Not entirely sure that this link is going to work this way, but I wanted to save this article somewhere I could find it again. And also recommend it to everyone I know. It’s a really good quick explanation of something I’ve spent, oh, twenty years or so trying to learn.
A conflict arose between me and a friend this week. Passive voice = terrible writing, but that’s what it felt like. Not really a fight, not really an argument, but a conflict. Neither of us started it, neither of us wanted it, but there it was, rising up between us like an ugly, fast-growing weed.
Hmm, I like the image of friendship as a garden. Different friendships, different gardens? Rose gardens and tea gardens and straight-lined vegetable gardens, rock gardens and English gardens. Hedges and bougainvillea…
Bougainvillea is so beautiful and yet so mean. If you’ve got bougainvillea in your friendship garden, it’s just waiting to stab you unexpectedly. It’s not like a cactus, screaming “do not touch” but more of a hidden danger. Maybe a judgement that hurts? I have one friendship that mattered a lot to me — it was a gorgeous garden, lush and flowering and colorful. But it’s basically a desert now, all dried up and barren. I think it was bougainvillea that did it.
Anyway, not the point. My conflict this week is resolved, more or less, but I’m still having imaginary arguments about it. Ruminating, in other words. After lots of therapy, a couple years of therapy school, and plenty of self-help books, I know how to deal with ruminating — when I catch myself having the thought again, I stop and say, “I’m having a thought about X, what’s the feeling behind it?”
For me, ruminating about something that’s over and done with means that it’s not actually done, that there’s an emotion that I need to experience in order to let go. I am completely mystified by this one, though. I don’t know what the feeling is. Hurt? Rejection? Anger? Anger is usually a secondary emotion — at its root, anger is usually about hurt or fear, maybe shame. Fear and shame don’t fit either, though. I tried talking to another friend about it, but it didn’t help. Would that I had a good therapist on speed-dial, because I feel like I’m hovering on one of those self-awareness breakthroughs good therapy can give you, if only I could get there.
Speaking of getting there… I am leaving Cedar Key today and Grace is not finished. Sigh. I am not going to blame my ruminations. I am not going to blame my Lois McMaster Bujold purchases, either, although they definitely had something to do with it. I made progress, just not enough progress.
As with every step of this book, the problem is too many characters. At every moment, I’ve needed to know what all the characters are doing — not just Noah and Grace, my ostensible hero and heroine, but Dillon, Rose, Sophia, Joe, Nadira, Misam, and now Akira. It’s like juggling, I suppose — even when the ball I’m juggling is not in my hand, I need to know where it is and where it’s going.
But I refuse to be depressed about it. I’m heading into a really busy week, to be followed by a really exciting week, to be followed by a really busy week… and then I will sit in Serenity in Pennsylvania and not move until I’ve finished writing Grace. Well, probably I will move. But I will really try to focus on Noah and Grace. Someday these two are going to find a happy ending!
Meanwhile, my really busy week starts today: I’m headed to Sarasota for a Mother’s Day weekend with R. I liked sitting still for two weeks — it was not as productive as I wanted it to be, but it was relaxing to grow familiar with a location. There’s a balancing act between “on the road” and “living in a tiny house” and I don’t think I’ve quite found my balance yet, but writing definitely gets easier when I’m not constantly moving. A point to remember as I plan my post-July time!
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Me: I need to be thinking gratitude thoughts, not rage thoughts.
E: I’m right there with you. I’m grateful for my life. For my family. I’m grateful for you. For the sun coming up. For smiling dogs and delicious food.
Me: Yes! I’m grateful for a beautiful sunrise this morning and a warm healthy dog curled up next to me, for good friends and a roof over my head, for food in my fridge… and that my son is Canadian. 🙂
E: I’m also grateful for vegan cheese, fresh water to drink, and falling maple leaves.
Me: Coffee, the possibility of a warm shower and clean clothes! Plus comfortable shoes and a temp in the 70s.
E: OH! Shampoo! I hadn’t washed my hair in a week and it was WHOA. A man who cooks, listens intently and loves his children. Apples. The smell of soil. Butterflies and lizards.
Me: Ah, I love the man who cooks, etc. Rainbows, ripples on water, the taste of fresh ripe peaches, and snuggling into a bed with clean sheets.
E: Bartleby kisses and grass between my toes… clean towels and laughter.
Me: Music. Imagination and novels and good soup.
