Go Bravely into the Dark

As a child – and, let us not mistake, a highly concerned child – I was terrified of the dark. I would sleep with a lamp on, shut my eyes tight, and wait anxiously for morning to come. As soon as that first hint of sunrise would come slanting through my window I felt safe again. Protected by the light.

Now I’m all grown up and, what do you know, some things haven’t changed.

Don’t get me wrong, I sleep with the lights out now. I even prefer it.

But when I look ahead and I can’t see things taking shape clearly – I’m afraid. When I look into the future and it looks like the impenetrable darkness of the unknown – I’m terrified.

That’s life, though, right?

And I’ll overcome my fear of the dark. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. Just like that defiant girl who refused to be afraid of the shadows in her own bedroom anymore. I’ll turn off all the little night lights I’ve plugged in to make that great big darkness less threatening – my expectations, my refusals to “let that happen,” my belief that I can turn uncertainty into certainty, and even the worries that make me think I can somehow preempt the worst by merely expecting it to be so – and let the darkness be exactly what it is. I’m going to embrace it until I love it. Until I prefer it. Until I need it.

I will go bravely into the dark.

 

Moments

This picture has nothing to do with anything.

There are so many moments in a day. 

The days seem to fly by. Wake up, say good morning, make the coffee, go to work. The next minute you’re back in bed and everything that was going to happen has happened already and you don’t remember any of it. Except that you forgot to send that email or all of the things you didn’t do that will have to be done tomorrow instead. 

And yet. There are so many moments in a day. 

So many emotions experienced, so many words heard and spoken. Some of them incredibly insightful, some of them heartbreaking, some of them hilarious. One day you might hear the funniest thing you’ve ever heard in your life but you wouldn’t have the time to think about that. To congratulate the person who said it, to tell them what a milestone had been reached. 

Because we don’t have time to think of the innumerable incredible things that happen in a day. We have meetings to go to, people to care for, meals to make, all of the incredibly important and unimportant things that busy us from day to day. 

Yesterday you might have said something to someone that they will remember in a moment of quiet despair, when the silence nearly envelopes them. But then – there is your voice. You probably said whatever you said casually, not even realizing, maybe as you were walking out the door already thinking about the next thing you had to do. “Seeing you made my day.” A tiny thread stretching across miles and hours between your heart and theirs. 

We go through our days weaving these intricate webs. With every word and every action we add to those delicate threads, so delicate that 100 of them might snap in a given day only to be repaired by an apology, by the daily forgivenesses we grant to one another. 

Yes, there are many moments in a day and they’re happening whether we tend to them or not. We do our best, we build up and tear down and build up again. We go from day to day trying our very best simply not to destroy. Sometimes that’s all we can manage. 

Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes that’s more than enough. 

This Is from a Year Ago When I Still Had Ideas and Wrote Stuff.

Why would children play here? It looks like a crime scene.

I didn’t expect to brush up against the edges of a former self today. But if there’s anything we know by the age of 30, it’s that the breathtakingly unexpected actually happens so frequently that we cease to be as surprised by it as our 20-year-old selves might have predicted.

Maybe there’s a word for that. Do they call it “jaded?”

“Go to this place and pick up this thing” was what I was intending to do, but what I actually did was endanger myself and others while snapping photos from my car of these places that have lived as landmarks in my memory for almost 20 years.

IMG_8601

Where I learned the donut holes are sometimes free if you’re seven years old and loiter around a donut shop and have no money.

The (not-altogether-safe) alley where we played, inventing endless games for our own amusement and to keep us out of the house when we were told to “go play outside.” “Either stay inside or stay out,” our parents would say back then, when a house was just the small center of a wide circle of neighborhood life.

As far as the eye can see is what it feels like when you’re young and you have a neighborhood to roam.

Kings and queens of vast, suburban realms, we were. Conquering the world on bicycles with training wheels until we didn’t need them anymore.

This is where young Kathy began her brilliant academic career. She was good at spelling, they always said. Maybe they still say it now. Maybe she is a legend.

And it’s strange seeing things you only really knew when you were very young. They look so small, like things in a doll’s house, a city in miniature. Here is the tiny schoolhouse where the children go to learnIf you look closely you can see real books on the tiny bookshelves.

And there are stirrings of things in the back of your mind. Muscle memories awakening, your eyes knowing that here you will see a fire hydrant and here a playground – all those years later, and you never even knew you remembered.

But you did. You remembered. And that’s an important thing to do.

Hypochondriasis & the Human Condition

It is convenient for the hypochondriac types amongst us that the early symptoms for nearly every deadly disease are exactly the same, and that those symptoms closely resemble the symptoms of human existence. It is also convenient that the Internet is full of generalized information aimed at everyone and no one in particular, with a seemingly endless supply of contradictory claims.

Do you have headaches? Well, it’s probably nothing but you never know you might have multiple sclerosis, and really the safe thing to do is to ask your doctor. Lots of that. “Ask your doctor.” Yes, agreed, but since I asked her last week if I had the beginnings of a very rare, degenerative facial deformity and she laughed at me (isn’t there an oath they take, and shouldn’t it include something about not laughing at your patients’ self-inflicted misery?) I think instead I’ll Google my symptoms until the search results are grim enough that I feel the urge to draw up a will.

“My aunt’s aunt,” says the always-sage message board contributor, “thought she had a cold but actually she died three days later. That’s probably really different from your situation, though.”

Thank you, message board contributor.

I thank you.

The world thanks you.

(But sorry about your aunt. That’s rough.)

***

If, let us say (hypothetically, you understand), your mother dies when you are a young person, you might develop (theoretically, of course) concerns about the general heartiness of the human body.

And if, let us say, the indirect cause of her death was (for the sake of argument) a brain tumor, which for the average person is an excessively unlikely event—well, you might think to yourself that anything could happen at any moment, really.

Everything could come to an end at any moment.

And you could be left, quite improbably but nonetheless realistically, with nothing.

***

           I long for my mother in a place that is deep, deep in my bones. And, maybe, it’s that I long for a mother. Maybe humans long for mothers; maybe it’s a hereditary condition. There is this sense we have that a mother can’t help but love her child, and who doesn’t want to feel that? Who doesn’t want to feel that there is one person out there who, however badly you fucked it all up (and, let’s face it, you fucked it all up pretty badly), cannot help but love you with a reckless and abandoned love—an irrational mother-love that would rather die a thousand deaths than see you come to harm?

There’s not a doubt in my mind that the woman who died all those years ago would suffer it all again and more if it could somehow spare me pain.

But, of course, her pain—it’s also my pain. Chalk it up to daughter-love.

And the circle goes round and round.

***

When my mother was ill, I was young. Young and uncommonly dense. We all are, when we’re young, but I was especially so. I held out hope for the longest time that my mother would get better, that she would marry, that I would have younger siblings and we’d live in a big house with an even bigger pool (giant, giant pool—water slides everywhere). This, in spite of every fact that pointed to just the opposite—that she would be unwell and we would be alone, just us and the cockroaches sharing a room in our tiny HUD apartment. But, relax, this is America so our shitty apartment complex had a decent pool, at least. Half a happy ending.

***

The word anxiety is used a lot nowadays. “I struggle with anxiety” is a phrase I hear from my own mouth at times. Hi, mouth. You say some interesting things.

Anxiety: a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.

Uncertain outcomes are a certainty.

And what of the outcomes that are certainly certain—we will all die, somewhere, somehow. The scan clearly showed a brain tumor. Your mother will never be able to care for you again. And now she is dead.

They’re horrific and definite, but somehow easier to set aside than the daily small uncertainties of our even smaller lives. They are loads too heavy for frail shoulders of mere bone and sinew, and so we lay them down. We have no other choice. And in their place we amass tiny, insignificant burdens. We wear them, Aeneas-like, on our backs. We carry them with us like precious treasure. I’m anxious, we say. I have anxieties, we say. Would you like to see them? Like trading cards, we collect and display our minute troubles.

***

I’ll die, you say? Certainly by the year 2300 I will be well-decayed in the ground. Everyone I ever knew will be dead, and there we will all be in our graves. Some of us will have died alone in agony, and death will have been the respite we craved from the imprisonment of traitorous bodies.

I’m sorry, I’ll say. I have too many tiny burdens on my back. I have no room for that burden. Let me show you my other burdens—they are rare and special indeed.

But those burdens are so small, you’ll say. Compared to this one looming certainty they shrink and contract to nothingness.

Yes, yes. I see. That is interesting. I do understand that. But, meanwhile, can you tell me if this spot on my arm is just a dry patch or could it possibly be leprosy?

“Well, it’s funny you should mention that because my aunt’s aunt thought she had dandruff, but in the end—well, her head fell off, actually.”

The Sweetness of Life

The sweetness of life, I find, is in the small things. I notice the small things more now than I did in my 20s. In my 20s, I was Highly Concerned with Highly Concerning Concerns.

Now, I’ve gained just enough wisdom to realize that there are like two important things in life.

Or maybe just one. Yeah, one.

People.

The end.

So that gives me a bit more space to breathe. More time to look around. More time to enjoy.

Even though I am not what might traditionally be considered an Impressively Productive Person, it’s not for lack of trying. I think it’s more a matter of ineffectual effort than a mere lack. I tend to spin my wheels in free moments, wandering about the house eternally tidying things, accomplishing minute, unnecessary tasks. Just doing things to be doing something. Going hither and thither. And also yon.

It’s a fear of wasting time – I’ve always had it. Which means that I waste a lot of time worrying about wasting time and then I waste time in order to ward off the worrying.

It’s a merry kettle of nonsense.

So I remind myself (bear with me here, this sounds morbid) that I might die tomorrow. And, if I died tomorrow, would I be pleased that I’d spent my last moments worrying about how one ought to spend one’s moments?

You can never be refreshed if you don’t sink into your moments. And if you’re never refreshed, you’ll never be productive. And the cycle goes on and on.

And so I look for the sweetness in life, the little things that revive. Sit down, feel the sun, look up at the purple trees, breathe the salty air, hold the pug, hug the husband, watch the show, shed the tear, listen to the neighbor kids playing outside, close your eyes, smile, strum the guitar, relish the time.

I don’t think life is always good, but I know that life is good.

(If you want to know the truth, I’m so tired right now that I don’t know exactly what I’ve just written but I’m scheduling it to publish tomorrow anyways. I really have this deep-seated hope that it’s not a heap of garbage. This is my life. Doing things and hoping they are not garbage. Forever and ever, amen.)

Did You Know it’s 2016?

I know what you’re thinking:

It’s not 2016, it’s 2006! What is Periscope?

That’s not what you’re thinking?

No, me neither.

But not only is it 2016, it’s almost half-way through 2016.

So far, 2016 has been fast-paced – lots of family visits, life lessons, and audiobooks (my new obsession).

This year, so far, I have:

  1. Fallen in love with Lizzy Bennett
  2. Fallen in love with Mr. Darcy
  3. Fallen in love with Jane Austen
  4. Been to Texas (I didn’t fall in love with Texas. Sorry, Texas. I only visit you because of the people you hold hostage.)
  5. Been to lots of cemeteries in Paradise
  6. Learned to cook a pot roast once and for all
  7. Co-hosted a bridal shower
  8. Become obsessed with Frasier and his entire family
  9. Been very overwhelmed by work
  10. Enjoyed my job quite a lot
  11. Realized some important things about life, the universe, and everything
  12. Seen Wicked and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder
  13. Seen Sleeping Beauty (the ballet)
  14. Finally tasted tender pork that was not bacon
  15. Gone to Disneyland and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
  16. Become obsessed with Audible
  17. Learned how to make bread
  18. Started planning a trip to Europe for next January
  19. Watched lots of British TV
  20. Written poems and worked on novels
  21. Had some very low points and some very high points
  22. A bunch of other really important stuff

I think I would like the year to slow down a bit, or maybe I need to slow down a bit? Not sure. Or maybe I need to just stress out less and be chill? Or watch more Brit TV? Yeah. That’s the one. Watch more Brit TV.

#goals

The Truth About People-Pleasing

I have at various times in my life been a people-pleaser. Some times more than other times, and less now than ever before.

I don’t like this about myself, but I admit it.

Whenever something happens in life, I turn to Google. Maybe it’s a Millennial thing. I don’t know.

Google tells me that people-pleasers don’t truly believe that they too have the right to be happy. Or that they too have needs that should be asserted. Google tells me that people-pleasing encourages one to attend to others to the detriment of self.

And there may well be a breed of people-pleasers the undercurrent of whose behavior is some kind of selfless attention to others. There may be.

There may be a breed of people-pleasers whose “pleasing” is tinged with sacrifice.

There may be a breed of people-pleasers who prioritize the well-being of others, underestimating their own value.

I’m sure there are people like that. I’m sure they exist. They are the noble people-pleasers of the world.

But I am not one of those. Maybe you aren’t either.

These are the far less impressive characteristics that define me as a people-pleaser:

-Cowardice

-Prioritizing the worst parts of myself over the best parts of everything else

-Aversion to discomfort/addiction to approval

-Desiring others to provide my self-image and resenting them when they fail to do so to my liking

These are terrible qualities. If I was watching a movie and the heroine possessed these qualities, I would hate her. I would want her to get hit by a bus, or at least grazed gently by a bicycle.

