What It All Comes Down To

I’ve been trying to find my way back to a state of reasoned calm, following the election and the current repetitive rhetoric still filling our airwaves. It doesn’t matter who is right or who is wrong, no one is listening.

canstockphoto177612Every time I get to a moment where I think, okay I’ve got this, I’ll catch the news that another member is being added to the billionaires’ club of the new administration. I hear that an education predator, one who has made gobs of money off the very system she has lobbied for, is going to impact the education my child will be receiving until she graduates, and it fills me with rage.

But I am beginning to return more quickly to center.

Nobody is listening and my words and rage are like so much flotsam on a vast ocean of noise.

canstockphoto158133What is becoming more clear is that the American public is, as it has always been, subject to the whims of the wealthy. It doesn’t matter who you voted for – you’re nothing but human capital. Liberal or conservative doesn’t matter. If you’re not a gazillionaire or have your own network show, you’re just peasant grist for the mill.

This notion is actually freeing in a way. If nothing I do matters, then I get to do what I want, feel how I want to feel, be who I want to be – all without a politician’s input or political labels. For some people, this means expanding – reaching out to others, committing to service, broadening horizons. To others, it means curling up in a tight ball, hanging with like-minded people, protecting oneself at all cost. We get to decide who we want to be. That’s a damned powerful choice to make.

I’ve read some posts and articles by many articulate and reasoned people. They argue opposite points and I think, well, that is something to think about. It made me realize that we can talk ourselves into anything. We can look past all kinds of flaws in reasoning and become so enamored of our own talking points as to sound like reflexive robots. We seek out confirmation bias for the pure pleasure of feeling self-righteous, comforted, and above all, right.

I’ve walked for miles this week. My knee injury is slow in healing and each step is focused on not slipping or stepping down too hard. But I’m moving forward with quiet concentration. Yesterday, I mapped out a four mile walk that included a stop at the library. The sun was out and the sidewalks were melted off, a lovely November surprise. I gingerly walked uneven pavement, stepping with a wince off curbs. Each step a measured choice.

Over the last year, I read a lot of comment sections on news sites and I realized that they actually made me more stupid. Comments are often not measured choices. I wondered how this affected my worldview – to constantly read angry, denigrating insults, regardless of political affiliation.

canstockphoto9209863Every article, no matter the topic, triggered a cavalcade of repetitive and childish squabbling. This article made me laugh, because the comment section was reflective of nearly every news comment section I’d ever read.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been bypassing comment sections and trying to stick with the news. It’s a challenge. Vitriol is addictive and even if it’s not you writing it, reading it is a hard habit to break. It feeds the little part of your brain that likes to feel amped – that burst of rage that lights you up and gets the adrenaline going. The primitive urges of modern life.

As I stripped away the filthy layers of this election season, I remembered that the same things that mattered most to me before, mattered most now. My family, learning, contributing positively to society, writing, friends, etc. While I was thinking about what matters, I tripped over a great new resource, the Action for Happiness website. Check out Action #30. I’m still digging in, but I like the positive vibes from the site – and lots of reminders that politics is only a fraction of life.

duffyprintHumor is also a much-needed palliative. I have a fondness for political cartoonists. When I was 16 and editor of the school paper, I went to the Iowa High School Press Association conference. I fangirled Brian Duffy, a political cartoonist from the Des Moines Register. Pigs featured prominently his cartoons, since much of Iowa life is focused on farm culture, so I had a very specific request in mind. He drew me a huge pig which hangs on the wall behind me and makes me smile to this day.

Here’s some cartoonists that have made me laugh lately:

  • Claytoonz     Syndicated Cartoonist Clay Jones. He’s a liberal after my own heart, so it might not be your jam. I enjoy learning about his thought process that goes into the work.
  • Tabula Candida  A historian who likes to doodle. I always feel just a little bit smarter if I get the joke.
  • Wrong Hands Cartoonist John Atkinson does a fantastic job combining history and literature with the idiosyncracies of modern life.

