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.

Missives from The Green Study in Quarantine

This is the 11th draft blog post I’ve written that may never be published. What do you write when every person you know is some combo of depressed/okay/depressed/not okay?

I went for an early walk this morning. I’ve been having a bad couple of days mentally, while stalking news on the internet, Twittering angrily, otherwise feeling paralyzed and despondent. Our family had been getting a lot of good news recently, the cupboards were stocked, and I’d been doing some writing work about which I was mildly pleased. Still, I found myself just turning over and over in my head the idea that things would continue to decline in this country, that the boiling point would just keep boiling. That there was a reckoning ahead for even the most mild-mannered and conscientious among us.

The only way to step off of this incapacitating ride is to shut the information off and do one concrete thing. Something tactile, something with a start and a finish, something mundane and ordinary. One thing at a time, doing it only for the purpose of doing it. I found this difficult. My mind was bouncing from one subject to another, all with a sense of alarming urgency. I brought my mind back to the dishes. I thought: I am doing the dishes. This is what I’m doing, I’m washing this thing, then the next. It was a relentless battle to pull my thoughts back into the moment.

I did that one thing and then I sat down and wrote a thank-you note to my daughter’s oncologist. She’s been doing well, scans are coming back clean, and she will go off the chemo drug in a couple of months. A year ago, the tumors had come back with a vengeance. Two months later, she was in surgery again. Right now, she’s a high school junior taking full online college courses. She passed her driving test. She got accepted into a university orchestra. She looks well and healthy and happy. I had to send gratitude to someone for that.

For the last few months, I’ve been on Twitter. I’ve opened, closed, and reactivated my account numerous times. It really is quite the shithole. As an unknown writer, social media is a must in terms of marketing and finding markets. I’m not adept or prolific enough for it to have much worth right now. On occasion I’ll come across another writer, a cause worth helping, or something that makes me laugh. I haven’t yet learned to avert my eyes from politics, which is the most ugly, polarized conversation one could ever see. I don’t think I wanted to know this much about the country or its citizens. But you can’t unsee it. Many of us are really quite stupid creatures.

I’m reading SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. Much like reading about the 1918 pandemic in Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, I’ve learned there is an incredibly steep learning curve for humanity. Even crows manage to pass on generational lessons. Humans? We make a good show of it, but as soon as we get scared, we revert to unevolved amoebas. Don’t argue with me, biologists – I do know there are better analogies.

So perhaps that is the crux of the problem – the focus on human foibles and flaws. The nihilist in me has gleefully shouted see, nothing matters!  This is where religion might have proven of some use to me, but once you stop believing, you’re no longer going to leave cookies out for Santa Claus. I’ve tried to explain this to my handful of religious friends. There is no mechanism in my brain that will allow me to believe in a grand puppeteer. I’d have to pretend and that seems like a lot of wasted energy.

Yesterday I read an excellent article in The Atlantic by Ed Yong titled “America is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral” talking about conceptual errors in our thinking. Really worth the read and bizarrely reassuring to me that what I’d been feeling and experiencing was common. I finally stopped washing my groceries after reading Derek Thompson’s “Hygiene Theater is a Huge Waste of Time“. We still don’t go into retail stores. We use Shipt for Target and pick up our groceries already shopped for us from the local grocery store. No one outside the vet who put our cat to sleep in May has been in our house. Even then, she was in the garage.

Today I showered in the 15 minutes between my husband’s work calls (the bathroom is next to his office). I vacuumed upstairs on my daughter’s break between classes. I haunt the space between her bed/classroom and his basement office. Some days, I work in the garden, but the joy of that usually dies in late July with the emergence of bugs and heat. Some mornings I drive out to a regional park and take pictures of birds, quickly putting on a mask when surprised by a hiker rounding the path.

I participated in NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Competition and did fairly well on the first challenge. Waiting to hear back on the second in October. I am pitching a novel at a writer’s conference in October, doing NaNoWriMo in November, rejoined an old writing group, am working with a fantastic writing partner, and generally getting my writing groove on – between or through bouts of self-doubt, artistic pretension, and self-loathing. Feels about right.

I’m finding it hard to get into the blogging groove. Every well-formed thought is mired in sludge. I keep moving forward  – so slowly as to be undetectable to the human eye. But I’m here, you’re here. Let’s make the best of it.

Make some new blogging friends for starters. Check out Stephe Thornton at Manuscript. Head. Drawer. Snack on some enjoyable book reviews at Bookmunch. Enjoy historical bits and bobs by writer Victoria Blake. And lastly, drop the link to one of your favorite blogs in the comments to help make more connections.

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.

****

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.