Tag Archives: Personal

The Churchless Sunday

canstockphoto1218783With the heated-up rhetoric about a war on religion, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ve kept my status as a non-believer on the down low. Most of the people I know are believers of one ilk or another. We’re polite with each other and very rarely does the issue of theology come up. We’re not in college anymore, so having deep conversations on the nature of the universe has been replaced by discussions about our crappy health insurance, should we be so lucky to have some.

Today my family did what it usually does. We went to visit my mother-in-law at her nursing home and then went out to lunch. We returned home ready to unwind. My husband took his Sunday siesta. My daughter played her viola in the garage. I went out and started working in the garden beds, which usually entails me staring at bugs and birds a lot. Tonight I’ll be reading, he’ll watch TV and she’ll be playing some more until I tell her to knock it off. It’s a simple, low drama, casual dress routine. I thought about how other people spent their Sundays.

Both my husband and I grew up attending church. He has fond memories and connections to his Lutheran church – a church attended by his neighbors with a strong Scandinavian bent to it. I grew up and was baptized in the Seventh Day Adventist church which at the time was pretty fundamentalist and in the 70s, literally preparing for the second coming.

canstockphoto42249646I attended church on Saturday with very strict rules about not working, not playing with friends, and not eating things with cloven feet. I memorized the Bible and did what I was told and believed everything that the pastor said. We were a poor family in a wealthy church. When we got scholarships to attend the private church school, my mother took us out of the school I’d been attending Kindergarten through 6th grade and stuck us in a school where girls couldn’t wear pants with pockets and rock and roll music was forbidden.

The next year we moved to a community with no Seventh Adventist church. That was the end of my churchgoing. It wasn’t the end of my belief system, but as I got older and read more and met more people, I knew that religion in and of itself did not provide the answers to many of my questions. Every few years I’d go through a church search, attending Catholic, Methodist, Universalist, Episcopalian and some church where I was creeped out because we had to hold hands in a circle in the park.

canstockphoto31872630Perhaps it was that I’d begun to read more history and took an interest in Eastern religions which seemed to have more wisdom and fewer rules. Or it could be that my introverted introspective nature began to dominate and anywhere people gathered was where I didn’t want to be. I decided that I didn’t know if there was a God, but since I didn’t know, I didn’t want to spend time trying to sort it out or hanging out with people who knew they were right and wanted to tell me how wrong I was.

Having a child returns the issue to the forefront. In respect to my husband’s beliefs, I told him he could take her to church if he wanted. But by the time she was old enough, something changed my mind and I think, his as well. She asked a lot of really good questions. She asked so many good questions that I couldn’t bring myself to lie about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.

This got her in a little trouble along the way. One of her friend’s parents called me. Your daughter told my child that I was lying to him about Santa Claus. I was mortified and secretly proud. I apologized and then talked to my daughter about how families have different belief systems and that we need to respect that.

It got me in trouble on the way, too. In parent education classes, when we talked about the holidays, one mother was horrified that I’d essentially ripped my daughter’s childhood out from under her. Never mind that we have lovely holidays with our own family traditions. And that her kids were constantly in meltdown/ sugar crash mode, while mine had a pleasant, consistent temperament. Yeah, I judge a little when attacked.

It hit me the other day that I’ve raised a skeptic with critical thinking skills. I don’t know how I feel about that. It sometimes gets suggested that nonbelievers of deities are lacking in beliefs in general. But we have some pretty strong beliefs and we’ve passed them onto her. Be kind and considerate. Be stewards of animals and the earth. Work hard. Appreciate your good fortunes. And believe nothing without verification from multiple sources. It’s no surprise that she wants to be a scientist (with a side job as a violist in a movie soundtrack orchestra).

canstockphoto3744371There is something to be said for the sacred and taking the time to honor being alive, being here with whatever patchwork of friends and family we have. There is something to be said for turning off and tuning out and slowing down and being grateful. Right now I’m sitting here and I can hear mowers and blowers and trimmers in our neighborhood and I think that maybe it’s a bit of a shame that not everyone has a quiet day. But it’s always an option, with or without our Sunday best.

How did you spend your Sunday?

