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?

Notes from a Non-Essential Life

Our family has been in “quarantine” for approximately five weeks, leaving only for grocery pickup, and medical emergencies. Work, school, meetings, and music lessons have all been conducted online. We wash our groceries. Door knobs are cleaned regularly. I still touch my face constantly.

*****

When all this began, I was filled with ambition. I was going to write blog posts a couple times a week, maybe run a contest, and get reconnected with other bloggers. Our house was going to be cleaned from top to bottom. I’d get my garden seedlings ready. We’d finish our deck and teach our daughter to drive. Maybe I’d get my curse of a novel edited and revised. I’d get on a regular exercise plan, maybe knock off some extra weight.

canstockphoto11545997Instead, I play “spin-the-bad-news-wheel” rolling from one news source to another. I’m rage-reading Twitter. A good day is one in which I shower and make one family meal. These days, I think about the repetitive pacing of animals in the zoo. Early in the morning, I walk my neighborhood – nearly the same route every day, in order to avoid other humans. The days all run together to the point that I’ve taken to writing the day and date on my whiteboard.

And yet, we’re safe (a relative term). We are able to get by financially. We have access to food and water and electricity. We have solid internet. Our home is a comforting sanctuary. We are among the fortunate.

*****

Between my daughter’s medical emergencies and the overwhelming news outside our front door, there are days though, when I feel the undercurrent of anxiety. Some nights I wake up, thinking that I hear someone crying out. I toss and turn and the following day is a blur.

canstockphoto8969152I return to the toolbox – meditation, exercise, gardening, writing. Halfhearted attempts at best. I even tried to add a little ritual here and there. During meditation, I decided to try some old incense. Buddhists do it. They seem serene. If serene means filling your house with acrid smoke that smells like an ashtray on fire, then I’m zen itself.

New tools. A Nintendo Switch video game that we gave to our daughter for her 16th birthday. Now our entire family spends time each day building a rapacious island dynasty in Animal Crossing. There is something quite calming about traveling to a remote island, stripping it of all its resources and running away. Virtual colonialism. My family of origin is British, so perhaps there is a genetic component.

As I express my concern about the lessons the game teaches, my daughter rolls her eyes. Mom ruins everything. I don’t want to brag, but I’m good at taking perfectly benign entertainment and deconstructing in such a way that you can’t help but feel guilt. I think it really adds another layer to the game.

*****

I didn’t think I could do it – writing at home with other human beings in the house. For years, I regarded solitude as necessary to writing. I’m a well-trained caregiver. Any noise or movement and I’m immediately alerted to potential need. I’m being forced to unlearn this mentality. In fact, my family would damn well appreciate it if I would stop checking in with them every hour.

My study has two doors, which creates a shortcut to the kitchen. I’ve had to learn to shut both doors. We all now use door knob signs to indicate “Video Call” or “Writing: Please do not disturb”. I also need NO – I do not know if we have any parmesan left or I know you are bored, but I’m not going to entertain you. They think I am writing a lot.

canstockphoto15046720The upside to the pandemic is (and I say that, acutely aware of my privilege at the moment) that the Gotham Writers Workshop is offering some of their classes via Zoom. These are classes in NYC that I would have never been able to attend. I’m taking a fiction writing course focusing on short stories and a course to complete the first draft of a novel. It’s been an interesting experience, but more importantly, connected me with other writers and feedback on my work.

I’m feeling very writerly these days. This week, I listened to my short story be critiqued six ways to Sunday, shortly after I received two short story rejections. One of those rejections was a kind note from the publication editor. I have surprised myself by being able to handle both critique and rejection well. I don’t think I could have handled it when I was younger. You know, last year.

*****

To admit to any moments of joy or happiness feels wrong. I know there is suffering and grieving and injustice in the world. I know that I’m a resident and user of services in a system that supports inequality as a feature, not a bug. This was the way before the pandemic and will likely be the way after. Like most crises, we see revealed before us that the “gaps” are canyons, that imagination is desperately needed everywhere – education, government, employment, public spaces, media, and relationships.

I want to think about the world differently. I want, after all of this is over, for the world canstockphoto8183571to be different. Maturing, evolving, kinder, with a sense that we truly are all in this together. I don’t fool myself, though. I knew after the 2012 Sandy Hook murders of school children and staff when nothing changed, that my country was its own worst enemy. And here we are, forced to watch as our government, led by cynical ignorance, fumbles about with our lives.

What I want for and of this world is of no account. I am a non-essential citizen. I started this post writing about perspective. As a nonbeliever in gods, I’ve arrived at a point just past nihilism: if nothing matters, then everything can matter or, to be more precise, I get to decide what matters to me. Kindness, curiosity, and learning still matter to me. I’m not particularly adept at any of those things, but that’s the path I am trying to trod. Same as it ever was.

Falling Apart, Blogging in Place

It’s been nearly a month since I’ve written here. For some people, this would be an indicator that they were being wildly productive elsewhere. For me, it runs parallel to everything else in my life. So I return, disorganized and unkempt, my decompensation complete after a year of crises.

canstockphoto8316983I woke up two weeks ago feeling as if every joint in my body was inflamed. My hands were stiff and painful. There was stabbing nerve pain in my knees. I walked as if I were 82, not 52. It sent me into a depression. After so long of keeping a stiff upper lip, of caregiving, and chauffeuring and tracking down medical research and working hard to make sure everyone in my circle was cared for, fed, loved, paid attention to over the last year, my body and brain said enough already.

