Scott King of The Creator’s Cast recently interviewed me. Those interviews are now live. I’ve listened to them and am glad to say that either I didn’t say anything dumb, or that Scott used his excellent editing skills to make me sound good. They are good interviews. Scott asks good questions.
The first is a Meet Sandra Tayler interview where I talk about all of the things that I do. The second digs in deeper to talk about creative process.
This pioneer trek thing is fairly common here in Utah. My facebook page is filled with pictures of folks who’ve already been this year. I looked at their faces. Then I looked at their heads. All the men were happily wearing their hats. All the women had sun beating down on them and bonnets dangling by strings. This tells me that pioneer bonnets are annoying to wear. Note that we have hats instead. I also sewed nice big pockets into all the skirts, because if I have to hiking in a skirt, I want pockets to carry all my things.
Mostly, I’m looking forward to the trek. I like being outdoors. I don’t mind camping. I enjoy hiking. I do carry quite a bit of anxiety about how some of my kids will handle the stress and fatigue. I always get anxious if Howard is likely to be stressed, because some piece of my brain is convinced that preventing his stress is my job. (It isn’t.)
With the majority of the clothing acquired, I can move on down the list of equipment. We’ll be ready when the time comes.
In the heat of summer afternoon I walk into my garage. It is hot in there. Hotter than outside and the thermometer tells me that outside is ninety degrees. I walk into the garage anyway because it is almost organized and I like looking at the neat shelves where there used to be chaos. This has been Kiki’s project for the week. She’s been pulling things off shelves and laying them out where I can see them. With the things arrayed on the floor I can see that almost half of it has no use for us anymore. We’ve thrown things out and taken multiple trips to donate things to good will. There are a few shelves left, but mostly the garage is done. This makes me glad.
There are other projects that I’ll have Kiki do when the garage is done. This is her paid work for the summer. She is my assistant. I have her doing the work which I haven’t had time for. Some of it is shipping or warehouse organization. Quite a lot has been house organization. All of it has made me better able to do my job and is money well spent. Standing in the garage, my mind thinks over those things I hope for her to get done before she goes back to school. I feel an impulse to go look at the calendar, to add up the days, to calculate if there will be time. Instead I keep my feet firmly planted on the concrete steps. Either the things will get done or they won’t. No point stressing myself with schedule math on a Saturday afternoon.
I’m trying to be better about taking the days as they come. I’m trying to stay in the day I’m having rather than always running ahead in my mind. I can’t do it all the time. Part of my job is to track the schedule and plan ahead. This is true both for my publishing work and my parenting work. But surely on a Saturday afternoon I can let that go and just look at evidence of work well done instead of fretting over work yet to do.
When I first ran across this definition, my heart sang a little bit. Because there are times when I am broken and it helps me when I realize that sometimes “broken” is part of the process.
What the definition does not say, is that in many mosaics the tesserae are made of broken pieces of something else. It puts me in mind of the early pioneers who smashed up their fine china to be used in the building of the Kirtland temple. Sometimes things must be broken so they can become something else.
I don’t have a specific place I’m longing for right now, but frequently I find myself wishing for a peaceful retreat in a place of beauty. Rather than trying to resolve this by running off, I’m looking at the qualities that I desire: peace and retreat, restfulness. Then I’m seeking ways to include those into the days that I have here. I’m recognizing that my fernweh has more to do with being in need of rest than a desire to be someplace else.
Every summer we get the public service articles and news casts. “Drowning doesn’t look like drowning!” they tell everyone. And they’re right. Most drownings aren’t made of splashing and screaming. Someone just quietly vanishes into the depths, unable to bring themselves back to the surface where they can breathe. People drown because they’re out of their depth. Because they get too tired. Because once drowning begins, the rational portions of the brain get over ruled by instinctive panic.
Depression is like that too. On the really bad days, people just vanish. I know that my hardest days have me pulling inward, not reaching out. “Get help” everyone says to depressed people, but help is hard to summon if you’re already underwater.
Trial and error is an astonishingly bad way to treat an illness. Unfortunately for many bodily ills, it is all we have. I ran up against this when I had my tumor almost twenty years ago. “Let’s try surgical removal.” the doctors said, only they used many more polysyllabic words. When the tumor came back I was not thrilled to hear “Let’s try surgical removal AND radiation therapy.” It was a relief to talk to the oncologist who walked me through case studies and evidence. He showed me “We know what this is. We can’t guarantee that radiation will work, but it is your best chance.” I took that chance. It was miserable. The emotional after effects took a decade to shake. Yet it worked. I have to remember that in the middle of the process it felt like the doctors were just stabbing away in the dark.
“Have you tried therapy?” “Let’s try this medicine.” “That side effect is unfortunate, let’s try a different medicine instead.” “Well, you have to find the RIGHT therapist. Sometimes it takes a couple of tries.” At first seeking help for mental illness is a hopeful experience. sort of. I don’t know anyone who gets to see a mental health professional before they’re exhausted from managing their issues. You finally get in to see a doctor and that is a triumph. He’s an expert. He’ll know what to do. Then at some point you realize that even the doctors are stabbing in the dark, trying to figure out what will work. They just have a bigger wealth of knowledge and experience. But it is general knowledge, not specific. You have to be the expert on you or on your loved one.
The doctor hands you a flotation device, but you still have to swim to shore. The therapist teaches you how to use your arms and legs effectively, but you still have to swim to shore. Your loved ones want to show up in a boat and rescue you. But this is where the metaphor falls apart a little, because depression doesn’t give you a choice about whether or not you end up in the deep water. Learning to swim is imperative, because sometimes the friends and relatives don’t notice when the drowning happens. They can’t watch all the time. The only way out of the water is to swim. It is hard to watch someone who won’t swim and resists learning.
Lately my life feels like waterworld, no land to be seen, just swimming forever. It doesn’t help when trial and error brings me to a therapist who might be able to help my son if given enough time, but then life events mean that the therapist has to stop being a therapist. I thought we were at a point where we could just keep swimming (Swimming, swimming Dory’s voice sings in my head.) Instead I have decisions to make. Do I continue to use the grad student program and risk another therapist bailing on us? Do I venture out and try to find a different clinic? Do we let it rest for a while and see what the summer brings? I can’t even tell if therapy was accomplishing anything other than to give us a mandatory appointment each week. I’m quite tired of appointments. It also doesn’t help that we’re in a process of switching or adjusting medicines for two kids. I have to second guess all of my decisions.
So when the therapist tells me his news and asks what I’d like to do, I don’t have an answer. Just the soft feel of water closing over my head. Drowning is silent and it doesn’t look like drowning. I don’t stay under water because I learned how to swim long ago. I don’t even know why so small a piece in the ongoing treatment dumps me so deep in the water. I just have to follow my training: Find the surface. Float face up until you have strength to swim. Then start swimming in the direction of the shore. I can’t actually see the shore, but all rational measures tell me it is out there. And I have to remember that only a day or two ago I was out of the water. So were my loved ones. Many of the days are good and even on my worst days I can think of a dozen people with whom I would not trade troubles.
So on the swimming days, I’ll keep swimming. And I’ll excuse myself from some of the expectations. And maybe I’ll go watch Finding Nemo and let Dory sing to me.
I’ve heard people complain that they face an empty page, or an empty screen, and their minds go blank. What a strange experience that would be. I have felt blank on occasion, but most of the time my head is roiling with words. I stare at the emptiness and struggle, not for lack of things, but because there are too many of them. Lately many of the things I could write come with cautions for why I should not. New growth does not benefit from over exposure. Also the internet has seemed an unfriendly place of late. Yet writing is one of the means by which I sort my thoughts. So I put my hands to the keyboard and search my mind for a thread I can pull.
June is half gone. I would like to settle in and have slow, predictable days. But the weeks keep having events. I can’t help but click forward and look at the weeks to come. I count the weeks until Howard goes to LibertyCon, until Pioneer Trek, until Howard and I both go to GenCon. There are spaces in between, but I wish I could shoehorn some extra weeks in there. Because by the time I’m done counting to the end of GenCon, I’m right there next to the beginning of school again. The summer is too short.
I should be better about not checking the calendar so often. Time feels short because I keep counting and measuring it. But there are things it is important that I get right this summer. I have appointments I can’t miss and they are mixed up with all the things I can let slide.
Each week during church I open my mind and heart, seeking for inspiration and direction about the things I have been doing and the things I should be doing. Some weeks I get clear answers, others I don’t. This week I got a very clear “You’re doing fine” as I was contemplating my job as a parent.
I thought about that answer after it came. It definitely wasn’t an indication that I can rest and be done now. It wasn’t telling me I’ve done enough. It was more like the encouragement from a personal trainer during the middle of some difficult exercise.
