Running at Windmills

Of late, Don Quixote is one of my favorite fictional characters to reference. He chooses to see the world a certain way. He believes things to be more honorable, decent, and moralistic than they are. He is often written as a tragic character, so lost to his delusions that he leaves nothing but disaster in his wake. I like to think about him in regards to perspective – that how we choose to see the world determines how we navigate it. It is in my particular nature to notice the bad in the world, to notice problems in need of solutions. I have, for the most part, used this unhealthy skill for good. I’ve thought about what small things I could do to contribute to the betterment of the world. Less knight-errant and more pragmatic, like a busy homemaker seeing that there is clearing up to be done and doing it.

These days, much of what I do feels like running at windmills, choosing to believe the country/world isn’t approaching some sort of apocalyptic endgame. I doubled down on my work for voters’ rights and am doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work for a nonprofit. I joined another organization fighting for gun control reform. I am in the middle of starting up a virtual writers group. I’m doing my first writing workshop presentation in a couple of weeks. I’ve simply gone all in on things that matter to me. What else can you do as the world burns?

Woodcut drawing of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote on horses.

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

― Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

The imposter syndrome weighs heavily on me as well. To move forward, you have to pretend to some obliviousness about failure rates and personal fallibility and all the other things that can go wrong. If you didn’t, you’d be stuck, churning in your own mud. For years and years, I’ve tried different ways of moving forward and have finally landed on something that gives me joy – teaching and mentoring. This is one of the primary reasons I entered an MFA program – to give myself some credentials for something I like to do.

It’s a funny acknowledgement to make. I do not have the sparkly personality of a grade school teacher. My Army buddies used to call me “Chuckles” for my dour pronouncements. My daughter rolls her eyes and jokes “mom ruins everything.” Fun, right? Ask me about your writing though and you are about to have a passionate conversation about the importance of telling stories – your stories. You will also likely get 15 handouts, a list of book recommendations, and some pointed questioning about how you will move forward. I can’t help myself. So now, I’m going to use these odd, reflexive skills on a larger scale and see how that works out. Here goes:

On Saturday, August 28th, 2021, 1-3pm (CST), I am offering The Green Study Writers’ Workshop: “Writing Alchemy: From Intention to Words on the Page”. This is a free, virtual workshop (because you will be guinea pigs) to talk about a writer’s intention, practice, habits, and goal setting. A little presentation, a little practice, and a little conversation to send you on your way, ready to write the stories you want to write. Due to the fact that this is my first time doing this, I’ll be limiting registration to 25 people. If you need some writing inspiration, to get unstuck, or to think about your own life as a writer, drop me a note on this blog’s contact page. I’ll send you a registration link for the workshop until I hit capacity. If more people are interested than I can fit, I’ll plan to offer it at another time. If I survive this. Windmill, here I come.

Woodcut drawing of windmill.

A Writer’s Lament

This is my writer’s place of last resort. It is how I hope to find the way back to my voice. So I write.

I will write through a migraine.

I will write even though I do not know what I have to say.

I will write in spite of the toxic air outside my window.

I will write even though it seems as if the world has gone mad.

I will write knowing that people will believe anything if it suits what they already believe.

I will write even though I am afraid that this is the only place I will ever be read.

I will write at peak loneliness when I’ve been communicating nonstop from this little weird virtual island I call my desk.

I will write while asking myself is it worth it?

I will write even though it has all been said before.

I will write even if I don’t see anything changing for the better.

I will write when I may not have the skill or the insight or a goal.

I will write the evidence of my existence.

I will write a momentary spark, a word into the universe.

Because I know you’re out there writing too.

Or painting, or singing, or dancing.

I write because this word, with your dance and their song, is a counterweight to all that weighs on us.

Survival is bereft of meaning.

The meaning is ours to write, to yawp into the universe, in the hope that it echoes back to us.

You are not alone.

Hello my fellow humans. Feeling like absolute shit here. It’s okay. It was bound to happen. The struggle is real, but not insurmountable. I wanted to tell you that I am thinking of you. I am hoping that whatever challenges you are overcoming, swimming, drowning in, that you are not alone and that this is the time when we need to reach out to each other and say Hey, whatcha got goin’ on there? Drop me a note and tell me how you are dealing with floods, fires, viruses, all the other things humans have to deal with…

Here’s a little assessment I wrote on myself:

Anxieties: kid’s illness, menopausal miseries, failure to make progress as a writer, ambivalence about my MFA program, pandemic, wildfire smoke, drought, empty nesting next year.

