The Listening Post

The listening post during war was an intelligence gathering station focused on monitoring transmissions. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last month – gathering information. I’ve been reading heavily, eating up news sources left and right, reading in-depth articles. I’ve reached the conclusion that we’re truly screwed as a species. That seems facile. Perhaps I could massage it a bit – we’re in challenging times. Spin it up another notch – it’s a great time for creative thinking.

canstockphoto48358399I’ve circled back to a novel idea that I had a couple of years ago and am now putting my nose to the grindstone and churning out words. The sense of urgency is heightened by the upcoming election. This election is probably the most important election of this American’s lifetime. Not just about who wins or loses, but about the very legitimacy of voting in our American democracy.

The voter suppression tactics, some long in the making (gerrymandering), some that have shown up in the last few years (availability of polling stations), and the more recent, blatant sabotaging of the postal service may break our system. And yes, white people, we’re a little late to this game. People of color have been dealing with voter suppression tactics since 1866.

Anyway, these times right now might be later viewed as the good times. Who knows where we’ll be in a year? Writing must happen now.

28114469I just finished reading Margaret Walker’s Jubilee. It is shocking that this book, written in 1966, did not receive more attention and accolades. The author is a black woman who heavily researched and wrote a semi-fictional historical novel based loosely on her grandmother’s stories. The book, which covers roughly the same period and location as Gone with the Wind, is written from a slave’s perspective. It makes me angry that this masterpiece never once showed up on the recommended reading lists in college or in any other predominantly white literary space.

Like a lot of white liberals right now, I’m knee-deep in books about racism. Many were already on my shelves, because my trek towards deliberate expansive reading began a few years ago. I began reading more works in translation, more works by people who had different lived experiences.

As a white woman, it’s hard not to be depressed by the Karen and Becky tropes. Or the 53% who voted for the load in the White House. Or the ones who are now throwing temper tantrums in stores about masks. I never knew entitlement had created so many whackadoodles. And of course, the Whackadoodle-in-Chief talking about those mythical suburban housewives, of which I could be considered one.

canstockphoto53920997I call him a whackadoodle, but that makes him sound less dangerous than he is. Mostly because I think it’s the enablers that bear my wrath. He’s just an organ grinder monkey.  Set up to perform, to distract, to entertain the slack-jawed masses while our rights are being impinged upon, our votes suppressed, our pockets picked clean.

So here we are, in the middle of a global pandemic, with a jackwagon at the helm. I am angry nearly all the time. But it’s an anger that has become tempered, redirected, and incisive. This might be useful. Or it could just be more negative energy out in the world, I don’t know. I often say that emotion without action is just so much noise. Perhaps I’ve written less publicly because it is already so noisy out there.

Despite, or because of, this constant seething state, I’ve become wildly productive. The paralysis in the early months of the pandemic has worn off a bit. Perhaps I got bored with being in that lethargic state. Maybe I’ve got live free or die zipping about in my head. The people who use that mantra, usually gun-waving anti-maskers (sorry New Hampshire), would be surprised how easily that phrase can be adapted to an entirely different ethos.

My adaptation is that I don’t want to live in a prison of my own anxiety or fear. I’m going to be louder, more political, intolerant of views that compromise the health, dignity, or rights of my fellow humans. For people who prattle on about divisiveness, it’s an easy muzzle for those of us who have often valued civility over justice, manners over standing up for others. I’ve always been relatively quiet and introspective, but the alchemy of anger and age is creating an element of fearlessness. It’s go time.

canstockphoto12869795It’s go time for all my creative urges as well. In addition to taking 5 million pictures of annoyed birds, I’m practicing/working on The Green Study Podcast. It’s not going well. I’d hoped to give it a try for September, but when I listened to the first episode, I realized how incredibly boring I sound. How’s that for self-promotion? Anyway, it’s still in the works and at some point in the future, you’ll be able to briefly listen to and then abruptly mute, the dulcet sounds of my musings. I might rename it The Sleepening.

How are you doing? That’s such a loaded question, isn’t it? What’s your mantra?  What are your days like? What gets you through the day?

When You Only Have So Many Words and None of Them are Adequate

The Green Study is taking a break until December 1, 2017.

canstockphoto5847421Last year, I went to a lecture where journalist and novelist Anna Quindlen spoke about her writing practices and career. One of the things she said was that while she was working on a project, she limited how much time she spent answering emails and engaging others. “I only have so many words.” I’ve thought a lot about that phrase, wondering if there really is a limit to my creative reservoir.

