Journey to Health, Lovely Living, On Writing, The Work of Becoming

how to start 2017: intentions for a new season

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I 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. Last year, I didn’t set anything formal for myself, 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 Christmas, 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 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” (this language 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 helped 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 for myself 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.

Bookshelf, Journey to Health, Lovely Living, Odds + Ends

life lately: getting back to the joy of it all

1115“Sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it; I’d seldom thought of it like that. Going nowhere as a way of cutting through the noise and finding fresh time and energy to share with others; I’d sometimes moved toward the idea, but it had never come home to me so powerfully.” The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer

These past four or five months have not been bad months, but they’ve been busy months, and busy is hard for me. Each week has been stuffed with work commitments, and weekly appointments, and friends and family, and I-didn’t-know-that-was-coming, and I’ve looked up again and again and said “I need some rest.”

I prefer to move at a slower pace, keeping open wide swaths of time for the people and pursuits I love best. I’ve heard this called creating margin—opening up time and energy around the unshakable commitments of life to make room for more rest, more joy. While I hesitate to call these margins a “need,” because they’re a luxury afforded to me by age and life-stage and privilege, I do know I struggle when my margins disappear.

This spring wound me tight. So tight I began to fray at the edges. I made myself overworked and overtired and overstressed. I came to the end of my days, and I let myself collapse ointo a heap on the couch. I forwent cooking one meal, then another, then another, and I slowly traded a robust reading and writing rhythm for eleven and a half seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. (Y’all, this show has NO business being on its twelfth season). I isolated myself even more than I usually do until I was only seeing people at pre-appointed times. I filled up every blank minute with some form of distraction, because it feels so much easier to passively take than actively create.

I built up all these bad habits, and my body responded. Sleep deteriorated, and as my sugar and caffeine intakes rose, my body and mind both became sluggish. I was perpetually not sick, but not well. Then, a month ago, I began breaking out in hives and eczema, and last week, after a nerve-wracking (and expensive) trip to the ER, I learned that I have costochondritis and pericarditis—both painful, but non-threatening swellings inside my body.

I’m like a car badly in need of an oil change. Not broken, but I’ve gone just a little too long without taking proper care. I’m working on taking proper care now.

I use this space to document the “working through” of it all. The figuring it all out, as vague as that it. Now that work is promising to ease up a bit, and the temperatures are above freezing, I’m working my way through this little pile-up back to the joy of it all.

1113I’m doing that by getting back on top of my reading game. When I don’t read enough, I feel unbalanced, like I’ve left the house with only one shoe one. After a series of false starts and bad reads (who knew I would dislike The Sun Also Rises so much), I did what I haven’t done in months and had myself a little party trip to the book store. I picked up a few thrillers, and devoured Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in days. I’m currently in the middle of the gorgeous Seating Arrangements. I’ve plunged back into my Granta Book of the American Short Story, and am trying to pick apart the genius of this hard, hard art form. I said last week that I understand the world through stories, and my goodness, it feel good to be back with them.

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Connected to the uptick in reading, I’m also going back to what inspires me so that I can make an easier time of my slow crawl back to a daily writing habit. For me, this means giving myself time to consume and time to think. I’m keeping the TV off, and as best I can, my phone away.

I reread this sad, strange, surreal story about a man who removed himself from the world for nearly thirty years. I’m pouring over the photographs from a visit to the Grand Canyon (more on that later—my soul has yet to settle). I’m doing what I heard another artist talk about, and using photographs as jumping off points for the stories I want to tell.

After the announcement of their 16 Tony nominations, I also gave Hamilton another go, and it all clicked together in a way it hasn’t before. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack over and over, not only because the music is good (it is) or the story is interesting (it is), but because Hamilton is an extraordinary example of what I find most phenomenal and worthy about artwork. At its core, art is the reworking and reimagining and retelling of our oldest stories so that the beautiful, radical, essential humanity of them is clear. Hamilton does this (and with history, no less!), and it’s blasted open the doors of my own shuttered creativity.

Side note: If you’re not already, start listening. It’s a dancing, rapping, race-bending bio-musical about the man who founded the National Treasury, was at the center of America’s first sex scandal, and was killed in a duel by the Vice President. If that doesn’t get you excited, I’m not sure what will.

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I’m turning my attention to food, trying to both follow the Michal Pollan food rules (Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants), and rediscover the joy of creating meals. In response to the skin irritations and the swelling, I spent hours pouring over cookbooks and food blogs, looking for recipes that were low in sugar and dairy and high in vegetables. I’m mixing up what I buy, and what I eat, and trying to reorient my perspective around food so I see it as a source of energy and a gift, but not as a bandage or a salve. My goal is to make and eat food that’s good, real, and energizing, not to create a rulebook around what I “should” or “shouldn’t” and “can” or “can’t” eat. A few recipes from my May meal plan: broccoli melts, oatmeal blueberry breakfast bars, spring fettuccine primavera, and artichoke ricotta flatbread (with goat cheese instead of ricotta, and homemade pizza dough).

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There’s something slow and spectacular in keeping pace with only ourselves.

Behind Us, and Before, California Novel, On Writing, Storyteller

when the magic moves: putting away my first novel for a second

FullSizeRenderYesterday I put away my first novel.

