I was recently going through some old mixed CDs—you know the things we made back in the dark ages before Spotify? Anyway, several of the CDs were titled with particular emotional tones like sad or contemplative, so that I could listen to them when I was in the corresponding mood. One of the CDs I came across, however had no such label. I gave it a listen, and remembered that it was my creativity playlist! It’s a bunch of songs that for one reason or another made me feel encouraged to be artistic—to write, to sing, to make things. And I realized, giving it another listen, they still do.
There’s a lot of music from the soundtrack of The Lord of Rings: TheReturnoftheKing on it which is not surprising because much of my first manuscript was written with Howard Shore’s orchestral brilliance pumping into my ears.
There’s also two songs from Stephen Sondheim’s SundaysintheParkwithGeorge—one (Move On) taken from the original cast recording of Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin and the other (Putting It Together) a cover and partial rewrite by Barbra Streisand. These tunes support me in my creative pursuits because “art isn’t easy” and even though “there’s nothing that’s not been said”, it hasn’t yet been said by me.
It’s interesting to me that there are two songs about vulnerability: BareNaked by Jennifer Love Hewitt and I’m Sensitive by Jewel, but it shouldn’t be surprising, after all, how else can you be when making and showing your stuff, if not open and vulnerable? I particularly like Jewel’s determination to embrace her delicate senses by saying “Please be careful with me. I’m sensitive and I’d like to stay that way.”
There’s one actual folk song (Fair and Tender Ladies sung by Rosanne Cash) and another (When Love is New by Dolly Parton and Emmy Rossum) very close to that style which, for me, always seems to get inside an emotion, but often with a sort of matter-of-fact kind of practicality that I like. I guess some might find lyrics like “Love is pretty when love is new, like a blushing rose in a dazzling dew” and “Come all ye fair and tender ladies, take a warning how you court young men” somewhat cynical, but I find the words and the voices that sing them wonderfully evocative.
The remainder of songs are basically singer-songwriter-y. There’s Dido’s reminder that I need to grab living with both hands in Life for Rent. And Eva Cassidy’s poignant cover of Sting’s Fields of Gold. The drums and vocalization at the beginning of Rubén Blades’ Patria are enough to get my creative juices flowing. And Joan Osborne’s One of Us makes me want to try look at things with God’s eyes and, to be honest, I really just love belting that chorus. That I Would Be Good by Alanis Morissette prompts me to remember my intrinsic value as a person, not for how I look or what I can do (even and especially artistically!) And the lyric, “That I would be good, if I got and stayed sick” never fails to give me chills.
And of course, no playlist can be complete without a rousing call to action song—in this case, Defying Gravity from the musical Wicked because “Everyone deserves a chance to fly.”
Recently, I added one more song to this list: Emily Maguire’s Start Over Again—because, in most situations in life and almost always in creative ones, I find myself needing this advice “Go Slow. Be kind. Be wise. Start over again.”
What about you? What music makes you feel creative? Do you have a playlist?
My fingers hover over the keyboard. I have so many thoughts, so many reactions. Sometimes I even type them out, giving fleeting voice to my opinions, but always—almost always—I think better of it. I hit delete. I watch as a blinking cursor erases my feelings one letter at a time.
I don’t think I need to say that it’s been quite the week. We all have feelings and many of us are expressing them—some in beautiful ways, some in hateful, many somewhere in the middle. Mostly, I have resisted expressing my political opinions anywhere on the internet. And after all that has happened, all that may happen, I wonder to myself why and if such a decision been wise.
The why is fairly easy: I don’t want to fight. I don’t want to get into it with anyone—start a battle that no one will win. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I don’t want my words to be mis-taken. There are people in my life whom I not only dearly love, but also deeply respect who vote very differently from the way I do. I live in a predominantly red community. Why risk a potential rift? I hate rifts. I abhor violence. It feels, at this moment in time, that we seem unable to speak to each other civilly—that a disagreement about ideology immediately devolves into name-calling. Demeaning the value of each other as humans whether they be called “deplorable” or “nasty” seems to be commonplace. I don’t want to participate in this.
When I was writing my memoir about my diagnosis and experience of having CFS a decade ago, I agonized over how to portray certain people in my life—people who have hurt me excruciatingly.. I wasn’t sure that being candid was the right thing to do. Who might I hurt by speaking my truth? Was it worth it? I also didn’t want to use “being authentic” as an excuse for calling people out in a childish way. Even when I wrote my first novel, I worried how members of my family would interpret certain aspects of it. Would they be upset? Would they be mad at me? I can’t stand it when people are mad me. It feels like attempting to get a foothold on crumbling land beneath me. It feels devastating and lonely. So I have censored myself—a lot (it’s actually part of the reason I have not submitted my work as much as I should). Some of it has been wise. I have been grateful when I have held my tongue in situations in which I would have liked to spit fire, but I wonder where exactly the line is. At what point does silence stop being golden and start becoming a prison warden?
