Day 5: Process

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Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Everything is a process, I tell my students: making grocery lists, wrapping Christmas presents, preparing to workout. I emphasize this to struggling writers especially because they are often in desperate need of ways to approach writing. They need to learn how to enter what I think of as the writer’s thinking-bubble, that space where one can take a small step toward putting thoughts onto the screen.

In addition, teaching is a profound example of how process begins anew with each new workday. Each lesson is a meditation on the flow of ideas and activities. It’s really much more of an art than a science, though. Going with one’s instincts is required of teachers. I make split-second changes to my lessons often, reorganizing the transition from one thing to the next as it seems appropriate in the moment. At least, this is how it works best for me, to go with the flow of the stream.

Right now, our little nook, which is in the very front of the house, is in disarray as the whole family pitches in to put my makeshift office together (see Day 4). My yoga ball chair, which I am absolutely super excited about, is sitting in pieces upon the new charcoal grey shag. The ball has not been inflated. Books have been taken out of bookcases, so bookcases could move to a new location. Small piles of textbooks and anthologies remain homeless. Trinkets that sat within and on top of the bookcases are now on the piano. It looks like a room turned somewhat inside out.

My sense of improv holds true in my home improvement projects, too, as I have now begun decluttering the living room, moving old Sun magazines off of side tables and piles of artfully displayed rocks off the mantle, all to transitional locations. It’s a bit like taking the stuffing out of a bear so you can restitch the eyes and replace the missing button nose. We are in stuffing everywhere mode.

It’s about at this point when the process can break down, when fuel is required to keep going, to move far enough along so that a bookmark can neatly be placed in the status of things, so we can be ready to continue later from where we left off.

I am heading upstairs to do some yoga now after grabbing a handful of nuts. I’ll tackle the chair after that.

This is what it means to write, I will tell my students. This is exactly how we write an essay.

 

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Day 4: A Room of One’s Own

30-Day Writing Challenge, Day 4.

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Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

You know how life is full of strange connections and coincidences? You hear a Bruce Springsteen song on the radio for the first time in 20 years, and the next day someone gives you a pin that says “Boss,” and the following day someone mentions Springsteen’s musical over a cup of coffee. Before you realize, you are swimming in references and looking for his memoir in the local bookstore.

Yesterday, I mentioned nuggets of truth that are almost physical, that we can put into our own pockets to keep, and today, I came across this excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”:

The title women and fiction might mean, and you may have meant it to mean, women and what they are like; or it might mean women and the fiction that they write; or it might mean women and the fiction that is written about them; or it might mean that somehow all three are inextricably mixed together and you want me to consider them in that light. But when I began to consider the subject in this last way, which seemed the most interesting, I soon saw that it had one fatal drawback. I should never be able to come to a conclusion. I should never be able to fulfill what is, I understand, the first duty of a lecturer—to hand you after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of your notebooks and keep on the mantelpiece forever. All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.

It would seem memories of this piece had been lodged in my unconscious, from so many nights of sitting on my friend’s apartment floor in college, reading poems and essays from our favorite authors.

I pulled out Virginia’s essay tonight since, for the first time in years, I am getting my very own home office. It’s just a little nook to the left of the entryway, almost like a front hallway the builders decided to add on as an afterthought. And even though it remains open to the rest of the main floor, there is just enough privacy to consider it an adequate workspace.

We’ve been ordering the required pieces necessary for putting the room together, and when the ball chair arrived this evening, I felt like toasting Virginia.

I am not going to claim that it’s only women who need a room of their own, but in our society, women’s needs so often fall by the wayside, particularly for working mothers. Our “rooms” are often metaphorical states of mind, moments standing over the stove stirring vegetables, moments driving in the car alone, or moments reading in bed with our spouse lying next to us. Although these moments might offer time for us to reflect and catch our breath, having a physical space of our own is different. (Remind me tomorrow to elaborate on the luxury and privilege that goes along with this statement – but that’s not for today.)

There just hasn’t been a room of my own in our current house. My family and I live in something slightly bigger than a cottage with a finished basement. We only have three bedrooms, and one is a guest room. And I’d ruled out using my bedroom as an office years ago, after reading so many articles stating a bedroom should be a tranquil space. It should not be associated with work or stress of any kind. Since I was an insomniac for periods of time in my 20’s and 30’s, that rule is like gospel to me.

But the room is forming. The ball chair that UPS delivered today is proof.

Like those nuggets of truth that we can put in our pocket, under the right circumstances, it’s possible to create a physical space that is ours, one that has walls we can touch, one that is our very own.

