Grasping for Terra Firma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Falling Apart, Blogging in Place

It’s been nearly a month since I’ve written here. For some people, this would be an indicator that they were being wildly productive elsewhere. For me, it runs parallel to everything else in my life. So I return, disorganized and unkempt, my decompensation complete after a year of crises.

canstockphoto8316983I woke up two weeks ago feeling as if every joint in my body was inflamed. My hands were stiff and painful. There was stabbing nerve pain in my knees. I walked as if I were 82, not 52. It sent me into a depression. After so long of keeping a stiff upper lip, of caregiving, and chauffeuring and tracking down medical research and working hard to make sure everyone in my circle was cared for, fed, loved, paid attention to over the last year, my body and brain said enough already.

Writing stopped altogether. I buried myself in books, frequent naps, and long stares into space. I walked a lot and when my feet hurt and my eyes stung from the cold, I walked some more. I slowly unraveled the strands of my depression. It’s February in Minnesota. I consider it the worst month – 4 months of winter behind, 2-4 months ahead. As I’ve written about numerous times, this last year was situational hell with medical crises and family losses. And menopause has got me in its grip – miserable and unpredictable. So, there are reasons.

canstockphoto29330425.jpgIn this Instagram marketing world, there’s a temptation to wait until everything can be repackaged into a neat story, complete with a moral and pics to prove it. But sometimes the only way to find one’s way through the story is to write about it, to just start telling it. We’re in love with stories of redemption and miracle outcomes, but those are movies and reality shows and late night commercials, not life. Life continues in all its uneven messiness, where the best victories are slivers of light – moments when we are able to exhale.

Things are quiet now. My daughter’s health is stable and we have a month or so before the next battery of tests. I’ve got a long list of self-care things I must do to regain my health and sense of purpose. I approach everything the same way (which can sometimes be an issue): Make a list of problems I’m trying to solve, do research, break it down to concrete steps, line up resources, and start walking the plan.

It’s time to exhale.

A Good Clearing Out

In the cool mornings preceding the sunny dog days of August, I can sense a hint of autumn. This spurs me to give the house a good once over before school starts, before I find myself with hours of solitude for writing once again. Sometimes the mind needs a good clearing out as well. My brain is a jumble sale and this blog post represents a little pre-fall cleaning.

Gratitude is always a good start. I have a lot to feel grateful for from this summer. The large tumor discovered in my daughter was benign and despite the frightening time in the hospital, she has recovered enough to scare me with driver’s training. Friends and family came out of the woodwork to be supportive and kind as our family went through this.

canstockphoto32749113I am grateful to the friends who went on walks with me, exchanged emails, sent cards and in general, knew how to be comforting without being irritating. I am grateful to my writing group who kept me in the loop, even as I was frequently absent. I am grateful to my friends in the League of Women Voters who took up the slack of my volunteer activities when I couldn’t follow through. I am grateful to my friend and Army buddy who makes me regularly laugh during our Skype calls. I am grateful to my friend and life coach who offered to be there in any capacity, even as I had trouble processing coherent thoughts.

And thank you to the readers here, who offered kind words and empathy. And stuck around to read my messy, emotional posts.

*****

canstockphoto17270046The garden took a hit this year, but nature did its thing and the few moments I was actually at home, I enjoyed seeing the bees and butterflies flit through. A writing friend of mine attended a climate change leadership conference and asked to write about my bee-friendly yard. You can read that here. I had a mind-boggling conversation with my neighbor who acknowledged that lawn chemicals were not a good thing – while standing on his treated lawn. There is a serious amount of cognitive dissonance between our habits and the changes we need to make to ameliorate the damage we’ve done.

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My writing is beginning to ramp up to a period of productivity. Call it the autumn effect or the going-back-to-school effect. I’ve been experimenting with a few writing practices, as well as regularly submitting work. I picked up one of the practices from Benjamin Dreyer, author of Dreyer’s English. He suggested copying passages from great writers, or writers you admired. I was curious about this and when Toni Morrision died earlier this month, I pulled out my copy of Beloved. This is one of the novels that made me want to be a novelist. It’s the kind of book where you have to sit for an hour after reading the final page. It felt like a spell had been cast on me and it took awhile to shake it off.

