I have been in social hibernation, not wanting to see people or think about too much, though my alone stretch was broken today with a nice visit with a friend and I have another scheduled for tomorrow. The gears are turning, the thoughts are coming slowly. I’ve had a hard time being satisfied or interested in writing. My writing prompt responses don’t feel genuine. My attempts at feedback feel lame. My conversation is often stilted. The words hide from me.
Someone I used to know once accused me of being a martyr. His accusation shocked me. Weren’t martyrs these manipulative types who sigh and groan and gnash their teeth as they take on the tasks of everyone else around them? (The answer is not so simple, of course.) I didn’t feel like a martyr. I felt like the only one to pay attention to the details, the one who was required to do so for so many reasons. To think of myself as a martyr was to change the equation entirely, like I was somehow benefiting from feeling put-upon.
Of course, when I spent years being an anxious insomniac, I thought that was normal, too, that my worries were within the range of the usual (not atypical for someone who is going through generalized anxiety disorder, not that I need to label it). I also spent most of my life believing that my self-criticism had nothing to do with perfectionism. (As a friend put it to her therapist once – “I’m not perfect enough to be a perfectionist!”) At this point, I’ve accepted that I was overly anxious and I recognize my irrational expectations of myself to maybe, just maybe, be tinged with perfectionism. But a martyr? I call bullshit on that.
Because it’s more complicated than the swoon, the hand pressed to brow, in a room littered with other peoples’ stuff, stuff that I clean up with an eternal sigh. It’s about communication issues and perceptions about the source of my “value” (or my lack thereof). It’s assumptions about what it means to be a good person, a moral person, a person who is not a drain on the household. It’s about learning new ways of being. Labels do us no good. Like that former friend. A warm human being? Yes. A complicated equation, variable and mercurial? Uh huh. A naysayer who thrived in some small way off of drama? Maybe. He was unsolvable. Irreducible. Like all of us.
So what if the words don’t come easily right now? I am allowed to be silent. I am allowed to complain about my distracted state or the little things that feel out of my hands. I move rocks of my own volition, wipe down the countertops after every meal, because that’s my way. Slowly, I will let go of some of the things that need to be done, will allow others to do them in their own time and way. At that point, I will fling off my given title of martyr with my lithe middle finger, smiling as I watch the label dissolve into nothingness in the cool night air.
Part of this from the prompt “Running late.”
Image License Some rights reserved by melodramababs
Last week, former roommates of mine (a married couple) lost their oldest son. He was 18, fresh out of his freshman year of college, and the circumstances surrounding his death are still somewhat murky. His death haunts me. We are lucky, so lucky to have what we have. I was reminded again to appreciate the moment, to take nothing for granted, though, of course, it is hard to always live this way, with a light grip, the most delicate of touches, never assuming that the hand I reach out for will always be there.
I am prone to considering every negative possibility, to attempt to block tragedy by imagining it. This is exhausting. Impossible. Somehow I have to live in the in between world where nothing is guaranteed, acting all the while as if it will go on as planned. Occupying ambiguity is not a task for the weak-hearted. It is too easy to hide behind the threat of loss, to use it as a form of self-protection, not getting attached because I never know when accident, disease, or another person’s perfidy may take the ones I love away. How do I love fully, with acceptance of the temporary nature of life? I struggle with this question all the time.
But yesterday was as perfect as it gets. We discovered something new. We walked in the shade. We walked in the sun. We lived in the moment and wanted for nothing.
Image of the East Bay, off in the distance, taken by me at China Camp State Park.
And the laptop arrived today, almost two weeks after the unfortunate fizzy water incident. It’s light as, well, air and easy on the lap. I can actually see the letters on the keys -- on my old laptop, the frequently used letters had worn off. I can access my blog (there were troubles over the last two weeks in attempting to load the blog from the backup). My mail is back and searchable. I have my writing tool back again!
