Turn Around (Brighteyes)

Because I can’t help myself when it comes to referencing unrelated pop lyrics.  

There must be people who read more self-help books than me.  Consumers of TED talks that get to the bottom of way more presentations by earnest smart people offering the answer to everything.  But I’ve read my fair share…

It is entirely possible that I was ruined by writing poetry.  While I’d hate to be held to the poetic standard without exception, I certainly feel free to apply it liberally everywhere else: the best use of words is to say exactly what you mean with as much economy as you are capable of.  A book on Essentialism that stretches to 200+ pages is a contradiction that risks the entire premise of the book.  

Most books have this problem.  We authors tend to fall in love with the sound of our own voice in the same way that children in the midst of a tantrum keep crying: they get used to the rhythm of it and the body just perpetuates the posture.  I’m sure I am as guilty as anyone.  On the other hand, I get fussed at for writing too sparsely, so maybe it is only the blog where I wax eloquently to excess.  

Anyway, pushing aside my digressions, what I’m trying to say is this: much of the self-help advice I’ve come across comes down to a simple chunk of advice.  Turn around and face whatever it is you are trying to get away from.  

There are many ways to get to this:  

  • Mindfulness, which advises to approach with curiosity whatever you’re trying to squash in yourself.
  • The metaphor of a car in an unwanted spin – turn into the spin to regain control.  
  • Ariel and Shya Kane – what you resist, persists.  
  • Dawna Markova (I will be singing the praises of Dawna forever, but even she could have condensed), who advises readers to sit with their demons and seek understanding.  
  • Deri Llewellyn-Davis says fuck the fear and sends you off to do the thing that scares you the most.  

I’d never tell anyone to forgo reading.  Buy a book.  Buy loads of books.  Buy my book, while you’re at it.  All I’m saying is that you’re going to come back to the same simple concept time and time again.  To find that freedom most of us are seeking, turn around and face what constrains you with curiosity and compassion.  Stop running, and your fears will stop chasing you.  Give up, but in the nicest possible way.  Surrender.  

There.  Hundreds of dollars in self help books in two paragraphs, one bulleted list, and some tangential rambling about poetry.  

Our destiny is frequently met in the very paths we take to avoid it.  –Jean de La Fontaine

Turn Around (Brighteyes)

The Matrix

Katherine Otto is a relatively new addition to the blog.  We have had a comments discussion over on about entrope, and it has turned into something deserving its own post.

Trust in the institutions of American life are in the crapper.  My faith in the “system” is at an all time low.  You can go to Ms. Otto’s blog for her take on, for example, the tangled beast that is housing finance.  She and I seem to share an inability to distill it all out to a single subject per post.  Instead, I tend to bounce between interrelated points of wtf that seem related to me but perhaps not to anyone else.  There is a reason I’ve enjoyed going back and forth with her.

Anyway, let’s start with Congress being a cesspool of special interest money.  Wall street characters belong in Dante’s Inferno.  People claiming Christianity sell snake oil to old ladies in order to buy their second Benz.  The weather is going nuts.

I’m scared/horrified/angry too.  And when I try to think through all of the forces aligned against “normal” people…  people with jobs living paycheck to paycheck, hoping the roof doesn’t go or the lump isn’t cancer because we’re just barely holding it together and hoping for just a little more cushion in the bank account…  Hell, the beginning of a cushion would be nice.  And while we’re not even close to the 1%, we aren’t at the bottom of that continuum either.  It only gets scarier as the resources erode.

So what do you do? And what kind of life is there when you are consumed by the sense of helplessness?  I feel that helpless rage too, but that also feels like one more incursion, one more shackle in a system that is stacked against “us.”  A market that is stacked against “us.”  Laws that are written for anyone but “we the people.”  Aren’t we easier to manage when we are afraid and helpless/hopeless?  Who benefits most from the system?  Who benefits the most from a population that survives on a daily diet of anxiety?  Not you and me, that’s for sure.

News is paid for by advertisements.  Advertisements are purchased by companies seeking to sell you shit.  You buy the shit, advertisers pay the news.  Whatever tenor of news sells the most shit is the tenor of news you are going to see.  And guess what?  Scary news sells the most shit.  No one is going to go buy a new distracting gadget to feel better after a National Geographic special on unlikely animal friends.  You buy that distracting item because everything is horrible and you might as well distract yourself while you still can.  Honestly, I think the most revolutionary thing you can do is to refuse the fear that is being used against us.

