The Relentless Trying Again (or how to fall in love with a home)

Dear you,

We have bought our first house. I am writing this from my very own space—a whole floor!—a not-too-warm in the mornings, hardwood-floored, all-mine attic. I have grand plans for this attic. Whole walls full of large swaths of paper for brainstorming, an isolated dormer with a window overlooking the neighborhood for drafting, a bookshelf with a shelf for publications I and my friends wrote or were published in, a shelf for books of writing techniques and memoirs, and a shelf to hold those things which serve as research or inspiration for whatever I’m working on now. The floor is littered with old family photographs as I warm up for book two and it’s okay that they’re littered on the floor because nobody but me will be up here to be disturbed by it. Did I mention that I painted the walls a pale pink which gives it the impression of a womb which only makes me love it more?

I am, in a word, enchanted. By the beauty of the space, by the possibilities in it, by the whole fresh start feel of all of it. And in being so enchanted, it has been nearly impossible to actually write in it. Even now, once I got through the fun of describing the space, I spent five minutes sitting with a blank stare at the computer.

Buying a house was a dream for us, one that we weren’t sure would come true for quite some time. Wouldn’t we have to win some kind of lottery, or save for many more years, or compromise by buying in a neighborhood we didn’t love as much which honestly wouldn’t feel like as much of a compromise as it did a failing? But no—we found the perfect house, in the perfect neighborhood, with the perfect amount of space for the two of us, and the perfect amount of room to expand into the future. It has been beautifully re-modeled, sold to us by a couple that loved it dearly and did well to make sure we felt welcome and had everything we needed to start our new chapter. The house sits in a historic neighborhood surrounded by other beautiful houses full of wonderful neighbors who make it a point to throw parties and see each other often. I hear Halloween is an incredible affair with literal thousands of trick-or-treaters. If you know me at all, you know how important trick-or-treating is to my fall soul.

Really, Husband and I wake up every day with a mixture of how in the hell did we get so lucky euphoria and the oh god we bought a house panic. I walk around making a list of the things we need to buy or do in a perpetual point of nesting I’m not sure will ever end. Husband rubs his hands over each crack in the wall with a worried stare. We sit on the porch dreaming of the deck we will build. We eye the garden shed with a low-grade phobia of brown recluses. We make plans to finish out the basement, the attic, expanding into additional rooms, studios, a workshop in the back, a yard full of gardens and flowers and trees. We check our bank account for the moment our mortgage payment, the water bill, the electric, all of it go through. It’s not a problem of not having enough to pay; it just seems irresponsible not to continually check.

In short, the past two months have been an oscillation of living in a dream and living in work that will never end. And in between all of it, in living in my dream space, I have not written a word. Two months and no production.

I am being too hard on myself, I know this. Moving a life, even if just a few minutes down the road, does make everything stop. Plus, the attic needed to be painted first (a task I still haven’t totally finished and worry I may never), the house set up to be comfortable, so on and so forth. I was busy at work with program wrap-up. But the program is wrapped up and we are, for all intents and purposes, comfortable enough in the house to get through each day. And still, I sit in my beautiful room, surrounded by old family photos and all the large paper, post-its, and markers I could need to start plotting, and still—nothing.

It occurs to me that perhaps I am waiting for some kind of magic to happen. After all, it seemed like the house came to us via magic—why not the writing with it? I can hear my critique group laughing all the way from Texas.

Another thought, this one much more real and worrysome—do I dare disrupt the dream of what this writing space will be by actually writing in it and discovering it is just as much “dream” as all my other writing spaces were? Because for all the extra room, the silence, the solitude, the morning light, it still comes down to a desk, my computer, and work. For all the dreams come true, will I find that I work no better here than I did there? Green grass abounds everywhere but right in front of me.

Ultimately, the house came to us the same way the writing does—a dream, perseverance through rejection, day after day of going at it again until something falls into place, an acceptance is given. No wonder it feels like magic—it feels like the struggle will never end until it does. Writing is a forever lesson in patience, one I never learned well. But perhaps perseverance outweighs the patience. And that is one thing I have in spades.

