One of the Good Ones

@IsabelKaplan posted the following plea on Twitter:

Plz send heartwarming stories of straight male partners supporting your creative endeavors. Hungry for a story that isn’t “I achieved unprecedented professional success and my relationship was never the same.”

I responded on Twitter, but it is hard to fit all the thoughts into the space that Twitter supplies, so in more expanded form:

Howard and I will hit 30 years married in August. We’ve had a recent dynamic shift where I’m stepping up, writing more things, taking work that makes me less available at home. As I started taking on these roles, stepping into a primary wage earner space, I kept waiting for the push back and quiet resentment. Howard always said “Go do the thing.” He’s always said “go do the thing” yet somehow I still found myself pausing and checking with each step. Is this move okay? How does it change our dynamic? Am I making Howard feel bad about his disability when I run fast all day long? Especially since I know that “run fast all day long” is Howard’s preferred mode for living? So I paused and gave space for complex feelings that never showed up to fill the space that I left open. It turns out that Howard means “go do the thing” with his whole self.

I described this on Twitter and got a couple of responses essentially saying “you got one of the good ones.” Yes I did, but I think that statement actually downplays what is happening here. Because Howard isn’t possessed of some innate goodness that people either have or they don’t. Howard chooses who he is on a daily basis. He’s been choosing for decades. We’ve been building communication and choices together. I actually think that younger iterations of us would have had to wrestle with exactly the emotion and resentment I kept pausing for. Younger Howard would have had a pile of feelings to work through about me stepping into spotlight. Current Howard is practiced and adept at managing his own feelings without making them someone else’s job. He’s learned a lot of emotional intelligence and excellent partnership skills through the years. The fact that our current dynamic shift is without friction, speaks to who we have chosen to become and the relationship we’ve built in all the years prior.

Howard definitely gets credit here, because he chose a growth path for himself which deliberately gives his partner as much space to grow as she needs and wants. To his credit, that is always who he has wanted to be. He said as much thirty years ago when we were dating. He told me that he could see I was in the process of growing and becoming, and he never wanted to interfere with that. I believed him. I married him. We sometimes both failed at the shared project of giving me space to grow. I often kept myself small because of unstated cultural expectations about what my role should be, because my own anxieties tell me I’m only allowed to take up space if it won’t inconvenience other people. Learning to be inconvenient has been part of my growth path. Joyfully, every time I allow myself to take up space, I discover that my best beloved (both Howard and my kids) are quite willing to scootch over and let me be big.

I wish that everyone’s life was full of people who are willing to make space for them to grow as big as they can. The good news is that this is learned behavior. You, and any partner you currently have, can choose to become this way if you’re willing to put in the work to let go of ego, root out anxieties, and learn communication skills.

The Days After the Events

The morning after the event that I spent six months planning, I woke up without a list. I lay awake in bed probing the lack of urgency to pull me from it. It was a stark contrast to how I’d regimented my life in tasks, alarms, and calendar reminders. I entered the day through that void and mushily thought my way through a formless mass of memory and experience that needed processing. I needed to unpack it all. And possibly also unpack my suitcase, and begin picking up the pieces of house tasks that were neglected on the run up to the events.

The second day after the event I slept late on purpose. I woke early and chose to dive back into sleep. I chose that again in the middle of the day when I took a two hour nap, my body choosing hibernation as a coping strategy for stress recovery. I did do some necessary tasks, orienting myself back into a post-event life. I began to form lists for post-event tasks. I wrote a page of highlights, fragmented sentences to catch moments, threads which I could pull on later to remind myself of the myriad of joyful stories. The events succeeded in all of the important and emotional ways. I saw my tasks through all the way to making sure that the last guest was able to board her much delayed plane on the day after the event. I also began making notes for next year, because there were gaps and moments which were managed and fine, but which next time I would like to run more smoothly.

