Resisting the School of Should

Dear You,

When we first decided to move to Nashville and were making all these big plans about how we would do it and dreaming all these big dreams about what we would do once we did do it, I had this back of the mind idea that maybe I would become a winter person here. The kind of person who revels in layering on sweater after sweater and scarves and all the hats and who would even be willing to go for a nice leisurely walk in this crisp, cool winter of my dreams.

It made sense; I would be in a city with nearby mountains, a geographic area where four seasons do indeed exist (or so I was told), and besides, Tennessee was just more north than Texas so surely there would be the kind of winter that came with snow and snow boots and general life lived during snowy weather. (A white Christmas, maybe? Just this once?) And I, having been transplanted to the middle of it, would somehow become a person who wouldn’t just live in it but look forward to it.

We are in day three of snow on the ground (patches of snow, but snow) and we are both just a little miserable. Oh, it was wonderful waking up Friday morning and watching the snow come down, sure. It was even a little fun when I thought I might get to walk in the snow to the nearest library branch for work (the branch closed and I still ended up driving.) But the heater has since broken and we have been wearing the same fleece-lined pants and socks for the past week and I’ve done as the song says and gone country wearing my old work boots over my jeans because it’s too cold to cover my feet any other way.

The best part is that the winter here is no worse or even different than the winters I had in Texas — it just seems like it should be. The other best part is that Christmas was a perfectly sunny seventy degree day and I loved it because I always have been and always will be a hot weather sun person. Please just let me sweat right now, I beg you.

This is no surprise. (Although I’ll be honest, I am really loving wearing my old cowboy boots mostly because it seems to really perturb my husband — Boots? Over the jeans?? Yes.) Of course, I would be miserable in the cold weather — it’s not in my nature to be comfortable in it.

Which oddly makes me think of the fact that I haven’t set any New Years resolutions. Mind you, I love a good New Years resolution. In fact, I love anything where I can make a change off a seemingly clean slate and pretend that all past transgressions are null and void, that life begins tomorrow, that the present will take place at an agreed upon time between past me and future me and everything between now and then is just mardi gras.

I argue with my husband over his lack of resolution-making, his seeming aversion to self-improvement, but really, he’s just always been a little more honest than I am. It’s in my nature to make the goals. And it’s in my nature to abandon them the moment I fail to adhere with perfection. I know this about myself. And yet.

But this year, with all the changes whiplashing us both around, my godawful yearning to just be able to go to the grocery store while daydreaming, January 1st came and went without me even making so much as a list of what I’d like to do with myself.

I realized this yesterday. Appalled, I quickly dashed out some uninspired ideas — meditate daily, buy local, eat organic, exercise three times a week and so on and so forth and god, how boring.

Meanwhile, I have a stack of books next to my chair in the living room that I am supposed to read, that I wanted to read at one point and now that I’ve checked them out, I must read them even if they have since lost their luster. I sit in the chair and begrudgingly open the one on top. My mind wanders to a Texas Monthly article a dear friend suggested I read last week, that I did actually read instead of dooming it to some “for the future” list because I was stuck in the car for several hours and to have physical entrapment at the same time as mental entrapment is too much even for me. (I do let myself live sometimes.)

It was a story about Larry McMurtry, an author I know I would love if I just read his stuff , whose book, Lonesome Dove, has always been a book I’ve wanted to read. It’s been on my to-read list since 2009 when I hit my first must-have wilderness and cowboys craving and has been somewhere near the middle of the list ever since. It always gets beat out by the newer, shinier, must-read books that have been published this year, despite the ever-present longing to read it.

The article told me what I already knew — that the man was a Texas legend, a true native son, that I would love him if I read him, that I want to be like him when I grow up, and that he has a bookstore not two hours away from my old home in Texas that I knew was there and that I neglected to visit because I always had other things to do (like drink beer and spend whole days reading books I don’t even want to read anymore. Le sigh.)

I spend so much time making lists and goals and then shackling my own feet to the fire to meet those goals that I don’t even feel the burn coming on until it’s too late. I already waste enough time doing the things I have to do to live (like buy food and brush my teeth) — it’s nauseating to think of all the other ways I force myself into commitments and rules and plans that make no whit of difference to my contentment.

It’s odd how much we equate seeking contentment with actual contentment. If I just meditate every day, I’ll be happy. If I just exercise three times a week. If I just do the 30-day yoga revolution, the cleanse — if I just clean out my closet. But the truth is that we’re rarely any happier. We’re rarely happier because there’s always something else to change, to improve on, to erase about our lesser selves. There’s always something else we should be doing.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to better ourselves — I’m all about making a conscious effort to not be an asshole. But to create a mission around self-improvement that feels more like a military drill is to lose the point of the goal. It too easily becomes a lie you tell to yourself.  I love winter weather, you say between shivering teeth. I’m content, goddamnit, as you reach for the disappointing kale you never wanted to eat.

