Practice Today

The act of creation is as much about discipline as a good idea or the talent to execute it. Occasionally, a lovely person offers praise in terms of self-depreciation (“I could never make something like this!”), and my response has become a mantra. Yes you can. Anyone can with practice and desire. It takes discipline to practice regularly, be your chosen medium paint and canvas, needle and thread, or words on the page.

Sometimes that requirement of discipline can be damaging, depending on how you view yourself and your creative process. It’s not uncommon to fall into the trap of guilt and punishment. It goes without saying that improvement is impossible without practice.* But lack of improvement is not a punishment for not practicing ‘often enough’ or ‘hard enough’ or ‘smart enough.’ Sometimes we have to parent ourselves, sure, but the parents who gushed over our bad poetry and stuck our scribbles on the fridge would never tell us that our art deserves to suck and we should feel bad about that.

Building skill, spending hours at our craft should come from a willingness; a positive core. That’s not to say you won’t occasionally come to the guitar or the canvas or the track, feeling like you’d rather be eating onion rings and watching Netflix and you’re really fucking tired of not meeting your own standards of ‘good’ here. But unless your mental processes can take guilt and self-depreciation and turn it into positive motivation (and if you can, please, take me as your padawan), don’t start from a place of penance. You don’t deserve to suffer because you’ve been some definition of ‘lazy.’ You don’t deserve to hate what you make because you didn’t make time to practice.

You’re practicing now. So practice now.

Don’t practice two weeks ago when you had to work two 12-hour days, or your knees hurt every fucking day while the air pressure bounced like a racquetball, or you felt too sad to do anything but stand in the shower, or you needed to bake a cake for a family picnic.

Your feet are on the track today. Your brush is in the paint this moment. Your hands are on the keyboard right now.

Remember that you’re practicing this thing because doing the thing gives you pleasure – and doing the thing better than you did before will also give you pleasure. Today’s work is not penance. You DO need to struggle, because challenge is part of the game. You DON’T need to suffer – mentally or physically.


*Unless you plan to make a crossroads deal – in which case I recommend evaluating your priorities first. You only have one soul; don’t barter it for the ability to bake cupcakes that will make foodies weep unless that’s what you REALLY want for, like, forever. Otherwise, when you realize you really wanted to be a violin virtuoso, you’ll have to get there the hard way. If that happens, this post will be here. And I’ll take one of those cupcakes.

Living With Anxiety Brain

Several years ago, I was hospitalized with a serious illness. At least, I guess you can call it an illness. The official term for it is “AVM,” short for “Arterioveneous Malformation,” which is (as explained by the neurosurgeon) a vein and artery that are directly connected, without a capillary between. It was in my brain, and it was leaking blood.

I call it the Head Crab.

While I likely had the Head Crab all of my life, red flags didn’t manifest until I hit puberty and developed migraines. I lived with those for a couple decades, managing triggers and managing pain, accepting them as a fact of life. They were almost a badge of honor. I had migraines that made me see rainbows of color and put me in so much pain that I vomited. I was a Headache Badass. If someone else showed up with migraines I felt like I’d found my tribe, and we’d swap stories and share coping advice.

And then, for whatever reason, the Head Crab reared its ugly head. An August far enough ago that the memory’s a little blurry. A gas station. A long, hot day of heavy manual labor and anticipation of a long road trip to Chicago that night. I filled up my gas tank, thought I was getting a migraine, paid for my gas and pulled into the parking spaces in front of the gas station to let the auras pass.

And woke up in an ambulance.

Over a week of tests and medications, terrifying CT and MRI results, and one six-hour surgery later, the Head Crab had been identified and successfully removed from my left occipital lobe with (we all hoped) no lasting complications.

And physically, no. There were no lasting complications. I healed, my softball-stitched head grew hair again, I weaned slowly off of steroids and seizure medications and pain medications, cleaned my apartment and catnapped because nightmares wouldn’t let me sleep. I answered interminable questions and felt like I’d traded my Headache Badass card for a better one: Brain Surgery Badass. That’s one hell of a trump card, and I play it with humor because the alternative is nothing I like looking too closely at.

But that’s the thing. Looking too closely is the problem; the one lasting complication that nobody really mentioned because nobody really thinks about the mental fallout of trauma until it’s happening. And who’s going to want to warn me about potential anxiety, not caused by medication or scar tissue but by the ugly, dawning truth that We’re All Going to Die Someday and suddenly my brain no longer has the blithe corollary to that statement: Yeah But Not Me?

Because we do. YOU do. We say things to ourselves like “well, you only live once,” and “I can sleep when I’m dead,” and “At least I’ll die happy.” If you’re like I used to be, it’s because there’s a buffer in your brain between acknowledging that death is coming for you eventually and really believing it. People around you die all the time, but somehow, by some miracle of brain chemistry, you still believe death won’t get you.

That buffer’s not there for me anymore.

It didn’t disappear because of the brain surgery. The surgeons looked at my healing brain scans and pronounced everything a success; I Would Be Fine. The buffer disappeared six months later, when a well-meaning neuralogist explained that my migraines were potentially seizures induced by the Head Crab, and that the scar tissue left from the surgery might mean future seizures. In doing so, they opened a can of anxiety that I’m still fighting.

