Things I wish somebody had pounded into my head early on…

…or that I wish I could remember long enough to pound into my own head, even now:

1. Half of life–at least half–is about cleaning up after whatever you are doing in the other half. And it always takes way longer than you think it should.

2. Your forties and fifties are the most productive years of your life, unless you have chronically underestimated #1 and are hence behind the curve.

3. By your sixties, you have been around enough of life’s blocks multiple times to have a pretty good grip on the neighborhood. You want to improve it a little before you move on. You have good ideas and big plans, but principle #1 is still operating in the universe, now in tandem with #2. This may explain why old people don’t bathe enough. And don’t even care: time is short and energy is precious.

4. Time is short and energy is precious! If you don’t know what to do with it, at least conserve it. The day will come.  Try to tidy up as you go: wash the pan right after you fry the egg, throw dirty clothes in the basket instead of on the floor. The tendency to just let things drop is a bad, bad habit because life feels shitty all the time, except for the brief moment when you’ve done a massive cleanup because it got SO shitty you couldn’t stand it anymore. There are implications for emotional work here: talk about it right away–don’t let the sun go down on some sweaty, mildewed laundry pile of bad feelings.

5. Nihilism is a phase, not a sophisticated intellectual achievement. The idea that nothing matters because you’ll probably be dead before you’re thirty anyway is not one you want to get in bed with; its bad-boy appeal ages badly.

6. Life isn’t an all-or-nothing kind of deal. There are a million in-between options. The crap your internal critic offers up–well, you’ve blown it so there’s no point in even trying–is crap. Or if you want a fancier intellectual label, it’s a false dichotomy. Nothing is really either/or; if you look hard, there’s always a third option, and a fourth, and so on. Even when it seems like someone else is in control, has a gun of some kind to your head, you still have the option of choosing how you respond.

7. Children who are wanted swim in love like a warm ocean; they bathe and roll like newborn whales, as if being surrounded by wisdom and guidance were a given. But even if nobody in your family wanted you, you have a right to exist: to take up space, to sing some song of your own making, to want something for yourself and go after it.

8. Life isn’t a contest.

9. With all due respect to John Lennon, love is not all you need unless you still have parents who support you or millions in record sales. But love is all that matters in the end—and by love, I mean the inclination of our hearts toward the good, no matter what we have or haven’t done, no matter how big the laundry pile.

Leaning toward the good, like plants toward the sun, is all that remains of choice in the end—yet in that stripped simplicity there can still be found all the warmth and guidance life has to offer, which is the paradoxical joy of age.

10. I once heard a Jungian psychologist say that the role of elders is to give blessings; I’m pretty sure an immaculate house isn’t part of the job description, nor even is a successful career or financial security—mercifully, we don’t have to be hedge fund managers or highly organized and educated in order to fulfill that role.

Blessings can be pretty simple: telling a child who has never heard such a thing that she is beautiful; listening to someone in turmoil with empathy, and without judgment or advice;  applying the balm of understanding to our own troubled past and its inhabitants.

I suppose that excludes trying to pound things into their heads, come to think of it. So that leaves one more for the list of things I want to remember: writing is underestimated as a path to at least modest gains on enlightenment. (Good news, fellow slackers: write more, vacuum less!)

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Blogging v. flogging

Note: this is something I wrote a few months ago when my writers’ marketing group was discussing blogging; I thought it might be useful for other writers too.

If I felt like I had to blog, I would immediately abandon the whole thing. But just because most everybody else in the writing world sees blogging as a way to build that required platform (a metaphor that I find distasteful on all fronts), and hence they give us onerous imperatives like “blog, blog, blog,” that doesn’t mean we have to see it that way. Blogging that’s done dutifully, out of a sense of obligation, or under duress, can feel like punishment and/or self-flagellation, no doubt! But there’s another way to approach blogging that feels more like coming unshackled—and then finding your way home.