Well, I guess, that point is now. People say that some of us are taking this too personally. But it is has become personal. My opinion about what constitutes good government policy differs greatly from that of President-Elect Trump. That would have been enough for me to not vote for him, but it wouldn’t have made it personal. What made it personal, was the fact that I, and many women whom I care about, have been victimized by men, and the words and actions of Mr. Trump have ripped open those wounds. The fact that so many people voted for him feels like an endorsement of a man’s right to hurt and debase women at will. I know this is not true. I know that if you are reading this and you voted for Trump, you were not thinking about me or any of my friends who have been through similar things. You were thinking about Right to Life or the next supreme court justice or repealing Dodd-Frank or any number of practical reasons—maybe even personal reasons—why you felt that Trump was the best choice for this country. People are suffering and they saw this man as a way out. I get that. I can respect that. But I also weep for it. And I don’t know how I am supposed to forget all the varied hateful things that Mr. Trump has said and give him my support now.
I have been silent. I have been fearful. Today, I am saying a little. How much will I say in the future? I don’t know. A part of me wants to speak for myself and for others who cannot, but I still don’t want to start a fight. I don’t want to cause irreparable damage. Honestly, I don’t want to put myself in the line of fire. A part of me just wants to meditate and pray and spread love with smiles and music—and I will do that. But is continuing silence wise? Is it responsible? Can anything be solved without respectful discourse? I don’t know, but I heard a stat this morning that chilled me to the bones. Approximately 49% of eligible voters did not vote in this year’s election. Almost half of the people who have the ability to help decide how we will treat our children, our fellow citizens, our country were completely silent.
A few years ago at a Sheep and Wool Festival amid stalls of colorful yarns of all kinds, my mom and I stood there and agreed: weaving was off the table. At least for this lifetime, this was one fiber art we were going to forgo. Though we both found looms and their products tantalizing, we knew that, for us, there simply wasn’t enough time for it.
I have made more decisions like these lately—especially as I have trying to pare down my belongings. I am not, by any means, a hoarder, but I have often had difficulty getting rid of a thing because of the fear that I might someday, in the vast unknowable future, need or want it. Reading Marie “KonMari” Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Cleaning Up (like just about everyone else) earlier this year, gave me the impetus I needed to try again. I liked the idea of not being weighted-down by objects and of surrounding myself only with things that, in her words, “spark joy”. Did I follow KonMari’s method to the letter? Uh, no. But I did, almost three years after I moved, finally open every last box I had stowed in the garage and edited many crafting supplies and several books.
As I contemplated each piece, I again felt the familiar tug of anxiety at my chest. Am I being stupid getting rid of this? What if I want it later? I don’t have a lot of money and it might be expensive to replace. In these moments, I did not hold the item quietly and ask myself if it sparked joy as KonMarie would have had me do. Quite frankly, I forgot all about that. Instead, I thought about what I was giving up by holding onto any given item.
I, like all of us, have a limited amount of time on this planet. If I choose to do X, say make rag rugs from old fabric, that will take energy and time away from doing Y, say writing. Is making rag rugs important enough to me to take time and energy away from writing. Would it help me in any way? Well, the answer for me is no. Like weaving, rug making could only be considered a backup plan to the other things I am more passionate about in this life. And, the problem with holding onto the fabric that would be perfect for rug making only keeps the possibility of doing it, however faintly, alive in my mind. One could say, (and I have) okay, you don’t want to do it now, but maybe in the future . . . So the idea gets still more life, a tiny trickle of energy gets siphoned off to maintain something that, in all likelihood, I am never going to do and, for which, I feel only a minor excitement for anyway. I don’t know if there is any physical truth to my energy drain theory, but there is sociological research that indicates that people who commit fully to a goal are more motivated to fulfill that goal than those who have “backup plans.” It makes sense, I mean, how committed to something can you be, if, somewhere in your mind, you are still entertaining other options? Plus, I think most of us probably have enough anecdotal evidence that single-minded people tend to be the ones who get the most done.
Narrowing one’s focus is effective in writing, too. When I was 15, at Oprah’s urging, I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved for the first time. It was my initial foray into reading contemporary literature and, holy smokes, what an introduction. Considered by many to be the best novel of the 20th century, its narrative about slavery and love is as brutal as it is beautiful. I felt breathless as I discovered how amazing and powerful prose could be. How a mere 95,000 words, strung together like a magical incantation, could change me so profoundly. Shortly after reading Beloved, I saw an interview with Toni Morrison in which she explained that her purpose, in writing the novel, was to examine slavery in a way that she had not seen it done before. So many books had tried to capture the immensity of the American slave trade, but she felt their scopes were too wide. She decided to go narrow and go deep. By telling the stories of a few individuals with whom a reader could feel a sense of intimacy, she was able to convey the horror of slavery so much more poignantly than by rattling off numbers that, no matter how big and atrocious, had difficulty making it past the mind and into the heart.