The difficulty of talking about these sorts of things is that for some people it’s hard not to people-please, and it requires courage. But for some people it’s natural. Not being a people-pleaser is not brave in and of itself because, for some, the notion of displeasing  generates no fear. Whether it’s nature or nurture, I’m not sure – probably depends on the person.

But being a people-pleaser is definitely not brave. It is a quality defined by cowardice.

And, on top of that, it is most certainly not a quality defined by over-emphasis on others.

Imagine approval is a drug. Instead of finding a healthy way to handle your problems and stand (however waveringly) on your own two feet, you choose to use drugs instead for the easy high.

Do you care about the drug dealer? No. Do you give a dealer money because you’re concerned about their welfare? No. You have merely prioritized your need for drugs above your need for the cash.

It’s the same with approval. What you seek is the fleeting, warm emotion you feel when you receive the approval of others, and your other needs are the currency you are willing to exchange for it. You have prioritized your need for approval above your need to be “valued” in a relationship.

In addition to that, you have taken your internal barometer for gaging your own value to yourself and you have handed it to another person completely outside of your self and said, “You do it.”

When they do it “right,” you feel nice for 5 seconds. But it doesn’t last because, like a chemically-induced high, it’s not real. It’s not native. It doesn’t live inside of you and cannot sustain you.

And when, heaven forbid, others fail to provide the high, you feel resentful to them for failing to fulfill a role they have no business fulfilling.

Being a people-pleaser is not tragic or interesting. It does not conceal hidden depths.

It is a choice to be dependent.

 

 

But What About the Shitty Second Draft?

Well, the honest-to-goodness truth is that I am now in full possession of a shitty first draft, authored by yours truly. I can indeed vouch for its shittiness. In fact, I had to dig down deep to pull out such a heaping load of crap, but I did it.

Things I know:

1. It is not the best first draft ever written.

2. It is not the worst first draft ever written.

 

Congratulations to myself! I have achieved my life-long goal of absolute mediocrity.

All in a day’s work, my friend. (Actually, like 100 days’ work, but who’s counting?)

Ok, then. Do you want to know something that is absolutely devastating? After you write a shitty first draft, you have to write a slightly less shitty second draft, and then keep revising and revising until you die or the world ends, whichever comes first. I mean, I technically knew this before I started the process but I don’t think I really knew knew it, you know what I mean?

I have heard people say that 80% of the work of a novel takes 20% of the effort, leaving the last 20% of the work with 80% of the effort.

What in the name of all hell?

I call that a very bad system. And if you’re telling me that this draft I just did was only 20% of the effort I’ll eventually have put into it, then – well, you can just take that 80% and stick it somewhere extremely uncomfortable, thanks very much.

Ok, ok, fine. If I’ve come this far I guess I better slog on to the finish line. Kidding! I’m thrilled!

But here’s the thing about the second draft. In order to achieve it, you have to read your first draft. You can’t just write the shitty first draft and then move along with your life feeling excellent about yourself. You have to experience your own terribleness first-hand and then try to make it better.

There is so much wrong with this that I can’t even get into all of it here, but suffice it to say that reading your own first draft is a fate I would not wish on my worst enemy. Maybe that’s and exaggeration (yes), but you see my point.

You always do because you, Internet, are my truest, dearest friend.

So! Onward with revisions – it’s been painful so far, but it’s going to be worth it! (Right?)

Shitty First Drafts.

Every writer I’ve ever talked to or even glanced at has told me that the writing process consists first of simply dumping words out and sorting them after. The lovely Louise Penny told me that I must just heap a pile of merde onto paper first before anything else can happen. Anne Lamott has an entire chapter dedicated to Shitty First Drafts in her book, Bird by Bird.

I can’t even enumerate all the times this concept has been explained to me, and in so many different, helpful, illustrative ways.

I repeat the words to others and I say them to myself even more frequently, like a mantra. I remind myself that what I’m doing here is finishing this thing. I’m not writing the damn Bible. No divine inspiration here, guys.

So HOW is it, I ask you, that I still can’t seem to get this idea into my so-thick skull?

Every time I write a paragraph (or page or several pages or 100 of them) that feels shitty to me, I’m devastated. Shocked. Appalled.

How could this happen to me?

