[I present this, not in a bid for sympathy or mere cri de coeur, (okay, maybe a little of those) but an honest solicitation for advice. You don’t have to be a writer or artist of any kind, I think, to perhaps have valuable input here.]
I have forgotten how to create fiction. Not the mechanics, though surely those are rusty and weak, but the soul and flow of my creativity are lost. I’ve watched them wash away like sand castles.
There are myriad reasons why this is the case and most don’t really matter (in terms of fixing the problem, that is). It only matters that it has happened.
I have forgotten how to open myself to the world, to pain, to the darkest, dankest crevices of my mind and spirit. I’d even stopped reading fiction because it made those things more accessible and frightening. Reading fiction made me feel and think, so I shrank from it. I am, at least, reading again, if only in snippets, and taking care not to feel and think.
Even if I could allow that stuff in, I wouldn’t know how to let it coalesce into something creative. I’ve lost the ability to sit in a quiet room or in nature and allow life to bounce around me until a story finds its way through my pores or percolates up from my gut. Instead, those moments of potential reflection and processing are met with trepidation followed by a mad grasp for an electronic device or the television remote. Barring “screen time,” I allow my thoughts to wander only to the most basic concepts: survival, future concerns, chores, loss, loss, loss.
These things cloud my head (with my permission) like a perpetual flu. If I were an addict, I could blame drugs or booze, but my addictions are the 3 x 5 screen in my hand and the constant reexamination of pain and rage. Better to binge on pixels and past hurts than to leave the chasm in my brain agape because I simply can’t properly fill it. The ability to simply be and think: lost.
Standing in the bubble of another human’s existence, attempting to feed off and gauge their being and psyche, then pull it like wool into fine thread I can weave into a fabric of character: lost.
Voices are just noises. Faces, mere images. Fragrances and textures are just smells and surfaces. My senses that once served me as a creator: lost.
I could chalk much of this up to age, disease, grief. Be done with it. Move on. I’ve lost other things. Much harder losses. Things I will never get back. Suck it up, Buttercup. But it is exactly because my creativity has always sustained me in my life that I need it now in the face of those other losses. I have good things in my life, but I still need this. I need to be a whole me for my family and the whole me is the one that writes. If I can’t find my way back to KC the writer: lost.
The Void. The Beast. The Black Dog. The Pit. Depression and Suicide are once again prominent in the news cycle. Once again, we swim through speculation and rumor in social media and the word “why” ricochets off Facebook walls and inside our heads.
When someone we perceive as successful, intelligent, wealthy, or otherwise gifted with all those things we think make people happy takes their own life, we ask, “Why him? He had it all?”
Here’s the short, sharp response: Why does cancer take one person and not another? When we ask that question we typically decide chance/a whim of Nature bestowed a bad illness on a good (successful/beautiful/wealthy/young) person. We should view depression no differently.
What? Yes. Please stop thinking of depression as “having a bad day/marriage/money problems/getting old.” Depression isn’t the devil. Nor is it some vague whine-fest because you haven’t gotten your way. It is a disorder and it is wrapped up in the way chemicals in our brain dictate our behavior. I am shorthanding here because it is complex and not fully understood, but depression is clinical, meaning it has a medical cause. The initial trigger may be situational (injury, stress, pregnancy, physical illness), but the result is a clinical illness.
Yet, when the celebrity takes his or her own life, we begin the fruitless and unsatisfying search for answers. When Robin Williams died, it was because he had a debilitating disease threatening his future. Kate Spade, according to so much pointless rumor, had marital issues. Kurt Cobain had everything to live for supposedly, so obviously Courtney did it. (Did you hear my eyes roll?). Now Anthony Bourdain has died and we ask why? Why this outspoken, energetic man with so much success?
Because: chemicals in the human brain.
I truly hate that depression has been labeled a “mental illness”. Oh, it is an illness. But to call it a mental illness slides it into the realm of a) incurable (it isn’t) and b) unknowable (it isn’t). It leaves people with the impression that people with depression, with this mental illness, are crazy and need to be shunned, can’t be fixed, and their “mental problems” are just too hard to deal with so Run Away, Run Away.
So, let me be forthright and let me talk about Mr. Bourdain for a moment as if he sort of relates to myself even though I know nothing about his particular situation.
