Category Archives: Persistence

A Truce

It had been a strugglesome week at work and I was feeling rushed and dejected when my husband suggested we go outside and have a few practice swings with the clubs. A few days before, I had reluctantly agreed to join an outing of four couples for nine holes of golf. Let me tell you something about golf. I don’t care for it. I find it full of aggravation and without reward. I was dreading spending my first opportunity to relax feeling like a total failure surrounded by people who play regularly. But I am a good sport…sort of. “Fine,” I had said, sounding more like “Why GOLF?”

The last time I had played was four years before and it had ranked among the worst leisure experiences of my life. I don’t know how many years it was before that I had played but it was more than four. Last Friday out in the yard, I picked up my driver with poor grace and assumed the position. Instantly there was a blaring chorus of voices in my head. Some were telling me what a bad experience I was about to have, some were telling me what a lousy golfer I am in general, and others were critiquing every single aspect of my swing (SO many ways to do it wrong). It was both deafening and oddly familiar. They sounded just like the voices that used to hound me when I was writing. I couldn’t believe how awful it felt, and I couldn’t believe I had persevered with writing as long as I had, clinging to a certainty that I had to battle through the noise and the unrelenting negativity. As I said in my last post I eventually did give up, and rebooted my writing in Safe Mode, which for me was to only write when I felt like it and to only write for myself. I chose to share my writing when I wanted to with a supportive group of friends who also write, but I absolutely gave myself permission to not do our writing prompts at all, or to write about something else if I wanted. I gave up overthinking and trying to be perfect, and in doing so had made peace with my writing. The voices quieted to a manageable murmur.

Out there in the yard, facing down a leaf in substitution for a dimpled ball, I decided that If I could do that with writing, when I really, really care about writing, I could also do this with golf. Some of the advice my husband offered made no sense. “Position your club face so it impacts the leaf like this.” “Aim so you hit the leaf right at this point.” Incomprehensible concepts which I rejected. Some of the things he said resonated. “Plant your feet.” Yes, this I had experienced in yoga and Pilates, feeling my feet connected with the earth as though my body was an extension of the planet. “Slow your swing.” That I understood, even if I didn’t like it. I just wanted to get the game OVER, but when I slowed down, my swing felt more controlled. Out on the course with an actual ball and an adjusted attitude (less competitive, more experimental and compassionate toward myself) I had a not-terrible time. I had a few (feet planted, slow tempo) strokes that were pretty decent, and the rest (which were absolutely consistent with my status as a perennial beginner) didn’t bother me. Best of all, my inner critics were silent. Nine holes wore me out, and I ended up with a blister on my thumb and some sore muscles the next day, but I also found I had been able to call a truce with the sport. I would be willing to golf again…you know, once my back loosened up.

I even learned a few things from golf that I can apply to my writing. If my metaphysical feet are planted, I have strength and balance to write from. If I don’t rush my message, it comes at its own pace and makes more sense. More peace, fewer voices seems like a good direction to keep moving toward. Fore!

Lynnette golfing

Out of the Comfort Zone and Into the Fire

As a nearly four year veteran of freelance article writing for Twin Cities community magazines, the idea of attending the Minnesota Magazine Mingle at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis was completely inside my comfort zone. I clicked on the registration link in The Loft e-newsletter and was pleasantly surprised to be directed to the Facebook page for the event. Attending? Why, thank you, yes I am.

The day of the event I took off twenty minutes early, but was still twenty minutes late due to an accident on 94W and University resulting in INSANELY backed up traffic. When I got to The Loft I discovered, at the welcome desk, that only a moron would think that accepting an invitation on Facebook would be the same as registering, and that there was, in fact, a $35 fee. On the upside, they immediately printed me a very snazzy nametag. I had heard that the event was being held in the auditorium, but another room nearby looked pretty populated and rowdy, so while I hung my coat I asked a staffer if the event was being held in both rooms. “Go in there,” she said, pointing at the auditorium. I obediently went, and spent some time looking at the amazing assortment of Minnesota-based magazines laid out for the rather sparse crowd. People noticed me, mostly because unlike them, I didn’t have a sticker on my nametag identifying me as a “writer” and/or an “editor.” I struck up a conversation with an “editor’ and “matchmaker” (someone officially charged with introducing compatible writers and editors) and learned about her work with industrial journals and newsletters for the powdercoat industry. I ate some grapes and gazed longingly at the raspberry topped brownie but strategically bypassed the salmon and dill hors d’oeuvre. Clearly, that was there as a test to see how committed we were to face-to-face networking in close quarters. I started to question what I was doing there. My community lifestyle writing didn’t seem like a big deal anymore. I drew a blank as I wondered what I could submit to various magazines representing the interests of universities, business, the History Channel, physicians, golfers, the fabric industry, or environmental sciences. I started to doubt whether I had knowledge of anything worthwhile, when I spotted a nametag for an editor of a national craft publication. I introduced myself and quickly learned (before I totally embarrassed myself) that ‘craft’ referred to, for instance, sculpture, not, say, crochet and that he was more resigned to the conversation than engaged. Because I am striving to be mentally healthy, I decided that it probably wasn’t me, that the editor was finding the whole event not that interesting. He was probably there because he had to be and the booze he was drinking was making it tolerable. I wondered where he got that booze. As a last gasp effort, I offered him my business card and he made no move to take it. “Just check our submission guidelines online,” he said. He wasn’t smiling.

When I recovered from my humiliation a bit, I met a lovely writer who seemed confused that I hadn’t gone into the other room where it turned out people had been meeting and chatting from the beginning. As people flooded from there into the auditorium, all best friends by now, she and I compared notes on editors in the room. I mentally wished her luck when she seemed interested in the craft magazine. Then, I won a door prize! Books from Loft writers and a tote bag! Sweet! Another prize winner, whose business card said Freelance Humorist was nearby. We began a conversation about blogging when a young woman walked up, told a hipster joke “Why did the hipster burn his mouth? He ate the pizza before it was cool,” and began a one-sided no-punctuation conversation about a zombie survival guide she wrote and how she thought about doing a hipster survival guide but hasn’t because she isn’t a hipster. I interrupted her to point out she wasn’t a zombie, either, but that didn’t stop her. She seemed confused by the fact I was talking, so maybe she WAS a zombie. I was trying to extricate myself politely from the conversation when I saw the last, and maybe only, editor I’d really hoped to speak to walking toward the door. I chose abruptness over etiquette but missed him anyway. I know somebody who knows somebody, so that might be fixable. I got a few more pity chats from very nice editors whose publications didn’t overlap with my skill/knowledge set, and then gave up. I grabbed a mouthful of stinky salmon dill goodness and went to sit in a comfortable chair in the hallway/lobby. I finally spied the drinks table, but was soon to be driving. I saw a big group of people chatting together, magnifying my aloneness. I thumbed a long and bitter text to a friend, then gathered my coat, and decided to go back to get a brownie for the road. At the food table, a business magazine editor appeared to be having a conversation with an intense gentleman, but within a few seconds I realized he was just listing everything he likes and dislikes about St. Paul, where it seems the editor lives. After he told her St. Paul’s cathedral is very nice but she pays too much in taxes, I decided it was imperative I find out more about her magazine. I stood there pointedly until she glanced my way and the man strode off, no doubt to make more friends. I didn’t mention him, but started what turned out to be an enjoyable conversation about her magazine and her job. I realized I was more relaxed listening and responding to what she was looking for than I am apologetically flinging my credentials into strangers’ faces, and I seemed to be making a better impression as well. She suggested we exchange cards and asked me to send her a link to some of my work. The Mingle was over.

What have we learned, kids? If it seems super easy and cheap, you are probably missing something. Don’t trust what people tell you, go where the energy is. Do your research beforehand. Most of the people out there are nice, but even so, they can’t help you if you don’t know what you are looking for. Know your questions, and make sure one of them is, “what kind of story are you excited about getting?” Most importantly, go back for the brownie.

Literary Therapy

John Updike wrote in Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism, “I want to write books that unlock the traffic jam in everybody’s head.” Me too. But until that day, as I battle the gridlock in my brain and either pound, snub or tentatively caress my laptop with conciliatory keystrokes, I continue to read fiction for entertainment and inspiration. As we do. And once in awhile, a phrase or sentence reaches out of the book and plucks a string in my core. Truth, figured in inked black symbols on a flat white page, unlocks light and sound somewhere inside me (my brain? my gut? my soul?) It is a miracle every time it happens, and it is why I write.

I had such a moment recently. I have been going through a particularly grim love/hate, approach/avoidance conflict with my writing for some time now.  No matter how many helpful people I discuss this with, or how many instructive articles and books I read, there is still a poisonous little voice in my head that hisses they don’t get it, you are SCREWED UP. Then I read a book recommended by hot-off-the-wire on Goodreads: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. In this novel, the main character, Harrison Shepherd, is the quiet center of a whirling storm of mercurial characters and events. For him, writing isn’t a problem; it is an outlet, his therapy, his way of reinventing the world to make it a more bearable place. A traumatic event results in him withdrawing from the world until he has the greatest difficulty even imagining leaving the small town where he has settled. When he feels conflicted over an invitation to visit a friend he confides in his clear thinking and plainspoken assistant, Mrs. Brown. He describes the exchange in his diary:

“We discussed it again this afternoon, or rather I talked. Justifying my absurd fear of travel and exposure, despising it all the while. My face must have been the Picture of Dorian Gray. At the end, when he goes to pieces.

She used the quiet voice she seems to draw up from a different time, the childhood in mountain hells, I suppose.

“What do ye fear will happen?”

There was no sound but the clock in the hall: tick, tick.

“Mr. Shepherd, ye cannot stop a bad thought from coming into your head. But ye need not pull up a chair and bide it sit down.””

Those last two sentences stopped me in my tracks. Resonance. Truth.

When those self-defeating and crazy-making thoughts come…I don’t have to make them a nest? I don’t have to cajole or argue or submit evidence to their contrary? I don’t have to analyze them exhaustively? I imagine rolling my eyes, saying, “Oh, you again,” and firmly shutting the door. Peace. Let the jackals wait outside. That’s where they belong. No doubt someone has suggested this to me before, but in that quiet room with Mrs. Brown, Harrison and his agony, the message made it through the bottleneck in my head. Did it fix me? Sadly, no, it did not, but perhaps that is unrealistic. I suspect this is a road I’ll never get off entirely, and that traffic jams will come and go, but for now the cars have shifted and I am back at my keyboard.

What passage or author has unlocked a traffic jam or stopped the world for you?

Beautiful Dancers

A week and a half ago, some cloudiness on my annual mammogram triggered two more mammograms, an ultrasound and a core needle biopsy. With our recent and plentiful family history of breast cancer, this was worrisome. However, my time-honored strategy of dealing with problems on a strictly intellectual level and forcing my emotions into a long but fitful nap served me well. Really, what had changed? Except for some bruising from the biopsy I was exactly the same as I had been the blissfully ignorant week before. Being aware of a potential problem without verification is really, bottom line, an exercise in stress management. Try to save the panic for later, focus on breathing now.

Over the weekend after the biopsy (but before the results) I packed for a trip to my younger sister’s to help look after her boys (with our other sister) for a couple of days, prepared my house as well as I could for a bunch of impending company (Mr. Wordtabulous’ cousin was getting married the following weekend and we would need place for five additional beloved people to sleep,) and rode that mental teeter-totter that goes, “I am in trouble; I am absolutely fine.” Regardless of what the results turned out to be, I knew that I was fine. I have everything I need and I was (and am) grateful for that. Still, it was wearing. Due to a technological black hole and some phone battery issues, it took the nurse two days and eight tries to reach me (they don’t leave messages,) to tell me all is well, which (even though I knew I was fine,) was still a relief to hear.

My time with the nephews was wonderful, and spending time this past weekend with Mr. W’s family was just as much so. At the dance after Becky and Brandon’s wedding I watched people gather, hug, eat and laugh. But not everything was awesome. Beneath the celebration there was heartache: for the passage of time, for loved ones departed, for one of our shining stars who is waging war on cancer. I felt the surge of  emotional riptides.  Out on the dance floor tiny girls in party dresses spun and hopped with mommies and daddies, next to luminous young women I first knew as tiny girls twenty years ago, next to teenage youth surrounded by people who have loved them their whole lives. Aunts and uncles and parents, new loves and long-time marrieds were out there. People facing crumbling marriages, homesickness, illness, disappointment and loss abandoned their cares and joined in. Survivors of those very same challenges turned and stepped in rhythm and in joy, reminding us that the dance isn’t just for the one moment, celebrating the vows we had witnessed a few hours before. The dance is the celebration of the enduring hope and love that makes us powerful in the face of pain, love that extends generations into the past and into the future.

