I was awake before dawn this morning. On a weekday morning, that is just my normal schedule: up before the sun to get kids off to school. But this is Saturday. I’d planned to sleep in. Instead I was awakened by a combination of bio-rhythmic patterns, a mewling cat who’d managed to shut himself in a bathroom, and my daughter’s alarm going off endlessly. (Time to have another conversation about “please set your alarm for a time when you actually plan to get up instead of letting it go off every ten minutes for two full hours.”) With alarm off and cat freed from his trap, I crawled back into bed, but sleep was not to be reclaimed. My brain was full of thinking instead.
There is plenty to think about. This has been an eventful week full of repairs, expenses, doctors appointments, book release work, and emotional management of a teenager in (maybe) crisis. Strange how “crisis” can sometimes be hard to measure. It sometimes takes an outside mental health professional to point out that the thing you and your child have been managing for months-on-end is actually something which should be treated as urgent to the point of upheaving many of your life routines. This included new medical intervention, the acquisition of a new therapist, and a major sorting of possessions to transform a bedroom. The process is not done. Won’t be for an additional months-on-end I think. But I also think that it will only take another week or so to settle into the trajectory shift.
Mixed in with all the home and human maintenance, was work on the latest Schlock book release. I hauled 1500lbs of books into and then back out of the house with Howard signing all those books in between. I then hauled almost 2000lbs of books into the house to await signing and sketching. I had assistants for some of the hauling, but as I was the only worker who participated in every hauling batch, I did a large portion of the physical work. Days later, I’m still physically tired. The physical work continues with hefting books out for Howard to sign and putting books into packages so they can ship.
The sun is up now. The ground outside is coated with a hard frost. Soon I’ll need to venture forth, there is shopping to do for the bedroom transformation in process. Also groceries. And perhaps an hour or two at the warehouse assembling packages. I’m not sure yet how the day will play out. I just know I won’t run out of things to do before I run out of energy to do them. But first I need to go eat the yummy breakfast that Howard is making.
We’re having an expensive week here at Chez Tayler. We finally called in a plumber because we got tired of an ever-filling bucket of garbage disposal water accumulating under the sink. While the plumber was here, he corrected a faulty tub drain, which has leaked at random intervals since we bought this house twenty years ago. Later this week we have someone coming to examine our garage door, which has begun making an alrming clanging noise each time it opens or closes. Howard has a dental appointment for a crown, and two kids had doctor appointments. The financial squirrel in my brain has been making distressed noises, she wants to hide away all the money into safe reserves against impending need. Sometimes it is hard for her to accept that ‘need’ is now.
Even as I’m paying out all of these bills, I’ve been contemplating a minimalism documentary I watched, and that new tidying up series from Marie Kondo. First let me say that Ms. Kondo is adorable, I just want to put her in my pocket and keep her. She radiates happiness and optimism. I like her approach to objects and to adjusting our relationships with them. I’m less enamored of the minimalist philosophy from the documentary which pares down living spaces to echoing rooms and dependence on the infrastructure of others to maintain comfort. Living out of two suitcases means that you’re dependent on someone else to own and manage a laundromat for your use, also you require hotels, rentable furnished apartments, grocery stores, restaurants, etc. A life of extreme minimalism (without being impoverished) is a life of extreme privilege. And yet, the minimalists have reasonable points to make about the fact that most modern Americans acquire far more stuff than will make them happy. The acquisition of stuff becomes a financial, physical, and emotional burden. I just prefer Ms. Kondo’s approach for readjusting that burden.
The thought floats through my mind, all the spending I’m doing this week is to maintain things that we already have. I would not have to spend five hundred dollars (my guess at the cost) repairing the garage door if I decided not to have an automatic garage door. This thought leads my inner financial squirrel to pipe up and say “Do we really need a garage door?” She makes this sort of noise at any expenditure, which is sometimes useful in helping me be conscious about how I’m spending resources. Other times it contributes to anxiety-related decision paralysis.