The last post I made on my blog was a year ago, and I’m still getting visitors—admittedly, not a lot of visitors, but that doesn’t matter to me because I don’t see my blog as a marketing tool. I started blogging because I realized that such a vehicle would:

—be a way for me to say some things I want to say right now, instead of waiting until I get around to working them into a book and then get around to trying to publish that book

—let me say those things off-the-cuff, low-stakes, in pieces, in whatever way they come to me, whenever they come, without considering regularity, saleability, marketing, or even coherence

—serve as a central, virtual file cabinet for ideas, insights, ponderings, sketches, and whatnot to replace the scraps of paper, dinner napkins, post-its, abandoned journal efforts, and computer files that have vanished into the writerly Bermuda Triangle over the years (this advantage has been HUGE, because I have multiple “drawers” in the form of multiple private blogs, in which I can store drafts as well as posts: in this way, I’m working on several books or book ideas, and I’m actually reminded of what those ideas were from time to time, because they’re all in the same place)

—set me free from publishing prison, both the supermax New York version and the contemporary minimum-security Amazon: I don’t need anyone’s approval, and publishing is completely free, immediate, and world-wide (this advantage becomes more apparent as time goes by and the monetary rewards of publication continue to shrivel)

Of course, I don’t make any money at all from my blog. But when has any ordinary person made a living at writing anyway? Even poet laureate Ted Kooser sold insurance. And while it used to be possible to get a six-figure advance for a well-written memoir (nostalgic rush here), even those heady numbers won’t pay the rent if you consider the number of years it takes to produce such a thing (six, or ten, or—in my case—twenty-five and counting). A big advance wouldn’t even provide coffee money, if you consider the number of such books you have in you.

So once I accepted that, a whole ‘nuther world opened up (the title of my blog applies here). The opening widened when I realized that my real audience consists mostly of a small tribe of thoughtful pilgrims and sojourners in this strange land—so what’s the point of trying to publish my work like Fifty Shades of Grey, or any other mass-market success? Instead, I can just write something, put it in a blog bottle, and toss it out on the Internet sea, trusting that in time it will find its way to the right shore, and be passed along if it’s worth reading.

If I were writing a novel instead of memoir and essay, things might be different—although I still think I might use a blog in some similar way, since blogs are so fluid and  can be updated, moved, deleted or resurrected, and made private or public at any time. I’m not saying that my approach to blogging would fit everyone, just that it turns out to fit me quite well—and maybe some aspect of this alternate view might fit you, too. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

As an unexpected side benefit of blogging, and having made no effort to advertise other than an initial email to a few friends, I have discovered a deep connection with a small but international community of kindred spirits. It startled me when I realized that most of my readers are in the UK (maybe some kind of Celtic magic is at work here). These are people I have come to know and care about, and such a virtual connection suits my introverted, writerly nature perfectly: there’s no obligation to read, or write, or respond—so everything is a gift.

It’s really quite beautiful.

When I think of some of the things these people have said to me, and vice versa, and of the numinous quality of our ordinary lives, I have to reach for a Kleenex! Right now, for example, I’m thinking of a young man in London whose observant, wry, and increasingly melancholy posts I’d read for several years, and about how happy I was when a post showed up in my inbox after a six-month silence that ended with “Apart from that, and the fact that I actually married the world’s most perfect woman, I can’t say anything of importance has happened.” :-)  So I have him to thank for reminding me that despite the apparently real British need for understatement, life sometimes delivers happy endings. And for this song, from one of his earlier posts: “Even if you, like me, have no idea what it’s all about, I still guarantee that you’ll feel at least, ooohh, 2% happier after listening.” (Click if you need another 2%, or if you’re worried about the fate of the younger generation.)

I have the blogging world to thank for the miracle of connection without borders or intermediaries, and for the ability to offer aid or insight without the preliminaries and reciprocation that in-person interactions require. If I’m too buried to even sleep, let alone blog—as I have been for the past couple of years—I don’t have to explain that to anyone, or feel guilty about not holding up my end of a relationship, or beat myself up for failure to perform. The blogging world that I inhabit is the antithesis of “platform” mentality, and instead of making me feel like a captive of conventional advice, it has provided me with an antidote.

