Seeking Clarity

 

IMG_3525Bloat.

I’m only half finished with the book, and I know it’s got a bad case. Weird how hard it is to stay razor-focused when writing in 200 word chunks over a year and a half span. Agh!

So this is me, banging out a synopsis for reference and printing out chapters with a big, red pen in hand.

Let’s do this!

… tomorrow?

Revision is hard!

 

Betrayal: CU Style

I am at heart a curmudgeon.

I know this, and you know this, but reading Facebook this morning reminded me of it in a whole new way. The Christian liberal arts college I attended—now twelve or thirteen years ago—just announced they were killing their entire theatre program, and the visceral screams of all my theatre college friends are still echoing through my feed.

And it IS terrible, ridiculous, sad, and frustrating.

Art brings beauty and understanding to life in a way nothing else can, and if you aren’t giving your students places to foster, articulate, explore, and grow as entire PEOPLE, then the claim to education starts to get pretty sketchy.

But that wasn’t actually my first thought.

My first thought was one of those simple impulses that, often unfortunately, tell you so much about yourself. My thought was just:

What did you expect?

My college friends are bright, creative, interesting people. They worked really hard to build up the theatre program and community. They invested a lot. They made lifelong relationships and were changed for the better by the experience, and those are all really good things.

But however enlightened I aspire to be, however many zen books I read, and no matter how many deep breaths I seem to take, it’s starting to look like there will always be a part of me with a pickup truck and a sawed off shotgun living off the grid in the woods some place.

What do you expect from life, from institutions, from other people?

It’s hard enough to find people worth trusting, but institutions? Forget it. Not businesses, not governments or schools, not churches, political affiliations, or religions. It’s not personal, and only sometimes is it evil. In fact, the whole thing is probably best summed up in the first statement. It’s not personal. Most people are living so hand-to-mouth emotionally and spiritually there’s very little left over to care about anyone or anything else. My friends care about the theatre program because it meant something really special to them. The administration just sees a financial spreadsheet that ends in zeroes.

As for me, I have the luxury of not being heartbroken because my primary identity was more literary than theatrical. I participated, but I didn’t live it. I was a commuter, three years out of step with my peers in age and self-confidence. I watched the dust move lazily in the windows of the library instead. I wrote. I did my own thing.

And it’s been a long twelve years for me.

But trust me on this: I am not unfamiliar with the emotions of betrayal.

I also know what comes after: a lot of processing, a lot of sorting, a lot of letting go. Honestly, I think this announcement mostly feels poignant to me because it mirrors other betrayals in my life, and I’ve often wondered if the changes those hard times have etched on me are more good or bad.

I think there’s a lot of value in learning over time to focus on the things within your own control, to live in the present and not the past, to expect very little from other people. To cultivate an appreciation for that life off the grid with the pickup. But, of course, there’s always the other side of the coin. I can’t tell you how many times people have finished a story of some interaction gone sour by staring at me expectantly, and I have literally no idea how to respond though they obviously expect some kind of emotional reaction. Like wow, those people suck! or I can’t believe he said that! When all I’m thinking is: Yep. Totally not surprised those people did that. Totally believe he said that.

Sometimes I feel that I’m an unusually cold, cynical, or angry person. Sometimes I can’t relate to other people’s euphoric sense of community or identification with an institution. Sometimes it’s their surprised sense of injustice that throws me instead.

Good, bad, a mixture of the two. It’s life, I guess.

And life is what you make it. The end of an academic program doesn’t change or diminish the good memories I have from my own days there. Friendships will not falter or fall away because a program no longer exists. And opportunities will always exist for the people determined to find them—maybe not at CU, but somewhere. Art and theatre and friendship and community will go on. Before there was a theatre major there were still CU graduates moving to LA and doing residencies at theaters and directing plays in their new home towns. I know because my older sibs and in-laws and friends are those people.

Life goes on, even if it is harder. Then again, sometimes the life and art you build for yourself is all the more valuable for being hard.

Use the Right Tools

IMG_3546This was Iris yesterday, standing out in the rain, proudly holding up a stick she’d found as an umbrella, peeved to find it didn’t really work.

I held Oliver under the covered porch and watched her experiment, putting out a hand to check periodically.

Still raining.

Just my reminder of the day that there’s a time and a tool for everything. Sometimes hard work isn’t all it takes. Sometimes it’s ok for money to be the answer. Sometimes negative emotions are deeply appropriate, and sometimes (rarely) a stick can’t be anything you want it to be.

Use the right tools.