I’ve made a habit over the last five years of posting personal essays. Most of the time I was circumspect, able to write them at a distance and not when they were raw. Lately, though, I’ve been feeling tapped out personally, too enraged politically, and unable to rein in my emotions. It’s probably time to stop doing that for a bit. Maybe I was just scraping away the layers until I hit the gooey core, but the gooey core is here and it’s messy, disorienting, and raw.

I’ve written frequently about depression over the years, but there are so many different kinds. It might have been turning 50, or watching my child become who she is supposed to be – in contrast to my own paralysis, or just the flip of a neural/hormonal switch, but this year I’ve felt a drag on my daily life, this weight pressing slightly more each day. I’ve become habituated to repressing emotions, repackaging them in a logical manner, presenting them as if I have my shit together. All the while, I feel a sense of grief and rage and disorientation just burbling beneath the surface.

We do this – we rearrange and rationalize and give 45 degree corners to those emotions that make us uncomfortable. We turn them inward and that rage, sadness, bitterness morphs into a low-level depression, until a phase becomes a lifestyle. Creative people put rawness into their art and maybe that shores them up, makes it tolerable.

canstockphoto5423745I used to believe that I was a creative person, but I’ve spent too much energy trying to look put together. I’ve spent a lot of time being responsible, keeping myself controlled, and rational. I’m living in a world where I’m not allowing room for my own messiness, surrounded by a culture that will look at sheer lunacy and say well, that’s different.

canstockphoto21530517It has hit me that art requires messiness and rawness and vulnerability, because art requires an elemental sort of truth and you can’t land on it by keeping your shit together all the time. As I said to a friend yesterday, I feel like a complete and utter fraud. She’d read somewhere that feeling like a fraud means you’re getting somewhere, because you are operating outside of your comfort zone. And that means growth.

It’s been a surprise in midlife to realize that those issues in the first decade or so of life follow a person. They have reverberations through the following decades of your story. Many of us spend our entire lives trying to resist, change, or rewrite that story, but it’s our core story. Messages for better or for ill burrow inside our brains and many of them are just plain wrong. But they’ve left their mark and they influence our behavior and perceptions. Until we are deliberate in challenging those messages that do us harm, they will rear their ugly heads over and over. And we’re stuck.

canstockphoto1074433I’ve been stuck for a long time, but things are uncoiling. My emotions have told my mind that it can just fuck right off. It’s “Feeling Time”. If you’re relatively smart, your rationalizing skills are likely top-notch. You can intellectualize the hell out of any morass of emotion, produce a white paper and a TED talk, and not feel a damned thing. It’s the feeling part that’s messy, that makes you feel like an unhinged nutter. It’s not comfortable, but it’s necessary.

I see it as analogous to what is happening in our country right now. It’s messy. It’s extremely uncomfortable for many of us. There’s fear and anger and anxiety. My optimistic self says that it’s evolution – all the cultural and social shifts are happening in a relatively short period of time. Resistance to those changes is normal and natural, but temporary for all but a diminishing minority. This is the ebb and flow of growth.

People are in a hurry to make nice. To smooth out the wrinkles, repress dissent, legislate away the angry voices rising up, to make it look like our patchwork quilt of a country isn’t coming apart at the seams. It is and it isn’t. Some things are holding strong. Some people are emerging as real heroes and some of us are more enlightened than we have ever been before. I believe there is hope to be found, but it does mean turning away from the headlines and looking below the fold.

canstockphoto40402861Personally, I am dissolving into a bit of a mess.  I’ve begun to disintegrate mid-conversation with friends and feelings are rising in me that no amount of editing can rearrange. I know it’s a good thing in theory, but for now, it feels like absolute shit. It’s not “normal” for me when normal was keeping things squared away. It’s not normal for me to keep manically humming Moby songs like some deranged hipster. I don’t want to talk out loud about it. I don’t want to repackage it for the consumption of others.

Sometimes in a world where everyone is saying everything for the benefit of an audience, there’s no time to tend to our inner lives. If we’re lucky and I think that I am, our inner voice becomes so loud and rancorous as to demand our attention. My inner voice has hopped up on a table, stripped off its clothes, and insisted on dancing Gangnam Style. It feels damned embarrassing and uncensored and not intended for public viewing.

