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.

Meditation on a Banana and Writing

It’s been a year focused on mortality – hits and misses, losses and anxieties. Someone of my morose temperament is more likely to start self-medicating than rallying forth. Having given up on drinking and smoking years back and never really taken much to drugs, I’m left to my own devices, which usually involve excessive organizing, surliness, and voracious reading. Solitude has been a fleeting, rare creature for months now. Writing, the beast which I chase in my dreams, still eludes me most days.

15799151It is times like these when other artists save me. I just finished reading 842450Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work and Jill Krementz’s The Writer’s Desk. These are the kind of books – part inspiration, part instruction –  that you pick up when time and space seem to conspire against your best laid plans. Maybe it’s a hope that something is contagious in reading about other writers’ lives. I come away feeling less alone and more heartened about the piecemeal fashion in which I pursue writing.

Writing carries baggage for me. That baggage is full of mixed messages: the fears that I may never accomplish what I seek to accomplish and the realization that it all matters so little in the scheme of the universe. It is full of envy and self-loathing, disgruntlement and all manner of desperation. This can be heavy and paralyzing, lugging the baggage along into every writing session.

Like muscles that tighten into a knot, no movement is possible until you relax. There are meditation and Zen practices, most of which have now been repackaged and priced and sold along with a set of knives capable of cutting a car in two. The simplest of these practices, and I offer it to you absolutely free of charge, is to focus on the moment.

I had the most delicious banana this morning, but it took me a few minutes to run canstockphoto25301478through the overthinking that comes with anything I do. First I thought about the fires in the Amazon and wondered how they affected the bananas. Then I thought about how they were predicting that this particular kind of banana would be extinct in ten years, due to various fungi. Extinction made me think about the climate and Greta Thunberg and how adults, in their usually capacity as jackasses, were criticizing and mocking her this week for lecturing said jackasses on their climate paralysis. Then I thought about plastic and the fact that I can’t stop seeing it everywhere, with every product, without thinking about whales’ stomachs.

I was halfway through the banana.

Earlier in the week, I’d lectured a friend on catastrophic thinking and how imagining the worst thing that can happen is deleterious to one’s current state. I didn’t use the word canstockphoto65164533deleterious, but that’s how I’m telling the story. When we’re in the middle of a situation, our brains have this capacity to go completely free-range, snarfing down every bit of anxiety in its path. Bloated with neuroses and catastrophic thought, we rarely take action that alleviates it. Instead we eat ice cream, drink wine, binge watch TV or porn, smoke pot, go shopping, or rage online – anything that distracts us from the bloat.

Three-quarters through the banana.

If catastrophizing makes nothing better and churning in those thoughts brings us misery and paralysis, the only solution is this moment, this banana. It is delicious, I am enjoying it…it is delicious, I am enjoying it. It bears repeating, because already my brain is starting to think it is gone, what next?

And then it really is gone. I missed most of the joy – too busy letting anxieties ramble unhindered through my thought processes instead of having the visceral experience of eating a delicious banana.

30659Is it not so with any endeavor? How dense and rich would life be if we practiced being in the moment, having the experience, tasting the food, looking at the scenery, rolling words through our brains? Those sentences make me laugh. I’ve been reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. It’s made my prose a tad odd.

The point is, and I am pretending that I have one, is that this can be applied to writing as well. All the thoughts about publication or how it measures against others’ works – all the thoughts about never succeeding or maybe being too old to be in this game – all the thoughts of self-denigration and unworthiness. These take away from the moment you’re in – the writing of a delicious sentence. The picking of a word. The telling of a story. The befriending of a character. The joy of expression.

Write the words. Eat the banana. Be present.

 

Other Books for Inspiration:

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change by Pema Chödrön

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artist Process Edited by Joe Fassler

Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life by Bonni Goldberg

Daily Rituals: Women at Work by Mason Currey

The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear by Ralph Keyes

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!

 

The TGS Writers’ Book Club: Become Better Writers, One Book at a Time

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After unsuccessfully searching for an offline book club in my area that was comprised of writers, I decided to create the space online. This is entirely experimental, but I’ve tried to think things through and hopefully, this will be a useful tool for writers who are readers.

The main point of difference between a book club of readers and a book club of writers, is that reading is not only a hobby, but an intentional learning tool. How we read, what we read, and with what intent we read, influences how we write. The voices that captivate us are often the voices we wish to develop. The turns of phrase, the construction of a characters, the shape of our story arcs are all influenced by the writing we love.

It would be impossible to set this up without having my own philosophy and approach influence the book choices and the reader guidelines. I am a writer. I write blog posts, essays, short stories, and I have a novel in various stages of disarray, a dis-novel, if you will. I believe in reading anything that catches my interest, even some things that don’t. There are no limits to genre, gender, nationality, form, or content. If the writing is strong, if the subject is unknown, if there is anything I can learn, I will read it.

canstockphoto7169504That being said, it is sometimes a challenge to read outside one’s experience and genre. I know people who read only science fiction or only nonfiction or only fantasy romance novels. As writers, I feel it is incumbent upon us to read beyond our natural boundaries. This means that we must challenge ourselves or else our skills as writers do not grow. We begin to write in a circular world with the same techniques, phrases, and character types. To read widely is to give ourselves every possible advantage as writers.