 

Day 3: Snarky Dragons and Nuggets of Truth

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Photo by Elijah Hiett on Unsplash

In connection with my last post, I was reading A Thousand Names for Joy by Byron Katie, a gift from my mother-in-law (whom I sometimes call Mom), last night. Since Christmas, I have been savoring a chapter here and there in quiet moments on the couch. The messages are encouraging and meaningful; they push the reader to let go of the proverbial shit we’ve been hanging onto for perhaps ever.

It could make a person quite annoyed, however, to read how effortless it is for another individual to walk through the world as if physical and mental pain are not lesser than their polar opposites. One has the feeling they could smack this woman across the face, and she’d smile and say, “Thank you. I understand that kind of frustration myself.” Then, the two of you would laugh and have a glass of wine.

In case you’re just joining me on my 30-day writing challenge, welcome. If you are new to this blog, then even better. And, where have you been? I have been here waiting for you to join me.

Day 3 is a bit different for me than Day 2. I am feeling rather snarky today, and I am not even sure why. I went to the acupuncturist this morning, and it seems that waves of cranky fatigue have surfaced. “And so it goes,” as Vonnegut would say. Was it Billy Pilgrim? I am an epic Vonnegut fan failure if you must know. He is my husband’s hero, and as much as I love his bizarre and curious worlds and his depth, I have yet to finish one of his novels. Don’t think less of me. Or do. That’s OK, too.

I decided for this writing challenge to let my stream of consciousness flow, and my meandering mental path has led me to a wonderful nugget of truth I want to share. This final mini-chapter relates to presence and stillness and all that Bryon Katie shares in her book.

I am sure you have heard wise folks say that people reflect what they want onto you. Sometimes, people have a pretty upside-down picture of who YOU really are even, since you are what they see or want to see. Maybe you raise your eyebrows funny and someone sees their critical father in you, and they turn into a 5-year-old child right before your eyes (my husband knows what I am saying here).

One of the big, beautiful things in life is that if you live long enough – and work on yourself for a long time – you begin to recognize those moments as they are happening; you begin to see the weird projections and delusions you’ve lived with. And something inside finally breaks free, even if just a little bit – maybe it’s just a crack in a giant iceberg, but it’s a crack nonetheless.

Those little nuggets of wisdom become attainable in time is all I am saying. They are not just clever sayings to smirk at or be annoyed with, though sometimes we all feel too tired to attain something more than snarkiness at the spiritual gurus in the world. Sometimes that is all we can muster.

When you journey far enough and slay enough snarky dragons, however, those nuggets become attainable truths, almost like physical gems you can pick up and put in your pocket. They are yours, in time.

Day 2: Presence

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Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

30-Day Writing Challenge: Day 2

Goodness, I sure would like to live every day of the year the way I live when on vacation. And by vacation, I mean those that last for more than two weeks. As a college professor, I am infinitely lucky to have regularly scheduled breaks, and my favorite by far is winter break. It’s not too short and not too long, and it falls over the most splendid of holidays: Christmas. Plus, it’s winter, and I get to stay walled up in my little home if I want. This leaves me hours of contemplation, a state in which I am happiest.

On winter vacation, I can practice the true art of silence and presence. My seven-year-old is at school; my husband is at work; and, my cats don’t talk much. I am allowed to listen to the ticking clock, the humming sound of heat streaming through the vents, the passing cars outside. I am allowed to dream, to write, to reflect on last year’s classes. To reinvent my curriculum, as I love to do.

And then, there’s time to linger when running errands, to get lost in aisles and get way off track. Yesterday, I got to spend over an hour at our little co-op grocery store, deliberating with myself over which brand of bratwurst sounded the yummiest and which one had the purest and fewest ingredients. I got to linger in the pasta aisle long enough to pick one type of gluten-free spaghetti and then change to another. I was there long enough to forget what day it was and to lose all track of time. In fact, I left in the nick of time to make it home for my son, who’d be arriving home on his bus close to 4 pm. But still. I was able to just be there, like it was the only thing I had to do that day. If this isn’t luxury, then I don’t know what is.

Presence takes practice, and I realize it’s also a form of privilege that many do not have. I know I am blessed beyond measure for this indulgence. I also feel it’s infinitely important for those of us who can be mindful and meditative to do so – and with as much abundance as possible. As the saying goes, when the river rises, all boats float up. Doesn’t it seem true that others are allowed to rise when we do? We pull others along with us, and we get pulled along, too. Every time we are allowed to read books like Byron Katie’s A Thousand Names for Joy, we absorb a tiny bit of her knowledge and understanding. Likewise, as we grow in any meditation/mindfulness practice, we are better people, and better people attract better people and encourage others to be better.