In this writers’ medium people understand long absences, emotional interference, financial exigency, physical limitations, and other constraints on how we roll. Yet our work here persists over time as opposed to being shredded after ten days on a bookstore shelf, and it exists in a searchable world not confined to amazon.com. In this medium we can find and be found by our real family—or, in writerly terms, our audience. Even more important, this medium is amenable to deep, ongoing conversations, which makes it more like telling stories around the tribal fire than conventional publication, which isolates writers from readers.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to get our work published or look for ways to make money at it; I’m just saying that we’re free to be completely happy as writers right now, and that I’m grateful for the ability to share things that matter to me without anyone’s stamp of approval and at no cost.

That’s a pretty good deal for the money.

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Home

You would think that an epiphany would last, since the moment itself is defined by clarity—like a high resolution photo in a blurry world—and a sense of significance so profound that time and space may feel altered. But for me, the most important realizations—those unanesthetized moments in which I wake up to what really matters—seem also to be ephemeral, at odds with the inertia of ordinary life, work, and responsibility that can so easily swallow us up.

When I was in my early thirties, I moved with my husband and our newborn son to a remote property in western Oregon where we planned to build a house—a new endeavor that was not beyond the scope of that good man’s considerable skills, because in a long career that involved everything from blacksmithing to machining parts for the space shuttle, he’d built a lot of things. I was his apprentice in construction, and in life, being much younger than he was, and very much in love.

I had never been north of San Francisco, so when we first drove into the dense tangle of Oregon rainforest, it seemed otherworldly, a lush wilderness I had only imagined in fairy tales. We turned right from a two-lane highway onto a trestle bridge, then left onto a narrow gravel road that ran along the Siuslaw River, a shining jade ribbon trimmed with lacy rapids, pulled down tight into the crevasse of a steep, forested canyon. The cliff on our right overhung the road in places, netted tight with a wonderful profusion of pine green and chartreuse that shimmered in the sun; blackberries dripped from tangled vines, and every hundred feet or so there was a creek, or a little waterfall cascading right down the rock face. As we went on, the road narrowed, hugging the cliff, and began to seem more like an animal trail. Deer stood in the road in the middle of the day.

It was fantastic, and yet as we approached the dilapidated old house where we would live while building the new one, I also felt the kind of premonition that defines a fairy tale: the sunny glades, the murmuring stream, the almond honey cakes made by elves in magic cloaks, even the prince and his splendid castle next the enchanted forest—all serve only to suggest the unseen presence of some terrible lurking giant.

Even so, right next to that premonition in my memory lives an image of my husband that still brings a smile. He always liked to wear an old hat when he worked that was cut like a baseball cap, though he’d never had anything to do with sports; it was made of tan, narrow-wale corduroy with a red cotton liner. He wore it backwards, so the bill would be out of the way, and though he had taken good care of it, over the years it had become stained with sweat from his forehead, so there was a dark brown dome in the corduroy. As we worked on building the new house and summer stretched into winter and back again, I watched him snug that cap down every morning as we got ready to go to work. His predictability made me happy, as did his smile, spontaneous and genuine as a child’s, even though his hair was starting to go grey.

He taught me things like how to use a level, how to drill a straight hole by sighting in two dimensions, and how to set a nail without leaving hammer marks, all of which had deep psychological and moral implications. There was nothing fancy about the house he laid out, but it was built to last. It had three-foot eaves to protect the cedar siding; the roof was steep enough to shed snow, but not too steep to walk on; the pipes were copper, and the insulation well above code.

We worked hard, which involved a fair amount of discomfort and sacrifice. While we put together the plumbing system, for instance, our son Jay—still in a baby backpack—took his naps in the crawlspace under the house, with my jacket for a pillow on one of the concrete pads. We hauled a six-hundred gallon water tank up the canyon behind the house to the spring using a complicated arrangement of ropes and pulleys, with me carrying Jay on my back. Before we put it in place, we spent a week or two preparing the site—an ordinary man would have just hauled it up there and hooked up the pipes, but my husband wanted to make sure we wouldn’t have problems with it later. So we used pry bars to dig out every rock that might eventually, with the settling factor and all, poke into the bottom of the plastic tank and possibly weaken it. Then we tamped dirt back into the holes, waited for it to settle, and tamped in some more. We canted the ground to discourage erosion, added a layer of sand to smooth out any irregularities we might have missed, and laid black plastic over it all to keep it stable under the filigree of alders shading the creek, and the huge old firs clawed to the canyon walls so that their canopy closed the sky.