I watched him only rarely. What I saw of him was, in outward appearances, the very opposite of me: loud, brash, opinionated.
Oops. Opinionated. So, not so opposite after all. As I read that character trait of his several times this morning, I realized something about all of us (humans) that is especially true of depressives; we have something to say and we need to be heard. Yet, we often feel as if we are screaming into a void.
I’m not saying this is specifically a precipitant of suicide, I am saying that ultimately, in our crises, a depressive is not someone wallowing in self pity and pain, but someone who IS in pain and feeling utterly unheard. In a life that is extraordinary, rich, beautiful, fulfilling and filled with love—none of that matters if you are not heard when you are hurting. NONE OF IT.
This is why I write. Pure and simple. I don’t write to create art. I have told myself that I do, but that’s bullshit. I write because, while I am a mouse in public, shy and so soft-voiced it annoys people, on the page I can put exactly who I am and what hurts (and what brings me joy). I am one of the most opinionated people you will ever meet, but unless I know you well, you will likely only ever see that in these pages (or a Facebook post).
I have moments when the chemicals in my brain say, “Sure, you are much loved by your spouse. Sure, you live in a beautiful place. Sure, your daughter and her family are happy, healthy, and financially stable. Sure, you are not grossly unhealthy. BUT you are an abject FAILURE.” In those moments, I need desperately to be heard.
I can’t tell you exactly why Mr. Bourdain or anyone else takes their own life (beyond that the chemicals in their brains are betraying them). I am not telling you that circumstances don’t play a role in their depression. Our pain is often (usually) triggered by very real concerns. But I can tell you this—in that crisis moment, when you aren’t being heard, when you believe no amount of talking or writing can express your pain enough to bring even one person around to understanding you, the chemicalsin your brain are winning. They can convince you that your loved ones really will be happier without you. (Because they won’t have to listen to you cry anymore. They won’t have to pay your medical bills or worry about the fact that you might off yourself.) They really will get over it. (Because you’re not much use to them as a depresso, so it’s like getting over a lost puppy, right?) They really will understand that your pain was too much to bear. (Because they saw that you were in abject misery like a dog that can’t eat or walk, right?)
I have been fortunate in that I have taught myself to flip the switch and shut out that screwy rationale through some mental gymnastics and meditative techniques. The ones who didn’t learn that, or learned it and lost their grip on it, they weren’t selfish or cowards. They simply couldn’t flip the switch and the chemicals won.
I ask again, with these latest celebrity deaths, rethink how you view depression. Perhaps do some reading. Talk to those who actually suffer with it and listen to them. The Pit is deep, but with more people understanding, perhaps those who struggle to flip the switch can be pulled out more often rather than succumbing.
When my husband and I bought our first home, it was with the conviction that it was our last home. “This is where I will grow old with him and die,” I told myself.
When the economic growth of the area accelerated and he decided he wanted to sell and move, I was devastated. After a childhood of upheaval, I sought stability and needed to believe my home could remain an island of such in the madness growing around me. In time, I realized it could not and accepted the move.
Our new home, twenty miles south and three hundred square feet smaller, was just a house: nice enough, comfortable, but not that space that said, “Forever.” It was, however, an island. It sat on one of the highest lots in the neighborhood and when Hurricane Harvey struck last fall, the water crept up to the curb but never truly threatened us.
It was quiet, as well. Despite being in a small city that is embedded in the Greater Houston area, in fall and spring, when the air conditioning doesn’t run, it’s almost too quiet to sleep. I often found myself listening anxiously to my heartbeat in the early morning hours.
It was a social island as well. If one has children in such a neighborhood, one socializes. If one is “older” and beyond child-bearing years (like we are), one just smiles and says hello or maybe occasionally shares a dog anecdote or two.
If one were to ask me to describe my dream home, it would not have been this little house near the bayou.
Ah—but the bayou.
I do love it. It is called a creek, but it is a bayou. You can call it a creek and you can even call it by its official name, Clear Creek, to make you feel better about the breen, silty flow that eases and oozes its way ever so lazily around Brazoria and Galveston county—but it’s a bayou.