Go narrow and go deep. I think of this when I am confronted by the huge swathes of possibilities presented to me each day. When I open my email account and see a plethora of urgings to go in any number of different directions. I can’t do it all, and trying to will likely mean that I end up doing nothing. So often when we think of investing in our futures, it’s about obtaining something—classes, books, materials—which, in many ventures, is important. But, for me, right now, narrowing my focus is the best form of self-investment. As I say no to many things that are not quite right for me, I am making my yes to those things that are most significant to me that much stronger.
This is becoming my practice: I look at each item in my life—physical and psychological—and I ask myself, Is this what you want to spend your life on? It’s tough when it’s something that looks cool, when my anxiety flares up that maybe I’m missing something (which is ridiculous since we are always missing many things!). But it’s wonderful when, for example, I am hugging my niece—her buoyant spirit flowing out to meet mine—and the answer is like a chorus of bells all tolling, “Yes!”
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I crashed last weekend—exploding pain, unforgiving tiredness, the works. It was particularly disappointing because I had been starting to feel like I was building up a head of steam—moving in the direction I wanted to go. I had plans. I had thoughts and ideas sprouting and multiplying. There’s so much I want to do! And then plop—the other shoe drops. It happens to all of us—we feel energized to make exciting, positive change and something happens that we didn’t plan for or something reoccurs that we should have seen coming. A fly gets in the ointment. A wrench is thrown into the works. Our best laid plans go so infuriatingly awry.
When this happens, my instinctive reaction is to do a post mortem: What happened? What did I do wrong? What did I not do? This picking apart usually takes place in the presence of my mother, who listens patiently and then says, “Or maybe it’s none of those things. Maybe it’s just the cycle. Maybe it’s just what’s happening now.” At which point, I take a deep breath and grumble, “Yeah, maybe.”
Of course, she’s right. Most of what’s going on is beyond any sense of my control, and I just need to ride it out. My struggle with it, however, has to do with my expectations. They have a tendency to get away from me. I do one thing and then want to, or feel I should, do more and more. Some years ago, a member of my then writing group brought up the notion of setting a deceptively small goal. I took to the idea and kept telling myself to “start small”. However, in the hands (and mind) of a Type A personality, this mantra developed a major flaw. I might be willing to start small, but all too soon, my mind says, Hey, we better put the pedal to the medal if we’re ever gonna get anywhere! Which, of course, devolves into a wild attempt to do more, which in turn tires, overwhelms, and frustrates me to the point where I am ready to throw in the towel.
In light of this, my new motto is: Start small—and then keep going small until you get whatever the thing is you need to do done. It doesn’t quite trip off the tongue, but, when I think about it, it is pretty much how I made it through college. When completely cowed by the mountain of writing I needed to do and the soul-crushing fear of not being able to do it, I would start by opening a document, forcing myself to add one sentence (more if I could) and then, moving to the next paper, do the same. I would rotate through all of my current projects in this fashion. Write a line, switch, write a line, switch. After I had a draft down, I could go back and check for cogency and fix any problems, but it was getting that first layer down that was the biggest challenge—which I overcame only by taking it piece by piece, sentence by sentence. I still write this way when I am stuck. I ask myself, What’s the next line? I don’t think about what will come after. I only have to write one sentence. And once that’s done. I do it again.
It can be hard to commit to small steps like this because societal norms so often tell us that if you can’t have the thing you want by tomorrow, you’d best not pursue it at all or worse, it’s not worth having. I mean, why even bother? Many of us, when we decide to turn over a new leaf, want to jump in feet first. You see books on lifestyle makeovers and they are all about making wholesale changes to one’s life. We tell ourselves, we will do everything according to this new code: eat better, sleep better, do yoga, meditate, be creative. And we forget that our lives are still our lives. I think people feel either: that they want to change everything all at once without regard to whatever else is going on in their lives or that they are too overwhelmed by their lives to make any changes at all.
There is an alternative. Start small. Do the thing you can do—this is advice I have given myself regularly over the past 20 years (when I haven’t been busy trying to outsmart myself). If you can meditate for two minutes a day, then meditate for two minutes a day. If you can eat more vegetables, but can’t eat less sugar, than eat more vegetables and don’t eat less sugar. And, *this is key*, don’t let your mind sell you a bill of goods that you are somehow falling short! The saying A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step is, perhaps, a cliché, and, of course, you do have to take all the succeeding steps after that first one if you want to get to your destination, but if you tell yourself that that first step is not, won’t ever be, enough, you will never take the second.
I have big goals. I don’t know if there are enough steps in this body to get me there, but I want to keep walking towards them. I want to do the thing I can do, consistently, and be proud of each step, giving it the recognition it deserves, because, in a one million-step journey, step number 45,682 is no less important than number 999,999. Without either, small, seemingly insignificant movement, you will never reach your goal.
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Several years ago, on an episode of Gilmore Girls, an unscripted Norman Mailer said this to a reporter played by his son Stephen: “I can’t tell you what I’m working on. I never tell anyone what I’m working on. A novel is like a secret affair and you don’t bring other people in on it.” I’ve often played with the idea of being that closed-lipped about my own current writing endeavors. There are so many ways in which talking about one’s novel-in-progress could be problematic. For example: a) I might not actually know exactly what I’m writing about. b) I might be feeling a tad embarrassed about it. c) The whole thing may change completely before it ever sees the light of day. And, d) very often I can’t describe it in a way that adequately gets my meaning across.