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My Irrational Love of Running

I love to run. I wasn’t built for it – short, muscly, a little knock-kneed and uncoordinated. canstockphoto1568459I started to run in high school track. I was slow, but I could finish the race. I got put on the 3000 meter run, because regardless of placing, you’d get points for the team at a meet if you finished. During the track award dinner my senior year, the coach said “Michelle gets an A+ for effort”. At the time I thought it was damning and faint praise. Now I think it sounds like a pretty good gravestone epitaph.

One year we were challenged by our coach to run 100 miles over the course of the winter. He called it the Arctic 100 challenge. My brother and I were going through our Rocky phase, swallowing raw eggs and bouncing around like we were fighters and then we’d run through snow, slip sliding on icy small town sidewalks, the snot freezing inside our noses.

In the Army, I ran a lot of hills because I had to and the Presidio of Monterey was nothing but hills. I could finish. And I was still young enough that the late night binge-drinking and that early morning cigarette before P.T. didn’t incapacitate me.

Afterwards, in college, I lived in an apartment building surrounded by prefab condos and hills. I was trying to quit smoking for the 492nd time and decided to start a regular running program. The very first stretch of the run was a steep uphill jaunt. I was usually sucking wind by the time I got to the top, but I knew if I made that hill, the rest of the run would be okay.

canstockphoto20579326In my 40s, I started training in taekwondo. With a lot of heavy footwork and kicking, running had to take a backseat to the many injuries I was getting. My sparring partners tended to be teenage boys about a foot taller than me. I ended up with a black eye, turf toe, pulled muscles, wrecked quads. Running just made it worse, since I was using many of the same muscle groups.

My dojo (school) closed and I decided after four years of having the crap kicked out of me, I was done as well. To compensate, I took some circuit training classes, which included a lot of jumping and knee work, until I could barely step off curbs or go down stairs without stabbing pain. The injuries to both knees took months to recover and I was depressed about the idea that I might not be able to run again. Again, this caught me by surprise.

It strikes me as odd, this running thing. I’ve never been fast. I don’t look like a runner. I don’t even have any competitive ambition except against my last time or distance. I sweat like crazy, my face turns all red and at nearly 50, there are parts of my body moving independently of any muscle. Still, as soon as I felt ready, I started to run again.

Today I finished an 8 week 5K training program. I did my last run slowly, steadily, and strongly. I’m starting a 10K program next week. It makes no sense to me – this love that I have for something I’m so incredibly unsuited for – it has become this touchstone that I return to again and again.

Perhaps it is my unsuitability, my lack of speed or grace, my inability to wear stretchy, breathable running clothes with aplomb, the lack of competitive drive, that makes it all appealing to me. It does not require much from me except that I show up and that I keep going. Sometimes that seems like a pretty good metaphor for life.

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Is there something you love to do that makes no sense to you?

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The Things We Carry (and Must Learn to Leave Behind)

canstockphoto20086498In 1993, I dropped out of grad school after one miserable year. I was a failure, barely surviving academically, juggling three jobs, in over my head in so many ways. I make jokes about it, but when I pitched a nonfiction proposal to an agent last week, she asked about my education. I was truthful and while she was interested in my proposal, I could tell that I did not have a good “platform”.

For nonfiction proposals, agents and publishers want someone with a platform. A platform is the writer’s expertise, background, and being a known entity and expert in their field. I was a little proud that I could pitch an idea on the fly, except that it really wasn’t that spontaneous. And it was never my first intention.

While in grad school, I came across the published journal of a Russian woman who had disguised herself as a man and fought in the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. She was the first known female officer in the Russian military. She had a difficult upbringing. Her mother hated her and at one point, had tossed her out of a moving carriage. She survived, but from that point on, her mother had no part in her care.

The story appealed to me not only as a veteran, but also as someone who was engaged in an ongoing battle with her own mother. It found me at the right time and stayed with me. For nearly 25 years, I’ve kept notebooks, collected research materials, and always planned to write a historical novel someday. The agent pitch I did at the conference brought clarity to me. I didn’t have the chops or the credentials for writing nonfiction history.