I love it, in all its bayouness, along with the rest of this sometimes perilous swampland that is Southeast Texas. I love the birds, bats, bugs, and plants that take refuge in it. I love the year-round greenery, the mild winters, the Gulf breezes that smell of salt cedar and seafoam on stormy days. I love the signs warning of alligators and other dangers in the parks.
And yet we have left the bayou behind in recent weeks. We’ve said goodbye to that reliable little house where Harvey tried but failed to harm us.
We have moved to where the bayous knit together and trail into the sea. We have landed on another island, one of salt marsh and seagulls and “Oh my God! But what about Global Warming?!” Now, I sleep soundly in a house that I truly love, listening to wave susurrations. I truly hope this will be my last home, but I can accept that it may not because my life has simply never been about permanence.
The bayou remains within reach. In truth, there is a shadowy bayou just up the road—just not “my” bayou. I am not far from Texas live oak, hackberry, chip-chipping cardinals, and complaining crows. There are new plants and birds to meet there as well. Perhaps I will leave this space here for a little “new bayou” chatter.
Nonetheless, watch this space for a new page link; this new island is just as chatty.
I came away from Facebook for a few weeks. I logged back in a few times not because I wanted to, but because I had to log in to some other damn this or that I had linked to (Instagram, Pinterest, etc.) at one time or another. And because every time I tried to do this one thing on my iPhone it splattered a warning on my phone that said I had to log into my Facebook account without explaining why, even though what I was doing hadn’t a damn thing to do with Facebook (or Instagram, or Pinterest, or etc.) .
I just wanted a rest. I didn’t like disconnecting from my friends and family, so I kept Messenger connected. Funny thing: It was hard for me to escape Messenger conversations prior to deactivating my Facebook account. After deactivating, I’d go two or three days without Messenger contact. I didn’t mind the sudden “radio silence,” of course. It was just interesting. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess. I seem to be living in that phrase lately. If I stay away from television, Facebook, news sites, and even other people, I’m much happier. So, maybe it should be, “out of site, out of mind.”
I’m not suggesting being uninformed or disengaging entirely from the world. If anything, people like me need to engage and speak up in these times. However, I do think there is wisdom in first taking stock of what is healthy and unhealthy for each of us. What I found in my last few days before I first deactivated my main account, was that click bait, blaring headlines, and well-meant but unwanted hand-patting were unhealthy.
Below is a capture I found that illustrates one aspect of why I stepped away. It isn’t really that the news is “fake” so much as that it is distorted. News bloggers (I don’t like calling them writers; half of them can barely compose a proper sentence.) take a grain of truth, layer mud and dung on it, coat it in sugar syrup, then wrap it in some pretty paper and call it “news.” We gobble that shit up. Empty calories with a dose of disease.
That disease was taking too much out of me each time I confronted it. Each time my friends and family confronted it, I worried how much it took and continues to take out of them.
I also began to look back on last year with immense sadness. I lost two of the loves of my life, my Momma and Daddy. With each new loss (oh, so many) of my generational icons, it felt like the world was just slipping away and I too would be slipping away with it sooner rather than later. This is what some people don’t understand about getting older and watching your heroes die. If they are so lucky as to get older, they will perhaps understand that looking at such loss is also looking at one’s own mortality. It’s selfish, perhaps, but as natural a part of grief as the sadness.
My grief brought on the old familiar frustration of not having accomplished the things I’d wanted to accomplish in life and fear of not having time to accomplish them. I looked ahead into an ugly future that would possibly be even further truncated. I lost hope. People attempted to give me hope with platitudes and religion, neither of which are any comfort to a skeptic in grief.
It isn’t that I don’t believe in a Something. Most days. I simply don’t believe it will hold us up above the flames. I have been in the flames plenty of times. I have also had great joy. I have been exceptionally fortunate. I am thankful, for sure. I recognize all the good things I have in life. But the good does not preclude the pain, sadness, grief, anger, disappointment, outrage. I am allowed those. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that repressing my emotions is at the top of the “unhealthy” list for me. I will continue to wail and cry when I am in pain. I will smile and laugh when I am genuinely happy.