In the next few months our family plans to do even more spending. We’re going to be buying materials and assistance to reconfigure our kitchen. I spin in mental circles as I contemplate this. I believe that re-configuring our space to match how we want to be living is a good thing. However spending money to replace cupboards when we already have functioning cupboards is kind of wasteful. But I plan to offset that waste by salvaging the existing cupboards and donating them to Habitat for Humanity. Yet the project will require money and time both of which could be spent on other projects, perhaps projects that cost less and would do more to make the world a better place. Also, if we spend money improving our kitchen, we’re committing to spending money in the future to maintain that kitchen. But I believe in the power of Place and doing the work in order to create a place with a particular spirit and beauty about it. Putting in the time and effort to make my home into such a place seems worthwhile. Particularly if I also enjoy the process of creating that place.
Around and around I go contemplating in small scale (my kitchen remodel) issues of resource management and the value of personal fulfillment vs public good; issues that have application in much larger scales in society. It would be kind of nice to just be excited about remodeling without all the attached mental churn. But for now, I need to get back to work earning the money that will pay down debts, buy materials, and grant me a life comfortable enough that I can afford to contemplate these thoughts.
I’ve never thought of my self as a New Years Resolution sort of person. I’m absolutely a goal-setting person, but I didn’t like scheduling my goal setting for the onset of a new year. Yet here at the beginning of 2019 I find myself with a New Year’s Intention for the third year in a row. Not a resolution, not something I plan to will into existence, but instead an emotional approach for the next portion of my life. (I grant that the difference between resolution and intention may be splitting hairs, but this is about me, and my life, and how I want to dwell inside my life, I figure I get to use whichever words feel right to me.)
I did not decide ahead of time to find a new intention for the coming year. I didn’t consciously decide them at all. The intentions just arrived mid-to-late December as I was contemplating the year ahead of me. They were like gifts “Here Sandra, this is the focus you need for the year to come.” So I won’t complain at getting a gift again this year.
At the onset of 2017, I felt a need to Grow My Heart to whatever size was necessary to encompass the emotional load ahead of me and to love more people. When the Grinch grew his heart three sizes, he became strong and sure. I wanted that.
At the onset of 2018 I set out to Be Less Afraid. I took the strength I gained from growing my heart and used it to confront my own anxieties. I practiced staying with uncomfortable feelings instead of always taking action to resolve them.
At the onset of 2019 the words that have come to me are Be Courageous. Being less afraid was holding ground without letting fear drive my actions. Being courageous is stepping toward things even if I am afraid. It claims ground. In order to be courageous, I’ll have to continue the practices of growing my heart and being less afraid. Apparently my annual intentions are cumulative.
These intentions aren’t goals. There is nothing I can measure. No progress I can check off of a list. I think that is good for me. Task lists are one of the ways I hide. I wield my tasks-accomplished as evidence of personal value. Not realizing I was even doing that until I started pondering on being courageous and how terrifying it felt to believe in my own worth without outside validation of it. I shy away from that, and from many other things. Courageous me must start doing and claiming the things that task lists were letting me hide from. The specific daily actions I need to be taking become clearer as I continue to think about what courage means in my life.
All of it is a work in progress, not something that will be completed. The ways I live courage in January will likely be different than in August, responding to the differing needs of those periods of time. I have to stay in tune to figure it out as I go. No simple answers or quick fixes here. It will be big and complex. Life is always complex no matter how much we try to compartmentalize and control so the vastness of existence doesn’t overwhelm us.
Be Courageous. It is a worthy work for the coming year.
The days between Christmas and New Years feels like they reside in a place outside of time. According to a tweet I saw this week, they used to do exactly that. Calendars used to end on Christmas and the new one wouldn’t begin until January 1. I’ve no idea if that factoid is accurate, but it amuses me to think it so. Days outside of time is how this week feels.