Writing stopped altogether. I buried myself in books, frequent naps, and long stares into space. I walked a lot and when my feet hurt and my eyes stung from the cold, I walked some more. I slowly unraveled the strands of my depression. It’s February in Minnesota. I consider it the worst month – 4 months of winter behind, 2-4 months ahead. As I’ve written about numerous times, this last year was situational hell with medical crises and family losses. And menopause has got me in its grip – miserable and unpredictable. So, there are reasons.

canstockphoto29330425.jpgIn this Instagram marketing world, there’s a temptation to wait until everything can be repackaged into a neat story, complete with a moral and pics to prove it. But sometimes the only way to find one’s way through the story is to write about it, to just start telling it. We’re in love with stories of redemption and miracle outcomes, but those are movies and reality shows and late night commercials, not life. Life continues in all its uneven messiness, where the best victories are slivers of light – moments when we are able to exhale.

Things are quiet now. My daughter’s health is stable and we have a month or so before the next battery of tests. I’ve got a long list of self-care things I must do to regain my health and sense of purpose. I approach everything the same way (which can sometimes be an issue): Make a list of problems I’m trying to solve, do research, break it down to concrete steps, line up resources, and start walking the plan.

It’s time to exhale.

Escaping Reality: Variations on a Theme

There was a moment in time a couple of weeks ago when I was binge-watching episodes of Leverage while playing Freecell, eating, checking my email and text messages, and rage-reading Twitter feeds. I had a brief insight, a moment standing outside of myself, seeing a kind of desperate escapism at play. I was numb, distracted, and when I stopped all activity and sat still – utterly, utterly depressed.

It was time to wake myself up, to stop sleepwalking through my emotions, and to take some responsibility for the quality of my life. Compassion allows for the fact that this last year was the worst of my life, but when does self-care lurch into self-medication and then stagger into self-destruction? For me, it’s when I can’t remember my days. What did I do yesterday? I have no idea.

It’s a hard road back from the Land of Numb. I take preventative measures – delete the games from my computer. Log out of everything so I’m forced to log in – one step in mindfulness. I make myself get back into an exercise routine – the pain and muscle aches end the detachment from my body. I force myself to do one activity, one step at a time. I do it initially, resentfully, repeating the mantra it doesn’t matter if you feel like it, just do it.

*****

I started to think about distraction and escapism and self-care and how it all gets conflated and confused. There’s a whole economy built around the idea of self-care with few definitions on what that truly entails. The Venn Diagram that includes self-care, distraction, consumerism, entertainment, and addiction is a giant black circle with slivers of light at the edges.

10639Our brains are so overwhelmed not just by our own human predicaments, but by the constant influx of information and messaging. Maybe the paralysis of mindlessly entertaining ourselves is all we can manage. I think about Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. We have so many diversions to choose from, so many choices to make in our lives, that paralysis comes rather easily. As Schwartz explains, even when we make choices, our satisfaction is less because if our choice is not great, we think about all the other ones we could have made.

I’ve taken to asking myself a lot of questions about what I do with my time. Does this support my intentions for myself? Do I feel energized or drained after this activity? Is there something better I could do? What am I avoiding? There are times when taking downtime is a necessary part of life, to let your mind zone out or wander, to be purely entertained or engaged. But how much time? When does comfort become a coma?

*****

48895108I had the pleasure last week of reading David Puretz’s The Escapist, which was sent to me by JKS Communications. The protagonist/anti-hero is self-medicating, incapable of dealing with the reality of his life and sets off to find his father, a veteran of the Iraq War. The protagonist is alternately self-destructive and introspective, but learns and experiences enough to make this a satisfying read.

Debut novels can be hit or miss and I was wary of reading another drug-fueled odyssey, which is usually the purview of male writers – especially those of the David Foster Wallace era. In The Escapist, the anti-hero is just sympathetic enough, the writing is strong, and the story is engaging. Bonus points for lack of misogyny and rare masturbatory or bodily effluvia references (not a prude, but how much does one need to know about sputum and semen?).

Self-medication as escape is nothing new. I come from a long line of self-medicators – booze, smoking, drugs, more booze. I sobered up in my mid-20s, gave up smoking when I was 30, but there was always food and an addiction to running shoes and books. And for this writer – the productivity-killing need to research. For some people, it’s sports or religion or patriotism or political ideology or fashion, whatever makes the answers easier, life more palatable, something to subvert our fears and anxieties and any other untenable emotions.

Some of these things are perfectly healthy, but anything can be a way of detaching from emotion or reality. I’ve become intensely curious about life with all of those things stripped away. Our addictions, distractions, comfort blankets, the groups we identify with, and the cozy philosophies – who are we without them?

*****

18209520Writing is an escape of sorts, but these days I don’t know if I’m running away from or toward it. I guess it only matters that I’m doing it, anchored in a moment, neither here nor there. I keep thinking about the path and how a writer lives two lives, moving in the world and then living on the page. And that my fears have often allowed one to supercede the other.

I’ve started reading The Authentic Life: Zen Wisdom for Living Free from Complacency and Fear by Ezra Bayda. The first chapter was all about facing fears head-on and he ends it with a prescient quote from Chinese Zen Master Wu-Men: When the mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best moment of your life. 

Wishing you some of your best moments in the week ahead!