Thank you, all of you made beautiful in your love and struggle, for the dance.

What’s Cooking?

Writing is like cooking. It looks so easy and fun when somebody else is doing it, but is a total freaking mess and full of traps when I go at it on my own. Reading a book primes my literary pump the same way watching a cooking show gets me thinking “chef’s hat,” inspiring all kinds of confidence and energy because I see the beautifully produced final product, not the labor, the re-writes or the re-takes (when the plot twist or souffle implodes.) By the time I start bleeding, because knives and other sharp  utensils really aren’t my thing, or by the time I am painfully knotted in a narrative thread, it is too late to completely turn back. Sure, I could toss the mess in the garbage, clean off the countertops and call for pizza. I could close without saving and pull out a new book to read. But the ghost of the unfinished dish or story will haunt me, prodding me to try again. “Come back!!” it will wail in a ghostly voice, and, my friends, I need no more voices in my head telling me to do anything. It is noisy and crowded in there as it is. When I see it through to the end, even if I don’t particularly care for the result (and my assorted Philistines have nothing favorable to say,) I can still feel some satisfaction, or at least humorous resignation toward the experience. Maybe it wasn’t a success, but it was progress.

Writing, cooking, academic performance, or even living: it is harder than it looks. Obstacles arise. Natural ability only takes you so far and the rest is work and perseverance. Sigh. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a mess in my kitchen I need to attend to.

Speaking of Poe,

Okay, we weren’t speaking of Poe, but after my last post and my rather self-conscious reference to “the feather light caress of mortality’s scythe,” I have been thinking about him. Like a lot of people, I hit a patch in my tween and teen years when I read a lot of Edgar Allen Poe and other authors who made the macabre an art form. I would probably have been at least a little bit goth, had there been such a thing in those days. I have never fully emerged from that patch; part of me loves the dark side, though I’d rather read it than watch it and prefer suspense to blood and gore. (Side Note: my friend Darlington tells me that in his culture–Rwanda, but in other areas in Africa as well–people love Hollywood movies but cannot comprehend our love of the horror genre. I suspect that if we faced real possibilities of genocide, murderous insurgency, and death by famine and epidemic we would enjoy horror flicks less also.)

So in reflecting how Grandma Marian’s death affected me, I was struck by how my response to death has changed as I’ve aged. Experiencing the loss of my own grandparents as a child, death seemed harsh but unimaginably distant. When one of my schoolmates died of a hidden heart defect we all grieved, but it still seemed the greatest of improbabilities, a one-in-a-million long shot, a lightning strike. Later, I lost a friend to breast cancer and then more and more people, not that much older than me, seemed to be coming out of the woodwork with life-threatening diagnoses and fatal tragedies. I lost my father to a car accident, one friend to an aneurysm and another to a drunk driver, my best friend’s mom and my husband’s mom died of cancer, and my sister and my mom both got cancer. My sister and mother survived, but death, always a possibility on an intellectual level, was becoming undeniable even to my gut. When my husband’s grandmother died, even though she’d lived an abundant life into her nineties, death felt a whisker’s breadth closer. I heard the swoosh of a blade through the air and felt the barest touch of metal to my skin. The scythe, I thought at the time. Now I realize that Poe had it right; it is a pendulum, and it is nearing. My husband’s grandfather confided to him before he passed on some years ago, that he was ready to die. He’d had a good life, he said, and all his friends were already gone. With this most recent funeral, it struck home that perhaps every loss as you age cuts deeper.