I went to the library last night to work on a writing plan to follow up with various agents. While I’m still working on a novel, I thought I’d take a look online to see if there were any other research materials available for a fictional work on Nadezhda Durova. I sat back, stunned. An American writer had written and published a historical novel about her just six months ago.

Dreams, delusions, disenchantment. I’m quite adept at spinning my own story. A story I’ve carried with me all these years – of failure and struggle and the possibility of writing my way to redemption – a story of rationalizations and justifications. Of never fully feeling the pain of the moment in which I am told or learn, once again, that I’m not good enough. All these years, I’ve been disappointed in myself, maybe even a little ashamed. But I had a good idea and maybe that would redeem me.

canstockphoto9159128bI am always reminded of that line by The Talking Heads “How did I get here?” The tale of my academic life is one of happenstance. When I joined the Army at 17, being clueless and uninformed, I wanted to be a French linguist. I had four years of high school French and being a linguist sounded more enjoyable than company clerk or truck driver. The demand for French linguists in military intelligence was, of course, not particularly high. They needed Russian linguists. Okay then.

After spending a year in intensive Russian language training at the Defense Language Institute, I moved onto more training, a permanent duty station in Germany and when my four years was up, I gladly left. The shortest way to a degree meant taking Russian, because I was able to transfer a lot of Army credits. So there I was, on track for a degree in Russian studies. As far from parlez-ing as I could be. Even further from writing.

I finished a four year degree in a subject that had never been part of my “when I grow up…” narrative. With no clue as to next steps, I applied to grad school. In the English department. The admissions rate was about 7% at the time. Applying to a program tied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was like spitting in the wind. I didn’t get in, but I did get accepted into the Russian Department.

It took me a year to realize that I hated my life, hated school, hated getting up at 3:30am to do a janitor job, go to classes, put in my hours as a research and translation intern, and then head to my job at Target.

The final straw was after I had to do a presentation on Russian morphology. In Russian. canstockphoto8727525The professor pulled me aside at the end of class and said that he was going to do me a favor by giving me a B-, instead of the C that is considered failure in grad school. I was going through complete misery just to scrape by on someone’s favor. And paying thousands of dollars for the honor. Time to quit academia and start working fulltime.

The years that followed were progressive administrative jobs, still carrying my notebooks and research materials from Iowa to Minnesota, into a home I share now with my daughter and husband. Since focusing on writing the last few years, the possibility of writing that historical novel seemed closer than ever. Until last night and seeing that Linda Lafferty had written The Girl Who Fought Napoleon.

I didn’t feel crushed or disappointed. In some ways, it was liberating. Carrying that novel idea was more than just a writing project. It was justification for all that education in Russian language and history. It was redemption for having failed. It was a reason for having wasted so much time and money doing something for which I had little passion. Even the kernel of complicated mother-daughter relationships has dissolved in the face of relative peace I’ve made with my own mother over the years.

canstockphoto10806366Last night, I dreamed of getting divorced from someone other than my husband. I woke up feeling sad and disappointed and bemused. The person didn’t have a face that I recognized, but this morning I surmised his name was Failure. 25 years is a long time to carry shame and I think I’m ready to put it down. There are other stories to tell.

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The Eye (or Camera) of the Beholder

canstockphoto35817083A few weeks ago we visited the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum that had a night art installation by Bruce Munro – lots of light, a little weird music, and a great deal of walking. Throw in the S’more kits being sold around a fire and it was a lovely evening. We walked along dark pathways from sight to sight, under a clear, starry sky.

Light pollution often obscures the sky in our neighborhood, so I took the opportunity to point out some constellations to my daughter. We had to keep finding dark areas to stand in because beyond the actual Munro installations, people were walking around with their phones out, taking pictures of the art.

It’s in my nature to push back against cultural trends and this one, of taking pictures in a “Kilroy was here” sort of way sends my brain off into incoherent, spluttering rants. We noticed this as we traveled the west coast last year. We’d be standing in front of some sight, an animal at a zoo, a zen garden, a perfect view of the ocean and someone would walk up, take a picture , and walk away. I wanted to yell “Have the #$%@ experience – put your phone down!”

canstockphoto19466486Part of this is my particular way of taking in an experience. I can stand for an hour in one spot just watching waves, reading informational plaques and observing people coming and going. My family moves a little faster, so I’ve gotten in the habit of breaking off on my own, finding a bench or a space where no one else is and becoming a rock. Museums are a challenge. I find some work I like and I just want to sit there for a long while, so when I go, it’s more likely to be alone.