I’m fighting fear. And what is fear, really? Awareness that you’ve lost – or are losing, or may someday lose – control? We speed through our lives assuming death’s going to flip through our good deeds, our frequent doctor’s visits, our 4-day-a-week gym schedule, our vegetarianism, our hard work, and say we get to dodge the scythe.

Get enough gold stars and live forever!

I did nothing to cause the Head Crab. I did nothing to create it, and while my activity that day may have exacerbated it, the Head Crab could have killed me in my sleep later that year if my circumstances hadn’t put me in a position to get help immediately. In fact, it could have killed me in traffic that night. Or at my desk over my lunch.

And now, as the neuralogist brought to my attention, I have scar tissue that may or may not result in seizures. Seizures that could manifest with any of a veritable Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors of symptoms, because ‘seizure’ is a general term that covers a vast amount of territory. Seizures that I can’t even prevent with a medication because the only proof a medication is working to prevent seizures is an absence of them.

So I have no control. That understanding rolled outward from there to include the rest of my body. I feel like I’m stuck in the watch tower at the top of a hill on fire. My internals are a dark zone – I don’t know what’s going on in there, anywhere. The only thing I do know, is there’s a Doomsday Clock ticking away.

This is why I’m awful at being sick. My brain flees like a terrified horse, right towards the worst possible scenario whenever I don’t feel well and can’t immediately identify the cause. Headaches are never just headaches – they could be a harbinger that my brain is bleeding. Visual snow – from being tired, from looking at bright lights, from the beautiful striations of tree shadows on the highway leave me struggling to reassure myself that I’m not about to see migraine auras. Being lightheaded for any reasons is clearly a sign that I’m bleeding internally somewhere from an asymptomatic cancer. Nausea is never just ‘a flu bug.’ Pain may be the result of exercise, but even if I justify the pain my anxiety is still muttering ‘yes, but–‘

Hi. I’m Jen, and I’m a hypochondriac.

These were things that I never thought twice about, before the Head Crab. Worse, if I don’t lock down the anxiety quickly it can MAKE its own symptoms like magic. I’ve managed to give myself frightening rounds of nausea. Tension headaches. Made my back or neck pain worse because of fear.

It’s ridiculous. It’s exhausting.

I’m managing.

Thankfully, when the anxiety was at its worst, an empathetic friend steered me to a very good cognitive behavioral therapist. I have a toolbox of things I use to keep the anxiety from overtaking my life, from breathing and meditation exercises to positive affirmations that remind me I’m safe. I’m using those now; making new affirmations and identifying the roots of my fears, in conjunction with making checkups to the doctor more routine and frequent.

To be brutally honest, I’d go back to that blissful ignorance in a heartbeat. I don’t begrudge humanity for tumbling through ninety-odd years believing this is a game they can win. But the reality is, aside from soap opera level selective amnesia, I can’t go back. I have a certain sharper awareness of death that I can’t put aside.

My affirmation to deal with this is “I’m alive. I’m breathing. I’m safe.”

I can’t look at death and say Yeah But Not Me anymore.

I CAN say Yeah But Not Yet.

Anxiety separates. It takes me out of the present, into a nebulous made-of-suffering future like a really pedestrian version of Days of Future Past. It isolates, and if I’ve learned anything about my particular brand of anxiety – isolation only makes it worse.

So by saying Yeah But Not Yet, maybe I can paddle back to the present. The present is where I’m breathing, where I’m alive, where my friends and family, my art and writing are.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Locked Out

I yell at horror movies.

Not scream. Yell. Like an exasperated, uncertified life coach.

The main characters in typical jump scare-peppered torture porn are not life choice role models. I ask them why they’re not calling Triple A about that cut fan belt after their girlfriend just tumbled into the pool of decaying roadkill. I suggest they stay inside instead of going outside to investigate that noise – and if they do, they should certainly put on shoes first. Or a shirt. That maybe instead of going upstairs to figure out why there’s water soaking through their apartment ceiling, they should call the super. Maybe don’t resurrect your girlfriend with the equipment that just electrocuted her – those sorts of decisions shouldn’t be made in the throes of fresh grief.

I do this from a place of superiority. I admit it. Part of me relishes lecturing characters in horror movies because I believed – until this week at least – that I was smarter. Given that I will go ghost hunting at the drop of a hat, superiority was totally an illusion, but sometimes we need to be shown these things.

This week, I locked myself out of the house for the first time.

I’ve only owned this house for a year and change. Prior to this, I’ve locked myself out of an apartment exactly once. I fancied I was neurotic about it. I made sure my keys were in my pocket. I checked that pocket at least three times before I pulled that door shut. I do a ‘perimeter check’ before I leave anywhere: keys-wallet-phone. I’m a pro.

Shyeah.

What I learned on Tuesday was that I’m nothing more than a creature of habit. Those habits kept me insulated in a cocoon of smugness; the same smugness that unironically lectured the Arnies, Carlys and Lauries of the world about their analytical thinking.