This is what I told someone who recently asked me what I was working on: “My new novel has magical elements to it—dealing at least, to some degree with Wicca, and my protagonist is chronically in a bad mood—very fun to write!! But other than that, it’s still shaping itself in my mind.”
Her response was matter of fact and very sweet. “That’s having to do with witches and witchery, right? I’m not so much into that topic, but if you write it, I will read it.”
And this is the main reason I am hesitant to talk about my latest project: it has something to do with Wicca—because it’s something that’s often misunderstood at best, and considered evil at worst. And because I don’t want to somehow disrespect practitioners of the earth religions.
I am fortunate enough to have befriended people on many different spiritual paths—including various versions of faiths that many people lump together as Witchcraft. My fear is that they will say I’ve gotten it all wrong, but I have come to realize how individual our personal beliefs about spirituality often are—even when we are purporting to practice the same faith. I have long been intrigued by both spirituality and religion, so it’s no surprise to me that both my novels are, in part, explorations of faith. My first novel delved into Catholicism—an easy place to start since that was the religion into which I was born. Or was it? As I researched and wrote, I began to appreciate all the different kinds of Catholics that are out there. There is so much love and a great deal of fear. There is liberalism and conservatism. There are nuns who focus on social justice at the possible expense of church doctrine and priests who tell women that they caused their husband’s death because they had used birth control. I am close to people for whom Catholicism has been a great solace and those who call themselves “recovering Catholics”. One of my readers for CommuningwithSaints was so firmly in the latter category that she confessed to me that when beginning the book, she was nervous she wouldn’t enjoy it because it landed her back in a Catholic church—a place she really didn’t want to be. (P.S. She liked the book anyway.)
In order to inform myself more about Wicca, I am in the process of reading Buckland’sCompleteBookofWitchcraft—the cover of which has been gracing the left hand side of my site for several months (it’s taking me a while) along with the covers of other books I am reading. I don’t know how much of what I’m learning from Raymond Buckland’s book will end up in my own, but I have found reading it fascinating. Did you know that people of the Wiccan religion do not believe in an all encompassing evil entity like the devil? Or that a heathen is literally just someone who lives on a heath? That spell craft may or may not be a part of one’s religious life? That among Wicca’s central precepts are those of personal accountability, equality, and ecology?
My reasons for writing about Wicca are many fold. I like reading novels that tell me about different cultures and times and ideologies and as a writer, I try to write what I would like to read. I also write as a way of understanding something more deeply. It’s a great way to impel myself to become more informed on a topic, to explore how I feel, and to investigate how others might experience the world. There are a lot of literary witches out—they take many forms, good and bad and in between, but I would like to portray witches more similarly to the ones that I have known—earthy and funny, kind and real.
I don’t know how much magic will play into the story—but I find spelling scary, so I will most likely tackle that in some way. And there will be knitting! (probably) And a quest (I think). And some link to Celtic Mythology?
You see why I’d like to join the Norman Mailer order of secrecy?
Here’s what I can say for sure: Mostly, my books—like most books—are not about the topic in which they dress up. They are about people wrestling with life, finding their own way through—and hopefully, along the way, stumbling across a little grace.
By the way, if you have a book that explores and explains your faith in a way that’s deeply meaningful to you, I’d love to know about it! Please leave me titles in the comments!
Finally, a bit of housekeeping: On Sunday, those of you who have been subscribing to my blog from the beginning through FeedBurner got spammed with a post from a few years ago. This was not my doing and I apologize for the confusion and annoyance. In the coming weeks, I am planning to disconnect my blog from FeedBurner, so if you would like to continue getting email updates of my posts (and I hope you do), please enter your email address in the box under my picture on my site. This will subscribe you to the WordPress feed and you will get an email just as soon as I publish any and all posts!
In his book, OnWriting, Stephen King talks about how authors sometimes incorporate attributes of their own life situation into a story, without realizing what those attributes are. When he wrote the alcoholic protagonist in TheShining, King says, he wasn’t aware, he was, at that very moment, an alcoholic himself. Something similar has happened to me. I finished my first novel CommuningwithSaints a few years ago, and though I knew I was including some aspects of my personal story in that of my main character Lucy—her ambivalence about Catholicism, for one—I didn’t realize how much her fears were my own. When, in the first chapter, the ghost of Typhoid Mary finds herself invisible to all around her, desperate for attention, and tethered to this quiet 23-year-old, she recognizes right away Lucy’s trepidation about being seen:
She knew she had no choice, she must continue to follow Lucy, and to hear and to see as the younger woman attempted to hide from the entire universe. Mary shook her head, “Doesn’t that girl realize how terrible it is to be invisible?”
