PHow to Start 2017: Intentions for a New Season

kcuflktxyy4-sarah-dorweilerI love the first few weeks of January. After the holidaying is finished, and the accumulated days of the past year are behind us, there’s comes a cleanness, a sharpness and a specificity to life for which I usually have to fight. For the first few weeks of each new year, I know, more clearly than usual, what it is that I am here for.

I attribute this simplicity to the winter light. My writing desk faces a sloping lawn, and in January, it looks out onto snow, sculpted into elegance by the wind and by the cold.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve made resolutions, formally and informally, for the new year. It’s the idea of the clean sheet, the romance of possibility, of something new. At last new year, I wrote not about resolutions about what I would not quit in 2016, the anchors and tethers to which my life is, for better always and never for worse, bound to. Last year, I didn’t set anything formal for myself (although I did write about the anchors and tethers to which I am, for the better, bound), and the year that came was strange, disorganized and without cohesion. I ended 2016 feeling emptied, my emotional landscape jagged and depressed, my relationships lackluster, my creative output (writing) and creative input (reading) both stagnated. And, two days before, my beloved grandfather died. Grief broke my mild depression, and left me aching, a a blanket of sadness that I did not expect and didn’t (don’t) how to wear.

In the week between Christmas and New Year, I said, again and again, that I wanted to move into the new year, like it was a house I could occupy.

Now that the new year is here, and I’ve returned to a routine, I’ve given thought to what resolutions, if any, I want to make. When I think about 2017, I’ve thought mainly in terms of end results. I want another (and another and another) of my short stories to be published.  I want to return to mental health.

I want, I want, but I can’t guarantee that I’ve actually get any of these things. I can write, but it’s not up to me what gets published. I can save, but I can’t expect the unexpected — an ill-timed car repair could defer home ownership an entire year. I can work towards mental health, but whatever predispositions and chemicals that make me melancholy, and anxious can’t always be wrangled into submission. Desires aren’t goals. They can’t be. You can’t hold onto what burns.

Instead of thinking in terms of “goals” that I can “crush” (language that makes me itch), I’m thinking about intentions fit for my next season. What habits do I have the capacity to build in the coming months that will enrich and enliven my life.

Right now, 2017 is a country of desire. I don’t know (and I mean nothing profound by this) what it will bring. I want it to be a good year — it would be naive of me to say otherwise. I want the new year to bring all its fruits, and let me taste them, but I can’t make that happen. I have only so much power. Instead of naming my desires (I have no patience for vision board thinking) or setting quantifiable goals, I’m setting intentions for myself that I plan to commit to for the foreseeable season. When this season eventually changes, I’ll re-evaluate and re-adjust, but for now, I have four habits I’m committing to to help me build a life of my own doing.

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– Exercise my body –

This, I realize, is the oldest and most artificial of all New Year’s resolutions —  so much so that I almost didn’t include it for fear of being trite. I have a better reason than I ever have before to commit to this habit: As 2016 pulled to a close, my mental health became more precarious than it has in a few years. I met with my doctor to talk about re-medicating a rising anxiety and mild, but stubborn depression. The side effects the last time I was on an SSRI were unpleasant enough to make me hesitant to start a new prescription, and neither I nor my doctor were sure that my symptoms were strong enough to necessitate chemical intervention. As an alternative, she put me on an exercise regiment. As frequently as I could (aim for five days per week), with the purpose of raising the heart rate. Did you know that regular, cardiovascular exercise can have the same effects on stabilizing brain chemical as a low dose SSRI? It was helping in December, and to ease back into the routine after a two week break, I’m starting with a “30 day fitness challenge.”
Habit: four times per week.
Hope: to feel strong and at home in my own body.

– Read daily –

Books are my oldest, and sometimes, dearest friends, but just as I am an inconsistent friend, I am an inconsistent reader. I read an article about committing to read 25 pages per day, and while I usually resist quantity driven habits (see above: allergic to goal crushing), I was drawn to the simplicity. A set of pages every day — so simple it’s almost silly. I love this passage from Mary Oliver’s Upstream: “I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty. I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life. I wrote that way too.” Books have saved me again, and again, and though I already ready a lot, 2016 was an uneven year of reading, and I want — I need — 2017 to be better. I want to read like that swimmer, and then I want to write.
Habit: Read daily.
Hope: Revival.

