Monsters and Bunny Hills

February 28, 2008

Today we went cross-country skiing.  I took today and tomorrow off from work anticipating this to be a difficult time.  My birthday is a great source of stress to me.  John’s been married to me for 15 years, and he knows this.  I programmed his google calendar to send him a daily reminder each day for the last month, so he was well-prepared for today, my birthday.  He started off the day by giving me some fantastic books on writing and a very interesting novel, Labyrinth, that I can’t wait to start reading.

We did something we haven’t done in a long time.  We went to a nearby cross-country skiing center and spent the day cross-country skiing.  I haven’t been cross-country skiing in a while, and the thought of skiing on hilly slopes frightened me, so we did mostly beginner trails in the morning.  As we were on our way back to the lodge for lunch, there was a man standing on the top of one of the slopes.  He was 50’ish and a bit on the chunky side.  I stopped beside him and waited for him to ski down the slope so that I could watch him.

“I’m playing hookey from work,” he said.

“Well, that’s a good thing.  You only have one life and you should enjoy it.”  At 50, I know well that playing hookey from work to do something fun and refreshing is a really good thing, so I completely supported him.

He went on.  “I called work this morning, checked in, and then drove here.  Took me two hours to get here.  I’ve been here since 9 AM.  Heck, all anyone cares about anyway is that I show up to sign timesheets on Friday.”

I smiled at him.  People are so willing to share their lives with perfect strangers.

He pointed with his ski pole. “See that hill?  I broke 3 ribs there a couple of years ago.  After I healed, I got right back up and came back here, yep.  I even brought my son here for his birthday.”

“You’re quite the father.”  I dished out the compliments.  I appreciated his willingness to share himself, and I thought he really was quite a remarkable person.

“This is nothing, I just bought a motorcyle,” he said.  After a second, he went on.  “There’s an interesting trail here called the Valley View.  Hills aren’t too bad — It’s up and down — but there are uphills to keep you from getting out of control.”  I can’t fathom what made him say that, maybe the gods or spirits of fate.  Because we decided that after lunch we would try Valley View.

At first Valley View wasn’t too bad.  It was mostly uphill, and I figured out how to walk uphill with the skis.  It was tedious but do-able.

Then there was the downhill.  It started off with a sign that I skiied past.  The sign said “Caution”, with an exclamation point.  Already being apprehensive about doing downhills, I backed up and consulted with John.  “Should we do this?”

We looked for the trail sign.  Sure enough, “Valley View” pointed down this hill.  Well, heck, how dangerous could a beginner trail be, right?  Valley View was marked beginner.

I started down the hill. I started going faster.  A slight left-turn came up… ok, no problem.  I snowplowed through the left turn.  I sighed a breath of relief.  I did it.  Up ahead, still on the downhill, was a right turn that I didn’t expect.  I was going faster now.  Snowplowing.  I just barely made the turn, but stayed on the trail.  I was still accelerating.  At this point my speed was long past my ability to be under control.  The skis were demons on the loose, flying to the right of trail with the rest of my body flopping like a ragdoll, struggling to remain upright.  The only stopping would be an uphill, a tree, or a tumble.  If I didn’t have enough problems, I discovered there was yet another turn.  NOW, up ahead, was a turn to the LEFT again.

How much turn control can one human have on a pair of cross-country skiis?  I felt my skiis go farther and farther apart, each with its own independent agenda.  I felt myself start careening off of the track into the trees.  I hit a snow mound on the side of the trail.  My legs flew into the air, hands flailed out to the side, and I landed flat on my back.

I checked myself.  Broken leg bones?  No….  broken neck?  no…  arms all right?  Yeh, they seem to move with no pain.

John went skiing past and waited for me at the bottom of the hill.  I got up, slowly, and cautiously finished the hill.

“Want to go again?”  John asked.

“Sure,” I said.  The thought of doing that hill again horrified me.  I couldn’t refused him, though.  First off, it was a freakin’ bunny trail.  Second off, I knew intellectually that it should be do-able for someone at my level (sort of advanced-beginnerish).  Third, I simply will not refuse a challenge unless I’m 1000% sure I can’t do it.

