Still Here, But In the Moment

Hi. Remember me?

Despite nearly six months of radio silence, I’m still here.

As it turns out, getting married, moving a week later, unpacking, frantically planning a second wedding, trying to keep up with a chaotic work schedule, and 10 consecutive weekends of summer plans are enough to completely shut down my writing muses. Hell, it’s enough to shut down everything. My morning writing habit dropped off the routine in April. We finally managed to unpack the last box a month ago, but our decorations and miscellany are shoved away in empty drawers and any spare inch of closet space we can find, because there’s no time to decorate or organize our house right now.

That musical is still waiting.

All those story ideas that I’ve scribbled in my journal are fading from my memory.

And as I sat down to compose this post, my husband looked over my shoulder and said, “Oh, you still update that blog?” Yeah. We’ve been busy.

More often than not, I’m frantically bouncing between a dozen different things. At any point in my day, I’m completing a work task, pinging V. about dinner plans or a smattering of random wedding details—what color should the suits be? when can we Skype with the officiant? how much should we spend on flowers?—while also trying to find time to keep up with normal life tasks.

I’m excited about our wedding. I am more than thrilled to see so many dear friends and family from all corners of the country. Having a wedding is wonderful and exciting and such a great privilege. But planning a wedding sucks. (Hey, no one said I had to like this stuff.) It’s death by a thousand inane decisions, and each decision only produces a thousand more. What color will everyone wear? And should the dresses be long or short? What color shoes should the ladies wear? Are the men wearing suits or tuxes? And how do we guarantee that everyone gets the same shade of red or grey? Make a decision on what time you want to start the ceremony, and you have to decide if you’ll do pictures before or afterward. But wait—the wedding package only includes a 4 hour ceremony so do we want to lengthen it by an hour? How will people get home? And speaking of that, how should people get there?

I can barely decide what color shirt to put on in the morning, much less plan a huge event with hundreds of moving parts. More than anything, I want the wedding to honor my relationship with V., and I want people to have a good time. Can someone just tell me what to do to make that happen? *

* This is a rhetorical question, for the record. Thankfully, we’ve mostly figured it out by this point. 

With so much going on, my creativity meter has been at zero lately. Five months of craziness has left me mentally exhausted. Nearly-thirty-one-year-old, out-of-my-mind-with-work-and-wedding-decisions me curses twenty-five-year-old-too-lazy-to-write-Peace-Corps-volunteer me. When I had copious amounts of time, and an exotic world at my fingertips, I did absolutely no writing. Instead, I pissed it away on reruns of the L Word and hours of internet surfing. (When you live in a country where you’re paying by the hour to use the internet or using someone’s rare in-home wifi, that’s a pretty astounding feat.)

Normally, I would shame myself relentlessly for not writing during my every spare moment. I’ve been working towards a daily writing habit since graduate school, and I have to admit that I’ve never fully mastered it. When I succumb to laziness or exhaustion, I berate myself, which, naturally, leads to more of the behavior I’m trying to avoid. A riveting TV show or a nap are a great way to shut your mind up when all it wants to do is guilt you. But, no more. Writing is important to me, but no one will die if I don’t do it, and I refuse to look back with regret and guilt on this time of exciting transformations. Years from now, when I recall setting up my first home with my new husband, do I want to remember being riddled with anxiety because I couldn’t squeeze in writing between unpacking, wedding planning, and work? Or do I want to remember the simple joy of finally merging our lives, the pure elation I felt at setting up a shared space and officially starting our married lives together? For now, I choose to live in the moment. So, I have a different plan.

I’ve always thought that part of being a successful writer is having the brain space to let ideas percolate. But with no time or energy for brain space, I’ve decided to take on other creative endeavors, as a means to inch myself ever closer to the creative world I want to live in.  One of my favorite quotes on creativity comes from Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve quoted her here before, but the words are wise, so one more time won’t hurt.