Again: what do you do?  I think, I hope, you focus on the stuff that isn’t a commodity and can’t be exploited by those systems we most mistrust.  Joy in simple things.  Connecting to other people.  Volunteer with the elderly, or the homeless, or tutoring underprivileged kids.  Find a pet.  Take up a hobby.  Knit baby hats for the ICU.  Garden.  Watch the sunset.  Look for reasons to be grateful.  Do those things that don’t require someone else’s permission to make your little corner of the world a better place.

And refuse.  Refuse the fear and anxiety.  Refuse the value system that puts money above everything else.  Love with baked goods or time spent instead of plastic crap.  Hang out with your family without agenda.  Play board games.  Dance.  Sing in the shower.  And when you see an opportunity to function outside the system, take it.

I’m not saying let’s be all Pollyanna about this.  I’m saying don’t let them have your joy.

The Matrix

Writing Empire

The Daily Beast recently wrote an article about Empire, with a heavy emphasis on Empire’s co-creator, Danny Strong.  In the interview, he said something really smart about writing:

“Maybe people are surprised,” he concedes, adding that he’s routinely asked how he’s able to write so believably about the world of hip-hop and black culture. “The real question is how can I write in any world?” he says. “Everything I write has nothing to do with me.”

Of course I think it is smart, because I agree completely.  Danny Strong, white guy, writes a convincing girl (he was the screenwriter for the last in the Hunger Games films), and apparently writes relate-able, compelling characters that happen to come from a different racial composition.  (One could also assume he’s not a criminal either.)

I might hurt some feelings here, but I think this is a big discriminator between the pros and those who are writing their way up to pro…  The ability to write a character that isn’t a thinly-disguised version of you going through something that is more-or-less autobiographical with some of the details changed to make you your main character look good.  Hell, even the desire to move beyond the stricture “write what you know” is a great starting point.  Don’t go crazy with it and try to describe the desk job of a nuclear physicist unless you’re willing to do the research to get the details right and can gut-check it with someone who knows better, but beyond that…

No, your writing doesn’t have to be bound by the color of your hair or the limits of your experience.  Here’s another truth that is going to be unpopular: unless you’re a serious exception (and if you were a serious exception, you wouldn’t need me to tell you this) your life isn’t that interesting.  Most tragedies that feel momentous to the person experiencing the tragedy are, in reality, a dime a dozen.  I’m not saying this from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know: you should have talked to me when I was going through my divorce.  It was like someone had ripped both arms out, and I was sure that I was the only person in the whole world who hurt quite as much as I was hurting at that point in time.  Grief makes us myopic and self-absorbed.  I’m as guilty of it as anyone.  How could I claim otherwise?  The evidence is all here in this blog.

That being said, I know that my divorce, fictionalized or in a straightforward re-telling doesn’t make for a good novel.  It was just two people doing the best they could and coming to terms with the fact that the best they could do wasn’t good enough.  Sad, for sure, but no different than any other divorce.  People live that shit, they don’t need to do it again in their recreational reading.

So here’s my advice to writers and aspiring writers: Take Mr. Strong’s lead.  Write what you don’t know.  Ground it in what you feel.  The stronger the feeling, the stronger the writing.  Be brave.  Take chances.  And get out of your skin.

Writing Empire

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice

Perhaps it is unfair, the amount of time I’ve spent on my mother’s failings.  Seriously, how bad could it have been with three kids that turned into functional adults, none in jail, all reasonably good people…  I’ve been talking about the red in her ledgers, but there was plenty of black.

She was a brave one, not because she was unafraid, but because she was terrified.  She was born in a mining town in northern Alberta on the edge of the Canadian Rockies.  The first daughter of a miner, according to the rules of the world she was born into, she was destined to become the wife of a miner with a world that began and ended at the borders of a company town.  New places scared her – in part because she was terrified of looking stupid.  I understand this fear.  But she did it anyway.  She moved a lot in her life.  From Alberta to Michigan to Washington State to Indiana (and some places between) to Virginia to DC back to Michigan and on to Florida.  She traveled to places that were well outside of her comfort zone.  In Morocco, she hung out with my mother in law, bartered for fossils and carpets, and thought the hamam experience was the best thing ever.  She got comfortable visiting New York City on her own.

