The Gentle Storyteller in a Violent World

Silence is sometimes preferable to unleashing emotions that are not processed or packaged for public consumption. My silence here, on this blog, has been due to a simmering bouillabaisse of anger, depression, anxiety, and fatigue. I know that I am not alone in this, nor is my angst much different by degree than anyone else’s. I’m either at the edge of tears or letting loose an inextricable profanity.

Cartoon drawing that says "WTF".

I feel frenetically angry these days, to the point that I have a Post-It note below my computer monitor: Be kind. Don’t swear. Listen. Anybody who knows me knows I love some good swearing. But since every meeting or get-together is online, it has become too easy to blur the boundaries between close friends and the board of the nonprofit for which I volunteer. All the faces are flat, the location always my study with multi-directional, disorganized anger banging around in my brain. A mistakenly uttered profanity might be quite jarring in the wrong environment.

Physically, I’m wearing each and every emotion. I wrote this little ditty in my head yesterday when wearing a baggy shirt: All this swathe of cloth, does not have the ability, to hide my rolls of fragility. Yeah, I won’t be reading an inaugural poem any time soon. I’m walking a lot, trying to get back into strength training, but I’m having a hard time making myself care. It feels like something is a little broken, like I’ve just given in to entropy.

Owl in glasses sitting on a pen.

Still, I’ve almost finished my first semester of an MFA in Creative Writing Program. I’ve learned several things. I am further along in my writing skills than I imagined. Secondly, talent doesn’t mean jack if you’re not actively writing. Thirdly, when you solidly believe that everyone around you is better than you at everything, it always comes as a surprise when you realize, Hey, I know something. This has given me some ambition to put together my own low-rent virtual workshop for the fall. 6-10 writers, nominal fee (just so people show up), and covering all the basics of good narrative.

I’ve done a couple of writing competitions, which work like tournament brackets. Thus far, I’ve been given an Honorable Mention, and I’ve just advanced another round in a short story competition. Some competitions offer critiques from judges on your piece as part of the registration fee. One of the comments struck a nerve. You’re a gentle storyteller. In any other world, not littered with my literary ambition, this would seem sweet. But it really stuck with me, because the translation at first in my overthinking noggin was “tepid, mediocre, simple”. Oh no! What happened to complex, rich literary narrative that evokes some intellectual pablum and blah, blah, blah… I’ve already written the New York Times review of my first book. And gentle storyteller does not cut it.

Book open on table in woods.

We all have ideas of who we want to be or at the very least, how we want to be perceived. I’m settling into this idea that my writing will never be edgy or evocative or prizewinning. Maybe it will just be a good story. My current novel was described by an MFA professor as character-driven and a quiet, complex story. That will make for a shelf-grabbing blurb. “Boring. TLDR” – Publishers’ Mistake Weekly. Mark this little tea cozy of a book for the remaindered bin. Still, I don’t want to tell this particular story any other way – I like complexity, nuance, subtlety and if it ends up being a bathtub read for someone, as they fall asleep and accidentally drown, well, that’s just good publicity.

As I waited for the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, to see if the Twin Cities will set itself on fire, I thought about violence. About militarized police and mass shooters. As a veteran, I have enough familiarity with weapons to know that I don’t trust them and I don’t trust people who fetishize them. I do know that brandishing weapons makes people lazy. They don’t have to de-escalate, they don’t have to compromise, they don’t have to use diplomacy. They don’t need self-control or empathy or decency. Like the mafia, like gangs, like uniformed units, they conflate fear with respect and think compliance is the only way they can “win.”

Red spiral like the boring inside a gun.

There are likely few Americans who have not been touched by violence – from war, from mass shootings, from childhood traumas. I have now lived in two places where mass shootings have taken place. In 1991, at the University of Iowa, my afternoon Russian class was moved, as hours before, a man who had killed five people around campus, entered the classroom and shot himself. There have been multiple events in Minnesota since I moved here and that’s not counting the police violence. Even they are not immune. In 2015, just a few blocks away, at the city hall, a man walked in and fired upon police at a swearing-in ceremony. They were injured, he was killed. It’s everywhere. Guns are everywhere.

So, what can a gentle storyteller do? Is there a place for that kind of narrative in a world full of trauma and injustice and cruelty? I cannot watch shows or read books organized around violence. I don’t find it interesting or entertaining when it is reality for so many people. I’ve always believed that reading, getting inside a character’s head, helps grow empathy. And if there is anything missing in American life, it would be that. Throw in some critical thinking skills, less hero worship (seriously, when did politicians develop fan clubs?), more responsibility that accompanies freedom, organizing public policy around the common good, then there might be progress.