Whatever else happens, stay busy. Find something to do—anything, even a different sort of creative work altogether—just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure…. In other words: If you can’t do what you long to do, go do something else.

Go walk the dog, go pick up every bit of trash on the street outside your home, go walk the dog again, go bake a peach cobbler, go paint some pebbles with brightly colored nail polish and put them in a pile. You might think it’s procrastination, but—with the right intention—it isn’t; it’s motion. And any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.

So wave your arms around. Make something. Do something. Do anything.

Call attention to yourself with some sort of creative action and—most of all—trust that if you make enough of a glorious commotion, eventually inspiration will find its way home to you again.

Most of me wants to do nothing but lay on the couch these days, but I’m making an effort at making a glorious commotion, even at work. This week, I went to a two-day, work-sponsored Illustrator training to learn how to make computer graphics. By hand, I can barely draw stick people, but few things give me more pleasure than creating a visually appealing infographic or instructional video. I even managed to impress myself with a few of my creations! I created a very spiffy replica of the Salesforce logo, and I even managed to freehand a donut graphic!

 

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Admittedly, it looks like it was done in MS Paint, but not bad for a first attempt!

I’ve also taken up cross stitching; I already have over 50 patterns saved on Etsy and a list of potential gifts for family and friends.

 

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My first cross stitching project
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It doesn’t look like much now, but just you wait….

And fancy hand lettering and doodles have made their way into my journal. Calligraphy classes are also on the horizon.

These are small things, but the effect is big. I feel like I’m slowly growing closer to my creative self. At this point, any creativity is a much needed break from the pull and grind of daily life.
Soon, very soon, I’ll be back to my writing routine. As always, I’ve got big plans. Until then, I’m living life from one moment to the next, no regrets.

Memories Once Forgotten

 

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I’m attempting to write an essay, just one freaking essay, about my time in Ecuador. I say attempting because I haven’t made a break yet. I jot a lot of notes, write little scenes in a notebook that I carry in my purse, scribble down random thoughts and flashes of memory, and I spend a lot of time thinking about why I want to write these essays and what Ecuador meant for me, then and now. Yet, at the end of the day, I have nothing complete, nothing even close to a comprehensive picture of my time there. So I keep digging deeper into my mind, desperately collecting all the memories I can and translating them to the page, hoping that the right one will trigger the waterfall that causes my essay to just, well, flow.

About a month ago, I was once again staring into space as I tried to piece together the blurry details of a distant memory when it occurred to me that I didn’t have to rely on my recollections alone. In fact, I had a wealth of written records of my time in Ecuador. I had my own Facebook posts as well as hundreds of Facebook messages exchanged between friends and family near and far, including fellow Peace Corps volunteers, my sister, close college friends, and Ecuadorian friends and students and love interests. I also had the long, detail-packed emails I’d intermittently exchanged between friends and family in the States, the mode different but not entirely unlike the longhand letter writing of my grandmother’s generation. And Gmail logged all of my chats during that time, capturing the banal and heartbreaking moments alike.

As I attempt to cobble memories of my Ecuadorian life together, I read through hours of random emails and chats. It’s a phrase that’s used too often, but sorting through these written records can only be described as an out of body experience. As I read those words, emotions that have long since vacated the sights and sounds still lingering in my memory came flooding back with full force. It’s bizarre, how blurry certain memories are, and yet these little snippets of time are forever frozen in the words exchanged through an unreliable internet connection spanning between Ecuador and the United States (or Facebook’s servers, wherever those lie). If I could find the palm-sized, 90s-era Nokia cell phone I carried during the last year of my service, imagine the records I’d have!