If you want to know what I’ve been up to, read below. In the meantime, I’ll catch up more later this weekend or early next week. We’ve got an apple tree and blackberry vine to plant, chores to do, and Father’s Day to celebrate.
Truth be told, I can't be bothered.
Instead, I want it to be just me and the earth, the metal implements, one violating the other as I make a place for stones. I want to wipe away the curled remains of the bamboo grove, the leaves that fell to the earth and died, wrap my gloved hand around the life force of a vine and tug until it unlatches from the fence, from the ground, from the trellis someone put up before we even knew we were coming to California.
After I write this, I will make more space for an apple tree, will take a crowbar and chip away at the clay. The crowbar is a handy tool (witness me a few days ago moving rocks I could not lift, rolling them from their homes around the perimeter of the yard), though not suited for this purpose. It is too short, and so I must crouch down over the hole I've already made and awkwardly slam the pointed end into soil that is so hard I will only be able to shave away bits at a time. I will tire of it, because it's hard work and boring and because I only have so much upper body strength, though I feel strong. I have plans that I cannot realize without help: making a hole for the thornless blackberry, now a trailing plant in a container, sadly limited by its box, digging out a space for a raised bed, bringing piles of compost and mulch to cover the cultivated earth.
Or maybe I will stack rock upon rock, stone upon stone, making my careful selection from the pile I've freed (the creatures that lived under these things: slugs, black beetles, earwigs, voluptuous false widows whose body shape told me yes, but whose hourglass-free abdomens said no, ants with their wings and their networks of tunnels).
In short, I am making something out of nothing, moving dirt from one place to another, taking the ancient remains of other things and intermingling them. I dream about computers light as butterflies, about paint the same blue as the sky, and consider what I might be doing had I chosen another body to manifest into.
From the prompt “In a nutshell.”
Image of a boot in a tree taken by me on a dog walk last weekend.
There is the in-between world of desire and then there is the in-between world of a layover, of temporarily occupying the midpoint. At the moment, I’m in a metaphorical airport waiting for my next flight to a little-known destination. I want to swoon – I want to be overwhelmed with desire, want to glide my hand down its sleek back, clasp my arms around its neck lest I fall to the floor. Instead I sit, my mind wandering here and there, from household tasks to preparing for next school year’s traineeship. Who wouldn’t want a juicy distraction in the midst of heavy (though wanted and necessary) practicality?
Some writers talk about having muses. If I have a muse, he works best as a tease, a cipher, a puzzle I can almost figure out. And if I have a muse, he’s taken a holiday, too, perhaps a long one. He and creativity are sharing a tropical drink as they sun themselves on an exclusive beach located on a small island far away from here. Because my mind is not filled with words, with poetry, with lively imagery. Instead, it is filled with paint colors, with yard design, with a child’s birthday party. It is still processing the second grade field trip I chaperoned last week. It is preparing for tomorrow’s reception at my traineeship site. It’s thinking about classes and vacation, about rocks and compost and apple trees.
I try and fake it, bring up the subjects and people that used to get my creative juices flowing. But a funny thing is happening. My old flames visit me after midnight. They say goodbye, one by one, over a series of dreams. The feeling between us is warm. There are no regrets. I have no compulsion to reel them back. Each one leaves with a tight embrace, an all-out hug, and I wake up a little lighter, freed of another impossibility, enjoying the closure I never experienced in real life. My material is leaving me and I feel (mostly) fine.
Still, I miss them, how they used to hang out with my muse, knocking back whiskey and sodas, laughing while he ignored my phone calls, telling him their secrets so he could not pass them on to me. I miss the chase and the useless seduction. I miss pursuing the unattainable. I miss riding the wave and writing about it. So I wait for my flight to another state of mind. I make plans for my life from a new vantage. And, sometimes, I hope to see them again, to feel the imagined heat, just out of reach, my muse blowing on my fingertips, warming them just enough to get me through another paragraph.
Image Some rights reserved by guidedbycthulhu.
