Friday, April 30, 2021

A Month of Moping

I've just finished a month of moping. 

Actually, it's more accurate to say that I've just finished several months of moping, but for this past month I gave myself explicit, formal permission to mope. (Also to weep and wail, with occasional bouts of blubbering.) 

Reeling from my husband's death in January, and a devastating book rejection in February, and a mass shooting in my neighborhood in March,  I decided not to even try to accomplish anything in April, except for whatever was required by teaching/mentoring jobs to which I was already committed. But nothing more than that. 

No new writing projects. 

No promotional efforts for the two books coming out later this year.

No goals. 

No dreams. 

I described my plan for the month, with some excitement, as "pitiful but not unpleasant." I convinced myself that my time would best be spent simply by passing time: merely by getting through each day, preferably while lying on the couch doing Sudoku puzzles on my i-Pad. I just needed to cross off the days till these current work commitments (all of which I love, by the way) would come to an end. Then surely, once I had emptied my life of everything else, I'd have the space, time, and energy to figure out how to revive my stalled career as a writer (this, though I'd published several dozen books over several decades while working full time at a demanding career AND raising a family). 

After all, as COVID and winter dragged on and on, wasn't the whole country listless and lethargic? The New York Times even had an article about it: "There's a Name for the Blah You're Feeling: It's Called Languishing." Okay, I might as well surrender to the current malaise and languish right along with everybody else. And so I did. 

But I'm here to report that a full month of languishing is less satisfying than one might think. By yesterday I was bored with being bored. I was tired of telling everybody how tired I was. I was sick of being sick of everything. 

So yesterday I did three farewell Sudoku puzzles, gave my i-Pad a gentle kiss, and placed it in an inconvenient location in the garage. I took myself to the Denver Botanic Gardens this morning, with a tote-bag full of stacks of paper containing possible book ideas I'd scribbled down in the past, and realized that my problem was NOT, as I had thought, that I had NO book ideas, but that I have so many I just need to close my eyes and let my finger fall upon one. Maybe it will be a bad idea, but a bad idea can turn into a good idea if I just start working on it. It will not turn into a good idea if it lies dormant in a tote-bag. 

Tomorrow is May 1. I will start a new life! A new, non-languishing life! Or at least I'll try. 

April was my month of refusing even to try.

May is going to be my month of trying.







Saturday, March 27, 2021

Horror and Heartbreak in My World This Week

One friend had just been been putting on her shoes to head out the door, grocery list in hand. 

Another friend had pulled into the parking lot but hadn't yet left her car.

A third friend was in the store when she heard pop-pop-pop sounds and took off running. She found a tall stack of crates by a back door to hide behind and managed to cover her crouched-down self with a pile of King Soopers aprons. Only later was she escorted out of danger by the SWAT team.

And then there was the friend whose husband went to the store to pick up a few things and never came home. Victim photos show Kevin Mahoney, age 61, walking his daughter down the aisle last year for her beautiful wedding; she is pregnant now with a grandchild he will never hold. When I heard his name read out two days later, as one of the ten slain, I committed the crime in my heart of hoping it was somehow some other person with that same name, as if that other person's life was mine to wish away instead. 

And then there was 51-year-old Teri Leiker. I didn't recognize her by her name, but did by her photo. We all did. She had worked at King Soopers as a bagger for thirty years, serving faithfully on the front lines during a global pandemic, mowed down as she served customers for the last time. Everyone is sharing memories of how Teri always remembered, with a smile, that they wanted paper not plastic, or wanted their bags packed not too heavy. 


I was out walking my dog half a mile away when I got a friend's text about an active shooter at our neighborhood store. Maybe the sirens had already been wailing and I hadn't noticed, lost in my own thoughts. But I heard them then, and saw the helicopters circling overhead, and got another text, this time from my son telling me to go home NOW and stay there. It wasn't much later that my phone began exploding with frantic texts from loved ones across the country: "Are you okay? Please let me know that you're okay."

I was "okay" in the sense they meant, but in another sense none of us here in this neighborhood is okay. Gun violence can't touch the lives of anyone and leave them "okay." 