Disturb those habits even an inch, however; and you’ll find me standing on my front porch, barefoot and empty handed, staring at my locked front door in classic scream queen shock.

With soft-soled feet, no phone and no survival skills to speak of, I panicked. I cried. Mike Myers could have picked me off in five minutes or less. It took way too long to occur to me that I needed to go next door and explain what just happened, and build a contingency plan in case that avenue failed. Eventually the panic subsided, but I can (reluctantly) admit that the average protagonist of my Netflix horror queue would survive in adversity with way more grace.

Laurie 1; Jen 0.

Our neighbor came to the rescue with a staggering level of kindness. We aren’t strangers, but we don’t know each other’s names. He handed over his phone, his phonebook, and two pairs of flip flops as we tried and discarded Plan A, B, and C in quick succession.

Every locksmith shutters at 5PM. The police station referred us to said shuttered locksmiths. Neither one of us is physically or emotionally equipped to cut a metal screen and chuck a heavy object through our own window, even if we had the tools.

Plan D involved opening the garage door with the opener inside the (also locked) car parked out front. Which required breaking into a car with a coat hanger (provided by the neighbor), and hopefully not getting the police called by a concerned neighbor at the same time.

That might have handily solved a problem or two, at least.

Teamwork prevailed. With one person manning the wire and one guiding it like Mission Control during a space station docking maneuver, we successfully broke into that car.

And triggered the car alarm, of course.

It took another lifetime to locate the car keys and then figure out how to disengage the alarm with a fob that hadn’t worked in several years (hint: key goes in the door). The neighbor – who has qualified himself for canonization at this point – nearly electrocuted himself trying to disengage the car battery while we flailed, and triggered the car alarm a second time. The rest of the street is probably now quietly plotting our demise.

The story will be funny eventually. In maybe a year, after the punishing embarrassment has worn off and I’ve proven to myself that I can be trusted again.

But Laurie Strode? Heather Donahue? Wendy Torrance?

Much love, girls. No more judgment from me.

Though, keep your keys and your phone on you. And wear shoes. Just saying.

February

The dye washes out of reality in an Iowa February.

According to weather experts, the worst part of winter is the last week of December, and the first weeks of January. That certainly accounts for frigid weather and hip-deep snow, but not much else. February takes January’s misery into itself, and compounds it. The product is a bleach, flushing the blues and the greens into pastel grays.

It’s the emotional doldrums of the year. The wind is harsh as winter prepares to change its shirt. Buffeting cold gales push us through doors and across parking lots. Evenings last longer, but not long enough as the dark still overtakes us only a handful of hours after work. We push into the unpleasant, faces dry and stained red with frigid wind. There are so many words for low temperatures, and we use them all like curses now.

Worse, we see reprieves. We see days where it is not so cold, sunlight-hemmed for a morning. Warmer days bring rain, misting our windshields eternally with a water that smears and freezes. Thick London fog hardens to frost as the window to spring slams down again. We scrape our windows today; we will probably scrape them tomorrow. Leave an extra ten minutes early for work until May.

February is not the light at the end, but the tunnel. We see better days creeping towards us, but here we are in the chilly dark with weeks and weeks yet to walk. By the end of it, we are hardened; veterans ready for March’s angry rush.

What can we do? These dark days seem interminable; our bodies and spirits are restless and hungry.

It’s in these days that I lean hard on a game, outlined in a novel The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, by Julie Andrews Edwards (yes, that Julie Andrews):

“But first of all, look at the trees again. They’re not just brown, are they? That one there is almost black. And the trunk of that one is copper and smooth, and that one is grey and rough. Those dead leaves are a russet color, aren’t they? Now look under the hedge there. Do you see anything?”

The children looked. They saw nothing.

“Can’t you see the cluster of red berries hanging up under the leaves?” The children looked closer. Suddenly, as if the focus were being changed on a camera, the red berries came into their view.

“Why didn’t I see them?” Tom was bewildered.

“Because you weren’t looking,” replied the professor. “There aren’t many people in this world who really know how to look. Usually one glance is enough to register that grass is green and the sky is blue and so on. They can tell you if the sun is shining or if it looks like rain, but that’s about all. It’s such a pity, for there is texture to everything we see, and everything we do and hear. That’s what I want today’s lesson to be about. I want you to start noticing things. Once you get used to doing it you’ll never be able to stop. It’s the best game in the world.”

Color exists. February light isn’t kind to color, but it’s present and vital nevertheless. In a red sunset; in a glowing neon sign at night. Yellow tabby cats and taxis, purple on the altar, robin’s egg blue in a stranger’s scarf. Every tree trunk is a different hue; every fir tree clutches fresh green skirts close against the snatching wind. Even on a snowy day, there are bright red cardinals, yellow shovels, and orange gloves.

Look for color in your own neighborhood; on your own way home. The last breaths of winter may just become infinitely more survivable.

Legacy, and Lack Thereof

A day ago, a friend asked me, “what is your biggest fear?”

I can’t typically answer that. When it comes to existential questions that want quantitative answers – what’s my [insert comparative word here] [insert mental or emotional process or list here]? – I’m not your gal. I’m a navel gazer, sure, but kind of a stupid one, with a tragically short memory. If some revelation about my own inner workings happens to stick, it’s by miracle of luck and timing, or it’s because I’ve repeated the same behavior enough times that even I’m annoyed by it.

So the question yesterday brought me up short. What I’m afraid of changes by the day. Afraid of the stuff I can’t see, just outside of my peripheral vision. Afraid I missed out on life by being such a careful teenager, so easily swayed by other people’s worry. Afraid I’m wasting my life. Afraid of pain. Not, oddly, afraid of death. Afraid enough not to poke my fingers in a light socket, I guess, but the impending eventuality of my own death at some unknown hour doesn’t bug me. (Edit: Actually, it does. Just… it’s complicated.)

For the first time, though, when asked a question that required me to quantify something so unformed, an answer appeared. It’s not new. Remember what I said earlier, about me and remembering personal revelations. I’ve had the same thought a few times, floated in and then out again, trailing nebulous terror.

I’m afraid of disappearing. Of leaving nothing behind. Of dying without professionally publishing a word.

It’s a pretty human thing to be afraid of. We elevate and cherish the legacies of other people. We tape quotes to our cabinet doors; make purses out of our favorite book covers; read biographies of actors and politicians and writers dead before we were born.

I have no children, and I plan to have no children. I’ll be a broken line in the family tree – an offshoot line; a period instead of a comma. My progeny will have to be something else.

For a long time, I’ve been a background coach for other writers, while I struggle with my own novels. I write, but nothing fruitful. Nothing finished. I’m a writer, not the author of.

In high school, I was blessed to have an English teacher who encouraged me to write fiction. Every year I took her class, I participated in a regional short fiction contest. We sweated at it time and again, editing, proofing and polishing a submission. And every year? Second place. Second place. Second place.

That’s what I’m afraid of. That’s my biggest fear. Living and dying with nothing but a veritable dump heap of out-of-date posters, several terrabytes of PSD files on someone else’s server, a handful of second place high school fiction, and an empty space where a book should have been.

So having recognized that, I’m going to fill the void. Put a book on the shelf. It feels like I spent the last few years fighting. The internal critic, the internal editor, the internal coward, the eternal procrastinator. I’m exhausted and I’m out of patience with it all, but it feels like maybe the writer’s stepped up. The writer in me is tired of wrestling with them, ready instead to flip them the bird and move on.

Whatever it takes this year, I’m finishing a book.

Expectations (this workout’s gonna suck…)

Tuesday night was my first trip to the gym since last Thursday. While that might not sound like much time, it’s important to consider how many cinnamon rolls, bottles of wine, Christmas cookies, and slices of fresh bread transpired in just those four days. The word ‘debauchery’ becomes ‘de-batch-ery,’ this time of year, as I struggle not to make eye contact with the now-empty orange roll pan.

The ghosts of moscatos past clanked their bottles as I suited up for the after-Christmas cardio tour. ‘Trepidation’ didn’t quite cover my feelings on the subject. This is still my first year at the Y. I’ve gone through training. I have routines. I have notes about my routines. I’m about as serious as an overweight sedentary office gerbil can get at this point. But I’m also a mostly oblivious overweight office gerbil, and I had no idea if (and more likely: how much) damage had been done to my progress with mashed potatoes and ginger bread.

I tugged on my yoga pants and my Tardigrades Extreme Swim Team tee shirt, opened up my Muevete con Zumba playlist, climbed aboard the elliptical and prayed I wouldn’t throw up.

Five minutes later, I was wondering just why I’d gotten myself so worked up about all this.

We have certain cultural expectations of fitness. The longer I do this, the more I realize that the things I’d just nodded acceptance to are as mythic as satyrs and naiads. Or, they’re true – but only if your ideals and needs match the ideals and needs that birthed that expectation. I expected to have an awful day at the gym because I hadn’t been to the gym in almost a week.

The thing was, my stamina and my strength hadn’t noticeably ebbed. I was even able to push myself a little harder without repercussions. Instead of nagging at me about my failure to stay in line, my body was ready and eager to go! Four days’ worth of carb-filled ridiculousness hadn’t actually put me back at square one. It hadn’t even put me back a square at all, as far as I can tell. My dread was all an expansion of someone else’s goals, I realized. My goals circle around feeling better, stabilizing the muscles around my crappy knee joints, and staving off the health problems associated with a sedentary life. I want to lose weight to help those knee joints out some more – but I no longer want to lose weight to fit the cultural ideal of what ‘fitness’ looks like. It’s a benchmark of progress made, but it doesn’t ruin me anymore if I don’t see change.

I expect that my carb-, salt- and calorie-filled ridiculousness added some weight. I can’t tell you for sure, because I didn’t step on the scale that day. I expected the workout to suck, I think in part because the culture equates a lack of weight loss, and weight gain with failure. That concept expands out into a broader, more nebulous ‘punishment’ for not upholding a personal commitment. I figured I would struggle because I deserved to be punished for a perceived failure. In the future, I’m going to work on my mindfulness and try to approach these workouts as an opportunity to challenge myself and improve, than a punishment for doing something ‘bad,’ like holiday overindulgence.

A pan of orange rolls is still not something I should eat every weekend. I can do better – I will do better. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of, because I’m still committed to my overall personal health.

There are so many potential mental pitfalls, when it comes to fitness. I measure myself constantly, against what I did do yesterday and what I think I should have done; what I see others doing. But I’m glad to say – so glad that I can’t do more than make an exhausted wave of relief in its general direction – that I no longer measure myself against how this culture thinks ‘fit’ looks. Shy introvert me can now walk into a busy room in my tight pants and my tank top and not care – because on the day’s first round of resistance training I’ve just lifted five more pounds than I could last week. I can plank for a full minute. I can squat and get myself back up without help. I can feel improvement. That tops whatever the girl two machines over may or may not think of my gut.

(It’s important to note that whenever I feel self-conscious and wonder what said girl two machines over might think, I remind myself that said girl is just like me and just as focused on what she’s doing. Everyone else in the room fades for me when I’m struggling to lift eighty pounds over my head. It’s the same for her. If it’s not, then she might want to increase her weights. Either way, it’s out of my control and should be out of my mind.)

I’m still gonna dread the gym. That’s a given. There are just days when I would rather watch three episodes of Haikyuu!! and not put on my workout pants and go out in the cold. But – hopefully – I’m never gonna dread it again for the reasons I dreaded it this week. Brains are funny things, filled with a goop of past experiences and learned expectations. All we can do is prove the problematic expectations wrong, and keep doing it, until our mindsets change.

Here’s to feeling even better in 2017. You bet I’ll be on that elliptical, come January 2. Heck, tonight’s resistance training. Let’s do this.

hulk

Food Memory

Picture your favorite meal. If you don’t have a favorite meal, picture a favorite food.

What does it look like? What colors are there? How does it smell? Does it have a sound? Does it hiss or sizzle? Does it crunch?

Now, think about eating it. How does it feel in your mouth? What do you taste?

Get in there and give it space in your mind. Instead of saying ‘savory,’ or ‘spicy,’ think about the ingredients that go into your favorite meal. Can you taste the caramelization on the onions? Feel the texture of the grated parmesan or the squish of warm tomato sauce into your mouth when you bite down? Are there warm parts and cool parts mixed together? Is there garlic? What kind of peppers are those? How does curry taste and how do you feel when you taste it?

Now that you’re in here, consider this: why is this your favorite? Is it the flavor? Or when you think about how much you like it, do you think about specific times you enjoyed it? When you pictured eating this meal, were you surrounded by treasured people? Were you snuggled in a blanket on your couch watching a show you love?

If you haven’t already, think about a time when you ate that beloved thing. Even if it’s that time last week when you bought three Taco Bell Chalupas in the drivethrough. Think about how you felt then, and how eating the thing you love so much made you feel.

The food we eat is inextricably linked to our emotions, and our memories. The subject fascinates us. So much so that we write books about it,  and pilgrimage back to younger days with the foods of our youth. The topic comes to mind this December in particular, because I’ve managed to be almost completely divorced from the memory foods of Christmas past. I found myself suddenly jonesing for dark chocolate-covered sponge candy, with a depth so abrupt that it surprised me. Honestly, even when well made the candy isn’t that good. It’s dry and frequently teeth-cracking hard. But it was on the table when I was small, next to the dish of unshelled nuts, the chewy divinity, and the soft-centered strawberry candies in their red foil wrappers.

Food is a portal to our past. When we make Grandma’s potato salad recipe, eat Mom’s “250-Dollar Cookies,” and Aunt Kayleen’s Cherry Cheesecake Bars, we time-travel.

When I make beef stew, I am learning it again, how to roast vegetables and deglaze a pan in the yellow kitchen of a Navy Senior Chief, with a dachsund like a miniature Irish setter at our feet. I’m not who I will be yet there, but I’m on my way, and for the first time in my life I am comfortable with strangers.

When I boil the eggs and potatoes and dig the jar of Miracle Whip out of the refrigerator for Grandma’s potato salad, I’m there in her kitchen with the shellacked Colorado scene over the sink, the scratched yellow Pyrex bowl, and the sound of her voice. I am fourteen and feel special with this secret recipe of hers, and promise myself I’ll never forget how.

Or there is baked brie in a phyllo pouch and I am eight and desperately in love with my creative aunt and uncle who’ve come for Christmas, in the cut glass blue of my grandparents’ sunroom, and I feel like I’m looking into a world I never knew existed. All I want to do is stay here, because here I feel like I can be myself completely.

I taste the cinnamon, clove and peel in a glass of sweet mulled wine, it doesn’t matter where I am – it’s Christmas in my first apartment, with its endlessly magenta carpet and cupboards, and the massive tree in the corner is my grandmother’s and it’s full of lights.