I replaced you with cigarettes and gin and tonics, with late, misty nights and late, rain-drenched mornings. I watched a lot of TV that spring, Happy Days and Love Boat reruns, Fantasy Island and Kung Fu, in the dark, the front door open, just in case. I breathed in smoke and breathed it out, shook the ice in my glass until I refilled the drink. Spring cool turned to summer humidity. The sun left her mark on my shoulders, in the scattering of freckles on my shoulder blades, in the darkened skin surrounding the pale bands where my bra straps spent their afternoons.
You weren’t coming back. I heard no news, had no phone calls from friends. I wasn’t answering the phone. I refused to stare at the street to catch a glimpse (you on a bike, driving in the ancient car you sometimes cadged from your parents, or teetering on a skateboard, leaning into the curve). I sweated through the season, breathed in smoke and breathed it out, let the heat of my fingers melt the ice before the reload, listened to the cool clink of fresh ice against glass, watched the melting gin, heard the fizz of tonic. New bottles appeared in my mother’s freezer. I dipped my fingers in ReaLemon to rid them of the staleness of smoke, brushed my teeth more than most to hide the medicinal juniper, to disguise the synergistic mix of booze and cigarettes on my breath.
My mother knew, I swore it. She knew it all. The smoke curled from my cottage to her house, it wrapped around her hands like a rope and tried to tug her to my side, but she treated it like a symbol, a metaphor not of her own making. She had enough metaphorical monkey business in her own life without dealing with mine.
Eventually summer turned to fall. I moved away. But I heard you stayed behind and are there still, living life in the perpetual past, driving the same roads, drinking the same beer, missing the part of me that I erased. I don’t think about that part of me anymore. I ended up on the other side a different person, less naive, not quick to give my love away. The metamorphosis took six months of rain and smoke, of gin and heat. It was my final fermentation into adulthood.
From the prompt “In the rain.”
Image Some rights reserved by Jonathan Kos-Read
And what a story, huh? It never fails to surprise the newcomers. Of course, the above paragraph is the nutshell or elevator conversation version, with all the punch and none of the nuance. For years, I kept it mainly a secret, something I passed on like a jewel to those I thought I could trust. I wish I hadn’t lived it, but I did, and it’s always seemed to me that I should be able to make something concrete out of it, a Story. I have tried. I have written and rewritten. I’ve added emotion and subtracted excessive melodrama. I’ve removed the feeling of immediacy and then told myself that it would be more affecting if I took the reader back to the moment, which takes me back, too.
Guess what? I don’t want to go back to the moment. Writing out the story in a variety of ways has been healing, though it will take some time and a lot more work before it sheds most of its emotional gravity. But I don’t want to go back and, as I figured out this morning, midway through my second paragraph of revisitation,* I don’t have to. In fact, I don’t have to make it into anything formally written at all. Instead, I can accept it for what it is, a part of me, something that informs my emotional life and my sense of empathy. It doesn’t need to be changed into art. I don’t need to redeem the story or redeem myself.
As I’ve written before, it has been very important to me to make the story public, even obliquely, and it still is important, to some extent. I eagerly anticipate the day when the story, with all its attendant side plots, its narrative tentacles, no longer makes me cry (and it makes me cry for many reasons, some of which might not be obvious from the outside), the day when it doesn’t bring up a mix of unresolved, complicated emotion. I look forward to when it doesn’t matter in the same way, when its effects, my tendency to isolate myself, my reluctance to be truly close to other people, are less entrenched, when they’ve faded to minor habits.
I used to think what happened to me then and earlier in childhood locked me into a life of separateness, of distance, but now I know that isn’t the case. Slowly, I let the world in. Repeatedly putting myself through the story as I lived it puts me through an emotional wringer. Who needs that? It is enough to remind myself that I have value, that I am both lovable and loved, that my parents could barely nurture their own emotions and damaged sense of attachment, let alone nurture me. It was not my fault. Someday, I will know that completely.
