The Green Study Commencement Address

Commencement addresses have become a thing, like any other in this world – critiqued, reviewed, mocked, and admired. I wondered what I could say to high school or college graduates. What, at the ripe old age of 53, could I impart to a group of people whose adventures are beginning? Not much really, but I’m taking a swing at it.

Dear New-ish Humans,

canstockphoto24756944Congratulations! You’ve reached a milestone. With luck, you will reach many more. Like menopause and cashing out your 401K. Maybe you’ll patent an invention or live to see your grandchildren graduate. Maybe you’ll travel the world and dive off cliffs or maybe, like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, you’ll see the world from your armchair through observation and a lot of knitting.

It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it is your path, no one else’s. We live in a world where people advertise their lives and if you look long enough, yours will come up short. All lives look great with selective editing, but real life is a rough draft full of unresolved storylines and happy endings that only last a page or two before the next challenge arises.

The surprise ending is not really a surprise at all. It pretty much ends the same way for most humans. It’s the path on the way there that counts. Outcomes take up only a fraction of a moment. The process is where life is at – messy, complicated, wonderful, terrible – those moments when you are struggling are where the meaning resides.

canstockphoto9626422I have had a messy life. Or I should say lives. Once I was a poor kid growing up in a rural town. Once I was a soldier. A college student. A janitor. A tutor. I became, for a longer term, a spouse and a parent. I traveled. I stayed still. I ran. I grew fat. I shrank. I trained in martial arts. I learned to abhor violence and guns. I briefly tried politics. I grew up evangelical. I became enamored of Buddhism. I went to therapy. I tried on personas, boyfriends, jobs, hobbies. Humans shed and grow almost 1,000 new skins in a lifetime. Why would anything about us stay the same throughout our lives?

And that’s what everything comes down to. Your generation knows this better than anyone, as you transition to new lives in the midst of a global pandemic. Nothing stays the same. Nothing was ever intended to stay the same. Change is constant. Unless you want life to be excruciating for yourself, accept this fact. Learn the skills that help you deal with change – resilience, adaptability, flexibility, knowing when to let go, when to move onto the next plan or idea.

canstockphoto7017741We also live in a world where everyone has opinions and way too many ways to convey them. Outside entities want you to like and thumb and swipe your way through life. They want to elevate your sense of self-importance so that you volunteer every aspect of your life like wares at a marketplace. This is the nature of consumerism, the nature of data mining and advertising. This is not the nature you want to cultivate, because in the cold dark night, when you’re alone, none of those entities will be there for you. You must learn to trust yourself, to spend time in your own head, to be your own confidant and best friend. Know yourself best so that you might understand others more. Listen more than you speak.

Some of you will be embarking on relationships. Maybe one, maybe many. The secret to any healthy relationship is this: you bring out the best in each other. You like who you are with the other person and they like who they are with you. Friends, lovers, partners, spouses. The same thing applies. I’ve stayed too long in relationships where I was a lesser person, ashamed of myself, hyperfocused on keeping the relationship because I felt I was lacking. Even if your relationship is healthy, alas, change applies here as well. You grow along with a person or you don’t. The trick is knowing when to let go or when to dig in.

canstockphoto6437374The lessons of generations before me eventually landed hard on my head. No matter what rights have been gained, no matter what ground has been covered, you can’t have it all. You shouldn’t have everything at once. To learn how to deeply appreciate one thing, one person, one moment is to learn how to better appreciate everything else more. To savor a moment is a luxury in a society that tells us to quickly want for the next. Defy the speed of the world around you. Slow down. Feel the joy of the moment. Be in it.

Lastly, but most importantly, there is the practice of kindness. What does that really mean? This practice is the most important thing you will ever do – it impacts everything. It shapes your relationships, it can protect the natural world, it can affect your job, it defines your role as a citizen. Operating from a place of kindness is not going to solve all the world’s problems. Sometimes it won’t even make the person talking to you be polite. You practice for the muscle memory, so even under duress, you choose to be the person you’d like to be.