So I will sit here, 6:00am every morning without fail, staring at the computer usually, staring at my notebooks always, sifting around in my mind and looking for that thing that will spark, waiting for the magic that only I and a relentless trying again can produce. It’ll spark eventually. It has to. But for now, I will lean back in my chair, admire the way the morning light catches on the windows, and dream.

Seek Like a Child

Dear you,

Today is the last day of my twenties. I would like to tell you that I’m handling it well, and for all I knew up until last week, I really was handling it well. Everyone knows that the thirties are way better than twenties. Things come easier because you’re older and wiser enough to figure the answer to a question faster. There is no #adulting, there is only an adult.

And I have wanted to be an adult for so long. To be that older, wiser person. To have the hard won answers. I have wanted to be an adult so much so that I aggressively jump into every adult To-Do item like I won’t have time to do it tomorrow. I handle my and my husband’s budgeting, retirement accounts and investments, our health insurance and life insurance (yes, we do actually have life insurance because I am unsurprisingly not unconvinced that one of us will drop dead tomorrow), and I inventory the food and amenities in our house at the drop of a hat to make sure there is always enough, always something there to catch us should we run out of cash and need to eat mac and cheese for a few weeks. (No, this hasn’t quite happened yet; most times I just eat the mac and cheese cause it’s mac and cheese, but I always replace the box because you never know when you’re going to need cheap mac and cheese.)

I was this way in Texas and it’s only worsened in Nashville. Like survivor-level worsened. I am learning to preserve food like my life depends on it and yes, it really upsets my day when we throw away something we could have eaten but let go bad. I am hoarding books on what to do in case of emergency. (What emergency? Any emergency. First aid? Check. Economic collapse? Check. Fall of civilization and war-level conflict? Check and check.)

I could blame all this on He Who Must Not Be Named, and certainly the fault of a portion of this anxiety does lay at the feet of a government that’s done a 180 in six months, the collapse of the concept of truth, and a feeling that the world at large is getting ready to hole up and get theirs, others in need be damned.

But the uncertainty was here before January, before last August when we moved. It was here in 2009 when I was fresh out of college, freshly unemployed, and fresh into experiencing my first major economic recession. It was here when I was twelve and everyone around me was convinced that the computers weren’t going to know one year from another causing the world to collapse into chaos at the stroke of midnight. And it was here when I was a little girl and was told that good people went to a good place after they died and bad people went to a bad place and you better believe I fretted over what would be considered good enough to be loved and what could be bad enough to be unloved.

The uncertainty has been here all my life. It was here before me and it’ll be here long after me. But I guess, for some strange reason, I simply thought that uncertainty at thirty would be far easier than uncertainty at twenty. The reality is that it’s not; it’s the same and sometimes even feels worse because there is less time and more to lose.

For whatever reason, perhaps the ticking clock of my birthday, the fact that my birthday also now symbolizes a full year spent in this city, or we could simply blame it on the heat — all of this came to a head this past week. It was a rough week, so to speak, and by the end of it, I just wanted to be in silence.

So I went for a hike. The beautiful thing about this city is that there is no lack of trails set in large forests with climbs and views. There are so many that it’s easy to find a trail where no one else will be and, thanks to Nashvillians believing that 90 degrees is “hot,” there weren’t too many other people there this Saturday when I went into the forest.

I have a hard time with hiking trails and day hikes. Growing up in prairie and forest, a good hike to me means bushwhacking through brush and seeing what hasn’t been seen before. A hike on a trail maintained by a state park department means following an easy path and seeing nothing new. I much prefer backpacking where you can get away, have the phone out of service, carry everything you need on your back, really have to be careful or you really may not survive. (And if you’re wondering why I have to make everything so hard for myself, I wonder that too on a daily basis.) But I went because I figured I should, because I figured it would get me close to what I was looking for.