– Write (almost) daily –

Again, I do this, but I don’t do it well. I write daily and fervently — burn pages — and then, if I don’t want to, or if I’m feeling lazy, or if I’m feeling lost from my story, or if TV or social media or other pedantic pleasures get in my way, I don’t. I don’t care for him, but I resonated so much with a Jonathan Franzen interview I listened to last year in which he talked about how his greatest weakness as a writer is fun — television, and movies, and games, and friends, and entertainment. I feel this sharply, and most days, I have to turn off everything to write anything. There are deeper wells to be tapped, this is what I’m always reminding myself. Writing can be pure pleasure, but even when it’s not, it’s still worth showing up for.
Habit: Write (almost) every day.
Hope: That someday, whether I’ve published or not, I’ll know that I have written ferociously.

– Reflect, purposefully and consistently –

It’s no secret that we, as a generation, as a society, as a people cleaved to device, have all but given up on reflection. As a writer and as a little “h” historian, I think often about preservation and memory. In recent years, I’ve shied away from journaling as a way to preserve, because life is ongoing, and as better writers than me have written, creating a record of days doesn’t create a life, nor can it write an ill-lived life into existence. I didn’t journal out of the fear that it would devolve into little more than a logbook. But then, I think about a friend who journals about each book she reads. She told me once that she’s been using the same journal for several years, and when she flips through its pages, she can chart not just what book she was read, but what her life looked like during each book’s reading. I love the idea of a journal as a space to breed thought and as well as to capture memory. In the coming year, I want to make more time for unstructured and reflective, in a space more private and less curated than this one.
Habit: Regular, written reflection
Hope: Create a space to think + to hold all my evolving selves.

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In addition to these four, I have a handful of smaller, more quantifiable “goals” for the new year. I’m trying to be more diligent about cooking at home instead of relying on takeout for dinner. And as a perpetual project-er, I’m determined that 2017 be the year that I finish all my half-done projects.

It’s a new year, and I think about what Rebecca Solnit wrote about hope: “The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”

Though I’m approaching it with reserved and (some) melancholy, I have a quiet and gentle hope that what comes next will be, not by circumstance or situation, but by a bettering, mellowing me, better than what came before.

What Followed Us Out: My Parents’ Memories and My Own

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This has been happening more frequently in the past few years. When afternoons that I’m with my family stretch long, we—my parents, my brother and I—turn to reminiscing. Yesterday, it happened on the deck that my dad built with my uncle. The shadows were lengthening, wreaking havoc on their shadow-chasing dog. When we do start sharing memories, collectively we only have about an inch of perspective. I’m young enough that I can still feel childhood in my bones, and my parents are far, far from the age where memories turn cloudy and sentimental.

It’s interesting what happens when we start sharing what followed us.

Our memories warp themselves with time. with experience, and with the inevitability fallibility of our chemistry. My parents and I line up our warpings, and try to decide which is truer. I can remember them reading books they can’t remember reading. They try to remember when it was that they went tubing on the Apple River—was that before kids or was it with kids? Was Dad with?

What they remember my dad working and working and working. They were young, with young kids, and the on-call hours for an electrical lineman were good. My dad could work whole weeks of overtime stacked on top of whole weeks of regular work, and still spring back. (Although I remember him falling asleep face-down on the floor when he came home to play with us. We climbed on him, drove trucks over him, played with him still while he slept). My mom remembers tucking kids in to bed alone, and not being able to talk to her husband when he was called out to relight what storms and wind and malfunction had blown out. With pain, they remember their far that all we’d remember of our dad was him working.

I remember our dad coming home. I remember the playing on the floor, and the climbing all around him, and the giggling at where he fell asleep, when he fell asleep. I remember him being home from dinner, and I remember thinking that when my dad was at work, he was building substations, that he’d built every substation in the territory, (because once, he’d shown us one that he had built).

I remember a severe storm that blew our power, and created lakes between our house and the neighbors. We hid under the basement stairs—Aaron with all his books stacked smallest to largest—until the sirens stopped. Then we all went outside. The storm had turned out neighborhood into a battle zone—the wind and the rain and the lightening at war with everything that thought it should remain on the ground. Neighbors were out too, and the adults talked, and compared damage, and we all listened quiet to an explosion that came from somewhere else.

Dad was already working, and because this was before cell phones, we didn’t know where he was. It was well past bedtime, but my mom had packed Aaron and I into our car seats and booster chairs to bring us down to the station, to ask company dispatch where exactly he was, confirm for us that he was safe.

Then he came home with a truck so big it shook the ground when it idled, and this is what I remember—hearing the truck and feeling its tremors and knowing, before I could see it, that it was our dad. He came home to tell us he was safe, and tell us that he’d still be working, and probably to say something to mom that would help her get through another night, another day of single parenting.

I remember him coming into the garage, and having to twist up and around in my booster seat to see him through our car’s back window. He was dark, but ringed with light from the truck behind him, and I think his crew mates got out to say hi too.

I was five, and that’s the oldest memory of have of thinking, and knowing, that my dad was a hero, gone back out in the storm.

Later that night, after my mom had let me crawl into her bed, because dad was still going to be working, she woke me up, and told me to look outside. The power was out everywhere on our block and in our town, but just over the hill that our sat beneath was a fuzzy glow of electric light. I watched it for a few minutes, and then heard the hum as the power in our house came back to life. It was the sound of life for our little house, the sound of our dad’s care for us.

I knew he was at the end of our street—he and a crew who also knew that he had family and small kids on that block. Before he went out into the night to restring power lines and replace poles that had been cracked by straight-line winds, he’d turned our block back on.

I know from my parents that that storm became a “dedicated storm,” which meant that the damage was so bad that all the linemen worked 18 hours on, 6 hours off until the power across the territory was destroyed. I don’t remember him being gone for the next few days, even though I know he was.

I remember falling back asleep knowing, for the second time that night, that my dad was a hero.

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It’s this that we lay side by side in waning summer light. The warpings of our shared lives, of our interlocked memories. My parents both remember the absences, the short tempers, and the times they said no when it could have been just as easy to say yes to us kids. They feel the mistakes they think they made, and sometimes, they apologize, fifteen, twenty years later. When I try to place the pains and fears that my parents carried out of our childhood into the map of my own memory, I usually can’t. There’s no place for the hurts they thought we’d feel, the pain they thought they might have given us.

What followed them out of our childhood wasn’t what followed us.

As a family, we fit our separate warpings into something whole, and try to point to what is true, each of us feeling what followed us out.

What followed me was that light at the end of our dark street.

My Bully Keeps Asking Me One Question: Who Do You Think You Are?

Rocky CoastIn the last few weeks, I’ve reached some new heights in my still-low-slung writing life. I joined an online writing group, and was paired up with a talented, thoughtful children’s lit writer. I asked friends and family members to read drafts of my writing, even though they had no real incentive to do so. I finished a short story—really finished it, with all the drafts and rewrites to prove it—, and submitted it to a contest, and a few small literary journal. Last night, I sent in my application for a small grant. Hell, I started this blog—that felt big for me.

After years of writing, writing, writing, I’ve started to do small things that are natural, normal, and necessary steps on this mythic path of “becoming” a writer. (Although I’m trying to get myself to believe that I am a writer because I write, in the same way that I am a reader because I read).

Each time I have done something, this mean little voice, with all these mean little worlds, has almost stopped me. This voice that just won’t stop hammering away at me—who do you think you are, Torrie? Why do you think you can do this? Every time I decide to step out of my comfort zone, all my fears, and insecurities, and fragile self-worth bind themselves together to remind me that I can’t do what I want to do, and that I shouldn’t do it either. These demons wail together so that I imagine people in my life—kind, compassionate people—thinking to themselves, or saying to other people we both know “why is Torrie doing that?,” “who does Torrie think she is?,” “where does she get off thinking she has the right?”

I am my own accuser, constantly reminding myself that I have neither the talent nor the worth to lay myself before an unsolicited audience. And the nugget at the center of all these interlocking anxieties is this epically large fear that I have of being laughed at—being made the fool by my own self.

Harsh Rocks

I know why this fear is so out-of-control big. It’s because I have these piercing memories of being picked on, and laughed at in elementary school. The most vivid, though not the worst, of these memories is this one amalgamated memory of this same stunt that two or three girls in my second grade class would repeatedly pull on me.

I was largely friendless, ignored, though I didn’t know why, and quite, because I didn’t want to give my classmates more reasons not to like me. These few girls would do this thing where they’d start a conversation with me, in the library, or in the bathroom, or on the playground. All places where we’d have natural reasons to be moving. They’d give me a reason to talk to them, to answer them and try to engage with them, and then while I was talking, they’d move to somewhere I couldn’t see them, and would leave me alone, talking to myself. When nobody responded to me, I’d realize what happened, and I go looking for them, always finding them hiding, and laughing, and asking me how long I’d spent talking to myself.

The most vivid piece of this memory, the piece that was constant each time they pulled this stunt on me, is the sinking, humiliated feeling that I should have known better: Who was I to think that people (outside of my loving family) would want to talk to me? Would want to be friendly with me?

