The Green Study on Spring Break

I started writing a blog post called “What’s Keeping Me Awake, Pt. 2” to follow on the heels of a post about a sleepless night. Last night (since it’s 3 am already), I tossed and turned listening for our sick kitty. The vet is coming today to end our tortoiseshell’s long battle with kidney disease. It’s the first time we’ve been able to say good-bye to a pet at home, but the time between scheduling the appointment and the actual appointment is a vast space. It’s been such a long, sad winter in our home and I’ve had enough of it.

The Green Study will return on April 1, 2019.

canstockphoto1508295Instead of writing what would be a continuing narrative of unhappy posts about dead relatives, dying kitties, and a middle-aged lady’s health anxieties, I’m going to take a break, let things settle a bit, get through today, get through medical testing in the next couple of weeks, get through the last dregs of winter. There is so much immediacy in my life that I’m writing without circumspection and that feels like showing first drafts to my mother. I adore the editor within, but right now she’s too busy googling medical scenarios, feline and human alike, to be of much use.

Since this post will be up for a couple of weeks, I don’t want to leave on such a melancholy note. My aching gratitude for the humans and pets with whom I’ve shared a life is in the form of grief right now, but like the spring that reveals bright green shoots on the trees, it will give way to hopefulness and warm memories. And perhaps writing which will honor those lost during this long-enduring winter.

Until then, I leave behind a smattering of unrelated thoughts.

Media Diet

I’ve been off Twitter for a couple of weeks now and ended some video streaming services. The math of doing fewer enervating activities adds up. I feel better and I’m more focused. I hit a couple of main news sources in the morning and at night and leave the punditry and digital sophistry to others. You never know what you don’t need until you stop using it like you need it. That should be profound, but it just sounds like a bad sentence. My editor is completely checked out.

On the Reading Docket

78223I’m nearly through a 900 page lit course called The Art of the Short Story. To sum it up, with Flaubert everyone dies, Flannery O’Connor hates humans (not a single likable character), Poe likes convoluted sentences, and the 1800s killed writers at a young age. I learned more than that, while also becoming suspicious of the idea that good literature has to be realistic and miserable. After I get through the stories by Welty, Wharton, and Woolf, I’m going to read some lighter fare – Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warnings and Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas. Well, lighter than Faulkner and Oates, anyway.

This week I revisited W.S. Merwin’s work The Shadow of Sirius. Merwin, an American poet, passed away a few days ago. There is something striking about the passing of what I call the “gentle poets”. Mary Oliver died earlier this year. It takes a moment to adjust to the quiet pace and the light maneuvering of language. We have become so battered against the rocks of cruel and incurious public discourse that first reactions to gentle poetry is a snickering cynicism – as if nothing matters over 280 characters or 20 second sound bites. To read poetry is a deliberate return to tenderness, a rebuke to the world too enamored of its own edginess.

To the New Year

By W. S. Merwin

With what stillness at last

you appear in the valley

your first sunlight reaching down

to touch the tips of a few

high leaves that do not stir

as though they had not noticed

and did not know you at all

then the voice of a dove calls

from far away in itself

to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you

here and now whether or not

anyone hears it this is

where we have come with our age

our knowledge such as it is

and our hopes such as they are

invisible before us

untouched and still possible

               *****
The New New Year

canstockphoto9109848.jpgConsidering how the year started and how it is currently proceeding, I’m all for resetting the holiday to align with spring. What did that old Roman god Janus know about the long Minnesota winter, when looking forward and back is just more snow? Spring is when energy rebounds, optimism in the form of daffodils and tulips arise and large rabbits deliver chicken eggs. Humans are weird. This particular human needs a reset on the year. Until that happens, I’m off to get myself sorted.

See You in the New Year!

 

Clearing the Deck

This morning I got around to writing my last holiday card. Many people will be surprised to receive anything from me. I’m pretty hit-and-miss with correspondence around this time of year. I’m ridiculously insistent on writing personal notes, so sometimes I can’t even get started, since the task seems daunting. This year, though, has been more contemplative in nature. I took the time to do it. I’m ending the year on a good note, so that I can begin the next with an empty slate. No odds and ends left undone.

canstockphoto58759250I wrote up my work plan for 2019 yesterday, but I’ve been churning things over in my brain for the last month. I rearranged my study, got a new rug to spruce things up. Cleaned up my computer and did back ups. I now have a work calendar separate from my duties as mom, spouse, and household maintainer. For weeks, I’ve been listening to motivational books, thinking through my daily routines, writing lists, and basically getting my shit together.

It’s been the undercurrent to an uneven season of grieving the loss of my mother-in-law and holiday rituals. For the last year, our family has been in a holding pattern, where death seemed imminent, but not quite possible. And then it happens and it feels like a surprise. But the surprise is not just in the absence of the person, but the absence of the routine built around the person. Life collapses inward a bit.