I followed loop after loop to extend the trail as long as I could until the last leg of the trail stopped in the middle of the forest. At the end was a clearing and three rotten wood benches in a circle. I took off my pack and lay down, feeling no more strong or fragile than the branches above me. There was something to this silence and this solitude that was comforting, something I had been missing. But it wasn’t the silence or the solitude itself. There was something underneath it and I searched to name it. But the airplanes were still flying overhead and a motorcycle could be heard in the distance, and after forty-five minutes of quiet meditation some other hikers holding loud conversation approached so I packed up and left.

It wasn’t until the next day that I put my finger on exactly what it was I missed. I spent the morning in solitude and in silence (as close as it’ll get in this city) and worked over what this rush of uncertainty could all be about. What was it that made me hoard safety in the form of a firm budget, preserved food, and insurance payments? I thought of the forest and how begrudgingly I took the day hike, how part of it didn’t feel real until I sat alone under those trees and thought about the quality of strength.

And then I thought: Perhaps I am having a crisis of faith.

I can hear my mother now yelling, “Go to church!” But it’s not church that I’m missing. The crisis of faith had to do specifically with the idea that I had always believed everything would turn out okay. No matter how bad anything gets, it’ll end up the way it’s supposed to. It will end, essentially. The fear and uncertainty will end, the same way Job’s suffering came to an end when God revealed it was all a bet with the Devil.

The work I do, the way I have always lived my life, has always been built on the foundation of people are good, the world bends toward kindness, you are not alone. I have to be able to believe that I am of service to whatever positive energy is out there and that that same positive energy will be of service to me. But being in this new city, grappling with this new world, it has been hard to feel the positive energy under all the discomfort.

Fear and uncertainty have been with me as long as I have been me. Continually leaning into discomfort seems to have become a recent pastime. I needed to go somewhere safe. The forest came close. But real safety came in the form of a meditation group I joined that morning.

I have been practicing meditation for a few years now but I’ve certainly fallen off this year. Of course, the time when quiet contemplation is most needed is the time it is the hardest. I know this and yet I still wasn’t taking my quiet time seriously. But as someone who has always kept a path to spirituality in whatever form it may take as a priority, it suddenly became very clear where the fear and loneliness came from.

So I went to the group, fear of lost faith far outweighing the fear of the unknown. We sat in meditation, we walked in meditation. We clustered ourselves wall to wall into a small room and took in each other’s presence. And then we talked. I was not the only one feeling a loss of faith, a lack of safety, a fear of something that cannot be named.

But we sat with it, together. We looked each other in the eye and acknowledged that what makes us afraid. And in that discomfort, we found faith in each other.

Being an adult feels like it should mean knowing the answer, being responsible, doing the right thing. But the world is hardly so clear cut. What worked before doesn’t always work again; there is always the need to evolve.

Sometimes, being an adult means never forgetting the little things learned in childhood. Every day features a new thing to fear and it’s easy to focus only on that one black hole in the vision. But there are so many occasions for grace. I learned long ago one need only seek like a child.

 

How We Save Ourselves

Dear You,

My mind has been preoccupied with cycles as of late. Winter both wants to shove off and hang on. Sunshine breaks through and I set out the plants; a front blows through and back in they go. Winter isn’t close to being over, this cycle isn’t yet completed, but I still get ahead of myself with hope.

As much as I pine for the warm days of spring, I know I can’t have them (and wouldn’t appreciate them) without cold winters. So I busy myself with other things: planning various gardens, making lists of what I will need, buying seeds, starting (much to Husband’s dismay) a worm farm.

And always, always, there is this time when winter can’t make up its mind that I begin to get anxious because I see the spring coming but I can’t feel it yet. The cycle moves at its own pace.

And this is why I have been preoccupied with cycles. Abundance versus scarcity, happiness versus sadness, fear versus calm. All exist for every person in nearly every day sometimes even at the same time. We want to speed up and get through an uncomfortable moment and at the very same time bemoan the fact that time passes too quickly and our children have grown without our noticing. We love the idea of abundance and fill our lives with as many people, experiences, things as we can manage and still walk away feeling like nothing and no one (including ourselves) is ever enough. We get a raise, we get laid off. We are in love, we are heartbroken. We go up and we go down.