The bridge between feeling the presumptuous wanna-be in my writing life, and feeling the fool in the 2nd grade classroom is this: Both of these experiences involve me reaching for things that I deeply want. In 2nd grade, I wanted friendship; I wanted the girlhood comradery that is silently and inherently promised to school-aged children. Today, I want publication. I want my writing to be given a life outside of me and my laptop. Because in 2nd grade, I was burned when I grabbed onto an opportunity to fulfill that desire, the bully inside of me is now trying to convince me that I am equally as foolish and undeserving of seeking publication/recognition for my writing now as I was in seeking what I thought was a branch of friendship then.

(Is that bridge starting to appear?)

Every day, I fight against that mean little voice inside of me (so much meaner than any little girl) who is constantly accusing me of upjumping my position, of asking for things that I don’t have the right to ask for.

As I’ve started to be bold—or at least marginally bolder—with my writing, I’ve had to do some serious thinking about these internal condemnations, so that, in turn, I am able to banish its presence and power within me.

Here are those accusations, those things that I fear:

  • What I have to say or do is not worthy—does not have value—and I should know that, and I should not act like it does have value.
  • People will laugh, actively and cruelly, point-and-laugh-at-Torrie laugh, because they will see what I cannot: That I am of little value.
  • People will ask themselves the same questions that I, in my accuser’s voice, ask myself. Who does Torrie think she is? (This question kept me from starting a blog for years, and still keeps me from talking openly about my writing).

Here’s what I’m trying to say to these fears:

  • Writing or the written work I produce, does not define my value or worth, and one person, or one review board, or one editorial team also does not decide my writing’s value and worth. I believe in my writing right now, and someday, I may very well decide that what I’ve written isn’t valuable or worthy—but that still doesn’t, cannot, bear wait on my own personal value, or the value I see in my work today.
  • People just won’t laugh at me. Especially not strangers reading my work from their computer screen. It’s actually selfish of me to think that someone would take that kind of time and energy to point-and-laugh at a piece of writing that they don’t like, written by a writer they don’t know. (So many of my anxieties are selfish, or at least deeply self-focused).
  • People probably aren’t asking themselves these questions about me. It’s much, much, much more accurate that people are just ignoring me. Because this fear centers more around people I know (versus people I don’t know or people I won’t ever know), it has more power to weaken me, but it shouldn’t. People who care about me, or who find an interest in what I have to say, will pay attention, and people who don’t know me, who aren’t interested, who aren’t stirred by what I have to say will ignore it. And both are equally okay.

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For the last five or six years, I have been toiling away at my computer screen—several different computer screens—writing, and learning about writing, and building an unshakable writing habit. I’ve produced thousands and thousands (literally) of typed and hand-written pages, and I’ve scrapped thousands of pages as well. I have written some really, really terrible stuff, and I’ve started to write some stuff that isn’t so terrible. Lately, I think I may have even written a few things that are coming close to good.

As I start to get closer and closer to good, and maybe even come within shooting distance of publishable, I’ve started to send my work into the world, to family and friends to read what I’ve poured my soul into, and to editors to consider. These are steps towards boldness, and steps towards publication, both of which I desire, and I am so glad to have taken these steps. Chances are, in 4-6 months (the average response period for literary journals, contests, etc.), I will start getting rejection letters, and none of them will say who in the hell do you think you are, thinking you deserved this?

Because I am the only one who speaks in my bully’s voice, and she? She’s a mean little bitch.

In Soil My Grandmother Blessed

Stone House FlowersOne of my grandmothers, Grandma Shirley, has been on my mind recently. Maybe because last week, when I was cleaning, I found her wedding ring in my jewelry collection. I used to wear it everyday until one of the turquoise stones, set flat into hand-molded silver, began to chip.

Grandma Shirley died in 2001, when I was nine years old. I remember it being a Monday night that she died (although I don’t know if that’s true or not). On Tuesday morning, my dad shook me gently awake to tell me the news before he left for work. My mom was gone; she’d been one of my grandma’s primary caretakers at the end of her life, and she was in Inver Grove Heights, at my grandparent’s townhouse.

Because I was 9 when she died, and too young to really understand in any meaningful way what death was, I kept her death close to me, rolling it over slowly until it started to take more shape. When I was a college freshman, struggling through the poetry unit of the Creative Writing 101-type class I was taking, I wrote her a poem. In general, I make a clumsy poet, but there was something dear enough to me about this poem that I am at least willing to say I wrote it. (Interestingly enough, though, my first writing ever published was actually a crummy poem, taken by a girl power young adult journal).

I wrote this in the midst of my own fog of anxiety, and for a few months, it was a touchstone for me. A link between this and that, between someone who had loved me, and something I was still learning to understand.