8 Things I Don’t Even Care About Right Now

1. The start of baseball season. Carl asked me today if I was excited for this. Since Carl doesn’t really care about baseball, I mostly think he uses these types of questions to gauge how much I can hear when I’m reading. I heard him enough to say the thought had literally never crossed my mind.

2. Parenting styles. Attachment, Ferber, Tiger, French… I don’t even care. Keep your kids safe, people, and give them hugs.

3. US politics. I’m not proud of this. I think people should care, and I intend to read lots of the political articles that show up in my feed. And then I totally don’t.

4. Christmas. Remember how exciting it was the first time it snowed, and everything looked so magical? Me neither. Going to be a long nine months before I fall for that nonsense again.

5. Don Draper. True Detective just ended last week. Don’t even talk to me.

6. Split Infinitives.

7. Being popular. Remember when that was super important? Gosh, it’s been a long time since church youth group.

8. Meatloaf. Singer or dish.

Creativity and Setting Limits

IMG_3508 copyExcited about mixed-media; discovering new magazines; Tinkerbell movies and playing with pixie dust; sap flow; maple syrup; spring; home renovation projects; memoir; writing; art; life; catching a miserable, horrible cold.

These were all things rocketing around my brain as I watched the kids get sleepy, just on the cusp of a nap, my mind already wandering ahead to my wordcatch of the day.

Things I wanted to write about. Ideas I wanted to express, capture, craft.

Limit-setting isn’t something we often think about in discussions of creativity, but for those of us hoping to make a career out of it, the two are mostly just flip sides of the same coin. There are the obvious connections, of course. If you’re not very good at limiting that Netflix habit, it’s awfully hard to pound out a 400 page novel.

But there are more subtle traps too.

I, for example, have grown a fat and disorderly desktop of half-finished art pieces since starting my Project 52. Having good ideas hasn’t been a problem. I’ve started watercolor illustrations for this book I also haven’t written, gotten half way through a zentangle inspired trio of north woods animals, played with geometrical shape paintings, and fallen in love with mixed media. (You guys, you get to include JOURNALING!!)

There is nothing wrong with any of these ideas.

But, hard truth alert: You can be the most creative person in the world and still have nothing to show for it at the end of the day.

Here are some of things I’ve been learning about setting limits lately:

1. Think of them as separate activities (and stay organized): this is classic advice, right? Any writer out there will tell you for the love of all that’s publishable not to waste your writing time looking up that one street name or researching 18th century surgical instruments. That’s solid advice, but I’ve also gotten swamped by coming up with too many interesting themes/characters/etc for one book, and then it turns into a saga, and before you know it you’ve landed in a diffuse trilogy. Just don’t. If you’re organized enough, you don’t even have to think about it. Set aside times to let your mind go crazy generating ideas and times for dedicated work. Whittle ideas down to the salient bones and then file accordingly. Characters; incidents; settings that made your mind explode with possibility.

2. Respect your creative energy (you only get so much of it). I was floored when I realized a few months ago that my output as a mom is about 50-75% what it was when I was writing full time. So, to rephrase: 8 hours of golden silence a day vs. two kids in two years, a variable sleep deficit, and 12-14 hour days 7 days a week. My productivity, it seems, has very little to do with having major responsibilities and a whole lot to do with focus and a drama-free lifestyle. I wasted a lot of time in those first couple of years feeling insecure about myself and my abilities, obsessing over family dramas and working to get clean from the codependency drama I grew up with. Having kids actually made life a lot simpler. I don’t have time for this, is basically my feeling about all interpersonal drama, and whatever it was that used to Hamlet it up in my brain about existential purpose has apparently died because I just don’t hear it anymore. I make no excuses for prioritizing peace. The fewer holes in my bucket, the more water I have when I get home. It really is that simple.

3. Focus on the things you’re gaining (clarity! complexity!). Setting limits often feel sad. There’s no way around that. If your crime-solving, hunchbacked ginger with PTSD and a penchant for donuts doesn’t ALSO play classical guitar and turn out to be his own nemesis in a denouement involved trap doors it can be sad. You’re allowed to mourn. On the other hand, think of what you’re gaining. Clarity is a hard-won gem, and clarity comes from restraint. One of my saddest days as a writer was the day I realized my novel would never work as it was because I’d written one of my supporting characters into a second protagonist. Can there be two protags? Of course, but not the way I’d set this book up. Since I loved both of them, the only nonbandaid solution was to rip the story in half and develop two separate books. Clunky and time-consuming. I’ll probably get around to it eventually, but the wind, as they say, is still knocked out of those sails. The other thing worth gaining is the possibility for complexity. Complexity isn’t just a lot of random, entry-level crap pasted together. There are a lot of great thrillers and epics out there, but for most of us wanting to write a rich, complex novel we’re probably going to have to write about something a little more specific than THE CIVIL WAR. You know?

