The Landscape of the Heart

As I watched the screen at my daughter’s echocardiogram, the blips and blobs of color, the scan across the bottom looked like a topographical map. I felt tears welling up thinking about how simultaneously frail and steel-willed humans can be. She has done well with treatment – thriving and thrilled that her stifled independence will soon be unstopped, gushing out in a spate of plans and applications and escapes from handwringing parents.

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I am surprised by my resistance and anxiety in thinking about post-pandemic life. I wonder if I’ve been institutionalized in my own home. The thought of social obligation and interaction, of life slipping out of this time warp where everything is slower, quieter, and less populated, back into the relentless flow of everything, all the time and I think hell no.

Life slowed down enough for me to start making some long-desired changes and I don’t want to lose sight of them. That is a function of my privilege and good fortune, so I understand the mass desire for pandemic life to come to an end. But I think about the 975K+ memorials that have been muted or delayed, the trauma of loss and how it will contrast against the exhilarating celebration of travel and social gatherings and consumerism that will be unleashed in the coming months. Life has been weird, but now it is thoroughly surreal.

We often ask each other: What do you miss most? What are you going to do first? For me, it is only a slight shift. I will go to the library and maybe a coffee shop. Or perhaps a plant nursery. I will meet up with a friend and go for a walk in the park. I feel a sense of dread that I will be required to once again attend meetings in person or meet distant family obligations. I dread that I’ll see my daughter so much less and that she’ll be out in this mad world having her own adventures, many from which I cannot shield her. It’s all normal, they’ll say. I imagine a scene where someone spouts what is intended to be a comforting cliche at me and I completely and utterly lose my shit. Normal? Normal? NONE of this is normal. Normal left the station years ago.

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I’ve experienced a loss of confidence. I’m not the steady, stable soul I’ve always seen myself as. I’m struggling like everyone else. I’m not the voice of reason in the middle of a shit storm. I’m too busy trying not to sink under the waves. This confidence, this swagger that I can always think myself out of a problem, that I will be more composed than everyone around me, has definitely been shaken, stirred, and dropped on its ass. Part of the reason is menopause, which is a tasty midlife treat when you’ve come to expect your body and mind will act a certain way and then one day it doesn’t. One day, you have vertigo, your knees hurt, your anxiety levels seem unmanageable, and you have heart palpitations. The human bedrocks of certainty – balance and a regular heartbeat are no longer a given. You have a sense that your life has irrevocably been altered and your body is no longer reliable and that you will never be unafraid again.

Aging was never that bugaboo on the horizon that I shied away from – I had all the cockiness of someone who could stand upright and wouldn’t get dizzy. The shameless stamina of someone who didn’t forget why they went into a room or what that word was for that thingamajig, you know that one thing…I hate those jokes. It’s not so funny when you can’t count on your own brain anymore. Working on my MFA with people who have fully functioning brains, who are ambitious, who have enough time and energy to play the publication/submission numbers game – well, that’s shaken me, too. I know I just have to keep forging ahead, pretending that I’m still going to make a career of this writing thing, but I know I’ve started late in the game and my number might be up before I see a result.

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As is my modus operandi, I do the research regarding menopause and I’ve started to work on mitigation and modification and coping mechanisms. It gets tiresome sometimes, this attempt to wrench control from the vagaries of aging, a pandemic, and an emotional snake pit of unpredictable outcomes that we call life. I see retribution at work for every time I responded to someone’s stress by telling them to breathe and to take things a moment at a time. Fool. That’s like throwing a piece of yarn to someone who’s drowning. Still, I’m sure I’ll say it again. What else would there be to say?

I have not felt joy in a while. If you are a depression-inclined person like myself, the pursuit of joy must be an intentional act. You have to make space and time for it. Spring opens a lot more than windows for me – it’s the start of gardening, of renewal, of dragging my camera out to the woods and staring up in trees for elusive birds. The spate of cold, gray days is coming to an end and I started my indoor seedlings which is, in my small world, an act of hope and optimism. Perhaps that is the first step back into the world.

Me Versus Nature

Spoiler Alert: Nature wins.

The Pale Murderer Cometh

Now that spring has arrived, I’m faced with an age-old question. What am I going to canstockphoto11157518murder this year? Thus far, six house spiders, two house centipedes, eight ants, an errant box elder bug, and just five minutes ago, a carpenter ant who decided startling the shit out of me by crawling on my keyboard was a good plan. It wasn’t.