Current joys: coffee and quiet time in the morning before everyone gets up, surprise cake from a friend, My Dad Wrote a Porno Podcast, Zoom conversations with friends, ripe cherries, naps.

Best Advice I’m Following at the Moment: Take frequent breaks from computer work – rest your eyes and get up and move.

What are your biggest worries?

What has given you great joy/comfort/laughter?

What’s your best advice at the moment for others?

The Gentle Storyteller in a Violent World

Silence is sometimes preferable to unleashing emotions that are not processed or packaged for public consumption. My silence here, on this blog, has been due to a simmering bouillabaisse of anger, depression, anxiety, and fatigue. I know that I am not alone in this, nor is my angst much different by degree than anyone else’s. I’m either at the edge of tears or letting loose an inextricable profanity.

Cartoon drawing that says "WTF".

I feel frenetically angry these days, to the point that I have a Post-It note below my computer monitor: Be kind. Don’t swear. Listen. Anybody who knows me knows I love some good swearing. But since every meeting or get-together is online, it has become too easy to blur the boundaries between close friends and the board of the nonprofit for which I volunteer. All the faces are flat, the location always my study with multi-directional, disorganized anger banging around in my brain. A mistakenly uttered profanity might be quite jarring in the wrong environment.

Physically, I’m wearing each and every emotion. I wrote this little ditty in my head yesterday when wearing a baggy shirt: All this swathe of cloth, does not have the ability, to hide my rolls of fragility. Yeah, I won’t be reading an inaugural poem any time soon. I’m walking a lot, trying to get back into strength training, but I’m having a hard time making myself care. It feels like something is a little broken, like I’ve just given in to entropy.

Owl in glasses sitting on a pen.

Still, I’ve almost finished my first semester of an MFA in Creative Writing Program. I’ve learned several things. I am further along in my writing skills than I imagined. Secondly, talent doesn’t mean jack if you’re not actively writing. Thirdly, when you solidly believe that everyone around you is better than you at everything, it always comes as a surprise when you realize, Hey, I know something. This has given me some ambition to put together my own low-rent virtual workshop for the fall. 6-10 writers, nominal fee (just so people show up), and covering all the basics of good narrative.

I’ve done a couple of writing competitions, which work like tournament brackets. Thus far, I’ve been given an Honorable Mention, and I’ve just advanced another round in a short story competition. Some competitions offer critiques from judges on your piece as part of the registration fee. One of the comments struck a nerve. You’re a gentle storyteller. In any other world, not littered with my literary ambition, this would seem sweet. But it really stuck with me, because the translation at first in my overthinking noggin was “tepid, mediocre, simple”. Oh no! What happened to complex, rich literary narrative that evokes some intellectual pablum and blah, blah, blah… I’ve already written the New York Times review of my first book. And gentle storyteller does not cut it.

Book open on table in woods.

We all have ideas of who we want to be or at the very least, how we want to be perceived. I’m settling into this idea that my writing will never be edgy or evocative or prizewinning. Maybe it will just be a good story. My current novel was described by an MFA professor as character-driven and a quiet, complex story. That will make for a shelf-grabbing blurb. “Boring. TLDR” – Publishers’ Mistake Weekly. Mark this little tea cozy of a book for the remaindered bin. Still, I don’t want to tell this particular story any other way – I like complexity, nuance, subtlety and if it ends up being a bathtub read for someone, as they fall asleep and accidentally drown, well, that’s just good publicity.

As I waited for the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, to see if the Twin Cities will set itself on fire, I thought about violence. About militarized police and mass shooters. As a veteran, I have enough familiarity with weapons to know that I don’t trust them and I don’t trust people who fetishize them. I do know that brandishing weapons makes people lazy. They don’t have to de-escalate, they don’t have to compromise, they don’t have to use diplomacy. They don’t need self-control or empathy or decency. Like the mafia, like gangs, like uniformed units, they conflate fear with respect and think compliance is the only way they can “win.”

Red spiral like the boring inside a gun.

There are likely few Americans who have not been touched by violence – from war, from mass shootings, from childhood traumas. I have now lived in two places where mass shootings have taken place. In 1991, at the University of Iowa, my afternoon Russian class was moved, as hours before, a man who had killed five people around campus, entered the classroom and shot himself. There have been multiple events in Minnesota since I moved here and that’s not counting the police violence. Even they are not immune. In 2015, just a few blocks away, at the city hall, a man walked in and fired upon police at a swearing-in ceremony. They were injured, he was killed. It’s everywhere. Guns are everywhere.

