On Making: Ancestral Creativity

My grandparents in the 50’s, near the start of their adventure of living an ordinary, hard working, creative life.

Heading out my front door as a child I had great choices.  I could turn towards the right through the yard and maze of rose bushes, to the tree house, back fields, or tiger lilies. If I went straight ahead I could climb the pines, skip down the gravel drive, or jump the fence to the horse. And if I turned left I’d pass or enter the barn… the scent of woody of lumber in my dad’s shop and mill and also the concrete cavern of my uncle’s metal shop. If I passed by the barn it would be because he was running the saw (never come up behind a craftsman when the saw is running!) so I was headed for the windbreak, the sawdust pile (a small mountain bigger than the barn) or the dump hidden in the woods of the back pasture. Staying inside meant I’d likely hear either the whirr of my mother’s sewing machine or of her baking in the kitchen.

I come from a family of makers.

I remember pencils behind ears, clipboards on the side tables, the click of my Grandmother’s needles, and rows of triangle eyes on the faces of Raggedy-Ann dolls lined up for sale. I remember meals and clothes made, not bought, the scratch of someone sketching, the rhythmic sound of scissors… harack-harack-harack on the table when she cut out a new pattern. I remember finding my mother’s poems printed out and placed in scrapbooks, her heavy SLR camera, and hours hiding behind bolts of fabric in the store while she shopped.

Every day of my childhood I knew where to find wood scraps, fabric and metal scraps, sewing notions, paint, crayons, glue, paper, hammers, nails, work space, and help. I knew that if you needed something, it’s best to see if you can make it first. I knew that when you have a really good idea for something that people need, they will pay you to make it. If you have an excellent idea that a lot of people will want, you start a business and maybe even get a patent. But also, that most ideas won’t result in profit and that’s not the only reason to pursue them. I learned that work weeks have seven days and that it more than okay for the shop lights to be on after dark. Whatever it took to get the job done. This also included a sacred set of minutes we referred to as, “break time.” I learned that ideas are endless; if one doesn’t pan out, another one will. Just keep going. Yagottawanna.

Making requires space, supplies, time, and ideas.

Making things is a lifestyle, a philosophy, and it’s embedded into my family’s DNA code. I’m not surprised when my sailor-son tells me he wants both an education in higher math and to take over the wood shop. I’m not surprised when my daughter sets out to sew the perfect bra. Yesterday, another son started shopping for welding supplies and the youngest changed his art major. I began a new screenplay, continued work on a pastel and learned a filmmaking trick for work. Pick a minute and I can promise my mom and sister are probably quilting, my dad is probably building, and all of us are juggling more ideas than there is time to explore.

Side note: maybe the reason why we also all have genetically bad necks is because our brains are developed too far to the right. Hmmm….

When my daughter moved out a few weeks ago, I got her room. This space is the first dedicated creative space I’ve had since I started having babies; our houses were always too small and the babies too many for a Room of My Own. But seasons change and in here I now write, draw, paint, dance, research, work, film, edit, dream, think, and plan. Every morning when I come inside, I feel I’m coming home.

It’s nice to no longer vie for space at the kitchen table or to have to pack up mid-project to make room for something else, although that’s better than not making at all. I did, after all, make 5 humans and raise them; motherhood requires creative energy unlike anything else in the world. Those babies were my tribe and I miss our little adventures. Even as demanding as those years were, a creative mind never really stops. Ideas would wend their way through my mind only to be left on scattered scraps of paper, the fallen leaves of thoughts never fully brought into fruition soon composting down into the soil,  becoming food for the next fertile moment I could sneak into the years of responsibility.

I can feel the fertility of ideas in this emptying-nest time.

When I think back on how I was raised, I don’t remember lots of words. I don’t remember lectures, team practices, schedules, screens or even silence. I remember the sounds of industry. I remember shared ideas. I call back to play that looked like work and work that felt like play. I hope I’ve passed it onto my kids…even though as millennials they will remember lectures, schedules, screens and silence. Those great-grands who came for the railroad, who built houses and everything that went inside, those people are in our bones and blood.

How Long Should a Novel Be? (and other anxious doubts)

writing

This weekend marked an enormous milestone for me: I completed the first working draft of my novel.

I did not celebrate.

In fact, I cried.

Here’s why.

writing

Set up and digging in for a marathon weekend of writing my novel, “The Perfect Traveler”

I’ve been working on this story for a year now and finished the first structural draft last fall. It had a different working title then- “Where Do We Go From Here?” but a friend of mine has a happy musical number of that same name and it threw off the sound in my head. My story isn’t necessarily happy. It’s a psychological love story between two travelers and it spins off an idea I got from the recent Amazon Kindle ad campaign #haveKINDLEwillTRAVEL. It sometimes gets quite dark. So I changed the title. I also scrapped the back half of the draft last May.

My goal was to get a solid second draft of, “The Perfect Traveler” crafted by the end of September so that I could have a cleaned up third draft ready to show to a professional editor by the end of the year. I hadn’t yet decided if I wanted to try and pitch it to Amazon or not (because it’s fun throwing a pebble into a gianormous ocean to see the ripple effect, right?) or if I just want to self-publish and consider it measurable progress towards my lifetime goal of being a successful novelist.

I take goal setting seriously.

I also take my family, full-time employment, friends and a host of other projects (like #100runningdays and #storyswatch) seriously. The calendar was racing past. I ticked off the squares. I saw the holiday decor hit the stores. Someone threw out there were only 12 more Saturdays until Christmas. I broke into hives of anxiety. I was getting close to a full-on freak-out of failure. And then, miraculously, this weekend opened up.

