Sunday, September 24, 2023

The other day I had an interaction at work

A patron had a complaint about a book, and suddenly she was talking about book burning. (She thought it was a good idea. She wanted to throw the book into the flames herself.) I didn't know how to respond so I got up and walked away, leaving my partner at the information desk to deal with the situation. Then I spent the next three days replaying the encounter in my head. What I could've done differently and where had things gone wrong in the first place and what a crappy co-worker I'd been and why hadn't I called forth my customer service training—

(It sounds like you're upset. I'm so sorry you had that experience. Is there any other library-related business I can assist you with?) 

I'm reading a book about obsessive thoughts. It's called Can't Stop Thinking: How to Let Go of Anxiety and Free Yourself from Obsessive Rumination by Nancy Colier. 

Are these thoughts serving you? the book asks. 

Well, no, of course not. Because I can't go back and redo the interaction. And never mind all of the time I'm wasting, replaying and replaying and replaying, on walks with the dog and waking up sweating in the middle of the night. 

So, just notice the thoughts and let them go.

The book makes it sound easy. Apparently, there's a You who is thinking the obsessive thoughts. And there's a You who notices the You who is thinking the thoughts. 

I long to be this larger You. Float above all of my past, imperfect interactions. Offer myself a smile and a hug. Say what I might say to anyone who is feeling awful and ashamed. 

You did the best you could. Tomorrow, you'll do better. And even if you don't, it's okay.  

I'm not sure how to do this yet. 

But last weekend after my son's wedding, we all went for a walk at night down to the beach and lay on our backs on a dock that jutted out into the water. I looked up at the stars and my mind was so calm and clear and vast.

Remember this, I told myself, and then I promptly forgot. 

Until now. 






Sunday, September 17, 2023

Joy

First there was a hurricane and then there was a wedding.

The wind blew all night and we waited to lose power but the power held and the wind died down and the rain never came. In the morning we drank coffee and readied ourselves for the wedding. Do you know that poem where the poet says he was surprised by joy? 

I can relate to him. A dark moment or a crisis, and all seems lost, but then someone hands you a warm cookie or you hear a bird calling to another bird or somewhere off in the background there’s a child giggling. 

My husband and I had driven twelve hours to get to the wedding. We talked most of the way. The logistics of the drive and what we thought the wedding would be like and would the hurricane hit us. We dissected an argument we had thirty years ago and an argument we had twenty minutes ago. 

Recently, we have discovered a secret about arguing where you keep talking even though you’re upset and want to shut it all down and stew in righteous anger at the other person. The secret is to hold hands and listen to each other until you are both talked out and you are both heard. The argument was over and we felt better. We listened to music. We looked at hurricane updates. 

We talked about the time we brought our son home from the hospital when he was born and we put his car seat on the floor and just looked at him and wondered to each other why the people at the hospital let us take him home. We talked about the time when he was three years old and he was drinking his red juice and he set his little cup down and said, "Mommy, my red juice makes me happy." And how was it possible that tomorrow he would be getting married. 

This wedding was a different kind of joy. Not the surprise kind but the slow-building kind that has been here all along but you forgot for a few moments and then remembered. 

I want to tell you about this wedding. These people. This place. But I confess that I also want to keep it all to myself for a while. 

For now, I will leave you with a wish, that today you may feel joy, both kinds, all kinds. 







Sunday, September 10, 2023

My first book, THIN SPACE, came out ten years ago today

It feels like this happened yesterday, and it also feels like it happened a million years ago. This is how time works for me. 

The book is a young adult novel about a teen boy whose identical twin brother died in a car accident. It’s not the boy’s fault, but he feels responsible. He gets it into his head that if he can find a thin space, he can see his brother again. A thin space, according to ancient Celtic beliefs, is a space where the world between the living and the dead is thinner. The boy's plan is to find a thin space, step in, and "make things right." 

Writing and publishing this book was an exhilarating and sometimes anguishing process that took five years. From the spark of the idea to the frantic gushing out of the first draft and the hard mental work of all of the various revisions. The selling of the book to an agent and to her selling it to an editor. The publication itself. The book signings and book tours. A real life dream come true. 

I wrote a handful of books before I wrote Thin Space, and I've written twice as many since and haven't had the same luck on the publication end. It's taken me a long time to make peace with the part of writing that is outside of my control. But then, it's taken me a long time to make peace with every other aspect of life that is outside of my control too.

Let's just say it's a work in progress. 

Something that I didn't see at the time I was writing the book was how autobiographical it is. In fact, I saw it as the most not autobiographical of anything I'd ever written. The sixteen-year-old boy. The identical twin brother. The brother dying in a car accident. Clearly, I made all of this up. 