The shift in time and energy, being snapped awake by a reminder of impermanence, the new year on the horizon – all these things have propelled me forward. I have to live my days differently. I’ve been practicing a long time, trying on and discarding habits that work or don’t work. I’ve been making my life more about writing than laundry. I’ve reached out and connected with other writers. The time for practice is over. Batter up!

canstockphoto3020214That isn’t to say that I won’t have to make some adjustments to my grand plan. Some things will still be untenable, no matter how good it looks on paper. My schedule and work plan are written in pencil for a reason. I think it’s going to be a slog, to shift into a writing work schedule from just “writing when I feel like it”. Moods tend to be a bad barometer for productivity, so my goal is to work anyway. Hello Excuse. I see you. Now go sit in the corner while I work.

So I prepare for the new year not with a burst of unrealistic goals, but with a sense of determination and an understanding that it will likely suck for awhile – the discomfort, the tension and pull of old habits, the voices in my head that tell me I’m ridiculous or untalented or incapable. Change is difficult, even changes that are simply a shift one way or another. What I do know is that this time next year, I want to have a different story to tell.

What do you want your story to be in 2019?

Some resources that give me a mental boost:

Books

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro

I just started reading this book and had trouble putting it down. Compelling narrative, but also some immediate great lessons about being a writer. I’m going to have to take notes.

This Year I Will…: How to Finally Change a Habit, Keep a Resolution or Make a Dream Come True  by M.J. Ryan

This isn’t a magic pill, but she draws from a lot of useful sources and I enjoyed listening to the audiobook.

Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold

I’ve recommended this one before. Important because she writes about how to create a workable goal for yourself and what that process entails.

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey

Sometimes I just read things like this for reinforcement of what I already know. Occasionally there’s a tidbit that sticks and I add it to my own personal motivations.

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

The audiobook is great for those who love classical music, as it breaks each chapter with music. But there were a lot of ideas that I wanted to write down, so I bought the book as well.

Videos

The Power of Vulnerability” by Brené Brown

Hillary Rettig on “Overcoming Procrastination and Perfectionism

Inside the mind of a master procrastinator” by Tim Urban

Podcasts

The Good Life Project with Host Jonathan Fields

The Life Coach School with Host Brooke Castillo

2016: Year of the Ambivalent Blogger

canstockphoto32948297New Year’s Eve came and went with a snore.  A literal snore, as I tucked in at 9pm. New Year’s Eve used to be this time of unfettered optimism and limitless booze, followed closely by regret and a massive hangover. In earlier years, I met and lost boyfriends, babbled incoherently to the police, best-friended DJs and insulted strangers. In my thirties, it was couples parties and babysitters and wine/cheese tastings (never seemed to find the cheese). In my forties, it’s been going to bed when I’m tired and not giving a shit what day it is.

canstockphoto11441269So, hello in 2016. I was up at my usual 4am, delighted by the territorial hooting of great horned owls outside my window. December was a good month. I didn’t write or blog. I cut back on my consumerism (Amazon stock took a dip – coincidence?). I gave what I could, when I could. I didn’t send out holiday cards. My husband took a couple weeks off of work and my daughter was out of school. We did nothing. And it has been wonderful.

As I enter my 5th year of blogging, I did a little re-reading of past posts. This blog has, in some ways, served as a journal about the ups and downs of working towards personal goals. The hardest thing to accept is that I move at a glacial pace in terms of development. There is movement, but it is only discernible over a long span of time. Perhaps this is what I fear most about death – that I’ll be too slow to accomplish the things I would like to and it will be too late.

I remember the impatience I felt in my teens and twenties. It made every failure seem so important and they were important, but not for the reason I believed them to be. Every failure counted towards a bigger picture – it was a step in a marathon, not a loss in a sprint. It was building a reserve of resiliency so that I could make it in the long run.

canstockphoto7381049So here I am at the 20th mile mark. Offhandedly I tell myself that I feel the same as I ever have, only that I go to bed earlier. But it’s not true. I’ve run the race, I’ve overcome injury and setbacks and found a 2nd, 3rd and 40th wind. I’m still here. I still feel optimism. I still hope that I’ll become a published writer, that I will continue my pursuit of knowledge, that I’ll look as strong as I feel, that my heart can open a little more.

For years, I’ve read blogs on a wide range of subjects. I’m feeling some fatigue from the high levels of outrage, the sociopath comments, the irredeemably cheery memes, the stranglehold of nostalgia, and the momentary obsession with shiny new objects. I’ve resisted Facebook or Twitter, because I am uncomfortable with its carelessness and ubiquity. Mind control doesn’t seem like science fiction when you’ve seen the same posting or meme in a hundred different places. Olympic bandwagon jumping. No one gets the gold, but everyone gets a Wheaties cover.