So confound it with the lists. No more of them. I am hereby resisting the school of should. No more “I will do” and “I must do.” Only “I want to.” This has never been an easy feat for me, doing what I actually want to do. (Let me know if you’re the kind of person who can just do they want — a beer for your skills.)

If that’s a New Years resolution, then I apologize. But not too wholeheartedly. I’ll be too busy finally reading Lonesome Dove and planning a visit to Archer City.

Playing The Long Game

Dear You,

There’s a little known phenomenon that happens after finishing a draft of a novel. (I’d like to say it’s just me but I have confirmed it with several others so maybe it’s just us.) When you finish and have to put the work away for a time, a strange kind of sadness settles in.

For some, it’s the loss of the daily time spent with characters or a story that has become embedded in you. It’s like watching a good friend leave and not knowing when you’ll see them again. For me, it has more to do with the disruption to my routine and the sudden lack of what feels like forward momentum.

Every day when I sit at my computer and add another thousand words or answer a question that had me stuck, I can see clearly how I’m working toward something larger. I can rest in the remainder of my day and sleep better at night knowing that I have done good work toward a goal that makes me happy. But finish the work and I usually have one day of pure celebration before the darkness sets in. I go to my computer, antsy and unsure of how to proceed.

If I’m lucky, there’s a kernel of an idea for something I’ve wanted to work on. This time, I finished a long draft two days before the election so my mind was a little preoccupied the weeks following. The writing group that got me out of my funk in Texas sadly did not choose to relocate with me to Tennessee and I’m still trying to gather a new handful of writing friends here. Couple all this with the cruel fact that the sun sets in this town at 4:30 in the goddamn afternoon and we haven’t even reached winter solstice yet and you better believe I’m struggling to put words to page.

What’s that, you say? Take a break? Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s the healthy thing to do. I promise that I’m currently on one now (with the exception of this blog post and the fact that I have a half draft of a story that I really need to finish but, I guess, maybe, for sanity’s sake I can let it go until January.)

But see, the problem lies around that forward momentum I mentioned earlier.

I have never been a patient person. I run high on impulse and low on willpower. I have been described by many different people at many different stages of my life as passionate about the various causes and interests that cross my radar, passion I am thankful for as it has pushed me to do things I thought highly unlikely.

But my affinity for impulse sometimes far outweighs the level of passion I can claim for any one love. If it doesn’t stay interesting, if I don’t feel like I’m always on the brink of discovery, if I’m not winning whatever game I’ve concocted for myself– I lose interest pretty quickly. (Hence, the lack of willpower during hard times.)

And when I’m not writing, when I can’t put a gold star stamp on the day in the form of creation, the day can sometimes feel like a loss. And day after day of feeling like I’m losing sure does make you feel a little funny.

Yes, I know I sound obsessive. Yes, I have seen a therapist about it. I blame my grandmother, who had such a sense of routine (or possible obsessive-compulsive disorder) that she had a breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu based on the days of the week that never changed in the twenty years I knew her as a cook. (Seriously, biscuits for breakfast on Tuesday and Eggo waffles on Friday without fail.)

I’m learning to recognize the off days as gold star days too. I took a rest because I needed it = gold star. I chose to sit on the couch all morning and read this fabulous book by a wonderful new author that inspires me = gold star. I checked my Duotrope account to remind myself that, yes, I have in fact written a lot and put a lot out to submission this year = gold star. In fact, I may just take up Annie Neugebauer’s Joy Jar idea as if my life depended on it.

But mostly, I’m trying to focus on the long game. I took a writing break from 2012 to 2015 to focus on finishing my master’s degree, get married, and just generally take better care of myself. During those years, I hung my hat of all this, convinced I just wasn’t meant for writing (even though I kept writing poetry and essays and started a novel).

So the past two years, especially this year, have felt a lot like playing catch up. This definitely contributes to the “I must DO something every day” feeling I’ve been trapped in. But I’ve finally been able to recognize even those years as essential triple gold star years. Many of the poems I wrote are now the ones being plucked for publication. The essays incubated a novel that I’m still working on but that definitely has a lot to say and required (still requires) a ton of personal excavation.

The past month may have felt like it did not hold a lot for me in terms of creation — the two stories I’m working on feel dead in the water, I haven’t line edited any poems, and my novel is out for a beta read that leaves me both terrified and restless — but looking at the year, I can see clearly how much I have to celebrate. The novel draft is finished and I’m still excited to get back in come January and keep working at it. I threw may hat back into the submission ring this year and have enjoyed a fair amount of success. My husband and I did the scary thing and moved to a new city where I didn’t have a job, friends, or writing connections, and now I have a job, some cool, new friends, and a writing group that is small but mighty.