As I sort through these flashes of my Ecuadorian life, my thoughts span the gamut. In some instances, I am immediately transported into the moment, suddenly inhabiting my 26-year-old body again like a time-traveling character in a science fiction TV show, and in others, I am completely foreign to myself, unrecognizable in my culture shock and compassion fatigue. Over time, you can see the state of my mind shifting in the text; I have fewer substantive conversations. My correspondence is filled with the surface level, vague notions of what I’m doing and how much longer I’ll be in Ecuador. In these cases, the text conveys next to nothing, but I can see myself drowning in the whirlpool of my own emotions, too involved in my own struggles to perceive anything of my friends’ and family’s lives. The longer I’m in Ecuador, the bigger the gap between my understanding of their lives becomes and their understanding of mine.

At some point, I find myself thinking of Ira Glass. Recently, I listened to an episode of This American Life, fittingly entitled Captain’s Log, which discussed the hidden histories behind the random notes and snippets of our lives that we leave behind. In it, Ira Glass casually mentions that he and his wife  once had an argument via text that was so intense that his wife suggested that they delete the texts afterwards. She didn’t want any living record of the hateful words they’d exchanged, even though they had long reconciled and the hate had gone out of those words now. I thought that was strange—after all, who would be casually reading their texts?—until I started paging through all of these emails and chats. While listening to the Hamilton soundtrack for the hundredth time, I finally notice a lyric that I had never truly heard before, despite my repeated listenings. In the song “Burn,” Eliza describes her heartbreak at being betrayed by her husband, then defiantly tells Hamilton that she’s “erasing myself from the narrative. Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart. They don’t get to know what I said. I’m burning the memories, I’m burning the letters that might’ve redeemed you.”

On any given day, we snap off 140-character opinions and plaster the internet with pictures of our lives with little to no thought about what happens to that information years from now, when it’s buried in the depths of our Facebook news feeds but still accessible to anyone patient enough to click through all your old posts. And as I continue to write through this confusion and darkness, I can’t help but wonder: what will I make of all these words already thrust into the universe, these detailed records of my life that I was barely aware of? I can’t burn them, like Eliza does in Hamilton; long after they’ve been deleted out of my inbox or news feed, they will always exist on a server somewhere. So what becomes of them now?

The Hard Work of Becoming a Morning Person

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This year, I resolved to start a daily writing practice. It’s something I’ve resolved to do and failed at many times before, but here I am, attempting it again.

In the past, I told myself that I would simply write when I got home from work. No matter what happened, I would make myself do it; it was just a matter of making time for it. As it turns out, I was right, but only partially. Despite my best intentions, I never did establish a writing practice, because while it was just a matter of making time for it, I never had the energy to produce anything by the time the hour before my bedtime rolled around.

Years later, I’ve finally resigned myself to the fact that, whether I like it or not, I can only establish a daily writing practice if I  write as soon as I roll out of bed in the morning. The only time I’ve come even close to maintaining a daily writing schedule was for a month last year when I woke at 5:30am every morning to sip coffee and blindly type until the very last minute before I had to go to work, until I literally had to run for the train to make it on time.

The purported habit-guru Gretchen Rubin—who apparently only had to do some pseudo research and write a book full of anecdotes to become an expert on habits (who knew?)—asserts that in order to master your tendencies and establish productive habits, you must know yourself first. You have to fully understand your predispositions beforehand so you can, essentially, account for your shortcomings when you establish your goals and plan them in a way that makes you the most likely to succeed. For example, if you are a night owl, she says, you will never be able to simply turn yourself into the type of person who wakes up early every morning to exercise or write. Instead, you’ll fight against your night owl tendencies, try to wake up early for some time, then eventually give up once you fail a time or two. Yes, she admits that if you’re night owl and you also happen to work a regular 9-5 job, your options for establishing good habits—i.e. habits that work with your night owl tendencies—are limited, but oh well. Onward and upward! Try your best.

For a whole month, I lived the life of a true morning person: getting out of bed upon the first sound of my alarm, eating breakfast at my table like an adult, and sipping on my coffee while I wrote for about 45 minutes. No matter how tired I was, I plopped myself in front of that computer. Eventually, however, my good habits slipped. I’d still wake between 5:45 and 6:00, as per usual, but then I’d spend an hour between my cozy sheets, scrolling through my Facebook feed, then my Instagram feed, then perusing the headlines on NPR before finally dragging myself to the shower. I spent weeks waking at that time only to scroll through anything and everything I could find on my phone, anything to avoid the hard work of getting out of bed and getting my day started. Eventually, I gave up. I didn’t, I told myself, wake up that early every day to look at my social media. Gretchen Rubin was right, I reasoned; my long-time night owl nature was simply working against me. I was never going to win in this situation.

For nearly a year, I used Rubin’s “research,” or a handful of stories about how her acquaintances had tried and failed at their own habits, as an excuse to justify not waking up early to write. Eventually, however, I realized that there was simply no other way around it. I needed to write every day. Not doing so would mean wasting a talent that had been granted to me by pure grace. And I clearly needed to write before work, because experience proves that I never find the time or energy later in my jam-packed day. And in order to write before I go to work, I have to become a morning person. Oh well; I never really did believe much in Rubin’s theories anyways.

So I began reading articles about how to become a morning person, noting strategies that others had tried, inventions that help you to wake up naturally, the science behind sleep, how people wake, and the best way to wake for productivity. Then I resolved to do it, with some rules and strategies to help me along.

  1. Throughout the week, I will wake between 5:45 and 6:00 am. During the weekend, I’m allowed to sleep in and write at my leisure, as long as I actually do it.
  2. Immediately upon waking, I will sit up, then drink the tall glass of water sitting on my night stand, all in one breath if possible.
  3. At the very reasonable recommendation of another writer and night-owl-turned-morning-person, I will not use my phone as a way to wake up. Instead, I will leave my phone face down on the night stand while I stumble to the kitchen and do something routine, something that requires no thought, gets my hands working, and allows my mind to slowly wake up in the process. In my case, this is throwing out the coffee grounds from the day before, putting new ones in, and getting the coffee brewing. Added bonus: After I slowly join the living, I get coffee!
  4. I will sit down in front of my computer and write something, anything, for thirty uninterrupted minutes.The faster and fiercer, the better. No internet surfing. No answering emails. No flipping through my Spotify list. No checking my work calendar. Only writing.
  5. I will stop writing after 30 minutes, even if I have more to say, even if my mind is running wild with inspiration. This has nothing to do with becoming a morning person, but I read that doing this reminds you that that sitting down to write is about showing up daily and working, not about the muses being on your side. Conceptually, I know this, but it’s something I still struggle with.   While I would like to build up to writing for an hour every day and also allow myself the freedom to continue when I feel like I’m tugging at the strand of something wonderful, I think I can benefit from showing myself that writing can happen even when inspiration has packed its bags and left, even when I’m typing with one eye open and there’s not enough coffee in the world to get my brain running. So the typing stops after 30 minutes, no matter what.

Thanks to Murphy’s law, I woke up with an awful head cold on the first day of my new morning routine. Determined to succeed this time, I walked myself through the steps, escaped the allure of my bed, and completed my 30 minutes of writing. And I’ve written every day for the past month. Through sickness and fatigue, dark winter mornings and mornings so cold that I have to wrap myself in a blanket and sit between two space heaters, I write, write, write. At first, I could barely focus my attention on writing for more than 10 minutes at a time; the seconds seemed to crawl. After a month, though, I can already feel the difference. My fingers fly over the keys, and before I know it, it’s time to wrap up and run out the door. It’s a tiny step in the right direction, but it’s something.

On top of building up my writing muscles, establishing a morning writing practice has brought more calm to my life. It affords me at least an hour of quiet and order before I step into the madness of the world. It’s time just for me and my creativity, an hour to leisurely eat my breakfast like an adult, sing along to my jams, sort through my albeit muddled thoughts, and put the words bouncing around in my head in some semblance of order. It’s hard to believe, but 6:00am has become my favorite hour of the day.