I have friends and family who seem nearly maniacal in their picture-taking. One relative has forever earned my enmity for snapping photos of me in the hospital after I had my daughter. I was in for a long stay due to a complicated delivery and having bad reactions to pain meds. After vomiting most of the day and being poked with needles (apparently I only have one workable, ever-elusive vein). Click. Click. My husband had to keep me from ripping out the tubes and strangling her.

A friend explained to me that taking photos was how she processed experiences. As a writer, this is an approach that I can understand. The world makes more sense to me through words than any other way. But there is a compulsiveness with cameras and I see it around me every time I go out in public.

It would seem that the primary purpose of taking a picture is to capture a memory, or at least the shadow of one, so that at a later point in time, one can be reminded of an experience. What if you didn’t actually have the experience? You were there, but not present. You saw something, but you really didn’t pay any attention to it. Then the picture becomes about something else entirely. Bragging rights, a need for validation (look at me, I do stuff and have been places) and the possibility of likes.

There is also the aspect of skill. Very few of my photos are particularly good. When we travel now, I buy postcards, appreciating that someone with more skill and better equipment has already gotten the job done.

canstockphoto40253681Standing on the hotel balcony in Fort Bragg, California looking out at the Pacific Ocean, I pulled out my binoculars and scanned the horizon. Spouts of water! I looked again – more spouting and then I started to see them, dark figures coming out of the water and then retreating. An unusual time of year, but we had lucked upon a pod of whales.

If I had taken pictures, they’d be little more than vague shots of a horizon. But at the very least I would look at them and remember the excitement of yelling for my husband and daughter to come and look. I would remember the chill air and the sound of the waves. I would remember watching until the sun went down and then early in the morning, searching the horizon and finding the pod again, only a little farther north. The thrill of discovery and the awe of nature.

Many years ago we made a 13 state road trip out to the Grand Canyon and back. We saw and did a lot. While staying in Flagstaff, we drove out to Sunset Crater and did some hiking. It was a beautiful day and we hiked through the remains of craters, on paths of hardened lava, passing by a cornucopia of wildflowers and plant life. It was a really good day. I have a couple of pictures, but I have even better memories.

A day later we took a bus tour to the Grand Canyon, since we didn’t have much time before we had to head back to Mcanstockphoto3482788innesota. It ended up being a stop, take photos, get back on a bus. I have some photos and very few memories. Absolute worst way to see anything. My daughter, who was seven at the time, remembers Sunset Crater and getting to eat sugary cereal at the hotel. No memory of the Grand Canyon whatsoever.

To me, it says a little about how our brains work. When we integrate and absorb and move in the places we visit, pictures are just tickler files for memories. But it’s gotten to the point where the act of taking the picture is the memory and has nothing to do with content or context.

canstockphoto10299946I know there is no point in railing against this cultural idiosyncrasy. It’s here to stay. I just wonder how it impacts our ability to process the fully dimensional world and what that means for the human brain. My experience tells me that nothing conveys a moment better than a memory absorbed and breathed and lived.

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What It Comes Down To: The Pitch Conference After Action Report

canstockphoto411034For months, I’ve been eating, dreaming, walking through this pitch conference. I’d never been to a writing conference of any sort, and have long eschewed workshops and book clubs, and lived in my make-believe land of being a writer. This is the first concrete step I’d ever taken to make it real. And it was a great step. That I’ll likely never do again.

There are writers who remain oblivious to the market, to the numbers, to the sheer complexity and enormity of their dreams. They constantly send out work and occasionally hit their mark. There are writers like me who are painfully aware of the odds, see the enormity of the task before them and tell themselves someday. When I am ready. When I have time.

So here I am, almost 50 years old, trying to launch a writing career. I laugh using the word “launch”. More like a slow crawl, an inch worm’s speed. Talk to any writer who seems to be an overnight success and odds are, they’ve been doing a slow crawl for years. No one saw them, no one lauded their work, no one sharpened their pencils or handed them a guide.

