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.

 

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.

 

The Me Just Out of Reach

Dear you,

I have been particularly homesick lately. This should come as no surprise. I am a Texan living in Tennessee and if you know any Texans you know our particular brand of blind love for the state. The state becomes a kind of quirky family —  hip cousins in Austin, big rich aunts in Dallas, drunk uncles abound. You know the kind of cowboy you’re dealing with by the make of their boots. You can guess at a person’s history by asking where they grew up and where they live now. No matter how big the state, how varied the experiences, there’s a kind of collective nod between the people born or naturalized here — we just get each other. Strangers aren’t strangers for long, if we take the time.

Or perhaps this is just me smoothing over the rough edges again. Obviously, there’s plenty to not love about the state. I could go on at length about the politics, the stubbornness, the holy ornery temper of us, myself absolutely included. Outsized egos and under-sized compassion. Not all, but many.

But I’m not focusing on those things right now. In fact, right now I might even look on them lovingly because they are traits I can recognize. I know the extent of those rough edges, where they may come from and why they’re there. We were raised up in the same way. To be a Texan is to have a certain talent for possessing and tolerating conflicting values. Someone here recently described Denton as a place full of aggressive hippies and I felt nothing but pride.

Which is where the homesickness comes in. The hardest part about this move for me has been that I feel like I no longer know anyone at their core. (Save for the Texas expats I’ve met so far and you can guess what we spent all our time talking about.) There’s a current running under this city and state that I have yet to tap into. Slight differences in how people approach and speak to others, little variations in the pleasantries just enough to make me feel lost. I find myself among a sea of cowboy hats and think, “Yes, but where are the real cowboys?” I wonder, often, if I’m too much. Then I’ll turn around and wonder if I’m not enough.

I have this image in my head of me as an older woman. The only way to describe her is open but resilient. Someone who has seen much, done the work, and come home to rest. She is comfortable where she is and where she is matters little because in my mind, she’s the same wherever she goes. She’s made up of all the things she’s done and experienced but at the core of her is still the little girl who grew up in the cattle pasture. I yearn for this woman, contented and confident, and actively wonder how I can become her.

What’s funny is I had this same kind of image in my mind the year before we moved, but this time it was me only a few years older. Happy in Nashville, knowing this city and the people as well as I knew everything in Texas. I wrote more than I had ever written before and I treated myself well, exercised, meditated, read. I would be the same, but better.

And here we now are — I am happy in Nashville (don’t misconstrue this post; homesickness can’t be denied), I am learning this city as quickly as I can, settling into my haunts, making a map in my mind. Just the other day, I gave another lost girl some directions, no small victory. I am writing far more every day than I ever have before. I find some form of exercise almost every day, take long walks. I meditate every morning. I read every night. I am living the exact me that I pictured except that now I am picturing a different me, another level of me that I want to attain. I am always just out of reach.

I have always been wary of procrastination. If I catch myself saying “I’ll do X when Y happens,” I do X as quickly as I can just to prove I don’t need Y. But lately I’ve caught myself saying “I’ll be X when Y happens,” a far more insidious internal comment because there’s no way I can simply become something, with or without Y. And so often, what I want to become is already a version of what I essentially am — the same, but better.

To have a perfectionist nature is to always look for problems. There is an ideal that will never be attained because there is always something missing. Here, I have attained exactly what I wanted but it is still not perfect because I do not yet feel at home. So I pine for Texas, imagine an older, wiser version of me drinking beer on her front porch and sharing a private joke while I sit and drink on my front porch in Nashville and laugh. Like I said, to be a Texan is to have a special talent for being comfortable with cognitive dissonance.

I am settling in, trying to recognize that I am already the thing I wish to be, as long as I can stay that thing, as long as I can keep the path. It’s hard to remember, when you’ve left everything behind, that some things never leave you. The authentic self is there if it is not overlooked. And I’m in good company; Nashville is a city of transplants and we are all searching.

 

This Is Evolution

Dear You,

A very kind friend of mine asked me to submit a story for a reading event she’s planning and I thought, sure. Why not?

The story I sent was one I had edited and finished not too terribly long ago — six months — and that I had since submitted to journals and felt fully confident in. I sent it off to her directly, a little excited that a friend who had read none of my fiction before would now have the chance to read a story I was proud of.