Image of Tim Kreider's book I Wrote This Book Because I Love You.

It’s a funny thing that I’m a writer, that I’m here now, writing in public. If I could have one secret power, it would be invisibility. Understatement is my brand. I’ve been reading Tim Kreider’s collection of essays, I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. This excerpt sticks with me: “…if you want to enjoy the rewards of being loved, you also have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” I mean, what is writing, but a wish to be understood, to be heard, to be known and loved? People can go on and on about why they do it, but practically everything we do organizes around a basic human need to belong somewhere.

Perhaps telling tales in a mild-mannered way serves as a counterbalance to the rage. The world does not need more anger. The world needs the opportunity to see the possibilities. That this is not it. That we are capable of change. That cynicism is not intelligence. That we cannot be anything more than what we imagine. So, imagine we must. Even if it is with a light touch.

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.

Insolent Joy

Today I’m going to be daring. I am, in the middle of a global pandemic, national and local rioting, personal sorrows and tribulations, going to write about joy. The last 8+ years, this blog has been a bit of a chronicle. For much of the last couple of years, I’ve felt like a woman of constant sorrows. It would be an easier place to stay, short term. Over the long term, should I become less practiced at experiencing pleasure, joy, light, it will ruin my health, perhaps my relationships, and will fill me with regret at the time wasted. We do not know what tomorrow brings. There is only today. And today, I’m going to focus on joy.

amenonmememeIt’s a fine balance between refreshing the inner sanctum and recognizing the pain in the world. It is possible to do both. I know I could break and then I’ll be no good to anyone. And I want to be useful in this world, not just a handwringer or an ostrich. I have some basic tenets to keep myself from going off the deep end (and these coincide with how I deal with depression).

Deal with Your Own Reality

SparrowatFeederI should be protesting. I should be volunteering. I should, should, should… I have these thoughts fifty times a day. My reality is that I’m exhausted. My reality is that I have big worries on my plate inside my own house. My reality is that I’m barely figuring out how to help myself, much less anyone else. I need to accept that I have limitations. Once I do that, then I can figure out how to help someone else on terms that I can meet.

And I did.

Help Someone Else

Through Pandemic of Love, an organization that connects people in need with people who can help, I was able to help out a family hit economically by the pandemic. On top of that, they were living in an area where the riots had blown through. They’d just gotten back from cleaning up some of the mess. I asked “What are you most worried about this morning?” and I was able to offer help. The beauty of helping someone is that it is never entirely altruistic. It takes you out of your self, out of your own sorrows.

Look for Beauty

BeeI’m learning photography the hard way. For all these years of gardening, I decided I’d learn how to take pictures. I got the kit. I have the instruction manual. I am awful. Enjoy as I start seeding pictures into the blog. Look for the blurry and slightly blurry plants, ghost birds, off-centered bees, and flowers I can’t remember the names of. Enjoy. I know I will.

I’ve been listening to Traci K. Smith on The Slowdown podcast. I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t take in as much poetry as I should, considering my love of language. These snippets of living language have been inspiring and comforting. I turn to books that are balm for the soul like Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights or a collection called Poems to Live by in Uncertain Times. I’ve also watched Some Good News (hosted by The Office’s John Krasinski) and listen to the Kind World podcasts. Anything to balance out the onslaught of bad news.

Keeping up with the news, or not.

As glued as I’ve been to the news, I’m focused on learning. So far, I’ve learned that there are more whackadoodle conspiracy theorists posing as normal humans than I first suspected. The fact that they’ve remained hidden as long as they have is suspicious. I think it might have to do with Cornflakes, a confederate battlefield, and pitching signals – especially the right ear tug.

dandelionI’ve met a lot of racists in my life, but I’ve never met someone who belonged to an antifa organization. I’m an organization of one, decidedly against facism. That this president wants me to be designated a terrorist seems right on point for 2020. He’s Tweeting from his bunker, which I imagine to be full of toilet paper, blaring televisions, and blubbering sycophants.