Not every recipe is right. Not every mouthful is a transportation. Sometimes buffalo sauce is just buffalo sauce, and I don’t think about my first day on my first job or the sad Christmases after my parents’ divorce. Sandwich cookies don’t always take me back to the dark-paneled church kitchen, blessed cool sanctuary from the June heat. And to quote Proust (as the earlier mentioned Aeon article does), too much of a thing renders its magical properties inert; “the potion is losing its virtue.”

But sometimes they are right. Sometimes the pan of enchiladas, bottle of Orbitz, Bit O Honey bar, Chateaubriand opens a portal and presents a memory. The magic is good and solid; perhaps explainable with biochemistry and psychology but still magic for that.

Like the food in front of you, savor it.

both_hands

TED Talk: Charter for Compassion, by Karen Armstrong

From the TED site:

People want to be religious, says scholar Karen Armstrong; we should help make religion a force for harmony. She asks the TED community to help build a Charter for Compassion — to restore the Golden Rule as the central global religious doctrine.

If you haven’t yet run into a conversation about TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talks, consider this your much abbreviated crash course. The concept of TED developed in 1984, as American architect and graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman conceived of an annual conference to explore the convergence of technological, entertainment and design fields (sense a theme here?). The conference has expanded over the years to a twice-annual, weeklong event featuring presenters with emphasis not only in these fields but also in culture, scientific, and academic topics. Videos of these talks are now available online for free at the TED Conference website, which is fortunate – the price tag for a 2017 pass to the Vancouver event is $17,000 per person.

I adore listening to TED Talks while I work, but the smorgasbord of topic choices makes it tough to pick a starting point. For this reason, I typically use NPR’s TED Radio Hour as my jumping-off point. They curate multiple talks into one themed show, with tantalizing bits of the original talk plus interviews with the presenter to give context and history behind the original presentation. It was through TED Radio Hour that I discovered the TED Talk below, given by religious historian Karen Armstrong in February 2008 on the nature of human compassion. It’s an interesting listen on its own, but I do recommend the TED Radio Hour presentation “Just a Little Nicer” as well for other features in the same vein.

Parenting My Thirtysomething Self

I’d like to think of myself as an adult. An adult that buys anything with unicorns plastered on it and believes in ghosts, yes; but an adult. When it comes to anything that requires effort, discomfort, self sacrifice, commitment or responsibility; however, that adult persona wields about as much real influence as the mother of a tired toddler in the middle of a supermarket.

Go to the gym? You mean we have to do this AGAIN? A year into this I’m still overweight and my knees hurt and I don’t wanna.

Write? How is it that with all this technology I STILL can’t vomit my thoughts straight onto my laptop? I haven’t had a minute to myself all day and my work is crap and Netflix has documentaries on sushi and I don’t wanna.

Paint? My studio is six blocks away and it’s cold and the walk is cold and it’s lonely and I suck and I don’t wanna.

Get up on time for work? My bed is soft and warm and I’m sick of smiling at people when I don’t feel like it and I don’t wanna.

See what I mean? I’m not kidding myself here – getting my selfish, self-absorbed asshole self to do things that are tough doesn’t require responsibility or commitment or whatever other buzzwords my adult delusions want to throw at it. I have to parent this mulish idiot. Sometimes that’s reminding myself of the consequences – if I don’t scoop the litterbox the cat will just shrug and do her business on the library carpet. Sometimes it’s reminding myself of the positive outcome – if I write today, I’ll feel better; I like how easy it is to go up the stairs and that’s because of the gym.

And sometimes it’s just flat-out, unmitigated bribery.

Go to the gym for thirty minutes and you can spend time in the locker room hot tub. Write for thirty minutes and you can have that cupcake you’re lusting after in the fridge. Get up and shower quickly enough and you’ll have time to play a couple levels of Juice Jam. You can scroll through Pinterest for kitten pictures and misty country mornings for an hour if the inspiration will move you back into the story you’re revising. Get up out of your office chair and walk to the end of the hall and you can refill your coffee. Drink half of that liter of water and you can have another cup of coffee. Drive to the grocery store by yourself and you can get a lemon poundcake slice at Starbucks afterward. Call the doctor when your social anxiety has made you put the phone down eight times, and you can disappear into episodes of Chronicles of Shannara for as long as you want.

It works most of the time. It works because I’m still a messy animal with an animal brain that responds to the biological reward system like a champ. I can talk about the beauty of the creative process and the deep love I have of writing and design but I don’t come to those processes easily or willingly 85% of the time. It annoys me that it takes the promise of a huge McDonald’s iced tea to get me the fuck off the couch and to the art studio, but I know the gears get rusty and stuck and need the lubricant of bribery to get moving – but once they move, they’ll spin baby, spin.

Strangely, shifting my perspective to seeing my stubborn self as a child I have to parent has softened the way I treat myself. I’m not as harshly critical. When I’m irrational, instead of ordering myself to stop being irrational, I can shrug, find some amusement in my own stupidity, and work myself through the root of it without feeling guilty. We expect children to behave in ways we find ridiculous and unproductive, but we frequently don’t have such forgiveness for our own silly selves. Parenting myself is equal parts acceptance and hope: acceptance of my ridiculous behavior, and hope that next time I’ll come to the work with fewer promises of cookies and Bubble Shooter. It means not beating myself up for my failures – because I’ll be honest with you, sometimes all the threats and the promises of treats later just don’t work – and it means trying again later.