I have found what is healthy for me. In no particular order: 1) Dealing with my emotions on my schedule, with tools I choose, not what others set out for me. 2) Cutting out ugly television. No more Criminal Minds, SVU, war movies, or any such shows/movies. I’m tired of real people hurting each other. Why should I watch fictional people hurt each other? 3)Time with my family. 4) Time with my dog. 5) Time at the page. 6) Time with nature. 7) Time in the rhythm of my breath. 8) Each Present Moment. It’s a concept that’s hard to fully appreciate after fifty-two years of looking behind me and feeling regret and looking ahead and anticipating failure. But, I appreciate it a little more each day. With that appreciation comes the realization that I don’t need hope, I simply need to be and do. I think number 8 wraps up numbers 1 through 7.
To continue to appreciate the present moment, I must continue to live in it. To live in it, I must also forego the diseased mud-dung candy on Facebook. I do hope that those of you who aren’t already following my “author’s” page will do so. Someone (thank you, Carol) has kindly accepted the task of keeping a casual eye on that page for me. As before, my Messenger will remain available. Until I’ve reached a point that peace comes readily when I encounter the mud-dung candy, my personal page is going to go dormant in a couple of days. It’s simply to easy to react to links. This dormancy could be two weeks or two years. Who’s to say? Also, grandchildren override EVERYTHING and must occasionally be afforded a log-in.
This is not a plea for attention, nor am I isolating. I’ll be on Instagram, still. I’m just bowing out of this particular spiritual poison.
I’m closing with a video I posted some weeks ago. I play this song often which means I cry often. There is method in that madness. Each time, this song reminds me not so much of what I’ve lost (though there is that) but what is important to me. Some things “got lost along the way” in the last thirty-five years, give or take, as they do for a lot of us. I’ve determined, at fifty-two years old, the only way to get them back is to live in the present moment. From my heart to yours.
You might have noticed (you probably didn’t, so I’m telling you) that I haven’t written an entry in quite some time. That isn’t strictly true. I’ve written multiple entries. I simply haven’t posted them. Most were typical writerly whining: grief, new house, more grief, lots more new house, topics too topical to discuss (Politics! Yuck! Outrage! Yuck!) None of what I wrote seemed to belong here. Either it contributed to the bile that everyone else was spewing or it was self-serving schlock. (Well, it’s a blog; all of it is self-serving shlock.)
We have a new home. It’s small and sweet and near the beach and I’ve never prayed through hurricane season so much in my entire life. It’s a joy and I wouldn’t trade it for any amount of money.
A pod of porpoises often comes close to shore near our new home. It seems, if you’ll forgive the anthropomorphism, that they are making fun of the fishermen on shore. At times one pod member performs something similar to a gymnast’s tumbling line, making its way through the trough between beach and sandbar with one leap after another. It’s not all fun and games, I’m sure. The pod is likely snacking in their high tide hijinks, mixing purpose with their play.
My purpose has finally shifted back to writing to a point.
The stressful and time-consuming process of setting up the house has slowed. I no longer spend my days looking for stuff for the house or ways to stuff the stuff we already have into the much smaller place.
The grief flutters in and out several times a day. Little reminders arise that I won’t see or hear my parents ever again. Momma and Dad come to me in my dreams in various ways—good and bad—that leave me near tears upon waking.
The national and international topical topics grind away on my sanity daily. Politics and its cohort Societal Entropy are driving me to wish I drank. I am attempting to cope with them by reading a book that stretches me considerably. Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy by Susan Neiman. It’s a bit like drinking vinegar to cure acid indigestion, walking on hot concrete to heal stone bruises, or hiring someone who bankrupted his own businesses to balance your books. Neiman poses these questions: “Can there be meaning in a world where innocents suffer? Can belief in divine power or human progress survive a cataloging of evil? Is evil profound or banal?”
Meanwhile, my news feed tells me about earthquakes killing hundreds in Italy, chlorine bombs dropping on innocents in Syria, and my fellow citizens arguing over how many flags one must wave to be a true patriot and whether one can sit during the national anthem. Nothing has changed in fifteen years. (“I’ll take ‘Banality for Beelzebub’ for $400, Alex.”)
Still, I have this idea, perhaps unrealistic, that at the end of this book, I’ll better understand a purpose for evil, unfairness, and complacency, or at least be better able to stomach it.
My best response might be to retreat to our little island home and watch for our pod of porpoises. I think they know the answer to the questions that book poses. Evil is just a function of being an animal on this planet and must be lived through (or not). Move on to the next shore. Play and dine in the waves.