So, I give myself permission to take my story as background without revisiting the terror of being 15, pregnant, and absolutely alone. If I make myself go back, if I make myself be a frightened teenager again, I will have a hard time helping anyone else subvert the power of his or her childhood stories. We don’t need to return to the scene of the crime to heal. We can rebuild with what we have now.
Sometimes, the story will be there, insisting upon being heard. That’s ok. I will listen to it, write about it if I wish. But I don’t have to. The story does not define me. It makes up a piece of me. It made me stronger. And it lies in the past.
*Not for the blog.
Image of the boy’s handmade healing potion by me.
So I was reminded of death this weekend (the collapsed and missing gravestones of a dormant cemetery), of how lucky we are to be alive now, despite all the problems of the world (the graves of infants and children who died before the era of vaccines and modern medicine), the way danger lurks anyway (the young rattlesnake nestled in a tree in the cemetery). Two days with my family, two hikes in new places, two glorious stretches of sunshine and blustery winds reminded me of life. My thoughts of school were mainly musings on when my grades would all come in (all A’s so far). I have so much to be grateful for: the day, my family, the time, health insurance, money, the lovely box of celebratory chocolates from the even more lovely Grace.
I’ve been stuck in recovery from my first year in grad school. I’ve had very little to say. I’ve had moments of transcendence that feel perfect and then they are gone. I’ve had dreams of death, of decay, that worry me and I wonder if I should trust my gut. I have a Round Robin partner who writes beautifully about loss, though the loss may be hers or it may be fiction. I am with her at Mirror Lake, see the tall man who keeps on appearing out of the corner of her eye, the man who cannot be her husband because her husband was reduced to ashes six months ago. He is everywhere and nowhere all at once.
This is life. This is the thing I’ve both tolerated and don’t want to end. I don’t want the dance to end – with my husband, with my parents, with my friends. How did those women do it back in the days when diphtheria, smallpox, scarlet fever snuck in and stole away their babies? How did the men respond, the fathers and grandfathers, the brothers and uncles? How were the grandmothers, the aunts, the sisters? The friends? Does the omnipresence of death make it easier? Or does it just make everything worse, a never-ending slog of grief and depression?
My idealism is unlikely to be realized in real time. How do we make the world a better place while we are in it? How can we help those who put themselves out there to fight in service of our country (a loaded term, I believe, but it can fit many different viewpoints)? How can we help those who are left behind when these brave men and women don’t come home? What about the survivors of war? How can we make sure every child grows up in a safe neighborhood, gets access to health care, that every adult in need does, too? As a future counselor, how can I ensure that my services are available to those who can’t afford them and may need them the most?
I don’t know the answers to my questions, though I do think the government can play a role in answering some of them. Soon I’ll be helping people more directly through my MFT placement. In a few years, I’ll be able to help more, by either working for agencies who serve those with low income or by taking on pro bono clients. As for honoring the fallen, I will think about those who have died in service, help those who are left behind, and participate in the political process to help end what should be ended (or should have never started in the first place, depending on your viewpoint).
In the middle of life, in the push up steep East Bay hills, in the sounds of rowdy children climbing a pepper tree in a dormant cemetery, playing right next to a tree in which a venomous snake lounges, there is always the threat of death. Many of us are not familiar with death on a daily basis. We may see it play out in long, painful dramas in old age or in the fight against disease. It is so often a slog, a struggle, not just the flip of a switch, or something sudden, violent, and bloody. We hear about it happening in far away places to the unlucky or to those who have to take their chances. We wait for it to happen to us and the people we love. In the middle of life, it is good to keep death in mind, to remind ourselves to enjoy what we have today, and to help others share in our luck, if we have the luck to share.
Top image of the little rattlesnake by me.
Bottom Image of a Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve reflection by big hairy monkey.