As the year comes to a close, I am focusing on gratitude, both for the fact that I have been able to write and simply for allowing myself to do so. Stepping back and taking the long view to see the forest for the trees is essential, especially during the more barren weeks. I am working hard to give myself the space and the grace to see what I can’t when I’m nose down into the mud of the work. But right now, the time for work is done. Right now is a time for dancing.

Because all told — this has been a gold star year, and really, a gold star writing life.

 

That Which is Found in Your Own Heart

Dear you,

On the night of the election, I hid in a blanket and cried so hard in my husband’s arms that my usually ornery cat jumped up to our laps and straddled us both. Yesterday, I waffled between crying without cue and staring blankly off into space. I felt as if I had been punched in the gut. I am heartbroken.

Watching Hillary’s slow loss was to re-witness all the ways in which women have been picked over, spurned, ignored, silenced, and kept out of private rooms. It was a reminder of all the ways I have personally felt these insults in my lifetime. Regardless of how another may interpret her loss, that is simply how it felt to me.

And there’s a whole other side to how people are interpreting this loss — that this ushers in a new wave of racism, misogyny, and fear-mongering that we have not seen before. That it is our new American identity.

I refuse to believe this.

One — Racism and misogyny and fear of the “other” has always been in our identity. Nothing is renewed — it is just more visible to some for whom it was previously invisible.

Two — This vote was an act of desperation for many people. Whether a person voted for Hillary, the Donald, third party, or not at all, all of it was done in a way to make their voice heard. And this was particularly clear to those who supported Trump because they felt as if their voice was heard in him.

I’m not talking about the “build a wall” bullshit, or the muslim ban idiocy, Mexicans are rapists, or any other pussy-grabbing comment he made. Where he resonated for many was in the talk of bringing jobs back to middle America, of recalling a time when a person could live in the same community their whole life, work a blue collar job and send kids to school if they wanted to go.

Of course, there are bad apples in the basket. And there are signs already that this win has emboldened people to act in hurtful ways. That is the truth and one the Republican party must contend with as they move forward. But that does not mean Republican = racist any more than it means Democrat = open-minded. The majority are simply hanging their hopes on the fact that they now feel like someone is listening to them.

There’s a whole Cracked article on this that puts the issue perfectly in perspective. I won’t completely rehash it here.

I came from one of these communities. Most people had been living in the area for generations, farming, ranching, or working for a feed factory, a trucking line, an oil company. It’s a small area that worked like an ecosystem — one or two large industries fuels the basic catch-all for employment, this employment fuels the small businesses, these small businesses fuel the sense of community, and community fuels all else. It’s easy to see where a person fits, if they want to fit.

But remove one of these things — replace a local grocery store with a Wal-mart, let one large company move business elsewhere, lose one church, school, or community center — and the ecosystem collapses. And the ecosystems have been collapsing at a rapid rate for reasons too complex to lay the blame on any one cause.

The world has always changed without any of our consent.The profit of corporations and big-box stores have far outpaced the services any Mom and Pop can offer (according to who you ask) and people are all too willing to sacrifice convenience for community. In most of these small places, there is no longer any choice. The advance of automation technology eliminates the need for jobs that previously supplied income to whole families. The jobs available require a college degree mostly available in cities far away and the college degree has become so expensive it’s prohibitive even for families still lucky enough to have their original employers.

We are required to adapt to live. But the adaptation that is required is not small. You must rip yourself apart. Prosperity is occurring elsewhere;  all you have to do is leave all you love behind to get it. All you have to do is send your children away and hope they come back for you.

I am a child who left and did not come back. I go home as often as I can and I cherish it when I do. But I would be wrong if I said that all is the same when I come back. There is distance now. I don’t have the same priorities as I did when I left. I don’t think the same way, nor do I act the same way. Even the way I speak changes with the company I surround myself with. I am now the other. Not to all, but to some.

And herein lies the division. We both did what we felt had to be done; we either stayed to fight for our home or we left to seek opportunities for our future. The result is that one half feels abandoned and the other half feels betrayed. Try to guess which one you are; you likely identify with both.

Say what you want, but these communities are experiencing deep losses. There is no clear way to get it back and there is no urgency to help them. And of course, marginalized groups have always felt deep losses.We can talk all day about it and I will never disagree with you. It is felt every time a kid is shot on the street because of his color and every time a slur is heard about their religion.  But suffering on one side does not negate the suffering of the other. This is a painful world. Everyone in it hurts.

There are two calls right now. One, to reach across the table and try to understand each other. Another, to reject bigotry and fight for what is right. These are not mutually exclusive. It is absolutely possible to do both. But it requires a level of compassion many of us struggle for on a good day. Now is the time to dig deep.