My intention is to create an environment where we look at books with a writer’s eye. We’re interested in the mechanics of the writing, not just the content. We look for patterns and motifs and themes. Symbolism does not go unnoticed. Rhythm and pacing matter.

The site is also intended to be a writer’s haven – what challenges us and can we apply some of the techniques we read about? What speaks to us, what do we admire or dislike? It won’t be a place for book reviews. We live in a world that thumbs or stars everything. The only question we need to ask is what can we learn from the work?

It is reminiscent of lit classes without the tuition, unwieldy schedule, and you can do it in canstockphoto22562364your jammies while drinking large vats of wine or coffee. If you’ve already read the selected title or are going through a busy season or would rather stab yourself in the eye with a pen than read a particular selection, just skip the month. Best of all, there’s no signup sheet for treats, everybody else isn’t already besties, and the talker (there’s always one) doesn’t get to dominate with stories of their ingrown toenail surgery.

If you are interested, there is a link on the sidebar, which will take you to the site. Enjoy!

The Marauder’s Map

Itcanstockphoto3397850‘s 2am and I’m wide awake, as I have been many mornings in the last week. There is no end in sight to the destruction of the country I thought I knew. Moves are being taken in every quarter to quash protests, disenfranchise voters, eliminate safety nets, knock the legs out from under air and water safety, gift power to the already empowered. The baby, the bath water and any ethics are right out the window. The Doomsday Clock will likely click one minute closer to midnight.

I keep thinking about history. And how nearly every move being made by the Trump administration is out of the authoritarian playbook. Even on the state level, legislators are taking their cues, ramming through bills to ensure that power stays with them. The people who talk about small government and self-reliance are delighted that Big Daddy is going to save them and stomp on anyone who dissents. A man with a personality disorder, someone who can be flattered into giving unqualified and malevolent people an immense amount of power, is in charge.

I’ve been struggling to get back to novel rewrites. It hasn’t felt important or useful to spend my time there. Instead, I wade through one news article after another. For all the rallying cries, I’m torn between the despair of nihilism and the burning frustration of impotency. This is also not useful and certainly deleterious to me.

Sometimes, when I’m having trouble sleeping, I put on a Harry Potter audio book. Jim Dale is a soothing narrator. On the surface, Harry Potter seems a simple child’s tale of good versus evil, except that the good people aren’t always good and the bad people aren’t always bad. And all along the way, no matter what laws and rules are put into place, subversion happens. Sometimes it’s small bits of sassiness and other times it is downright anarchy. But no matter how many rules are put in place, no matter what destructive forces roam the hallways, the students find a way to dissent. And this is a hopeful message.

canstockphoto19169321I’m feeling pretty powerless and afraid for the future, especially for my daughter. The flurry of robber baron malfeasance is overwhelming and in truth, there is nothing, much to the delight of the angry mob, that I can do about it. I voted. I paid attention. I gave a damn. But it did nothing except get me characterized as a snowflake, an elitist, a lazy liberal living off the government teat, and urban (used as an insult). A woman who wouldn’t even get rated a 4, because my nubility ended about 30 years ago. In the scheme of things, I am nothing and no one, powerless, not wealthy, not influential.

When I think about the dissident, camp, and protest literature I’ve read over the years, I am reminded of the power of the story. And the importance of telling it. A lot of nobodies painted, wrote, invented, composed music, even through the worst of times. And the worst of times is yet to come, I believe. It takes a little time for the ball of shit to gain momentum and size, as it rolls down the hill towards us. Everything that seems like hyperbole and anxiety today will be the norm tomorrow. History tells us this will not end well.

canstockphoto17352389How far it will go, no one really knows. The angry mob will likely crush many of us. People arrested, businesses destroyed and jobs lost, committees designed to suss out dissidents. Neighbors will turn each other in. Troops will come down our streets to round up the next targeted group. Revolts will rise and fall and take its casualties. It seems unthinkable, but authoritarian rulers, no matter where they are in place or time, are terrible in all the same ways and exploit the population’s fears and anxieties in such a way that the snake eats itself.

In an age when the common good sounds like a quaint, old-fashioned idea and the Ministry of Alternative Facts is dominating the news, it’s hard to know what to do with all this anxiety. The anger reignites itself daily. And we keep getting admonished to grow up, get over it, it’s not so bad…and we bargain with ourselves. Some of us are still detoxing from the campaign. Some of us are in an emotional coma. I alternate hourly between righteous indignation and a desperate need for more action.

canstockphoto3194419Getting stuck in this loop is crushing me and writing has become my only way out. I’ve written essay after essay in the early hours. Some angry, some tearful and bitter, trying to find that crack to let the light in. And on the Marauder’s Map of my country, I can imagine the dots revealing themselves, one after another. Writers and poets and artists all working away, seeking the light and, ultimately showing us the way forward. In an age when bad is good and lies are truth, we must solemnly swear that we are up to no good.