“You’re doing fine. Now adjust your arm a little bit and shift your stance. That won’t make it any easier right now, but it will make this effort more effective in accomplishing what we hope to accomplish in the long run. Oh, and stop trying to carry that extra weight on your shoulder, it isn’t helping anything.”
I’d love to hear “That’s enough. You can rest.” Instead I get told not to spend energy worrying how I’m doing. I’m doing fine. Which is actually good news, because I was spending energy worrying that I was getting everything wrong. Maybe if I can stop worrying, I can use that energy on something that makes life better.
One of the odder experiences I’ve had is being confronted that my adult life can now be measured in decades, plural. Today takes that and shoves it right in my face three different times. I’m not feeling old, I’m sitting here and wondering “how can it possibly be decades since that happened?”
First there was this: Andy Weir being interviewed by Adam Savage about his book The Martian. It is a strange crossing of streams in my brain because I’ve been a long-time Mythbusters fan, but most of my memories of Andy are from twenty-five-ish years ago when he was one of my brother’s best friends. Seeing Adam geek out at Andy’s book made me simultaneously really glad, and realize that people from my past don’t cease to exist simply because they’ve walked off camera in my life. Which I knew logically, but apparently some piece of my brain still needed the reminder. It needed the reminder even though it already had that particular reminder ten years ago when Andy previously came to my attention for being awesomely creative. Brains are weird. (Also, you should all go read The Martian and see the movie when it comes out. I loved the book every bit as much as Adam Savage did though I understood very little of the math. It is a great character story.)
Then Howard and I went to see Jurassic World. Twenty-two years ago I went to see Jurassic Park with my fiance, Howard. We came home thrilled and imagining dinosaurs everywhere. Lots has happened during those years, and I’m very pleased to say that the new movie did hit some of the right notes to let me recall that previous movie-going experience. I did walk out of the movie thinking about dinosaurs. This movie was delightful fun and it only increased my desire to see Chris Pratt in more films. Yet I have to say that the best part was holding Howard’s hand in the theater and realizing that he was laughing out loud at the same moment in the film that I was. I don’t often think about the passage of years that I’ve spent with Howard. We just keep moving forward together, focused on the work ahead of us. But today the Jurassic movie made me glance back and notice exactly how much shared experience we’ve accumulated. Yet it doesn’t feel that long really. It feels like we’ve just found our stride and are only getting started.
And, of course, there is the fact that today marks the 15th anniversary of Schlock Mercenary. Since I’ve been doing layout on book twelve, you’d think that my brain would be more attuned to the fact that we’ve been at this for a while, yet somehow it still surprises me. Fifteen years is a long time to devote to a project. This thing has been in our lives for longer than half of our children. For the last nine of those years it has been our primary source of income. I’ve had a front row seat to watch Howard create this thing, and I have to tell you, I’m not sure how he does it either. I don’t know how he holds these big stories in his head and makes up the next piece day after day. Then he pulls threads back in and makes it all come together. I’ve been there when Howard wrestles with self-doubt and I’ve had doubts myself. Schlock Mercenary is amazing and the more that accumulates, the more I’m able to see how amazing it is. I’m glad to be part of it. And has it really been that long?
Time passes whether I stop and notice it or not. I think I would be benefited if I paid more attention and made sure that my days include small creative efforts that will accumulate, because accumulation is a powerful thing.
My breath came ragged through my open mouth as I walked quickly up the slope. Dirt and rocks crunched under my feet as they walked along the narrow trail in the grass. Many other people had walked this path before me, as is to be expected when one goes walking inside a state park. None of those people were visible now. The parking lot had been empty when I pulled up. I’d intended to tweet a cheerful photo. “Look how beautiful Fremont Indian State Park is.” I’d taken the picture, written the words, hit send. No service. The park was in a canyon, hidden from cell towers. It was a dead zone. No one knew where I was. Howard knew I’d headed to southern Utah to pick up our daughter from college, but I hadn’t mentioned my intention to stop at the park. It had only been half an idea, something I was mulling over. I’d intended the tweet as a digital bread crumb, a quick note to let people know where I was. Instead I stood on the asphalt, wanting to seek out a place where I’d been before, wondering if I really should go hiking solo, knowing the trail was an easy ten minute walk, and finally deciding the park was a safe enough place. “This is how people go missing.” I thought as I took the first steps on the trail, but I walked up anyway. I was drawn there by a desire I didn’t fully understand. I promised myself I would turn back if I didn’t find the place in ten minutes of walking.