So what does this all come down to? It comes down to getting in touch with our own humanity and inner lives before pretending we’re ready to understand that of others. Casey Fleming at non(seculargirl) wrote a great post “Sermon for Self-Purification” that covers this exact point.

womaninnerlifeThe election results triggered a heavy duty depression in me, but it made me realize that the whole year has been a bit of a bust. There have been few highlights and brief glimpses of enthusiasm were easily squashed. It wasn’t only the election, it was that I had allowed my inner life to be eclipsed by things out of my control. No matter which wealthy bastard is in charge, nurturing our inner lives and deciding who we want to be, are really all we have.

In the Unlikely Event of My Happiness

canstockphoto21074062I’ve been freezing up at the keyboard. This last week freaked me out a bit. In the course of a week, my subscribed followers jumped by 1000+ readers, crossing over the 10,000 mark. The Likes on this Freshly Pressed post exceeded 1400. I answered 300+ comments.

I’d never experienced anything like this in the four years I’ve been blogging. I have to believe that it is because, for the first time ever on this blog, I used the word “clusterfuck”.

I’ve had the thought all week that okay, I’m done. Really, where do I go from here? Does this extra attention mean I need to change my blog theme, open a Twitter account, punch up my rhetoric, Instagram a boob selfie and find a picture from 20 years ago where I look less wrinkly and put it on the blog? What is expected of me now?

Panic. That’s what an introvert does when they get a little attention. The moment of glee morphed into dread over the week. Give me a moment of unmitigated joy and I’ll anxiously stomp on it before someone or something else does. Premeditated squashing.

This is how I move forward, never lingering too long, never resting on laurels, never asking for more. I think about happiness and what that might mean for me. I think about all the well-meaning advice of the attitude-of-gratitude-too-blessed-to-be-stressed crowd. I think, as I often have over the years, what is wrong with me?

canstockphoto15489769It’s easy to be a discontented, restless, and striving person in a world that feeds it. Consumerism is based on fomenting dissatisfaction, while memes of puppies, flowers and Buddhists exhort us to be happy in the moment. Meanwhile, Likes, Hits, Follows, Stars, Views, are all feeding the message that more is better. But more is just more.

When it comes to figuring out what makes a person happy, it gets weird. We are so often told what should/might/will likely make us happy that when it doesn’t, we’re left feeling that there is something wrong with us. I must remind myself what has, historically, been happy-making for me.

Solitude. I am often happiest as a party of one. It’s when I’m working in the garden, dirty from head to toe with sweat dripping into my eyes. Sitting back on my haunches, I notice the flurry of life around me, bees and butterflies and frantic squirrels – and I get to be right in the middle of it. Being part of something greater, I feel the privilege of being alive.

Love. Never one long for sentiment, I feel my attachments like ligaments to bone. A child who makes me see everything all over again. A man who baffles me with patience. Friends who have raucous laughs and who are, when I say “I need to be alone”, understanding, not bruised.

canstockphoto10265804A story. There’s that ending to a book, when I sit back and sigh. Marvelous. The writer was a magician performing sleight of hand. Who wouldn’t want that kind of skill – the ability to take a reader out of themselves?

Odd sources of happiness. I’m happiest when my desk is clean, when I’ve written something that makes me laugh, when I’m in the middle of a run, looking on the verge of a cardiac event, red-faced and dripping with sweat. There are extrinsic things that make me happy: coffee, when I make someone else laugh, live music, and being outdoors.

Like the ten pairs of glasses a middle-aged myopic owns, the things that make me happy have never been where I looked for them. It’s in the looking and striving that causes the disappointment and pain. In never expecting happiness as a given, I find myself constantly surprised.