Parts of the conference were the expected breakout sessions on querying and selling, but what most people came for was the golden ticket of being able to meet with three literary agents and/or editors for 8 minutes each to pitch their work. I researched and submitted my preferences in advance and ended up with two I’d requested and a last minute replacement I knew would not be a fit.

I wrote 50+ pitches in advance, talked to friends about the book, read all the advice articles on pitching, bought a suit and showed up on time. I came away with two requests for partials (10-50 first pages) and a full manuscript request. When I saw who my replacement agent would be, I did a nonfiction book proposal on the fly and she said they’d be interested in seeing my full proposal.

This was an optimum outcome for me. But what does it really mean?

It means that I know how to talk under pressure. Yay me. The last workshop I sat in for the day was about debut mistakes. Two local, established writers talked about their experiences and took questions. A moment of clarity hit me. I’m done being at a conference. These people had been working their asses off for years – around marriages, divorces, children, jobs, setbacks and personal demons. But what mattered to the writing was the writing.

This weekend was an important reminder to me. I can talk knowledgeably about the market and publishing of books. I could even become a writing advice blogger. I can pitch the hell out of my work. But it’s all bullshit. And manure only has value and meaning if there is something to nourish and nurture. I got caught up in the dressing, while the body was being neglected.

So, it’s back to work – reading, writing, editing, revising. It’s nice to know I have some people who’d be interested in seeing my work, but that was always the case – if the work was good. So back to making it as good as it can be.

 

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An Introvert Walks into a Conference…

canstockphoto3908268I’m in a hotel room in downtown Minneapolis, wrung out and exhausted from smiling and talking about my novel with other writers. My hobnobbing and pitching at a writer’s conference garnered two requests for pages from lit agents. I’ve already called and texted friends and family to squee about it. But as usual, the exhilaration has melted away into the realization that I will have to work harder than I ever have at digging in and writing. I do not spend a long time in joyland. The water’s too warm.

The woman who met with the same lit agent in the time slot before me, passes me in the hallway, eyes downcast. She told me about her book beforehand and despite the fact that it wasn’t my cup of tea, I could see her light up when I asked about it. That’s writing for you – guts, out on the table for everyone to see.

While waiting to go in to meet with another lit agent, the woman behind me complimented

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Looking for some fashion sense, obviously.

my suit. I had felt, to that point, like an idiot. I went with a black business suit, like out of a stock photo from a 1990s corporation. Most others looked like what I imagine writers to look like – all Bohemian scarves and elbow patches. I looked like I was interviewing at an accounting firm. Still, it was kind of her to give me that little boost before my pitch session and it made me think about the fact that I’m not kind like that.

People talk about supportive communities and I fail miserably when it comes to the little compliments that boost. I’m so in my head just trying to cope with being surrounded by people, that I miss those opportunities. I’m a compliment blurter, which means I’m usually interrupting someone so I can get it out there. Better than none at all, I suppose.

Right now, I’m hiding in my hotel room writing. Other writers have found compatriots and are off to restaurants and bars. Some are even rubbing elbows with agents and editors. I’m eating leftover chips from lunch and have started the coffee maker. I thought I’d find a sense of camaraderie here and instead, it made me realize how long I’ve worked on my own and how I’ll always need an out and I can’t decide if I’m sad or just resigned about it.

canstockphoto89044This is me.  Following happy news with a chaser of Michelle. I came back to the room, threw on a t-shirt and sweats, started writing lists, checking agent name spellings, taking notes on everything I was asked to do. Pulled out my calendar, looked at time frames and figured what I needed to get done and when. Time to go to the evening event. I’ll put on that suit again and find a chair near the door.

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Leaning into the Fraudian Complex

canstockphoto17112100I’m a writer.

I speak several languages.

I am fit and active.

I love my family.

I believe love is the right choice.

But, but, but…

What about the fact that I’m none of these things consistently or expertly?

What about the fact that I don’t spend each and every day honing my writer’s craft? And that despite working on a novel, 80% of my reading is nonfiction?

What about the fact that if you ask me any question in the languages I know well on paper, I’ll have a blank look on my face?