6149I’ve begun copying a page a day and I see Mr. Dreyer’s point. The way we process language is much different when we write it, rather than when we read it. From the standpoint of writing, you start to feel the bones of the book when you write out each word, sounding it out in your head, acknowledging punctuation and phrasing. I’m finding it useful and improving my longhand writing while I’m at it.

I got rejected by a novel-writing group I applied to and I’ve decided to take it personally. Not really – just ran into some virulent genre writers. I write literary fiction which apparently is code for I write whatever the hell I want and is unappreciated by those who have staked a claim in sci-fi, romance, or mystery. Not to cast aspersions on those particular markets, but there is something easier about being able to say I’m this-kind-of-writer or that-kind-of-writer. You have lots of company. It must be comforting.

Rejection is my theme this year, but I’m glad of it. It means that I’m working at things, being more brave than I’ve been in the past, and pretty much living outside of my comfort zone. I’ve also applied to a writing mentorship program with slim odds. I’ve reached the point where being mentored instead of mentoring might be useful, at least in terms of getting through novel revisions and rewrites.

*****

canstockphoto4930986As I approach my eighth year of blogging, I think about the fact that it’s amazing we blog at all anymore. The instant pithiness that feeds some social media platforms has changed how we communicate, how we use the internet, and what we’ve come to accept in terms of context and nuance. I have a personal resistance to simplicity and am immediately suspicious of messages that are reductive.

It’s perhaps made me less vulnerable to worrying about stats and more concerned that what I write adds value. It’s added less value than I’d like, with so much self-referential writing and something I will be looking at moving forward. Of course, I think this same thought every year. And here I am. Still writing. Still blogging.

Vulnerability: The Art of Falling Forward

The state of being a writer is sometimes a mercenary one. Everything is material, even the most raw moments of one’s life. Over the last seven and a half years, I’ve exploited myself, without mercy, to write posts about the many (many!) lessons I’m learning just being alive as a human.

canstockphoto40288322I took a hike yesterday morning on a regional park trail. Five feet from the trail stood a young doe, busily munching away at foliage. Her head jerked up and she looked at me with dark eyes, her long ears flicking. I stood stock still. She went back to eating. I crept a little closer and stood still again. She glanced in my direction and continued snacking away. It felt like a reward for patience, to be allowed to stand there and watch her.

It occurred to me, for just a second, to pull out my phone and take a picture. There was a choice here: to fully have the experience or to try and create a facsimile of it, likely sending the doe running off into the woods. It wasn’t a hard choice. Pictures rarely re-create an experience and what was the point? On the road behind me the park shuttle, with its open cars, began to pass by. The doe remained despite the shrieks of the shuttle’s passengers. Ooh, get a picture!

Writing is my version of getting a picture, but with more lenses at my disposal. I can shape a narrative, cut out the boring bits, use this word or that. It is still an attempt to capture time, but the very process is a safari. What I discover is usually the point of it for me, not the subject itself.

At times, this blog has felt like a confessional and at others, a practice in seeing the lesson in every nook and cranny, to redeem moments that may seem bereft of any usefulness. The intent was always to sharpen my writing skills and writing here has done that to some extent, but it has also made me fearful that I am incapable of writing anything else.

Fear has been a big player in my mind lately. It’s been a tough eight months. My mother-in-law died, I had a health scare, we had to euthanize a pet, and then there was a medical crisis with my daughter. When it comes to life stressors, I’m racking up some frequent flyer miles. It’s left me open – tears in front of strangers, writing raw words in public, a sense that I am always in recovery from something. And the constant interaction with friends and family and medical professionals, while necessary and/or appreciated, has laid waste to my inner sanctum of solitude and quiet.

canstockphoto82616Part of me wants to close up shop for the season, shutter the windows, batten down the hatches – emerging only when I have my shit together, my composure composed, my armor firmly in place. But I know that is a feeling born of fear – a fear that I somehow won’t be regarded a serious writer or person, because I have shown vulnerability.

Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

If there is anything I find intolerable these days, it’s living a life based on fear.

We see the outcomes all around us, when people live fearful lives. Our entire culture is a feeding frenzy of fear and anxiety. Our politicians exploit them. Advertisers feed them and sell us the “cure”. The wannabe sociopaths see opportunities for gain. I’ve lived a tight, quiet life of barely controlled fear and anxiety for decades, but I tend to do a lot of things that cause me more anxiety on purpose, in the hopes that I’ll become less sensitive to shame and self-consciousness. No dice thus far, but vulnerability is a habit now and somehow, I have to believe that it is a good thing.