I like to wrap up a post with some rationale, some message that says to a reader Hey, she’s not a headcase. She has her shit together. But why lie? I don’t have it together. I might, but I don’t right now.  See you in December.

canstockphoto11539176

Empty Noise is the Gravedigger

607px-Rain_Landscape_MET_DT4465I’ve been living a summer in quiet desperation. Fall is creeping in around the mornings. I smell it in the air and see the frantic scurry of squirrels hiding their winter stores of food. Usually, it brings with it a sweet melancholy that makes me more creative and introspective. This year seems different.

I turn 50 shortly and it’s clouded my mind in all the expected ways. Ways that seem like stages of grief. I’m in the bargaining/rationalization phase. Initially, I mourned that there was less ahead of me than behind me. Then I tut-tut-tutted myself. At least I’m alive. It seems a banal reassurance, because if I weren’t alive, I’d hardly be agonizing over the fact.

This could be the beginning of a long diatribe about the visceral signs of aging now creeping up on me. It’s all been said before – gravitational pull on body parts, the decrepitude of the mind, the regrets of a life half-lived. But I stop myself mid-wail. That is not my story, because that could be anybody’s story.

My story, my peculiar little piece of navel-gazing, is my disappointment that nothing has changed. No grand epiphany about grabbing life by its nether regions and hauling off to Nepal. No reawakened sexuality turning me into a feral alley cat. No heartwarming reunions with high school chums or estranged relatives. No grand realization that turns my nonexistent career into a lecture tour, Times book review, or even a paycheck. It’s still just me.

That’s a little disappointing.

Improvisation_31_(Sea_Battle)Everyone has a life narrative that they tell themselves. Mine was always that I was a late bloomer. It was an easy pattern to see – everything always happened with my friends first – college, marriages, babies, careers. I started college late after a stint in the Army,  married in my early 30s and had a child when I was 37. And I never had a career, just jobs. I could joke about how my whole narrative was one long procrastination.

At 50, the late-bloomer story is starting to wear a little thin. And I have to ask myself, if 50 years of action (and inaction) didn’t lead me to where I want to be, is it time to change the destination? And shouldn’t the journey be a little more enjoyable?

It’s funny when you’re younger. You assume by 50 that things will have been settled, that where you end up is where you intended to be or at the very least, where you’re okay being. But just as society has begun to write me off, I’ve started feeling my oats.

Hatred and empty noise! Old, faithful companions of the strong, the essential.

Hatred is the murderer.

Empty noise is the gravedigger.

But there is always resurrection.

Vasily Kandinsky, On Understanding Art, 1912

Over the last few months, wallowing in a micro/macro depression (woe is me and doesn’t the world just suck?), I’ve realized what a coward I’ve been. It’s a harsh, but necessary realization. I’ve been so distracted by the empty noise. And I’ve wanted to be distracted, because if I weren’t paying full attention, I wouldn’t have to take full responsibility.

450px-Vassily_Kandinsky,_1923_-_On_White_IIIf I were to describe the perfect me of my intentions, it would be a physically fit polymath with strong, loving relationships, charitable works, and a steely sense of integrity. If I were to describe the real me, the one I live with everyday, the picture is quite a bit lopsided, inconsistent, and always, irritatingly, a struggle. That damned human element.

One would imagine I have grandiose plans moving forward. My opening gambit on turning 50 is a real gob smacker. I’m going to stop taking vitamins.

Now hear me out. People say that taking vitamins is like insurance for nutritional deficiencies in our diet. The science doesn’t support that, yet even knowing those facts, I have still been taking a multivitamin and flax oil supplement for years. Does taking those pills make me less diligent about eating a nutritionally dense, well-balanced diet? I would say yes. The backup plan has become the plan.

500px-Wassily_Kandinsky,_1903,_The_Blue_Rider_(Der_Blaue_Reiter),_oil_on_canvas,_52.1_x_54.6_cm,_Stiftung_Sammlung_E.G._Bührle,_ZurichI’ve been thinking a lot about this idea – all the insurances we put in place. I’ve been so set on being safe, carrying all the right insurances, having backup plans to the backup plans, that I’ve filled my life with safeguards for a life I really am not living. Because while I fearlessly fail on a daily basis, I’ve not allowed myself to fail spectacularly. I’ve not put anything on the table worth losing.

So today, I take no vitamins. Tomorrow I submit a short story to a lit mag. Or at least I eat some leafy greens.