If this is the point of it, if this is what I’m actually supposed to be doing – then what is the problem? Why do I feel like this? I’m fairly certain it’s because, in my ever delightful mind, what’s going on is that I’m not allowing for an ACTUALLY shitty first draft. I’m allowing for a slightly less perfect first draft. Like Da Vinci’s sketches. They’ll still be famous and clamored after. But just, you know, not quite the Mona Lisa.

It’s so uncomfortable for one to feel that one has failed. There’s a sentence with some distancing. It’s uncomfortable for me to feel that I’ve failed. Shitty first drafts are basically a series of not-quites and failures strung together into a lengthy testament to human frailty, and not only that but of the writer’s particular frailties as well.

Anne Lamott says:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.

This perverse perfectionism is just pride, which is deeply connected to fear. I’m so unchill about failing that I won’t even wait to actually fail before freaking out about it, I’ll just refuse to allow it to happen. My fragile ego can’t handle even the thought of it. And it is a kind of insanity. Perfection is impossible. Trying to be perfect is an exercise in futility. And what is perfect when it comes to creativity, anyways? Don’t we love our flawed, imperfect creations? If we can love people, we can love imperfect art.

Sometimes I think creation is this impossible mixture of arrogance and humility. You have to be convinced that you have something worth putting out into the world yet completely at peace with the fact that everyone might hate it, and possibly even for good reason. You yourself may hate it. It may be garbage.

But – and I’m not saying I know how – I have to get to this place where I can write something terrible, because that is the only way I will get to the place where I will be able to write something. I need to write an entire terrible book and feel that it was worth doing. And, sure, if my book magically turns out to be awesome after the first go-round, great. More than extremely unlikely, but sure. Great. But that is not my concern. It is so far from my concern that I should never spend any time thinking about the possibility.

I should simply be thrilled if I end up with 300 pages of total refuse, because that means I did the thing that all those wise and brilliant writers talk about. I wrote the shitty first draft. And the books that we love and treasure and read again and again – most of them were once shitty first drafts. Just like all the lovely people we adore and want to spend time with were once lesser, more immature and horrible versions of themselves.

So the project is to dig deeper down inside myself and find that acceptance and humility I need in order to actually do this thing (or anything, for that matter).

That sounds easy.

In the words of G.O.B.

Sometimes when I make a decision I feel really great about it. I want to be a huge, bragging douchebag about my awesome decision because I decided something and, in so doing, displayed great awesomeness.

Other times, I make a decision and immediately hear G.O.B.’s voice in my head.

I’ve made a huge mistake.

I’m not gonna lie. Sometimes it seems like the first thing has never happened and the second thing happens all the time. Take from that what you will.

The thing about situations like that is that they are almost always preceded by a feeling that I should most definitely make a different decision than the one I am about to make. But I’m a person who tends to doubt herself. So much so that, at times, I have deep misgivings about ordering dinner.

Dinner.

Misgivings.

Deep.

Are we hearing this?

There are times when I truly don’t know what to do and there are times when I do listen to my gut, but it takes a prodigious amount of effort. I feel like this should be the default for situations where moral codes don’t apply (personal decisions that don’t present a choice between “right” and “wrong”), but somehow that switch got turned off and all of a sudden I’m without a compass because, as it turns out, your gut can’t effectively be replaced by any one particular thing. Nobody else’s beliefs, intuitions, life experience, and self-knowledge course through your veins – only yours. You can reach and grasp for another impetus, but you will only ever be guessing.

What is correct? 

What should I do?

What would my family think?

What is the socially acceptable thing to do?

What is polite?

And so I flail about, all the while ignoring the sick feeling in my stomach that says “beware of what you are about to do.” I often find myself making a decision that seems to accord with some reality somewhere – just not mine.

And then, once I’m stuck in someone else’s reality, all the thoughts that I had and ignored crystallize to form a perfect picture what I should have done and I am suddenly very brilliant and very wise indeed. But by then, I am stuck.

I recently got myself un-stuck from a terrible decision, which was one of the boldest moves I’ve made recently and proceeded by the most labyrinthine of thought processes. Many sleepless nights and back-and-forths. But I finally looked to my gut and my gut said: go.

Even if it had turned out to be a mistake (which I don’t believe it has), it would have been my mistake and one honestly made. And I would only be able to look to myself for either fault or credit, and I would be able to own it and grow from it since there’s nobody else to blame for a decision you make on your own.

I think they call that being a grown-up.

So here’s to being a motherfucking grown-up.