…and that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.

Audre Lorde

It is my usual way, after a life event, to evaluate how I should move forward – as if I can prevent the next crisis by living a better life, being a better person. It’s a superstitious behavior on my part that has no impact on the random nature of life. I am also tempted to isolate myself, to regain a sense of privacy and decorum, but I know that’s a long ago voice in my head whispering protect yourself, don’t let anyone in, don’t get hurt, be invulnerable.

I know that it’s in my best interest to stand still, to not indulge distractions, to not steamroll my emotions, or ignore the bruising nature of being open. I recognize my fears, but I refuse to engage on their behalf. I feel the creeping anxiety of not being seen canstockphoto13006520as fearless or strong or serious or professional, the very same defense that would prevent creativity, connection, and compassion. Self-protection, taken too far, becomes a prison.

Life is improv. It only gets better if you stay open, say yes, follow new threads, stay in the moment. You will look foolish, seem silly at times, perhaps lose the respect from those who prefer non-messy humans. But you will be living, in the words of Brené Brown, with your whole heart.

Cold Open

Hello, Internet. I am an average person who writes about average things. I write about head colds and depression and failed writing attempts. Sometimes I dig deep and write about parenting or the military or I really reach and write about how much I hate social media (yes, Alanis, that is irony). I hear Charlton Heston in my head yelling Internet is people!, but I’ve been disconnected of late, so rather removed from the humanity that apparently resides in my computer. I’m also old-ish, so I can only make obsolete references to old songs and actors that you will have to Ggoogle (thanks to Dreyer’s English, I’ve been sorted on the whether or not to capitalize neologisms).

canstockphoto14303156It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve written. Anything. I have a lot of excuses – I was sick, my daughter’s orchestral season has kept me on the run, I’ve had to make some lifestyle changes to counter encroaching health issues. They’re solid excuses, except that they’re not the reason I haven’t been writing. I simply didn’t want to. I got tired of the sound of my own voice. It turns out that my introversion extends to even myself. Shut up already, self.

I’ve spent a lot of time saying nothing and even more time reading, walking, and doing chores. I’m psyching myself up to get ready for a more dedicated strength training program, as well as pushing through novel edits. And as soon as the #@$% snow melts from our April blizzard, I’ll be getting back to work in my garden. So I return here, to warm up my writing skills and re-connect with the many lovely people who apparently live inside my computer. Nano-people.

41048099I’m in the middle of reading Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet. It’s one of those books that tells you what you likely already know, but feels reassuring when someone else says it. After a long winter of anxiety, depression, and sadness, I have found my way out of its shroud. I disconnected from those places on the internet that fueled either depression or rage. I’m limiting my intake of news. I’m focusing on the things that feed me – reading, exercise, being outside, staying in the moment. Listening. Not talking. I still have work to do. Even now, as I write this, I feel a modicum of anxiety. It seems that periods of silence sometimes reset my discomfort in engaging publicly.

I’ve given this blog some thought – the why, when, how of it. It remains, after deleting Twitter and just using Facebook to manage a nonprofit page, my only public voice. Who do I want to be on the internet? How do I add or detract from this space? There is nothing in particular I will change here, except to clarify to myself what I want it to be – a slow, calm place with gentle conversation, some humor, and a chance to counter toxicity with thoughtfulness. It’s not faddish or viral or cutting edge. As much as being a replicated contagion seems to be desirable, I am too much of a tortoise. Slow, steady, unwilling to give much shrift to my knee-jerk reactions.

canstockphoto50415411It takes some will and personal stamina to downshift one’s life in a rapidly accelerating world. I resent being hurried. I resent being cajoled or berated by advertising. I’m tired of the perpetual dissatisfaction that saturates a capitalist society. I’m tired of self-criticism. Of criticism in general. I’m tired of being bludgeoned by breaking news and shitty Twitter journalism. I’m tired of reviews and stars and thumbs and smiley faces. It’s a system designed to feed insecurities and fears. It’s fantastic if you’re immune, but most of us, I believe, are not.

