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.

Ordinary, Extraordinary People

canstockphoto12816975She was optimistic, energetic, earnest and animated. Decision time. Do I say something funny, but sarcastic and possibly mean? Later, as I listened to her art presentation to a class of engaged elementary kids, something in me shifted slightly. My envy and inferiority and smugness dissipated and in its place, distilled and unfamiliar, was admiration. She was extraordinary and I had something to learn.

It is a hard won battle with myself, to see outwardly optimistic people without the lens of cynicism. Something sadistic in me wants to cut them down to size, wants to make them see reality, wants to make them realize that life is hard and not particularly sunny and why the hell are they always freaking smiling? I want them to be real, failing to remember that their real and my real are two entirely different animals.

Why this necessity to force someone to view the world as I do? Am I so uncomfortable with myself that I irrationally need to create a mini-me, in order to feel like I belong? Are outwardly happy people such an anathema to me that I must right the situation?

I ask this question more frequently of myself than I ever did before.  Since having a child, I regularly cross paths with other people who raise, teach or care for children. These are often soft-spoken, patient, gentle people who get down on the floor and play. They smile a lot. They shrug off temper tantrums and seem interested when a child tells their never-ending story in gasping breaths.

I’ll be the first to admit that I often feel uncomfortable around children. I was the person who never wanted to hold other people’s babies because the child would sense imminent danger and in a wail, shriek out “Baby-dropper, baby dropper!” You would have heard it, if you spoke baby. Now, in case you wondered, I managed to get my baby upright and independently walking without actually dropping her on her head. Although after one 6 hour crying jag (hers and eventually mine), I was sorely tempted.

The down side to being assertive and intense and introverted is that my people skills border on misanthropic. I’m uncomfortable with how uncomfortable I am. I’ve read that one of the guidelines to success (and I assume that purveyors of these guidelines mean happiness) is to surround yourself with the people who have qualities you aspire to possessing as well.

Here’s the beautiful thing about kids and people who work well with kids. They don’t care if you’re a misanthropic, awkward adult. They are so damned happy you are there and involved, that they laugh along with your wry commentary. They seem delighted to see you. Every damned time. When I visit a classroom, I’m popular. Not through my dour personality, but because I’m there. I have days when it nearly brings me to tears. How would life be, if every time you walked into a room, you were flocked to and welcomed? It’s a marvelous, heady feeling.

Connecting with optimistic people has not been deliberate on my part, but my dark subconscious mind must understand how badly I need to be engulfed by light. I am surrounded by people who lift me up and it astonishes me  – and I suspect, saves me from disappearing into the shadows.

What You Call Yourself When No One’s Listening

I’ve finally recovered from an injury called “turf toe”, a common injury for athletes who quickly change directions, jump and push off of rigid surfaces, like football players and martial artists.  I did it while sparring in taekwondo with a large and formidable opponent, an unmoving wall of Axe deodorant and teenage defiance.

Thinking of myself as an athlete feels only slightly less pretentious than calling myself a writer. If who we are is what we do, then perhaps both appellations apply, but sketchily. I’ve only begun to get a little more comfortable with writer, since it is so often interrupted by other titles: chauffeur, accountant, nurse, volunteer and the “what’s for lunch?” lady.

It is human nature to label and compartmentalize – especially one’s self.  Enlightened and self-actualized people may live as an integrated whole and never question themselves by label. I am not far enough along the path of enlightenment, having made several picnic and rest stops along the way at Self-destruction, Laziness and Apathy (there’s a lot of people parking at that stop).

Beyond the labeling of occupations and hobbies, we also have a more adjectival way of naming ourselves. Negative labels that come and settle in as we’re growing up, or during times when we are vulnerable to unkind messages – as children, after a relationship breaks up, a job ends, lapses in self-esteem. For many years, the negative tapes in my head (I know, I’m dating myself – maybe yours is a data chip) would play in a loop.

The most effective tool I’ve ever learned was in a parenting book and it’s a cliché: Characterize the behavior, not the person. We don’t just need to do this with children, but with ourselves. I started to pay attention to what I called things. When I dropped something, I was clumsy. When I gained a couple of pounds, I was a gi-normous whale. When I forgot to do something, I was an absentminded jerk. We wouldn’t do this to someone we cared about – could you imagine calling a friend a clumsy, fat jerk?

I was taking a universal approach to negative or even neutral occurrences that did not apply to me as a whole person. I had to unlearn that behavior. Kids must learn that failure and mistakes are not what defines a person, but how they react to those errors does. It’s a skill that impacts our entire lives.

How many adults do you know that don’t have that skill? They are unlucky or “shit magnets” and full of tales of injustices, transgressions and bitterness. They can’t let things go or move forward. They look older than they are – you want to find another water cooler, checkout lane or playground just to get away from them. If it’s exhausting to hear, imagine living it.

I came across Dr. Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. One of the labels I had heard applied to myself, and had internalized, was that I was a pessimist, so naturally this book title appealed to me.

It turns out that I was already doing many of the things that an optimist would do. People were characterizing my occasional very dry, dark sense of humor as pessimism, when it was an effective coping mechanism. I tend to get up pretty quickly when I’ve been knocked down, believing optimistically, like Scarlett O’Hara, that tomorrow’s another day.

So my friends, have a good Monday! Or maybe Tuesday. There’s always Wednesday…

What do you call yourself when no one’s listening?

Optimism: Delusion or a Force that Propels Us Forward?

I’ve been whining about being sick the last few weeks. Really, weeks – this is the flu bug that ate Detroit. It arrived on the heels of dutifully gotten flu shots, so I’m a little bitter about it. Today is my rally day. I was up half the night with a bronchial cough, my ears are ringing from cranial cavities of snot and I smell like Vicks Vapor Rub. But by golly, I’m going to get caught up on laundry and my NaNoWriMo novel and pirouette off into the sunset, flu bug soundly rousted.

People keep saying, “You need to rest. Stop breathing on me.” I’m two sneezes away from storing Kleenex under my bra strap, if I had the energy to put on a bra. Needless to say, it ain’t pretty in The Green Study today. But – there are signs of optimism everywhere. I cleaned off my desk last night, in preparation for the day. I started catching up on my blog reading this morning and opened all the shades to let sunlight in. There is a potential for a hot shower, although that might be putting the bar pretty high.

I am the master of optimistic expectations for myself and my time. Sometimes I wonder if this is a detriment to self-esteem, since 9 times out of 10, I do not fully meet my goals. On the other hand, if I set no goals at all, would anything ever get done? People wiser than I would point out that it doesn’t have to be “either/or”, but I’ve never been adept at the middle road. My natural inclination is one of extremes. Fortunately, maturity (exhaustion) has tempered my youthful optimism. Just a bit.

Setting realistic expectations is a skill I’ve yet to fully master. Right now, I make “to do” lists like I write. I spew out whatever is in my head and then do a machete edit, cutting back until I think I have something legible and/or achievable. On occasion, I just put stars by those items that must get done. It’s a system that combines force of habit with some sense of priorities, but ofttimes is still unrealistic.

“It is the formidable character of the species to routinely seek the improbable, the difficult, even the impossible, as a source of pleasure and self-justification. Who would try to write poems, or novels, or paint pictures unless he is an optimist?”
Lionel Tiger, Anthropologist

Today’s the day, though. I will conquer the world, get caught up, write a zillion words, fold mounds of laundry that smell a lot better than I. But first, I have something marked with a star on my list for today: *Get some rest. Stop breathing on people. This, I can do.

Do you set expectations for yourself and are they realistic? This curious and snot-filled mind would love to know.