This is all to say that, as I have many times in the past, I am questioning the veracity of writing online. I don’t know if it detracts from or adds to my attitude, outlook or development as a writer. And if it no longer serves that purpose, then why do it? If it is just a way for me to procrastinate, instead of writing things that can be submitted for publication, then shouldn’t I quit?

canstockphoto4962137In the last year, this blog has gained a lot of readers – and lost a few as well. The numbers at year end rattled me. It seemed like a lot of visits and readers, many gained through a single post and social media sharing of that post. I’m not going to write that post again and it is obvious to me that it was a peak point for this blog. It’s the child star syndrome and I’m just two shakes away from rehab and a prison stint.

This is a bit of a grim opener for the year, I suppose. A new year always begs the question how did I spend my time last year and how do I intend to spend it this year? In the absence of a clear answer, I look to the reasons why I like blogging – meeting other writers, sharing a laugh, connecting with people around the world and reading things that teach me or piss me off, but make me think. Knowing that what I do here really doesn’t matter, yet knowing that if I spend time doing it, it needs to matter to me, is a delicate balance.

Clearly, I think things to death.

But if you’re a longtime reader, you know that. If you’re just joining the conversations here, be warned. Of long-winded diatribes about bad gift-giving and road rage and comfortable socks. Of angsty essays on writing or not writing. On middle-aged whining and childhood misery recollection. Of awkward interactions with other humans. Of things I’ve said a thousand times before, but can’t remember that I wrote about already. Oh, and the profanity and lack of perkiness and disinterest in being hugged, virtual or otherwise. I’m a shitstorm of contradiction and depressive tendencies, highbrow intellectualism wrapped up in perverse, lowbrow humor.

But I’m still here. And I hope you are, too. Let’s see if we can’t enjoy the ride.

Administrative Note: Thank you to readers who stopped by in December and commented on various posts or emailed me via the Contact page. I will be responding to your comments and emails over the next few days.

Scrooge in 2015: The Everyday Path to Redemption

I sat incanstockphoto0044344 the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis last week, self-consciously wiping the tears off my face. It doesn’t matter if it’s the 1951 version with Alistair Sim or the 1992 Muppet version or a live version on stage, A Christmas Carol always has me sniffling by the time the third spirit arrives. I know what is coming. The break of day and redemption.

This idea of redemption, not in an afterlife or by last minute acts of desperation, but in the present, is such a beautiful, gut-wrenching concept to me. And I don’t think a supernatural fright is necessary to experience it.

Most of us have not committed egregious, prosecutable crimes. For those who have, I leave it to their victims to offer redemption. Most of us are petty criminals – innocuous in our envy, silently savoring our pride or our appearance, holding petty grudges or being snarky. I do something nearly daily that in hindsight I am embarrassed or ashamed about, whether it be an act or a thought. The nature of being human means that some of our layers aren’t things we’d want others to witness.

Perhaps, too, the redemption I learned about in church is something too ephemeral and distant to mean much. So often it seems that people use religious concepts of redemption as a way of excusing behavior they’ve made no attempt to modify or for which they feel no remorse. Real redemption lies in making amends and then making different choices. It requires that introspection which differentiates us as humans – our willingness to recognize our flaws and our ability to learn to do things differently, to be different.

As a writer, this has always been something that niggles at my little gray cells. I like happy endings in stories. I like it when characters make different choices that lead them on an upward trajectory. I like to believe the most seemingly irredeemable humans find their way into the light. This is why I’ve not enjoyed the latest trend of fictional protagonists as antiheroes – those who are repugnant in their choices and never find a redemptive path. I don’t see the point of elucidating these characters if they are going to continue making the same kinds of choices with inevitably worsening consequences.

Culturally, the antihero seems to dominate public attention. Heroes and heroines are eventually tarnished. Moral rectitude is replaced by expediency and attention-seeking stunts. The myths of goodness in the public sphere are like bad alibis – easy to poke holes in, unable to withstand scrutiny. True heroes and heroines are going about their work, sometimes unregarded and unnoticed, but staying the course. And every day, they are still learning and seeking redemption by choosing in those singular moments to be better than what they might otherwise be.

canstockphoto13945863This is the true beauty of redemption – each moment is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to scrutinize the uglier bits of our personalities and decide to be better. It’s a chance to look at whatever prejudicial beliefs that have permeated our cells and decide to be smarter. It’s a chance to be a better friend or parent or student or employee. It’s an opportunity to say sorry and mean it. Each day, we are presented with small choices and interactions in which we can redeem ourselves. We can be just a little bit better than what our nature dictates. I think that is a miracle unto itself – no spirits required.

 “Many laughed to see this alteration in him, but he let them laugh and little heeded them, for he knew that no good thing in this world ever happened, at which some did not have their fill of laughter. His own heart laughed and that was quite enough for him. And it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843

May your 2015 be filled with redemptive moments and joy – keep it well!

 

Currently trying to redeem my brain cells with these books:

On Human Nature by Edward O. Wilson

The Moral Imagination by Gertrude Himmelfarb

Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry