Friday, September 22, 2017

Not What I Planned

This week I had planned to: write my paper submission (on child poet Hilda Conkling) for next year's Children's Literature Association conference (due October 1 to my panel organizer); read the most recent installment of my Hollins graduate student's creative thesis (a novel in verse); and generate nonstop fun for my visiting granddaughters.

I did none of these things.

Instead I went to the emergency room at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday with excruciating lower back pain and constant vomiting, discovered I had a kidney stone large enough to require surgery, and spent the next 36-plus hours lying in a hospital bed awaiting my turn in the operating room. I came home yesterday afternoon without a kidney stone - yay! - but also without much of my usual perkiness and pep.

Some things I learned:

1. Just about anything you have to do can be canceled, and the world will still keep on turning.

2. There are worse ways to spend a day than lying in a comfortable hospital bed, drowsy, dopey, and drugged, cared for by someone else.

3. Nurses are the kindest people in the world, except for church friends, who are even kinder, and kindest of all? Church friends who are nurses. On the second day of waiting, I was lying in the dreary little pre-op room waiting for the surgical procedure that had been postponed a day, and was now delayed again. It was 5 p.m., and I was hungry, with no food or drink since midnight and almost no food the day before; I was bored, tired, restless, and scared. Then Louise from my church, a retired nurse, appeared as a welcome surprise to sit with me: cheering, consoling, a visiting angel.

4. It's better to focus on all the ways in which you are lucky than on all the ways you're not. I was unlucky to lose half a week of my life to this medical ordeal (though it's hardly an uncommon one). But, oh, I was lucky that this wasn't the week of my upcoming Viking River Cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest with my beloved friend Rachel - and that the hospital could fit me into the surgical schedule, however late in the day my slot fell - and that I was even able to arrange the appointment to remove my temporary stent for next week, before I head off for a quick jaunt to Indiana. I continue to be what I call "a lucky unlucky person."

5. Drink water! Lots of it! Every day! Always!

I'm home now, feeling grateful more than anything: to the wonderful medical staff of the Boulder Community Hospital Foothills campus (a beautiful new facility); to my St. Paul's UMC pastor and church family for their unfailing support (and other friends who offered child care, food, rides, company); to the son who took off work to drive me to the ER hours before dawn, losing a day of work (and pay) for my sake; and to the hundreds of Facebook friends, some of whom I've never met in "real life," who answered my anguished cry for help in the middle of a long night of pain with advice, shared stories, insight, and compassion.

So I'm not really a "lucky unlucky person." Just a lucky one. And lucky enough to know it, too.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

"Nothing Surely Is So Potent as a Law that May Not Be Disobeyed"

This is what my hero, Victoria novelist Anthony Trollope, wrote in his inspirational autobiography. He was talking about his practice of writing for a short, fixed span of time early every morning, and thereby producing dozens of sprawling novels while working full-time for the British Post Office.

For me this year, my law that may not be disobeyed is my commitment to myself to submit something somewhere every single month: creative or scholarly, long or short, old or new. The only rule is that twelve different things have to be submitted, one per month. That's all. Submitted, not accepted. Period.

It's now September. I've met this goal for nine months so far, and I'm track to meet it for the rest of the year. Each time I send something off into the universe, on this schedule, I get that lovely tingly feeling of anticipation that something nice could happen. And quite a few nice things have.

Here is my record of submissions/verdicts so far. (Here, too, I borrow from Trollope, who included in his autobiography a record of every pound and shilling earned on every book.)

January - grant proposal to the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota to do archival research on Maud Hart Lovelace

February - submission of a philosophy paper, "Artistic Integrity" to the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, my swan song as a professional philosopher

March - submission of a children's literature paper on Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes to the Children's Literature Association Quarterly, a revised and resubmitted version of a paper sent there last year

April - submission of a poem to the children's magazine Highlights

May - submission of a children's literature paper titled "Trying to Be Good (with Bad Results): The Wouldbegoods, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, and Ivy and Bean: Bound to Be Bad" to Children's Literature
VERDICT (JUST ARRIVED  YESTERDAY): "Revise and resubmit"

June - short article to the SCBWI newsletter, Kite Tales, called "The Most Underrated Line of Your Book"

July - re-submission of the massively edited "Artistic Integrity" paper (enough changed to count as a new submission according to my self-imposed rule)

August - story ideas sent to an educational publisher interested in working with me, and one full-fledged story pitch

September - my new chapter book, tentatively titled Cooking All-Stars, to my editor at Holiday House

Plan for October: submit my paper abstract for the June 2018 Children's Literature Association conference in San Antonio

Plan for November: submit another idea or two to the educational publisher

Plan for December: revise and resubmit my "Trying to Be Good (with Bad Results)" paper

And then that will be a full year of faithful obedience to this law I have given myself.

For 2018 I'm already planning to try something completely different, to impose some other not-yet-determined-but-unbreakable law upon myself, and wait for what I expect to be dazzling results. For, nothing surely IS more potent than a law that may not be disobeyed.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Worries: Short Term, Medium Term, Long Term

I have a lot of worries these days, so I've been thinking a lot about how best to do my worrying. Of course, the very best way to worry is not to worry at all, as worry itself - as opposed to concerted, strategic planning - is one of the most pointless activities on earth. The Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as asking, "Can any of you add a single hour to your life by worrying?" Mark Twain quipped,"I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened." And yet, most of us are addicted to worry. We just can't stop doing it.

So I sat down recently and sorted my worries into the categories of short term, medium term, and long term. Here's what I figured out.

In the very short term - such as, right this minute - all is actually well with my life. I have a roof over my head, good health, money to pay my immediate bills, work I adore, and loved ones safe and cared for. This actual minute - actually, all of today - is pretty good. I do have stuff to do today: get an oil change for my car, see a dentist for a second opinion regarding the three pricey crowns I've been told I need, write for an hour on my chapter-book-in-progress, read a friend's manuscript, and work with my son to make a dent in the overwhelming volume of paperwork for his impending, very sad divorce. But I can get all of that done. Today is okay!!

In the long term, say, more than a year or two away from now, all bets are off. I have no idea what will happen to me, because anything could: a terrible medical diagnosis, tragedy befalling my family and friends, evaporation of my writing career. Five hundred hideous things could happen. Or not. I have no way of knowing. So here, instead of worrying, I need to focus my energies on maintaining resources that will stand me in good stead whatever happens. I call these the five dimensions of health: physical, mental, emotional, financial, and spiritual. There is no downside to keeping myself fit on all those five dimensions. For me this means walking 10,000 steps a day and watching my weight, keeping intellectually alive through challenging creative and scholarly work, fostering a network of close friends, spending less than I earn, and being an active member of my faith community.

It's the medium term that's the problem. This is where I'm consumed with fears about all of these divorce decisions and paperwork - plus two trips abroad that I committed myself to before my family's need for me intensified so greatly - plus a book to finish, a paper to write for an upcoming conference, and a bunch of other life challenges ranging from pesky to profound. But here what I really need is not to spend my time on worry, but instead to spend it on work - actually getting done what I need to do - and getting it done day by day by day.

That is to say, the medium term is just made up of a bunch of short terms. Each day I need to wake up, express gratitude for the basic okay-ness of my life right now, and take small, regular, manageable steps to do what I need to do. Instead of agonizing about all of my middle-term worries, I'm going to focus on short-term gratitude and small concrete accomplishments, and long-term maintenance of my health on all dimensions.

Worry, begone!