My kids went to see their dad for the first visit in a long while. My husband went to visit his brothers for a football fest. Three whole days opened up. It was the parting of the Red Sea of Obligations for me to be home alone and write. This. Was. My. Chance.

As you can see in the photo above, I was well fortified. Twizzlers, a bottle of Pinot Grigio, a meatball pizza from my favorite brick oven place, Sour Patch Kids, and coffee. I cleaned the house first (can’t write with a dirty sink) and I shut off all the social media. I hid my phone. As they say, I decided to, “put my butt in the chair and write” until that draft was complete, story told, ready to print and mark up.

6 hours on Friday, 14 on Saturday, 10 on Sunday. I could feel the momentum build. Then, my butt went numb. The deeper I got into the story, the more I was loving it. This is meaningful to me because a few years ago I abandoned a manuscript at the 75% mark after coming to loathe it. This one has good juju. I love my characters. I love seeing the progress I’ve made in cutting unnecessary words. My husband came home as I was finishing the second-to-the-last chapter and I hollered, “Baby! You’d better be ready to celebrate because I’m going to make this deadline!”

Context clue: I get frothy about celebrating milestones. I make them up and I make a big deal out of achieving them. My birthday lasts a full month, my projects all get hashtags, and I rejoice over baby steps.

And then, there it was: the final word at the end of chapter 22. I’d told the story from start to finish. Can we say I’d looked forward to that moment for my entire cognizant life? Yes, we can. It was after dark on Sunday night, the pizza and wine were gone, and I’d hid the rest of the Twizzlers from the kids. Everyone came home. Out of time, I told Scrivener to compile and took a look at the word count.

25,000 words.

Nanowrimo lathers writers into 50,000 word drafts in a month. Standard novels have a suggested length of 80,000. There are notable exceptions like Harry Potter’s bloated lengths and Hemingway’s brevity for Old Man and the Sea. But, for average Jo March’s like me, we have to follow the standard rules of publishing.

I’m really short on words. It’s probably the first time in my life I can say that.

Cue the tears and self-doubt. I wrote harder than I’ve ever written in my life this weekend on something I want more than almost any other life accomplishment. Writing comes right after my kids. Maybe I just don’t have the chops to tell a story well at that length. I have other stories that are long; Nano-drafts that sit near 100k of pure crap. But this time I was sparse on purpose, trying to write clean. An editor will still need room to chop. Doubling my word count is essentially re-doing the entire previous year. It’s like telling the marathon runner, “now turn around and run back.” Most would probably walk away.

Today I’ve worked on processing. My daughter sagely suggested that rather than try to overwrite scenes I worked hard to tell sparsely but completely, I should simply try to add in 25 more scenes. My good friends suggested I take note on the devastation I’m feeling and remember that it’s useful. They threw out titles that are beautifully told in fewer words. A few suggested its a novella. Another said maybe Amazon would even prefer a novella so it can be pitched as a quick travel read on the plane. (One can hope.)

I sent it to print. I’ll be taking Stephen King’s advice later today. My draft, which I still feel so proud and protective of, that I love so very much, will be put into a drawer and set aside for a few weeks. I’m going to read, ruminate, work, keep up my projects, and let some insight steep.

I want my story to be whatever length it needs to be.

It’s Already Hard to Get Up and Run on the Second Day

I was staring at the ceiling but with my eyes closed– have you ever done that? I was seriously debating not getting up to run on DAY TWO under the reasoning that we are planning the beach tonight after work and I could run then.

Which, often gets cancelled if our work runs late. The chances are pretty high that if I put it of in the morning that it’s not going to happen. Day 1 would have be Day Only. And then my phone blitty-blipped with a Map My Run notification reminding me to get up and go.

Sigh. I don’t like running. I do like sprinting but not when it’s hot. End of June in Florida is HOT, even at 7 am. As soon as the sun is up in Florida the cicadas are scratching in the pines and the birds are getting their whole day accomplished before 9. Once it’s full on morning even the animals know to keep in the shade. The cat will lay aimlessly under the bushes and flick the tip of her tail and watch a squirrel walk on by. Neither of them will bother to play chase.  Why? Because running takes too much work!

And yet, there am I, running dangerously close to 8 in the morning with a deliriously happy post-heartworm treatment pup who thinks this is a great new game we’re playing. True, I’m not alone. While the real runners were up before daylight and are probably chugging back peanut butter protein kale and raisin smoothies by the time the sun is up, I’m out with the elderly folks walking their powder puff purse dogs.

Day 2 discovery of something pretty.

Day 2 discovery of something pretty.

I need to remember my “why”.  I’m doing this to lose weight because I’m on the threshold of “fat in my forties” or “toned in my prime” and I’m chased at the ankles by two diagnoses that are maintained through lifestyle. Gaining has been consistent, hormonal, and hard to control for the last 4 years no matter my best efforts at gluten-free, paleo, sprinting, fruit water, Fitness Pal discipline and only part of that is because there were also lots of birthday cake and red wine french fry appetizer pizza and beer days in between. The other part is that because I don’t like real “exercise”: I like playing outside. Playing is fun. Working out is not. Working out is work.

So why run? The first time I gave consistent running a try, I was 19. French fries and fruit punch pounds slid off my body faster than cold butter on Florida pavement in July. The results made an impact on my mind and convinced me that when it really matters, start running. It’s possible that had more to do with being 19 than in the mile I put in each night.