All of the world exists in cycles within cycles within cycles and we are the gamblers foolish enough to believe that every day will end up with a jackpot. The jackpot rarely comes, but it will, some day and some time, because it always has. The hope found in even the smallest of payouts is enough to keep us going.

It’s this addiction to the payout that keeps us scrolling through Facebook and news feeds looking for any kind of information that will give us the lift we want. It keeps us refreshing an email inbox looking for good news, checking our phones. It keeps me staring out the window wondering when the sun will break enough to set out the plants.

And right now, with the world gone small and the issues around it looming large and terrifying, it makes perfect sense that we are looking for some kind of positive payout, a definitive moment of yes, everything will be okay. Your world will stay unchanged. 

Our emotions are hovering near the edge of every precipice. Fear is a constant presence, infiltrating even the smallest of interactions. Some of us are in a state of shock. Some of us are so hopeful it nears hysteria. I myself feel as if I am grieving. News comes and goes so fast, we all feel the perpetual ache of whiplash. (Cue the pick up of the phone to see what has changed in the last hour. Cue the national pining for everything to just be alright.)

All of it combines to create a community of extremes, where everything is both too close and too far, all talk reduced to a shout or a whisper, nothing in the middle, no hand to hold on to.

So we bury ourselves in news headlines searching for anything that will give us a lift. We scroll through Facebook looking for a meme that understands us. We binge on Netflix because the people behind the screen are a safer bet than the neighbors next door. And all the time we are waiting.

What we are all waiting for, ultimately, is the thing that will save us. The text from a loved one, the email containing a job offer. The critical piece of news confirming that, yes, we were right all along regardless of what the other side says. We desperately want that intervention from on high, the deus ex machina. We require miracles because we’ve spent so much time with our heads down pulling the lever of external hope that we’ve forgotten what it takes to save our souls.

No piece of news, no change in world events, no gift from on high will change the fact that right now in this moment many of us are more comfortable with strangers behind a screen than we are with our own neighbors. We are too afraid to talk to their own closest family members for fear of what will be said or revealed about the other — a fear that deals no more and no less with the potential loss of the other’s love. We don’t talk because we’re too afraid to see just how wide that gulf has become. And the longer we let it go, the more shit that gets thrown into it. Stories we make up about each other. Perceived slights grown to monstrous proportions. A long gone memory suddenly back and rearing its ugly head of how unfair.

All of this requires a mind firmly rooted in fiction and not at all rooted in truth. It requires an eradication of memory. You are less to me now because of the stories we have allowed ourselves to tell of each other. I fear you because I believe that you fear me.

The thing about cycles is that they do not exist without ups and downs, positives and negatives. For every summer, there is a winter. For every love gained, there is a love lost. For every birth, there is a death. The story will always end with our deaths.

Knowing the end, and knowing that it’s the same end that each of us will meet, why would we spend our final hours (because all hours are final) cloaked in rage instead of love? We are dying. Let’s make ourselves comfortable.

But, you ask, what about the people who seem to want to accelerate our death? Shouldn’t we do everything in our power to stop them?

You’ve already forgotten the end of the story. You are clinging to something that can’t be held as much as they are trying to spin the cycle in a way it won’t go. To speak with hate, with contempt, to walk through this world as if it is infinite, that your actions do nothing to end or enhance another’s suffering, is to miss the entire point of life.

You are not a body separate from the rest of the world. (How lonely a thought.) You are the body and they are the body and this world is the body. And this world, with its many cycles and it’s proclivity for balance, is nothing short of a conscious being making conscious decisions to either bring more suffering or live within the peace. Which would you like to do today?

There are people who seem committed to making more suffering. They feel the world merits this because their world feels out of balance. So be their balancing arms. Commit to make more peace. Let’s correct the story.

When The Buffalo Come

 

Dear You,

I grew up on acres of open country, split three ways between the pastures of my parent’s house, the utopic gardens of my grandparent’s land, and the river bottom twenty miles west where we set the cattle to graze. When I think about my childhood, the image that comes up first is that of grass, tall and yellow, waving above my head. There was something about being on the ground enveloped by the grass that made me feel safe. I would crawl along my belly, my hands clutching at the ground, as I pretended that the grass was a roof over my head and that it held me the way it held any other animal.