One day—this is where the epiphany comes in—as I was on my way back down the canyon, I stopped to rest for a minute and put Jay, who was just learning to walk, down off my back. As we stood there by a bend in the creek where a fallen tree made a natural dam, we saw a salmon as big as my forearm curling around itself in one of the little rocky, shaded side pools, as if to catch her breath. The salmon looked up at us, and I wondered how we appeared to her from the other side of that glassy surface beneath which she waited to lay her eggs, or to die. Jay, even as young as he was, seemed to be taken into the stillness of this moment, and we stood there holding hands as if we were the same age—or as if age didn’t matter.

As time slowed down and the light intensified, as it does in such moments, the elements of the scene became almost holographic. You know how dry stones that appear common in the sun of everyday life suddenly roil with glorious color when they’re immersed in water? It’s like that in these moments when we find ourselves so fully immersed in the present that we also intuitively grasp the past and future that it implies.

I wonder now if what was driving my husband while we built that house was some knowledge in the body of what was about to befall him, some built-in sense of a long, personal winter approaching that made him oblivious to the less pressing needs of making our current life pleasant. He didn’t drive me, ever—but he drove himself, and as Jay and I tried to keep up, I noticed I was always telling myself that life would be better when… when we got the roof on, when we had electricity in the house, when the drywall was up… —and that when never came.

I knew suddenly, as that salmon and I locked eyes, that life would never be any better than it was right now.

As revelations go, the idea that we should live in the present, or stop to smell the roses because life is short, isn’t anything new—and as a child of the sixties, I’d been exposed to even more than the usual cliché versions of it, everything from Alan Watts’ interpretation of Zen Buddhism to Janis Joplin singing “Get It While You Can.” But the thing about epiphanies is that they happen to you. It doesn’t matter that there’s nothing new under the sun—what matters is the moment that you become aware of some piece of truth.

So the next day, I took Jay down to the river instead of going to work at the house, and we splashed and played and looked at crawdads and ate peanut butter sandwiches in the sun. There was a special place where, in summer, when the river was low, you could walk out to the middle of it on a big, smooth, rocky flat where the water was either rushing cold and clear in deep channels into which you could dangle your feet, or lying about in warm, mossy pools filled with tiny fish. I rolled up the legs of my overalls and, for the first time in a long while, we enjoyed ourselves.

When we got home, I told my husband that I was going to do that more, and he smiled and said, “Fine. That’s a fine thing to do.”

Later that year, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and during the seven years that followed, as well as the decades that followed his death in 1988, I have had many occasions to remember, and to reach again, for the kind of insight that gave our son a childhood even while I took him by the hand into the long work of building a future without his father.

But I think the more important lesson is not the content of any particular moment of insight. Like Dorothy in Oz, the world of our human journey—no matter how vivid the adventure, how terrifying the dangers, how sweet the rewards—isn’t the only world we have access to. Revelations occur when we need something beyond the limitations of what we know, beyond our uninformed personal agenda, beyond what we think we’re capable of; they occur when we reach for home.

 

Note: thanks to Tom Titus, whose description  of collecting agates on the beach and “the little clink that each stone makes when it lands in an old canning jar” reminded me that I’d once written something about stones immersed in water. When I searched my computer for those words, I found this piece that I had put together years ago and then just forgotten about. I decided to post it since I’m pretty sure Tom and I aren’t the only ones who have looked at rocks closely enough to see them as a metaphor worth saving.

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About memoir

The best writing in any genre is an act of love, not explanation or even insight, not contrition or justice—and surely not reprisal.