There are wonderful days ahead in this sweet home by the beach. I do know that. Purpose and play, not just politics and banality. I am grateful for, if yet baffled by, my world.
My dad, my favorite amateur (as in, non-professional) grammarian, died last week at the age of eighty-six. Dad could, in one breath, chide me for ending a sentence with a preposition and quote Winston Churchill’s famous comment on pedantry. From my father, I learned both the love of language and the frustration of perfectionism.
As a child, I imagined myself to be more like my father than like my mother. After all, I had his big, dark eyes, his patrician nose, and sturdy, rectangular German face. I saw him as analytical, brilliant, and in his silence which I reflected much of the time, distant. He was affectionate and protective with me, but he was a man in his own head more often than not, a trait he passed on to his children.
Although Dad was always in thought, that didn’t prevent him from holding me next to him while he watched the BBC or Cronkite then later carrying me to my room and tucking me into bed. He was no “sit down to a play tea party” dad, nor did I want that, as I was the child that stayed in my room and listened to my 45s and read books or played alone most happily.
In my teens, this kind of arms-length parenting continued but I never felt unloved. I admired him and wanted all the more to be like him. I was going to be a scientist like him (with writing on the side). I was going to do it all right. I was going to make him proud of me.
You can see where that’s going, right?
I got pregnant (magic!) at eighteen and Dad and Momma were none too happy, but they gritted their teeth and we all got through it. On the other side of the turmoil was an amazing little girl with whom he immediately fell in love. (Look dad! No preposition.)
The shift in him, from man in his head to the man interacting with the world was subtle but visible. After my first husband and daughter and I moved home for a short time to get on our feet, Dad and Momma developed a strong bond with their first granddaughter and Dad softened. On one occasion, my older brother dropped by for a visit. Dad stood up, strode to my brother, greeted and hugged him for the first time in possibly years. My brother and mother stood with mouths agape.
Later, when I remarried, he not only accepted but loved and respected my second husband. In the long run, he respected my late-gained degree and would ask me biology and medical questions.
Another expansion of his awareness occurred years later, when my niece’s son was born and survived a harrowing birth. I spoke to him not long after. With a trembling voice, this longtime avowed agnostic told me, “someone or something kept [his great grandson] with us.”
Daddy spent sixty-four years with his one great love. After Momma died, he shuffled around the nursing home where the two of them had shared a room for some time. He died a little more than two weeks before the anniversary of Momma’s death.
Over the years, I have evolved to be more like my mother in many ways, both emotionally and physically: more chatty, more approachable, more padded around the middle. Yet I carry much of my father’s skepticism and contrariness with me. Over the years, Dad had evolved in many ways but toward the end he retreated, understandably, back into his own head where, I imagine, he and his wife were whole and happy again. When I spoke to him last he said, uncharacteristically for that curmudgeonly old grammarian, “I love love you completely.” I knew what he was telling me. That he was probably saying goodbye for the last time. I just thought he was mistaken.
I love love you completely, Dad. I will miss you always.
How Saturdays would happen if the Big Blind Dog had language:
I awaken and get out of bed. My husband (hereafter known as Dad) is showering so I leave him in peace and head straight for the kitchen.
The kitchen is part of an open architecture, great room structure with a large portion dedicated to a den area. In the den sits a plump, oversized couch known as Dog’s Bed #1. As I cross the threshold from bedroom to great room, Big Blind Dog (BBD) lifts his blocky brown noggin, eases one front paw off the couch, then another and, bum still planted on the cushions, looks at me. Well, as much as he can be said to be looking. He is listening to find out who exactly has come through the magic portal.
“Good morning, baby boy,” I say, and close the door behind me.
“Oh. It’s you. I suppose you’re going to give me breakfast.” BBD heaves his wide load up, stretches with back legs tall on the couch, causing a whistling intake of air into his back end, and hops down onto the cold tile. “Do get on with it. It’s been two hours since my automatic feeder gave me kibble and I’m famished.”
“I love you, too,” I mumble and shuffle into the kitchen where I ladle one heaping tablespoon each of pumpkin and yogurt into his food bowl, but not quickly enough to prevent a puddle of dog drool on the floor.
“Where’s Dad?” he asks, as he licks yogurt off his nose.