The third day after the event (today) I rolled out of bed on my usual schedule and clocked in to begin answering email. My admin brain is still tired, but there are things to finish and I must start doing them. So we collect data and receipts and answer questions and begin talking about what is next. And I take time for a massage where the therapist’s experienced hands convince the muscles of my back to let go of all the emails, lists, charts, and decisions that have been stored in knotted muscles. I walk in my garden and toss clover seed onto the lawn I’m trying to replace with clover because the day is gloriously sunny and pleasantly warm for the first time in months. Then I return to my computer. I want to describe my events, share the joy of them. But apparently I must first describe and share the experience of recovery. Somehow this meandering description fits my weary brain while wrapping words around the events themselves feels harder.

Yet they sit in my brain, all those highlights glinting and tinging off each other like a crystal chandelier in sunlight, casting rainbows across my mind. I just need to find the words which allow me to display the unique beauty of each moment, because this chandelier is not made of identical crystals, more like crystal snowflakes, each one unique and worthy of admiration. Even the flawed ones.

I remember a conversation sometime during the Gala where the other person was describing a feeling of triumph, that I did not (in that moment) share. I was still making sure pieces were in place. I was doing work which was essential to the smooth function of moving large groups of people from reception to banquet tables and getting them all fed. I did the work well, and I am glad that I did it well, but I was always aware that my well-done work could have been done well by a number of other people had they been given the tasks. There was satisfaction in being part of a team that carried off the event. There was a lack of anxiety because any failure of mine was likely to be caught and compensated for by the work of others. My triumphs, my crystal moments were not in the events as a whole, they were tiny individual things enmeshed in the events.

It was seeing teenagers in their prom dresses and cosplay on the gala night being so delighted at coming to a fancy gala event that was designed to celebrate words and books, things that they love.

It was the moment when our Gala MC had the teenage poets and short story writers stand and I realized that nearly half the room was full of these fledgeling writers who are going to soar.

It was seeing the faces of guest authors on TABC morning as they saw how many writer teens we had gathered. And the joy on all the faces as we participated in a book dash to give every teenager a book to keep.

It was the opening skit of TABC which was exactly the right amount of cheesy to let the teenagers know that it is okay to be silly and joyful. And then having that mirrored in the closing skit where the audience participated in defeating the villain by shouting “My story matters!” which we all knew for silly theater, but which also has an impact and lingers in the hearts and minds of everyone who was in that room.

It was the quiet girl I watched out of the corner of my eye all through that closing ceremony because she was at a table by herself and I wondered if I needed to make sure she was okay. But the corners of her mouth tugged up at the jokes, and she drumrolled with everyone. And she shouted too. Sitting by herself because that was how she was most comfortable, but not lonely, and not alone. She had found her tribe and place of belonging even if she hadn’t talked to many people all day long. I hold that girl in my head. Her story matters and I hope that by telling it she learns to sit up straight and take space instead of trying to be as unobtrusive as possible.

These are a few of my crystals. Moments I feel honored to have witnessed, but which I do not claim as my triumphs. I can’t take credit for them, no matter how many hours of work I put it. It is a shared magic that requires the sharing to exist at all. I am not triumphant, I am honored and awed. And pleased. And tired. And aware that the ground work for next year’s round of magic begins with the emails I need to find enough brain for in the rest of this week.

The Poem that Flew Away

As I drifted off to sleep last night I held a tiny thread of poem on the tip of my mind. I remember it was lovely and I knew I could pull it in to craft something solid. Today only the memory of it remains. I hope when that poem is done flying free that it lands on me again and lets me shape it into words. Until then I sit with the memory of potential.

Also, I need to put a notebook by my bedside again.

My State of Mind

My mind is heavy with stories that aren’t mine to tell. People I love are traversing some emotionally volatile terrain. Others are facing life choices around new medical information. At the same time I’m on the last weeks of running toward a conference and a gala that I’m helping orchestrate, and I’ve gotten rolling on a writing project that was stalled for months. I am spending my days alternating between highly effective and jellyfish puddle.

Yesterday I was all kinds of sad. Today I feel hopeful. I’m trying to not equate well-being with productivity because correlation is not causation. I’m looking at tomorrow’s tasks and hoping that I can continue work on my writing projects because even though I know about correlation and causation, I do think that when I spend time with ideas and purpose, I am steadier for everything else.