This doesn’t mean I’m allowed to scribble on walls (without permission) or throw tantrums on the floor of a department store when I can’t indulge in a pretty necklace. This means I’m allowed to feel the impulse and move through it with empathy. More often than not, we speak to ourselves with words we wouldn’t use even on an annoying stranger. Being nasty to myself doesn’t work, but the promise of a hot soak with a Lush bath bomb? Yep. Like a charm.

I’m no saint. I’m not a reliable creature of habit either. But I guess, so long as that freaking bucket of iced tea from the McDonald’s Drive-Through window still holds enough appeal to get my laptop open, I stand a chance of getting stuff done.

Nostalgia

Yesterday, a friend and I shared a long, rainy-day conversation about childhood. It was the sort of conversation I look back on with equal measures of hope and apprehension; did I do this right? Was I really listening? Did I say anything wrong? No matter what’s happened in later years, I acknowledge that the years I spent in the three-bedroom red rancher with my family were good ones. I coasted with a sense of permanence and safety, unconsciously certain that the little timber-lined neighborhood and its inhabitants would always be there.

If you’re lucky, reality is content to wait a few blocks northwest by the highway, until you take the right turn yourself and batter into it with a car full of boxes. Or maybe I wasn’t lucky; maybe those safe years left me unprepared. Maybe it doesn’t matter. They happened, here I am, with no love for small farm towns but a powerful attachment to Care Bears, tomato gardens, homemade pizza, and – the catalyst for the aforementioned rainy-day conversation – vinyl records.

My mother has an impressive collection of vinyl albums, purchased until the price and availability of vinyls became too challenging. When I was small, the turntable made a fixture in the living room, topping the silver-chrome layer cake of a stereo system. I was too short to set the needle, but I could make requests and Mom would fish the black platters from their sleeves: The Jets, The Bay City Rollers, The BeeGees, The Police. I knew the yellow cover of a ‘zany hits’ compilation album; my maternal DJ eventually put an embargo on “Snoopy Vs The Red Baron,” for everyone’s sake.

Time marches on. My parents updated the stereo to one with an eight-disc CD changer and no turntable; the old one relegated to the basement. I discovered a record store in a nearby city; my first purchase was Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits. I sat in the basement with the old record player, writing fiction in a yellow notebook, to be transcribed later on the brick of a Compaq Presario laptop. Then the old stereo heaved its last sighs and died, and our vinyl collection sat silent for years. Nobody sold new turntables then, at least nobody in reach of a tiny rural Illinois girl.

Shortly before I graduated from college, we got a new player. This one stood alone, linked into the entertainment center that now dominated the basement wall where the old stereo once lived. My record collection now included REO Speedwagon and Journey, but I burrowed away into a life online, writing characters that played violins and built homes with Drowish jewelers in fictional text-based roleplay worlds. I started my first job and two years later moved out, leaving my records at home. I wouldn’t own a turntable for another ten years, during which time my family crumbled and my life exploded into chaos. I’m not kidding or dramatizing; I actually had brain surgery at one point here.

There’s a chasm between me and that rosy childhood today. The memories of what it’s like to feel safe and permanent are across the way, reachable only in glimpses over the reality of a shattered family and the gaping blackness of mortality. It’s hard to feel safe when you know, really know, that you’re going to die. It’s hard to feel permanent when the roots of you were yanked from the ground on the way home from a movie. When you answered your brother’s phone call and heard that your sixty-something father was gone, having packed his belongings into his pickup and waited until a convenient moment alone to abandon you. When, in the messy year that followed, extended family dropped away from you like fighter jets, barrel-rolling out of formation, and you understood for the first time that anyone could leave at any time with no justification or warning.

But the records? They still play.

The yellow-jacketed vinyl exists, replete with cartoons of Snoopy and a woman in a too-small polka dot bikini. I have a turntable again, and new records have joined the old: Fleet Foxes, Billie Holliday, Bing Crosby, The Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Mumford & Sons. And when I put on the needle, I have a thin line back to that sense of safety and permanence. It’s an illusion, gossamer and golden. I think that’s what ‘nostalgia’ is – a thin tissue imprint of a feeling swabbed out by experience and time. We can’t have it back forever, because it was never real in the first place. We can only visit it; let it filter our vision for the time it takes to drink a mug of tea and fold open an old yearbook; play a Doors tape; visit a childhood schoolyard.

Or, play a Billy Joel record.

2 Books to Get You Away From Netflix, and Back to Work

When I was at the start of consciously developing my writing – beyond fifth grade short novellas about my life as a puppy or Cinderella re-imagined with lions – I read every book on writing I could find. I read how-to writing books on everything from character and plot development to romance and mystery novel formulas. I read books on how to get published, although I think that was putting the cart a bit before the horse. Books on short story writing, on poetry, on autobiographies, historical fiction; I devoured them and currently? Remember none of them. I don’t recall ever putting any of their advice to practice, either. The reality of writing is that for many of us, it becomes exponentially more difficult when we attempt to follow someone else’s recipe card. The authors of these how-to-write recipes may be able to make their metaphorical casseroles work with crumbled potato chips on top – but that doesn’t mean your metaphorical casseroles will fail with buttered breadcrumbs instead.