I can’t carry the metaphor any further than that. The language becomes dense. I get caught up in the verification, checking my emotions and experience to see if the metaphor really holds. Everything becomes obtuse, a syllogism, my imagination caught in an attempt to match reality’s formula. And the danger for a metaphor-logic tangle is high today, the day after my semester finale, with its stressful, test-filled end, my mind still tied down by facts and tasks, by worries about being evaluated and found lacking. The danger for getting lost in metaphor, to trap myself among the October cornstalks, all crackle and snap, or to get lost in the rainforest, all squelch and cling, is that I lose both the writer and the reader. I can’t afford to lose either of us right now. I need me. I need you.
I was signed up for a summer class, but decided a few days ago to drop it. It is too expensive; my mind is fried from being in classes for almost a year (including last summer) without stop. Now I can now go on our early July trip to family camp! Suddenly, I have an expanse of time opening up! I am writing to-do lists, which include making the backyard palatable (it’s all about the dry right now; even the weeds are choked with thirst). There are rooms I want to paint, curtains to make for the as-yet-unpainted rooms. Closets still need to be organized, old clothes given away. I have research to do as well: soon I will know more about my traineeship and can start to look into common issues among the population I will be serving as well investigate possible counseling techniques for that population.
And there’s my writing. I have a very good friend who has talked about helping me get published. I don’t know what that means for me, really, but I wouldn’t mind working a little harder on the writing in some more organized way, as well as reading some books and blogs that I have been neglecting. In fact, there are books by bloggers that I’d like to read. I have a lot to catch up on.
At some point in the last year, I accepted that this is how I write and what I write about, the generally autobiographical, heavy with metaphor, thick with imagery. I may write fiction now and then, but the extended fictional narrative is not for me. Still, I want my words to speak to people, my sentences to be familiar, evocative, not all about me even if the writing is ostensibly all about me. Part of my approach has been to write about the moment, recording what is going on in my mind as I write. I’d love to take a look at my work of the last five years and find a theme, identify the narrative threads, and edit it into something other people might want to read. We’ll see. It’s another good summer project, one that is all for me.
I can’t see the middle ground. Sometimes I don’t believe it exists. It is obscured in a rim of fog. It is just off that cliff in the space between rock and sea. It is the land mass in the distance and I’m on a ship that has circled the globe more times than I care to admit, gorging myself on wine and dark chocolate at times, sticking to bread and water at others, still trying to figure out how to get to the spit of earth that represents a kind of ambiguity, a type of satiation, the intersection of deprivation and excess, the greyscale world.
Image of shipwreck, at the eastern border of the Peloponnese “middle finger,” Greece, Some rights reserved by petros asimomytis.
fidget, squirm, talk non-stop, constantly in motion
fidget, squirm, talk non-stop, constantly in motion
I would like to fidget, squirm, talk non-stop, be constantly in motion. Instead I’m typing, still, silent as night, and I’m firmly planted. It’s yet another café post, me at PIQ again, this time downstairs, in between the kitchen and the street, and the doors are open to the songs of Shattuck (cars, a tootling saxophone, whiny brakes, the omnipresent rumble of road construction). “Fidget, squirm, talk non-stop, constantly in motion” are some of the behaviors listed under the hyperactive symptoms of ADHD. I like the rhythm of the words, the way they fit my slightly crazed (but still firmly planted in reality) mood.
This is a half-assed life, my full ass on a hard chair, my mind swimming with disorders and various psychological assessments and their rules and structure, their hocus pocus interpretation (yeah, yeah, with science behind it). I feel like I am cramming. I am cramming. But my 43-year-old mind has been filled with years and years of experience and facts – another thing I didn’t take into account when going back to school. My mind has about 50% more stuff jammed in it than it did in my last grad school go-round. And the brain, she is rebelling. But back to the half-assed life. I write as my husband and son are out and about (because Berkeley celebrates Malcolm X’s birthday and the boy is out of school), I was studying, but am necessarily done for the next few hours at least. I’ve had all I can stands ‘cuz I can’t stands no more, but here I am, head buried in my computer so that I can post something, so that I can toss my tension from Berkeley to wherever you might be. And I know that the tension fills the space between my letters, the gaps between my words. But, damn, the words are coming fast.