Advice About Writing Groups

This weekend I was part of a conversation where I was asked to give advice to people who are looking to form writing groups. I wasn’t completely happy with my on the spot thoughts, so, in the spirit of mentally re-hashing conversations and rehearsing what I wish I’d said instead, I’m going to write down my advice here.

Writing, whether for personal amusement or with the intent to build a career, can be a frustrating and lonely experience. To stay balanced and keep perspective, you really do need a writing community, and you need other people to look at your work to help you see the things you’ve been missing. Forming a critique group is one of the ways to meet those needs, but it is not the only one.

Before forming a group, or joining one, it is very useful to spend some time thinking about what you need in order to grow and thrive in your writing life.

Format: Some groups meet online, others in person, still others are hybrid. Some are talking based others are text based. Some have strict time keeping others more free flowing. Some are critique only, some are primarily social, some have guest lecturers. Each of these format options serve different purposes and you should pick the ones that best match the writing needs of the people in your group. Some writers need to feel close and safe with people before hearing critiques, others want a level of emotional distance from the other people in order to not take the critique personally.

Frequency: How often is your group going to meet? How often can people submit work for critique? Are there page/word count limits? Think about what is sustainable with the schedules of the people in the group. Once per week might be just right, or it might start causing problems with partners and other commitments.

Methodology: The critique group where the writer sits quietly while everyone else discusses their work may be a very common method, but it is far from the only one. Some methods are collaborative, some are discussion based. Some require everyone to bring pages and read aloud. Others require submission in advance. What is the agreed upon framework for offering and accepting critique.

Ground rules: what does your group consider out of bounds for your group both for discussion and for reading content? Does everyone need to take turns bringing snacks? Talking through in advance how things will work is key to having a smooth group.

Purpose: In some ways this one comes first up above when I told you to consider what you need from a group to thrive as a writer, but now I want you to give focus to that thought. What purpose does this group seek to serve in the lives of is members. Is your group purpose an exchange of critiques or is your group purpose emotional support for your writer journeys? The purpose of your group should affect all of the decisions about the group format, frequency, methodology, and rules. If your group purpose is “exchange of critiques” but your format has you meeting monthly with snacks and the first hour of each meeting is purely social, then you’ve mismatched purpose and format.

In a good group, you will get out of it way more than you put in, but you have to be willing to put energy in. You have to think about how you can contribute to keep the group running smoothly.

There are so many more things that can be said about writer’s groups. This is just a launching place to help people get started.

Long Slow Remodel: The Wall is Gone!

It has been more than a year since my last Long Slow Remodel update. You can click that link to see all the older posts. This one is big. We finally demolished the wall between the kitchen and the front room.

Shot from above with a front room and a kitchen space divided by a pantry wall.


The wall between the two spaces is gone making them be one large space

Comparison of the two pictures will show that in addition to removing the wall, we’ve re-located the door to the garage making space for the fridge on the kitchen side of the door. Eventually that peninsula counter will be removed and replaced with an island counter. All the flooring will be replaced as well. We’re sad to lose the birch and walnut in the front room, but we’ll be salvaging it so that it can be re-used elsewhere. I comfort myself with my plans to do decorative woodworking around the windows and the fact that I’ll be hand finishing all the wooden cabinets we’ll install.

Next week our hired guy will come back and finish re-wiring light switches. He’s also going to solve the problem where that garage door doesn’t have stairs. Right now we’ve got a step ladder set up in the garage to let us get out there without falling.

I’m hoping that in a few weeks I’ll have additional progress pictures to show with the new fridge, crown molding finished, and everything ready for the next stage, which is deciding what cabinets to buy to replace the existing cabinet configuration. I’m just happy to see progress. I’m also observing how this change in our living space is already creating behavioral changes that are making us more social with each other. It is good progress.