We’ll see. Day 2 of #100runningdays is in the books. We even found a pretty side trail right here in our suburban boredom. Also, #runwriterepeat.

Day 2

A run/walk pace that allows time for sniffing.

Oh, the Tales that Trees Could Tell

Day 6 progress

I don’t have many indoor memories from the summer of my 9th year; it’s all fireflies and long days, strawberry jam sandwiches on homemade bread and only needing shoes on Sunday.

My birthday party was near the rose garden; I remember pink streamers and getting Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. My mother’s rose garden was home to pink and yellow roses, meandering pathways, and gliding lawn furniture my dad had made. Someone had a wedding in it once. The house was to the right of it; a shaded grove of trees we called, “the park” to the left. Acres of squared pastures surrounded us; forested woods surrounded the fields. Between the yard and the front pasture ran a line of tall northern pines and our driveway; those enormous pines would have snow laden boughs in winter. We called this indelible homeplace, “The Farm” even though we rarely had more than cats, dogs, a batch of bunnies, or someone’s boarded horse.

I marked my favorite places by the trees. The Park had a locust tree at the entrance, tall with brown papery pods, where we hung the hammock my parents brought back from an Amway trip to Mexico. At the first bend of the driveway were orange tiger lilies and birch trees, the bark of which I did try peeling and writing on.  Halfway down the half-mile long gravel driveway (quarter mile? Mile? As a kid I had no scope for distance; I measured the way in memorized bends and potholes) stood a scrappy old apple tree, not good for climbing high but a favorite milestone nonetheless. In our neighbor’s back fields there stood a magic circle of birches that turned gold in September. I wasn’t supposed to venture that far out but I pretty much did, just so I could stand in the center and look for God and probably faeries.  I can still view it from Google Earth. And, the windbreaks were all evergreen, so every pasture line and the front of our drive held a guarantee: excellent climbers, with branches spaced so evenly they almost seemed like ladders. I could get the highest up one of those and often did.

I told some of those trees my secrets. Today, when told to “imagine a peaceful, happy place” there’s the branch three quarters of the way up a pine dividing two of our back fields, from where I could see the whole spread and beyond and felt tall, where I go. I could feel the wind and see forever from a perch no one else knew. The farm was, and in some ways still is, my heaven.

A year later we moved to a hot place full of asphalt and poinky transplanted palms. There’s a breach in my outdoorsy spirit at that point; I didn’t acclimate well. Years passed. I kept my feet on the ground. And then one day I had my children and they started to grow. I boosted my little son to the lowest branch of a Sycamore tree and watched him fall in love.

It didn’t really occur to me, as an adult raising a family, to try climbing up into a tree. Somewhere in there my outdoorsy-ness had returned in bursts but only through ground based, perfectly adult-geared activities like hiking, biking, gardening, and running (for clocked distance, not headlong joy). I’d become supervisor, event planner, nurse for skinned knees, cautionary life guard reminding my littles to, “be careful!”.

During those years I had a neighbor once whose ambition it was to pave her front yard. “I hate trees,” she said. I stared at her, I’m sure mouth agape, unable to comprehend what she said. I’m not exaggerating. I could understand hating to rake up tiny little oak leaves or deal with hazardous limbs. But to hate trees? All trees? Shade that reduces your power bill? Wasn’t that a very grown-up reason to nurture a healthy population of trees? I don’t get it.

I still mark my favorite places by trees. When we travel, its the trees I want to see; I bring pinecones and leaves home with me from Aspens, Cedars, Poplars. It’s the massive Live Oaks that caused me to finally love this southern city as home. I believe an old tree will challenge a transient, commercialized attitude.  An old tree knows things that came Before You. I know trees to be good listeners, to be generous and servant hearted and I trust in the integrity of a place more if it has a good tree. A strong tree says something about the people who tend it, and these days, the ones who allow it to continue growing un-razed.

When I think about getting old, I think about who I always was, that barefoot girl with freckles from the sun who grew up in the woods. I think about which parts of her I get to keep, which parts of her want to wake up, come back, come out to play. I’m 42 June 24, a reflection.

I’ve started trying to find her and the first place I looked was up.

Relearning to climb

Re-learning is going to be a process. This is Day 3. Weak arms and hand grips need practice and strength.

It was humbling, but not halting, to realize I could hardly pull myself up anymore. I need to work on arm strength and hand grip.

Using the monkey bars as practice.

Using the monkey bars as practice.

I was happy to find a playground without kids one early morning. I wasn’t interested in being the weirdo adult who’s playing on the swings and monkey bars without a kid in sight. I might need to borrow a kid soon.

Day 6 progress

Day 6: Made it to the first notch in our oak tree; about 6 feet off the ground.

I still don’t like heights, which is going to make this goal interesting. But maybe, if I get good at it again, and make it back to Michigan someday, I’ll have the chance to climb up and say hi to an old friend.

Tomatoes and Raindrops and Curtains of Blue

Lake Michigan

All of these things are true.

In between working and driving, within the last seven days I…

Saw my oldest son graduate in dress blues and white cap from Navy boot camp. I cried during the Star Spangled Banner and The Navy Hymn.

Stood on the shore of Lake Michigan with my husband, ex-husband, son, and his girl. I gathered 5 stones of remembrance. We all went to dinner, having our first amiable conversation in 9 years.

Took an elevator 103 stories up and glimpsed panoramic views of Chicago’s skyline on a clear day that really did feel like forever. I didn’t look down.

Hiked with a friend through an Illinois prairie and through a wooded ridge. We talked about women and God while dodging spring mud.

Received a paper bag holding two perfectly ripe homegrown tomatoes from my son’s girl. After slicing, I sprinkled them with coarse salt and marveled at her kindred heart.

Tomatoes and salt.

Tomatoes and salt.

Purchased a hard cover novel from the used bookstore and a second one as well, for the quote inscribed in the flyleaf. I ran my hand over the ink and imagined.

Rearranged the notes pasted on my office wall to make room for a laminated year-at-a-glance calendar. I filled in campaigns through the year for work, writing, and family with color-coded markers. This year is abundant.

Tried climbing a tree by reaching for the lowest limb on our shiny Magnolia. I held on suspended for 1.5 seconds three times. I felt the girl-trapped-inside-an-old-body writhe to be released.

Danced barefoot around a fire with my friends in rhythm with drums. We talked about the men we love and how they love us in return.

Drums, fire, and barefooted dancing.

Drums, a perfect fire, and barefooted dancing. We burned a bowlful of notes, all the bad juju we no longer needed.

Ran on a grass bank during a heavy spring rain, smelled wet honeysuckle, combed my fingers over the dripping branches of an oak. I felt its life.

Touched the clear light of raindrops from leaf to my finger, watched the trickle on my palm to my forearm, felt it drip from my raised and bent elbow. The tree and I felt cleansed.

Listened to rain showers on pond water, heard thunder a few miles away. I unexpectedly napped on white sheets before dinner.

I guess I was tired. I also, on increasing occasion over these past 7 days, sat staring unseeing at my screen and the void opened up. I don’t battle depression anymore; I acknowledge it.  I call this feeling the Dark Sads. The artist’s temperament brings with it a melancholy; it might even depend on it. Still, this was a significant week that begs processing time. Perhaps I’m only blue because I’ve resisted this need too many days in a row. Of truth and worth noting: melancholy always drives me to create. I see in bright color. The air sizzles and light shimmers. I am most likely to craft work I like keeping on days like this.

Today, I write. I eat a warm cookie.  I sit in the sun and stretch my toes. I listen.

Lake Michigan

The shoreline of Lake Michigan, contributing its own brand of magic.

Of Bullies and the Lasting Impact of Words: Why Trying EVER Skincare Seemed Like a Hard Thing To Do

“Self-conscious” means to have undue awareness of one’s self, one’s appearance, or one’s actions.

I remember the day self-consciousness replaced self-confidence.

In 4th grade I was a rough and tumble woods girl, living in the upper peninsula of Michigan. That April we moved to Florida, land of incessant heat, burning sun, and a life indoors. I finished the school year as the new kid and the outlier position held through the end of 5th.

My parents chose a private school for 6th, a small Christian academy, with the hopes it would be a better fit. The idea was that small classes would mean more attention around kids from better families who were being raised “right”. Despite having had a much rockier time trying to fit into Sunday School cliques full of girls who’d grown up together in the south than I had in public school, I was looking forward to the new school too. It would be a fresh start.

In anticipation for The First Day, I was given a perm, which I tried to brush straight and instead created a burning bush of redheaded frizz. I then pasted it back on the sides with two gold toned barrettes. My curly bangs refused to lay down flat and fluffed up, poodle style. One of my front teeth had not fully come in, having been damaged after a balcony fall I’d taken as a toddler. The other front tooth had a small brown cavity. Besides a smattering of freckles, my pale skin was punctuated with a few bright red spots: my first zits.

I walked into the brown paneled and brown carpeted classroom and sat down at a brown desk in the second row, in the second seat from the back. I put my teal binder squarely on the top and set my red pencil case next to it. I looked ahead to the green chalkboard and the cursive name of our teacher written in white chalk. Nervous butterflies fluttered in my stomach. Tension buzzed in the air.

The seats in front of me filled with kids, most of whom were welcoming each other with high fives and laughs of recognition, a clan of kids who’d been here together for 5 grades before. I pushed away fears of being, ‘the new kid’. Today we all had the first day of junior high. I sat up straight, determined to be a good sport, to get good grades, and to make this a very good year.

A shiny tan girl near the front of the class in the row to my right turned back and smiled. She had on a peach top and jeans and peach socks to match her top. I thought she was smiling at me so I smiled back, wide and pleased. She covered her mouth with her hands and giggled and looked at the boy to my left.

“You’re right! She’s hideous!”

My body froze even as my blood rose high with hot shame. I tried to swallow the embarrassment watering in my mouth. The teacher stood in front of the class and began her welcome to the new year speech. I don’t remember hearing a word she said but I did understand something loud and clear:

Kelly H. and her Many-Colors-of-Benetton snottiness had just christened me with the nickname I’d have at that school every day for the two years I went there:

Hideous.

Paul added a noun: Hideous Iguana.

As in, “Hey Hideous, pass me the scissors.”

And, “You can’t sit there. This is a Hideous Iguana-free zone.”

Daily stomachaches, school absences, mounting shyness, and interior self-loathing took over. I saw what they saw: an ugly reptile who didn’t tan, who had a weird name, who wasn’t worth getting to know. I don’t remember smiling there again.

It took a few years but I eventually learned first not to brush out perms and then to stop getting them. I learned how to put on make up, at least the basic, “natural look”. My teeth were repaired. I got glasses and then contacts and then grew my hair long. Everybody left Junior High. Kelly and Paul and their friends probably changed too. They are probably kind hearted adults with families who don’t even remember me or what they said.

It’s just interesting how some things stick to a recipient like crazy glue. I think 20 years had to pass before I didn’t feel hideous. It was maybe 10 more until I’d be writer enough to Tell This Truth. There’s been lots of living in between and that brings us to Now.

At 41 I am still part woods girl who likes a clean face. I like washing with cool water and skin that can breathe. It took my lifetime but I now like my pale skin and salted caramel freckles. I’d go around like that all the time except another part of me likes a little dress-up now and then. I’m not very skilled at putting it on but there are occasions that benefit from a little tint and enhancement. For the most part, my two halves make their peace.

There’s just one sticky wicket with which to contend: I still feel shame when I shop for make up. I still feel like I’m posing. I resist spending money on myself. I struggle to see the expense as “worth it”. The drugstore is full of marketed chemicals and the department stores are full of Girls Who Know What They’re Doing. My planned response has worked for the past 5 or so years:

avoid it as much as possible.

Fair skin wrinkles the least. Red hair grays the slowest. My acne is finally gone. I use cocoa butter to moisturize at night and the lightest, cleanest sunblock I can find for the day; light makeup when necessary and act like a desire to do anything different is irrelevant. Play it cool, hippie girl.

When did that stop?

Last year I realized I’d aged more in the past 2 years than I had in the previous decade all together. I can usually drum up enough existential intelligence to brush off any fear of aging. I can welcome “wisdom streaks” and “laugh lines” and look forward to becoming a tough old bird with long white hair. Well, I thought I could…until stress pushed the fast forward button and just like the sudden transition from woods girl to bullied pubescent, I was changing from young mom to peri-menopausal hag with nitro speed.

I looked in the mirror and felt, “hideous”.

Around this same time my daughter-in-law got involved with a skin care company called EVER. She’s fair and redheaded like me and since having babies, her skin is the most sensitive of anyone I’ve met. Chemicals aren’t safe. EVER’s top line is expensive, at least from the perspective of water-and-cocoa-butter, and I listened from a distance, cheering her on but knowing I’d never sign up.

Your face isn’t worth spending money on.

Melanie started posting before-and-after photos. EVER isn’t a cosmetic company; they sell chemical free skin care products that are botanically derived and not tested on animals. These are products that claim to clear complexions, remove age spots, improve tone and wrinkles…you get the idea. I wanted to remain skeptical.

None of that stuff really works.”

Photo after photo showed bare, clean faces in natural lighting with younger looking skin. There was a visible and noteworthy difference. The dark circles of mommy-fatigue had faded. Conditions like eczema and rosacea healed. Make up became unnecessary; these women’s faces glowed, dewy and healthy. I’m talking Anne of Green Gables kind of purity here. I refused to be impressed.

Photos can be edited. Don’t be the idiot who believes everything she sees.”

Melanie and I met for lunch. It’s really hard to argue with what you see in person. She wasn’t wearing make up and it was a work day. Despite having two very active and intense little boys who I know to be early risers and who sometimes get up at night, Melanie looked like she’d just had 6 months of great sleep. If photos could be doctored up, there was no way she could fake looking that fabulous.

Even if it works, you don’t deserve it.”

She showed me the prices and sales structure. Wine parties and home demonstrations, social media sales, contests, glossy marketing graphics and sample kits. I’d artfully dodged selling any kind of multi-level product through the years: scrapbooks, jewelry, vitamins, shakes… I’m a former Amway brat. That’s not my style. I have a full time job and a novel underway and four teenagers and a dog. I’m not a “hair girl”. I don’t like “high maintenance.” I’m afraid of being considered “vain”.

You selling beauty is not a line anyone would buy.”

It was in the midst of a personal inventory exercise that I changed my mind. A meme in my social feed reminded me to, “be the person you needed when you were younger.” I gave that one some serious thought.

Back then, I needed to hear good things about myself, the way I was changing, and who I was becoming. That girl had pretty green eyes. She could draw really well. She loved reading and talking about books. She ran like the wind (and needed a good sunscreen). She needed to hear that everybody gets acne at some point and that some day, it all goes away.

So I actually stood in the mirror and told my 41 year old self these very same things. I made a list and stuck them to the mirror. I like her. I like her curves and her face and her mind. I like her curiosity. I like her long red hair and her green eyes. I like how she can raise one eyebrow without moving the other. I like that reads the newspaper and books and is trying to write them too. I like that she still runs fast. I like that she chose great friends. I like that when she feels challenged by something, she figures it out and knows how to dig in and learn something new.

I am not hideous and never was.

And then I said, maybe in a whisper, a few other things as well. I said I wasn’t ready yet to have white hair. I don’t want to look this tired. I’m not ready for wrinkled skin. I need to use more sunscreen. Cocoa butter isn’t enough at night. It isn’t the natural process of age that has changed me: its stress and a lack of proper care.

A difficult divorce from an abusive marriage. Single parenting. Auto-immune disease. A remarriage and modern family. Job changes. Anxiety.

Old voices.

Proper care can come in a variety of forms. I made another list for the mirror: a list of things that I want to do for Tia before she turns 42. This decade is still young. It’s a decade of children leaving the nest, of new opportunities, of full nights of sleep and of creative ideas. It’s a transition time, similar to ones known in the past, and this time I’m going to be the person to myself that I need. I’m going to recognize the changes my human body, my animal, is going through and I’m going to do some things that help ease it through the adjustment. I’m going to do this because I like this soul and I like this body and it has served me well for 42 strong years. It deserves to be loved and cared for and also to be stood up for, protected.