We went around and climbed back up the hill.  I found myself shaking with a consuming fear at the thought of doing this downhill again.  The inside of me wanted to run as far away as possible.  I wanted to yell out at John to stop and let’s go home.  The pride in me refused to do that, though, and so, quivering, I continued to follow him, being able to think of nothing except how desperately desperately afraid I was.

As we climbed to the top, I began chanting a mantra to myself:  Bent knees, bent knees, just concentrate on keeping your knees bent, and remember — lean DOWN the hill, not against it.  Lean down, and you’ll keep your balance.  Don’t be afraid, just bend your knees and lean DOWN the slope. Trust that it will work.  I knew intellectually from a skiing lesson way back when that this was the only way I would be able to tackle this.  Doing these things was counterintuitive, though.  They went against every self-preservation instinct in me.

When we arrived back at the top of the hill, I took a deep breath and stared down.  The slope loomed in front of me, teeth bared.  I gave myself a tentative push and inched forward 1/4 inch.  I gave myself a slightly bigger push and started down, quickly gaining momentum.  I bent my knees — to the point of nearly sitting in the snow.  Studiously following my own instruction, I leaned downhill.  My speed increased by the millisecond.  Focus…  concentrate….  Look at where you’re GOING, not down in front.  Look AHEAD.  I kept my focus.  Bend your knees, look ahead, lean downhill, into the speed.  I knew that if I allowed myself to buy into the fear I felt, it would only lead to disaster, so I willed myself to keep my nerve.

I made it to the bottom in one piece.  The trail had been nowhere close to being the cataclysmic monster I’d remembered from just a few minutes prior.  I was filled with emotion at the release of having made it down in one piece, and my eyes welled with tears.

I thought about this as we drove home.  How many cataclysmic monsters do we have in our lives that turn out to be mere bunny hills.  It was a small challenge in the context of an entire lifetime, but I realized that there are monsters all over my life — both today and tomorrow — and I need to remember this lesson.  Something that seems like a cataclysmic monster can turn out to be a bunny hill.  I simply can’t let fear rule my life.

What Joy in Boredom

February 27, 2008

My morning writing exercises (a.k.a. Morning Pages) really suck this week.  I find myself spending three pages saying over and over “I don’t have anything to say.”  They feel like a complete waste of time.

I think the main problem is that I feel overworked and stressed out.  I’m in desperate need of time without responsibilities, homework, social committments, bills, etc.  I crave a morning that I can wake up and think “Hey, I don’t have any burning this-is-due-yesterday issues on my plate today!  What to do….  what to do…..”  What pure joy that would be — to twiddle my thumbs, open the door to my house, look out on the world, throw my arms out and say “Here I am, serendipity, come get me!  Tickle my senses, carve new and wonderful thoughts into my brain, make me a creative being!”

I remember the days as a child when a box of candy was enough to thrill me and boredom sucked.  Now candy just stresses me out and what turns me on are: (1) getting a good nights sleep and (2) enough time with absolutely nothing to do.

Great Versus Dead Fish

February 25, 2008

I can’t believe how impossible it is to know ahead of time how something I write will be received.  Sometimes I agonize for days over something — writing, rewriting, rewriting, getting third-party opinions, more rewrites, etc. etc. etc.  I finally release it (to whomever), and get almost no feedback.  It just sort of flops over like a dead fish.

At other times, I whip out something, barely giving it a second thought, and then think “I really don’t have time for this editing shit, it’s fine, just let it go.”  The millisecond after I release it I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I didn’t put the love and attention into this piece that I should have.  I know that I was much too casual about dumping my stream-of-consciousness onto paper and rushing it out before its time.  I spend the next day on a terrible guilt trip, fretting over the fact that people will read it and instantly be on to me.  Next thing I know, to my amazement, people are gushing out over what I wrote. 

There seems to be a fine line between great and dead fish.  There’s no rhyme nor reason as to how people will react.