It wasn’t until some months ago, when I contemplated ramping up my internet presence—doing all the platform-building tasks that a writer is encouraged to do these days—that I realized, I too, am afraid of being seen. I am afraid of getting myself into something I can’t get out of, getting hurt somehow—or hurting others with what I have to say. Okay, Diana, so stay silent. Don’t put your two cents in. Be invisible. But, you see, there’s a reason that although Lucy starts out in an attitude of concealment, she slowly makes a journey to some level of comfort interacting with others—because being seen and heard is one of the most basic emotional needs humans have and, it’s one of the best ways we can help one another.
I remember devouring Susanna Kaysen’s memoir Girl,Interrupted and thinking, “Thank you. Thank you for writing this down in this way and thank you for sharing it with me.” My emotional struggles were different from Kaysen’s, but I felt liberated by her candor and her seeming lack of shame.
And yet, I feel reluctant—especially when I consider the crazy-making-ness of it all. The worst part is after I post. The doubting of my content, grammar, and punctuation. The subsequent liking and/or commenting. The publicizing on Twitter and Facebook. The incessant checking of my phone to see if someone else has yet responded to what I have put out into the ether. The wondering if I should be more public or less public. The agonizing over comments I write on other people’s blogs—wanting them to sound just right, to show that I am friendly and witty and smart.
Furthermore, in the current publishing climate where a writer is encouraged to build a platform by not only blogging, but social networking—in seeming competition with many other others, I might add—I find myself baffled by what the heck I should post. I like social media. I think it brings a cool kind of democracy to the world. I have seen funny posts, clever posts, poignant posts, and I enjoy them all, the problem is I never know what to say! As I wearily laid down yesterday afternoon and felt my mattress cuddle my aching body, I thought, “I am so in love in with my bed right now.” And then I thought, “Should I be tweeting this or putting it on Facebook? Is this the kind of thing people might find funny or simpatico?” I have to start somewhere, but the truth of that matter is, I didn’t want to. I couldn’t believe anyone would want to read it, and I didn’t want to make noise just for the sake of making noise.
Last week, I read a blog post by Felicia Sullivan in which she asserted that there is a lot of bad writing on the internet. I can’t say I disagree with her. Of course, each of us bloggers are hoping that we are not the ones she’s talking about! Certainly, there’s a lot of good writing out there, too. But how much of it do we actually read? How much do we have time for? How many individual words of this post are you reading right now? I don’t ask that out of mischievousness, merely out of interest. In a sea of verbiage, do my words matter?
Of course they do. Everyone’s words matter. How much? I don’t know. But, in all humility, I’d hate to think I might rob even one person of the kind of experience reading Girl,Interrupted gave me.
Being visible has not always been a safe experience for me. I have had several experiences in my life of people asking more of me then I wanted to give, of casting blame on me for being selfish—that by my withholding parts (or in some cases all) of myself, I was withholding their happiness. My response to these experiences has been to want to dig an even deeper hole in which to hide. That’s not the answer, but neither is being completely forward, and hang the consequences. I need to be brave enough to be seen—in any aspect of life—but also not too scared to be reticent.
Back in my performance days (during which the idea of wearing a slip on stage in the guise of a hooker seemed much less risky than being on the internet), I adhered to the guideline of scaring myself a little—not full on terror, not total security—just a small dash of apprehension. This kept me moving forward, but also meant that I didn’t end up in over my head. I am going to keep that in mind now, as I try to emulate my somehow wiser-than-me characters. Mary’s right. It is terrible to be invisible, to be unheard. We have a responsibility to act and speak with wisdom (if at all possible) and compassion, but we can’t let the burden of that task scare us from allowing ourselves to be seen.
Oh, and if you like your tweets intermittent and possibly rather boring, please feel free to follow me @audacioussm
I am a sucker for new beginnings. In the spirit of the advertising industry’s seductive promise “new year new you”, I revel in the idea of starting over—everything shiny, filled with possibility and the hope that this time, things will be different. This time I won’t mess up. This time—unlike all the other times—I will get it right. Yes, the new year can be a very dangerous time for me.
In mid-December stumbled across Angela Ackerman’s business plan for writers. It was just what I had been looking for—a way of organizing my goals for the new year, of helping me to focus on what I really want—out of writing and out of life. I worked on it diligently, spelling out my many goals for 2015, among them: blogging more, writing my new novel more, submitting more—not to mention my non-writing goals—exercising, meditating, cleaning, harp playing, art journaling . . .
I know myself, so I tried to keep the goals teeny-tiny and quantitative: 50 blog posts a year, 4 agent queries a month, 1750 novel words a week. This way I have something real to shoot for and, if I do achieve them, I can’t say to myself, “Well, you really should have done more.” The goal is the goal. Full stop. Still, even though it was list of small goals, it was a long list, and a lot of small goals can add up to well, too much. So as the new year approached, I became scared. What if I couldn’t do this? Again.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve devised regimented, detailed plans in the efforts to get healthier or thinner or more successful. And just as that clever Scot warned us, my best laid schemes have oft gone a-gley. A few years ago I came up with a writing plan so demanding that not only was I unable to maintain it, I began to question my desire to write at all anymore! I don’t remember the writing/life schedule I concocted for myself last year, but that didn’t work either.