Packed up the printed drafts that I work off. Collected all the scraps, post-its, note cards, ideas scribbled on the back of receipts. I folded up the timeline and scene lists. I emptied the table I work on, and I arranged the entire life of my novel in a folder, and before I closed it, I cried for a few minutes. Said goodbye to my characters, to the world they’d been living in (the world I’d been living in). And I closed the folder. Put it on a shelf.

Literally, physically, viscerally put away my first novel.

I wrote the first lines—the first of only two things that have remained constant through this story’s different incarnations—nine years ago, in the back of my parents Volkswagen bus. I was fourteen. It would take me five more years of writing in fits and starts about this girl, Ana, before I started the Word document that would, eventually, become the first manuscript of my first novel.

This story followed me through high school, through college, through the first years of my adulthood. This novel was my writer’s rebirth. It was the rediscovery of my first love after I began to think I wouldn’t be a writer in my adulthood. It taught me small things, like how to use the Oxford comma correctly and what keystrokes turn formatting into automatic habit, and it laid the foundation for my written life.

This novel taught me about writing and rewriting, and about shitty first drafts and how all “all writing is rewriting.” It taught me to show up on the page, to force difficult characters forward, to write above all else. To not shy away from death or unlikable women. To be okay with the mess of creation.

This novel, which was never truly given a name, though it was called everything from “She Breathed Deeply” to “Overland” to “The Thing I’m Writing (?),” gave more to me than I gave to it, and I never expected thought I would put it away. Especially not when it was still unfinished.

I’m calling this “pausing,” not “quitting” my novel. Not because quitting sounds ugly, but because I don’t know if I’m done with this story or these characters. All I know is that I need time. I need a break. I need a new start. I’ve become the girlfriend who speaks in cliques, who needs to start seeing new people. My first novel has become the first love who gave me the courage to go out into the world.

When It's Time to Quit

The decision to pause my first novel has been months in the making. At the start of the third draft (i.e. third full rewrite) this spring, I found myself paralyzed, unsure whose story I was telling. In any given scene, the perspective shifts between characters—I try to tell everyone’s story and can’t commit to anyone’s. I re-read the whole manuscript again, wrote narrative synopsis and character sketches, but still couldn’t figure out my story.

Is it the story of the family—everyone gets their share of the narrator pie—or is it the story of one girl? Do I have to make my other, equally beloved characters shut-up so Ana can take center-stage? If they are quiet, will she talk?

As I struggled with these questions, the work involved with reorganized the complicated, epically messy timeline became overwhelming. In the face of it, I turned away from the still not-started rewrite to write a short story. Then a second one, then a third. When I started writing a fourth short story in as many months, I realized I was practicing a highly productive form of procrastinating on my novel. I soldiered up and went back to it. More duty than love.

Still not started on the act of re-writing, I began reading articles about when it’s time to quit, give up, move on. Lots of “quitters are lazy,” “quitters aren’t writers,” “you never quit, you only finish.” Then I read this, about a novelist’s first novel, scrapped for something worth writing. Then a writer friend talked (emailed) to me about her decision NOT to quit her novel. I began to realize that this could be an option.

I could move on. If it was really time.DeathtoStock_Clementine6

I think most writers have that vague “next novel” lingering somewhere behind all the detritus of their current novel. For a while I’ve had two ideas. Each unformed, unstructured. Interesting, but not important. Diversions that I jot down a new note about every few months. They each had a Word document on my laptop, but they never held more than unfinished sentences and question marks.

Vietnam War? Brother in Vietnam? Male (maybe female? Not sure?). Girlfriend writes letters. Girlfriend breaks up with him. No girlfriend? Sister named Alice. Check out [book, documentary, historical document, newspaper article, etc.].

As I grappled with my First Novel (it became a capitalized thing), I had a scene idea for one of the two “next-novel-ideas” that I wrote down and expected to file it away. Then I had another idea. I bought a notebook to capture these details. Kept telling myself that I was working on the third draft of my First Novel. That I could turn to this Next Novel only when I finished my First Novel.

I read about a gruesome, 1959 murder, and during my long commutes, I started to think about domestic violence and California. I found this podcast, and listened to twelve episodes on Charles Manson. I thought about the West Coast and how houses hold onto their memories. How people can be shaped by what they don’t understand.

I began to think about characters, and one afternoon, three of them came to me. Each with a name.

It’s hard to ignore a person with a full name.

Yesterday, I put away my First Novel and this morning, I typed out the first eight pages of my next.

Part of me does feel like I quit my First Novel too soon, for all my calling it a “pause.” Another part of me feels like a sham for calling my stories novels at all, because in my head, a novel is only validated when it is purchased by someone else. (Cousin to the popular lie that a writer is only a writer after they’ve been published).

The louder part of me is excited. Electrified. I’ve found a new story, and it’s on me. I haven’t been sleeping well, and I wonder if this is why. I’ve shut off the television to research a state I am not familiar with and an era I don’t live in.

I am barely comfortable admitting that I’m “on a break” with my first novel, and I am intimidated as hell by what I’m taking on with the next. All the fears I’ve ever had about writing are converging—what will I do if it’s another disaster, if it’s hard, if it loses its magic, if it’s never finished, if it’s never published, if I’m never published—but there is that thrill. It’s going to take me a while—maybe months—to get the feel for the place, to really hear my character, to find writerly momentum, but right now, it’s all magic.   Dark butterflies and fireworks.

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It’s this kind of coast that’s taking hold of my imagination.
On Writing, Poetry, Storyteller

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 still 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 a 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.

Overcoming, The Anxiety Files

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.

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.