This past weekend I agonized for two days over my grammar homework assignment, and then it flopped.  Time was running out on Sunday and I still had homework for my new class in composition to do.  Out of desperation I quickly went over to my blog and grabbed a post — some sort of random babbling about whatever it is I babble about here.  The teacher loved it.  Go figure 😛

Paying Attention

February 21, 2008

Okay, so I’m at Trader Joes last night.  The clerk is an older man, maybe in his late 60’s, early 70’s.  He has this inordinate interest in the things that I’m buying, and has no compuction about making comments like:

“Half-sour pickles, looks good, I’m going to have to try this”

“I love these!”  He taps on my bag of frozen tamales.  “We get employee discounts on all store items.  I get to buy all this good food.  Heh, but I have to pay the bills too, ya know, I can’t be spending everything on Trader Joes stuff, so I have to watch what I buy.  Unless I’m lucky enough to get an electricity employee that shops at Trader Joes.  Oh, you have the noodles from today’s sampler.  You have the artichoke things, good.  You’re going to make it I see.  I liked it, it was delicious.  I got to taste it the other day.  Very good.”

“Oh, you noticed these came back?”  He points to my package of frozen edamame.

I decide to play along.  “Did you run out of them?” I ask.

“No, we took them off the shelf.  That’s the thing about this company, they listen to their customers.”  Now he drops everything he’s doing regarding getting me checked out and tells me how Trader Joes decided, based upon customer fears, to ban all China food imports.  “Trader Joe’s cares about its customers” he finishes.

I look at his badge expecting it to say Store Manager, he’s giving me such a rah-rah Trader Joes story.  He’s Joe-something-or-other, store employee.

He finally finishes checking me out, and he starts leisurely putting my things into paper bags as he continues to talk.  “And Trader Joes has the best prices.”

The next in line, an older woman, about 70, moves up to the cash register since I’m now standing at my cart waiting for the cashier to get done with bagging everything.  “I agree, Trader Joes has excellent prices,” she says.  She has this wild white hair and her eyes are wide with enthusiasm on the topic of Trader Joes.

“Oh Trader Joes is cheap all right.  Very good prices, the best you’ll get anywhere.  And good quality.”  The cashier has packed a paper bag and fiddles with the handle on it.  “This bag is too full, the handle is starting to tear.”

I look at the line, and there is another person who is standing and waiting and watching.  A man, probably in his 30’s.  He doesn’t seem annoyed, just watching everything with quasi-interested patience.  I take my cart and reposition it so that it’s pointing towards the door.

“Hmm.”  The cashier is staring at the bag he just filled and scratching his chin.  He gets another bag, unfolds it and hands it to me.  “Can you hold this?  Just hold it like that.  Right like that, right there.  Yes, ok.”  He helps me position it on another part of the counter and hold it so that the opening is wide.  Then he guides the bulging first bag over the empty one as I jimmy it in.  I resist the urge to grab the first bag from his hands and dump half of it into the empty bag.

The old lady, who had been standing in front of the cash register, now moves to my cart so she can participate more actively in the conversation.  “Have you ever been to Donelan’s?  I went there the other day, and I can’t believe how much more I paid for my groceries.  I paid a dollar more for soymilk than I pay at Trader Joes.”

The cashier packs the last bag and loads it into my cart.  He shows no urgency whatsoever.  I notice he’s never once looked at the line.  I move my cart towards the door an inch.  Inside I’m bouncing up and down impatiently.  He continues.  “Oh Trader Joes definitely has the cheapest prices.  Did you know they actually go to other stores and fill up carts?  They take every item and price them, and compare them to their own things.  Trader Joes is a very good store.  Very good company.”  He taps my cart, “Enjoy, thanks for coming.”

“Thank you, I will.  Bye.”  I wave to him and the old lady, and smile at them, grateful that a smile can mean many things.

I’m driving home, grumbling to myself about this cashier’s complete lack of urgency.  Then I start dwelling on where I’m going to go to get fodder for my next homework assignment — a story with action and dialog.  I realize, many minutes after the fact, that this cashier was placed right there in my life as an opportunity that I could have taken for a story.  But I was so freakin’ busy worrying about the people in line and worrying about his attitude and getting on with my evening, that I didn’t even notice.  I need to start paying more attention to the world around me.