The problem is that hope gets me just as much as the fear does. I want things to be different so badly, that I expect myself to be different, as if deciding could make it so. When I was in high school and first sick with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I kept rejoining the cross country team each fall in the unreasonable belief that I could run hard enough to leave my illness in the dust. And, though, blessedly, I’ve been feeling somewhat better over the past month or so, I still have the same body and, with it, some very real limitations. I can’t pretend that I can all of a sudden expend 50 percent more energy than I have before.
So, what to do? The first thing was to write at the top of my list of goals: “Adjust as needed.” It feels like a little bit of a cop-out, but let’s face it, other things will creep up—important things, fun things, things that cannot be ignored. While I’m busy making other plans, Life is going to interfere. That’s its job. The second thing is to be kind to myself, take heart and pride in any forward progression. Small actions over time add up. Thirdly, I have to remember that these goals are not arbitrary. I have set them because they relate to things that are important to me—things that speak to the best parts of me and, quite possibly, that cause me to have a more positive impact in the world.
So as I work on the first leg of my blogging goal (only 49 more to go!), I still carry both the fear and the hope. The fear that it will all fall apart, but also the hope that I can carry these goals gently, nurturing them. It feels good to have a focus. It feels good to know that I am committing to my pursuits and myself—even if I may have to rejuvenate that focus and commitment over and over. I know a lot of people stop making resolutions because they can never seem to keep them, but I think the most helpful resolution—for me anyway—is not to be constant and unerring, but always, in some way, to return.
That’s the other thing I wrote atop my list of goals: “It’s okay to fail. Just keep coming back. Keep starting over.”
What about you? What are your goals for 2015? Do any of them include being kinder or more understanding to yourself?
My mother has said this to me about a million times.
And I hate it . . .
Mostly because it feels so true.
I am in the throes of passion, rebellion,
frustration at the world at large,
irritation with several specific people in the world at large.
And reliving all this—again—is no more fun
than it was the first time.
I suppose I should consider myself lucky—
Some people don’t seem to make it past the age of 2.
But I’d really like to be an adult someday.
Trust myself. Be comfortable with the body that sometimes seems well past its 31 years and the emotions that are perennially stuck at 14.
I’d like to be responsible. No waffling. No squirming.
I live up the road from FDR’s house, and almost every day for several weeks now I’ve had to drive by one of Eleanor’s quotes they’ve got posted out front: “Determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly.”
To which my response is usually: “Grrrrrrrrr.”
But that just reminds me of my cat Golda growling as she looks out the window, and my mother going outside to chase away the cat that’s causing Golda’s anxiety. My mother can’t find the cat, so she comes back inside only to realize that, in the dim light, Golda is, in fact, growling at her own reflection.
I love composts. I love the fact that I can throw away any amount of unused food and not feel guilty about being wasteful because I know that nothing I put into that compost bin is ever wasted. It will find its way back into some simpler, more basic state and become food not only for worms, but for next year’s flowers and vegetables. What I do not eat today, I will eat at some point.
I love shredding my old drafts of writing and commending them to the compost as well. I like that my words find their way into my mother’s garden—that her work and mine are united somehow in a dually poetic and mundane way. I know that my words will be safe in the compost. I can trust the microbes to chew them gently, to keep the secrets of my ill formed ideas, my inelegant turns of phrase. I love putting my old drafts onto the compost because it feels hopeful to me. So I didn’t get it right this time; it’s okay, out of these efforts will grow new seeds—all the more fertile for the nutrients offered up by their predecessors.
I love the unexpected things that grow out of composts. This year, it was a gargantuan pumpkin plant that crept carefully out of luscious soil and crawled all over the backyard. It is no wonder to me that fairytales deal in pumpkins. They are among the most enchanted looking plants—the determined corkscrews that grip, the huge silver-green leaves tenting the new fruit, the lead branch that rears up like a preying mantis as it explores the world.
It nearly always irritates me when I watch a TV show or movie that uses Tarot cards as a storytelling device. Believe me, I get the draw; tarot cards are exciting and magical. But they are not as spooky (if at all) as all those film representations would have us believe. What really irks me is when, inevitably, the final card is turned over and, once again, it is the Death card. As the audience, we are meant to be frightened, put on our guard, for here it is, death is coming. But the truth is, in real-life Tarot, the Death card rarely signifies a physical death, it is simply a harbinger of change—often of a positive nature. I think Michael Tierra and Candis Cantin describe it best in their book The Spirit of Herbs: A Guide to the Herbal Tarot (1993). “Death of the old is necessary for the new to emerge. The old is like a compost heap, full of rich experiences from which new forms emerge.”
I love this idea. It is clear that we must live in the present. There is no time other than right now, but it is also true that our personal histories do inform each present moment—but it doesn’t follow that this impact must be negative. That rotten, inedible tomato from long ago can produce a therapeutic echinacea flower if only we have the patience and stillness to let the past break down—to discard the unusable parts, and sift through to find the portions that are still nutrient-rich and ready to contribute to the marvel of growing something new and beautiful.