So, what can a gentle storyteller do? Is there a place for that kind of narrative in a world full of trauma and injustice and cruelty? I cannot watch shows or read books organized around violence. I don’t find it interesting or entertaining when it is reality for so many people. I’ve always believed that reading, getting inside a character’s head, helps grow empathy. And if there is anything missing in American life, it would be that. Throw in some critical thinking skills, less hero worship (seriously, when did politicians develop fan clubs?), more responsibility that accompanies freedom, organizing public policy around the common good, then there might be progress.

Image of Tim Kreider's book I Wrote This Book Because I Love You.

It’s a funny thing that I’m a writer, that I’m here now, writing in public. If I could have one secret power, it would be invisibility. Understatement is my brand. I’ve been reading Tim Kreider’s collection of essays, I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. This excerpt sticks with me: “…if you want to enjoy the rewards of being loved, you also have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” I mean, what is writing, but a wish to be understood, to be heard, to be known and loved? People can go on and on about why they do it, but practically everything we do organizes around a basic human need to belong somewhere.

Perhaps telling tales in a mild-mannered way serves as a counterbalance to the rage. The world does not need more anger. The world needs the opportunity to see the possibilities. That this is not it. That we are capable of change. That cynicism is not intelligence. That we cannot be anything more than what we imagine. So, imagine we must. Even if it is with a light touch.

Grasping for Terra Firma

There is a lot to say. There is nothing to say. I swing wildly between the idea that it’s all been said, but even so, perhaps my own yawp out into the universe is what I need to stop feeling angry and disconnected.

The election brought relief, but not much in the way of joy. I am angry in a way that will inform my activism for the next 4 years. There are few laurels upon which to rest. Still, it’s time to take a beat before formulating the next plan.

Our family is in month 10 of quarantine. We have managed to keep relatively healthy. My daughter was due to come off her chemo drug next month, but after her last follow up, it will be another six months. We can’t risk the tumors coming back and a major surgery being needed in the middle of a pandemic, especially since Minnesota is starting to experience an uncontrolled surge in cases and hospitalizations.

Graphic: A drawing of a house with smoke curling out of the chimney next to a tree.

We worked hard to make the house brighter, painting and changing lighting, in a effort to make it through the winter without losing our minds. My husband’s home office went from a dark space to a bright, airy room. He cleaned out his downtown office – they don’t want workers back in until the middle of next year. So far, we’re doing okay. But we owe a lot of it to delivery and grocery store workers, the unsung heroes of our daily lives.

Last month, I fell into a swamp of a depression. With my daughter in one room taking her virtual college courses and my husband downstairs working, I felt like I was haunting my own house. I was writing here and there, made it through a couple of rounds of a flash fiction competition, attended a virtual writing conference and pitched my current work-in-progress to agents. It felt like more of the same old writing dance I’d been doing for years.

Graphic: Skeleton head with a mortar board. I'm old! I'm going back to school!

Most decisions in my life seem like they’re made in an instant, but usually are the result of something that has been simmering for years on a back burner. I decided to go back to school. At the ripe old age of 53, I’ve been accepted into an MFA in Creative Writing program, which I start in January. The funniest part was contacting the University of Iowa for my 30-year old transcript. Thank goodness they didn’t want my GRE scores, especially since scores before 2015 are not accepted.

I haven’t been writing here, because I’ve been angry and depressed. In order to move forward, I had to make some intentional changes. After being on Twitter for a year, I decided to quit last week. It wasn’t making anything better and it was making me decidedly worse – angrier, more entrenched in my viewpoints, and more anxious. I returned to the old idea of asking myself “Is this helpful?“. It really, really wasn’t.

Graphic: Woman with headphones on asleep at her desk. Me, trying to make a podcast. Snoozeville!

My idea to do a podcast is dead on arrival. I simply wasn’t good at it, cringing at my boring monologues. Still, one of my goals for this blog is to make it as accessible as possible. I’m still learning how to do that, but one thing I’ll start adding next week is a recording of the blog post at the top of the page. More people are listening to podcasts and audiobooks, so I thought it might also be more convenient.

This blog, heading into its 9th year is anemic and needs a boost. Blogging may not be a thing anymore, but it’s my chosen media platform (and now, my only one). Long enough to have substance, but short enough to be digested in a few minutes. I’ve been disconnected from blogland as well as everything else, so I apologize if I haven’t visited your blog or even responded to some comments. It’s not you, it’s me.