I remember believing that I spoke the language of the nature around me. I was more comfortable in a tree than at the dinner table. I could approach any animal like an old friend. If I asked kindly, it almost seemed the wind would blow on my request.

My grandparents were cattle ranchers and the operation was small and family-worked. A doctor in the city owned the animals; we did the day-to-day work and shared profits. Outside of that, my grandmother operated a small pecan-selling business. We would nose our feet around the crunchy leaves and test the weight of the pecans in our hands. Heavy was good, light was bugs. We would collect as many as we could carry and scatter them over a table laid out in Granny’s garage where we would pack bags and weigh them to scale. I could eat however much I wanted if I could crack them open, which I couldn’t. Granny could crack two pecans open just by squeezing them in her palm. I remember bruising myself trying to do the same.

I mentioned the garden as being utopic; it was, at least by my memory of it. There were beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelon, tall rows of corn stalks that begged to be run through with hands out, and fruit trees at the end. An herb garden lined the far fence. Every morning, I would take out scraps for the compost and crunch each egg shell half at a time under my foot.

It seemed everything could be found out in that garden. Every Wednesday, Granny made a stew out of the beef and vegetables raised, tossing the clean, thick vertebra of T bone to whatever lucky dog got to it first outside the kitchen door. It stuck with me, how anything a person needed could be got from the earth so long as they took the time and the care and only what was needed.

The grown me takes stock of herself often and the things in which she places her priorities. I would like to be a priority of mine to live as my childhood self believed all people lived — within means and with gratitude and joy. But I have spent the past two months upending my life and breaking it apart and putting it together one little piece at a time. Before we left for Tennessee, I knew so much of myself. I was exercising. I was meditating. I was staying present with my friends and family and taking steps to minimize my impact on this world. I was feeling whole, or at least approaching whole.

Moving has obviously put a flux on our lives. It has upended me in a way that I feel at times has set me back years on my work on myself.On the harder days, I try to make it a priority just to be present and fail often at that. Lately, I have to squint just to recognize the smallest slice of myself. Worst of all, in my discomfort and in an attempt to assuage the low-level anxiety throbbing just underneath the surface, I have lowered my guard on what I will and will not do for this world. Impact? What impact? I’m lonely.

Last week, I came across a video from the protests in Standing Rock. A young man was being interviewed at the front lines. He kept his eyes on the police standing in front of him and he spoke with a pleading voice that broke your heart and an exhausted tone that was recognizable in more ways than one. “They’ll never understand,” he said. He braced himself on the barbed wire fence. “This land means everything.”

I remember thinking the same thing — they’ll never understand — when our little town’s fracking ban was overturned by the state. But then his eyes lit up and the people around him began screaming in joy — just over the hill, a herd of buffalo were stampeding their way.

I have always been a magical thinker. I’m not ashamed of it. I would rather believe that the universe passes along messages like folded notes in the form of signs and symbols, or that the whole fabric of our life force is knit together firmly in love, than believe that anything one human does is irrelevant to the rest of the world. I believe in science, of course. But I also find value in that which is just beyond science’s reach.

Seeing that herd of buffalo running full force toward the protest site — it felt as if the universe reached a hand back and popped me upside the head. Remember now, it insisted. The world wants to care for us, cradle us.

I said a quick prayer for the water protectors and acknowledged my presence on the earth with gratitude. I took a few actions of support for the #NoDAPL movement. I cried for all the ways I am continually reminded that we are no more and no less than the breath in all of our lungs. That weekend, my husband and I travelled hours to be at the wedding of two dear friends. And I danced and laughed and cried with as much joy as my heart could take.

Weakness comes and goes and brings darkness with it. It likes to slither in when it knows it will not be met with much resistance and can find an easy home. It likes to tempt when it knows you’ll give in. Just lay here for a moment, it says. Just go to sleep and pay no mind.