Some cope with this reality by chasing sex, things, or inebriation; or by creating a legacy through child-bearing, corporate empire-building, or writing a book. Then there is God. Some would charge that religious faith is just the covers a child hides under, hoping they will shield him from the horrors in the dark. I believe it is more than that. My faith, imperfect as it is, doesn’t protect me from death or loss, or even worry and fear. It does shore me up when I start to crumple, and it does help me reach out past my own self interest in a loving way to others, especially those others I find hard to love. It gives me an assurance of a bigger plan that I don’t need to understand to play a part in. And all it asks is that I keep trying, even as that figurative pendulum swings ever closer. I can do that. Maybe I can build a legacy of sort, as well.

The life of Edgar Allen Poe had its share of horror, but his legacy of literature has excited the imagination for nearly two centuries. The movie The Raven, starring John Cusack (one of my favorite actors,) is released Friday (April 27th) and I am looking forward to it. Poe, played by Cusack, teams up with a detective to catch a serial killer, who stages his kills based upon Poe’s stories. I don’t expect the same level of entertainment from the movie that I derived from Poe’s stories and poems, but I hope it is well done. That is the least we can ask from a film that dares to invoke a master of the macabre.

What movies and books give you shivers and thrills? A few of my top listed books: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury and It by Stephen King. Movies: “What Lies Beneath” and “Coraline.”

Working Girl: The Wisest Teachers I Ever Worked With

The job I held the longest in college was working for a company that  taught living and employment skills to developmentally disabled adults. I worked overnight and weekend shifts in the supervised living apartments for fifteen months. Clients who lived there were termed “high functioning”: people who had the potential of someday living independently. I believe there were seven two-bedroom apartments in addition to the office and a laundry room. It was a great job, involving a lot of hours, not bad pay, and very interesting clients and staff to work with. I was toying with a major in Psychology at the time, and this seemed a decent way to get some firsthand knowledge of the interesting and sometimes tragic things that can cause problems in the human brain, and how those problems manifest.

One of my first duties on a weekend shift was to take some clients to the grocery store with another staff person. My task was to help them make sure they got everything on their list, and that they paid for it as budgeted. Some clients had written lists, others had pictures. The other staff person took three people, and I took three and since it was pretty tightly organized, it went smoothly. We got the looks, though. In the aisles, as shoppers were picking out their Dinty Moore stew and their macaroni and cheese, they watched us doing the same thing, a college girl and three middle-aged people with obvious disabilities, moving as a closely knit unit through the store. A woman in her forties stopped me and said, “I just think it is wonderful what you are doing; I know I couldn’t do it.”  “Uh, thanks,” I stammered. What I was doing wasn’t that difficult, actually, although three grocery lists were a little more than I was used to managing, but I understood what she was saying. And it bothered me. I felt she was making a bigger deal of it than it was, to justify why she preferred not to deal with people who are different. We were just folks getting groceries, for Pete’s sake. We weren’t leaking contagion, or howling epithets at passersby, we were just checking to see if our cash on hand would allow us to spring for a can of spaghetti WITH meatballs. And feeling pretty pleased with ourselves at the checkout, when all the purchases were successfully paid for with the money in the envelopes, and all the prized food was ready to go back to the apartment. Mission accomplished.

But back at the ranch, as I was fond of saying, my inexperience created a difficulty. Karen (not her real name, no real names here today) a woman with Down’s Syndrome and on a diet to avoid additional weight gain, had unpacked her food and put away her pudding cups in the cupboard. My understanding was that she had to keep her pudding cups in the office, because of her tendency toward pudding frenzy (a phenomena I am personally familiar with.) My insistence on taking the pudding with me to the office had her in furious tears, and I felt awful. They were hers, she insisted, and she could TOO keep them! But rules are rules and I was the authority and she sorrowfully watched me confiscate the beloved snack. I felt like a monster, but wanted to help her keep to her program. When I got the office, Bill, the program manager, informed me that Karen had just moved to a new level of her program and COULD have the pudding cups in her kitchen as a reward for keeping her weight down and showing self-discipline. A fact that she was well aware of. “Oh, good Lord, I have to go apologize,” I said, turning around immediately. The joy in Karen’s eyes when I handed her the pudding with a sincere apology had a lot less to do with the fact she’d gotten her food back than it did with the relief we both felt that I was no longer a jack-booted thug, but a friendly helper and all was right with the world! We celebrated our reconciliation with a good laugh. “You’re all right!” Karen exclaimed happily, telling her roommate Sheryl, who had cerebral palsy, “I like her!” Karen pretty much liked everybody, but I have rarely felt so happy to get a thumbs up. Sheryl laughed with us, just glowing with happiness that everyone was getting along, her wiry arms clapping her hands together with difficulty, forcing each word through uncooperatively locked muscles in her throat and jaw.

The night shift was full of silence. The hours were something like 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and in that time the lone staffperson was expected to stay awake, do some quiet cleaning, medication counting and set-up, and regular rounds to make sure all was well. Some of our residents had seizure disorders of one kind or another, and one in particular, Mark, had to be monitored. Mark was a strapping man, who had a relatively minor cognitive delay and some speech difficulty. He had a job, and didn’t really have any need for programs to help him learn independent living skills. He would probably have had an apartment  and a car, or better yet, a motorcycle, which he would have loved, except for a catastrophic case of epilepsy. When he was having a a grand mal seizure, which he did at least once a week, his whole body went rigid and spasmed as if he was being electrocuted. As a witness, I felt helpless, and as the person seizing, Mark felt even worse. After an episode he almost always glared at anyone standing by and staggered off to the bathroom in humiliation, having to change his clothes after losing control of his bladder and nearly everything else. He hated the seizures. Every night, after he fell asleep, when we checked in on him on rounds, we had to move the radio he listened to away from the side of his bed, so he wouldn’t land on it if he fell out of bed. One night I happened to hear him thumping against the wall in seizure mode, and ran into his room to watch in horror as his body, stiff as a board, heaved up onto his right side and he tipped over, off the twin bed, landing flat on his face on the floor, catching his broad shoulder on the radio, which I had left two inches too close. The next day an angry purple bruise in the shape of a right angle commemorated the incident. He held no hard feelings, he said, but as always, he didn’t want to talk about it.

Mark’s roommate for part of the time I worked there was Philip. Philip had lived a long, relatively normal life, but was succumbing to a form of dementia that was eroding his ability to reliably take care of himself. He was a small, sweet man, fond of talking to himself as though he were making commentary to a beloved, quiet spouse always nearby. He referred to a lot of things as she: “Yep, she’s a nice day out there,” or “Yep, she’s a red car, there on the road.” One Saturday I was in their apartment, performing a routine annual maintenance task: pulling the electric range out from the wall and cleaning behind it. In order to do this, I had to remove the drawer underneath the oven, lie on the kitchen floor in the narrow galley kitchen, and unplug the appliance so it could be moved. Philip was in the living room while I worked. I grasped the thick plug and tried to pull it from the outlet, but it was really tight and only pulled out a hair, so I wiggled as close as I could and tried to get a better grip. As I pulled, my finger slipped and touched the prong. 220 volts of electricity coursed through my body, and I don’t remember a thing about it. When I came to, the oven plug was lying on the floor next to the outlet. I was still on the kitchen floor, but my back was now pressed against the refrigerator across the galley from where I had been. I could hear Philip in the next room saying, “Yep, she’s a yellin’ in there,” so I guess I must have given out a squawk of some kind. I slowly got to my feet and staggered off to the office, exhausted and headachey, but glad I didn’t have to change my pants. I decided to leave the rest of the oven work for the next shift.

Sarah had a particularly sad situation. She had lived a fully independent life, until she had accidentally fallen asleep in a running car, or at least that was the official story. Carbon monoxide poisoning had destroyed her short term memory. She read books, and did crossword puzzles and was very productive at the Work Skills Center, where she and other clients worked simple jobs under supervision and earned small paychecks. Sarah couldn’t remember what day it was, or if she had gone to the park that day or had dinner yet. It made her nervous. She kept a calendar and checked off daily events so she could keep track of her life, but it wasn’t enough. “Well, isn’t that a stupid thing!” she said often, perhaps fifteen-twenty times a day, either with a look of amused “Am I right?” in regards to the hat and mittens that turned up in the office where she left them instead of in her closet where she expected; or in anxiety because feeling lost all the time was getting her down, and there was no soup in the cupboard and soup was what was on her menu, and it was ALL stupid, the menu, the missing soup, and the uncertainty of whether the soup was missing because perhaps she ate it an hour before and forgot to check it off; or in full-on tears, defeated yet again by the checkbook register she was re-learning to use. Every day she practiced the same steps, trying to do the task without relying on written instructions. If she could, it meant the repetition was helping her shift the skill into her long-term memory. Some days it seemed that the only thing she remembered about the task was the incessant frustration. She remembered some things about her previous life, I was told, but she never talked about it. She smiled often and kept going, but I thought her life must be a form of hell.

We kept track of the clients’ money, medications, and progress towards their goals. We took them shopping and on recreational outings to the movies, or the pool. They checked in with us in the office if they wanted to go for a walk, or visit a friend in one of the other facilities in town, or most exciting, go out with a friend or family member who came to spend some time with them. We tried to keep them safe. One Sunday afternoon a couple of the women came into the office with a young man. “This is my friend, Joe,” one of the women told me, smiling. “He came to visit. We are going to get ice cream, okay?” This was unusual. Most visits, which were sadly rare, were set in advance. “How do you know each other?” I asked. “He is from my home town,” she answered. “Sorry, I didn’t know I needed to call ahead,” the guy said. The other woman with them over-enthusiastically affirmed they were old friends, but I couldn’t tell if her dramatic assurances were anything more than her usual over-the-top exuberance.  I couldn’t tell if the twist in my gut was a red flag or just nervousness from an unexpected change to the schedule. The young man was a little skeezy, but no worse than some of my own friends. It seemed cruel to deny the outing just because it wasn’t pre-arranged. I let her go. Of course, the guy turned out to be a perv she had met just that day and he had sex with her. She came home with ice cream and the intrigue of having gone on a “date;” she had been exploited, but was otherwise relatively unharmed. I was sick with regret. I got very, very drunk with the result that I do not drink whiskey to this day. The perv was prosecuted and I testified at the grand jury trial. I missed a hiking trip on Spring Break my junior year because the full jury trial was scheduled for then, but at the last minute the perv plead guilty and I didn’t have to testify after all.

That was a tough one. I still have a hard time letting go of the guilt, and it colored the rest of my experience there. I was also worn down to the bone from staying up all throughout the overnight shifts and attending classes during the day, and trying to get my studying done and sleep in between. There were some great memories though, like the Thanksgiving I spent with the residents who didn’t have anywhere to go, where we cooked the whole feast and I actually remembered how my mom made turkey gravy and it turned out. Everyone was so happy about it. Everyone there was usually pretty happy, and it changed the way I saw life. You could argue that they were happy because they didn’t have the capacity to grasp everything wrong with their life and their world. I had a psychology professor who once compared mentally handicapped people to animals. I confronted him after class and burst into tears (because confrontation rattles me,) to both our embarrassment. I’d argue that most of us lack the sense to let go of the BS that makes life so grim, so that we can embrace the minor wins in life that make it rewarding beyond all measure. Soup in the cupboard? Amazing! A friendly word from someone? A miracle! The utter BS that trips us up? It happens; move on, pal and open up for that next amazing, miraculous moment. Anybody can see that this is a good approach, but it takes a person with a special kind of wisdom to live it.

Related Post: Working Girl: The Summer of No Sleep

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Midnight Muse and the Aftermath

If you have been hanging with me for awhile, you have witnessed my complaints about my cat, who waits until we are cozy in our bed to jump up and start a discussion, which tends to involve some pacing (on Catabulous’ part) and a lot of position changes (on everyone’s part.) Until finally we (I) decide it is worth it to get out of the warm covers and secure the cat in the basement with as much self-control as I can muster. Perversely, I sometimes think this is what he wants, like a tired and cranky toddler throwing a fit because he is begging to be put to bed. Put yourself in the basement, I try to tell him. But the language barrier, you see my problem. I am going a little farther with this metaphor than I need to, but I am tired. Last night, my problem wasn’t the cat, who was confined to the basement BEFORE we got into bed (ha HA!) Last night, after about an hour and half of sleep to take the edge off the bone-grating weariness I had acquired throughout the day, my eyelids fluttered open and somebody else wanted to start a discussion. My muse.