But then today is New Years Eve, and that feels fixed. Tied inextricably to the beginning of next year. My family celebrated by going out into the sub-freezing garage and loading my car full of donation items. The garage does not look much cleaner yet, but it is a step closer to where it needs to be. We have plans for the house which involve using garage space to stain cabinets. A few closets and cupboards were also emptied out and sorted. That was where I discovered this stash of birthday candles.
For a long time I saved candles from year to year, particularly the big number ones. When the kids were little, that made sense. They haven’t been little for quite a while now. Yet these candles lingered in our lives taking up space in a cupboard because we never thought to get rid of them. Their purpose is done, we can move on.
Another thing I have been working on in this timeless space between the years is finishing up family photo books. I’ve reached the point where the only one left to do is 2018. This is the first time I’ve been caught up on those since 2012. As I began sorting photos for 2018, I find myself thinking “That was this year?” As I see news-in-review online, I think the same thing. Somehow 2018 feels like it was far longer than a single year. At the same time I see a photo and think “wait that was last January?” Some events feel much closer in time than they actually are, while others feel much longer ago. Perhaps there was a watershed (or several) somewhere in the middle of 2018 and everything before it feels “long ago” and everything since feels “recent.” Only I can’t identify a single event or time span with a large shift in it. Rather the whole year has been a constant and steady shift-of-course for multiple people in our family. We are not now who we were when this year began.
I know that I am not. For the first time in several years, I am not afraid of the year to come. I’m not feeling worn or weary. It is a good feeling, as is the clean emptiness of the closets and cupboards and the progress on changing the garage. Every little thing helps us move forward, and “excited to move forward” is a good feeling for New Years Eve.
Callie wishes that you may always have a place of retreat when things feel too scary.
Milo wishes that you may remember that love is more important than dignity.
Kikaa wishes that you can always have someone you love close by.
And may we all remember to take care of each other.
Christmas time is a tradition heavy season. We bring out decorations that only take part in our lives once per year and then are carefully stowed away. When we pull it out again, we are connected with last year and any years before that where these objects took part in our lives.
Christmas is a time of renewal. We are connected with our past selves through the medium of tradition, and then how we interact with those traditions for this year becomes part of who we are in the future. Some years I have let go of long held traditions. Some years something we did meant so much to us that we repeat it the next year and the next. Occasionally traditions can be consciously started and maintained, but often we don’t realize we’ve made a tradition until it pops up again year after year.
This year is one of forging new traditions for my family. Not in a big overhaul-the-holdiay sort of way, but in small things. It is the first year that not all of my children will be sleeping under my roof for Christmas Eve. He’ll join us for celebrations and rejoin us in the morning for more, but in between he wants to be at his own home in his apartment in his own bed. This is the second year when not all my kids share all my religious beliefs. So we feel our way forward trying to honor the holiday as a religious event for some family members, while not forcing religious aspects on others. It worked beautifully last year, so I’m not worried for this year. We’ll find our way forward with love and laughter.
Weeks ago I alerted all the members of our family that I was not going to be the orchestrator of gifts. They had to do their own thinking and planning. And they did. It was such a relief for me to not have to keep a long list of suggestions. I did not have to brainstorm what would be a good gift for this child to give to that child. In truth, that was a role I should have given up long ago, recognizing that one of the best ways to teach someone to be a good and thoughtful gift giver is to let them fail at it a few times.
This morning I went out in the pre-dawn to purchase the food we’ll need for the holiday. While I was out, I went in search of garlands for our new stair railings. We’ve never had railings before this year, now we do. And now we have garlands and a wreath for them. It makes me happy. There is so much work we have planned for our kitchen and front room, but this one portion of our main floor is exactly as we want it to be. It is new, and yet it fits in so smoothly with everything that has gone before that it feels like was already a tradition waiting for us to uncover it.
May your celebratory seasons be full of both tradition and renewal.
One of the things I have been doing in the past couple of weeks is to occasionally pause and note how much better this December feels than last December did. Last December I was in a swirl of familial transition, very prone to getting pulled off balance, and not at all sure what the next steps should be. This year, almost none of that. Or rather, all of it to lesser degrees because transition and uncertainty are givens for any living thing, but I am not falling into pits of fear and tears. I can credit much of it to the fact that all four of my kids have found their own ways to balance. And I learned how to not be right next to them the moment they wobbled so that they had a chance to learn how to balance without leaning on me.