 

Lately, I’ve been reading Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art. Vasily Kandinsky began his professional career in law and economics. He chucked it all at 30 to begin painting studies. All art in this post is his – a testament to his openness and intellect in exploring art. I bet he didn’t take vitamins, either. 

Walk No. 362: The Learning Curve

canstockphoto3085947It was a mild day for February in Minnesota yesterday. The sun was out and the birds were already doing their territorial and mating songs. After skimming the news for the day, I needed a walk. My mood was dark, as it usually is after taking in the shootings, the bloviating politicians, the wars and violations of human rights around the globe. As someone prone to depression, I have to fight the sense of desolation.

An alarm often goes off in my brain. Do something! Do something! I have that mentality of trying to fix, mediate, improve, or intervene, which leaves me a paralyzed, impotent ball of anger in the face of overwhelming and constant bad news. I thought about writing letters to Congress, refusing to buy certain products, running for local office, donating money to this cause or that. Bandages for my ego and drops in a bucket.

I walked further and thought about a paragraph by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet. I smiled briefly to myself when I realized I was Rumi-nating. Again.

*****

canstockphoto9679624Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened.  Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading.  Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

 By Rumi, As translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks

*****

Let the beauty we love be what we do. I have had that phrase in my head for a week. It breaks down easily for me in a personal context. I love nature, I grow things. I love reading, I write. I love music, I play. I love my family, I parent and nurture. But what does it mean for my role in the world, when suffering is ever-present?

I’ve been thinking about output – what we, as individuals, contribute with our thoughts, words and actions. In The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris, he talks about the nature of our thoughts, many of which are negative, and that the real question we have to ask of them is not, are they true? But, are they helpful?

My brain has been in overdrive this week thinking about how Is it helpful? makes a fantastic barometer for so many things.

canstockphoto10717036I was at my daughter’s viola recital this week. Twenty kids went through short lesson pieces, while parents beamed. My daughter was allowed to do an advanced piece, since she had performance experience. But she faltered and stumbled. Her face turned red, but she kept going. Afterwards she shrugged and said, “Well, you have to fail sometimes.” She wasn’t defeated or being falsely humble. She was okay with her own truth. I was proud of her resiliency.

The girl next to her performed and when she sat down, her mother whispered, “You should have done a better bow to the audience.” She said to my daughter afterwards “Well, you certainly had the longest piece.” My brain was yelling HOW ARE THESE THINGS HELPFUL? The new barometer has yet to be tuned to subtlety.

People talk about being honest. They’re just being honest, to be frank, the truth is, not to be offensive, blah, blah, blah. First of all, any of those phrases tip me off that you’re likely going to insult me, lie your ass off or are about to say something incredibly ignorant. Lately, people have been praising Donald Trump as “telling like it is”, as if he were a wise soothsayer and not a narcissistic horseshit peddler.

canstockphoto6433663Sometimes, out of morbid curiosity, I’ll read online comments on news stories and feel terribly discouraged. This week was different. I read some horrid bigoted and sexist comments and thought “that was NOT helpful”. Admittedly, the voice in my head was sarcastic, but it did something. It neutralized the hate. It just didn’t have the same impact on me.

My brain takes me down a gloomy path, in the hopes of arriving at a useful conclusion. If, at any moment, my life can be cut short, how would I have wanted to spend the moments before? Worrying, fearful, angry, booing some hateful blowfish at a political rally? Writing angry responses to the wingnuts online? Or, would I prefer to focus on that which is helpful, that which is beautiful, that which adds value to the world?

I think about what some of these public figures have put out into the world, compared to 20 kids anxiously screeching away on their stringed instruments. I think about Trump’s opportunistic hatred and the kids’ nervous hope. I’d lay odds on those twenty kids with the potential for making beautiful music over a grown man reaping the temporary rewards of bigotry and ignorance.

As I wade through my brain swamp, I run through the what-ifs, the choices that I can make, the actions I can take, and I feel that surge of anger. But always and inevitably, I end up thinking about love and compassion.

There’s no arguing with those whose minds are closed. There’s no amount of hatred that can solve the problem of hatred. There’s no amount of aggression that will cure others of aggression. There’s no war to end all wars.

It’s a harder path to walk, deliberately choosing compassion over all the other options.

053

My anger arises easily. The desire to strike out, to cut down, to rage against, is so heady, so momentarily fulfilling. But it leaves scars and ashes and the sense that I am a lesser person for it. And I know that is not helpful.