My children and I had stopped at Fremont Indian State Park on a whim in the fall of 2012. We were on our way back from a college visit where my daughter got to walk the campus and realize that she really did want to attend that school. All four kids were with me on the trip. I hauled all of them out of the car and made them walk trails with me. None of them were particularly thrilled about it at first. Slowly they began to enjoy themselves and we all rejoiced when we found the spiral built in a meadow. The kids ran their way to the center. I have a photo of the four of them standing there, triumphant. Even as we walked away, I knew I wanted to visit it again. The memory stayed with me. I thought about stopping each time I drove past the freeway exit as I traveled on trips to fetch my daughter or drop her off. “I really need to go back there.” The thought bounced around in my head. Each trip had a dozen reasons why I didn’t have time. Two and half years of driving past and I didn’t go back. Until I did, because on that day the pull was stronger. I’d had a rough few months. I was mired in depression, grief, and other emotions I couldn’t quite sort. I didn’t know what I needed, but I knew I really wanted to see the spiral again. So I stopped and I hiked. Solo.
The trail was clear and did not branch. There was no risk of getting lost. As I walked, I measured the land with my eyes. Did I remember this place correctly? I thought I was on the right trail. It seemed that I was traveling ground I’d been over before, but two and a half years had passed. I didn’t remember clearly. I wondered if the spiral would still be there or if it had been neglected. I was nearing the end of my ten minutes time limit and ahead of me was a rise. I told myself that if I couldn’t see the spiral from the top, I had to turn back. I didn’t want to, but every step took me further from where I was expected to be. I could feel responsibility calling me back to my car. My daughter needed me to help her load her things into my car and to help her finish cleaning. After that I was needed at home. I had responsibilities and they tugged on me as I walked upward.
2012 was before. It was before all the transitions that our family made stepping all the kids up, one to college, one into high school, one into junior high. It was before my younger daughter had panic attacks. It was before my older son began his long slide into depression. It was before we recovered from that. It was before I discovered that our recovery was a limited one. It was before my younger son also had panic attacks. It was before all the appointments, therapists, doctors, medicine, and meetings. It was before something in me broke, or gave up, or grew too tired. The person who visited the spiral in 2012 could honestly look her depressed son in the eyes and promise him it would get better. The person I was when I returned wondered if that was true. I wondered if I had been lying to him. I knew I had to keep going, taking the right steps, but somehow I’d lost touch with the belief that we could pull out of the emotional mire which kept reclaiming us. We’d seem to be out, but then the troubles would come again. My feet stood at the opening to the spiral. The last time I’d been here was before. I didn’t know why I needed to come again, nor why I wanted to cry at being there. I stepped forward and began to walk.
I once read about a meditation path in the center of a garden. It was a twisting walkway leading toward a center point. A person was meant to walk the winding path and examine whatever thoughts surfaced during the walk. I took a deep breath and as my feet walked, I opened my thoughts. “What do I need here?” I asked.
After a time, I stood and walked my way out along the spiral. I saw the same things over again, but this time the more I walked, the more the sights slowed down. Then I was at the open end and stepped free.
Finding and walking the spiral seemed such a silly thing. I still don’t understand how so much meaning got attached to it. Yet in that step out from the open end of the spiral I felt like I’d left some grief behind and took something hope-like with me in its place. The spiral helped me remember that there was a before, and the existence of a before heavily implies that somewhere ahead of me there is an after. I just need to keep wending my way along the path until I get there.
It was a highly productive day at my house, which was a surprise since I had insomnia last night and only got 2 hours of sleep. But then I got Gleek off to girl’s camp. I answered a pile of customer support email. I liked today’s pile of customer support better than yesterday’s. Clear lesson: People are irritable when they are confused and faced with unexpected decisions. But people are kind and agreeable when you apologize for confusing them and clear up the confusion. I wrote contracts for the artists we hope to work with for the Planet Mercenary book. I got a quote from our book printer. And I pulled together a sample deck of cards for some play testing. Side note: creating cards is surprisingly complicated and nit-picky. We have a lot of work to do before these are ready for prime time.
Howard had a fairly productive day as well, though his would have been better if I hadn’t had some last-minute card design requests. Patch had an exceedingly productive day. He spent all day creating an amazing castle in Minecraft. That might sound like wasted time, but he was using a digital tool to make something he imagined. I’ll take that over endless hours of watching YouTube. To balance out the productivity, Kiki and Link took the day easy.
Now we’re all tired and ready for bed. Hopefully this time my brain will do a better job of letting me sleep.