This store was a community hub. It was almost unheard of to go there without bumping into friends or neighbors and having a chat in the produce section or checkout line. My older son had his first job in the Starbucks there. My two little granddaughters used to love riding in one of the store's shopping carts that had a little plastic car affixed on the front of it: extremely unwieldy to maneuver in crowded aisles, but the joy of the preschool crowd. Rides (price: a penny) on the little horses by the checkout were another huge treat. At least two King Soopers checkers invariably ask after the girls when they aren't with me: "When are you getting your girls? Will they be here for Easter?" 

This store is now surrounded by yellow tape as the crime scene where ten people were murdered this past Monday. 

I created this blog in part to process my experiences and offer myself little life lessons that I can share with the rest of you. This time I have none. Yes, tragedies like this show that life is fragile and precious. Yes, make sure you tell friends and family RIGHT NOW how much you love them. Yes, America has too many guns and too little political will to make sure tragedies like this stop happening. If we didn't do anything after 26 people, including 20 children ages six and seven, were killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary, why would we do anything when another ten more people are killed at a grocery store? Yes, these tragedies feel vastly more real when they happen to you, but now you know that all tragedies happen to some real, actual human beings. Yes, start savoring every moment you spend shopping in your own neighborhood store with groceries packed up by your own cheery bagger. 

I have nothing to add to this list. It's actually a pretty good list, I guess, or as good as any such list can be.
 
Oh, and yes, love is powerful, and beautiful, and a world with love in it is a better world for that reason. Here, two final photos of the outpouring of love for the victims of the King Soopers massacre in 
Boulder, Colorado, on Monday, March 22, 2021, and for their families, their community, and our broken world.







Thursday, March 18, 2021

What to Do While You Are Waiting to Hear from the Universe

You are waiting to hear back from the universe about something that matters to you a great deal. 

You might hear this month. Or next month. Or the month after that.

The longer it takes for you to hear, the less likely it is that you will hear what you hope to hear. 

You are fairly good at estimating probabilities about this sort of thing, and your best guess is that you only have a 5 percent chance of getting good news, anyway. 

Good news would bring a small jolt of much-needed joy to your life and reassurance that your career is not over. 

Bad news would spell the end of your career, or at least you think it would, but you have a feeling you may be exaggerating a wee bit in thinking this.

So the question is what you should do while you are waiting to hear.

This is STRATEGY NUMBER ONE: 

1. Check your email every few minutes. If you are sitting by your computer, which for some reason gives a little ding if an email arrives, listen for the ding. If you are out and about, just keep checking your phone. Occasionally make yourself wait a full ten minutes before checking. Surely if you do this, the universe will reward you with good news, right? 

2. In between dings, lie on the couch and do Sudoku puzzles on your I-pad, even though this always makes you feel terrible about yourself. 

3. In between Sudoku puzzles, eat squares of raw cookie dough. Right now you have available Annie's Organic Oatmeal Raisin and the ever-reliable Nestle Tollhouse Chocolate Chip.

4. Also work your way through a bag of Reese's peanut butter Easter eggs.

5. Repeat daily.

This is STRATEGY NUMBER TWO:

1. Do anything OTHER than 1-5 above. Take a walk. Read one of the half dozen enticing library books you have in a pile by your couch, including the extremely engrossing new 900-page biography of Sylvia Plath. Do the 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle of Amsterdam that you bought as a treat for yourself. Work on the delightful online course you are teaching. Read a friend's manuscript and give her insightful comments. Revise that darned article (see previous post)! Write a poem. Write ideas for a possible new book. Write anything at all. Call a friend. Call two friends. Call three friends. 

As you may have guessed, I've been following STRATEGY NUMBER ONE, and I have to confess it isn't working as well as I had hoped. I'm thinking tomorrow I might at least try STRATEGY NUMBER TWO.

What do you think?


Monday, March 8, 2021

Just Suck It Up and Revise the Darned Thing!

