January 30, 2018

31 01 2018

I am rediscovering the joy of writing fiction.

Remember that birthday present I gave myself? I let myself off the hook. No more big dreams. No more beating myself up because I can’t cut it in the fiercely competitive, soul-killing world of commercial publishing. Accepting failure and moving on.

At first, giving up the big dream plunged me into depression (like I needed one more reason to be depressed). I attended a convention here in Michigan and wondered why I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t know who I was or why I was there. I wasn’t trying to peddle books or connect with people who might advance my writing career. I wasn’t attending panels on how to market my work or make it more appealing to agents and publishers. I wasn’t searching for insight into what editors want to see, how to make pitches and formulate a scintillating synopsis. I got stupid drunk and was sick the next day.

Why is it that we get some of our most brilliant insights in the shower? Standing there pounded by water as hot as I could stand, it hit me. I hated doing that stuff—the promotional, marketing, publishing end of writing. It’s where the joyful, bubbling bright stream of creation runs into the toxic, stagnant swamp of business and profit. It’s where the delight begins getting poisoned.

My ability to write fiction had pretty much dried up. I was completely out of inspiration. Trying to write with that constant anxiety about what an editor might think of it, what audience I was targeting, how I would pitch and promote it, how another writer might critique it, had sucked all the life out of the process. I was writing for everyone else but me.

Now, here’s where I get the idealistic twaddle about how I should always write for myself, to heck with anyone else, and success will find me on my own terms. That, my friends, is bullshit. The novels I wrote for my own satisfaction have been soundly and repeatedly rejected. The ones I loved the most “did not meet the publishing needs at this time” of everyone I submitted them to. (And PLEASE do not cite the weary platitudes about how many times Stephen King or J.K. Rowling were rejected; I’ve been at this for years.) I was told to tweak them into a young adult direction, or abandon them entirely and write military dystopian fiction, or RPG fantasy, or whatever the hell else a savvy study of market trends would project as the next big thing.

Never mind. I don’t have to do that anymore. I am all done with that dream and all the misery it has brought me. I can go back to writing for myself. Sibi scribere. And damn it all, I will not allow well-intentioned encouragement from my peers, sage advice, new strategies, a new idea, to get me hoping again. Thinking maybe, this will be the key, the breakthrough. I will not allow that old toxic dream of success to take hold of me again. I will remember my birthday present.

Yesterday, on impulse, I opened a file I had abandoned. It was a story I had loved but given up on as unmarketable. I began to read and was sucked in. Next thing I know I am tapping away madly on the keyboard and an hour has passed. I know exactly where I want to go with it. Color is returning to the characters and their voices are becoming clear in my head.

I pause a moment, and catch myself worrying about what an editor might think of it, and how it goes against so much of the writing advice I’ve received. Then I raise my hand in a single finger salute to all of them—the professionals, the experts, the gatekeepers—and I write it just as I damn well please.

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January 24, 2018

24 01 2018

Pain and fear are isolating. They are loud, demanding feelings that crowd out all others. It is difficult to focus on anything else when your pain and fear shriek in your ears. The needs of those around you, the possibilities for happiness and meaning, the small and subtle treasures life has to offer, all are eclipsed.

It becomes a trap. The very path that would take you back into the light again is obscured by suffering. The suffering is all you can see. You beg for help, but are blind to the hands reaching out. The dull thud of suffering deafens you to the voices trying to guide you. Words of encouragement, wise advice, are like the chittering of bats flying in the darkness around you.

Only a tremendous act of will can push a person out of this trap. Many simply aren’t capable of it and most can’t do it alone. Through connection with others we find what we need to hear something besides the sound of our own suffering. Perhaps the right medication can help. Counseling, meditation, CBT, mindfulness, all can help. But unless there is something to welcome the sufferer back into the world, some purpose, some meaning, neither meds not method can provide a long-lasting cure.

If there is an objective force for evil we can identify, it is those who push us into the trap. Those who incite fear, who cause pain, who exploit our vulnerabilities to their own ends, these are agents of evil. Those who work against empathy, who work to divide us and isolate us, are committing evil acts.

And thus, those who try to quell fear and ease pain, who reassure and comfort, who work to bring people together and encourage connections, these are the agents of good. Even if it is on the scale of the very small—one person acting upon another—it is meaningful.

Both good and evil, as described here, are dynamic forces. They tend to feed upon themselves and spread. Those who are in pain tend to cause others pain. Those who are afraid spread that fear like a contagion. On the other hand, those who ease the suffering of another enable that other to feel joy again. Those who are happy are quicker to be kind, to be helpful. The web of cooperation and compassion spreads and reinforces itself. The inevitable tragedies and disappointments of life become more bearable.

When we are happy, we hear others. We see more than our own suffering. We can resist pull of the black hole of depression.

I often wonder, if it is so much more pleasant to be happy than to be miserable, why don’t the forces of good win out? Why would not compassion and connection trump the corrosive isolation of pain and fear? Perhaps because it requires effort. Patience, persistence, tolerance—they don’t come as easily to us. Anger and outrage, self-pity and despair, are so much easier to slide into. Surrendering to fear, retreating into isolation—how much effort does this require? Quite the opposite; resisting the trap is what requires effort.

As I have said before: Alone is easier.

It also can be deadly.





January 13, 2018

13 01 2018

Perhaps as a child you had an experience something like this: There is a subject you aren’t very good at, say, Math or History. You always seem to do no better than a C. Never mind the statistical gibberish of grades; C is supposed to be average, acceptable, what the majority ought to be getting given the bell curve that grading is supposed to represent. Few parents are willing to accept that their child is merely average; they must be exceptional, and therefore get at least Bs but preferably all As. And so, term after term, you disappoint your parents by bringing home a C in this one subject.

Then, one term, you really work at it, give up some of the other things you would rather be doing, and instead go all out and do your very best. You manage to raise your grade to a B. You proudly bring home the report card, and yes, your parents are pleased. It’s a wonderful moment for you. Then they spoil it by saying, “See? We knew you could do it. Now, next term, let’s make that an A.”

Your best was not good enough. Instead of grades, it might have been a sport, a game, a project where your performance wasn’t exceptional. You were made to feel ashamed for not achieving excellence. You were told to work harder. And yet, no matter how hard you worked, there were always those who did better.

Some have an aptitude; being exceptional comes easily. Some have to work very hard at it, but still manage to pull off exceptional performance. But by the very definition of “exceptional”, not everyone can achieve it. If they could, it would hardly be exceptional anymore; it would be merely average, what anyone can achieve with sufficient effort. The game is rigged by statistics; there can only be a handful who define what is excellent. There has to be a majority who define what is average. They will spend their lives being shamed for it.

Of course we all want our children to reach their maximum potential. We want to be proud of them. We want to be able to brag about our child’s achievements because it implies what great parents we are. So we push them. We think it is for their own good. And yes, children need to be encouraged to discipline themselves, learn to work hard and do their very best. The trick is to know when they have reached that point and not to shame them because their very best happens to be only average.

We admire exceptional, successful people, and there’s nothing wrong with that. What is insidiously hurtful is the scorn we heap upon the merely average. We condemn the vast majority of people to lives of shame, anger, insecurity and self-hatred. Instead of recognizing the value of ordinary lives, we dismiss them as irrelevant failures in our adulation of wealth, power, and celebrity.

I suppose I could have gotten straight As if I had worked hard enough. But that would have meant less time for other things. For playing outside, for being with my friends, for reading books. Time for lying on my back and watching the sky, dreaming, or laying on my stomach watching ants. For building little towns of twigs and pebbles and bark, and making up stories about them. For trying my hand at painting, mucking about with clay, playing piano, acting in the school play, acting out stories all by myself in a clearing in the woods.

Ordinary people can lead happy, productive lives, doing the ordinary things that have to be done, unglamorous jobs, thankless tasks. Ordinary people handle the drudgery that exceptional people think is beneath them. Ordinary people make it possible for there to be exceptional people. The CEO is nothing without the army of workers that fund his success. Someone needs to work in the factory to build the luxury car; someone needs to sweat in the sun to build the road that luxury car drives on. We need clerks and retail workers and food service workers and mechanics. We need to be willing to let our children be ordinary if that is the best they can do, and let them know that’s fine. They are still good people, able to contribute to the world, valuable for what they do. They should not spend the rest of their lives steeped in guilt because they were a disappointment. If they are happy, and bring happiness to those around them, even if it doesn’t bring them wealth, fame, and accolades, they are a success.

Doing your best should always good enough.





January 1, 2018

1 01 2018

I know where I am with plants.

They have no body language to interpret. No moods to allow for. Their needs are straightforward, and if those needs are not being met, plants don’t try to hide it. They do not dissemble. They do not apologize. They neither make nor require witty or bewildering conversation. Plants are silent. Quietly green.

Plants cannot love you. Neither can they hate you. At least, there is no way to know what, if anything, plants think or feel. So there are no expectations. You need not feel guilty if you do not understand what a plant wants. A plant does not pass judgement. A plant does not get angry. A plant does not manipulate, or express disappointment in your inadequacies. Your worthiness is a matter of total indifference to them.

I can sit in the company of plants and feel at ease. They breathe. I breathe. They bask in the light. I bask in the light. Plants need warmth and nourishment. I can relate to that. We prefer stability, and rely on the regular, predictable rhythm of days, seasons, years. Plants can handle a certain amount of trauma; some are amazingly tough and resilient. Others wither at the slightest shock. No one blames a tender perennial for being unable to survive the winter. No one condemns it for shriveling up in a hard frost, for being unable to bounce back, for not being strong, for not being a survivor, a winner.

Even if someone were to lash out in anger at a plant for failing to thrive, the plant would care nothing for that anger. Plants are indifferent to our expectations. They are what they are, do what they do, grow and seed and die according to their own rules, sublimely oblivious to the tangled riot of human drama.

I am content to tend the plants under my care. They respond predictably in ways I understand. I water them, see that they have the right nutrients, prune away the dead foliage, watch for pests or signs of disease. They reward me with serene, congenial companionship. Plants are consummate Buddhists. No anguish, no passion, as much as human poets may project such qualities upon them. Plants feel no malice, have no ambitions, do not make art or war. They are fully involved in simply being alive, moving from moment to moment, ever changing but never lamenting or celebrating those changes.

I know where I am with plants.





December 15, 2017

15 12 2017

I am sixty-one today. How the hell did that happen?

Mary Jolles commented on my last blog that she disagreed with me about having dreams. To clarify, I agree, we do need to have dreams, ambitions, a vision for a future we can work towards, particularly when we are young. The problem lies with dreaming big, with reaching too high, and then listening to the exhortations to never give up, no matter what, because “you can do anything if you put your mind towards it.”

What a horrible thing to tell someone. It implies that if they fail, it was because they didn’t really try hard enough, their faith wasn’t strong enough, they didn’t really apply themselves. The weakness lies with them. It’s their fault that they didn’t achieve their goal.

My goal was to be a successful author. Maybe not a best-selling author, but one who has a devoted following. An author with a contract with a major publisher and whose books appear in bookstores and libraries all over the country. It was my big dream since I was a child. I worked towards it all my life. I am sixty-one. My big dream hasn’t happened.

Another dream was to find a life-partner, a true love, somebody to stand by me through thick and thin, for better or worse. When I got married, I was determined to make that marriage work. I did everything I could. I invested myself fully in it. After twenty-five years, the marriage failed anyway. I am sixty-one. And I am single.

Let me just add that one hears all the time how it is better to have loved and lost than never loved at all. Perhaps this is true for other people. They seem to use it as a consolation when they have lost, and nod solemnly, believing it. However, my experience has been different. The suffering at having love fail is unspeakable. It vastly outweighs the joy. The present misery is far more real than the memory of happiness. I would say I wish I’d never met the man but for my children, who are precious to me. I would not wish to undo my boys. But I paid dearly for them.

The Buddha would smile gently and point out where I went wrong. It was not with the big dreams, but in becoming so attached to them. In allowing them to matter to me too much. Because they were so important to me, their failure devastated me. Refusing to give up, continuing to strive, brought suffering, not success.

There is peace in letting go. In accepting that the big dream isn’t ever going to happen and I don’t need to keep struggling to achieve it. I don’t know how many more years of life I will have, but I don’t want to spend them swamped in the misery of failure. My new goal is far more modest, if every bit as challenging. My new goal is to learn to accept what is and be content with it. Take each day with whatever it brings and let that be enough. No longer torture myself with the desire for more.