I can not believe the kids are still sleeping. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go work on my oceanic mixed media project. BECAUSE I SWEAR I’M FINISHING THIS ONE BEFORE I START ANYTHING ELSE.

(Disclosure: I totally have a list in my journal of all the other great ideas I keep having).

 

Little Miss Fix-It

IMG_3500

“no matter how many maps you read, you must make the journey.”

—Cheri Huber

THIS. This is me. How funny it popped up in my reading for the day.

This is exactly why I chose the word “discipline” as my word of the year. The reflective and curious part of me, although fallible and in regular need of recalibration, does ok for itself. The follow through? Not so much.

This morning my spunky-sweet, semi-sick Iris woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Like I’m talking the distance between desire and utter desolation could be measured in centimeters. Cocoa? she asked hopefully. Yes! I said. As soon as we get fresh diapers and stop in the bathroom. Her face fell and the weeping, folks, was bitter.

Long story short, things did not improve.

And somewhere in all that messy morningness, I had to own up to my part too. She whines because it works. I hate whining. I want it to stop instantly, and yes, I’m that mom who once bought a $15 doll because I didn’t want to deal with the fallout in a quiet Barnes and Noble. Because I was flying solo. And my newborn had just blown out his diaper.

But this is the year of discipline.

This is the year I take a breaks when I need them. This is the year I pick my two year old up gently and say, “I know you’re frustrated. It’s okay to be frustrated. But I can’t help you while you’re whining.”

I set her in her bed, in a room full of toys and books and morning sunshine, and then I went downstairs and finished my coffee. And you know what? There were no tears. Five minutes later she came downstairs, totally chill, carrying Piglet and a book.

Reading about discipline is great, but you also have to implement it. Boundaries only work if you enforce them. And, for me, refueling mostly happens if I plan it.

Today I’m reading through a book of poems by Mary Oliver—so accessible and beautiful, a patch of much needed summertime in our -10 windchill. I’m powering down my lap top and iPhone for the afternoon. I am pouring myself a tall glass of water. I am pulling out the art supplies and crafting with Iris. And tonight I am changing out of my pjs, kissing the kids goodnight, and going out with Carl.

We don’t always get that much control over our days, but we can always find some small corner to claim.

What are you doing today to refuel?

Snow Days

We are having a snow day, a sick day, a curled up on the couch day. The birds are darting out of the swirling snow to breakfast at the feeder. The Tinkerbell movie is on, coloring books out. Iris has a fever. I am walking Oliver to sleep, a latte and a book of poems discarded along the pacing route. Somewhere in the snowstorm Carl is on his way to work.

And I am reflecting, trying to get beyond the irritation and judgments to a place of basic knowing.

Yesterday I decided to take a break from one of my friendships.

There are a lot of reasons, but that doesn’t make it less conflicting. It’s good to be available and to root for people. It’s good to believe in people’s capacity to grow and change. But there is also value in seeing patterns and recognizing your own limits. And I’ve been here before.

I think most of us have learned unhealthy patterns somewhere in their lives, and this is mine: I’m emotionally gullible. I believe when people are distressed, I respond to crisis-talk, I over-identify and over-invest.

I forget that people in unhealthy situations have chosen–every day, most of the time for years or decades–to stay in them. That’s their choice to make, and I, knowing only the selective details I’ve been told, am probably no better judge.

And inevitably there comes the bait and switch as the cycle grinds mechanically around. Things are looking up! Everything is going to work out. I’m committed to this job/marriage/family of origin. And it feels a lot like being used, a lot like betrayal, a lot like an act of emotional vampirism.

But being an adult is different from being a kid. As an adult, people rarely hurt you without your permission. You have the ability to say no. You have your own house, job, life.

And I choose to say no.

I choose not to bring toxicity into my life. I choose to sleep soundly at night. I’m done being complicit in generational traumas, and I am uninterested in the potpourri of half-truths and small deceptions set out to clear the air.

We all get to draw our own lines in the sand, and this one’s mine.

I choose to wipe Iris’s nose for the 84th time, write this and be done, gaze out at a world of gorgeous, heartbreaking winter and think my own thoughts.

I choose to be free.