Tag: self reflection

Tying Up Loose Ends

The Muse tells me it’s time to break for summer, and like the Wife (heads up, husbands) the Muse is always right. To that end, I will be on vacation from my blog until the beginning of September, when, I hope, you will join me again.

To tie up a loose end before I vacate: The Sweater has been completed. The Twenty Year Sweater  Here is a photo.

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I know. I never said I was a good knitter, did I?  Check out the oddly puffy sleeves. When I put The Sweater on, I’ve got a weird Shakespeare-in-winter thing going on.

This morning I am going to go outside and paint a watercolor. Even though I have a boatload of books to review and three writing projects awaiting various revisions, I am still going to shove them aside and do a watercolor.  It won’t advance my career or make me money, but. . .

I am the product of two very different people. My mother has, as my dad likes to say, two speeds: slow and stop. But I think he might be envious, since he’s fast and faster. I tend to be more like my dad, until I remember that I’m also part my mom. Once I asked her how she avoided over-doing. She told me that she does three “things”—“things” being chores—per day, and once they are done, she’s off the hook and free to do what she wants. (I believe one of the “things” is making the bed, so you see she’s not unduly stressing herself.)

When I find myself in a muddle of work, I remember her words. Painting a watercolor this morning is going to be more satisfying than disciplining myself through a revision and what’s more, I suspect it will free up other creative areas in my brain, making me more effective when I get back to writing.

If you’re more on the driven side like me, maybe today you can try to do one thing you truly enjoy, for no other reason than that you truly enjoy it–see how it goes.

Until September, then. Have a lovely summer.

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The Journey v. the Destination

I got a friendly, helpful note back from an agent this week. While she declined to take me on, she did tell me she found my story line intriguing, however it started off too slow.

Zing! I knew she was right. I moved the manuscript into Scrivener and started re-arranging scenes in Corkboard. Moving the scenes around allowed interesting gaps to develop—gaps that sparkled. As I was rearranging, part of my brain delighted in this freedom and part of it was aghast. “You can’t do that!” it said, “no one will look at it if you do that.” Well, let’s  be honest, no one is really looking at it yet anyway, as far as I know. And besides, at 56 years old, at least two thirds of my life is over, so what is there to be afraid of? I’ve already experienced rejection and lived through it. I’ve already taken chances and succeeded or failed—and lived through it.

Fiction writing is a fairly new skill for me and I’m learning the craft daily. Even when I think I’ve written something lovely and amazing that really ought to win the National Book Award, or even better, a MacArthur grant, I remember how it was when I first started making baskets. I loved them too—those first ones—every crooked, sad, little lump of them. Then I got more polished and more polished still. And when I looked back at the first ones, I liked their gallantry, but let’s face it, they weren’t salable.

I think the same thing will happen with my writing. I am persistent. My stories will get more and more polished and one day my turn will come and I’ll get what I think I most want right now—a published book.

Even as I think this, though, I remind myself of something that I intuit is true: that the thrill of publication will never equal the satisfaction of the days I have now—of trying, failing, discovering and polishing—in a word, living.

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The Twenty-Year Sweater

I’ve been knitting a sweater for the last twenty years. It’s true, I am a really slow knitter but I’m not that slow. Well, I am. I have quite a few “one socks” without the other—I knit one, it takes me forever, I never get around to knitting the other one. But this sweater is something that I am going to finish—I have one sleeve to go. I am determined.

This sweater has a story (you would hope, right?) It begins with a dream to own a farm, which I did make true in my twenties and thirties. The farm had chickens and horses, but it needed a few sheep. So one spring morning, I drove my VW Rabbit diesel to another farm that raised sheep for hand spinning and bought two lambs—one white, one black. I stuck them in the backseat with some hay. Then I drove the two hours back to my farm, the lambs looking out the window, having never been in a car before. When I got home I put them in the pasture I had prepared. It was a lovely space bordered by a stone wall.

Then next morning Dolly and Miranda (that’s what I named them) were gone. They had climbed over the wall and disappeared. I searched the woods, I met a neighbor who had a flock of sheep and said he would keep an eye out for them; I gave up hope by the end of the day. They were coyote food. I went to bed depressed. The next morning I got up at the dim early light of pre-dawn and went to let the chickens out. And who should appear, emerging from the woods across the road? Dolly and Miranda.

“We’re back,” they seemed to say. “Nothing much out there.”

When Dolly was a year old, I sheared her and it was from this first fleece—a rich dark brown—that I spun the wool to make the sweater.  Dolly didn’t like being sheared—as a matter of fact for a sheep, Dolly had some strong opinions. But we both persevered, in our stubborn ways. I got the fleece, and she got kicks in.

I want to justify taking so much time to knit a sweater and this is how I’m going to do it: I’m going to believe that this sweater is more than a bunch of loops in dark brown. It’s about dreaming a dream and staying stubborn in the belief that living your life the way it matters to you counts–whether you’re a human or a really stubborn sheep.

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What Makes a Good Life?

When I was growing up, my father at dinner would ask us—each of the five kids in turn, going around the table—what did we do to improve the world today? And I remember feeling squirm-ily inadequate. Even though he always praised us for our paltry attempts to improve the world—“I babysat for Mrs. So-and-so,” “That’s helping!”—I held myself to a higher standard. Apparently his innocent question resonated with something deeper inside of me. And I thought everyone wrestled with this question.