One must make a deliberate choice to go slow in this world. And it’s not even really that slow. I’m the driver who stays within five miles of the speed limit while I’m being tailgated by the impatient, the entitled, and the dangerous. I must resist the pressure, drive safely, stay as far away as possible from other drivers, and ignore the rude hand gestures. That seems like a pretty decent metaphor for my life at the moment.

Getting Warmer

This little writing session was all it took. I now have a few post drafts for the next week. It’s a reminder that always surprises me. When you’re stuck or silent or uninspired, all you have to do is start. It might be the shittiest start ever, but giving yourself permission to start where you are can be the beginning of something amazing. Not this post, of course. But something.

Mammas, Don’t Let Your Novel Writers Grow Up to Be Bloggers

canstockphoto16357376.jpgI just finished reading a collection of essays by a much-loved and well-respected novelist. And it just made me sigh. All writing is not equal. It’s a new thing, taking a disparate group of blog posts, slapping them together, and calling it a book. Rarely has this been done well.

The struggling writer could only wish for a day when they are so honored and revered as a writer, as a name, that someone would be happy to compile their scraps of writing, make a pretty book cover, and sell them to a large base of established fans, ready to eat them up. The reality seems to me, to be just a little sadder, like the honoring of a formerly beautiful building, just before it’s torn down.

canstockphoto20266965So often these collections are a hodgepodge of journal entries, ordered in such a way that it is like binge-reading a blog. That seems like a fairly unedifying way to spend one’s time and it doesn’t get any better in hard copy. It is not just the ordering or grouping of blog posts that can be jarring in a book format, it is the quality and nature of the writing.

As I write more and more offline, I’m finding out something about myself as a writer. I don’t do the long game well. I write in short, disconnected spurts, even over the course of several hours. This is what blogging has trained me to do. And it’s not good for the purposes I intend.

It’s an indicator of what I’ve spent more time doing over the last five years. There are writers who write books who do not blog, or do so sparingly. Their writing skills are already strongly established. But if you’re coming at it the other way round, your struggles may just be beginning. Mine are.

canstockphoto9394573Writing has changed so much over the last century. I think about the impact of cameras and televisions – the communal knowledge of images. No longer needed were the lengthy descriptions of a sycamore tree or satin dresses propped up by crinoline or Times Square. Scenery is not painted for the reader, but merely referenced. Everything is written in technological shorthand.

This is not to say that change is bad or that we should stay rooted in nostalgia, but it does speak to our attention span and how we process what we read. The trend towards more information and fewer curators, means that our writing is vying for attention in an increasingly scattered collective.

With the advent of social media, or writing in an endless array of formats, it’s a necessary thing to think about what kind of writer you wish to be. It is important in the sense that who you are is what you do and read. Or at least what you spend the majority of your time doing and reading.

canstockphoto6307881Some would say, “Well, hell, I’ll do any kind of writing that makes me money, or gets me published.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the kind of honesty that keeps you from frittering your time away trying to be literary or artistic. To say that I want to produce good, solid work offline that has a few readers, doesn’t make me anymore highbrow or respectable, but it is a reminder about how I need to balance my time.

It’s been too easy for me to feel like I’m getting somewhere, when the kind of writing I’ve been doing is not what I intend. The kind of writing I do on a blog is not the same needed for a novel. I am learning this the hard way and the dissonance can, on occasion, be disheartening.

There are writers who switch easily between mediums and their blog compilations aren’t herky-jerky. I’ve read John Scalzi’s Whatever blog for many years and am amazed how quickly he can go from writing a novel, to blogging, to Tweeting and back again. But he has worked for years, established his credentials and skills, as well as having an understanding how to integrate all his platforms. Shit. I have to learn how to work on one scene without creating 25 subplots.

canstockphoto3436262As I put more and more time in on fixing my train wreck of a novel (that’s some good publicity, isn’t it?), I have become more cognizant of what I am accustomed to doing versus what I need to do. There is, despite the struggle, a spark of happiness in my brain about this. It means I have so much more to learn and explore.

I’ve started late. I will not have a lifetime career in which I am honored and lauded because of a large body of work. The opportunity to be blog-compiled will likely never be presented to me, but I’m okay with that, because I have to believe that my best work is still ahead of me.

Are You Doing the Kind of Writing

You Intend to Do?