I got to school early this morning, for no particular reason. I was done with facts, so I ended up wasting a lot of time staring at my computer in the library. On the BART ride out, I saw a young women who reminded me of someone. Maybe she was that someone. Asian, petite, long hair with a henna tinge, a hint of bangs, dark-framed glasses, a rounded belly–the beginning of something?–wearing a pink knitted item that was kinda cute, kinda funky. She never turned to face me directly, so I didn’t get a good head-on view. Caught up in her texts, the woman leaped out of the train once she confirmed we were at Montgomery Street station. Did I know her? From where? Was she a character from a dream? A shadow? My projections made solid and real? It’s a big city and the odds are not good that one of my dream figures would roam my commute, hopping from train to train until she found me. I’ll probably never see her again. But if she sounds familiar, if she’s out there reading – well, I hope she understands how those moments of confluence are heavy with meaning, the meaning obscured by emotion. It’s about flow. There are no coincidences.
I started this at PIQ and I am finishing it at home, beer by my side, cat at my feet, mind somewhere between here and the outer reaches of the atmosphere. I walked home and I saw no one I knew. And I can’t bring my mind back, but I know it will return to me, sometime on Thursday afternoon when everything is over.
Image of me, by me.
My apologies, Round Robin partner, for my distractedness this week. For the first time since I was 22-sih, I find myself crunched, trapped, stressed by finals, though I think I never had to also hand in a ten-page paper during finals week back in the CUA days. If I think too much about it, I’ll become paralyzed. If I don’t let off steam, I will explode.
I don’t understand why a graduate program has finals, to be honest. Library school didn’t, or if it did, I probably did those finals hung over, with one hand tied behind my back. I also know that the people who taught me back in my undergraduate philosophy program and my graduate library science program were professionals. Nobody changed the rules at the last minute. When there were finals, the questions were all essays, which were pretty easy, relatively speaking. If you could think and remembered the general bent of a philosopher (my favorite remains David Hume – he was so sensible), if you could tell your Dewey from your LC, then you were fine. I was fine.
I’m not saying that my instructors aren’t professionals in most senses of the word.
Blah blah blah. This will all be a fading memory by Thursday afternoon. By the time my ass hits a BART seat, all I’ll be thinking about is the celebratory champagne, though because my son’s school has an open house that night, the celebration will be put off by a day. Which brings me to another stressor: family. Last time I did this, I was unfettered by responsibility. I had jobs, yes, and I had an on-again-off-again relationship, one where the person felt just fine showing up at my apartment unannounced and intoxicated the night the Redskins won the Super Bowl, but without the emotional investment of a full-time dating gig. That had its own problems and I was a total mess emotionally, but the dark side of me, so heavy and full, was always tossed aside for the challenge of thinking and writing.
I’m less of a mess now, or maybe I’m more controlled, and I have to divide my time between me and them. So I hide out in the office cave. I decide to take the RR despite my schedule because I need something else (and then I spend all my time writing about my life). I get up with the cats, early and groggy, to do very little but warm up my brain and fingers. And I am now out of time.
Thanks for your feedback so far, btw. It isn’t like VZ’s last week, but who else but VZ can be as detailed, specific and generous? I felt blessed. Things like that can’t last forever.
p.s. -- Twelve minutes isn’t enough, is it? Because now I want to write more, to tell you about how the energy in the air tonight disturbed me, how I heard the tinny, lonely sound of a radio playing through someone’s propped open door, the woman’s screams that may or may not have been for real. It felt like the 70s all over again, me small, a neighbor crying, while underneath it all, Donna Summer sang her heart out.
From the prompt “the dark side.”
Written in 10-12 minutes, edited for your eyes in about 8, added to after the dog walk. I’ve got a draft of my paper done, have put together my portion of a couple of study guides, and await tomorrow to do more because my brain is now officially mush.
Image from Cool Things, Pictures, & Videos. It’s a bit of a non sequitur, but it amuses me.