My goal for this year as I stated in this post was to build a life with less fear in it, to learn how to live, breathe, be less afraid. As I move through this December I can finally see some of that work coming to fruition. I still have more work to do. I just finished reading Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection and I’m embarking on reading The Gaslight Effect by Robin Stern which already has me rethinking my instinctive reactions in certain social situations. The work of not being afraid will continue, but in 2019 I will take it a step further. I will learn to be courageous.
If failing to write words is fear, then it is courage to write the words anyway and allow them to be read. And judged. Not knowing if the words will be inspiring or boring, useful or disappointing. It is this kind of courage I need to cultivate in the next year of my life. Quiet courage that does the work without looking like courage at all.
This is a snippet from a newsletter I sent out a few weeks ago. It was the first newsletter I’ve sent in years. I chose to format most of it like a letter from a friend rather than an Author Update. My effort was answered within twelve hours by an email from my newsletter service that I had a very high unsubscribe rate. So I’ll reconfigure and take steps to filter so that only the people who want that sort of newsy letter actually get it. This is the quiet courage I want to cultivate. The kind that gets negative feedback on a creative effort then gets up and tries again.
The need for this sort of courage became obvious to me when (in November) I was hit with a series of blows to my professional confidence. No one who delivered those hits intended me harm nor did they realize they’d caused it. Which was actually part of the harm. I was insignificant enough that they didn’t even realize they’d hit me. I had to step back and recognize that the only reason that these events registered as harm at all was because I was looking to external sources for validation on my creative efforts. Such an easy trap to fall into.
I had to decide whether to crawl into a hole and hide until it didn’t hurt anymore, or to get up and keep moving trusting that eventually it wouldn’t hurt anymore. I suspect that the amount of time it hurt would have been the same no matter which path I picked. Healing takes the time it takes, and we can rarely speed it up, though we can definitely slow it down. I did some hiding and some moving. And I rearranged my days a bit, using the holiday season as a reason to shed some tasks that I had been holding over my own head.
All of which is how I came to be a few days before Christmas and thinking the sorts of thoughts I usually think about between Christmas and the new year. I don’t mind the thoughts coming early. It is nice that I’ve been able to create enough space for them to exist. Yet another way that this December is so much better than last year.
Sometimes we review beloved entertainment from our childhoods and cringe at the terribleness of it. Other times old entertainment hits the sweet spot of being cheesily bad without being cringe worthy. Tonight I took over our big TV to watch the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans. I giggled all the way through, part out of nostalgia and part because of the ridiculousness of what was on the screen. It helps that we recently watched Mystery Science Theater 3000 so I was primed to riff on old movies. This meant I could watch a scene, remember how I felt about it as a kid, see how I felt about it now, and imagine what sort of jokes would liven the scene up even more. Like the moment where soldiers very seriously announce that they’ve looked everywhere, they rode all the way around the lake, while the “lake” is in the foreground of the shot very obviously being a small pond. Or when the stygian witches make a big deal about how Perseus’s red cloak is now imbued with magic… only he’s never worn a red cloak at any point in the movie this far. It makes its first appearance two scenes later.
I imprinted on this movie a bit when I was 10 and 11. It was the source material for games of pretend at recess. When it came on TV, my family recorded it on video cassette, so I was able to re-watch it. It turns out I still have most of the lines memorized, not to the point that I could recite them, but I always knew what would be said next with what inflection and tone of voice.