Sticking With It

February 20, 2008

I worked the entire day last Sunday on a 250-word description of a basketball game I went to on Saturday night for my grammar homework.  It amazes me at how good writers can come up with such incredibly skillful phrasing.  Even after spending the entire day on those 250 words, after I submitted the homework I re-read it and couldn’t believe how juvenile it sounded.

I have to keep reminding myself over and over and over that I’m a 50-year-older  doing this for the first time and comparing myself to someone who (probably) has been  writing their entire lives.  As far as I can tell, I only have one of three options:

1.  I can say “what’s the point” and give up.  Then what would I do with the rest of my life?  For a number of years I’ve been living on the assumption I wouldn’t live much longer than another couple of years, and then a couple of years passes, and I find myself still alive and kicking.  In some ways I need to go back to my pre-cancer mindframe and allow myself the luxury of feeling that I’ll live a good long life.  Maybe there is life after cancer after all?

2.  I can keep going with it and fail.  But what would fail mean exactly?  There’s no  distinct endpoint when it comes to learning how to create, so the endpoint is self-defined (i.e. you quit trying).

3.  I keep sticking with it and keep giving myself pep talks and hanging out with people who feed me even the tiniest compliments to keep me driving myself (Like my grammar teacher who is nothing sort of a remarkably patient, attentive, and encouraging teacher who makes me feel like I can do it, and makes me want to do better.)

When I get a compliment from my grammar teacher I find myself basking in pure joy for days.  It’s illogical that a tiny compliment over 100 words could cause such a reaction.  It gives me pause to think about what sort of a person I am and why I react so.  I find that I’m irrationally overjoyed at receiving a compliment and overwhelmingly crushed when I see or hear anything that make me think my writing isn’t wonderful.

I have to always keep in mind that my writing is the venue.  It’s the medium by which I express.  The thing that’s inside of me that’s special is still there whether the writing sucks or not.  I have something to say to the world that I could never say otherwise.  I have to remember that it’s the pen that I’m training, not my soul.

I need to keep myself driven to practice, learn, listen, be more mindful of the world around me, and continue to be focused on “just doing it” and not getting my being and the quality of my writing confused.

I got up this morning, late, after a restless night’s sleep.  As I’ve been doing for the past 4 days or so, I wrote my Morning Pages before meditating.

I began my Morning Pages by saying “Look, I’m not in the mood.  I’m irritated.  Whatever it is you want to know about me or want me to say, forget it, it’s none of your goddamned business.” 

I forced myself to keep writing, though.  I started to write about what exactly I felt bad about.

I wrote about feeling like a loser.  I wrote about how, in social situations, I often don’t know what to say.  And then when I do say something it comes out in a crazy sputter.  It feels as though everyone else is standing in the room looking at me, all being “normal” and I’m tripping over my words, saying stupid inane stuff.  Many times after social evenings I reflect and then berate myself for some small comment I made that was completely off-topic or not as compassionate as it could have been, or maybe it was too bubbly or too loud or just simply too indescribably dumb.  I thought about this as I wrote.

I wrote about relationships that I’ve hurt in the past because of my stupidity, some which are still damaged and no amount of apology on my part will repair them.  I wrote about other relationships that I’ve hurt that I don’t care about and should.  I wrote about still other relationships that I haven’t hurt that I don’t care about but should.

I wrote about things that I hate about myself:  the ugly frown my face has when I’m thinking, my bowed legs, the way I feel incompetent at work, the way I hate my own writing, and here I want to be a writer…..  etc. etc.

This is the stuff that goes through my head when I’m feeling grumpy and irritable.  I know that now, because my Morning Pages don’t lie.  I cast this huge and endless stream of guilt and belittlement on myself regarding a host of random issue, from insignificant to significant.  It’s all fair game in my self-accusations.

I know I’m not alone with my complex web of negative emotions triggered by both real and imaginary things.  We wouldn’t have self-help feel-good books if no one else went through this.  I can’t explain why we humans (in general) aren’t born with an innate understanding of how to be at peace with the world and ourselves.  I only know that for me it’s a daily effort to keep all of this under control.  I can’t just, for instance, meditate one time and then everything is fixed (as in take a pill and it’s all gone).  It reminds me of what AA people do.  I have to stand up every single day of my life and say “Hi, my name is Jane, and I’m not at peace.”