I am a very conflicted person when it comes to creatures. I research the creatures I come across. I don’t know, I guess I try to understand them in the hopes I won’t shriek die, die, die while hitting them with the broom. House centipedes are fantastic hunters – they eat spiders. As much as I’d like to remember that, when I see one of them slither their way across the wall, my primal instinct takes over. Maybe at some point in human history that instinct was “Yum, snack”, but I tend to believe even cavemen pulverized those things with clubs while grunting orf, orf, orf (translation: die, die, die).

Furred and Feathered Jerks

canstockphoto20447169The rabbits have lopped off numerous tulips, leaving a trail of colorful petals across the yard. They don’t eat the flowers. They just nip them off, as if they’re a distraction from the real num-nums, the leaves. It makes me think that the rabbits in my yard are assholes.

As soon as I filled the planters with my desperate need for color canstockphoto16122084– geraniums, impatiens, and marigolds, the pots got dug out by the squirrels who a) forgot where the hell they buried their food stores last fall and b) just like a tasty nosh of fresh root.

canstockphoto20642408The house finches have taken over the old robin’s nest we forgot to remove in the fall and now they squabble outside my study window all day long. A young cardinal has taken over a feeder, choo-choo-chooing to let everyone else know it’s mine-mine-mine. A pair of Northern Harriers set up shop in the tree next door and for hours at a time, she shrieks at him to bring her food or get on with the mating, you lout.

It’s Self-Defense!

While I enjoy riding my high horse about a yard without pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer, the downside is that I am outnumbered by the sheer quantity of creatures who would like to eat our food, live in our walls, dangle in front of our faces, snake out from under the dryer, wait for us in the shower, and in general, make us feel very uncomfortable in our living quarters. And it’s not even mosquito season yet.

canstockphoto12050597This is the first house I’ve lived in for any amount of time. Before, it was all apartments. They spray for bugs in apartments, hence the infrequency of encounters. We’ve never had our house sprayed for bugs. We’re classic DIY people who think vinegar is magic (it is, it is!) and try to follow environmental recommendations for pest control. Generally, Minnesota gets a good, cold killing season. Many of the critters are forced into retreat, marshaling their forces for the longer days of freaking out humans.

I love nature. When it’s outside. Well, not right outside. Maybe a restraining order’s distance. And I try to be respectful of life in general. There are several house spiders who reside in the corners of the kitchen. That’s fine. They eat gnats that show up when produce does. And occasionally, I talk to them. It’s when they crawl over the lip of my coffee mug that I completely lose my shit and become a serial killer.

I remember once reading about monks who walked carefully, lest they step on a creature on the ground. And I get it. I get the whole respect life, creatures have value, humans are really an invasive species thing. But critters outnumber us and if they ever develop longer life cycles, elevated thinking, and inter-species communication, we are all dead.

Your Honor, I’d like to present the first (and possibly only) piece of evidence for the Defense:canstockphoto7083768

Our client could have only reacted the way she did, in self-defense.

Your honor? Your honor?

But that was evidence sir! Why are you shrieking?

Judge: Excuse my outburst. Bailiff, please get an evidence bag for my gavel.

The Defense rests its case.

Small Talk and Slightly Bigger Ideas

canstockphoto3538551.jpgSpring is a dangerous time for writing in my world. It’s the time I’m most likely to quit blogging. It’s the time when every new novel idea looks better than the one I’m working on. It’s the time when dust collects in the study.

It was a tepid winter this year in Minnesota. I might need to move further north at this rate. Ride a melting glacier, run a homeless polar bear shelter. I’d like to see some studies on the impact of hot flashes on climate change. All I know is that wherever I am, it’s too damned hot.

*****

It was two weeks ago last when I was inspired about my writing. It got kicked off by an extended family get-together.

So, are you working now? Oh, still writing? How’s that going? What’s it about?

I have a script I now use for these occasions. Little jokes. Self-deprecating nonsense that flies out of my mouth automatically. Well, my book is about my husband wanting to retire eventually, so I’d better sell something. Har, har, har.

My spirits sunk a bit. I’d had this same conversation for years.

canstockphoto0970790.jpgThe following day, I pulled out all my notecards, the rough first/second/third draft and I starting writing page after page of notes. I reviewed old notes. I rewrote the first chapter and last chapters for the sixth time. I scrawled deliriously across blank paper. Lines connecting words, concepts, timelines. It was heady. It felt productive, but I was suspicious. I’m the queen of busywork when it comes to writing.