This is the gift I give to myself on my sixty-first birthday. Many happy returns.





December 12, 2017

12 12 2017

Upon reflection, I believe that a chief source of misery is daring to dream great dreams, and to believe oneself capable of achieving great things. True, this brings success to the very few, who are then held up as shining examples by inspirational writers and speakers. These same writers and speakers are strangely silent on how to deal with failure, unless it is to say, “Keep trying and never give up.” This condemns one to a lifetime of struggle and disappointment.

Blessed are those who dare to not dream great dreams, who are humble, and are content with a simple life. Perhaps they will never achieve great things, but they will have a greater measure of happiness.





December 4, 2017

4 12 2017

Wednesday I picked up the rental vehicle and got it packed. Thursday I hit the road. I left the driveway at 7 am precisely. The road was filled with turkeys doing their morning commute. Remember, we are talking about Deerfield, so these were real turkeys. They come down from their roosting trees in the morning and work their way up the road each day foraging. I waved goodbye to them; I have since learned that turkeys are plentiful in Michigan, too.

It took me 15 hours and change to make the drive. My GPS kept trying to reroute me through Canada, which indeed would have been much shorter and faster. But I was traveling with Fagen, my cat, and they are very picky about bringing animals across the border. I was slowed down by traffic in places and had to stop periodically to correct my course (No, Wise GPS Woman, I do NOT want to reroute, dammit!). My potted plant, Philo, toppled over during a sudden brake, so I had to rescue him, scoop up as much spilled soil as possible, and tuck him in again. And there were periodic stops for gas, rest room, and to reassure Fagen, who was thoroughly sick of the business. I could relate.

But I finally rolled into my destination at 11:30 pm, shaky, bleary, and wired from coffee and determination. The last couple hours were surreal. It was dark, raining off and on, and I was primarily sharing the road with big trucks. I’d only taken brief breaks from driving, never more than 15 minutes or so. I was also on cold meds. I’d been sick for several days before I left. Just what I needed. And I was already sleep deprived because of nerves prior to departure. All this combined to make me slightly out of my mind. I was utterly focused on Getting There. In gaming terms, I was fighting the final boss.

And I succeeded. My friends welcomed me and got me unpacked with admirable efficiency. My room was ready. I dug out the stuff I needed immediately, which was mostly what Fagen needed immediately. We were both pretty traumatized.

The next day, Friday, we began figuring things out. My friends, Jesse, Jane, and Jenna (yes, you need to have a name beginning with “J” to live here) worked hard to make me feel at home. And all that day I was busy getting stuff done. Returning the rental vehicle, getting unpacked, finding out the basics of the household, getting oriented.

Saturday, I crashed hard.

I had been pushing myself non-stop for a long time. I was so far beyond my comfort zone that I couldn’t even see it in the rear-view mirror anymore. I was exhausted, homesick, and seized with the reality that here I was, far away from everything familiar, in a totally new place. I spent most of the day in bed, crying, sleeping, reading, and watching Netflix on my laptop. My hosts were away for the day visiting friends, so I could revel in my wretchedness in private. Fagen was with me every minute, probably just as wretched, clinging to me for comfort. I was very glad to have him with me, warm and furry and affectionate.

Sunday was better. The day was fairly warm (50 degrees, unusual for the first week of December) and sunny, so I went for a walk. It’s a fairly rural neighborhood, with farms and fields—and expensive country estates—so the roads make for pleasant walking. The exercise was good for me. I worked outside for a while, raking leaves, and got some training for my other duties. It’s overwhelming only because I have so much else to learn and adjust to. But I am confident I’ll be able to handle it. I enjoy working with plants, and there will be outdoor gardens to tend in the spring. I can set my own pace.

Today is Monday. It is grey and gloomy out, although still fairly warm. Jane and Jesse are at work. Jenna keeps odd hours, but she’s here if I need anything. I’ll be continuing to unpack and get organized. I have new lists to make. Things to catch up on, like this blog. One box got left behind in the confusion of packing and preparing for the trip. My son Alec will ship it to me and I should have it by the end of the week, I hope. Things slowly get taken care of and fall into place.

So far, so good.