or words roll the way I like them. A blog post rarely gets published with under 25 revisions. It’s part compulsive perfectionist, but also an absolute love of language. I read paragraphs aloud to see if the rhythm is natural and if the words easily convey what I’m trying to say.

I also like economical writing. This has made editing a novel very difficult. I know how to tell a story and how to tell it quickly, but I need to meander a bit more and flesh out characters and scenes with more detail. It’s my running joke that you could read my entire novel and have no idea what a single character looks like.

Writing is how I understand the world around me, so nothing ever gets written without me learning something. And that’s at the heart of my writing process.

It is a great honor to pass this blog tour torch onto two writers in the blogosphere. They will be posting about their own writing processes next week.

Meet, if you haven’t had the pleasure already, Helen Kuusela (aka Tiny) from Tiny Lessons Blog.

Helen spent her early years in Finland and Sweden where she earned her Master’s degree in canstockphoto14986248management. Her career in international development took her and her family to countries on several continents. During her eight years in Africa, she fell in love with the continent, its people, rich culture, nature and wildlife. She enjoyed adventures in the wild as a “weekend safari driver” and became a musician, presenting traditional African songs along with African musicians in each country where she lived.

In mid-1990’s she settled in the US and now lives with her family in Florida, where she also runs an international consulting practice.

Despite her successful career writing articles, white papers and research publications/books on organizational management and human resources, she always held onto the dream to “just write” – stories, poetry and even novels. Starting a blog in  July 2012, she connected with other writers, new and established in the blogging world, which gave her the inspiration and courage to sign up for NaNoWriMo 2013. She to wrote her first novel, Confessions of a Rescue Dog, which was published in February 2014. It’s a heartwarming story about a rescue dog, a treat for pet lovers of all ages. She is currently working on a poetry collection and a novel inspired by her years in Africa.

Blog link: www.tinylessonsblog.com

Book blog link: www.firdemontepress.com

Links to some of her favorite posts:

About writing: http://tinylessonsblog.com/2014/02/09/omg-he-did-it/

About blogging: http://tinylessonsblog.com/2012/07/20/blog-around-the-clock-a-poem/

About wildlife/travel: http://tinylessonsblog.com/2012/08/13/chasing-queen-elizabeths-elephants/

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And meet my fellow struggling writer, Amy Reese from amyreesewrites. She’s got a short story habit. The End.

Okay, maybe not that short.

Amy likes to write stories that have a supernatural element, where fantasy and reality intersect and sometimes collide. She owes her love of reading to her mother who has been like her own private library, providing her with a constant source of great books. She has said she has never disliked a book recommended by her mom. On her blog, she explores different genres and focuses on the craft in the pursuit of writing that is fluid, seamless, and consuming, because being swept up by the words in a story is pure joy. Very soon, she will make a second attempt at writing her novel.

She is a Friday Fictioneer, which is slightly more dignified than my solo writing groups, the Saturday Slugs and the Sunday Sloths.

Keep an eye out next week for Helen and Amy’s takes on their writing processes. Meanwhile, back in The Green Study, I will be pointedly ignoring my novel while losing again at Solitaire.

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

canstockphoto11195013It is my nature to survive, to push through barriers, to stand my ground, to lose repeatedly until I don’t, to get up every time I fall. I am fortunate in my resilience. I am fortunate in my persistence. I am fortunate that depression is something with which I’ve learned to live.

Many people I know are being treated for depression, social anxiety, compulsive disorders. Maybe I’m drawn to them or them to me. I can nod knowingly when they talk about the panic attacks, the rollercoaster and the dark “what if” moments. And I know, too, that I can say aloud “I am depressed” in their company and not be told to turn that frown upside down.

I chose, many years ago, not to take a pharmaceutical route*. And it is not something for which I feel pride. I am simply too scared to mess with the devil I know. Instead I do constant battle with my own mind. It’s exhausting and demoralizing and I wonder at this stubbornness. As I crawl through these heavy moors, I tell myself one more day, one more day, until the day comes when I stand again and the skies clear.

In my early 20s, several years after my father committed suicide, I sat in a huddled ball on the bathroom floor and tried to figure out how to kill myself. One by one, I eliminated avenues. Too messy. Too remote. Unlikely to do the trick fully. Too undignified. My father sat in his car in a garage and lost everything. I didn’t own a car at the time. Or a garage. I harrumphed wryly at my dramatic posturing. I obviously did not want to die. That was the last time I considered it an option. It is not a trifling thought.

So, much like many things in my middling life, I go through depressions halfheartedly. I know the shades and tones of my depression by heart. If it’s hormonal, I just need to wait a day or two and ride the wave. If it’s situational, I need to apply my rational mind to dispel my misconceptions. If it is heavy and ponderous and disguised by high function and pleasantries, the message is that I need to make a change. This is what they mean when they say someone has “depressive tendencies”.  But they miss the subtleties, the nuances, the negotiations, and the fatigue.

The depression that has hung on for the last several months is a perfect storm of life changes, weather and hormones. It is a comfortable depression, nursed behind smiles and helpfulness. It tugs at my sleeve, beckoning me away from people, conversation, commitment. It calms under repetitious video games and shallow sitcoms. It temporarily purrs when fed mindlessly with mashed potatoes and cheese. It can be bought on occasion when surfing the Amazon devil.

It has laid me low. I have felt like prey in a carnivore’s mouth, flailing against the inevitable and wanting to just let go. But I have never let go for long – to stay still for too long seems dangerous. It’s a fear that has kept me pushing when I perhaps needed rest.

I lay in bed at night, restlessly turning over bits and flotsam of that day’s conversations. I think about the day ahead and realize it looks like so many others. But I know I don’t need novelty. I need just the slightest shift of the kaleidoscope. If I turn this way or that, things might look differently. A new perspective will perhaps change the grayscale to color.

I’m chasing my tail. I wonder that I’ve never caught on. I can’t think my way out of this dark, brooding mood. And I am embittered and disappointed with myself. I can’t rationalize away the sense that my life has been a series of steps forward and back, back and forward. And if I looked down, I’d realize that I’m in the exact same place I started.

That’s all a lie, though. It’s my depressive mind circling the drain. It is struggling for a hold, but I see it for what it is – familiar, engulfing, exhausting, but most of all, temporary. I am fortunate that I know it won’t last.

*I am very much aware that depression is an individual experience and support the use of psychotropic drugs, therapy, meditation – any route that eases suffering while still allowing for choices.

Books I’ve Found Useful at Times:

The Mindful Way through Depression by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Tao of Natural Breathing by Dennis Lewis

Working Out, Working Within: The Tao of Inner Fitness Through Sports and Exercise by Jerry Lynch and Chungliang Al Huang

Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression Edited by Nell Casey

Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach, Ph.D.

Six Degrees of Virtue: Hypocrites Au Naturel

The dexterity with which we distance ourselves from others can be quite amazing. In conversation with a friend I said, “I never wear makeup or style my hair.” I said it as a matter of pride, as if it were a display of moral fortitude, that I had somehow defied the cultural norm and become a rebel without mascara. She looked askance at me and said “When was the last time you dyed your hair?” I burst out laughing at my foolishness.

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My little glass house is surely less breakable than yours.

“I don’t eat at McDonald’s.” McDonald’s either has a subversive, brilliant marketing strategy or we are very adept at maintaining our delusions. Being seen in that line waiting for our Big Mac and mouth burning apple pie has become as shameful as being caught looking at internet porn and just as tantalizing. The trap has been baited. But I resist, piously eating salads at restaurants…garnished in booze-soaked chicken, 15 kinds of cheese and a dollop of sour cream. The lies we tell ourselves…

“I don’t shop at Walmart.” This is one of my favorite bits of hypocrisy. Walmart has become synonymous with cheap goods, bad employment practices and cruel photos on the internet. But look at other retailers – cheap goods, shoddy employment practices and horrendous customer service. Don’t bother placating yourself – you shop at some version of Walmart. By the way, if you’re taking unflattering pictures of people in public for the sole purpose of mocking them on the internet, you’re wearing a whole lot of ugly.

“I never read those rags in the checkout aisle.” If you watch the news, welcome to the world of tell-all, celebrity gossip and likely unverified information. We’ve gone garbage info writ large. At least the tattler magazines know what they are – and that might make them slightly more virtuous than CNN or MSNBC. I rarely watch the evening news, but wow, when did Twitter users become unpaid reporters for the networks? I do not care what Bitsy Palmer from Michigan thinks about a murder trial (sorry Bitsy), although she is quickly becoming more reliable than the news anchors.

“I don’t allow my child to watch a lot of television.” Although 2 hours of Minecraft, hunched over that laptop she begged and begged for is edifying. Or maybe you’ve hypnotized your captive non-mobile infant with Baby Einstein videos while you are similarly hypnotized by Facebook postings of cute kittens or the cause of the moment. Sometimes we’re sick of being interactive with creatures that are still fascinated by their own fingers or by any jokes involving bodily functions. Your child isn’t going to grow up to cure cancer just because he is learning how to put mixing bowls on his head instead of watching Sesame Street.

“I don’t use Facebook.” Yes, I’m a real diva with this one. Somehow, your time-wasting efforts are so much worse than my Netflix marathons or flipping through a yoga magazine wondering why anyone would wear white yoga pants before or after Labor Day – or skim reading blog posts while simultaneously giving myself a pedicure. Let’s face it, none of us are even slightly making the world a better place with these activities. They may help us unwind or breathe for moment or just entertain us away from unpleasant realities, but time-wasting isn’t particularly qualitative and eventually, may I burn in hell, I will have to use Facebook to promote a book. My first Facebook comments from friends will be high on ridicule and mockery.

“I hate tropes and stereotypes.” I walk a very fine line with this one. As a writer, the trick is to learn how to describe something without stereotypical and cliched phrases. As a human, it’s our go-to assessment, depending on our personal prejudices. When I hear the words hunter, or wealthy or diet from someone’s mouth, my mind immediately fills with assumptions about ethics, morals or intelligence. Knowing it is likely that I am wrong is useful, but it doesn’t stop the thoughts. As for tropes, if I hear the phrases “check your privilege”, “rape culture” or “So this happened” one more time, my brain will implode. Yes, overuse does dilute meaning and impact. Just like calling everyone who disagrees with you a Nazi or a socialist. Check your historical and political science definitions, please.

I acknowledge my hypocrisy because it makes me less likely (one would hope) to condemn others for theirs. It’s a complicated world and humans are complex, inconsistent beings. As a parent and a woman, I have often heard that tone. The “I would never do that” tone. People call each other names and do their best to set themselves not just apart, but above others. I’ve got bad news for them: your virtue is not unassailable, but that’s okay. It just kind of makes you a jerk. Like the rest of us.

The Green Lounge: Write As You Are

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I’ve been a high-functioning depressive the last few weeks or, as we like to call it this winter, a Minnesotan. My compulsion to write was solidly trumped by the pleasure of not writing – just doing and being and making sure I got plenty of sleep and coffee, although not in close proximity to one another. I did a little paid work, volunteered a lot and walked aimlessly around my neighborhood, in the hopes of feeling more centered and feeding my pale, starving cells some vitamin D.

I’m still off-center and we just got snow-blitzed again.

So I drag myself, with some difficulty, to the keyboard. But I know that if I keep typing, eventually I will wonder why I ever stopped.

My old job needed me back temporarily to train a new manager. I met with her in a coffee shop last week. She was put together – groomed, French-tipped nails, makeup, fitted clothes. I, on the other hand, have spent a winter or four devolving into a schlump. But I was on time, despite getting lost on the way to a place where I’d been only a week before. Timeliness seems to be the only level of professionalism that I’ve maintained since I started working from home nearly 8 years ago.

I kept staring at her nails. My hands, dried and split from cold weather and housework, look something akin to a prize fighter’s. I used to try. Now I dress like Mr. Rogers, comfortable, interchangeable, squishy clothes. I used to wear business suits from Talbot’s. I used to wear mascara. I loved my business suits. It was like having a uniform. I’ve always had a thing for uniforms…on myself. Now, if I’d only hear my inner monologues in a sexy foreign accent, I’d be irresistible to me.

April is like a re-set month for me. Long after people have made and discarded New Year’s resolutions, April is a month of optimism. I do have to admit, though, that this year my April optimism is more like that thin layer of fluffy white snow that covers piles of half-melted dirty snow. Looks nice, but a little sunlight melts the pretty snow to reveal the grotty, depressing truth.

I rang in my 14th wedding anniversary by arguing with my husband on the way to a restaurant. Since we rarely argue, this made it a truly special occasion. My daughter will celebrate her first double digit birthday soon and next month, I will officially become a soccer mom. That used to be a thing, didn’t it? Are politicians still falling over themselves pandering to soccer moms? As usual, I suspect that I might be a day late and a dollar short to that political trend.

I’ve been reading a lot, both off and online – a silent reader on many of your blogs. Online reading is sometimes like jumping from shiny object to shiny object like a crazed magpie, so I returned to books. It is virtuous to say that I read for enlightenment, but sometimes it’s detached curiosity about how other people think.

I read intellectuals only to find that personal experience informs nearly every statistical and theoretical approach. In a data-driven world, it’s good to remember that the human experience is always subject to interpretation and the search for truth, for order, for rationality is unending. And even if you are very, very smart, it is unlikely that you are ever completely intelligent.

Offbeat, quirky books caught my eye at the library. I started reading Essays by Wallace Shawn (a playwright, but mostly known for his role in “The Princess Bride”) and have already come upon something to mull over.

“My congenital inability to take the concept of the inviolable “self” seriously – my lack of certainty about who I am, where I am and what my “characteristics” are – has led me to a certain skepticism, a certain detachment, when people in my vicinity are reviling the evil and the alien Other, because I feel that very easily I could become that Other, and so could the reviler. And this has had an effect on my view of the world.”                                                                               Wallace Shawn

I read this shortly after reading an article on Rwanda – a story about forgiveness between a family and the murderer of some of their members. We often hear tales like this and it brings to mind the nature of forgiveness, something I’ve written about here. While compassion should rule the day, I’m not convinced that I could just as easily wield a machete against an unarmed family as be an unarmed family. Maybe a little evil-reviling is okay.

This is a lot of words in which I say very little. So this post is a thank you and an apology. I’m writing again. Thanks for reading. Sorry that I had to do this post to make that happen. It’s a warm up to regular writing. It’s the only thing that is warm here.

Empathy, Then Sympathy, Then Silence

canstockphoto13935158Stymied by too much reading and introspection, speaking or writing aloud seems particularly difficult this week. I just finished reading Anna Quindlen’s Loud and Clear. She’s a writer and journalist who wrote an op-ed column for the New York Times for many years and won a Pulitzer. She was characterized by cultural critic, Lee Siegel, as being a “monster of empathy” and one of the first “Queens of Nice” writers. I like and identify with her writing. It’s a monsters’ ball.

Lately, I’ve been running smack dab up against insecurities and doubts and fear when I try to write. Much has to do with the fact that I’m reading so much of others’ works, as well as the comments and criticism of those works. I wonder that I am not made of hardier stock, that I can’t storm the barricades with whatever banner I’ve chosen to wave without quickly falling back under the onslaught of criticism. Maybe because I am never certain that I am correct, that whatever cause I’m supporting isn’t subject to criticism, isn’t subject to question. I question everything. And most of all, myself.

Is this questioning, by another name, simply insecurity? Part of me says that it is cowardice. Self-awareness can be useful – one is aware of the fallacy of insulated thinking, of white privilege, of gender perspective, of seeing the world through the lens of one’s own experiences. I read several essays on writing about trauma, transracial and gender writing that really made me think about this blog and about my fiction writing offline.

Before I entered the world of blogging, I was less aware of the many unique issues that humans deal with on a very personal level. Much like the media focusing on the horrors of living on this planet, it has skewed my perspective and shaken me up a bit. I never saw myself as a label, always feeling like I was a little out of step with the rest of the world. Perception versus reality. Feelings versus statistics.

I thought that I was an empathetic person, able to vividly imagine being in the shoes of someone else, but lately, I’ve come to doubt even that. People who have been forced to declare and define themselves, through adversity and trauma and illness, have something to hold onto – they wish they didn’t, but it’s something. It is a form of clarity I do not have and it has rendered me a gelatinous blob, sliding this way and that depending on the cause of the moment, the news of the day.

What can one write about that isn’t superficial and silly? I’ve trotted out my abusive childhood enough times. I’ve blabbed about my parenting and military experiences. It’s not edifying or enlightening or nearly gory enough, nor can it make the world a better place. Shouldn’t there be a point to it, this angsty, masturbatory blathering? In my head, the answer is resounding silence and the next thought is: so just shut it.

The field has leveled for me and I see nothing in this direction or that worth writing about – somebody else is already doing it. Doing it better. Doing it with feeling. Doing it because it is their experience, in their DNA, in their history. Is it time for those of us who lead ordinary, unremarkable and common lives to stop talking about ourselves? Aren’t there lives to be saved? Children to be rescued? Wars to be stopped? What meaning can this cultural morass of blogging have in a world riddled by tragedy?

The minute you take up a cause that isn’t inherently yours, no matter what your intent, what level your passion, there is somebody to scream cultural appropriation! – white privilege! – middle class! – anti-feminist!man-hater! -faux intellectual! Sit down and shut up. This is not your cause. You cannot relate. You do not know what you are talking about – stop riding our train.

So I write patter. I write nice. I write about kids and malls and my mood of the moment. I write about feelings in a world that takes delight in mocking them. I become a monster of sympathy, because nothing is my right to say. I become worse than the silent majority. I become a talking jellyfish.

I started this piece thinking that I’d eventually arrive at the conclusion that ordinary people need to have a voice, so that we don’t think the entire world is made up of victims and sociopaths. I thought I’d figure out what I was really doing here, that what I write is worth placing in a public forum and not better hidden in a private journal. I am waiting for Godot, arguing with myself in vain. And that’s not saying much. Again.

The Green Study will be on hiatus until April 1st. By then, I hope the inspiration of spring will relieve me of this grumpy blogging nihilism.

Best wishes,

MichelleSig copy