My new year's goal for 2021 was "Bliss, Not Dread." Spelled out a bit more fully: Do more of what I love, less of what I hate. Well, I retreated from the "bliss" ambition in the face of some personal heartbreak, but I was still holding on to the "dread" part of the equation. Why should I, in my depleted and diminished state, seek out any projects that would make me even more miserable? 

In my trusty little notebook, I made two lists, one of THINGS I LOVE and one of THINGS I HATE, so I wouldn't get confused. Included under THINGS I HATE were: 
1. anything that makes me feel bad about myself
2. pretending to be an expert
3. trying to please reviewer #2!

For those of you who are not academics, let me explain about "reviewer #2." Articles submitted to academic journals are sent out for double-blind peer review. Two experts in your field read your paper and write up their comments and recommendations for or against publication. You don't know who they are, and they don't know who you are (except that sometimes your field is small enough that it's easy to guess, on both sides). A very common verdict is "revise-and-resubmit": heed the reviewer comments, revise accordingly, and send it back to the same journal (usually with the same reviewers) to see if they are happier this time. Almost invariably one reviewer is fairly enthusiastic and wants only minor changes. And the other reviewer . . . is not. That reviewer has come to be known as "reviewer #2." 

Well, last summer I received comments on a children's literature article, and sure enough, reviewer #1 was fairly positive and reviewer #2 was downright scathing, though still recommended that I revise "substantially" and resubmit. Here is a sample of "scathing": "One of the key issues the author should consider addressing in revision is the essay's overall lack of purpose and coherence"!!!! That was one of FIVE similarly damning comments. And even reviewer #1's comments were annoying, pointing out grievances about how I used semi-colons and parentheses. 

I am retired. I have no need of any further items on my c.v. And in fact, the universe as a whole is remarkably indifferent to whether there are any further articles published by me about anything. I do NOT need to engage in the enormously dispiriting work of trying to deal with problems regarding purpose, coherence, and semi-colons!

And yet . . . I just discovered that my little granddaughters aren't coming to us this month because of their recent COVID exposure. I had cleared an entire week to take care of them, a week that is now given to me as a gift. I haven't been able to face any creative projects right now. How should I use that week? Hmmm... well, maybe I could at least try to revise that article... maybe I should at least TRY.

So here are my stern-but-encouraging thoughts to myself as I gird up my loins for revision.

1. I have published MANY academic articles in my life, both in philosophy and children's literature, at least several dozen. With only two exceptions (one outright acceptance and one outright rejection), I have ALWAYS received a revise-and-resubmit verdict. The comments have ALWAYS been scathing. But I have ALWAYS managed to do enough to address them that the paper ended up getting published.

2. It was work for the editor of the journal to recruit these reviewers. It was work for them to read my (purposeless, incoherent) article (with its flawed use of semicolons); reviewer #1 (the nice reviewer) took the added time to send very helpful line-by-line comments, particularly on the introductory section. It feels moderately wrong to blow off their efforts and just walk away.

3. I myself spent several months on the article and poured a lot of love into it. Doesn't this article deserve another two weeks of effort to find it a home? Also, in the past, despite much wailing and gnashing of the teeth, I've always thought the reviewer-prompted revisions strengthened the paper enormously. 

4. I am spending most of my days moping and brooding. Isn't it better to do something useful? And whenever I send something off into the universe I have a lovely little tingle of anticipation that something nice MIGHT happen.

I am going to do this thing! I am going to please reviewer #1 and make at least a stab at pleasing reviewer #2. I am going to suck it up and revise the darned thing!

Wish me luck!

Sunday, February 28, 2021

From Bliss to Blah

My new year's goal was supposed to be such a simple one: BLISS, NOT DREAD. That wasn't too much to ask, was it? Just a daily dose of bliss, preferably from writing something brilliant and beautiful?

But then my husband died... and I got a devastating book rejection that made me think maybe my career as a writer is over, and maybe I'm okay with that, except not really okay... and COVID lingered and lingered, and winter lingered and lingered. 