Stop looking at me like that. The muse is REAL. If you don’t have a muse that literally speaks to you, you are probably imagining me posing theatrically, one hand to my heart and the other to the ether, as a toga draped nymph whispers in my ear. I would LOVE to set up a shot like that, but I have unbelievable bedhead today and all the little girls in my neighborhood that I might dress in a toga for the image are at school right now. The more I think about it, the more I want to do it. Good LORD, sleep deprivation is the death of impulse control. If I decide to do the picture, I’ll update the post later. Moving on. So yeah, as I was saying, the muse is REAL. I will not disparage her because to do so seems to me to be the height of stupidity, but she is kind of…persistent? And…loud? One random thought leads to a phrase, which gets reworked and reworked until another phrase or two is formed. Then maybe a sentence that is relevant but not precisely connected. Then, I start to worry that I am going to lose the thread of what I am putting together, because my memory and attention span are really not all that good, but this line of thinking is becoming very interesting, almost brilliant. I also realize that I am getting farther and farther from sleep, so I grab for the assortment of notebooks and post-it pads that I keep on my bedside table, to get the high points written down so I can let the rest go and slip back into blessed slumber. But I have no pens. Ever. Maybe a pencil too dull to use. I dither. Will I remember in the morning? Will I kick myself for not writing it all down? Experience says ‘No’ and ‘Yes.’

Last night, for some reason, I went into our bathroom, thinking maybe there might be a pen in there, even though I know better, and  considered digging out my eyeliner pencil for a quick note, but I was making a lot of noise walking around and crashing into things already, which was stressing me out. More and more awake. I gave up and groped my way into the guest room, running into the hollow core door with a resonant “donk!” as I did, then switched on the light and finally made three notes for a post on music. Good for me! Back to bed. But my muse was not done with me. Snatches of  songs chased around in my head, particularly one from my childhood, one I suspected was the key to shutting the party down. I slumped with resignation, then flipped back the covers and grabbed a pillow and Grandma’s quilt I keep nearby for this kind of night. I crept through my nighttime house and collected my iPod, which I set to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #14 in C Sharp Minor, also known as “Moonlight Sonata.” It is a song I heard my mother and both my older and younger sisters play on the piano innumerable times as I grew up. In fact, during a homesick time in college I asked my younger sister to tape record herself practicing the piano so I could listen when I felt blue, and this was one of the songs she played. During one section of repetitive, quiet lines her voice is recorded on the tape saying, “Wake up, Lynnette,” which always made me laugh. I still listen for that strain. It is the kind of song that requires my full attention, and evokes more emotion than imagery, which quiets my brain. I listened to it three times before my muse agreed we were through for the night and slipped off to wherever she goes. Which is what I think she was looking for all along. Perhaps she was tired and cranky and needed me to play a little bedtime music; all the rest was just a setup, her version of my cat’s pacing and mrrowing for my attention. I looked at my notes this morning (had 100% forgotten what I’d written down,) and they aren’t bad, but in daylight they lack the brilliance I had hoped for. I think the best I can hope for is that if this continues, my sleep-deprived altered consciousness might eventually come up with something really interesting. For now, I must go and do something about this hair.

Moonlight Sonata:

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When Time Stops, The Night Sky

One of my bests from childhood was sky-watching. We lived on the flat, open prairie, with few houses or buildings to significantly block the horizon in any direction. On our deck in the company of family or friends, I watched thunderstorms build from miles away and approach with lightning  and thunder rocking the sky and earth, only driving us in when wind and rain reached us under the rooftop overhang. The Northern Lights danced the skies in silence more rarely, silencing us in its beauty. On clear nights in all seasons I’d lie down in the front yard, far enough from everything that all I could see was the sky. Without trees or buildings in your peripheral vision to anchor you, you perceive that you are truly on a sphere in space. That up is no different from down and instead of securely looking up at the sky, you are suspended above the deepest abyss of indigo, midnight and black, set with blazing and muted planets, stars and galaxies, with our own galaxy, indeed, a faded milky streak across the panorama, so impossibly distant it is hard to believe it is home.

The infinite is all around us, all the time. We and everything around us are made up of unimaginably small particles that are buzzing around furiously, as we are suspended in an incomprehensibly large universe full of uncounted objects that are also in constant motion. Quantum and cosmic meet inside our minds where we ponder these great unfolding mysteries. This comforts me on days when little things insist they are a big deal.