E: Seared scallops, knitted scarves, and intimate, soulful conversation.
Me: The sound of rain on the roof of Serenity, chocolate, and unexpected adventures. And sushi.
E: Fresh greens, cicadas doing their thing… owls hooting.
Me: Amazon, for delivery and book sales. R.
E: Used books, dandelions, my HP.
Me: …cell phones, fireflies, dew on spiderwebs…
E: Tiny little mushrooms that spring up overnight, pho, chickadees, a smile from a stranger.
…My list will go on today. The sun is shining, I had gluten-free pumpkin pancakes for breakfast, and Zelda didn’t get eaten by an alligator during our morning walk. Life could be worse.
I read a truly brilliant comment on reddit on Saturday.
I consider reddit a vice, unhealthy on a regular basis, best avoided, but with a lure that makes it ever so appealing on a slow Saturday evening. It’s not the worst vice in the world, pretty far from it, really, but I do try to stay away. 99% of the time on reddit, I leave feeling the same kind of vague nausea that eating too much junk food creates. Like I should rethink my life choices if I’m wasting my time that way. But 1% of the time, I read something truly inspiring. On Saturday, it was this comment on Non-Zero Days.
You should go read it, really. I cannot do justice to its splendor. Partially because I couldn’t bring myself to use capital letters like he did or swear like he did, but also because the flavor of the comment is perfect for the advice within the comment.
My favorite part of the advice, though, is Rule 2: Be grateful to the 3 yous. Ever since I read it, I’ve been thinking about Future Me and how to be nice to her and it’s such a lovely way of providing perspective in my days. Some of it is obvious: that cookie that looks so appealing? Future Me would be so grateful to Past Me for not eating any gluten today. Some of it is a little less obvious: Future Me will definitely appreciate it if Present Me unloads the dishwasher before I start piling dishes in the sink, instead of only after I have a pile of them. And then there’s the big picture stuff: how grateful to Present Me will Future Me be if I actually get better about flossing my teeth? Huh, probably pretty grateful, especially given what a minimal effort flossing really is.
But I’m also trying to take care of Present Me. I got reminded of the second half of the serenity prayer recently, which begins, “Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time;”. It’s so easy for me to get lost in worry about the future, so natural for me to spend my time wandering in mental circles of anxiety. But stopping, taking a breath, sitting on the lanai and admiring the bamboo… it feels so much better. And worrying about the future doesn’t actually help Future Me. Yes, I need to take care of her, but I don’t need to try to live her life. I’ll get there when I get there.
My backyard neighbor has lined the entire back of the fence with bamboo. It’s really tall, at least fifteen feet, maybe even taller and so beautiful. One stalk has managed to spring up on my side of the fence and it’s leaning precariously. But it sways in the wind and light filters through the leaves, and the colors are so perfect, yellows and deep greens. I think Future Me will probably have to chop down the stalk at some point, but Present Me thinks it’s lovely. This picture doesn’t do it justice, because I don’t know how to take a picture of light with my phone, but I’m posting it anyway to remind myself.
So this is what I’m trying to do this week: Be grateful to Past Me for her good choices, forgive her for her less good choices; take care of Present Me and live in her time; and do nice things for Future Me. Fortunately, Future Me would really, really, really like it if I could finish this book and move on to writing A Precarious Balance, so I’m hoping for lots of good writing. Happy Monday!
Along the way of writing A Gift of Grace, I had an idea that raised the stakes, which I approved of, and so I intended to use it. I’m finally at the point where I need to write it and it doesn’t have a secure foundation. That means I should go back and write that secure foundation in, but the very thought makes me want to stab myself. Hari-kari? Was that the ritual suicide that involved ripping open your guts? I should go look it up, but I refuse to succumb to the lure of random internet research today.
I’ve been working on this book for almost a year now — I started it as last year’s NaNoWriMo — and I am not going to start revising it until a first draft is finished, even if my draft readers are going “huh? what? where did that come from?”
I also realized yesterday that an element of the story that was always clear to me is never once explained to the reader. It is a bit much to expect the reader to read my mind, and so that also makes me want to go back and revise. But no. No, no, no.
This is the question I’ve been stewing over and this is the decision made. But the process of fretting about whether I should revise made me think about the word “stew” when it equals worry. It suggests that worry is a process of cooking, as if there’s heat to the idea of worrying. Not a lot of heat, not a boil, but a low heat.
When I was working on becoming a therapist, the kind of therapy I wanted to practice was called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. One of the things I liked about ACT is that it teaches techniques that… well, felt more in line with my experience of the world. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is probably the most commonly-used type of therapy today, teaches people to look at their thoughts, logically analyze them, and reject the bad ones. So if you’re feeling self-loathing, a CBT approach would be to look at the good that you’ve done in the world, the people that care about you, and remind yourself that you’re a good person who is loved.
It does not work for me. My thoughts are great at telling me that I’m fine, but my feelings let me know that actually, I’m just lying and not very convincingly. I can think as loudly as I like, as positively as I like, but it doesn’t change the underlying feelings. ACT instead says, yep, that’s a feeling, embrace it, this is the way you feel, and now move on, what can you DO that will help you feel better? Not what will you think, because thinking isn’t the problem, but what action will you take? And in that “embrace the feeling” stage, there are exercises to do, specific techniques to let yourself experience pain, feel it, and let it go. You don’t do the exercises to escape from the pain (known as experiential avoidance in ACT and considered not helpful) but to allow yourself to feel the pain. Anyway, after turning this into a very long story, I’ve decided to work on developing a stewing exercise, where I let myself ruminate and worry, in fact focus on my worrying instead of trying to escape from it, while I visualize my worries slowly cooking and breaking down. Worry stew. Maybe not delicious, but the imagery is so satisfying somehow.
My second reason for thinking about stew is that CostCo had fresh cranberries yesterday and so I bought meat to make stew. (This seems like a non sequiteur but cranberries are a fantastic ingredient in beef stew — they add a delicious tang and a beautiful color.) This morning I realized that for various reasons, namely a commitment to make pot roast on Sunday, I should either make my stew today or freeze the ingredients until sometime next week. But eh. I was not in the mood. So I made a lazy stew — no flouring and browning the meat, no deglazing the pan with red wine, no fancy stuff, just throwing some raw ingredients in the crockpot and hoping for the best. Ingredients: carrot, parsnip, celery, onion, three cloves of garlic (peeled, but not crushed), dried parsley, dried rosemary, fresh cilantro, salt, 1/3 cup of balsamic vinegar, 2/3 cup of chicken broth, stew meat. I’ll add the cranberries about an hour before I want to eat. If it works, I’ll be pleased, because it seriously cuts stew-making time and effort down to… well, I had everything in the crockpot before 8AM, with time to eat leftover coconut curry seafood stew for breakfast and still be at my computer by 8. Fingers crossed that lazy stew tastes good, though. I will be seriously annoyed with myself if I’ve wasted my stew meat with something that I don’t like enough to eat for three days.
Grief is such a weird emotion. It underlies everything I do. I can’t say hello to the checkout person at the grocery store without knowing that it’s there.
And then sometimes it comes in waves, huge sweeping waves that just wash over me until I feel like I might drown in it if I don’t scream. I never do and it passes anyway.
Yesterday, I said about journaling that maybe it always reveals something, but if the writer can’t handle the pain, maybe it’s not the right time. I was talking about clients, but for me, writing is sometimes a spiral downward into depths I don’t want to reach. Sometimes it’s just easier to not be thinking.
I have to write about practicum. Have to, have to, have to. I guess this is the writer in me, unable to not use words to process an experience.
All the angst, all the anxiety, all the stress, all the uncertainty–and in the moment, when talking to the client, it all fell away and I knew that I could happily spend the next two decades in the room, head tilted to one side, trying to see how the pieces of the puzzle of a life fit together and what twist we could give to the kaleidoscope to make them really sparkle.
And then, watching on camera, while co-worker X worked with client Y (who was supposed to be mine) and supervisor Z said, “Oh, no, this is not good,” and calmly leaned into the microphone, saying “Ask her if she’s hearing the voices now,” and everyone knew at the same time that this was not a client that we were going to be able to help, not now, not ever. X just got sweeter and gentler and milder while she followed Z’s instructions and that…I don’t want to have that experience. I think I could do it. I could stay calm. But X is not going to sleep tonight while she worries about Y. She sat two feet away from Y knowing that these problems were way beyond our scope, way beyond anything an hour of conversation once a week could help with, and she had to know in the minutes when Y told her that X was a lovely name and that she was a nice girl that she was probably not going to ever be allowed to see Y again, both a good and a bad. But ugh. I had the jitters afterwards and I wasn’t even in the room.