So maybe I write this only to say, I’m back. I’m shooting for weekly posts with recording. I’m going to start reading other blogs again and I’m going to try to make this an activity that is more helpful to me and to you.

Let’s reconnect. Let’s be helpful to each other.

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.

The Listening Post

The listening post during war was an intelligence gathering station focused on monitoring transmissions. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last month – gathering information. I’ve been reading heavily, eating up news sources left and right, reading in-depth articles. I’ve reached the conclusion that we’re truly screwed as a species. That seems facile. Perhaps I could massage it a bit – we’re in challenging times. Spin it up another notch – it’s a great time for creative thinking.

canstockphoto48358399I’ve circled back to a novel idea that I had a couple of years ago and am now putting my nose to the grindstone and churning out words. The sense of urgency is heightened by the upcoming election. This election is probably the most important election of this American’s lifetime. Not just about who wins or loses, but about the very legitimacy of voting in our American democracy.

The voter suppression tactics, some long in the making (gerrymandering), some that have shown up in the last few years (availability of polling stations), and the more recent, blatant sabotaging of the postal service may break our system. And yes, white people, we’re a little late to this game. People of color have been dealing with voter suppression tactics since 1866.

Anyway, these times right now might be later viewed as the good times. Who knows where we’ll be in a year? Writing must happen now.

28114469I just finished reading Margaret Walker’s Jubilee. It is shocking that this book, written in 1966, did not receive more attention and accolades. The author is a black woman who heavily researched and wrote a semi-fictional historical novel based loosely on her grandmother’s stories. The book, which covers roughly the same period and location as Gone with the Wind, is written from a slave’s perspective. It makes me angry that this masterpiece never once showed up on the recommended reading lists in college or in any other predominantly white literary space.

Like a lot of white liberals right now, I’m knee-deep in books about racism. Many were already on my shelves, because my trek towards deliberate expansive reading began a few years ago. I began reading more works in translation, more works by people who had different lived experiences.

As a white woman, it’s hard not to be depressed by the Karen and Becky tropes. Or the 53% who voted for the load in the White House. Or the ones who are now throwing temper tantrums in stores about masks. I never knew entitlement had created so many whackadoodles. And of course, the Whackadoodle-in-Chief talking about those mythical suburban housewives, of which I could be considered one.

canstockphoto53920997I call him a whackadoodle, but that makes him sound less dangerous than he is. Mostly because I think it’s the enablers that bear my wrath. He’s just an organ grinder monkey.  Set up to perform, to distract, to entertain the slack-jawed masses while our rights are being impinged upon, our votes suppressed, our pockets picked clean.

So here we are, in the middle of a global pandemic, with a jackwagon at the helm. I am angry nearly all the time. But it’s an anger that has become tempered, redirected, and incisive. This might be useful. Or it could just be more negative energy out in the world, I don’t know. I often say that emotion without action is just so much noise. Perhaps I’ve written less publicly because it is already so noisy out there.

Despite, or because of, this constant seething state, I’ve become wildly productive. The paralysis in the early months of the pandemic has worn off a bit. Perhaps I got bored with being in that lethargic state. Maybe I’ve got live free or die zipping about in my head. The people who use that mantra, usually gun-waving anti-maskers (sorry New Hampshire), would be surprised how easily that phrase can be adapted to an entirely different ethos.

My adaptation is that I don’t want to live in a prison of my own anxiety or fear. I’m going to be louder, more political, intolerant of views that compromise the health, dignity, or rights of my fellow humans. For people who prattle on about divisiveness, it’s an easy muzzle for those of us who have often valued civility over justice, manners over standing up for others. I’ve always been relatively quiet and introspective, but the alchemy of anger and age is creating an element of fearlessness. It’s go time.

canstockphoto12869795It’s go time for all my creative urges as well. In addition to taking 5 million pictures of annoyed birds, I’m practicing/working on The Green Study Podcast. It’s not going well. I’d hoped to give it a try for September, but when I listened to the first episode, I realized how incredibly boring I sound. How’s that for self-promotion? Anyway, it’s still in the works and at some point in the future, you’ll be able to briefly listen to and then abruptly mute, the dulcet sounds of my musings. I might rename it The Sleepening.

How are you doing? That’s such a loaded question, isn’t it? What’s your mantra?  What are your days like? What gets you through the day?