Such an act doesn’t require thematic justification or any other reason for being, so you can stop worrying about how you’re going to pitch it. Love doesn’t need a tag line or an elevator speech: it just needs to be real. That’s not to say it’s easy—loving this beautiful, brutal world or anyone in it so much that you have to draw their precious outline on a page can be consuming, even desperate, and if unrequited for one reason or another (the need for a day job, the interference of people who need us, the barriers of anxiety and doubt), we pine and wither.

And then, often, we get subverted into thinking that we need to write about ourselves. After all—isn’t that what memoir is supposed to be about? Isn’t memoir by its very nature all about us? Our memories, our lives, our trials and woes and joys and transformations?

I don’t think so.

Not really.

That capital I, so unavoidable in memoir, stands up tall only in witness, not to dominate the text or claim singular importance, but rather to testify: to honor what the writer has seen, to obey love’s imperative to cherish and also set free the people we have cared about–including those who did not, or could not, reciprocate.

Memoir is sometimes an elegy of love that allows us at last to touch those who eluded our reach in life, to hold them steady in the light while they rage, to return compassion for ignorance and fear, to warm them inside our coats until they thaw, revealing hearts that beat like our own. And sometimes, of course, memoir is the best chance we have at paying tribute to those who held us under their coats next to their generous hearts, and to keep gratitude alive in this unforgiving world.

So if you struggle with the “I” in memoir, if you think that you’re supposed to be writing about yourself and thus need to make your story sound, somehow, important enough to warrant a book—relax.

Memoir isn’t really about you at all.

 

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What writers do

We bear the weight of humanity’s stories, compressed and carbonized over time by their sheer mass, transformed into potential energy that smolders like an ember in the heart, a live coal with the possibility of shedding light in a darkened world—but also hot as hell and hard to handle.

Is it any wonder we sometimes seem a little strange, out of the social loop, unable to interact like normal people, distracted, preoccupied—maybe even completely crazy?

We are conscripted—by nature, I guess—and tasked with carrying both the burden of our mutual history and the vision of our possible futures.

Like it or not, we notice things. We care about them inordinately. We need to understand what is beyond belief, to explain—or at least to record—the astonishing range of human behavior, including our own.

At our best, we transcend our limited and troubled selves when we embrace the danger of the task and, despite the risk of being burned, breathe the ember to life.

Maybe we should go a little bit easier on ourselves.

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The Feel Better Book: what to do when you feel overwhelmed

First, resist the impulse to make a list. Well, okay —maybe you have to make one list, just to get some illusion of control. But not two, or three, or four, ordered by importance, and definitely not a rewrite of any list in an effort to organize it better by using highlighter or red felt pen.

(Obviously, there’s a little projection going on here. But maybe you have similar tendencies? In which case, read on.)

Forget about the lists. Admit you simply have too much to do, because unfortunately, you’re only one human being. Give up trying to change that, to be better, or at least good enough, to keep up with successful people whose lives look organized, doable, under control, admirable.

You’re not one of them, possibly because you care too much about too many things, because you focus on what should be done instead of what can be done, because you think about what people need instead of what you want. So really, it’s not all bad in the big scheme of things; at least you have good motives. Or maybe, like me, you just screwed up your earlier life, so now there’s hell to pay. Still. Either way, let’s just admit it: our kind of list is overwhelming.

So stop thinking about it, for just a few minutes. (God knows, it will still be there later.)

Resist the impulse to crawl in bed unless you really need a nap, in which case, take one. (If you find yourself dreaming about the things on The List, though, realize that’s a sign that you really need to try something different!)

Don’t resist the impulse to cry, because that means you will have to find a Kleenex, which will get you up and moving.

Just get out of the chair and start walking around, doing stuff at random—it doesn’t matter what: walk down the hall, find the Kleenex, eat a carrot, gather up one bag of trash, put a new light bulb in the fixture that’s been out for six months. Wash one dirty dish. It doesn’t matter what you do: just keep moving. Sort one pile of paper into bills and junk mail. If you find a real letter in there, rejoice at the miracle and answer it. Brush your teeth. Go open the door and stare outside for the first time in weeks. Vacuum one room and leave the vacuum there.

Don’t finish anything. Don’t stay too long in one place. Just keep moving.