I did find joy in launching my online graduate Ethics and Children's Literature course at Hollins University, where teaching is the closest thing the academy offers to a total love fest. I enjoyed working with three aspiring authors through the mentorship program sponsored by our local chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. And I adored taking part in poet Molly Fisk's Poem-a-Day Facebook group, where I did succeed in writing a poem from one of her tantalizing prompts every single day for the whole month. So hooray for that.

Still, my life has more "blah" than "bliss" in it right now, and I'm not in the mood to make heroic efforts to do something about this. I'm too tired. I'm too sad. I know I'd perk up considerably if my agent sold the rejected book somewhere else, but that's something outside my control, so I'm trying not to check my email more than every five minutes to see if there is good news on that front. I'd also perk up considerably if I bought myself a ticket to Paris for a post-COVID jaunt (and I do get my first dose of the vaccine tomorrow). But it feels like tempting fate to expect the world to open up to accommodate my travel plans.

So I'm just going to - well, not embrace blah, but accept it for now. There are worse things than blah. I know that as well as anyone.

Here, as my farewell to February, three poems from this month's harvest, one silly and two sad. Maybe a month in which I wrote twenty-eight poems in the company of wonderful fellow poets wasn't such a blah month after all.


The Tunnel’s Lament

Few slow down
to linger by me,
feelin’ groovy.
When times are rough,
I am not their chosen refuge
from troubled waters.
Hart Crane ignored me,
effusive though he was
on certain other subjects
I prefer not to mention.
Those traveling to Terabithia
look elsewhere
for their means of passage.
I can go to nowhere, too,
you know.
I can occasion sighs.
I’ve been crawled through,
collapsed in to.
When will I be loved? 


Self-Pity

 I think of her in the third person,
my younger self. There she is,
 
in girls’ chorus, singing her heart out
for a boy who will never love her back.
 
“More than the greatest love the world has known….”
“Love, look away….”  “Softly, as I leave you.”
 
And I think, she doesn’t know, she has no idea,
that she’ll someday marry someone else,
 
and the marriage will be so hard, so hard,
but she’ll stick it out somehow to the end,
 
to the part where he dies alone
in a nursing home in the midst of a pandemic,
 
and she’ll try to make peace with her grief
by listening over and over again
 
to a You Tube video of Eydie Gorme
singing “Softly, As I Leave You.”
 
And I feel so sorry for that girl,
my heart breaking with pity for her,
 
and maybe a little bit
of pity for me, too.

On This Last Day of February, Almost Two Months Since Your Passing

 

Despite everything, I got out of bed this morning.

Instead of merely making the bed, I yanked

off the covers for laundering, and they are

tumbling in the dryer now. I walked the dog

for half an hour, putting on his sweater

as I do in freezing weather, for warmth

as well as for added adorableness.

After tidying the kitchen, I scrambled myself

two eggs with cheese and sauteed onions

and peppers and let the dog gobble up

what I left behind on my plate. Soon

I’ll take that plate and fork downstairs

for washing, too. Today is another hard

day. But maybe tomorrow will be better,

this new month with its vernal equinox,

the coming of spring, crocuses budding

beneath the snow, sap rising in the trees,

new life stirring somewhere, etcetera, etcetera,

and if not this month, maybe the next one,

or maybe the month after that.


Monday, February 8, 2021

Cured by Poetry?

 The philosopher John Stuart Mill, the most brilliant of all the utilitarians, wrote in his autobiography about what he called "A Crisis in My Mental History." Raised to be a crusading reformer, dedicated to the goal of increasing happiness in all its forms, he reached a point where this goal lost its meaning for him. In a state of deep depression, he wrote,

it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

The only cure he found for this sense of bleak hopelessness was in  . . . poetry. In particular, immersing himself in the poetry of Wordsworth. Wordsworth's poems were 

a medicine for my state of mind. . .they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of.. . . From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence.

Mill was cured by poetry.

I've been in my own bleak midwinter for the past month, not only grieving the recent loss of my husband but also reeling from a devastating, and unexpected, rejection of a book for which I had cherished the highest hopes. Writing has always been my source of bliss. Writing was supposed to be how I would recover from the grief of this family loss. If writing was taken away, to quote Mill, I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

Well, nothing except for poetry.