I think of that unalienable right, in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, to the “pursuit of happiness”. Pursuit suggests a high speed chase, and less a saunter. If happiness requires a chase, it’s getting away. I stroll. I sit on park benches for long periods of time. And when a happy event runs me over, I have to sit with it for a long time to see that it’s a good thing.

In the end, I’ve realized that the things that make me happy will likely always make me happy, with an occasional addition, like my current addiction to burritos or meeting fellow writers.

When something happens, like a blog post exploding, I can marvel/freak out in the moment, but then it’s time to get back to being me, a bemused, caffeinated, and sardonic depressive who likes to write. Whee. Let the good times roll.

What makes you happy?

Making Life Changes: Some Imagination Required

You can’t do that. What about X, Y, Z? Remember when you tried that and how badly it turned out? Stop being so selfish. Think about your family. Why should you get to do that when everyone else is blah, blah, blahhing? What will so-and-so think? WHAT IF…?canstockphoto8669552

It’s been a year of transition for me. I am not a preternaturally happy person on the surface and the stress of making changes has made me a less-than-agreeable human to be around. But I’m having moments, glimpses of the lighthouse beacon of a nearing shore. I’m headed in the right direction.

Yesterday, I drove home from the post office after dropping off my packages for the holidays, and felt this odd sense of happiness. I’ve got the flu, I’m exhausted and truth be told, I’d rather run someone down with my car than have a conversation with them. But happy. What the hell?

Historically speaking, I’m the over-doer, the over-the-top gift-giving fool that alternately makes people loathe and love me. This year, I’m done with everything in record time. My list was shorter. I gave what I wanted and I’m spending my time more judiciously.

It was easy – why hadn’t I done it before? Well, I just hadn’t imagined it, this idea of just doing what I thought was important. The flu distilled things for me – I could only do what I deemed a priority, before collapsing into an unhappy pile of used tissue and Vicks Vapor Rub (I smell pretty!).

I’ve been thinking about change a lot lately. Change is hard. We are creatures of habit, of our own thought patterns, of our hardened paths of operation and survival. But we are also creatures of great imagination, the ability to choose, the ability to not live a rote life. It is our imagination that fuels change. If we can imagine a day in our own happiness, what would it look like?

Wcanstockphoto2148080hen I was in my 20s, my imagination was that of a world traveler. I would travel and drink native booze and cavort with the locals. It was very nonspecific. Apparently I was a gun runner, since there was no source of income in my imagination. And no STDs, because I imagined being very well-traveled. In reality, I worked in a bunch of menial jobs, halfheartedly got a college degree, dated unlikely partners and spent a lot of time running in place.

canstockphoto21767863In my 30s, my imagination seemed a murky stereotype. I got married and had a child. I lived, still live, in a suburb in a small ranch-style house that looks exactly like the other 20 houses on the street. It is a life I value and love, with a family that I’d never imagined I’d have. But occasionally, the Talking Heads will play in my mind…”how did I get here?”

canstockphoto21047372And then the 40s came, as did a constant sense that where I was at, was not where I belonged. Things started going a little sideways for me. I left a full-time job to be a stay-at-home loon. While working from home, I did all kinds of uncomfortable things – learned a martial art at 43, became an intense parent volunteer, learned yoga badly, took up painting, wrote a novel, learned some rock climbing (and panicked falling), gardened haphazardly. An all-over-the place dilettante, with a failing grade of Incomplete.

My writing impulses got stronger and more insistent. Sometimes, I’d think, well, if I don’t accomplish anything else, I guess I can say I’m a writer. I think I just heard the wail of a thousand dedicated writers. But it was a daydream to me. I’d always written, but it was mutated and unrecognizable – work emails, flyers, newsletters, personal correspondence. It was easier to imagine being a writer than, you know, actually writing like one.

canstockphoto18826089I began blogging nearly 3 years ago. The habit of writing, the interaction with other writers, the positive feedback (not always earned certainly, but encouraging) – it changed my imagination. I was writing regularly. I learned of NaNoWriMo, participated and wrote the first draft of a novel. My imagination expanded. Could I do more of this?

