Fishful Thinking

Deeper Understanding of Our Facts

Knowing something and knowing something can be two different things. Most of the time, we know a thing intellectually, like global warming is changing the face of our planet, or that our partner loves us. We accept those things as facts, but it isn’t until we have a sort of emotional awakening to go with that knowledge, that we fully comprehend it.

We see a picture of how a glacier is now 50 percent of what it was a decade ago, or we have a narrow escape and see our partner completely distraught because of it, and we suddenly have a more complete picture of the fact we merely accepted before.

I had one of those recently: I’m approaching elderly.

It’s not as though I wasn’t aware; of course I was. I can count the candles on my cake. I make jokes to the supermarket checkers about being able to remember when an avocado cost a lot less than a buck.

Lately, I’ve been annoyed by a spate of articles blaming everything that’s wrong with modern life on Baby Boomers (and no – realizing we did the exact same thing to our own parents and grandparents and they to theirs doesn’t make it any more palatable). I knew intellectually that I’m considered old by a good sized segment of the population. It’s irritating to have people discount you because you’ve lived longer than them, but it happens. Still, both the number of cake candles and casual ageism were just facts that I accepted as evidence that I’m older. Not the same as knowing it.

Lots of people mark their aging firsts – first grey hair, first noticeable web of wrinkles, first chronic ache or pain. But age can still sneak up on you; you might not really notice even when your social chatter has gone from who’s doing whom, then right past investments and baby sitters, to what the doctor said the last time you had an office visit. Because you never actually feel old. No one does until they can’t help it any more.

And eventually you can’t help it because some thing, a fact, conjoins with experience, causes an emotion, and all of a sudden you realize.

I’ve got some medical issues – most of them related to genetic predisposition (thanks, family), but nothing that can’t be regulated by some medication and a little more attention to self-care. Except for the tendinitis from decades of keyboarding lots and lots of words, I haven’t noticed much difference in my physical life. Then last month, my doctor took me off one medication and moved me to another because she was worried that the previous meds were interfering with my kidney function. Just an adjustment. A minor adjustment. And yet…

All of a sudden, I saw myself at the beginning of the end of the road. I didn’t have a panic attack about it, but I admit to being unsettled. This type of thing is the point where you start looking for mitigation – people in my family tend to live long lives without much frailty and I clutched that observation to me as though it was a life ring. But even as I tried to minimize the effects aging has had on me so far, I truly understood for the first time that, from now on, my life may become more and more circumscribed by a process over which I have limited control.

Someone once said that from the moment we are born, we move towards death. I could have as many as four decades left or as little as one day or even one hour. No one knows when their existence will end, and I’m fine with that.

What gets me is how I went from knowing this thing to knowing this thing.

I attended a block printing workshop a month or so ago and had prepared by drawing what I wanted to print, only to discover my drawing was slightly too large for the block provided. It would have taken a while and materials I didn’t have to reduce the size, so I opted to improvise by drawing something new: A wide-eyed cat with little fish raining down around her.

When I started writing this post, that block print came to mind. We all indulge in fishful thinking – it’s our capacity to imagine, to daydream and turn those dreams into something concrete and touchable that makes for some of our most worthwhile creations. But we’re also the kind of creatures to let facts lay shallow in our minds – to understand them on a thin level, not touching us in any other way until something happens that changes that, which is usually an experience.

So we might say we understand that saying “one day at a time”, but it takes on a deeper, richer meaning when you have to struggle hard to maintain your equilibrium because of addiction or illness, whether yours or someone else’s.

Accepting the facts of your life is something many religions and philosophies strive to teach, but they also teach that we should work for a deeper understanding of ourselves and our world. Deeper understanding can be hard to achieve, despite putting in a lot of work. So it almost seems a wonder – those moments when a fact comes together with experience and emotion to create that deeper understanding. Like an unexpected and unusual rain.

Because we only have the one (physical) life on this planet, living it is the most important thing. But living it with the most understanding of what it truly is – connecting what we know to what we have experienced and what it makes us feel can challenge us and result in a richer understanding and appreciation of our lives, no matter how long they may be.

Driving in a Loop

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A friend linked to a post about being present in the moment and how doing that with her daughter made her see how much of her life was a journey undertaken on well-known roads.

It’s the well-known that makes the days blur one into the other. As children, everything is new to us and each day seems long and intense and full of discovery. As we age, there is less new to our lives and the days shorten and become bland. They no longer require our full attention.