When the semester begins again in a few weeks, I will likely return to the crankier, more stressed version of me. Now that I have written those words, though, I want to challenge that assumption. It doesn’t have to be that way. I know there is a way to live in more harmony, with more patience, as if I have all the time in the world in each moment to complete whatever task is at hand. As Byron Katie says, the Buddha and Jesus are inside us all. What they possess, we possess. That’s a pretty hard thing to believe, but I’d like to live my life as if it were so. To take myself and my pursuits more seriously with each passing year.

Wouldn’t you?

 

Day One: Dear Caroline

gabby-orcutt-74607.jpgI committed to a 30-day writing challenge with an online writing group I am part of. Me, the biggest non-joiner and a lifetime commitment-phobe.  So I have decided to begin here, with you. I am not sure how many of my posts will make it into public viewing since I am trying to keep a natural flow going for this challenge. I’d like to not focus on editing and revising. Just writing. But I already have had about 50 shades of topics run through my head since yesterday.

I am going to be honest and say I have a really hard time keeping up with this blog. It’s something that is very unnatural for me. The idea of posting personal truths for my friends and family to read. Getting published in an online magazine is different somehow. I could tell the truth to strangers all day long if they’d listen. It’s just way easier.

There’s an idea I have had for a piece for a long time now. It’s entitled “Dear Caroline,” and it’s a letter I’d like to draft to the daughter I do not have and almost 99% likely will not have.

I wanted a girl, though, if you must know. And it’s not that I don’t love my son. I love him more than I could ever explain. If you have a child, then you get it.

When I was pregnant, I actually dreamt I was having a boy, and he even had big blue eyes and dark hair, as my boy did on the day of his birth. When pregnant, I even decided I truly wanted a boy if I could only have one kid, and I always thought I’d only have one. My husband thought he’d have none, and he is absolutely the best dad I could want for my child. So thank God he was willing to cave into my desire.

So, the dear Caroline letter came back to me today as I sat eating lunch alone at our local co-op. In front of my table for two was a four-seater with a woman and three small children sitting together, two girls and one boy. One of the little girls, the one in the pink knitted hat that she was probably still wearing indoors since it’s been a high of 20 degrees in Maryland as of late, caught my attention. For whatever reason, I caught hers as well – she, chewing on a potato; I, lifting a soup spoon to my lips. And I smiled wide while she looked at me with big blue eyes.

I then looked down at my soup, and when I looked back, she was still watching me. So, I smiled again, holding her in my heart for a minute. And the words that came to me were “Dear Caroline.” The most unexpected thing followed. My stomach knotted, and I began to tear-up.

I will never have a daughter, you see. I am 99.9% sure this time. I am old-ish, and even though I can still physically have children, I chose to give up this fantasy years ago. As soon as I turned 40, I decided “Nope, that is it.” This pop stand has been blown. Or something. My first and only pregnancy was grand, but my postpartum days were murder. Not to mention, I was already 37 and change when number one came along. That’s old enough to be bearing children, at least for me.

But as the months and years pass, the finality of this truth becomes more solid and will be engraved in stone before I know it. Today, I learned this is harder for me than I once realized.

As the family of three littles and one mama arose from their table, the pink-hat girl and I exchanged a few more long gazes. When they had walked away, the strangest scene opened up before me. Three other tables were filled with mothers and their grown twenty-something-year-old daughters. I kid you not. I was caught in a bizarre twilight zone where mothers with daughters seemed to be multiplying before me.

I suppose I could have taken this as a sign. And figured I am destined to have another baby, to have the girl I always wanted. In truth, I took it as a weird coincidence and a reason to be thankful for the close relationship I have with my own mom. A reason to hold her in my heart for a while.

Dear Caroline, I am writing to tell you I never even met you, but I saw a girl in a pink knitted hat today who reminded me of you.

 

 

The Year of Taking Myself Seriously

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@catherinemcmahonUnsplash

Here we are again. The end of another year. I turned 45 earlier this month as well, so the desire to reflect upon the year is great.

The word that came to me when contemplating 2017 was….awakening. In many ways, this year has been an awakening. And I don’t think I am alone here. Our news feeds were certainly overstuffed with one political gaffe – or catastrophe – after another. But it went so much further than that for me. Everything about the political climate infused my daily existence. I couldn’t help but breathe in the pollution billowing from the White House.  The hostile takeover of the nation soaked into my skin. It was in the food I ate. Crept into dreams at night. Made my stomach churn. Pushed my anxiety meter into the red zone. On and on, day after day.