Then I started to see motifs and themes and realized that there was a reason I was writing this particular story over and over again. A flash of understanding, a moment when the entire novel coalesced inside my head. It’s these damned moments that keep bringing me back. Progress? I don’t know. Just when I think it’s time to move on, I get hooked again.

*****

Summer vacations have already been planned and scrapped and planned again. A family road trip through southern states was vetoed by moi. The heat was a determinant, but throw in bugs that don’t get controlled by an annual killing frost and a little regressive anti-LGBT legislation and it got crossed off the list.

A friend said “Why do you care about the legislation? It doesn’t affect you.” That’s what these times do to us – they surprise us with bigotry in our familiars. People who have never seemed particularly unkind take on a malevolent glint and you step back a bit.

canstockphoto14554749My first impulse is a rage that I have to rein in. Then I go to reason, which usually involves these questions “How are these laws going to be enforced? Are they going to be doing crotch checks?” My rage is not reined in well enough.

I’ve written several draft posts about the laws in Missouri and North Carolina (and southern states are not on the hook for this – many states are taking a trip in the way back time machine), but they always end in spluttering anger.

And if you’re not in fear of your life in public restrooms before these laws, you should have been- it’s a public restroom. They’ve never been high security against people intent on nefarious actions or drunk couples who can’t wait until closing. Do your business and get the hell out. Stop worrying about other people’s genitals. I’d back a law for mandatory soap and water hand washing before exiting, though. Seriously, that’s just gross.

*****

canstockphoto17007161.jpgMy daughter wanted a musical weekend for her birthday present. We were fortunate to catch a Jeremy Messersmith performance on Friday and then on Saturday, the Minnesota Orchestra. I’d never seen a professional full orchestra before, except on TV. We went whole hog and bought box balcony seats, another first. We are the plebes, the unwashed masses (well, we did shower) and usually sit in the cheaper seats.

It was a lovely experience not being shoved ass to elbows for a performance. My daughter is a viola player and we were able to see Roberto Diaz play the Viola Concerto composed by Jennifer Higdon. The piece had been commissioned by the Library of Congress not for an event, but for an instrument – a Stradivarius viola. I felt pretty posh about it all, but seeing my daughter’s wide eyes and having her say “this is awesome” a hundred times made it worth it.

*****

A melancholy settled over me these last few weeks. It surprised me. Spring seems a time when the world blooms with possibility. I was moody and my need for quiet became its own sort of clamoring. I walked through the woods a lot last week and listened to the birds. I saw a group of wild turkeys – the males in full regalia strutting their stuff. A fat muskrat puttered its way along the water’s edge. Bluebirds and woodpeckers and ducks, all plotting and courting.

canstockphoto4786661.jpgI saw a man with a large camera on the path coming towards me. My body tensed. I smiled a tight smile and he smiled back. I immediately thought thank you. It was the fear that I’d have to talk, when I was in a place both physically and mentally that needed no words. Maybe that’s where he was too.

Sometimes it’s good to hear life firsthand.

Adult Education: A Neverending Curriculum

A wave of stale high school sweat wafted over me as I opened the door to the gym. Last week I started a community adult ed class for circuit weight training. I’ve taken a lot of classes over the years – everything from Chinese ink painting to yoga to first aid.

It’s always the same. There’s a group of people who have been taking the class together since the dawn of time, who smell new blood in the water. I end up on email lists,  preceded by an onslaught of handshaking introductions, and unsolicited advice. I take classes because most of them are local, relatively cheap, and I am likely to walk away with something I didn’t have before – a broadened perspective.

I believe in lifelong learning and not as a euphemism for what retired people do. It’s what we all do if we’re paying attention. Not a day goes by when I don’t learn something new – about myself or others or the world around me.

*****

It’s been a week of talking people down from trees. This is when the concept of “sandwich generation” hits me like a ton of bricks.

canstockphoto21347802.jpgThe week became about moments. My daughter is now in that world of preteen entanglements – friendships fraught with shifting loyalties. As an adult, I want to laugh it off for all its impermanence, but I know that her present moment is intense and painful. There are tears and conversations and hugs. I try to remember what it was like to be that age. I am not confident in my ability to teach her, but I tap into all that I know to offer her ideas and options. Sometimes I just try to make her laugh. This morning she told me that she dreamed she was being made fun of by high schoolers and that I beat them up. I try to be measured and wise, but sometimes all she hears is that I care. Violently so, apparently.