Sorting Thoughts on a Saturday Morning

I sneak awake at 7am on a Saturday when the house is quiet. Within moments of me stepping out of my room, three cats manifest, hopeful that me being in the kitchen means they will get food. They’re not wrong. Then I find a corner, quiet, with no expectation, no other people to consider. I flip open my laptop and dodge my email to land here. I’ve stolen a quiet space in the middle of my over scheduled life. Just a week ago I was in Seattle taking five days of stolen time to pay attention to what it feels like when I step outside my usual patterns. I wanted to answer the question of what happens if my hours are uninterrupted. I’d hoped that the result would be work on my creative writing projects. Mostly what happened was that I slammed my way through the To Do lists that were portable. Using the space to push many of those tasks to completion because the guilt of not having them done was taking up space in my brain that I wanted to use for other things. I did return with significantly less burden of guilt around admin tasks, but also a newly polished sadness about not making progress on my creative work.

7:10 am another human is awake and walking around in the kitchen. Strange how different it feels to be the only one awake and to know that someone else is moving around. Their existence disturbs my reflections like ripples on a pond. But they don’t come find me and I am practicing not jumping to tend to the experience of others simply because I’m aware of their existence. I’ve claimed a space this morning for contemplation, in part because one of the things I noticed upon returning is how rarely I’m able to task swap at my own pace. My mind is more at rest when I can finish a thought and close it out then transition to the next thing. What happens far more often is that I am interrupted by someone who wants to talk, or a time sensitive errand, or a scheduled meeting. I jump to the new thing while holding the final tendrils of the prior thing in the back of my mind. When this pattern repeats (as it usually does on a daily basis) the back of my mind becomes a tangled and dangling mess of tendrils with no moment of completion.

I used part of today’s stolen moment to go peruse the blog posts I wrote while on last week’s trip. Sadly the very first of them is thematically very similar to this post. I’m writing about stolen moments. Again. It feels like a failure of planning that I have built a life I need to steal moments from just to give myself space to breathe. This existence is vastly different from those endless days of the early pandemic when deadlines were canceled and grief processing took up the largest portion of most people’s days. Yet I can trace the roots of my current over-scheduled life back to seeds that were planted back then. The uncertainty of the world at large creating urgency and a need to store up financial and creative stability against a future time when the whole world shifts unexpectedly. During the pandemic I watched the graphs and numbers trying to understand the scope and threat of what was happening. Now I read articles about legislation and the economy for the same reason. I develop my massive piles of administrative tasks because I believe they stave off helplessness and secure my position both professionally and financially.

Sometimes I am able to recognize that I will never be safe enough. That no amount of planning or saving will completely secure the future. And that if I spend all of my day in a frantic attempt to do so, I will have traded away my life for the illusion of control. Succeeding in finding toilet paper did not solve the pandemic, sending all the emails doesn’t change the economy. So at some point I need to declare a space that I’m allowed to occupy with things that use resources instead of conserving them. Because surely the point of having resources is for use.

7:40 am there are now multiple people moving through the house. None of them have found me yet. I picked my corner well this morning. If they want to seek me out, they’ll find me, but many of my people are verbal processors who start talking through their thoughts the minute they are sharing space. So when I need focus, I have to find a space where they have to decide to come find me.

I’m still pondering how to give myself uninterrupted hours and time to complete one thought before transitioning to the next. Ideally I will learn how to fold those gifts into my daily life instead of having to stick myself on a plane and fly to another state to accomplish it. I’m also sitting this morning with the very specific Imposter Syndrome of wanting to work on my non-fiction book that seeks to help people re-structure their lives around the creative work they want to do, while my daily life is so packed with tasks that I haven’t worked on the book in months. As I write that sentence and feel the truth of it, I also know that my organization this year around my priorities is exactly in alignment with the content of the book I’m writing. And that sometimes creating life stability, as I’m seeking to do this year, must come before creative flourishing.

7:50 am the first person came to find me, but it was Howard checking to make sure I’m okay because usually I’m still in bed at this hour. Also he’s volunteered to bring me breakfast, so that disturbance in my stream of thought is more a win than a loss.