She was determined and saw a thing through once she started it.  That determination saw her through a masters degree and a PhD.  Her mother completed a GED in her retirement and from that to a Doctorate in one generation – and not just any Doctorate, but a PhD in Education.  She increased the quality of the country’s teachers in her sphere of influence.

She fought for the women she touched.  When girls under her power got into “trouble” she fought for them.  There are several people in the world who owe their lives to her influence.  Adoptions she enabled, times when she intervened so that a woman could graduate and keep the kid.  As she scrambled for success in her field, it was never at someone else’s expense.

She had a wicked little sense of humor.  It didn’t always make itself evident, but it was there in the background.  Sometimes it was horrifying and inappropriate, but it was there.

She had great taste.  Before there were hipsters obsessed with Danish or Mid-Century Modern, she coveted (and got) this gorgeous flatware set that I am grateful to have inherited.  Her furniture was lovely.

At the root of it, she wasn’t malicious or bad.  She just wanted approval so badly.  The best approval came from authority figures and external sources, and she’d do just about anything to get it.  She grew, she really did.  In her 50’s, she made some brave choices because she’d finally found a place where her own opinion mattered more than what other people might think of her.  I was proud of her.  Wherever there is red in her books, there’s a 4 year old with a crayon needing desperately for someone to tell her she was pretty, she was loved, and that she was good enough.

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice

Indivisible

Dying seems like one of those things that should be indivisible.  Like a number that simply must be entirely itself and refuses to be split into smaller components.  It isn’t.  Dying is broken down into infinite parts.  Unless you go by lightening bolt or thunderclap, it doesn’t happen all at once.  At least not until it does.

She gave up yesterday.  Sort of.  Radiation has been happening at the same time, more or less, every morning.  So when I got to the hospital with my cousin and her room was empty, we rushed down to the inquisition-looking room where radiation takes place.  A black shape hangs on the wall.  It has a head with a cage for a mouth and a body that looks like the vague outline they use for target practice.  There’s a shelf on the wall that holds masks made out of laundry-basket plastic.  They’re white.  The mask itself is mesh, but the sides are solid and those sides have four holes drilled in them, two on each side.

Two days ago, she spent the last of her energy to get onto the table.  It is a narrow table, stainless steel that they try to make kinder with blankets, and at the head of the thing is a plastic thing to prop up the patient’s neck.  It looks about as comfortable as the lip of the sink you lean on when you are getting your hair washed at the salon.  When your neck is positioned just so, the mask goes over your face – this one has my mother’s pert nose.  I didn’t get that nose, I got my father’s nose.  Those holes on the side, they match up with pins coming out of the table, so when you’re laying there, there is no moving your head.  This is kinder, they tell me, than the old way when they taped you down and tattooed you in the exact spot where radiation was to be applied.

Two days ago, I was there when she went in.  There when they didn’t know that, from Friday to Monday, she’d lost a lot of strength and wasn’t going to be able to walk the three steps from the gurney to the table on her own.  They weren’t prepared and that lady of mine, she worked so hard to get where she’d been told to go.

Yesterday, I was only there when she got out.  She looked at me like I was a date she was afraid had stood her up – no recrimination, just utter relief that her faith hadn’t been misplaced, that I was there, that there was an explanation.  She didn’t know if it was night or day.

We talked to her radiation doctor.  Yesterday was nine of the ten prescribed treatments, intended to hold the seizures back and help her with the splitting headaches.  But the doctor said she didn’t have to do the last one.  Too hard on her, she’s slipped so far in the past week.  She doesn’t have to do them anymore.  She asked the doctor what the next step in the fight was, and the doctor told her there was no more fight.  She wanted to know what was next.  The doctor said hospice, but I think mom meant to ask what dying was like.

I wanted to quote Serius Black at her: Quick as a wink.  Like falling asleep.

But what do I know?  I would have been wrong, anyway.

She gave up.  At least part of her did.

We cried.  Not like this was a surprise to anyone, not really.  Weeks, days, it hasn’t mattered.  She’s not going to be there for my nephews’ graduation.  My niece’s (theoretical) wedding.  Great grandbabies.  All of that is going to go on without her and we’ve known that for a year now.

The last thing she asked was about my grandmother, who is alive and as well as you can be when you heart is breaking for your suffering child.  A little pain medication and she fell into its arms willingly.