My mother-in-law was moved to a better room at the nursing home, triggering a cascade of cognitive impairment, common with dementia. She still remembers to call. Pick me up. Take me home. I’m at the casino. The staff expressed concern. She keeps hovering over her roommate, worried that she’s not getting fed. She wants to make sure the baby is okay. There is no baby. We make big decorative signs that say it’s her room. My husband or I visit her twice a day to remind her where she’s at. A palpable sense of relief comes over her when she sees us. At that moment, we are her home.

*****

canstockphoto8525201It might have been the setting, but with 700 stringed instruments, a gym was the only place to have the concert. One of the music teachers exhorted audience members to create an orchestra hall environment by turning off the sound on their cell phones and asking them to pay attention to the performances.

It seems like common sense, but over the last year, I’ve heard Bach and Mozart accompanied by ringtones and followed by hooting, whistling and hollering as if we’d just witnessed a professional wrestling match.

If I’m a snob, I come by it honestly. Growing up poor meant that live performances of music, theater or comedy were a treat. When money is tight, seeing the Cleveland String Quartet is a special occasion. Tickets to many events are expensive. We dressed up, used our best manners and treated the performers with awe.

There is something to the idea of making music accessible to a wider audience by not having etiquette expectations. Which is fine, until you slosh your drink down my back and do a shrill whistle in my ear to let your friends know where you are sitting. Or I can’t see the stage because of all the cell phone ambient lighting and cameras flashing around me. It’s an I hate people moment that I wrestle with every time I go to live performances these days.

My daughter said “Mom, sometimes I feel like crying when I hear live music.” Music does the same thing to me. The start of a symphony or a choir or an acoustic band sends chills up my spine. The ability of human beings to create such beauty, to cooperate and harmonize – this is an amazing thing.

Besides the love of my family and the natural world, the rhapsody of live music is the closest thing to faith that I experience. Hence the conflict between a roller derby audience and what I feel. But gratitude comes in all forms and I have to remind myself of that, next time someone yells woo-hoo! in my ear.

*****

This morning I struggled to write a letter. For several years, I’ve sponsored a girl in Ethiopia who is my daughter’s age through Save the Children. I know there are people who do more than I’ve managed, but I’ve told myself that at least I’m doing something. Perhaps too easy and too convenient, but something.

Ethiopia is now going through a terrible drought. The child I sponsor lists “fetching water” as a typical daily activity. I look at her picture. Her eyes are big, but her body thin. Her shirt has a tear in it. She does not smile. She wants to be a teacher.canstockphoto11235653

I fetch another cup of coffee. I’m thinking about taking a shower. I wash my hands and brush my teeth. Each moment, water taken for granted. What do you say to someone who cannot take water for granted? What do I say to a child in Ethiopia or in Flint, Michigan for that matter? My discomfort in writing a simple letter is nothing.

*****

canstockphoto8176108As I walked tonight, the crows swooped and raucously cackled as I crossed the park. The wind was cold and sharp on my face. The world expanded around me and I exhaled.

Sometimes the weight of my insecurities and fears presses down on me. I hear the voices that tell me that I’m a failure, that what I do matters little, that I’ll never be good enough.

Those thoughts are always there, flapping at the edges of my brain, trying to get my attention. A good week is when I feel strong and intentional and do nothing more than wave them off. This week, I invited them around a campfire. The s’mores of self-loathing were cooking away.

Like the crows, though, I know those thoughts are never going to stay. They can make all the noise in the world and that’s all it is, just noise to distract us from our true intentions. Sort of like politics these days.canstockphoto1392244

Spring couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

Wishing you a sense of renewal and happy intentions this week!

Top 1,216 Reasons I Need to Write and Then Came Spring

canstockphoto1910165Dragging myself to the keyboard has been nearly impossible since spring began moving in a few days ago. Winter, saturated with gray, undramatic weather and brittle temperatures, is finally in its death throes. I began to clear garden beds, a delightful task of discovery. Tulips and crocuses have made their way up. The lilacs and cherry tree are tipped with buds. Strawberries are tentatively putting out their runners.

This need to revel in open windows and sunlight and the sound of the earth coming back to life makes it hard to sit still. But writing demands it and I start getting odd if I don’t write for awhile. My eccentricities, which under normal circumstances might be cute or mildly irritating, get amplified until one day I realize that I’ve been singing Henry the Eighth I am at the top of my lungs and there are people walking their dogs on the street, glancing at my house and walking a little faster. Boo Radley with overtones of Crazy Lady avec Cats and/or Shotgun.