Kindness is sometimes mistaken for weakness, but it takes a strong person to live in this world with compassion. Kindness is not agreeability or concession or surrender. It is approaching the world, your life, the lives of others, with curiosity and openness and compassion. It is one of the most powerful choices you’ll ever make, because it will characterize your life and inform your decisions.

canstockphoto2602119The world is full of wonders and dangers and conflict and love. We often judge lifetimes by accomplishment, by enduring works of art or invention or unfortunately, wealth. Most of us won’t end up on a college reading list or in a history book or on a Forbes list. But we can have lives well-lived, make the lives of those around us better, ensure that we do more helping than harm. Life is an adventure of your own making. Make it well.

Notes from a Non-Essential Life

Our family has been in “quarantine” for approximately five weeks, leaving only for grocery pickup, and medical emergencies. Work, school, meetings, and music lessons have all been conducted online. We wash our groceries. Door knobs are cleaned regularly. I still touch my face constantly.

*****

When all this began, I was filled with ambition. I was going to write blog posts a couple times a week, maybe run a contest, and get reconnected with other bloggers. Our house was going to be cleaned from top to bottom. I’d get my garden seedlings ready. We’d finish our deck and teach our daughter to drive. Maybe I’d get my curse of a novel edited and revised. I’d get on a regular exercise plan, maybe knock off some extra weight.

canstockphoto11545997Instead, I play “spin-the-bad-news-wheel” rolling from one news source to another. I’m rage-reading Twitter. A good day is one in which I shower and make one family meal. These days, I think about the repetitive pacing of animals in the zoo. Early in the morning, I walk my neighborhood – nearly the same route every day, in order to avoid other humans. The days all run together to the point that I’ve taken to writing the day and date on my whiteboard.

And yet, we’re safe (a relative term). We are able to get by financially. We have access to food and water and electricity. We have solid internet. Our home is a comforting sanctuary. We are among the fortunate.

*****

Between my daughter’s medical emergencies and the overwhelming news outside our front door, there are days though, when I feel the undercurrent of anxiety. Some nights I wake up, thinking that I hear someone crying out. I toss and turn and the following day is a blur.

canstockphoto8969152I return to the toolbox – meditation, exercise, gardening, writing. Halfhearted attempts at best. I even tried to add a little ritual here and there. During meditation, I decided to try some old incense. Buddhists do it. They seem serene. If serene means filling your house with acrid smoke that smells like an ashtray on fire, then I’m zen itself.

New tools. A Nintendo Switch video game that we gave to our daughter for her 16th birthday. Now our entire family spends time each day building a rapacious island dynasty in Animal Crossing. There is something quite calming about traveling to a remote island, stripping it of all its resources and running away. Virtual colonialism. My family of origin is British, so perhaps there is a genetic component.

As I express my concern about the lessons the game teaches, my daughter rolls her eyes. Mom ruins everything. I don’t want to brag, but I’m good at taking perfectly benign entertainment and deconstructing in such a way that you can’t help but feel guilt. I think it really adds another layer to the game.

*****

I didn’t think I could do it – writing at home with other human beings in the house. For years, I regarded solitude as necessary to writing. I’m a well-trained caregiver. Any noise or movement and I’m immediately alerted to potential need. I’m being forced to unlearn this mentality. In fact, my family would damn well appreciate it if I would stop checking in with them every hour.

My study has two doors, which creates a shortcut to the kitchen. I’ve had to learn to shut both doors. We all now use door knob signs to indicate “Video Call” or “Writing: Please do not disturb”. I also need NO – I do not know if we have any parmesan left or I know you are bored, but I’m not going to entertain you. They think I am writing a lot.

canstockphoto15046720The upside to the pandemic is (and I say that, acutely aware of my privilege at the moment) that the Gotham Writers Workshop is offering some of their classes via Zoom. These are classes in NYC that I would have never been able to attend. I’m taking a fiction writing course focusing on short stories and a course to complete the first draft of a novel. It’s been an interesting experience, but more importantly, connected me with other writers and feedback on my work.

I’m feeling very writerly these days. This week, I listened to my short story be critiqued six ways to Sunday, shortly after I received two short story rejections. One of those rejections was a kind note from the publication editor. I have surprised myself by being able to handle both critique and rejection well. I don’t think I could have handled it when I was younger. You know, last year.