But at the core it rang true. A person who feels responsible for a situation that is not his fault, who spends his time obsessed with trying to fix things. In the story, fixing things turns out to mean trading places with the dead brother. Which even the brother (spoiler alert: the boy finds him) thinks is an unfair punishment. 

Anyway, it's impossible to change the past. 

I had to write this book to come to that conclusion, and apparently, I've had to relearn that lesson again. And again. 

This is also a work in progress for me. 

It's a dark book, but it has its funny moments. I had many fun moments watching it float around in the world. Too many to list here. But here's one nice memory. I wrote a lot of the book at the main branch of my local library. I used to sit in one of the comfy chairs under the big windows and type away on my laptop while my kids were at school. But first, every time, I would take a stroll through the young adult section, the place where I knew my book would be shelved, if I could finish it, if I could publish it. 

I would find the space on the shelf where my pretend book would go, and shift the real, published books to the sides and try to imagine what it would look like if...when mine was there. 

And then one day, it was. 

When I saw it, I sat down on the floor to take a picture, and my husband took a picture of me taking the picture. It was a small, silly, and yet profoundly meaningful blip in the timeline of my writing and actual life, but it momentarily anchored me in that present. It’s here, I remember thinking. I’m here. 

And then I stood up and life went on. 

A work in progress. 



Sunday, September 3, 2023

I didn't plant the corn stalks

that are growing beside the garage. Or the butternut squash vine that's winding its way across the yard. Things bloom where they are planted. And sometimes, in whatever random place the seeds have shaken out.

I try to save what I can. A year ago, someone I love ended our relationship. They sent me an email explaining their reasons. The reasons made complete sense, and at the same time, they made no sense at all. I wrote a response and deleted it. I wrote another response and deleted that too. 

Sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night dreaming I’d been speaking to this person, alternating between defending myself and apologizing, explaining things in such a way that it would fix everything and we could wipe the slate clean and try again. But in the morning, everything was still broken and the slate was the same mess. 

The truth is the mess pre-dates the email by decades. Another sad thing: the two of us didn't make the mess in the first place. But we seem to be stuck with it, and even if I wanted to unstick us, it doesn't matter because the other person doesn't, at least not now. Maybe not ever. 

In the meantime, I feel as if this person has died. I am in mourning. It is a strange unacknowledged kind of mourning, where people who don't realize there is a rift ask me how this person is doing or call to share a happy story about them, and then I have to think about whether to pretend everything is fine or to reveal my shame and my grief. When what I really wish is that someone would say what we say to any mourner. 

I am sorry for your loss. 

And I would say thank you. I have grown where I was planted. I have saved what I could save.

Nudged the squash vine along, clearing a path for it in the grass. Carefully dug up a tomato plant growing in a sidewalk crack and transplanted it in the garden. 

The corn—I don't know what I can do with it. The soil is too rocky. The roots too close to the garage. The stalks are not far enough along in the growing process to produce much of anything, and whatever I might wish, it is likely too late in the season. 




Sunday, August 27, 2023

This weekend we are guests

my husband and I, at the apartment of our daughter and son-in-law. It is interesting being a guest, how we fit into the rhythm and space of other people's lives. What time they wake up and how they make their coffee. The route where they walk the dog and what we should have for dinner. 

As a guest, I want to be agreeable, flexible, pleasant. But I admit I sometimes feel anxious about what kind of job I am doing. Is my fitful sleep interrupting anyone? Is it weird that I want freshly cut lemons in my water or two cups of coffee before noon? This is my family, but still. I want to be a good guest. 

In the morning while our daughter and son-in-law are at work, my husband and I walk over to the Washington National Cathedral, which is near their neighborhood. We have never visited this place before and it is striking. The steeple, the carved stone. You can go on a self-guided tour of the building, and we decide to head up to the observation deck first. We take our time. Only a handful of other tourists. One of them is holding a dog like a baby against her shoulder. I smile and the dog smiles back. Which gets everyone in our small group laughing. 

I read an article recently that brief interactions with people, even with strangers, maybe especially with strangers, can boost your mental health. I will add brief interactions with dogs to this list. The observation deck of this church is roomy, the windows relatively small, the view shimmery in the heat. Sometimes I feel dizzy looking out from tall buildings. But today I am relaxed. Curious. Open to smiling at more strangers and their dogs. 

After dinner the four of us squeeze up together with our dogs in front of the TV and watch a dumb and yet fun movie. We used to do this a lot with each other. During the height of the pandemic our daughter moved back home and for several months our son-in-law--then, her boyfriend--lived with us too. That was a scary time because who knew what was going to happen and what if we couldn't make it through. 

The worst part of it was how I looked at other people. Or rather, how I didn't. On walks or at quick trips to the grocery store, I averted my eyes, because wasn't everyone a potential virus carrier? And that included me too. How could I live with myself if I got sick and spread this terrible thing to someone else? 