For the past couple of days I’ve been doing my Morning Pages before my meditating and not after.  Morning Pages are 3+ pages of constant, nonstop, stream-of-consciousness writing.  Just continuous writing, with no idea of correctness or incorrectness, everything is game.

Morning Pages are a concept I’ve read about in several books.  The Artist’s Way is the book that gave it this name and triggered me to actually doing it.  In order for them to be most effective, you’re supposed to do them when you first get up, and before you’re completely awake.  In that way, your mind is still in a state where it’s not awake enough to actually pre-filter anything that comes out of the pen.

This morning I sat down, still sleepy, to do my Morning Pages.  I started off by writing that I had nothing to write about, and can we please get our Morning Pages over with so I can start my day….  grumble, grumble, etc. etc.

Before I knew it, I segued into writing about an especially difficult relationship that I have in my life.  I wrote about how I didn’t like this particular person, what I didn’t like about them, how I hate the way they do this and do that.  I kept writing and writing and bitching about this person.  As I wrote, I found myself writing out every tiny minute thing about my faults in the relationship and their faults in the relationship and why I react to them in the way that I do, and alternatively what must be going through their heads when they react to me.  It was almost like a one-person play, where the one person is me talking about this person in a monologue, no holds barred.  I described every little tiny detail about our relationship that I could think of, going back and forth talking about myself and then talking about them:  Looking at me through their eyes, and then looking at them through my own eyes.

I ended up going through an experience that is identical to what I’ve gone through in the past with therapists, only better because I was talking about the problem in my own way.  My head was controlling the flow and direction, not someone outside of my head.

My Morning Pages completely unravelled this relationship.  I wrote stuff I could never say out loud (cause it’s, well, seriously bitchy).  I was able to completely partition out the relationship section by section, and take each section as a separate entity.  I threw away stuff that really seemed explosive at the time but were not related to the core problems.  After doing this sectioning and culling, I was left with one or two things which described the exact trigger points for me.  I could build every single event and attitude I had about this person from these trigger points.

I wrote 5 pages as I picked through my brain on all of the issues.  When I got to the root cause(s), I looked at the history of behavior of this person and anything else I knew about them.  I found myself replacing my knee-jerk emotional reactions with a seed of compassion.  I think my Morning Pages and meditating are making me a better person.

It’s a funny thing about writing….  I don’t know if other people experience this.  I will write something, and come up with a super-spectacular sentence (or paragraph or phrase)– maybe something super thoughtful, or super colorful or super flamboyant, or some totally rockorzz cool  ending. 

Then I will go through my editing phase.  I’ll chop away at everything else, but leave this one bit of self-proclaimed genius completely raw so it can sit there and shake the world to bits.

I’ll keep chopping and chopping and trying to make the piece work.  Finally, way down the line, I’ll find myself face to face with the reality that the article or story is warped and shallow, and the reason is because of that one, stupid, over-emotional, over-written, over-dramatized, over-described piece of dribble that I was so completely head-over-heels in love with.  I do away with what I’d been desperately and irrationally holding onto for so many edits, and all of a sudden the rest of the piece relaxes and stops struggling with me.

I can’t even count the times this has happened to me.  It’s the whole “paradigm shift” thing that The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People talks about.  My mind gets into a mental block of thinking that the entire article should revolve around the brilliance of this one sentence.  Once I’m able to let go of the sentence, my head does a paradigm shift, and I’m able to see the article for something completely different.  It becomes much less focused on trying to manipulate the reader’s reactions and much more focused on conveying the story.


February 11, 2008

  • Writing is power
  • Writing means I have a viable contribution to the world
  • Writing makes me whomever I choose to be, regardless of what I see in the mirror
  • Writing is being able to say “You can tell me not to talk, but you can’t prevent me from being heard”
  • Writing is making a huge graffiti drawing in the pith of the universe that says “I lived here!”.  And no one can ever remove it, no matter how much they scrub or try to pretend it doesn’t exist
  • Writing says my life is worth living
  • Writing says I’m important, goddammit!
  • Writing opens the door to who I am.  It allows everything inside to gush out, and no one but me can stop it
  • Writing is validation
  • Writing is freedom