*****

To admit to any moments of joy or happiness feels wrong. I know there is suffering and grieving and injustice in the world. I know that I’m a resident and user of services in a system that supports inequality as a feature, not a bug. This was the way before the pandemic and will likely be the way after. Like most crises, we see revealed before us that the “gaps” are canyons, that imagination is desperately needed everywhere – education, government, employment, public spaces, media, and relationships.

I want to think about the world differently. I want, after all of this is over, for the world canstockphoto8183571to be different. Maturing, evolving, kinder, with a sense that we truly are all in this together. I don’t fool myself, though. I knew after the 2012 Sandy Hook murders of school children and staff when nothing changed, that my country was its own worst enemy. And here we are, forced to watch as our government, led by cynical ignorance, fumbles about with our lives.

What I want for and of this world is of no account. I am a non-essential citizen. I started this post writing about perspective. As a nonbeliever in gods, I’ve arrived at a point just past nihilism: if nothing matters, then everything can matter or, to be more precise, I get to decide what matters to me. Kindness, curiosity, and learning still matter to me. I’m not particularly adept at any of those things, but that’s the path I am trying to trod. Same as it ever was.

Fearless Friday: The Importance of Curiosity

Currently, I’m slogging through Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Braid. I say slog because it’s a challenge, heavy on the math and science of formal systems and their connections. This is the kind of reading I regularly do, even if I come away with a muddied sense of things. How is the world connected? What does this or that mean? I feel an odd sense of joy in reaching middle age with more questions than answers.

Curiosity is a skill like any other. It has to be practiced and encouraged. Children are naturally curious, but somewhere along the way, we teach ourselves to be cynical sophisticates who stop asking why? The culture, too, is teaching us the immediate gratification of having information spoon fed to us. Not asking questions or researching for our own answers impacts our brains and it impacts how we understand the world. Many of us are simply wrong, basing our judgment on faulty and/or incomplete information. Curiosity is the basis of critical thinking. And we need it more in the world than ever.

Welcome to Fearless Friday.

Feacanstockphoto13410470rless Fridays are about lives lived in spite of our fears, living a life that is about curiosity, compassion, and courage. If you just got published, something wonderful happened to you, you witnessed an act of kindness or bravery, or you have someone in your life who amazes you, drop your story into my contact page or email it to TheGreenStudy (at) comcast (dot) net and I’ll run it on a Fearless Friday. If you’re a blogger, it’s an opportunity to advertise your blog, but this is open to anyone who would like to share.  These will be 100-300 word stories, subject to editing for clarity and space.

Teach Our Children Well

mcbd_poster_nameFINAL (002).jpgCuriosity begins as children, so that’s where I’m going to start. Today is Multicultural Children’s Book Day. One of my writer friends, Carolyn at Wise Owl Factory has jan-25-twitter-party-2019-win-bookswritten children’s books about multicultural adoption and has a fantastic website of resources for parents and teachers. Literacy and representation matters. Little humans are curious, but like adults, they are most curious about themselves – how do I fit into the world? Who can I identify with? Who do I look to for example?

As a side note: There’s apparently a lot of free goodies if you pay attention to #readyourworld on Twitter. Great opportunity for parents, grandparents, and teachers.

Curiosities for Grownups, Too

canstockphoto31504305If you want to really challenge yourself, read Valerie Tarico’s latest post “The Righteousness and The Woke – Why Evangelicals and Social Justice Warriors Trigger Me in the Same Way“. I forced myself to read it even as I bristled at the title – I find myself extremely sensitive to the fallacy of both sides, as if they are equal and only two. But her post is very thoughtful, boiling down to a lack of critical awareness when you become so dogmatic in your thinking that no light can come in. That is what curiosity does – it lets in the light, airs out the room, allows space for nuance and change. But more importantly it doesn’t make it easy for us to categorize and dismiss other humans.

On a lighter note, I’ve mentioned her blog before, but Ellen Hawley over at Notes from the UK always makes me laugh. She writes of the sometimes very odd stories that emerge from over there. As a writer, I never read one of her posts without coming away with a story idea.