Writing is a grounding force in my life. It puts order to things, calming me like no amount of meditation ever has. For all my awareness of mental health issues, I recognize spring as a special kind of mania, especially in Minnesota. But there are some indicators that I might need to settle down and do some serious writing:

  • I make up click bait titles.
  • I write comments on people’s blogs that are longer than their actual post.
  • I wake up and Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” is playing in my head. I’m pretty sure that signals some sort of cognitive impairment.
  • I irritate my daughter by finding all the words that rhyme with her name and then sing limericks all morning long.
  • I have long conversations with my cats who, in their stoicism, make me feel inferior.
  • I spend an hour searching the internet for a bird sound, so that I can identify the birds that have been yakking outside my window since 3am. Damn you, black-capped chickadees.
  • I sharpen and oil my garden tools while alternately humming the movie themes to “Jaws” and “Psycho”.
  • I cut up 50 pounds of produce for “snacks” and then microwave a burrito.
  • I yell at the microwave to shut its pie hole, as it beeps to let me know my burrito is done.
  • While practicing back kicks in the kitchen, I accidentally put a dent in the refrigerator.
  • Dancing becomes erratic and unprovoked. I start reciting Ren’s monologue from Footloose. Leaping and dancing, my friends, leaping and dancing.

Spring is when nature starts firing on all its cylinders, but I fear as my synapses snap and crackle, there may be a few shorts in the circuitry. I’d like to believe writing is a big roll of electrical tape. Obviously my metaphors could use some work. I should write, but the black-capped chickadees are calling and Paula needs a backup dancer. I hope she approves of leaping as well.

Wishing you a happy Monday!canstockphoto3890075

Fertile Ground

canstockphoto15476528It’s gardening time. Be prepared for wheelbarrows of garden metaphors, analogies and similes to seed this blog for the next couple of months. With a side of compost.

The claustrophobia of winter has begun to dissipate. It’s too early to plant seeds outside in Minnesota, but the strawberries are poking through and the buds on the lilac bushes have begun to form. I got hit smack dab in the face by a meaty bug, likely disoriented and newly emerged from the thawing ground. While trimming raspberry canes and Concord grape vines, I stopped frequently, standing motionless, a stupid grin on my face, dirt on my knees and an overwhelming sense of relief.

Something happened to my brain during the sixth month of a moody winter. I haven’t been writing much, as each session culminates in a screw it and me storming off to do housework. I am almost through one of James Joyce’s works, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It’s taken me weeks to work through. Last night I took a break and looked up definitions of the many words that I could not garner from context. I’m pretty sure I’ll be brain-dumping arras, cerements, and woodbegirt, but am excited to keep inanition: the absence or loss of social, moral, or intellectual vitality or vigor. It’s the perfect word to describe my affliction in March.

This morning, on what will be the first of many trips to Home Depot, I hauled bags of dirt. It all starts with the dirt. It’s nothing special. There’s lots of dead stuff in it. It’s messy and just lays there, waiting, ready. But a blank patch of dirt to a gardener is an opportunity and perhaps, a compulsion. Your brain registers the conditions: wet or dry, sunny or shady, clay or sandy. It runs through the catalog of seed packets. What works? What doesn’t? Should it be an experiment? Or something that gets changed every year?

canstockphoto22961553It’s not too far a stretch to make this analogy work for just about anything. Writers often talk about that blank page as if it were something special. It’s just dirt. What we put into it is what makes the difference. So, this barren landscape, devoid of creativity, of ideas and of imagination is the place to start. Some ideas will never take hold, some will briefly raise their heads only to be wilted by a midday sun. Others, though, will put you on the path to meaning, substance and beauty.

canstockphoto5109847Beauty is such a subjective word. For all the reading and writing I did this winter, each round a pale imitation of the last, I was seeking beauty. Knowledge, depth, understanding – these are the aspects of beauty that resonate with me. But beauty in gardening is not just the end result. If that were all that gardening, and writing, were about, then I’d just buy flowers at the market or read other people’s books. It is in the labor of the thing. It is one’s part as a creator, one’s tangling with point of view and weeds. It is rough hands and raw thoughts. It is dirt under the fingernails and raging frustration of translating your story onto paper.

It’s wonderful – that dirt and that blank page. A garden or a story just waiting to be created.

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