No one watched it with me. Howard is five years older than I am. This means that the movie showed up when he was past the developmental sweet spot. Or something. His memory of the film is being disappointed in it. So he didn’t really want to sit through the whole thing, but he wandered past occasionally and I’d fill him in on whatever ridiculous thing was on the screen. I was pleased to be able to note that this movie had 10 speaking parts for women and 8 for men, which surprised me to notice and may explain some of why I found it compelling. The women-as-goddesses matched the men-as-gods in petty squabbling, as is appropriate for Greek gods. The heroine is a damsel-in-distress some, but there are also moments when she took control. And her most damsel-in-distress moment is one that she deliberately walks into in a noble attempt to save her people from destruction. I can see why I liked her and wanted to be like her. I can also see the unconscious societal biases that are stamped all over the film: women are valued for beauty, love at first sight, ugly = evil. I absorbed all of that too. As we all do from entertainment we love, particularly at early ages. There were some things I had to unlearn later. Also a common life experience.
Analysis aside, I’m just glad that I got to spend this evening being happy while watching a compelling munged-together hodge podge of story lifted from Greek myth and presented with only the vaguest attempts at any sort of historical accuracy.
The young dancers moved awkwardly on the stage, their motions tentative and lacking in confidence. Unlike elementary school performances where the dancers move freely and joyfully whether or not they’re in time with the beat, these teenagers were the embodiment of self consciousness. I could see it in every motion. The arm which should extend out two more inches to really hit the mark. The hip motion which ought to move further from center of balance. The foot that needs to plant more firmly. The beginning dancers on the stage moved cautiously, more focused on matching motions to beats than on making the motions flow. It was a stark contrast to other numbers with more experienced dancers. Yet they were beautiful. All of them. The confident and self-conscious alike. They had the courage to get on the stage and show what they had learned, whether or not it was perfect. My favorites were the ones who smiled as they performed, they felt the joy of motion and music, which was far more compelling than perfection of steps.
As I watched this high school dance performance I considered what happens to children that moves us from the unselfconsciousness of childhood and into teenage years where our every action and word becomes constrained inside a box of “what will people think.” Even those teens who deliberately disrupt the norms are still reacting to the norm by defining themselves as outside of it. Then some of us, but not all, manage to break free and be who we are without reference to others, just as some of the dancers on the stage had learned to extend to the very edges of their bodies and even to project themselves so that they seemed larger than their forms could contain. For a dancer the only way to achieve this confidence of motion is practice. They must learn their bodies, their center, their edges. They must train mind and body to work in harmony. So it seems that the way to achieve confidence of self is also practice.
How does one practice self? For a writer this question might be more familiarly framed as “what is my voice?” And the same answer applies to both voice and self. You find voice by writing many things, and self by attempting many things. Over time you discover which of these things feel natural to you and which don’t. “Attempting many things” does not mean an endless round of activities. Some people do find themselves in sky diving, hiking, running, dancing, but finding our self is both smaller and larger than the activities we do. It is imitating a friends sense of humor or their accent, either consciously or unconsciously. It is wearing different styles of clothing. It is seeing how various interactions make us feel. In hundreds of tiny ways we experiment with self daily. Practicing, learning, getting better at it. And hopefully we reach a time in our lives where we have a solid sense of who we are. Then we are able to live to the edge of our skin and make our choices confidence of motion.
But if we are not there yet, we must remember that there is also beauty and courage in the beginning dancer. The one who is willing to get on stage without being perfect. The one who will be a better dancer tomorrow because they experience the stage today. Be kind to your self whatever stage you are at, because you’re beautiful.
The air was crisp against my face, the ground crunched with ice underfoot. I looked up at the dawn brightening sky, attempting to determine why this morning was lovely when others had merely been cold. It was certainly not the task which occupied my hands. Pulling a garbage can to the curb is arguably the least-lovely of possible tasks. The sky had no explanations for me, just a broad expanse, pink tinged at the edges. The difference then, must be in me if the sky, cold, and ice were unchanged from days prior. This morning I carried with me a soul ready to appreciate and see the beauty when other mornings I focused on my steps and task. Work focus is so often necessary in a world where productivity is survival. Yet the tiny pause in appreciation of the frosty sky did not impede the completion of a mundane task. It elevated it. And I returned to warmth and light a little better for knowing the frost.