This week marks the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01. In light of this, I have decided to post an essay that I wrote in the summer of 2006. Portions of it are clearly dated, but it is a piece that is close to my heart and that, before this, has not had the opportunity to see the light of day, so I’d like to share it with you now.
As I walk toward the airplane, I feel my anxiety begin to prickle. I have flown twice without incident since my brother’s death, but I find that this latest trip has awakened my fear. I wonder if this flight might also be a doomed one. I am less concerned for myself than for my mother. I cannot stomach the idea of her losing another child, let alone to these flighty, airborne things.
My heart still wrenches as I think back to a month earlier when we sat awaiting my sister’s arrival at another airport. I remember the young man in his late twenties striding through the gate, to be greeted by overjoyed parents. It seemed as though the mother had to see and touch nearly every square inch of her son—hugging him repeatedly and plucking off his cap to examine his hair. She tended to him as if to a newborn, making certain that her child is the perfect little bundle she had hoped for—ten fingers, ten toes.
I remember watching my mother watch this other mother do what she could never again do, and I am determined to remain alive if only for her sake. She will tell me later that as she left me at the security gate, waiting to board an American Airlines flight, she had to stop herself from telling the security guard to make sure the plane was terrorist-free. “One of your planes killed my son,” she wanted to rail, “you’d better keep my daughter safe!”
Hearing this will again pull on my emotions, but I am reluctant to assign blame in this matter. A great deal of energy has been invested in placing responsibility for the murder of nearly three thousand people, but the idea of knowing how and why it happened holds little comfort for me. Although I appreciate the need for investigating security weaknesses and apprehending conspirators in order to prevent further violence, I have no desire for retribution.
Not long after the attacks I was interviewed for a documentary about them. Its creator, Roz, was much impressed by my lack of anger toward the terrorists, and my unwillingness to exact vengeance. I related to her my strange lifelong fascination with terrorists. They have seemed to me an almost wholly helpless people, struggling to gain a sliver of control over their lives. Even on the day, when I was rushing toward my brother’s apartment in Weehawken, NJ, I felt a great sorrow for those who felt so unheard, so alone, so frustrated, and perhaps even so hopeless that they could see their fellow human beings as unholy aliens deserving of death.
I told Roz how I had always wondered what it would be like to be on the receiving end of an act of violence—not that I really wanted to find out—but, I wondered if vengeance was a natural reaction for everyone. I soon found that for me, it wasn’t. I just wanted people to stop hurting each other.
My apprehension lingers as I step onto the plane. It is heightened by a sudden idea that perhaps this fear is my intuition popping up to tell me not to board. I flash on a picture of myself plummeting in this doomed aircraft—my inner voice shaking its head at me. “I tried to tell you,” it sighs, “but do you ever listen to me?” I decide on a “better safe than sorry” approach and do a surreptitious gut check. I might as well entertain my intuition if only for these few seconds. “Do you really feel like this flight is in danger?” I ask. The faintest of replies in the negative eases my concern. At least now, if the plane does crash, I won’t have to suffer any self-recriminations on the way down.
My thoughts return to my conversation with Roz. The notion of war unsettles me, and I realize that I have never been able to stomach fighting—of any kind. Watching West Side Story as a child, I sobbed uncontrollably when Bernardo killed Riff, and Tony, in his turn, stabbed Bernardo. I was inconsolable for hours afterward—shaken by what humans are capable of—good and bad—and for the choices they could make and the choices that they ultimately do make.
All this is not to say that I don’t have my own violent impulses. When I was driving home from my brother’s apartment on September 12, I saw a car with the word REVENGE! posted in its rear windshield. A flood of frustration, horror, and anger sluiced through me. It was all I could do not to ram that car from behind. I knew my impulse was dangerously close to the driver’s own attitude, but I just wanted to pull him over and say, “Don’t you get it? I don’t care who they are or what they’ve done to us. I don’t want anyone else to feel what I’m feeling! I don’t want anyone else’s brother to get blown up!”
As the plane edges toward the runway, I go through my usual routine of debating whether or not to listen to the safety instructions. Having flown a number of times before, I suspect I am almost as fluent in them as the flight attendant is. Besides, embarrassing as it is to admit, it doesn’t seem very cool to listen. Looking around at my fellow passengers, I notice that few, if any, are paying the bored looking attendant any heed, and I find myself thinking that I don’t want to look like a scared little ninny who has never flown before. In light of my recent anxiety however, I decide to pay a casual attention.
My mind wanders again though as I imagine how the passengers of those flights must have felt. They sat much as we do, unconcernedly reading their magazines, tranquilly chatting with seatmates. As yet unaware of the fear that would overtake them once they were airborne—once the men with the blades and mace had taken over.
And as the plane taxis leisurely, I imagine what those men must have felt. Did their hearts beat so loudly they thought everyone must hear? Did they feel a sense of satisfaction at the chaos and violence they would inflict? Did they have second thoughts? Did they wonder—ever so briefly—about the families of the people they soon meant to kill?