I read the news this morning and sighed. It was time for another walk. A mile sooner than yesterday, I reached the same conclusion – love outranks hate, creating is better than destruction, hope is better than despair. If I’m lucky, tomorrow I’ll figure it out before I reach the end of the driveway.

We All Die and Other Lighthearted Things I Thought about While on Break

canstockphoto13220366While on a digital break, I let my mind become an unwieldy toddler, waddling from one idea to another, occasionally drooling on myself.  I have a high level of anxiety these days, for no obvious reason except that I’m not ready to die. I know, I know – who among us is? Death anxiety is not a product of my middle age. Many nights throughout my life, I’ve lain in bed, unable to sleep, thinking about the randomness of some kinds of death and how I’ve lived such a tiny, conservative life.

It would likely help if I believed in religious instruction that told me where I’m going and how to get there. Or maybe if I could get on board with the attitude-of-gratitude-don’t-worry-be-happy crowd. I can be quite jolly, but it usually requires a tankard of beer, a pack of smokes and any dish with sour cream and cheese in it. I’ve given up all those things over the years, so that when I do die, I will also be miserable at the time.

There is likely a drug that would tamp down my death anxiety, but I don’t know if that should be a goal. I tend to be pragmatic – if I’m feeling enough anxiety to trigger a fear of my random death, I need to look around and see what’s happening. What’s happening is a period of transition in my life and in the lives of those around me. Each day I watch as dementia/Alzheimer’s tightens it grip on my mother-in-law. My daughter is transitioning from days of dirty knees and silly rhymes to sex ed and mean girls drama. Friends are struggling with health issues, buying homes or getting divorced. I am standing still in the middle of a swirling eddy.

canstockphoto1654493For myself, years of working from home and caregiving have isolated me. I’m becoming unmoored from structure and pop culture references. I used to pride myself at staying tuned in, able to converse on a wide range of topics, able to fake chitchat and laugh at all the right things. No longer. Snip, snip, each rope is being clipped. Until one day, I imagine just floating away. Unless a driver goes through a stop sign and t-bones me. Or one of those random craters opens up under our house and swallows me whole. Or, after years of healthy living, the cancer gets me.

There’s always a spin, though. That is my life skill. I’m able to take a problem and turn it over and over until it becomes something new, something I can live with, some idea that elevates me. The big picture is that I’m trying to find my creative self. What is more endemic to that process than remembering that our time is finite, our brain power has its limitations and that all of this shall pass? My unmooring is moving me closer to my desire, even if it’s taking a roundabout way of getting there.

I’ve always been a late bloomer, which is fine as far as most milestones go. I never worried that I would die without developing breasts or getting married or finishing a marathon. Now that I have a family, I would not want them to go through the grieving process. I want to type up instructions on how to use the washer and what brands of sunscreen to avoid. But that is what I worry about for others. For myself, I worry that I will never feel any measure of satisfaction as a writer.

The problem is, do I even know what satisfaction looks like for me? I’m restless – dissatisfaction drives much of what I do in my life. If I were truly satisfied, would I stay at rest, gathering mothballs and grinning like a fool? It sounds much like some people’s version of heaven. We sit around, perfect and smiling and strumming our harps, as if we had all overdosed on Zoloft.

Perfection is boring. Nobody would create anything if every aspect of life were perfect and we were all satisfied. Some people take that dissatisfaction and destroy themselves trying to attain perfection. Others do anything to numb the pain of feeling less than. Others create, invent, sing, paint – anything that works those kinks out of their system. Some of us manage a dichotomy of destruction and creation and then numb ourselves to the results.

I see that nothing and everything matters. Most of us will not be remembered beyond a generation or two. If we’re lucky enough to be recognized for our creations when we’re alive, it’s tempered by the fact that we will never be as happy as when we were creating, no matter what our Amazon sales. And we will be expected to do it again. Those of us who create tomorrow’s classics, works that are resented by high school students and lit majors everywhere, will never know that we made it.

Is there an object lesson to be found in all this moroseness? I don’t know. Sometimes it feels like I’m paralyzed and a sadistic intern is poking my toes with a needle. Did you feel that? Did you feel that? Sometimes it wakes me up and I feel that and I know I need to get moving.

And death anxiety? It comes and goes. We all die eventually. Smiles, everyone.