At Christmas, Melanie gave me a tube of the EVER Daylight Radiance moisturizer with SPF. Sunblock has to be a part of my life. I live in Florida with fair skin and burn in minutes. Finding one that doesn’t lead to a break out has been hard. This is actually the first one I’ve ever (ha!) used that isn’t the least bit greasy. It doesn’t smell like sunblock. Chemical free and citrus smelling, it feels good to use. When I put it on in the morning I feel a small boost of gratification that I’m putting something special on a special person. I’m taking care of my animal and I’m glad.

Because I use it every day, I’m going to soon need more. And because my water-and-cocoa-butter regimen is anemic and needs an overhaul, I’m going to give this chemical free, plant-based program a try. I’m going to have a home party with wine and a demonstration and the social media party of month long sales. I can’t make this a business, which would probably get me my stuff for free, because I definitively don’t have time. But if I do earn enough to start the regimen, I’ll take the before-and-after’s. I’ll see if I can get my outside to match my insides, the parts that feel strong and healthy, rested and young. If not, I’ll know that I tried but I’ll know more than that too:

  • Someone else’s valuation of who you are does not determine your worth.
  • Painful experiences can become material later.
  • Mean people suck.
  • People also change.
  • Tell the truth.
  • Sixth grade was over a long time ago. You’re an adult now. Get the heck whatever you want for your face.
Hiking at Mt. Ranier last year, healthy, happy, and strong.

Hiking at Mt. Ranier last year, healthy, happy, and strong.

 

  • Update: We did have that party. My friends and I danced barefoot around a fire ring and threw scraps of paper into the flames. On the papers were all the baggage-y hangups we’d carried that weren’t useful to us anymore. Melanie did an outstanding demo, the wine was great, and my favorite EVER products are in my make up drawer. Hint- SMELL THE GOSH DARN LAVISH!! :swoon: Want to try or buy EVER?

 

 

 

“Like Foxhounds and other true Christians….”

The New York Times Book Review interviewed Wendell Berry for their By the Book feature.  The entire thing is great but the last quote grasped the breath in my lungs and held it clutched in time:

Q: What you plan to read next?

A: I am 81 years old. By now, I know better than to make plans. Like the foxhounds and other true Christians, I’ll follow my nose.

I have a foxhound. She’s loyal, true, grateful, empathetic, and full of vivid life energy that is nondiscriminatory: all people are her friends. She just assumes this and greets everyone we meet with the same curious love. She also, true to breed, keeps her nose to the ground. Everything is about what is right in front of her. She will miss sounds and sights and all distractions if something smells fascinating.

My sweet Savannah, a foxhound rescued from a kill shelter after being dumped by off season hunters. They are perpetual problem in our area; they breed the dogs and then discard them.

My sweet Savannah, a foxhound rescued from a kill shelter after being dumped by off season hunters. They are perpetual problem in our area; they breed the dogs and then discard them.

 

As for, “other true Christians”…I now understand why many dog owners prefer dogs to people. My personal faith is caught at the moment in a suspended state triggered largely by modern Christianity and the caustic reaction I’m having in regards to women’s issues, discrimination, and hate driven politics. It bugs me there are so few women in the biblical narrative (and I don’t believe for a second that 12 guys went traveling for that length of time and range without girls around) and I hit a major as-of-yet-unscalable wall when it comes to being able to contemplate anything related to the cross. Focusing on how a group of maniacal degenerates diabolically tortured and murdered another human being in front of his own mother has become intolerable for me. Her utter agony of watching that happen to her child isn’t something my system can handle imagining. Any celebration of the reason behind it or the so-called justification of it makes me recoil. I understand from the advice commonly given to those who grieve that focusing on the life they lived, rather than the way they died, is healthier. I lean into that.

I still stand in church and participate and follow the lifestyle of my people but I do so from a place of confusion and unrest, particular when it comes to identifying within a loaded label that means so many different things in 2016’s America. All my love and respect to my fellow parishioners, who are truly some of the very best people I know; it seems more manageable to me to live in community and think about the way Jesus lived than any other spiritual tenant told.

I tend to think that Mr. Berry is onto something (as he often is). Keep my nose to the ground. Try to disregard distractions. Approach life with a trust that first, all people are friends. Animals often gets things right.

My Year in Review: the Transformative Inventory of 2015

“Be kind. Every one is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

(quote source, a matter of debate)

Day 99 of 100 Happy Days. Everything old is new again.

Day 99 of 100 Happy Days. Everything old is new again.

If I could use the analogy of a coin for the 365 days that just passed, I’d say  2014 and 2015 are exactly opposite sides of that coin. The situations on the list would run off the page and the heads/tails contrast is defined and identifiable, even if most surface observers see nothing out of the ordinary. Last year at this time I was operating in the daze of shock, experiencing repeated grief and devastation more like an incessant faucet than a sudden flood. My mind filled like a jar, drop by drop, as the winter passed. My anxieties rose as stress evolved and I panicked frequently watching as the levels being stored continued to rise. Spring inclined; then, summer heat radiated into blinding, blistering, boiling inescapable tension, almost all within my own mind as I was able to cope less and less. I didn’t merely spill from the overfill; I broke.