“He’ll be out in a minute.”
“Not good enough. I must register a complaint.” BBD turns away from my loving pat on his back and bumps his pumpkin-yogurt mug against the wall on his way to the magic portal and where he begins to whimper. “Oh, Dad. Please come out. I’m so lonely. There’s no one here but the lunatic woman who curses loudly and often. Please. Please. Please.”
I start my coffee and ignore the doggy drama though it increases with the familiar sounds of my husband’s routine as it nears completion.
The portal swings open.
BBD leaps for joy, raising his rear end slightly off the ground with each bounce like an obese bunny. “Dad. Dad. I’ve missed you so. It’s been forever. I thought you were never coming out. Life without you is drab and empty. Let’s go to the kitchen where we can be happy and eat and dance and bark and drool together forever.”
Dad winds around drooling dog and bouncing dog and nibbling-at-the-fingers dog, the many-in-one dog. In the kitchen, BBD leads him to the biscuit jar. Dad does as he has been trained, picks out a large biscuit and gets to work in his front-room office.
I sit in the den with my coffee—or rather I try to.
BBD walks to the back door. “Mother. I must go out now. Let us not disturb Amazing Dad. He is far too busy and important. This is your job.”
I’m a writer who works* out of my home.
I am always available to my dog, my husband, the Fed Ex driver, geckos that get stuck in the house. I try to be available to my grown daughter via telephone when she needs me.
With this availability, I didn’t expect my dog to be so much like a toddler and decide that I was just too danged available.
Every stay-at-home parent (SAHP) experiences it, that moment when the working parent comes home and the young child behaves as if they have been left ignored and unfed for ten hours by the hopeless and useless SAHP. But honestly, my dog?
Lately, it seems more and more the case, for BBD. Yes, I am more focused on writing now, but a lot of that focused time is on the couch, some part of BBD pressed up against me as I work. There are no fewer treats from the biscuit jar. Quite possibly there are more than when I was working on my MFA. There are no fewer walks. I pet and cuddle with him often, but I don’t crowd him. I am working on decreasing the cursing and if I do curse, I ask forgiveness with a treat. All it takes is a whispered profanity for him to act injured.
Yet, when Dad comes home from work, a new and grand world has opened up and life is wondrous again. While when I go out for morning errands and come back home, BBD herds me to the kitchen for a treat but that’s about the extent of it. No joyous bouncing or finger nibbling.
Don’t get me wrong. I know he loves me in his canine fashion. Much of the time, when his initial excitement over my husband’s arrival has ebbed, he comes to sit with me. Like the toddler who adores the working parent but relies on the SAHP for lunch and dinner, BBD knows who fills the food bowl every night and sits on the patio with him every morning.
This sounds like just a whinge about the dog not appreciating me as if he were capable of understanding the concept. Of course, I know he isn’t. I don’t know why a dog or a child attaches such importance to the arrival of the away parent v. the available parent unless it is some reptilian-brain fear (perhaps more to the fore in the dog) of the away parent not returning.
This is simply the statement of a truth. I sit at home and write all day (well, much of the day) several days a week. I don’t have a “real” job because my body doesn’t allow that but also because, truly, writing is what I have always wanted to do. I’ve been blessed to be able to do this. I am thankful for this. I admit, in my darker moments, when the dog brushes me off in favor of the Dad, when the kids don’t have time for us, when the husband has to work late, when the latest rejection hits the inbox, when I simply look at the page and see tripe instead of the quality writing of which I think I am capable, in those bleak moments I experience complete despair. What value do I have? Is it my purpose in life solely to let the dog out to do his business? God knows, it’s a job I want to do because I adore his fuzzy little snoot. But is it all I’m good for? Well, that and washing dishes and laundry?
I keep telling myself that the raft of emotions I am floating on day to day is a result of the sea of grief still surrounding me since Momma died. That my sense of worthlessness, my fears of the future, my anger with my loved ones, my disgust with the world as a whole, is all a result of those battering waves. That it is not rational.
Believing my precious dog loves my husband more than he loves me (or vice versa) is not rational. He’s just a dog, for God’s sake. But grief is not rational.