In Soil My Grandmother Blessed

Before her garden became her graveyard,
frothy green carrot tops and poppies,
my grandmother husbanded, kneeling in the dirt,

rearing flowers against disease.
I joined her for a harvest,
Filling baskets with sugar peas and tiger lilies,

as sun melted her cancer eaten body.
She closed her eyes and I
fed her last harvest to the sugar snap roots.

She left a vase in the garden,
and filling it with her last calla lilies,
I drifted for a decade,

through rhubarb stalks and irises,
where I found her vase
tipped over in a windstorm.

Now I pick peas with her coaxing fingertips,
sweet as the ones she blessed herself.
Matching seeds taking root

in soil tilled by hand,
where we each scattered handfuls of her ashes
and now leave flowers in her broken vase.

Wildest Grace in February’s Gray: Fighting Back a Crippling Anxiety

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It’s nearly the end of February, and I think most people agree that February is better behind us than in front of us. Too far past the first snow fall, a white Christmas, and the novelty of winter, and too close to the snow melt, the return of birds and open water and roadside flowers. It’s a month of gray—February gray. The gray of a city, state, an entire region, blanketed in snow, spattered with slush, dyed dull by the wind, and kept ironclad by the weak sun.

It’s a smack-you-upside-the-head-and-make-you-wonder-why-you-left-your-mother’s-womb gray.

February scares me, and not because of the cold or the wind or Valentine’s Day (who honestly likes this holiday), but because February once tried to tear me apart.

Or, more accurately, anxiety once tried to tear me apart in February.

During the winter of my freshman year of college, the ‘10-’11 winter, the winter it snowed so wet and heavy that the Metrodome collapsed underneath the weight of it all, I got smacked down.

I spent the first five months of college feeling increasingly not-quite-right, but also not-quite-wrong—more reserved, less passionate, much crankier—and then, on February 1st, the bottom fell away. I got turned around and lost on a Twin Cities bus line, and when I was dropped off in downtown Minneapolis instead of the northwest corner of St. Paul, I started to cry. And I didn’t stop for nearly fourteen hours. I cried while I wrote papers, cried while I read, cried while I talked to my friend and new roommate (who didn’t know any better than me what was happening), and then, after a full day of tears, my parents picked me up from my dormitory to take me home—their house was the only place that felt safe.

I was eighteen years old, barely half-way through my first year of college, and I felt like I had already failed.

It seemed like all that college had taught me was that I was not the person who I thought I was. That I was much less of a person, a scared shell of the girl I wanted to be. In those dark days of early February, crippled by something I could neither name nor describe, I convinced myself that that was all that I was ever going to be.

Everything scared me, but it wasn’t a fear that I recognized. I was alienated from the outside world, crippled by my own distortions, living very much on the outside of people and on the inside of myself. My dormitory seemed foreign, campus, though I really loved my classes, was overwhelming in size and scope. I thought I was a burden and an inconvenience in the friendships I was making—thank God that the sweet girls and women who were befriending me never let me push them away. I anchored myself to bad TV, and thought that I was without value and consequence, nothing worthy within me. Better to atrophy than try to make empty look full.

Scared at how I was shrinking away from the world, my parents rallied around me like a two-man army, and helped me find help. I was diagnosed with a Generalized Anxiety Disorder and a minor panic condition. The chemical messengers in my brain, designed to keep fear and adrenaline in check, were short circuiting somewhere along the line, allowing my blood and my brain to be charged with false fears and paralyzing insecurity.

The diagnosis gave me a name and a language to put to the yawning chasm within me, but it did not stop the hole from trying to swallow me. I spent the rest of February, the rest of that spring, clawing through darkness to get at the light.

People who loved me planted themselves, like trees, alongside me, and let me use them as touchstones and as footholds. My parents, though they were as confused and as afraid of what was happening to me as I was, pressed back against my distorted reality. My friends, these sapling friendships that hadn’t been given time to bud, rose up like an old-growth forest, and gave me shelter. The love of a God who promised to know me better than I know myself embraced me, and then braced Himself against my fears.

My recovery, my fight back to the surface, followed the seasons. Through the dull gray of February, when I felt dark and cold at deep, deep levels, into the ugly, melting renewal of March, until all of a sudden, I found myself awake and alive—and glad to be it—watching Seattle light herself up from the observation deck of the Space Needle.

By the grace of God, with the help of family and friends and doctors, my anxiety—generalized anxiety and panic disorder—has fallen back. Not gone (I don’t think it will ever be gone), but what once was a wrecking ball is now a tapping, a reminder of what I need to be healthy, but no longer a thief coming to destroy. It’s been four Februaries since my illness tried to beat me down, and every year above that darkness is celebration and triumph.

A wildest, February grace caught me in my free-fall, and lifted me back up.