At the end of the day, simultaneously jazzed and terrified. Pretty much how I’ve felt about it all along. But a little more tilted to the jazzed side. We’ll see how the next weeks go. But today I got so reminded of why I wanted to do this job. End of the day, I feel good.
I learned this little mindfulness technique for class and I’ve fallen in love with it. It’s called thought defusion and it’s from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and also dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Both types of therapy emphasize learning how to accept life as it is and yourself as you are. Basically that’s figuring out how to know that my natural instinct is to be anxious and to worry, and acknowledge that that’s just who I am, and then still try to let go of the anxiety, rather than telling myself to stop being so anxious.I think it instills self-sympathy instead of self-criticism, if that makes sense. Anyway, this is thought defusion:
Pick an image of something moving away from you, clouds in the sky or leaves on a stream or waves washing in and out. Then take a few slow, deep breaths and close your eyes. Imagine your thoughts moving away from you. Let the thought arise, and then picture it floating away on the clouds or leaves or being wiped away by the waves. As new thoughts come up, let them float away, too. Don’t judge the thought — don’t think about it as being a good thought or a bad thought — and don’t judge yourself for thinking it. It just is what it is and then it floats away. Go for as long as you can, and then take a few more slow breaths and open your eyes.
I say go for as long as you can because me being me, two or three minutes is about as long as I can handle. But if you’re better at being peaceful than I am, you can set a timer and go for ten minutes or fifteen minutes. The nice thing is, two or three minutes, at least for me, can almost feel like a nap. It’s very relaxing to let my thoughts float away instead of having them build intricate webs inside my brain.
I wish I had a picture of a floating leaf to add to this post!
(Written to be a speech, obviously)
A few years back, one of those chain emails made the rounds of the Internet. It was called something like, “things our mothers said”, and I remember it mostly because I was pretty sure my mother never said anything on the list. I was never told to wear clean underwear in case I was in an accident, never asked if I thought she was born yesterday, never reminded that money doesn’t grow on trees. I might have been warned about the starving children in China, though, and I was definitely told that if I didn’t behave they’d give me back to the Indians. I distinctly remember being very confused at a young age about why the Indians had all the babies.
But there were, of course, things that my mother said that I remember well, and I’m going to talk about three of them today.
The first was “If that’s the worst thing that happens today…” It’s really more of a phrase than a complete sentence, and it has lots of possible options for endings. If that’s the worst thing that happens today, you’re in good shape. If that’s the worst thing that happens today, we’re doing all right. If that’s the worst thing that happens today, life is good. If that’s the worst thing that happens today, we’re lucky.
To me, that phrase really sums up my mother’s attitude toward life. We talk about glass half-empty, glass half-full people – she was more of a “that glass has plenty, more than enough for anything we need” kind of person.
One specific example that I remember well happened this winter. I got the phone call that Dad had had a heart attack and headed straight to the hospital. When I got there, she was annoyed at the way the hospital had made her wait, and worried about what was going on, but not an hour later, she said to me, “We’re so lucky.” Um, lucky? Dad had just had a major heart attack and was in the ICU waiting for what turned out to be quintuple bypass surgery. I didn’t feel all that lucky. But when I said so, she told me that the timing was terrific. He’d been at home, it had been in the daytime, Karen and I were close enough to be there, wonderful neighbors had been at the house even before the ambulance left to offer help, he hadn’t started his cancer treatments yet so it wouldn’t interrupt them – she had a whole list of reasons already why we were blessed. That was who she was: someone who could take the bad news and find the good in it.
Another thing that she used to say was, “You’ll be fine.” Now, “you’ll be fine” was sometimes, maybe often, a kick in the pants. As a pediatric nurse, she worked with seriously ill and injured children. She told us how when we were little, she would sometimes come home from working at the hospital and hold her healthy children and just cry. But that meant she could be pretty tough about her kids’ injuries. In one famous incident – and she might be horrified that I’m sharing this – Karen hurt her finger at school and the school nurse insisted that mom pick her up in the middle of the day. Mom was so annoyed by this that she actually told Karen that if that finger wasn’t broken, she was gonna break it herself. Fortunately, for both of them, the finger was broken – in two places – so she didn’t have to live up to her threat. But “you’ll be fine” definitely often meant, “get over it.”