*as much as writing and not making money off of it can be called “work”
From Blue Star Publishing’s Adult Coloring Book: Stress Relieving Patterns
In the past six months or so I’ve done a good bit of coloring. I’ve found time for Hardanger embroidery. I’ve read a dozen or more books (I’m a slow reader), countless internet articles, and comics out the wazoo. I’ve developed a healthy daily yoga habit, learned to cook my lunch (actual cooking) almost every weekday, and while I don’t sleep well at night, I often make up the time the next day. I’ve critiqued the work of other writers (at their request, though I’m behind on that) and submitted (had rejected) two short stories. I’ve even attempted Zentangle—there was nothing Zen about it for me.
What I haven’t done is make any significant progress on my novel.
I don’t intend this post to be a whine fest – merely observation. Every effort to write a blog post, personal letter, notes on The Book, journal entry, etc., has been a lengthy probe into what part writerly fear, grief, clinical depression, and rage play in my lack of progress.
I am stuck in an “infinite while loop.” If you’re not familiar with computer programming terms, the infinite loop, or unproductive loop, is pretty simple. It’s a piece of code, usually an error but not always, in which the programmer set up an instruction up thusly:
If X is true, then do Y, where X is always true.
Here’s a simple DOS version.
The code above will repeatedly follow its instructions. “I’m at :A. Oh look, I’m supposed to go to :A. I will now go to :A. I’m at :A. Now I must go to :A again.”
You get the drift.
When you are using software and it “hangs up” and you have to shut down your computer or give it the ol’ “three finger salute,” you have probably stumbled on an infinite loop.
So here I am at :A, where :A equals me relentlessly and ineffectually sorting out my lack of motivation.
I have, in the last few days, “set an intention” during my yoga sessions to be kind to myself. To stop beating myself up because of my perceived failures. It’s hard. I’ve been beating myself up since childhood. I’m an expert at emotional masochism. Yet somehow, I must find a way to both release myself from the stranglehold of obligation and revive my desire to write at the same time. I can only guess that not hating myself for what I haven’t done is at least one place to begin.
My title to this blog post is misleading in a way. I did not at all tackle the subjects of depression, stuckness, or even grief. I’ve mentioned them only because they exist here in this loop from which I am trying to break free. In acknowledging them, I hope to get to the self-preservation that my subconscious thinks the loop is providing but is, in fact, chipping away with each iteration. That self-preservation is, is it not, what the writing is for? Rather than letting the loop determine how I will conquer the depression, stuckness, and grief, the pen must rip through that loop and conquer them for me.
Momma and Me (and my daughter). Galveston West Beach, 1983. Seeking and finding shark teeth.
My daughter had a lovely idea given that we were unable to have any kind of funeral or memorial for my mother. She suggested we have a memorial tribute to Momma in Galveston at the beach.
I let my daughter plan the event. She’s a great event planner. Not something she learned from her mother or her grandmother, mind you.
She made paper butterflies (Momma loved butterflies and hummingbirds), and wrote a beautiful remembrance for her grandmother which is not mine to share here. What I can share is a couple of pictures relevant to the trip.*
My mother also loved poetry. She loved my poetry, even though I am not a poet.** Not just in that “unconditional parent love” way. She genuinely connected with my writing in a way no one else did. She’d get excited and show my work to my dad and her appreciation fed my spirit.
To prepare for the memorial, I looked around my house and tried to reconnect with my mother in a house she’d never physically inhabited. I dug an old crocheted afghan blanket out of my closet, smelled mothballs and time, and sat down to talk to Mom about it.
I didn’t sit down to write a poem but to write a letter. As the image of her patiently, meditatively, lovingly creating this oversized blanket perched in the back of my mind, the letter transformed.
It’s not Charles Wright or Maya Angelou even on their worst days, but Momma would have liked it.
In the search for the ultimate imagery for our work, writers dredge up memory and metaphor that surprise and thrill our readers, that surpass cliché. In particular, I struggle with the language of sound and smell because I tire of the common metaphors and descriptors of these senses.
An example: In my thesis, I wrote of a storm that “mumbled” and a note appeared next to it, “grumbled?”