And here, at the end of an hour of musing about stolen moments, emotional repercussions of pandemic, and being over-scheduled, I am finding thoughts about the books I want to write. Pondering whether I should write my creative advice to a more specific audience rather than diffusing the message of the book by trying to make it broadly applicable. I should probably acknowledge that everything I write comes from a suburban-dwelling, economically comfortable, white, college-educated perspective which shapes the advice I give and means that some of it will be impractical for other life conditions. Except I would like to be able to write a book that has something of use for almost everyone. I don’t want to only write for people who move through the world in the same ways that I do. But I can’t let anxiety about this or the specific imposter syndrome prevent me from putting words on the page. I can always fix them in response to feedback later. But words that aren’t written can’t be fixed.

8 am. Time to stop sorting thoughts and start getting things done. Perhaps some of those things will be writing words on my projects.

Listening to the City

I wake up to the shouting of seagulls. They have a lot to yell about in the early morning. By ten am, they’re either quieter or farther away from my hotel room window. I find their calls pleasant to listen to, a reminder that the ocean is nearby. In the middle of the day I hear music. Someone is busking with a horn instrument. My ear isn’t attuned enough to be certain, but my guess is either a trumpet or a french horn. Though when I’m out and about I see a person with a saxophone. I wonder if they’re the same person I heard from my room, but I don’t know for sure. At night when I return to my room, I hear the sounds of people in the alley and parking lot that my fourth floor window looks over. Sometimes it sounds like two angry people. Once there was a large group cheering. Occasionally it is a lone voice wailing or yelling. In all cases I’m glad for the walls between me and whatever is going on.

To be in a city is to be adjacent to homelessness and people making desperate decisions, or criminal ones. Which is why I’m grateful for my friends playing tour guide when we go out. I can watch my friends to decide whether behavior I observe on the street is a risk to me or not. Mostly it is not, though once or twice we’ve crossed the street for a block or two. It amazes me that the “safe” block and the “dangerous” one are only ten feet apart, but that is the reality here according to my friends.

Underneath the sounds of the gulls, or the music, or the people, I can hear the dull rush of vehicles, the drone of fans, the buzz of electricity. They combine into a low level mechanical roar occasionally punctuated by sirens. It is all new to me who has not spent very much of my life dwelling in cities. I’m enjoying my visit and I’m curious to know what I’ll notice differently when I go home tomorrow.

Addendum written after returning home: In the afternoon I hear the sounds of protest, a large group of people is chanting. I try to make out the words, but the only one I’m sure of is “freedom.” I can’t see the protest, but it can’t be more than a block or two away. The interior alley of my hotel seems designed to catch this sound and amply it to my window. Part of me wants to go see, find the protest and discover whether it is a labor dispute or a demand for human rights against police brutality. I decide not to be a tourist at someone else’s passionate moment, but I do also spend some time thinking about the causes I should show up for, even if my showing up is virtual instead of standing in a street chanting.

The Story of the Trip

I saw my fiftieth birthday coming from a long way away. In general my family keeps birthday’s low key, especially now that the kids are all grown up. A small giving of gifts, birthday person gets to pick some favorite foods for dinner. But fifty feels milestone-ish and I’ve observed in the past that if I hit a supposed-to-be-celebrated moment (like a birthday or mothers day) in an emotionally depleted state I sometimes have bigger-than-expected feelings about what does or does not happen on that day. This year I am over stretched and carrying a lot of fatigue, so the probability of me feeling a lot of things on my birthday seemed high. From a month or more out I started thinking about what structure to give to the day so that it fell into a happy place rather than a sad one.

Howard was thinking about it too. In early January during a late night conversation he asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday. I started spilling all of my thoughts, talking for at least five to ten minutes. At the end of it, Howard said, “I’ve just listened to you talk yourself into and out of six different plans there.” It was exactly what I’d done. So I went back to the pile of plans and pulled out the one where I went to Seattle to visit a glass museum. He said it sounded like a lovely plan. We went to bed.