I rejoined an online poetry group of a dozen or so poets facilitated by the wondrous poet and teacher Molly Fisk. On each morning of the month that the group meets, Molly posts a prompt for us: a striking photo paired with her own evocative caption. Then, if so moved, we write poems in response to this prompt and share them in a private Facebook group. Reactions from the others are welcome, with one crucial caveat: no criticism! not even any helpful "suggestions" for improvement! Just "likes" or "loves" or the occasion "ha-ha" or "WOW!" or a comment lifting up an especially pleasing line or image. 

Now I DO have something to live for, or at least a reason to get out of bed in the morning. What will Molly's prompt be for today??!! I love pondering the prompt  - playing with it - poking around for an idea for what poem I might offer in response. It's fascinating to see what my fellow poets do with that same stimulus, and dazzling to see what some of them produce. 

I have to admit I can get a teensy bit sad that my pitiful little poem isn't as good as some of the others. I'm puzzled - but also intrigued - that some of my poems get more "loves" and comments than others of mine - why? But mainly I try to give up all thought of critique and evaluation and just luxuriate in the joy of creativity and generativity.

It's February 8th today. I have written seven poems so far this month! And I plan to write another one today! Today's prompt is a photo of a wrecked, partially submerged ship that has lush greenery growing up from it (credit: Conor Moore, Australian shipwreck).



 Molly captioned it, "Sometimes shipwrecks turn into islands."

Ooh!

And sometimes despair can turn into a harvest of seven (soon to be eight!) new, not-very-good-but-also-in-some-ways-very-wonderful poems.

What will my poem be today?

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Molly hosts these Poem-a-Month gatherings several times a year, and you can join for a nominal fee. She is hosting the next one in April.


 

Monday, February 1, 2021

Starting the New Year Over Again on February 1

I've always loved beginnings: New Year's Day, Mondays, early mornings before sunrise. The first day of the month is another perennial favorite. I've formed the practice of starting an entire "new life" each month, with plans to rise earlier, work harder, accomplish more on every dimension of my existence. This time, I vow to myself, I truly will "run faster and stretch out [my] arms farther." Or at least I'll do so for a few days, until the new life inevitably peters out, and I wait for the next month's new life to offer its endless possibilities.

This year my new life for January didn't just "peter out"; it imploded altogether with a heart-rending family loss, and I spent the month grieving. Grief obeys no prescribed timetable, of course, so I'll probably spend the rest of my days grieving in some sense. The death of a loved one leaves a hole in one's heart that will never be filled. 

But it's the first of February now, and I have actual work that needs to be done, and done by me. It also happens to be work I love to do. So I'm going to start doing it. A past episode of deep depression a long time ago taught me that it helps a lot to have something you actually HAVE to do. My beloved Spanish philosopher/theologian Miguel de Unamuno wrote,"Work is the only practical consolation for having been born."

So today, on this first morning of this new month, I replied to the last of the condolence cards. I started building the Moodle site for my online graduate course on Ethics and Children's Literature for Hollins University, which begins on February 10. I plan to write a poem for the Poem-a-Day group I joined with fabulous poet Molly Fisk. I'm writing this blog post right now. This afternoon I'm taking a walk with a friend down by beautiful Clear Creek in Golden. 

My (doomed) goal for 2021 was "Bliss, not Dread." My new goal for 2021 doesn't have a catchy slogan. It's just to keep on going, placing one foot in front of another, making slow quiet progress toward doing whatever I need to do. I will rely on what I call my "four pillars of happiness": writing, reading, walking, and friendship. A day is a good one if I write something, read something, walk somewhere, and spend some time with friends (email, phone calls, and ZOOM count, but in-person contact counts most - hence, the plan to walk outdoors, masked and distanced, with a dear friend today). 

If your new year is off to a rocky start, and your best-laid plans have gone agley, you can join me in starting the year over again today. Do at least something to follow through on the old plans, or make some new plans, or toss out plans altogether and just find a bit of happiness where you can. 

Your new life is waiting.