I remember asking a boyfriend when I was in high school if he wondered what it was all for—an off-the-cuff question for me because of course everyone puzzled over this. I was shocked when he not only said “no”, but further said that if he ever did think about it he would probably just tie a rock around his neck and throw himself into a lake. Huh? It’s your duty to worry about the meaning of your life. I mean you can’t just live it, can you? As I get older, I realize that most people pretty much just live it and try to enjoy doing so, as far as I can see.

So is life a gift to be enjoyed, or a responsibility to be lived up to? What makes a good life?

Me, I lean toward the responsibility end of the spectrum, but every now and then I get moments of just living it and I must say, it feels like playing hooky—no wondering if you’re doing it right—no wondering if you’re living up to whatever you’ve been put on this earth to do…It’s a great and freeing feeling, but I also know that it is only, for me, the responsibility that gives the gift its value.

So I think what makes a good life is becoming a person you want to be with—realizing that you’re fine just the way you are.

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Do You Know Who You Are If No One Knows Who You Are?

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I am in New Mexico right now and went hiking at Ghost Ranch yesterday. I got to talking with a lovely young woman who works and lives there and she told me how the solitude at the ranch–so longed for in her life–was almost overwhelming in the winter months. Having no distractions forces you to face yourself.  Our conversation reminded me of this earlier post I wrote and so I’m re-posting it here (with a new image–a watercolor I did en plein air at Ghost Ranch.) Hope you like it.

What is your role at this time in your life? Can you state it, in one sentence? When an editor looks at a manuscript and can’t quite make up her mind about it, she asks the author: “what is at the core of the story?” If the author doesn’t know or can’t relate it succinctly, then that is the basic problem with the story. It’s the same with our lives. If we can’t tell ourselves, in one sentence, what our role is, how do we know what our story is?

Knowing our role is the center of our actions. If we know our role, our actions naturally and easily extend outward from that knowledge. If we don’t know, our actions seem erratic and confusing, to us and to everyone else.

You find your role by self-reflection.  It’s an activity that involves no one but you. It’s just you and you—non-twittered, non-face booked, non-social media-ed.  The only way to get to know yourself is to meet yourself and you can’t do that if you are constantly reacting to someone else’s idea of who you are.

Do you exist if no one tags you? Do you count if you don’t post? Who are you, essentially? Take away all your labels: friend, parent, lover, child. Take away your media: face book, twitter, tumblr, etc. Drop all these like a cheap suit. Now stand there naked. Who are you? When you can answer that, it’s time to get dressed again.

Not knowing is scary; I’ve been there. It’s a dark place with no stable ground. But if you can do the hard work of facing yourself, answering your own questions, not letting others tell you who you are, you will find your stable ground and it will be always stable, since you have found it for yourself.

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Incomparable

Sometimes I don’t sleep well. I’ll fall asleep right away, but then I wake up, usually about 2 or 3 am, when the liver meridian is strongest. One of the liver’s jobs is to synthesize the events of the day before, deciding what to keep and what to discard. So when I don’t sleep well, I guess there’s so much to filter through, that it wakes me up.

The good news is that I’m privy to my subconscious thinking in those wee hours. Small situations of the day before loom ominously at 3 am, and since I’m awake I can, if I want to, figure out why.

The other morning I was thinking about someone I barely know and I felt funny—bad funny. Instead of shoving it under the rug I decided to poke around in the depths of me and see what I came up with. And it was this: I was comparing myself to this person and judging myself against them in a little subconscious competition. I realized if I do this with someone I barely know, I must do it with everyone. Not that it’s a bad thing–I think it is in our DNA–survival of the fittest.

But if it is a subconscious behavior it leads me–controls me. If, on the other hand, I am consciously aware of it, then it becomes another opportunity to set myself a little more free. I can realize that there’s no comparison between me and someone else. There’s no comparison between anyone and anyone else. Each of us fits into our lives, hand-made for that life. There’s no one else who can fill it or live it.

We are all incomparable.

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For Sale

The focus of my last semester in the MFA program at Simmons College is on preparing us for the ‘real world’ that is, navigating the process of getting published. Which is as it should be, since the Simmons program is highly regarded and has placed many, many graduates in the publishing community as editors, authors, agents, and publicists.

But I find myself, in these classes, getting short tempered and snappy. I would like to have a book contract. (I think.) But if I’m stringently honest, I think what I most want is to be heard.  And that brings up my conflict. I want to be heard, but do I need to be heard? There is a crucial difference here and it is the difference between self-reflection and self-absorption.

Self-reflection is the soft voice of curiosity and wonder––the musings of wanting to understand one’s place in the world. Self-absorption, by contrast, is the loud unceasing voice of need.

When I learn about book trends, and ‘what sells’, I switch from the voice of self-reflection to the voice of self-absorption. I get caught up in the craving—the need––to be heard, and that’s what makes me grumpy.

The world is becoming increasingly noisy, and the ante is being raised. The quiet voice is being replaced by the voice that shocks because that is the one that is heard. Many, if not most of the young adult novels I read for my classes were violent and/or dystopian. As I read, I wondered: are these books reflections of a jaded teen audience, genuinely speaking to their concerns, or are they exploiting the teen marketplace? Because remember, by far and away, authors of YA novels are not teens. They are adults.

I wanted to learn to write to express a creativity in me that tells me it’s time. But after a long day of hearing what sells––of being reminded of the endless American obsession with money––I am weary.

A different reminder (one that is especially poignant in this age of status updates): there’s more to life than selling yourself.

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