Over breakfast the next morning I said to Howard, “I’ve rethought the go to Seattle birthday plan. It would make much more sense to save the money and send me to a writer’s conference that takes place in October.” I’m pretty sure I added a bunch of detail about why this was the logical choice.

Howard listened until I wound down. He let the silence sit for a moment then he looked at me over his glasses and said, “Did you just cancel your birthday plans for business reasons?”

Yes. That was exactly what I had done.

I wriggled a lot more over the next several days. Confronting why I feel so anxious and awkward making a plan that is purely selfish. One where I inconvenience everyone, spend money, and abandon my regular post. I kept thinking about how I should take one or more kids with me. Or how I should stay home. Or, or, or. All of which showed me clearly how difficult I find it to claim space in my own life. How I am so much more comfortable planning things that are primarily for the benefit of someone else, but which also let me enjoy things I want. But this year I’m trying to claim space in the middle, not just around the edges. I’m trying to show up whole rather than with only the portion of me that feels like it will be comfortably unchallenging for other people to deal with.

Eventually I took a deep breath and pinged my friends who live in Seattle to see if they were willing to play tour guide for a few days. I booked flights. I booked a hotel room that I don’t have to share with anyone else. Then when the day came I packed my bag and got on the plane even though I wasn’t just leaving my routines, but also leaving Howard and the kids to deal with kitchen construction mess while I was gone.

Today is my Birthday and I’m in Seattle. Yesterday I went and saw the Chihuily Glass Museum, spent time working in the Amazon Spheres, went out to eat at an indoor space that mimics an Asian street food market. I’ve filled my head with new sights and sounds. Today I’m taking slow, giving myself the gift of time to process and write. A birthday without demands or expectations.

More than all of that, the biggest gift actually happened weeks ago when Howard saw me and helped me see myself. When he not only made space for me, but nudged me to claim it. That gift is both invaluable and priceless.

Sandra Tayler in the glass house of the Chihuily Glass Museum

Stealing Moments

I am in Seattle until Sunday. There is a whole story about the origin and purpose of this trip that I want to write about at length. The short version is that for my fiftieth birthday my family decided that the best gift I could have is to send me to a place where I could just be Sandra without also being Mom, business manager, household administrator, chauffeur, or any of the other dozens of hats I wear on a daily basis. It is a lovely gift and a fun story. The trouble I have is that most of my work tasks are portable and have traveled with me. Yes, I could just ignore them all for a few days, but if I do that I will emerge from my trip to a deluge of things that are overdue, which would feel like failure. What I want to do is take a few hours while on this trip to send overdue emails, knock some tasks off my list, get out from behind the 8 ball, hand off some of the things I’m juggling, and any other metaphor I can think up for “I would like to end this trip feeling like I’m ahead on work instead of behind.” Of course I also want to emerge from this trip with photos of the places I’ve been and stories to tell about the sights I’ve seen. AND I want to emerge from this trip having written piles of words on the books I want to put onto the table this year.

As I lay in bed this morning I thought about the two hours I have before I’m due to meet my friends in the lobby to go see sights. Should I send the two work emails which are nearly ready to go and for which I feel guilty I didn’t send during the first week of the month? Should I send the personal email to my friend that I’ve been wanting to send correspondence to for months? Should I write this blog post? Should I lay in bed and just let my thoughts wander, allowing my brain to process the travel day, the home construction that is ongoing in my absence, the estate planning I’m participating in for my parents, the complex web of personal and professional relationships that I value and maintain? The truth is that I want all of those things. Whatever I choose is stolen from all of the other things. I am burdened with too many things I want to do, not with things I wish I could get rid of.

I’ve identified (and written about) the fact that one of the things I’m lacking in my current life pattern is time to process. So I’m trying to pull that to the top of the pile during the next four days. Which is why I’m writing about stolen moments first. And I’ll process a lot of things verbally with my friends who are playing tour guide during my stay. (It is amazing how much less tangled my thoughts get when I talk to people who are willing to listen while I unpack my brain.)

The birthday gift I would most like to give myself is to get caught up on a bunch of things and to feel like my life has enough space in it for all of the things I want to do.