Vagueness, though, is hard to implement as a life choice. I could see the possibilities, but not how to get there. I began to think, “If I were a writer, what would my day be like? What are my priorities? How do I want to spend my time?”

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.                    Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (1989)

I’m in the specifics and logistics phase now, trying to carve new habits into my time. Each new imagining of what life could be like fuels one more decision to make it today. It is, for me, a slow and sometimes grinding process. Because change requires not only imagining how you spend your day, but imagining yourself differently. You have to block out old messages and tune into your own voice.

canstockphoto6423560It’s make-believe, a trip on the little red trolley. But it will, in the end, be the thing that gets you there. I am a writer. I value my family, my health, and learning. I spend my day living my values. Rinse and repeat.

This last week, for the first time ever in my life, I stuck to a daily writing schedule. It wasn’t like anything I had imagined. I was sick, coughing and sneezing and occasionally whining out loud to no one in particular. But there were moments when I was happier than I’ve been in years. Imagine that.

Unraveling: Fiction as Life and No, No NaNoNette

canstockphoto4401375I put my 5th grader on a school bus this week for the first time. It’s not much to parents who have been doing this since day one, but I worked from home for many years. I felt like taking her to school was an opportunity. I got to know other parents and the school environment. Some of our best mother-daughter talks happened in the car and I was loathe to give it up. But for the sake of her growing independence, give it up I did.

Six months ago, I quit working for the company I’d worked for off and on for 13 years and I stopped training in Taekwondo. A stress fracture ended running workouts four months ago. Two weeks ago, I stepped down as the president of the parent-teacher organization. This week I stopped driving my daughter to school. Today I’m stepping off the National Novel Writing Month ride.

A friend likened my experience to diagnosing food allergies. You delete all possible offending foods from your diet and slowly add them back in, one at a time, to see what causes a reaction. I’ve removed many defining features of my daily life. The parameters have expanded and the responsibility lies with me to shape my days.

All this effort to change my life is an effort to sit with emptiness. And there’s an echo now. Busy is no longer an adjective I can use. I believe living slowly is important. Sitting still has value. But I’m fighting years of indoctrination. You must be busy. You must be useful. You must not be seen to be a layabout. If you do something, go all the way. Work is purpose.

I’ve worked hard at everything my whole life. I never sat still for long. I am nothing without my effort, my discipline, my drive to do my best at anything. This is a blessing and a curse. It has made me a responsible, conscientious and reliable parent, employee, wife, daughter-in-law, volunteer and friend. It has also made me impatient, irritable, moody and fatigued.

My friends and family keep making sly asides. “You’ll fill up the time with something else.” I started NaNoWriMo thinking that, since I’d quit everything else, time was my oyster. It took me about a week to start resenting the pressure. I’ve hated every sentence and I am not enjoying this process. It became that something else to fill my time.

I’ve gone through my life to this point, like most people, rather haphazardly. I survived a rough and tumble childhood, joined the Army, went to college, got a degree and worked, worked, worked. Most big decisions got made with a youthful shoulder shrug. What have I got to lose? I moved, quit jobs, took up a variety of ill-thought out relationships, ran up bills, dug myself out of debt, married, had a child, tried new hobbies and interests.

It seems different now. I’m irrelevant to the young, a caregiver to the old. I’m wiser, but not inherently smarter. Life is swirling and changing around me, but I feel frozen to this moment, disconnected from the lives around me. As an older parent than most of my peers, my fears for my child are darker. I don’t care about what school she gets into, I just want her to live long enough to experience it. I want to live long enough to experience it.

I’ve been immersed in senior care issues all week and my shoulders and neck tighten at the thought that, if I am lucky, I will be there in the next few decades, hoping that my caregivers are kind and patient and that I won’t have to be afraid.