Sometimes, though, “you’ll be fine” meant “I believe in you, I know you can do this.” On one important occasion in my life, I called her in tears. I was making a decision, a big decision, and the people around me – some of them anyway – didn’t agree with it. My mom could easily, reasonably, have disagreed herself. And maybe she did. But she didn’t say so. Instead, her “you’ll be fine” gave me the strength and the courage to do what I wanted to do. And it was the best decision of my life.
Sometimes, though, “you’ll be fine” doesn’t quite cut it, and Mom had an answer then, too.
When Rory, my son, was 8, he broke his arm on a trampoline. Now I know a broken arm doesn’t sound like much – kids break bones, and two of his cousins have broken their arms, too. But Rory snapped both bones of his forearm. The bones didn’t break the skin, but they were sticking out of his arm, and his arm shifted around as if it had become a tentacle. It was horrifying. And the emergency room was pretty much a nightmare – he wound up having surgery in the middle of the night, his morphine drip had a kink in the line so he wasn’t getting any pain medication – it was just bad. But I was fine. Apart from one brief incident when I vomited, after I’d bumped him and he’d screamed. Apart from that, I was fine. I was calm and efficient, managed the whole thing, dealt with the paperwork, called people to let them know what had happened – I was fine.
Until my mom called me back, and then I burst into tears. And her answer to that was not “you’ll be fine” (which obviously I would have been) but “I’ll be right there.” She was on the next plane to Santa Cruz – and we all learned an important life lesson, which is that if you’re flying through Denver in the middle of winter, you should bring some warm clothes even if you don’t intend to get off the plane – but she got to Santa Cruz eventually and stayed with us, taking care of both of us, for a week.
So, “I’ll be right there” – that’s the third thing that my mom would say. Sometimes for the minor stuff, like Rory’s broken arm, sometimes for the slightly more serious stuff, like moving. I don’t know how many times in my life and my siblings’ lives Mom showed up to help us move. For Werner and Maggie, there was a move from California to North Carolina, and another from North Carolina to New York. For me, there was a move to Chicago, a move from Canada to California, a move from California to Florida. Mom was an amazing mover. She could pack and unpack a house like nobody’s business. I remember on my last move to Winter Park being exhausted at the end, and yet Mom, more than 20 years older than me, was still going, cleaning my kitchen so that it was what she considered move-in ready — a standard that, to be honest, it’s probably never achieved since.
But “I’ll be right there” or “we’ll be right there” was also her answer to life’s truly more serious stuff. When my brother-in-law was in a terrible accident, Karen called my parents from Illinois first thing in the morning. They were there, from New York, by nightfall. When Karen was hospitalized during her pregnancy with Caroline, my parents rented an apartment and spent months in Illinois, helping to take care of Tyler. When she was needed — when they were needed – my parents would drop everything to help.
I knew when I was thinking about this a month ago that what I wanted to talk about was my mom’s positive attitude toward life, and her faith in and support of the people she loved. But I realized while writing that the words she said, her familiar phrases, add up to what was to me her philosophy of life, and who she was as a mother.
“If that’s the worst thing that happens, you’ll be fine, because I’ll be right there.”
I miss my mother very much.
Please join me in reciting her favorite prayer, the serenity prayer.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time; Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him Forever in the next.
Today’s my first day of class and for some reason, my anxiety level is really high. My previous classes have been fun, but this semester is where we go from the theoretical, intellectual side to the practical, hands-on, and it’s sort of terrifying. Not just that “what if I screw up?” feeling, but also the “what if I hate this?” If I hate it…yeah. That’d be bad. But, I remind myself (plaintively), life is filled with choices and paths and changes, and if necessary, I’ll just find a new path. Another new path.
Yeah, okay, that’s not helping. Anxiety level climbing.
I’m at a new place in my ghost story, one where I have to make a lot of time pass really quickly, and I realize that I haven’t done much of that in the stories I’ve written this year. Or in the book I wrote so long ago, which basically means that I’ve never done it. No wonder I’m uncertain how to proceed. I think there’s going to be a lot of writer-ly experimentation going on in the next few days. In between those anxiety-provoking classes, anyway.
PS I procrastinated by checking my RSS feed, and whee, Patricia Wrede wrote about this very thing today. It’s narrative summary that I’m going to be trying to write. Nice to stumble upon a name for it. I don’t want it to be invisible, but not too detailed either.