Curiosity from a Writing Perspective

I’ve learned this year that if I ever experienced writer’s block, I no longer can. One of the exercises we do at writing group is a random selection of subjects and a timed writing session writing either an essay or short story around the subject. I wasn’t particularly good in the beginning, feeling the panic that any effort to time or rush me inspires. I used to poo-poo writing prompts as an individual exercise, because I always had something I wanted to write, even if it were laborious. But not when it came to writing fiction.

canstockphoto31420073One of the tools we use is The Storymatic, a collection of cards containing characters, items, odd situations. We draw random cards and there’s our story basis. It’s a muscle you learn to use – making up things on the spot. We’re training ourselves to be pathological liars on paper. The outcome is not only a stronger skill set, but in the aftermath, I end up with vignettes of potential characters to develop, plot lines to follow, and narratives that could be more.

So be curious about what you’re capable of, have patience, and be open to things you’ve made fun of in the past. That’s a lot of work for me. I make fun of everything and then have to shamefacedly turn around and say, oh, that really worked. The lesson is: what you mock today, might be something entirely worthwhile the minute you start being curious.

Fearless Friday: Renaissance People

It’s been a rough week at The Green Study. Its injured denizen (me) was extremely grumpy. Knee injuries take from 2-4 weeks to heal. I’m in week two and severely out of sorts. I broke my ceramic tea kettle and when trying to repair it, managed to Superglue a couple of fingers together. Limping and lumbering about also caused my Kindle to fall off a shelf and hit me in the head. It was like being taken over by the spirit of Mr. Bean.

I’m shaking it off and this week, the theme is Renaissance people – people who cultivate a wide range of interests and practice skills in multiple areas – people who will never utter the words I’m bored. Welcome to Fearless Friday.

Feacanstockphoto13410470rless Fridays are about lives lived in spite of our fears, living a life that is about curiosity, compassion, and courage. If you just got published, something wonderful happened to you, you witnessed an act of kindness, or you have someone in your life who amazes you, drop your story into my contact page or email it to TheGreenStudy (at) comcast (dot) net and I’ll run it on a Fearless Friday. If you’re a blogger, it’s an opportunity to advertise your blog, but this is open to anyone who would like to share.  These will be 100-300 word stories, subject to editing for clarity and space.

New Readers

When I have time, I go through this blog’s follower list and try to visit as many blogs as possible. I’m giving a shout out to a couple new readers this month who exemplify the theme of Fearless Friday.

canstockphoto1323495Jamison Hill at Jamison Writes. One of the things that will keep me reading a blog is the author’s voice. Jamison has a clear and authentic voice with a compelling personal narrative. I had to make myself stop reading his posts, because I wouldn’t have gotten anything else done today. Check out his Bio and Bylines for articles he’s written for a variety of publications.

canstockphoto46705839Cheryl Capaldo Traylor at Giving Voice to My Astonishment is a writer, yoga teacher, and gardener. She opens her page with an Annie Dillard quote that sets the tone for her blog. Her About page is what you’d expect from someone who cultivates curiosity just as much as she does her garden.

Karen has a concert card!

canstockphoto8525201She’s a neuroscientist, goes geocaching, plays the violin and viola, practices photography, writes, and juggles (I made that one up). K.L. Allendoerfer at A Thousand Finds is the perfect example of a Renaissance person. She writes about her music, geocaching, and neuroscience, as well as posting book reviews and photos she’s taken. You can read her music blog and bio at violinist.com.

Over ten years ago she began to play violin and then viola after many years of not playing. This is something that I connected with, the idea that it’s never too late to learn and to excel. You can see her playing with a quintet here. Despite all of her experiences and education, there was one thing she hadn’t done before – had her face associated with a concert. Congratulations, Karen – wishing you an appreciative audience and a stellar performance!AllendoerferConcertCardFlight of the Dilettante

canstockphoto10628495My resume and personal history reads like the life of someone who is very…confused. It wasn’t until I read Margaret Lobenstine’s The Renaissance Soul that I began to re-frame my aspirations. She defines a Renaissance soul as a person who thrives on a variety of interests and who redefines the accepted meaning of success.