Except of course when I went back and re-read the story after emailing it off into internet oblivion, it seemed a little… different.

It was the same story I remember it being when I first wrote it. I was still proud of it. But as I read, I began to notice things — the voice was different than I remembered, the structure not as I would have done it now. The characters were still as I wanted them to be, but overall, the story I remembered writing slipped away and this new thing appeared before me.

Sometimes, a writer will get really brave and will go back and read over the things they wrote in the past. Of course, re-reading work is an essential part of editing and re-writing. That’s not the kind of re-reading I am talking about here. What I am talking about here are things that have been waited on, edited, workshopped and vetted. Dubbed finished and submitted, even published.

Inevitably, when you go back and re-read all your finished pieces, published or not, the shimmering things you thought were there are usually gone. Some form of them may appear, but it seems as if they’ve transformed somehow, as if someone came in and edited in the night.

That was how I felt re-reading this story now thoroughly out of my grasp and whisked off to an inbox I had no access to.

I calmed myself as best I could.

I had done my due diligence with this work; I drafted, re-drafted, waited until I forgot the story, re-read and re-drafted again, workshopped, re-drafted, edited minutely, and had a trusted friend do one last beta-read before I pronounced it ready to enter this world. I put my name on it and saved it, moved it to the “Ready to Submit” folder on my computer and called it a day. All that not even six months ago and here I am, re-reading it again and feeling just a little sick that it would be the first fiction impression my friend would have.

This has happened to me before. A story I wrote years ago, that I stashed and then pulled back out during a critique session because I could still see the dull glimmer of its spark had betrayed me in the same way. I re-wrote this one, workshopped, edited, let it lie, edited again, beta-read — the works. I marked it finished and submitted it. And months after submitting it, I re-read it again and considered withdrawing it because was this really my best work on a page, really? The next day, it was accepted for publication. Oddly enough, all the worries about the piece then evaporated on the spot. (The universe works in mysterious ways.)

This has also happened to my poems, various essays, and other things that have not yet seen the light of day. I have several things out on submission right now that I felt completely comfortable sending out when I did. Now I’m afraid to look. Best to let the sleeping dog of anxiety lie.

Of course, it’s not the words that have changed — I’ve changed.

And sure, as I put in the 10,000 hours and write down the bones and stay with the early discomfort of not knowing what the hell I’m doing, as the taste gap narrows just the slightest crack, this change has plenty to do with improvement (god, hopefully.)

But so much of it is just the changing and evolution of my own life’s story. My voice evolves with my age and experiences. Characters and settings I was interested in last year are old hat now. Reading new things and discovering new artists affects how I structure a story. Life changes disrupt my sense of what is essential.

There’s something to be said here about when to re-edit or even when to retire works and move on from them. But then there’s the simple issue of insecurity combined with the powerful force of perfectionism. What must be remembered was that the you who wrote the old piece was still a valid you. So many times, it’s not that the piece is poor — it’s that the piece represents a you that has already moved on. There are plenty of old pieces of mine that still resonate with me as I read them now. There are many that do not. And there are some that make me cringe.

But that was me then and this is me now. Me now will soon be a me then. And so on and so forth.

We are always in active evolution. If we are people who care to learn and grow, then we are living a story that will never be finished. Which makes it very difficult to know when to deem a story finished. Today, I think it is finished. Ten years from now, I may think it is childish.

Writing is about communication; it’s a whistle in the dark. Is anyone there? Can anyone relate? How lonely. And how unfair — to only send out a certain approved you at a certain approved time when, certainly, it will all change give or take a few weeks and a few experiences.

If I were to give in to this perfectionist desire to only send out the me that happens to be me today and cast aside all the shades of me that have walked through this world, I would be left sitting as alone with my stories as I was prior to sending them out. It’s the same trap we fall into when we choose a start date for dieting or a day on which we will quit a bad habit. We promise to start on January 1st. By January 2nd, the year is shot and we have failed. But the opportunity to begin again is today, the next hour, the next minute, always. We have the luxury of learning and growing with each minute we have.

So, I did not pick up the phone and tell my friend to please, pretty please delete that email and let’s never speak of it again. I’m letting it ride. Because once upon a time, that story that a corner of me is still proud of still represents a corner of me on paper.

This is evolution. And I am here to learn.