I am still working. My sandwich generation schtick puts me hollering at my daughter to get ready for school in the morning and helping my mother-in-law dress for her day after the bus leaves. Walking the line between burgeoning independence and regretful dependence, I feel like I’m in a canyon where my needs seem murky at best. Food and water and maybe a walk in the park is the best I can manage until I can get my head sorted.

As an adolescent, I lived in a gutted school bus for six months. You can imagine how very wealthy I feel now, living in my little suburban ranch house with a yard and a lovely family. This is how I feel about time, as I watch my daughter and mother-in-law grow older in tandem. I have the good fortune of being done with the awkward, sometimes painful lessons of youth and am healthy enough to still move on my own steam.

The fears I have now are the ones with which I sit in an increasingly empty room. I smile wryly at the thought that I’ve come round to full navel-gazing when that seems to be the cultural trend. Perhaps I’m more hip than I think. The recurring thought is washing over me: Don’t mess this up. Freedom of choice means the freedom to write a better story. Word count is irrelevant.

Hypnic Jerks: Not Just for Sleeping Anymore

Does it really matter? I blurted out this question in the middle of a school equity team meeting. We were discussing how teachers approached dress code issues and the usual example of saggy pants, underwear on display. The discussion was focused on how not to handle the situation punitively, but rather provide some guidance and instruction to the child to understand what was appropriate in the classroom.

This question about what matters has been cropping up repeatedly in my head. It’s not a flippant attitude – it’s an awakening. I thought getting a tattoo and quitting my job to pursue writing were the markers of middle age and time a-creeping away. But the red convertible is happening in my head. Trying to sort out what is worth spending my emotional and intellectual energy on is the greater challenge.

For much of the first half of my life, I have been disciplined, strict with my personal expectations and intensely goal-oriented, which often rolled into critical judgment of others. Conservative in my personal conduct, but growing increasingly liberal in my thinking, I wonder about the evolution we often see in humans throughout their lifetimes. This is the path – a shifting, winding path that one hopes is progressive and enlightening.

canstockphoto10767838I have dreams about mortality, waking up, afraid that I’ve wasted so much time doing very little. What neural pathways are now ruts? Can I change? What would I change? When will all that past emotional masochism, not to mention smoking and drinking, catch up to my body? I am not a nervous, anxious person as a matter of practice, but occasionally my mind goes into free fall. I catch myself, like that startling, semiconscious moment before sleep when you feel like you’re falling.

I’m experiencing a metaphorical hypnic jerk, startled by how many years have gone by, how long it has taken me to learn how to take care of myself, how to love others with my whole heart. It has taken me so much time to come to terms with the past and to learn to be present. And everything has to constantly be revisited in order to hold onto those lessons.

I’ve always had the sense that being a survivor was the holy grail, but I’ve been there, done that. It feels like greed to want more, to want to live a life not just in resistance to failure. A friend asked me why I felt like it was selfish to want to be happy. I don’t know what happiness looks like and what it would look like for me. Maybe it’s here and the skill I lack is being able to see that, without feeling like the other shoe is going to drop.

The motto repeated in my family was “Prepare for the worst, hope for the canstockphoto12691940best.” It sounds nice and pat, but it’s a dichotomous edict, to continually try to imagine the worst thing that could happen while remaining optimistic. I’ve often been called a pessimist, but I secretly (perhaps wrongly) believe that I’m an advanced optimist – I recognize the 15 million ways things can go haywire, but I’m always willing to try, to move forward, to apply myself.

I fear becoming rigid and brittle and hardhearted as I go through life. I see it in others. The fear of loss hardens their outer shell. They become less forgiving, less kind, less adaptable. They forget to question their beliefs and habits. Nothing new is allowed to enter. They live, but in a shrunken, isolated prison of their own design. The fragility of body accompanied by less and less neural plasticity.

canstockphoto7379441Epiphany is sometimes represented as a one-time fork in the road. But change is a choice that has to be made repeatedly and likely does not lie in picking a specific road, but in how one decides to travel. It’s hard to leave the preconceived notions and the well-trodden paths of the past. Each time I think I have a grasp on the journey, I get startled into some new awareness. I realize how little I know, how much there is to learn and how this anticipation of more knowledge is exactly what happiness looks like for me.