The details of these situations are not as important as the impact that they had. In fact, that is one of my insights from the year. We all can experience overwhelming times in our lives and chances are the more family members and the more abundant our blessings, the more opportunities there are for stress. I have 3 teenagers and an elementary age son, a second marriage, a full time job; there’s lots of room just right there for stress. Children are not always healthy, relationships experience strain, job are lost and found. And that’s just the tip of the obvious iceberg of possibilities in everybody’s lives, mine included. It isn’t necessary (or even beneficial) for me to overshare, describe, or divulge the drama happening in the wings, amid the curtains and props where no one can really see. The truth is, we all have it, regardless of the personas we send out to perform on stage. The distractions ruin, rather than support, the story of our lives. I’ve come to realize that real transparency and honesty comes through decluttering that back stage, by cleaning house once in awhile,  and by understanding our lives are not monologues. We need interaction. Feedback is good. Response is healthy. The result of this work is that our best, most true self is the only one we nurture and send out into the world.

I thought I knew this before. This is the age of Oprah. I’ve been to therapy. I read. But until my 41st year I was not fully aware at how good I’d become at pretense. At filtering myself. At blending in like a chameleon in order to hide my true self. Which makes a shaky foundation upon which to handle life’s stress. If you know me, and you didn’t know I was suffering, that just goes to show how great at hiding I’d become.

“Here’s the thing about hiding. You can get so good at it that you are even hidden from yourself.” -Joy, the movie, 2015

In August, I dropped all my boxes. To use another metaphor, they tumbled down the stairs, cracked open, almost knocked me down. Have you ever had that moment when you are absolutely positive you can not handle one. more. thing? That was me. I’d reached capacity; my eyes teared involuntarily. They just leaked out of my fogged and puffy eyes. As they say, an “all system breakdown” was underway. I was physically sick, emotionally overwhelmed, spiritually numb, and losing my ability to pretend otherwise. I startled, flinched, panicked, feared, dreaded and measured survival in small increments. ODAT, but they weren’t good ones.  I was also exhausted from having to pretend. Even if I stooped to pick up the box contents scattered all over the floor, the container to put them in and the arms that used to carry it all, was no longer whole enough to do so.

And then a couple of things happened. First, I got a new therapist immediately. As a survivor of domestic violence in my first marriage, which legally ended 8 years ago, I’d been in years of talk therapy with great therapists for whom I’m very grateful. Except for one relieving EMDR session, most of this served as a place to vent, unload, and get some temporary relief. But I didn’t have the strength for more of that; the backstory alone would have crushed my finger-held grip on the edge. However, my new therapist specialized in PTSD and some cognitive behavioral techniques that I’d never tried, one of which works very well with those able to easily access their emotions. Mine were spilling everywhere, which made me an excellent candidate for treatment.

Next came a change in how I spent my time, as my therapist insisted now was the time to reach out and strap on my own oxygen mask and breathe, before helping others. That airplane analogy is very vivid for me. I have a compulsive, thoroughly ingrained codependent tendency to put myself dead last. Not second, not third; last at the end of a long line of family members and friends and obligations. It was killing me. Changing the order of my priorities was top of the list in the triage appointment and I wasn’t in any shape to argue.

Third, two of my friends posted they were going to do the 100 Happy Days Project in time to finish the last 100 days of the year happy and grateful. Something about this idea deeply spoke to my squashed spirit, the part of me that needed some hope at the end of the hard work. I’m a visual, story based person and I like goals and projects. I tweaked it a little for my purposes and signed on. It became integral to my work. The opening question is, “Can you be happy for 100 Happy Days?” I knew that if I could find some way to be happy during this specific 100 days, I needed to. It was a challenge I needed to meet.

What would it mean to look back at the evidence that I’d been happy for 100 days in a row? What would it mean to me to have visible proof of happiness for that length of time?

I had to know.

And so, the work began. I went to therapy. I got up every day wondering what my happy moment would be. I trusted it would happen. I uncovered memories I’d buried, discovered connections once welded together in my mind. We released the chains. I made amends with my relationships. Others made them to me. I let others do their own work. I stopped relating their work to me. I stopped taking everything personally. The flip side of last year is a contrast in almost every way.

I’m healthy. I’m happy. I’m creative, fulfilled, content, calm. When I’m not, I know how to find out why and I’m learning (still learning!) what to do about it. The work was working.

As I got to to the end of the line, the last 9 days of my 100 Happy Days, I started getting nervous. I started anticipating the loss of the anchor of the project and the accountability of it. There is new territory ahead, kind of like when someone is learning to swim and it’s time to let go of the wall of the pool. On Christmas Eve morning I got up early, ran my sprints (a new habit about 90 faithful days old), and I sat down on our dock with my notebook. The inventory that resulted is work I’m proud of. I could not have written with sincerity and belief a day before this year.

The Life Changing Magic of What I Learned in 2015:

  • I’ve had my children for half of my life. The season is changing; the signs of this started a long time ago. Denial and sadness that drags on is not useful. It’s time to, “remember the me that was me before we became we.”Julie Bogart.
  • I am now the girl who “gets up early to run”, even on holidays that fall on weekdays, even on weekends, and this is something I do almost always, not only sometimes. I am really a morning person after all, because I like to spend time with myself before the day becomes dominated by anyone else’s needs. The kind of running I do is fast. It is fast and short because I have fun when I sprint. I’m totally fine not earning a distance sticker like, “13.1” or “26.2” for my car. I run dashes of 25, 50, 100 yards over and over. I don’t pace myself. All of this repetitive goal accomplishment is a very strong way to start my day.
  • I have an intense interest in story, film, theater and books. These hours are some of my favorite spent. It’s a satisfying use of my time and actually is food for my spirit.
  • I also interpret what happens in my life through Story. I have the power over the story I tell. Stories reveal beliefs, reinforce feelings, and trigger emotions. This means feeling shitty is optional. When I feel shitty, it’s time to change the story.
  • Feelings are chemicals. Chemicals can get out of whack for lots of reasons. When they are off-kilter, it’s better if I identify why, rather than stroke or simmer the feeling stew bubbling on the stove. I can avoid bad chemical reactions by understanding recipes and by following instructions, by turning down the heat or by remembering what works and what does not.
  • The worst part of depression and generalized anxiety is how physically ill it can make a body, and how often it’s only diagnosed in retrospect. Those physical symptoms are real and current Medicine is devoted to the expensive exploration of symptoms.
  • Busyness is an instrument of avoidance. A depressed, stressed person wielding that weapon will push people away because it is too hard to allow them to come close. This is counter-productive to health but it does not seem so at the time. I’m very grateful to my loved ones who were there waiting when I learned I could put the weapon down and come back to them.
  • Guilty people blame others.  Anytime there is blame, there is guilt that is being projected, dumped, vented, and used as a shield. Blame is a waving blood red flag signalling something lies beneath. The source of the guilt and shame may have nothing to at all with the person being blamed. Blame is not the same thing as responsibility. Shame destroys relationships and creates impotence. Defensive people have been blamed a lot; they may have had to contain so much misplaced shame that they reverberate, shake, or become brittle and crack, like once pliant rubber that dries and crumbles in the hot summer sun. I have been part of all the above.
  • Here’s the thing about PTSD: the trauma is in the past, the symptoms are happening now. It doesn’t matter how long ago it happened; time is almost irrelevant. In the brain, experiences link to experiences, they connect and compound and sometimes smaller traumas attach onto larger ones, much the same way a garbage pile accumulates mass. Left to rot, trauma will eat away entire sections of the soul. Surface platitudes are as effective as swatting flies. Trauma must be cleared out and away before anything living can grow in its place. 
  • Knowing what you want is a stone foundation. Don’t try to build on anything else. Decisions are the walls of the house; the occupants and furnishings are the consequences from choices made. It has taken a lot of work but I now remember what I want, who I want, and why. If I’m having a hard time making a decision, it’s probably because I don’t know what I really want, and that is probably because I haven’t given myself room, space, time, or food to think. As a child I was very definite in what I thought and wanted and my needs were very basic. I need to listen to her more.
  • Hip flexors. Psoas major. Obliques. When these muscles spasm and cramp and clench and pulse and lock, which they can do for months at a time,…it feels like nausea, gas, appendicitis, colitis, an ulcer, and worse. The last resort from the medical establishment, when they can find nothing else wrong, will be natural methods of pain management. Therein lies the cure. Yoga’s Warrior poses, physical therapy at the chiropractor to release muscle knots and tension, sitting less/walking more, and cognitive behavior therapeutic techniques to clear trauma and anxiety…these all address that kind of stomach pain and they all are preferable to unnecessary radiation and expensive testing, pharmaceuticals, gluten free and other elimination diets, or living with chronic, undiagnosed illness.  My warrior pose is wobbly because I’d gotten out of practice. I sometimes fall. I get back up and it unlocks my pain. I like the metaphor.
  • Clearing trauma means there’s no longer a need to self medicate with anything. The desire for excess food or drink, distraction,  background noise, laziness and procrastination…goes away. Contentment, moderation, and knowing what is “enough” takes its place.
  • There’s a significant difference between “learning how to be married to someone” and “learning how to be married with someone.” In my case, the different experiences are embodied in the two men I married. I need to mind my prepositions. Not just, “with” and not “to” but, also “beside” and not “beneath”; “via” and not “versus”.  One of the things I want from my lifetime is to learn how to be married well.  A love story is a fertile seed but planting it is not enough. Nurturing the growth is up to us.  I will not say to the rain, “why did you fall?” I will not say to the sun, “why did you shine?” I will help shelter the plant, offer it shade, wrap it in warmth to protect from the freeze. It takes work but the fruit is good.
  • Use a paper calendar. I love how my Google calendar syncs up and sends reminders but there really isn’t any app or digital technique that beats a paper, hand written, month-at-a-glance calendar for my organization and presence of mind. I remember things better if I write them down. And, I have a new trick for making sure I schedule in enough solo and social time! I attach a sticky note on the first page of each month’s calendar with a list of names and activities I want to be sure I do. During the first week, I spend time getting everything scheduled. This means I have had coffees with friends, met for lunch, thrown parties, gone for walking meetings, went to a gallery opening and two plays, and taken personal time alone.

Goals for 2016:

  • Write real letters. I want to write ordinary letters on paper by hand. I’ll write to friends who live far away because we are not near enough to have lunch and because technology is filled with much blather.
  • Enter my stories in more contests.
  • Continue the novels. I have one with the second draft at 75% and another in the planning stages, pre-outline. In 2016 I want the first one complete, which might mean making it a screenplay, and the second one through a fleshed out first draft.
  • Work my ass off. My career is in a great, exciting place where I’m challenged and creative, trusted and flourishing. It’s time to dig in with gratitude and devotion.
  • Travel, hike, and try new things. Something new every month.
Day 5 of Tia Leving's 1

Day 5, when my mind became quieter than the sea.

Other images from the project:

across the room 1   day 6 of 100 happy days  bedtimechats

ethan 005  final jump  1bookmine

a day in the park  datenight  costumes

teaching rowan yoga  19  best chip

billie holiday  coffee  nola

happy18  short story  christmas tree

1  2  Day 100