I’m convinced that this is the only distinguishing characteristic of people who accomplish stuff: They may be overly responsible deep thinkers and worriers too; the difference is that they Just Keep Moving.

Try it. I just did, and not only does my house feel a little less like a landfill, the list got shorter while I wasn’t obsessing about its length. Also, between the bag of trash and the light bulb, I took time to write something on this blog for the first time in months, and thus have made a start on one of the book projects I’ve had on my back burner to-do list for several years: The Feel Better Book. I know there’s an audience for this title.

But I’m resisting the impulse to move it to a front burner list: I’m going to keep moving, taking care of whatever I find in my path, knowing that I’m at least doing something, trusting that in the big picture, the good will prevail even if I’m off duty.

Grace, after all, is a gift—not something we can acquire like an item on a grocery list, nor can we extend it to others by pursuing a chore list, no matter how well thought out or correct that list might be.

Maybe what we really need to do isn’t even on the list. Maybe it’s waiting to be discovered, somewhere down the hall.

Just keep moving, and keep looking. I know it makes me feel better, whenever I remember to do it.

 

 

 

 

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Right here, right now

Faith is a choice we can make, like recovering addicts, one day at a time. There is no evidence of what’s ahead, only the certainty of what we leave behind: the deficiencies of selfishness, fear’s corrosion of body and soul, the ultimate monotony of evil.

Faith is a decision to live as if God exists—without the coercion of heaven or hell, without proof, without even hope, really.

Faith is rather an act of love, a choice to reach for the good and to wait for it, even when we must do so blindly in this dark, deceptive world—even if there turns out to be no such thing.

When we have said no to all the imposters, with their accusations and their evidence and their rule-bound, shriveled hearts, faith is what remains: a longing for something beyond what we already know, for a world in which entropy is reversed, where life strains toward conscience like plants toward the sun, where meaning can be infused into matter.

In recovery, they say just “do the next right thing.” How does an addict in an evil world even know what that is—and yet we do, don’t we, even if the next right thing is as limited as saying no to the next wrong thing.

Or to the next wrong idea about ourselves, or the next wrong belief that our society or culture or institutions or family—or our internalized versions of them—offer up. The thing about deception is that no matter how sophisticated the presentation may be, it is detectable upon closer examination: it always smells a little off, like it’s made some kind of toxic plastic, no matter how good the paint job on the surface.

It’s all about sniffing out the motive, and deception’s motive is predatory. We can learn to identify predatory people or ideas by paying attention to our instincts—even when the predator lives in our own heads. Ask yourself: Where is this line of thinking taking me? If you realize that you’re being clubbed and dragged into some isolated emotional corner where only fear awaits, you can simply choose not to go. That’s the beauty of the truth: when its light shines on deception, you realize that the power of the adversary’s illusion depends on your buying it.

Unlike real predators, deception can’t close its teeth around you once you realize they are just phantom teeth. It can’t own you if you don’t marry it, if you make a choice to wait for something better, something you can wholeheartedly give yourself to because it never tries to drag you anywhere.

Faith is something we choose by rejecting the predator whenever we recognize where it’s taking us. Even when we are mobbed by fearful thoughts, judgment, and self-blame—even when we can see no way out, and even when there is no way out of some hard fate in reality—we can still choose what we love, what we hold to and hold out for. To be disappointed or betrayed, to lose faith or feel abandoned, is impossible when you make such a choice; love asks nothing back, needs no reward, doesn’t bargain for reciprocity.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that we always feel secure, at peace, calm, wise, enlightened, or even happy. Predators and threats abound, and for the faithful romantics among us, who aren’t asking for a ring and a date in heaven, or even thinking about any kind of life other than what we have here and now, the future can look pretty grim.

But what’s ahead doesn’t matter: faith is choosing not to go back.

What’s continually amazing to me is that every time I make that choice—which is often many times a day—I realize again that I am loved: right here, right now.

It’s the kind of love you breathe in, an intangible drawn into the world through a portal that your love unlocks, the kind of love that resurrects a vision of some home you haven’t yet seen, and shows you how to make it real: right here, right now.

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