What about the fact that I don’t look like an athlete? Or that I eat enough for four athletes…of the Sumo kind?

What about the fact that on Monday morning, I’m glad to see my family out the door?

And for all the love I purport to feel, to advocate for, why am I repeatedly calling fellow humans jackwads and dipshits while driving?

*****

I had the good fortune of hearing the author Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge, 2009 Pulitzer Prize), give a lecture last week. She talked about the value of fiction and why it’s important to readers. She spoke about how fiction gets to the truth of characters and in turn, to the truth of ourselves. I took notes and all I could think was – as a writer, I’m a complete and utter fraud. This is a bad thought to have a week before I’m scheduled to pitch my novel to three literary agents. But it’s bad in a way I have learned to value.

*****

When I started tutoring English learners, one of the students asked me in front of the class what languages I spoke. Ever eager to sound like I knew something of value, I muttered “I speak a little Spanish, German, French and Russian.”

It was, to my knowledge, true – if you wanted me to count to 10, list the colors of the rainbow or ask you where the bus station was. I’m proficient in asking for another beer in German or talking about military tank positions in Russian. I can accurately describe cows or the children at the swimming pool in French. In Spanish, I have a terrific food vocabulary, because Mexican food is the bomb.

So, in the back of my head, I really felt like I was telling a lie, even if I’d get off on a technicality. Lies bother me. Especially my own. I intone Jean-Luc Picard in my head Make it real. Since starting tutoring a few months ago, I’ve been relearning or building up languages. I start off every day on DuoLingo. It takes canstockphoto993916me about 20 minutes, but in the last two months, my language skills have improved exponentially. I started enjoying it so much that I’m ramping things up a bit with workbooks and online websites in those languages. I frequently wander the house repeating nonsensical phrases, sometimes mangling all four languages in the same sentence. International incident, here I come.

*****

I have never in my life looked like an athlete. I’m solid, but short and round. All my life I’ve been fairly active. I look in the mirror and it never reflects back at me who I think I am. This disconnect between how I feel and how I look frustrates me to no end. Years of martial arts, running, tromping around in combat boots hauling packs, endless numbers of push-ups, weight training, and in the end, I still look like a disheveled hausfrau. This time my body is a reflection of the lie.

canstockphoto2201991I’ve only ever dealt with half the equation – exercise. The reality is that I eat like a horse. A horse who could eat its own body weight in mashed potatoes. I eat well – really, really well. From my twenties on, I’ve resisted dieting, mostly to my benefit. But as my income grew, so did my access to all the foods I loved – foods that I didn’t get growing up and foods that I generally couldn’t afford or have access to during my Army and college years. Simple foods, even some that are quite healthy, I eat in large quantity.

My truth is that if I want the outside to truly reflect how hard I work, how much training I’ve done, I have to come to terms with the mentality I have, that whatever is in front of me now might be gone tomorrow, so I better get while the gettin’s good. I went through an absolute culling of personal belongings and clothing over the winter and found the same mentality at work. If I liked something, I bought two or got all the colors, because tomorrow it might be gone.

I want the reflection in the mirror to look like how I feel inside. I want to make it real. So I’ve begun doing that most mundane of dieting tasks – tracking calories and setting a target goal that I get all my servings of fruits and veggies. I just started Week 6 of an 8 week 5K training program. I’m starting to see results. My humble brag is less about the particular goals than it is about the fact that the lie had become untenable for me to sustain. It has simply become easier to make a lie the truth, than deal with the angst of wishing it to be so.

*****

Elizabeth Strout said it’s the job of the writer to be bring honesty to the reader, because it helps us get in touch with our own truths. That’s been rolling around in my head the last few days. My own truth is that despite all my experiences as a human, I am not an experienced writer. I have not, like Ms. Strout and so many working writers, spent my days and nights learning the craft.

Next week, when I sit in front of my first literary agent ever, I will be out of my depth. And that is the truth.

canstockphoto6167076Somehow, even confronting that truth head on, I find it invigorating. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Because when that conference is over, when I’ve gushed out the verbal vomit that will be my pitch, I will return home knowing that I need to make it real. I’ll spend my days and nights learning what other writers already know. My path is one of retroactive truths, but truths…eventually.

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