I have never lived in an echo chamber and I will not start now. Echo chambers and sorting ourselves into like communities is what made (and continues to make) both sides unable to see each other’s reason. I value my conservative friends and the discussions we have had together because it proves to me over and over again that keeping our friendship is far more important to both of us than is winning any argument.

But I also will not hesitate to call out an injustice when I see it. Just because I can have compassion for both sides does not mean I allow racism and misogyny to go unchecked. You can absolutely fight for what you believe is right and still keep peace at the top of your goals. After all, that’s all we want. Peace.

Let us all check our words and actions. Let us not assume anything about anyone. Do not speak out of anger, fear, or hurt. If you need to do so (and that’s a perfectly valid need), do so in a safe space. Then pull yourself up and go back out there practicing skillful speech based firmly in love and compassion. Practice every day and forgive yourself when you fail, especially when someone else is speaking to you out of their own pain.

Reject hate, anger, and fear — even that which is found in your own heart. Do not give in. The world is too fragile a place without your strength.

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. 

 

 

Allowing the Subconscious to Speak

Dear you,

I have spent the last two weeks writing as if it was National Novel Writing Month. For those who are not aware, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is where writers commit to putting 55,000 words of a novel to a page in just one month’s time. A complete novel for an adult audience usually reaches 80,000 to 100,000 words total but the goal is to just write fast without second-guessing and to prove to those second-guessers that yes, you do have time to write your story so just go do it, damnit.

I have never participated in it before and have really never had the desire to. All power to people who can finish whole drafts of novels in just a few months time. But I have always been a slow writer. I like to take my time with things and let the story unfold naturally, even in a first draft. I have found that when I write too fast, I leave intuition behind and shove myself into a corner that then has to be dug out with a buck knife.

Outlining a first draft has always been anathema to me. It’s a paradox I can never shake out. What happens to a character in a story is based on who the character is and who the character is is based on what happens to the character in the story. How else could I discover who these people are unless I just let them loose on the page for a bit? It takes sketching; your subconscious has to be allowed to speak.

But I am gleefully on a second draft. The subconscious has had literally two years to speak at length and I am now at the let’s do this, git-r-done stage of I just need to finish this fucking thing. 

So when I reached 50k last month and felt appropriately overwhelmed and then read Writer’s Digest’s latest article on the benefits of Nano-ing, the thread found its hole, the bullet its target and I thought: This time, I will good god damn do it. I have my outline. I know where the story needs to go. I just need to cut out the procrastination and just get it there. Advanced blessings to the people who have agreed to read this harried mess.

So I have spent the last two weeks writing at what I consider an unsustainably speedy pace. I get up two hours before I go to work, and because I am still a slow writer by nature, I usually have to finish up the word quota when I come home. I have neglected to wash my clothing. I have neglected to wash my hair, which has actually been a positive side effect (thank you curls.) I walk through rooms of my house in circles because I can’t ever seem to remember what brought me to the room in the first place. I have cried. I have argued with my poor husband who’s just trying to keep up.

All of this combined with the fact that I am doing this alone right now. NaNoWriMo takes place on a single month so that writers across the nation can make the pact together, check in with other, cheer each other on. And official NaNoWriMo is actually next month. Being the true stubborn person I am, it’s no surprise that I chose to take on this kind of word count without the benefit of thousands of other people who can appreciate the sheer torment of this goal.

Torment aside, there have been some big positives. I am moving through the story without doubting the intuition that gave me my outline in the first place. Every time I pass a monumental word count, I remember that I will finish this draft just like I finished the draft before it and the stories before that. I remember that if I just trust the process and stay the course, I will get to my own personal promised land. And sooner rather than later, thanks to this nutty goal.

But my subconscious is screaming. If I want to stay this course and stick with this discomfort, then it’s time to make some necessary adjustments.

Self-care during drafting is easily lost in the rubble of trashed pages and tears. We want to push forward, to get it all out, to finish it finish it finish it damnit, just finish the damned thing. It’s hard to concentrate on anything else. And maybe we don’t want to think about anything else. But mid-way through this month, I feel as if I have reached the end of my words. Each day they get harder and harder to come by.

So I am renewing my commitment to self-care. Nothing demanding; let’s not walk into that trap. But simple things. I will stretch. I will make my bed. Eat some vegetables and decline the donuts that some demon from hell keeps putting in the work breakroom. Even a simple morning meditation has the power to recharge the most exhausted minds.

So future fellow Nano-ers: Make your outlines but don’t underestimate your need for rest. Check in with yourself. Feel the ground under your feet. Live with love in every breath. Allow your subconscious to speak. And when it speaks, listen closely.