But this week, I am just that much closer to peace. I can find it in the small moments of my day. I imagine it as a small light, tucked in between my heart and stomach, that glows when noticed. Darkness will always have a home here, but so will this light. I imagine myself sitting by its fire, warming my hands, as I wait again for the buffalo to come.

To learn more about the #NoDAPL movement and stand with Standing Rock, visit StandingRock.org. 

 

 

The Much That Comes From The Little

Dear You,

I have entered the phase when the wonder of our new city fades and is replaced by the need to get down to business. This week, I settled accounts with a new bank, re-allocated our budget, and my car informed me (thank you, Prius) that it needed an oil change. Oh, the fun of finding a new mechanic. I now have benefits at my new job which means I can put off finding a new doctor no longer. And just in time because I have come down with an illness I suspect has everything to do with the allergens being blown around that my sinuses are not used to.

Apologies to my friend, Travis — I will now probably never find out what the inside of the Nashville Parthenon looks like because I am back to business as usual. Time only for work, writing, and the books to be read and beer to be drunk when the working and writing is done. I’d like to say I’ll keep exploring, but let’s be reasonable. I am already tired.

Coincidentally, the re-write of my manuscript reached firmly past 50,000 words this weekend. It’s always exciting to get to that point because it feels as if the book is real, it really will be written and finished, it really will exist in the world. But with that 50,000 word marker comes the issue I am now facing in my city — it’s time for business. Gone is the excitement and wonder over a fresh start on a project. Now there are loose ends to tie up, second acts to muddle through, middles that sag like a belly dragging on the ground. For me, it becomes a slog after 50K.

This is not unlike how I envision the rest of this first year in Nashville to go.

Finding the mechanic and settling the bank accounts and feeling myself become more and more ill as I contemplate how it might look to have to call in sick on week three of my new job got me just a little overwhelmed this week. At one point, I realized my gas tank was on E and I had no convenient gas stop I could summon up in my head because I’ve only filled up once since being here (really, once!) and that was at the Kroger miles from our house in the other direction, which is convenient when buying groceries but not at all convenient when late for work.

All these small things — knowing where to find the cheap gas, knowing a reliable mechanic, knowing what restaurant or pub won’t be full to the ceiling on a Saturday afternoon — they add up to require a vast amount of brain power every day. Every day that we stay here, I have to figure out another thing I didn’t already know. And for someone like me who thrives on routine and stability, the unfamiliarity of every moment doubles the exhaustion.

And so it is in 50K territory. Where the beginning of the book is an adventure, the middle is a struggle. You know your players, know what you need to do, know where the story should end up, but shit if you know how to to accomplish any of it. There is a gap in nearly every decision you need to make. Each scene becomes a struggle because at this point, you are conducting business — not running around marveling at how wonderful all of this is. You can see the imperfect bits of your story so clearly, just as you come to discover the issues in your new city — what streets are safe to walk down, which roads will have gridlock when you leave work, and where the two for ones are on any given day.

They have to be discovered, usually through trial and error. You write some and you cut some. You follow the outline until you reach a dead end and you re-outline. You do the hard work of re-building your life and making yourself at home in it.

Every day, I am a little savvier about my new home. Every day, I have to think less about how to get to and from wherever I am going. Every day, I add more to the story and push myself through the sagging middle until I can find a plot point to hang on, a character I recognize, a beautiful sentence in a sea of ugly ones. And none of this works without a little trust in the process.

I imagine myself a year from now, the handful of friends I have here multiplied to a handful of groups. I imagine the shortcuts I will take to escape traffic. I imagine strolling down the various streets and running into acquaintance after acquaintance, waving at everyone, smiling in return, and basking in the joy of feeling at home. I imagine this story completed, edited, and submitted, while I rack my brains on a new, frustrating excursion.

Because if I look back two months ago on the day we moved here wide-eyed in wonder and then two years ago when I drove home from work with my heart in my throat and just the tiniest glow of the story flickering in my mind, I can easily see how much has come from so little.

It takes time to get from Point A to Point B. And taking that time requires trust that it will all be worth it. But I have always been a hopeful person. Writing, such as living, is an exercise in faith.