One of the ways we can regain the ability to focus on the moment is to be shocked into it. Dramatic news can do that. Like what seems to be an unwarranted number of creative people dying before 2016 ended. Or the unanticipated shock of a surreal election result.

Another way is to do something different. As the author of the post pointed out, this can be as simple as taking a different way home.

These things I knew.

What I didn’t know but learned in the last few years is that well-known roads are only detrimental if they lead one into complacency – it’s a cul-de-sac where thinking is minimal and much happens on auto-pilot. I lived on a cul-de-sac once, and it was peaceful but boring and sometimes I thought I would go out of my mind living there.

But well-known roads only lead to cul-de-sacs if you take the turn off. And for the last 5 years, I have not. Instead, I’ve continued to drive in a loop.

I never thought this would be me. My younger self was on fire to discover the world and I couldn’t wait to get started. But then my husband became ill and two economic downturns happened. And when it was over, my husband was dead, I’d lost my house and our savings and though outwardly I seemed the same, inwardly I’d lost my courage and my taste for new roads.

I’m better now and getting stronger all the time. But I stay on the well-known roads for the most part because getting off them for any length of time makes me anxious and worried. Minor setbacks still have effect out of their proportion. While this is true, I will continue to travel the loop.

But I have come to know myself well and driving the loop forever is out of the question. Even now, I occasionally take a side road to somewhere I haven’t been before. A quick look around, and then back to the loop. Someday soon I won’t be satisfied by those drive-by experiences. I will get off the loop and mostly stay off it. For the last two years I have been planning trips I want to take and things I want to try, and though I have reasons I haven’t yet done them, I know those reasons are pretty much excuses, and I accept that. The part of me that hasn’t yet healed will continue to resist, but the part of me that longs to be off the loop will continue to plan, and poke, and prod and eventually, the wounded part – which will never be completely healed – will give up.

I know this will happen.

So as I drive, I am patient with myself. I drive the loop, but I am in the moment as well, understanding that I take comfort from the well-known road and accept it at full value, knowing that it will not, cannot, should not, last.

Happy New Year?

Firework @  New year 2014, SFO, CA

Firework @ New year 2014, SFO, CA (Photo credit: madhankumarbs)

One of my favourite parts of being a young teenager was being old enough to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve, and young enough to be able to sleep a few hours and wake up for the Rose Parade with no ill effects. I particularly liked New Year’s Eve because it was the culmination of the whole holiday season, which began with Halloween back in October and the noisemakers, parties, and fireworks seemed like an appropriate way to say goodbye to a time of the year when people (mostly) seemed focused on being nicer than usual. It was also a time when I could feel as though I was a real part of a larger community; anticipating the same events and expecting a lot of the same things – candy on Halloween, turkey on Thanksgiving, presents on Christmas, and light and magic on New Year’s. Which is where the let-down eventually came in for me.

In the U.S., we celebrate big time on New Year’s. So do a lot of other countries. And those on the other side of the international dateline get to celebrate the new year a few hours earlier than we do. But what are we celebrating? Most people would probably say a ‘clean slate’ or ‘fresh start’. In some cultures, preparing for this fresh start includes cleaning the house from top to bottom and paying off all your debts so you start the new year unencumbered. That’s a great tradition and a nice thought, but once any end-of-year holiday time is over, we go back to the projects and problems at the office or at school. Not really much changes except the date. So the idea of a new start is largely a symbolic one, which we could just as well apply to any day in any week or month. And some of us – with our ‘I’ll get back on  that diet tomorrow’ – frequently do.

As a kid, I guess I thought there might be something magical in the change of the date that was celebrated with such enthusiasm. With this change in the numbered year, somehow a new wave of possibilities might be on their way. This might be the year that my hair stopped being so straight and fly-away or I might actually enjoy school or dad might be nicer or flying cars might be invented. But change, though it may seem sudden, is usually not. It takes time and effort for possibility to become reality. So the new tomorrow of January 1st ends up looking a whole lot like December 31st or even like January 1st from the previous year.

Maybe having seen these holidays roll by in their cycle for several decades is why I no longer view New Year’s Eve as a ritual for enticing the universe to shower blessings upon me and mine. I no longer think that if I perform the ritual correctly – having a date and a party to go to, wearing new clothes, and carrying a bottle of champagne – magically, all I have hoped for will come to pass in the next twelve months. I have seen and lost too much to believe in the efficacy of spells concocted by Madison Avenue and societal expectations. But I haven’t lost my belief in possibilities. I still hope the Loch Ness Monster really exists. I tell myself a zombie apocalypse could happen. World peace could actually happen. I’m pretty sure many of my dreams can still come true. I’ll just have to keep working on them; regardless of the date.