Feng Shui-ing Life: Making Room for Change

Last autumn, I had a clear vision of what my goals were, the path to get there and I was ready to leap. I was quitting my job, committing to writing, jumping into the unknown. Now, I must confess, it turned into more of a hop, maybe even just a slight skip.

Cut to a year later, I’m still working part-time, have only dabbled in my first novel’s rewrites, and seem to still run myself ragged until my eyeballs are on fire and I’m living on ibuprofen. Before you whip out your tiny violins, I know I am entirely responsible for where I’ve landed.

There are few times in my life where I thought Coward! I thrive on change and growth, except for this little itty-bitty monstrous part of my personality that thinks I must solve the problems of everyone around me. When I was preparing to leave my job last year, all I could think about was how difficult it would be for my employers to transition the multitude of tasks I’d taken over in the last decade.

Unlike Beyoncé, though, I’m replaceable and I finally gave notice this week. I had just found another excuse, among a minefield of excuses to not do what I needed to do. It’s an alien thought, that I should focus on doing things that make me happy and shed those that do not. So first world – who am I, Tony Robbins? Surely life should be filled with hardship and struggle and misery.

I come from a long line of self-destructive martyrs. In childhood, I learned to be empathic in the household of eggshells. What’s their mood? What can I do to make them happy? Are they okay? Anything to prevent the misery that would ensue if the scales tipped. The punishment, the yelling, the derisive commentary on my lack of…everything. It warped my ideas of what I needed to do to be happy – to feel, at my core, loved and accepted.

As an adult, I have successfully navigated many of the pitfalls associated with my upbringing. I realized that I had a compulsive personality early on, having run through booze, gambling, sex and smoking in rapid order in my 20s. I managed to break free of destructive relationships, got myself to therapy, met and married someone kind and even-tempered. And I’ve worked hard to be a good parent.canstockphoto10851004

The room that contains my life is cluttered, though. I’ve hoarded every negative comment, every false expectation, every circular thought process. They’re boxes, stacked haphazardly in a room that has a weird odor of stale cigarettes and day old burritos. I have spent years stepping around and over boxes, and lately squeezing between hoarded piles of self-doubt and self-loathing.

canstockphoto0404119When I’m in the middle of this room, I’m overwhelmed with no sense of direction. I’ve taken my sweet time to deal with it. I’ve tried not to pass along the hand-me-downs of shame and bitterness. I’ve archived the more self-destructive habits. I’ve shredded mental pictures of mistakes. But being a huge proponent of recycling, I’ve kept the circular thought processes and behavior patterns that inevitably lead me to exhaustion and depression.

It’s time for a clearing out. The Qi cannot flow. While time moves forward, I stay stuck in the middle of this emotional garage sale. I ache from the contortions I’ve taught myself, in order to move among the boxes, twisting and turning this way and that. I have a choice and I’ve been a coward not to make it. Change is hard, but the alternative, banging about in this crowded, musty room for the remainder of my life, seems untenable.

canstockphoto2167329Trying to move or change anything in a cluttered room is often a futile exercise. There’s no leeway to try different locations or angles. There’s no room to see what really fits. It’s just shifting the mess around. The ugly, unkind lamp is still cruel and dismissive. The old chair of regret still triggers painful memories. The box of unrealistic expectations still reeks of cat pee and disappointment.

I’m getting rid of a lot, while still retaining a huge trunk of fears. I tossed a patchwork throw of blind optimism over it. The room is opening up. It turns out, there’s a window. I might buy a plant to put in front of it. I think it would be very happy there.canstockphoto9242043