Watching the news, drinking in the feeds, trying to sort the loons from the dimwits, it really can make a reasonable person quite nuts. If you’ve hit the angry, spluttery stage (me about three years ago), time to step back and give yourself a break. Let your brain settle into normalcy, use good judgment, call a friend, take a nap, do a logic puzzle. Then when you return to the news, you’ll realize how absolutely nuts the world is and stagger off the grid for even longer.

In the face of uncertainty and anger…

There is something revolutionary about focusing on solutions, on what we want as a society and doing things that help that. There’s no point in arguing with people who are proud of their accidents of birth – in what country, with a particular skin color, with whatever anatomical arrangement. There’s a lot of weird braggadocio on the internet. That’s how they’ve chosen to see themselves and how they classify others. That’s not your problem.

GaliumEven though we’re being pummeled with political rhetoric, life is not politics. Your minute-to-minute isn’t red or blue. It’s who you are as a rational, compassionate human being. You get to be that. This is why I think of it as insolent joy. It’s defiant. People would like you to be unhappy. They’re unhappy and they can’t think of any other way around that than to ensure that others are miserable as well. You can be impassioned about the world. You can work to make a difference. But you don’t have to be miserable 24/7. No victory will happen with that kind of energy.

Holy cow. I’ve talked myself into being uber-positive. Sometimes people like me make me sick. It’s how I do my pep talks to myself – I write to you. I’ve been in the dumps a long time and the world is not about to lend me a hand out of that. We rescue ourselves, we rescue each other – that’s really all the world has to be.

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.

The Troubled Path

Almost eight years ago, I published my first blog post. It came on the heels of challenges I had created for myself – training in Taekwondo, learning how to climb rock walls, pushing myself to write publicly. I’ve given up martial arts and rock climbing, but I’m still writing. My challenges are different now. They usually involve trying to get a good night’s sleep and not letting my anxiety overrun my sensibility.

12934562I just finished reading Dinty Moore’s The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life. It’s a short, inspirational read – a reminder of some basic tenets of being a writer. I’ve been thinking a great deal about a quote in the book by Ezra Bayda: Your difficulties are not obstacles on the path, they are the path.

My path in 2019 was the most difficult of my life. It started off with a family death, spiralled into personal health problems, the loss of a pet, crescendoed with my child’s medical crisis, and has now found an uneasy holding pattern of doctors’ appointments and testing. I’d begun sleeping, finally, in this last week for more than three hours at a shot, loaded up on melatonin, soothed by a white noise machine. Maybe, my brain said, things will get back to normal.

We found out yesterday that the chemotherapy drug refill my daughter needs is out of stock. One company in the world makes it. I had a panic attack while on the phone with the specialty pharmacy. My heart was pounding louder than the hold music. How often had I been here in the last year? Anxiety steamrolling me, brain racing to problem solve, catastrophizing in “what if” land.

Normal? What the hell was I thinking?

“When/if…then” thinking always catches me off guard. I realized that I’d been telling myself when things got back to normal, I’d get back to a stricter writing practice. I’d exercise more regularly. I’d be more careful about what I ate. I’d catch up on correspondence. I’d sleep better. I’d be able to think more clearly – be less hostile, be more compassionate – be a better person.

canstockphoto14061639While I’m not someone who is inclined towards drama, it occurred to me that this waiting is a living death. Because what if “normal” never returns? I’m getting older. My peers are getting older. Illness, death, change – it comes to us all and it accelerates as one ages. Time is a finite resource for a human being.

This morning, I re-read a 1993 Paris Review interview of Toni Morrison. She talked about her early writing life. She was a working single parent with small children. She wrote in the early hours and no matter her level of organization, she always ended up writing on a small square of her desk or table. Within those limitations, she created beautiful works of art.

I think about her writing in that little space with limited time – creating a universe of love, joy, hate, pain – weaving together the threads in a poetic yawp to the world. We can make choices in the spaces between troubles and limitations. I’d gotten so overwhelmed by the big, scary stuff that I’d stopped making the small choices that would bring me joy. Writing in that 15 minutes before the next doctor appointment, going for a short run, napping near a sunny window, digging out a recipe book and cooking a good meal, writing a thank-you note to a friend, sinking into a book.

canstockphoto2904213It’s hard to unravel the idea that to write, I don’t need a huge expanse of time, a clean desk, the recommended amount of sleep, an uneventful day or ten. It’s hard to believe, that after so many years of an interrupted life, that I still allow circumstances to override this visceral need to put chaos on paper. This forgetfulness is always how I arrive here: depressed, cynical, often simmering with a vague, low-energy rage.  Writing is how I survive, even thrive when life eddies about me.