Mumbled. That’s what I meant. I didn’t mean that it grumbled and growled like a beast overhead or an angry old man. I meant that it mumbled like an indiscernible conversation. I was trying to show that it was not imminent. Perhaps if I’d spelled it out that way, it would have worked, but I worry such labored metaphors detract and distract from the action at hand. “A distant storm mumbled, sounding like a conversation in another room.” Meh. I’ve just lost my focus on the fact that my character is lying on a hillside with possible broken bones. Do I worry about how the storm is mumbling by dragging out the metaphor? I changed it to avoid the problem, but I didn’t like going to “grumbled” because I’ve heard a hundred other writers (well, perhaps ten) use that same expression. I’m sure there are other options but at the time, I was just trying to finish a thesis. The point remains, when and how do we break free of what is expected of us in terms of imagery/description vs. what we are trying to communicate? And, of course, what are we willing to do for the critic who comes back and says, “Huh? What does this mean?” So, I keep searching for ways to express these ideas. If “mumbled” doesn’t work, what will? What gets across the idea that a storm is making noise far away without being cliché or common?
To find these ideas, we search in our everyday life, of course. For me, that can be a challenge. I am somewhat housebound. I hate to use that term. Let’s say, “restricted.” I can tolerate some sun, but not a lot. I am perfectly ambulatory; my husband and I walk a couple of miles a night. We fish early mornings and evenings when we take vacations. I’m not stuck in a bed 24/7. I just have some limitations. I can’t go jogging in a park or hiking in a canyon or the woods in midday. I can’t launch a canoe at 9 a.m. and return to shore at 3 p.m. (though I would love to do so). My ability to gather data then is limited to grabbing at bits and pieces as I move from one place to another or in the little two-hour swatches of the world fabric I get here and there.
I get a surprising amount of data from the nightly 1.8 mile walks with my husband. Often, the familiarity of it leads to a certain numbness, but now and then I awaken to the smells and sounds.
On windy nights, each street has a life of its own. This street with its oaks and north-south facing has a stiff breeze and sharp sound. The wind pours unimpeded over the rooflines and sends the odd oak leaf skittering down the street. On another street, the wind is raked fine and soft with the needles of huge loblollies. It’s a ghostly sound that takes me back to childhood every time. Along the creek, the song of the frogs and the power lines mingle with cool air even in the hottest months. And on one street, the houses seem to stack up somehow and form a barrier such that, no matter the direction of the wind, the street is always a stagnant, stifling cave. At best, the very tips of the tallest pines will sway.
On still, damp nights, neighborhood smells bloom. Gardens of sweet or sulfurous blossoms waft through privacy fencing. Hints of Indian, Korean, Filipino, Tex-Mex, BBQ, and other meals leak through kitchen windows. Perfumed laundry fresheners puff from dryer vents. Fresh mulch and lawn clippings scent the walkways. Sawdust and diesel fuel clouds drift from garages. Then there’s trash night. After all those wonderful meals, clusters of “Ew!” sit on the sidewalk every sixty feet or so.
We pass from five to twenty-five neighbors, most of whom have earned a badge for Southern Hospitality. My husband smiles, waves and says, “How are you?” to everyone he sees. He often says, “Happy Saturday!” (Or whatever day is appropriate. Be prepared for “Happy Monday!” and go with it.) His smile is contagious and his friendliness near impossible to ignore. We have won over the most hardcore grumble-and-scowl walkers in our neighborhood. While we know the names of maybe five of these good folk, I believe they think well of us (him) and we trust them in an emergency. Many have dogs and if you have a dog, you can’t be all bad, right?
In all this walking and smelling and greeting and smiling, I am writing. Not literally walking along with pen in hand and composing, of course. Not even rushing in the door to jot notes (though that’s a good idea). It’s all been stored (theoretically) so when I come back to those metaphors like the storm so distant that it sounds like an indistinct conversation, I will have more writing fuel. I will (I hope) prevent myself from slipping into the usual “grumbling storms” or “flashing eyes” or “burgeoning” whatever burgeons.
It’s only a small piece of the collection process. I will always need more. Trips to the beach. Trips to the Hill Country, Las Cruces, Dallas, other parts of the state, the city, the bayou. Early mornings in my own backyard looking at my favorite tree (Happy Tree) and watching the hummingbirds drink from the lantanas while the blind dog tries to catch the fly that’s buzzing him. Still, it covers a lot of ground and for me, in my circumstances, I look for all the opportunities I can find.