I think that’s a very cool thing to think about. When you’re like me, a jack-of-many-trades, master of none, it’s easy to feel like a failure, because it’s hard to explain at the family holiday gathering that you gave up Chinese painting because now you’re learning Swahili and woodcarving. Flighty. Dilettante. Hobbyist.

Now I just say I’m a writer and call it research. And run away before they ask me about my work.

Have a wonderful weekend!

A Misshapen Valentine that I Made Myself

canstockphoto1838112It was at a relative’s funeral over 15 years ago that I began to wonder about my ability or inability to love. The spouse of the deceased, an awkward and unlikable man, cornered me. He began to explain my relatives to me in critical terms. She doesn’t know how to love. They are such cold people. He would never understand love. Grieving requires latitude, so I stood there, numbly, and listened as he described the people I loved as terrible. And maybe they were.

I’ve written before about my upbringing and childhood. And it is only significant in the fact that it had consequences. I was a sensitive, shy kid in a household where tears and really, any emotion, were mocked or ridiculed or punished. When I laughed I was too loud, when I cried I was being too sensitive, when I was sick I was faking it, when I was angry, I was unjustified. Toughen up was the order of the day.

So I did. I took up sarcasm and cynicism as weapons and armor. I worked when I was sick. I cried in private. I muffled my laughter and subdued any excitability. I smoothed out the sheets until there was not a wrinkle in sight. I grew up, muted and self-conscious of any outward indications of emotion.

I did well in the Army. No drill sergeant could yell me into anything more than a look of stony silence. I’d stare placidly as my bunk was torn apart and an angry man got up in my face screaming about my worthlessness. It was nothing to me.

canstockphoto13168497Once I started college, I couldn’t relate to the excitable undergrads and buried myself in work. The cracks were beginning to show. I began to suffer chronic depression. The emotions that I’d suppressed had begun to curl inward and were finding their way into toxic relationships and self-destructive behaviors that left me gasping for air.

But I was tough. I could survive. I could make it through anything, especially the self-generated miseries. Two decades of muted smiles and disdain for anything sentimental or emotional. I was still me, sensitive to not only the moods and whims of others, but of the environment, of sounds and smells and shifts in the wind. I just had a hard shell.

This is what we’re told as children – grow up, toughen up, be like an adult. A generous interpretation is that we fear for these little, soft beings going out in the world. So often, though, we’re re-enacting our own childhood pains and fears, wishing on our children a kind of protection we never had.

It would be easy for me to say that being in a happy marriage and having a healthy child was what changed me. It did. How could it not? But the change began happening before he came along and she was born.

canstockphoto18089949It started with decisions. A decision to leave a dead-end job that made me feel stupid. A decision to leave a relationship that would have gone nowhere, a relationship that made me feel inferior and worthless. A decision to leave a town where I’d worked through a lot of permutations and none of them fit.

Then there was therapy. Talking about things I’d never talked about, to a person who didn’t have a horse in the race. Crying a lot. Often feeling worse than I’d ever felt in my life. The cracks became canyons and I feared I would never get out. But every gaslight was extinguished when the therapist leaned in, with a quizzical look on her face and said “You do understand that they were trying to hurt you, right?” The elemental difference between feeling worthless and not.

I’ve softened over the years. It’s uncomfortable to me still. Sometimes I’ll hear myself laugh and I’ll think stop that cackling, a phrase I heard repeatedly as a child. But I split my heart wide open when I committed to a marriage. I laid all my vulnerabilities out on the table when my child smiled her first smile.

canstockphoto20639927The softening of middle age isn’t just happening around the middle. I seem to be leaking tears and flashing smiles at the most inopportune moments. It feels like an odd awakening to the exquisite beauty of this fragile existence.

I will never be an effusive person or greet Valentine’s day with much more than a grimace. But my family is well-loved year round and I laugh a lot these days. I’m at a point where repairs are no longer underway, my psyche no longer under construction.

There’s a peppy little song by Cathy Heller called “Gonna Be Happy”.  The lyrics are saccharine sweet, but there’s a line that has burned itself in my brain.