The best thing a writer can do, second only to doing the actual work as often as they can, is read. Read other writers, both inside and outside our field of work. Reach for novels specifically because they’re not in our favorite genre; reach for an autobiography or other nonfiction and change gears completely. Experiencing other people’s voices, widely and voraciously, is a great way to develop our own voices. How-to writing books can help inform that voice and offer advice to help develop it, but no book is perfect and no book can teach us how to write just by reading it.

All that said, I do have two favorite stand-by advice books. These are light on the how-to and heavy on the ‘here-try-this.’ The authors are excited and impassioned by the craft and it shows on the page. One I use to broaden my scope, when I’m stuck in repetitive patterns of thought and writing habit. The other I use to tighten and add detail to ideas I have that are too broad to work with. They’re tools, no different than a good quality whisk. They can’t do the work alone, but added to your ingenuity, creativity and effort, they can help you take a flat and goopy piece of writing and fluff it into a sturdy, luscious meringue.

To Loosen Things Up:
Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg

Author’s website | Amazon

Natalie doesn’t believe in Writer’s Block, and neither do I. This book is a chunk of fresh focaccia – thin but a dense, chewy, and buttery delicious read. She weaves concepts of zen meditation and anecdotes from her life into short chapters that make for quick reading. This book was part of my curriculum when I took my first creative writing college course. I devoured it in a week before class even started, and held onto it when the rest of my texts went back to the bookstore. I look at Natalie as my private cheer coach, as the stereotypical trainer at the edge of the boxing ring ready to hand me a towel and a water bottle, splash my face, knead my shoulders and then shove me hard back out into the fray. I go to her when my writing feels stoppered up, or when my internal editor is making me binge episodes of The Crown instead of going to the page. If Natalie is good at one thing, it’s encouraging your wildest mind. Writing Down the Bones is a great resource to get your writing process started (or re-started); it assumes you’re here to get to work and it offers practical advice to get there. Natalie keeps me writing at coffee shops and kitchen tables instead of losing writing time searching for the perfect pens or the perfect writing desk. She offers suggested exercises at the end of chapters to get the reader off that stool at the corner of the boxing ring; to face down your internal editor and spit in their critical eye. She encourages setting up daily timed writing to build a healthy habit. But – for me – the best thing about this book is its insistence on not looking back as you go, and not judging yourself for your work. The time for editing is after the work exists. Write your first thoughts wildly, dig deep into your topics and write from where you are and don’t be afraid of what you want to write. It’s harder than ever to write fearlessly, and fear is stifling. If you’re struggling with getting words on the page, or fighting an internal editor that just won’t shut the heck up, this book might be of use to you. It’s blessedly short, so you can run through a chapter, and – shoulders thus kneaded – get back to your work.

To Tighten Things Up:
The Plot Thickens, by Noah Lukeman

Author’s website | Amazon

Character development. Ugh. Some of us are good at it, and some of us; well. We try. We try really hard. When I’m making characters, I run hot and cold – too broad, or too myopic. Characters run on one trait alone, or on too many, with no particular reason for stringing them together other than “I’m presently interested in x topic.” Or, I develop one side of their life but the rest – their family, their education, their health, their job – remains a mystery while they’re off fighting the good fight or raising unicorns or whatever it is they do.

Noah’s book is jam-packed with tools to get you on the road to good, rich characters. Again, think of this book like a set of good lugwrenches, or a stick blender with multiple heads – it can’t do the work for you but it can help you make better, smoother stuff. Noah’s got years under his belt as a literary agent. He’s read a lot of novels that never made it past the slush pile, and this book is the result of that reading. It’s divided up into sections – The Inner Life, The Outer Life, etc. – and instead of giving me suggestions, he gives me questions. I’m a constant listmaker, and so if I’m stumped on a character or having a bad case of Blank Page Anxiety, I pull out this book and start answering questions about the work. It’s not a be-all, end-all book on characters, either. Sometimes doing something as simple as completing one of Noah’s character questionnaires will spur me off on a tangent that I needed, but my ferret mind was avoiding.

The other fabulous thing this book does is offer good working examples. In his section on building conflict, Noah does what I love most about this book: he offers pop media examples. You’ll find references to classic and blockbuster movies when he talks about character and plot conflict. You can easily look up the examples he gives and check them out yourself, which I adore. I’m a fan of picking apart the works I love to see why an element worked well and caught my attention. Plus, Noah’s voice in this book is so conversational. He’s not trying to impress you, but get you back to your work as soon and as productively as possible. I pick it up when I’m intimidated by a character or when I can tell my scope for a novel idea is getting unapproachable. Like Writing Down the Bones, it’s a relatively short read with nice, easily digestible chapters that don’t require previous chapters for context. You can pick up this book anywhere, look up what you need right now, put it down again and get back to work.

Which, in the end, should be the point of any good writing tool.