In the lower level of the National Cathedral there are small chapels, mazelike hallways with high arched ceilings. Bodies are interred down here. Helen Keller. Along with her teacher Anne Sullivan. But the one that makes me pause is Matthew Shepherd, who was murdered by a different kind of virus, a hate crime, something scarier in many ways, as it never seems to stop spreading. 

But I want to believe that most of us do our best. We walk respectfully through churches and follow the traffic rules. Pull over to let the ambulance through. And whether we are visiting strangers or family, we try to be good guests.




Sunday, August 20, 2023

Notes on Self Shedding

Several years ago, I went through a great purging of stuff from my house. It started small--

I'd taken the books off the bookcase in my office so I could dust, but in the process of filing them back onto the shelves, I realized, for various reasons, that I didn't want some of them anymore. Maybe they were books I read and knew I'd never read again. Or they were books I hadn't read, and had to admit, I would never read. Some were books I hated. I'm thinking of you, Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, the only book in my entire college English major career that I could not finish. Who am I kidding. I could barely get past the first chapter. It's the eighteenth century. It's a novel told entirely in multi-page letters. It's misogynistic and repulsive. But I digress. 

The clearing out of books led to the clearing out of knick-knacks I realized I no longer wanted, and pictures on the walls and carpets and lamps and furniture. In the midst of all of this purging, I discovered the Marie Kondo craze and doubled down on my efforts. If something in my house didn't give me joy, I thanked it for its service (literally. I know. It's silly, but it felt good) and then I carted it off to Goodwill. 

The whole process was amazingly liberating. It also left me with a lot of blank spaces in my house that, for a while, I didn't know how to fill. What things did I want to look at and step across and light my way? 

But even more broadly, how did I want to spend my time, and which people did I want to spend it with? 

These shouldn't have been hard questions to answer, but somehow, they were. 

For the past two years, I've been going through intensive therapy. It started as a way to work through unresolved childhood trauma, but I quickly realized that I had issues in my present that needed addressing, specifically, that the coping mechanisms I'd adopted to make it through and out and beyond--while once, necessary--were no longer helping me. In fact, they were hurting me, and worse, sometimes I was, in turn, hurting the people I love.

But throwing out a toxic pattern in your interpersonal relationships is so many times harder than tossing out dumb, enraging eighteenth century epistolary novels or plastic beaded fruits or a shag carpet. And once you see the toxic pattern for its terrible toxic-ness, how do you actually change it? 

Well. I don't know. But I do know step one. It's telling the truth. 

About what you don't want in your life and what you do. It's finding the grace to forgive yourself for doing what you needed to do to survive.

It's thanking that old self for its service, before letting it go.



 



Sunday, August 13, 2023

Blessings

Spur of the moment and some friends walk by and invite us to a yoga class in the neighborhood. This is an informal class that takes place in someone's front yard two minutes away from our house. Apparently, it started during Covid and has been going on every Sunday morning since. My husband and I have nothing planned, so we go, rolling out our mats on the grass still wet with dew. 

Like always when I do yoga, I have a hard time settling my mind. It wants to jump all over the place, hammering out to-do lists and stewing over the worrisome things that happened over the week.

For example, the jury summons I received in the mail the other day... which just so happens to be during the time we’ll be out of town for our son's wedding. I read the list of excuses and none of them seem to apply. Am I out of the country? Am I a non-citizen? No and no. What I'm supposed to do is write a letter, explaining why I must postpone and respectfully asking them to consider my request.  

I write the letter in my head in the middle of the night. I write it again while I'm lying on my yoga mat in the grass. I'm sleepy. Restless from bad dreams and jury duty excuse letter writing. It's my son's wedding! Shouldn't there be a box to check for that? 

Breathe in, the yoga instructor says. I breathe in. Breathe out. I breathe out. I have never done yoga outside before. This early in the morning the humidity hasn't kicked in yet, and there's a lovely breeze. 

I close my eyes and when I open them, there's a plane streaking overheard, a thin cloud behind it bisecting the sky. Our son and his fiancĂ© have asked us to prepare something to say at their wedding, a kind of blessing. I love this idea but I am struggling with it. Me, a writer and big mouth talker, but what if I can't find the right words?  

My mind turns over possible blessings and then it slips back into jury duty excuse letter writing mode. I can hear my husband deep breathing beside me. How have we come to be together, on these mats, on this lawn, our children grown and well and happy, our daughter married to the love of her life, our son about to marry his? 

I don't know. 

But I am so grateful I don't think there is a word that can contain all of my gratitude. The yoga instructor instructs us to clasp our hands in front of our hearts. My mind lets go of itself and for a few blissful moments time stops. 

I open my eyes. The class is over. The day has begun.