How can we set each other free?

I’ve been thinking about this as I go about my day. I’ve been watching people – at the grocery store, at concerts, walking their dogs, talking to their children, using their walkers, and blasting their car radios. And that line pops into my head.

It’s realizing that a smile can make a difference in a person’s day. It’s understanding that most people are not out to intentionally hurt us, that we are all on our own orbital paths and sometimes that makes us careless of other humans. It’s assuming the best, giving the benefit of the doubt, of attributing things not to malevolence, but to inattention.

canstockphoto3960689It’s love turned outward. It’s that moment when it cannot be contained and wrangled into submission – when the impulse to smile or laugh or cry is no longer embarrassing or shameful. It’s startling when it happens. My first thought is always “Who is this weirdo and what do they want?” But defensiveness obscures my vision, makes me miss the moment, the connection. Curiosity is the antidote and is, in some ways, the best gift of love we can offer each other.

Stories from the Road: Chasing Barges and Otherness

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For a brief respite between drab winter and frenzied garden preparations, my family and I headed up to the North Shore on Lake Superior. We visited the local high points: Split Rock Lighthouse, Glensheen Mansion, an aquarium, a maritime museum. It was relaxing and enjoyable when we were together. Alone, I found moments to do what I do best. I recognized my Otherness.

It’s hard not to feel apart and isolated these days. My disconnect from the political those who scramble to represent us, overpower us, quiet us, is becoming palpable. I am scared of many of my fellow voters. I don’t understand your placards or your mindless hooting. These politicians are not your friends. They want power. Stop throwing them parties.

Culturally, all the latest stars look like kids. The celebrities I grew up with are beginning to die, one by one. I have a low tolerance for television shows or commercials these days. It all seems like extraneous noise. Most nights on vacation, I’m down in the lobby reading while my family unwinds to reality TV involving children crying during junior chef competitions or grown men finding out what happens when they crush things.

Hidden behind a column, I sat in a comfortable chair looking out onto the lake. To the right and back of me, a group of young lawyers discussed witness prep for an upcoming trial. Gaiman lost me at that point and the words of my book blurred as I listened with fascination. Everything becomes material. Part of me feels a predatory thrill. To observe without being observed. I am voyeur.

canstockphoto2064089I wake up at 4am every morning, vacation or not. Sometimes I lie there, listening to the soft snuffling of my family. We paid for a view on the lake. I bundled up and sat on the balcony, listening to the waves crash on the shore. When the sun came up, I saw a large ship on the horizon. It was coming towards the aerial lift bridge. I dashed out of the room, down several flights of stairs and out onto the lake boardwalk, walking quickly towards the monolithic barge. It slid into the harbor and out of sight. And then I was alone, feeling slightly foolish.

Otherness came over me. It happens to me more and more frequently, as I get older and slip out of synch with the rushing, constantly updating world. I’m becoming invisible. My otherness is no longer quirky or weird or even interesting. It’s unseen.

canstockphoto0033418Sitting on a bench, I watched the ring-billed gulls doing their acrobatic swoops. A cold wind blew off the lake. Sporadic joggers passed by. I remembered other park benches and rocks and stone walls where my legs dangled. Listening to the bark of sea lions on Monterey Bay, drinking beer on a grassy hill at the Festung Marienberg, sitting on a Mediterranean beach as fishermen gathered up lines and nets, in a park next to a group of WWI German soldiers memorialized in stone, carrying a fallen comrade.

As a child, I spent a lot of time in my head, escaping less than edifying circumstances. I found secret places to be alone – in the back corner of a library, in a tree, on a rock by the lake. I became a watcher. Distance became necessary armor against assaults on hypersensitivity. It was a way to be safe. To heal quickly from the bruising nature of life.

Whether I was already a writer or laying fertile ground for becoming one, I think this is a thing that happens. While life is happening all around me, sentences are being formed, dulling the intensity of the moment. A story emerges. What ifs override what is. Curiosity drives an overwhelming need to chase barges, to see what happens next, to find oneself in the middle of a deserted boardwalk, feeling all at once foolish and delighted.

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