The dying sleep differently.  It is uncomfortable to watch.  Her head rolled back, her mouth wide open, her lower jaw sunk back into her neck.  It is one of those small components of dying that shouldn’t be distinct, but is.  Her lips are dry, so I put Eos lip balm on them.  As a 100% alive person, she had this disgusting habit of picking absently at her nose.  She’d pick holes in the membrane inside her nostrils, and then rub Vicks in the inner rim.  It was gross.  There’s Palmer’s Skin Oil by the bed.  I bought it on … Sunday?  I roll some onto my finger and keep her nose moisturized.  Even now, I can’t talk myself into sticking my finger all the way up her nose.  There are limits.

Sometimes she gestures at her face like she’s trying to perform this ritual, but she’s lost track of where all the necessary parts are.

Because she’s breathing through her mouth, I’ve been using the end of the straw to drip a little water into her mouth every once in a while.  I could drown her like this, so I don’t give her a lot of water.  I mean, being picky about how she goes right now doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I’d still rather not drown my mother in her hospital bed.  They have swabs that you can dampen with water.  I tried that.  She bit down on it and wouldn’t let go.  The straw works better.

Since, she’s been awake (that I know of) for two ten minute chunks.  Not able to speak.  I painted her nails while she was gone.  I told her between doses of medication and she looked at them all wobbly-eyed and nearly smiled.  Then she went back to sleep.

She breathes like there is a mixed marshal arts tournament happening in her chest.  She’s not there.  But she’s not gone either.  I was expecting them to call me in the middle of the night to say that she’d given all the way up.

Not yet.

Until you see it, you think dying is indivisible.  Barring bullet or crash, it isn’t so.  You die gradually, a little bit at a time.  In a minute I’ll wash my face and do something to keep my hair out of the way, then I’ll drive to the hospital with my cousin, and we’re going to go learn what it sounds like when a tough old lady fights the notion that she’ll never walk in the woods with her grandsons again.

Whoo-hoo-hoo, look who knows so much. It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do.

Indivisible

Good Enough

This is something I’ve talked around in various and assorted posts, but not something I’ve ever addressed directly.

Enough is not a meaningful measure.  What is “enough” anyway?  Who gets to call it?  A house that is big enough for me wouldn’t be nearly big enough for a Kardashian.  Enough is a relative measure, entirely subjective, and it moves constantly.  Because as soon as we reach a point where we would have called it “enough” before we got there, suddenly, it is no longer good enough.  Because we’re there and a lot of us (not all, but many) are convinced we’ll never be enough so if we can do it, then the “it” that needs to be done must be a little further ahead.

A year ago, I would have told you that swimming a mile every other day would be more than enough.  Now I’m doing two miles every other day and I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t be pushing myself to do a little more because maybe two miles isn’t good enough.

That’s just ridiculous.

On the other hand, this striving for a target of enough that we move beyond our grasp isn’t all bad.  Doubt is a good thing.  It keeps us open-minded, it keeps us learning, it keeps us growing.

But for functioning in life, for moving forward, for taking a leap of faith, am I good enough is a pretty rotten question.

The reality is that you’ve gotten this far.  You’ve made some mistakes, you’ve screwed some things up royally.  You’re still here.  You’re still breathing.  You’ve survived some shitty days and you still have a sense of humor.  That’s pretty amazing.  Even better, you still have this marvelous opportunity embedded in today (or tomorrow, since it’s late) to show up.  Get the ego out of the way.  Dispose of the judgement and whatever concerns you might have regarding other people’s judgement.  Your gift is your presence, for whatever the task at hand is.  You don’t have to be good enough.  Good enough is a feeling, it isn’t a fact.

You just have to show and you’ll be way ahead of everyone else who is paralyzed by the idea that good enough is a real thing they have to achieve before they can do something great.

Good Enough

Afraid of my Shadow

But I’m not ashamed.  Every fear is a shadow.  Think about it.

Always with you.
Amorphous in shape.
Impossible to pin down.
It just runs as fast as you do when you try to get away from it.
The things you do to cut yourself off from your fears don’t work.

So if you aren’t going to be able to get rid of your fear, what do you do?

You don’t do anything.

If you want it to stop chasing you, you stop running.  
If you want it to shrink, sit down with it.  

Make friends with it.  Accept it.  Get comfortable with the fact that you’re never going to beat your shadow into submission.  See how it shows you yourself.  And then let it do its thing.  Just because you will always carry your fear with you doesn’t mean you have to let it run your life.

Afraid of my Shadow