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Wanting To Be

I have a story in this anthology; my first published work outside of a magazine

Read this; I’ll wait.

She desired to be a writer, but had not considered making a living as part of the plan. When she did, she gave up the notion of a writing life for a while and ‘did other things.’

I have a few thoughts about this.

One is that doing ‘other things’ isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re able to write all day long and not have to do other things, how good will you be? Even Jane Austen had to work at living in her constricted society, which provided much fodder for her post French revolutionary novels. One can definitely say that she wrote about what she knew. Most of us end up doing other things and write when we can.

Still, why shouldn’t a person who wants to write think about how a full-time writing life might be funded? My mother wanted me to be an attorney, my father wanted me to be either a nurse or a teacher until such time as I married and founded my own family. Idiot that I was, I thought a teaching career meant shoehorning knowledge into the brains of ten year olds and I never thought about becoming a professor of English; despite Career Day, I never had a firm grasp on the options available (which were fairly limited at the time).

I get annoyed with my callow, past self sometimes for being too easily dissuaded. But in the late 1960s, the library lacked the materials that could tell me what a writer’s life was really like and the books that famous writers wrote about writing were nearly unintelligible to a 16 year old with little life experience. There was no internet to browse, and every adult I talked with told me to pick something more serious and suitable for a girl.

What’s more serious than writing, and why can’t girls be writers? I might have asked. But I wasn’t raised to ask such questions. Since I could be stubborn about my writing, I might have chosen writing as a career anyway, but I didn’t know enough about it as a life that I felt I could choose it. I wasn’t confident in making the choice. As it turned out, I did make a living as a writer, putting out user manuals, marketing materials, speeches, and policies and procedures guides.

But there’s something about telling people you are – or want to be – a fiction author. It makes you hesitate. It makes you feel awkward or weird. Even now, when I’m mostly retired, I hesitate. Because I still get those looks, those speculative looks, sizing me up to see if I’m author-worthy. And why do I only feel comfortable saying it now because I’m mostly retired? Isn’t that sort of like saying, “Hey – I’ve done all the important stuff I’m going to do in my lifetime, so now I’ll just amuse myself with writing as a hobby.”? Like I’m asking for their indulgence.

Even people in their twenties probably get that pitying look when they state writing books as a career. Yeah, sure. You’ll find out soon enough, you sweet, deluded kid. Older people can only justify it by being done with traditional things. You can be a technical writer, a blogger/journalist, or a joke writer. But if you want to be a novelist, you’ll have to squeeze it in between family responsibilities and bread-winning. And you don’t mention it.  It’s not something you add on at introductions: “Hi, I’m Bob. I’m an expediter, but someday I’m going to write a novel.” And why can’t you? Because your worth as a creative person is determined by what you sell, not what you produce. Tech writers are paid by someone to write the manuals and online help. Bloggers can be paid by ad sales, nonfiction books about how to be a successful blogger. Journalists are paid by news outlets. Joke writers are paid by the joke and the good ones sell directly to comedians or work for SNL. It’s not art in the public mind, it’s production.

Can you really be considered a novelist if you’ve never been published?  Can you be considered a serious novelist if you pay for your own publishing? It’s weird. People can pay you to be a salesman and no one will question that. Tell them you’re a business owner and you get instant respect. You business might be in Chapter 11 and your employees think you’re the worst boss in the world, but hey – you own a business. Tell them you’re a writer, then tell them you write urban fantasy or science fiction and you can go to the restroom and come back before they can think of something to say.  Who pays the novelist to write?

Okay, this is becoming a Rodney Dangerfield routine…

What I’d like to see happen is that somebody show up on Career Day and tell those kids what it’s like to be a professional writer – that there’s all kinds of ways to do it, just like there are different kinds of engineers and scientists. Plan it like you’d plan for any other career.  If you want to write novels, that’s fine, but it may require some compromises. Unless you’re really, really lucky or really, really good, getting published in the traditional way won’t be easy and you may never hang out on a bestseller list with Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, but it can still be satisfying.

And one more thing – it’s okay to tell other people; just say it with as much confidence as you can and try not to feel weird about it.