And how did they feel just before impact when the incontrollable self-survival instincts flooded their bodies with adrenaline one last time. Did they rush into those buildings with a sense of serenity, a knowledge of fulfillment, of completion? Or did they experience the regret of one who might have made a different choice if only given the chance? Or did the natural terror of impending violent death consume them just a fragment before the flames did?
As the airplane begins to soar, banking toward the side I am sitting, I look out at the setting sun and think of my brother. Peter was fascinated by planes and aviation. He had taken several flying lessons in the years before his death, and had just soloed for the first time in the summer of 2001. I thought of how he would like the view of the city from the air. I thought of how on clear, sunny days he would look up into the sky, and, regardless of what I was talking about, respond, “Today would be a great day for flying.”
I reflect again on the people who killed my brother. I also contemplate the real and valid anger my countrymen feel toward them that I cannot seem to summon. I know that everything is not okay, and I agree that people have a righteous desire, and maybe even an entitlement, to protect their families, but I cannot help fearing their potential actions as much as I do another attack. I fear the anger that might allow a lack of understanding to slip into hatred. And it’s not always the same people doing the hating, or the same people being hated. Some Americans call the terrorists evil. Other Americans put the president who declared war on them into the same class. I cannot resign either party to that realm. I have come to believe that there is value in every human being, a lesson each could teach me—if I decided I wanted to learn. I believe that the Divine lives in all of us. By this logic, I cannot hate my earthly cohabitants without hating my God—and although I’ll admit things have been rough, I’m not quite ready to go down that road.
I may not be able to understand terrorists, and they may be baffled and even contemptuous of me, but surely, surely there must be something that could bridge the gap between our disparate lives—if only for an instant. And in that instant, could we not spark a glimmer of mutual understanding? A tiny granule of appreciation for the other’s life—regardless of ideology, geography, or deeds? And could not that particle be a seed that might grow into something recognizable? We are all humans after all. We cannot be that terribly different. I am certain many of them held commonalities with my brother—had sisters and mothers they loved, and dreams they hoped to fulfill.
I do grasp the harsh reality, however, that had I seen one of those men on that day, it is likely that no interchange between us would have altered the course of events. If I understand nothing else, I understand pain—and the pain that these men suffered, from real or imagined causes, was most likely, too great to find a different outcome.
As the plane begins its descent through the clouds, I watch the movements of the wings. On commercial flights my brother used to deliberately ask for a seat overlooking the wing. He loved to watch them manipulate the air, triumphing over gravity, and then finally yielding to it when it was time to land. I watch the night beyond the wing, the glittering lights below, knowing that my flight will not end in a building, but on the properly prepared runway waiting beneath us. I will walk off this plane into a seemingly unending life with seemingly unending challenges. Yet I realize the folly in this way of thinking. One thing my brother’s death has brought home for me is that my life is a blink of an eye, a breath, a whisper. My only refuge is in living respectfully and audaciously—to follow in his footsteps and maybe even surpass him.
I told my father after the attacks, after I had witnessed the kindness friends and strangers alike were glad to extend to those of us who were hurting the most, that perhaps this horrible thing had to have happened to remind us of our mortality and our humanity. I reasoned that perhaps God had arranged Peter’s involvement because our family was strong enough to withstand the pain. He was aghast at the idea, but my heart was so warmed by the incredible benevolence my fellow humans were willing to offer, that I hoped that September 11 would be an awakening of human compassion—one that might finally endure—a call to hearts, rather than a call to arms.
Now, just a few years later, I see my hopes deteriorating. I see a return to our former indifference to one another, added to solely, by a newfound fear. I wonder if I am naïve to believe that everything can and will be okay and that fighting is not the answer. The only alternative I can come up with seems, on paper, silly and rather innocent. Am I ridiculous to think that the best thing I can do is stand firm and send love all the way around? Not that it’s easy, mind you. Not that I even want to. Hating seems to take a lot less effort, and the idea of evil is so much more concrete and gratifying than allowing the existence, let alone prosperity, of those I disagree with.
And there seem to be so many now—lists of people, whose agenda I once shared, finding little ticks next to their names because they don’t reinforce my opinions, from politics to baseball, from literature to behavior choices. It doesn’t take much for me to discount even a stranger. I don’t like the way he dresses. I don’t approve of the way she acts. There are so many I am tempted to brand as untouchable that I am rapidly finding myself alone.
So I pray for a loosening of my judgmental nature. I pray for the ability not to have to understand. I pray for a love that won’t conquer all, but instead sneaks around in the night, kissing my enemies and wishing them sweet dreams.
Just before we land, I look at the wing again. I do not understand the Bernoulli’s effect that makes this all possible, but I know my brother would delight in explaining it to me—point by exhaustive point. I think wryly, “I’m glad I don’t have to sit through that.” But I smile at the notion. I reach out into the night, sending the smile and a message, “I love you, Pete,” I sigh softly. From somewhere beyond the clouds, unbidden, the answer returns, “I love you, too.”