So this path, full of potholes and thorny briar patches and distracting squirrels, is the path. And the only way forward is mindfully, pen and notebook in hand.

Human in Chair, Writing

Life has started to really take its toll on me. I’m more tired, grayer, weightier, unfocused. There was a brief respite where my ego had time to rise – to think about goals and ambitions and productivity. Productivity. I’ve come to hate that word. It makes us all sound like robots. But robots don’t have children who get tumors. Again. Robots don’t watch their friends go through chemo treatment or their parents suffer from Alzheimer’s or partners in chronic pain. Robots don’t wake up each and every day wondering what that day might hold.

If it sounds as if I’m getting a little dark, stay with me. There is light. Eventually.

This has been a year of unending anxiety and constant resetting of expectations and plans – more than the usual chaos of being human. I found myself constantly saying I just need to find my center. I just need solitude. I just need a few days without menopausal shifts. A week without anxiety. A few nights of good, solid sleep. Then I will feel better. Then I will feel like me. Normal. Balanced.

Pardon me while I break into hysterical, teary laughter.

Depression has permeated my brain. We’re in the middle of yet another medical crisis – a drawn out one that will take months to resolve and may have lifelong impact. A parent’s nightmare. Trauma in slow motion. And still, I rise, I demand, get your shit together, Michelle. It’s an unkind, harsh voice. Who needs enemies with a brain like this?

7902654I turn to some old friends in the form of books. I pick up Toni Bernhard’s How to be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. I read it a few years ago, while supporting my mother-in-law as she wended her way through Alzheimer’s. It was a perfunctory read. Lately, I read with hungry desperation. Tell me how to cope with this. Give me answers.

Sometimes a message reaches you at just the right moment, when you’re an open wound in need of salve. The author of How to be Sick is chronically ill with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. I am not chronically ill, nor I hope, is my daughter, but this year has been a chainlink of catastrophes. Situational depression is to be expected. My little family has felt this in a myriad of ways. But still, we trundle on and we play a lot of card games.

There’s a practice I learned from the Bernhard book that I’ve started using. I’d been swimming in the disappointment of expectation. There was a brief space in time when everyone was well, when routine seemed possible. Then another medical scan revealed its terrible news. Immediately anxiety wrapped its death grip around my brain, as it played out every future scenario. Stuck in the past, throttled by the future.

canstockphoto16849001
The only tolerable memes.

If there’s anything that annoys me more, it is that every idea or thought is memed now. The be present exhortation is on coffee mugs, t-shirts, people’s email signatures, and one of the first pieces of advice that pops out of anyone’s mouth who imagines themselves to be wise or enlightened. Like a sulky teenager, I tend to react badly to what everyone else says or does. I’m likely to do the opposite, even when it shoots me in the foot. This time, though, I just have to ignore the commodification of an idea and focus on what it really means.

The practice is this: state exactly what you are doing in the present moment (Bernhard credits Byron Katie with this practice). As a writer, I find this interesting and sometimes amusing to do. Woman standing at sink, washing dishes. Person raking leaves. I like the paucity of words, the practice of narrowing the world down to subjects and verbs – seeing the world as it is actually happening, where nothing is before and nothing after. People easily say be present, but this is a practice that requires mechanics. Same goes for meditation. You need the mechanics to start you down the path. Focus on your breath. State what is happening.

38746152I started reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights yesterday. It reminds me that every single moment is filled with life – that there is beauty and curiosity wherever you are, but you have to be there, really there to notice it. I watched as my daughter slid in and out of the PET scan machine. She was swathed in a white blanket and my mind shot back to her crib nearly 14 years ago. I looked down at her round, rosy-cheeked face, her brilliant blue eyes, and her dark, spiky hair. At that moment, I wasn’t seeing radiation warning signs or hearing the beeping of machines. But that memory came with a terrible longing and I could feel the tears well up. It was bad time travel. Woman watching over daughter. Then, but more importantly, now.

So I practice. I practice reminding myself of what is. I practice deep breathing. I try not to be so cruel to myself. I write here, because it is my duct-taped practice of Buddhist Tonglen – giving or sending, receiving or taking. When I say the hard parts out loud, I feel the suffering recede. I see that we do our best, all of us. I see that there is beauty to be found in this very moment, in you, in me, in the world. We just have to open our eyes to what is in front of us.