I began this year with a broken heart, a reeling head, and a bruised soul. However, if you are reading this, I likely had someone like you to share the load, and so, I felt much less alone as the year went on. I began to realize, I am SO not alone, and something quite the opposite of brokenness began to emerge. Beginning with the Women’s March in DC, something more like greatness slowly began to fill my chest.

My writing began to blossom. My past hurts began to heal. Pride in myself and my belief in social justice anchored themselves into the soil. I began to feel more confident in the strength I possess as someone who is open and compassionate, as someone who understands the true difference between fake news and real news. Ha.

In fact, you could say, for the first actual time in my life, I stopped feeling like the flaky hippie relative at the holiday dining table. You see, I grew up in a family where the patriarchy rules, where women are used to putting men’s slippers on at night and wiping their beards with linen napkins after dinner. My opinion, therefore, was never truly taken seriously when I was growing up. Sure, I was allowed to have ideas, but they didn’t seem to have much weight in comparison to those of the males in the room.

Patriarchal oppression has been a deeply embedded root in my family’s garden, you could say, and seeing this root reach its way into the Oval Office after so many years of progress was a significant wake-up call for me, as it was for many.

For some reason, however, instead of making me feel weaker and smaller, I only felt larger and stronger in the face of it. My unresolved past with my estranged father began to plague me less. I spent fewer nights tossing and turning at night over the closure I didn’t have, over the guilt of wondering if our falling out was my fault.

Instead, a solid truth of my own worth and my own goodness sprouted and continues to grow. The saying that negative thoughts grow if you feed them never seemed clearer to me as the opposite is also true. I am beginning to live with that knowledge in my bones.

I am taking myself seriously for what feels like the first time in my life. And the freedom that comes in doing so permeates my being. I am learning to let go of the actual shame I have felt at times over being a liberal female.

In solidarity with author Roxane Gay, I used to feel that the word feminist gave off a whiff of arrogance and stiffness. I didn’t want to be the woman in the room that men tried to avoid at cocktail parties for fear of hearing an “I am with HER” kind of argument.

But the fear of titles and stigmas are waning for me. I am learning that teaching tolerance doesn’t equate to “being politically correct,” and if it does, then I don’t give a hoot. I have badass icons like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the classroom with me, whose TED Talk on “The Danger of a Single Story” has been a centerpiece in each of my courses for 2017.

I can see fiction falling more easily from the bone of fact now, and this doesn’t just relate to TV media. I can see it in my own life, in right and wrong, in what kind of person I do and don’t want to be. And I have all of the atrocities of our current political circumstances to thank. So, thank you, President Trump and those who voted for him. I think?

When starting out this post, I wasn’t quite sure where I’d end up. Like the year itself, I began in uncertainty and doubt, yet here I am, ending with words of hope and light. It only took me a few minutes to remember: just take your badass, liberal, feminist self seriously.

 

 

 

O Christmas Tree

Our Christmas tree is drying as needles fall to the floor, but the pungent scent of pine is stronger than ever, wafting up the stairs to linger in the hallway if you stand in the right spot. I can’t help but think of how things are often brightest and best right before fading out, or maybe this is just the twenty-something inside who recalls the number of romances that flickered out with one sharp breeze – so soon after they were lit.

Last year was the first Christmas we bought a live tree, and I don’t want to ever go without one again.

As I watched another of Aymann Ismail’s videos the other day, a mini-documentary series which shows glimpses into Muslim-American life, I felt such kinship with these young Muslims who had decided to purchase a Christmas tree for the first time in their lives. Aymann and his wife, Mira, entertain other Muslims in their small home as they sit around the Christmas tree discussing their feelings about what it means to celebrate Christmas.

And I couldn’t help but relate to these young people who, like tourists with trusty cameras, were eager to document their thoughts about participating in a religious tradition that wasn’t their own. Mira questions how their experience is very different from many Christians since so many who celebrate are not regular churchgoers.

This thought rung so true for me, as someone raised in a Christian household who practices very little else other than the celebrations of Christmas and Easter. Christmas, in fact, has become a cultural and community experience for a large swath of the nation, as it has for me.

And in recent years, the tree is becoming central to the whole experience. I can share in Mira’s desire to bring “a living thing,” into the house at Christmas time – as a symbol of life, growth, spirit. It seems that regardless if you are Muslim, Christian, or something entirely other, we can all gather ’round a tree.

As the season winds down, the tree is the hardest to part with. “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, how steadfast are your branches.”