The general pseudoscience behind habit formation is that it takes at least 30 days to form a new habit. After a full month of writing daily, it looks like this night owl has discovered the hack to becoming a morning person. So take that, Gretchen Rubin! I’m officially a morning person now, and soon I’ll be a morning person that can say she’s truly a writer, too.

Living Big in 2016

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I’m a big fan of end of the year posts, New Years resolutions, and big goals. Although most find the habit of resolution-setting to be silly—after all, what makes you more likely to stick to a goal if it’s set on the first day of the year rather than the 135th?—I find that big goals and resolutions help me to keep track of my life. They also help me to keep pushing for my dreams, even when the minutiae of every day life sucks me into the black hole of eat, work, sleep, repeat. This year has been full of ups and downs, and while the ups were really high, the lows were really, really low. I am, for the most part, happy to leave 2015 behind.

Anxiety has made my life very small in the past year. I’ve been afraid to fly, afraid to travel in general, even within the city, suddenly afraid of small spaces and crowded places, and generally afraid of the many bad circumstances that could befall any of us at any moment. My past year has been one of primarily fear, and that’s not the way that I will live the upcoming year. Instead, I will live a life that is big and plentiful, rich in friends and family, bountiful in creativity and an attitude of adventure. I don’t want to live a life of scarcity, as Brené Brown says. Instead, I want to live from a place of giving and love and faith, from a place of complete abundance (something that is especially difficult for a realist like me).

I have many lofty goals for 2016. I want to read 27 books this year. I want to become more of a leader at work. I want to run a 10k and create more healthy eating habits. The list goes on and on.

Of my many resolutions for this year, the most essential is to write daily and to focus on writing rather than on simply blogging. That doesn’t mean I’ll quit blogging. On the contrary, I’m working on an editorial calendar to keep this blog on track next year. Instead, I want to focus more on pieces outside of what I post here, something I always tell myself I’ll do but never make time for. I’ve also found myself falling into the trap of using that frilly, frou-frou writing style that so often sneaks into mainstream blogs. It’s popular because it’s easy for both the writer and the reader; using this style, the writer can easily prattle off a couple posts a week and the reader can then mindlessly scan through them.  It’s a fine style of blogging and writing—it fulfills its purpose—, but it’s not me. This year, if I’m not doing the hard work of examining and analyzing, then I might as well not be writing.

As I head into 2016, full steam ahead, my general goal is to take a page out of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Big Magic. This year, I’ll be focusing mainly on motion, of any kind. When you have anxiety, your first instinct is to stay in the place you feel most comfortable, to be still and quiet and safe. This year, I’m using Elizabeth Gilbert’s strategy for generating my own creativity and calm.

Whatever you do, try not to dwell too long on your failures. You don’t need to conduct autopsies on your disasters…Move on. Whatever else happens, stay busy. Find something to do—anything, even a different sort of creative work altogether—just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure…. In other words: If you can’t do what you long to do, go do something else.

Go walk the dog, go pick up every bit of trash on the street outside your home, go walk the dog again, go bake a peach cobbler, go paint some pebbles with brightly colored nail polish and put them in a pile. You might think it’s procrastination, but—with the right intention—it isn’t; it’s motion. And any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.

So wave your arms around. Make something. Do something. Do anything.

Call attention to yourself with some sort of creative action and—most of all—trust that if you make enough of a glorious commotion, eventually inspiration will find its way home to you again.

Above anything else, my goal is to keep moving in a direction that is always positive, even if there are short failures and detours, and to trust that inspiration and creativity and Good will find me along the way.

Despite the difficult times of 2015, I’m also grateful for this past year; it was a transformative year in my life and one that helped me realize many of the things I don’t want, which I’m told can be just as important as knowing what you do want. I’m happy to have a new job and a new fiancé. I’m happy to be 30 and ready to usher in a new decade of badassery. With two weddings and a trip to India on the books, this year is bound to be anything but dull and safe. So let’s go, 2016; we have a lot of writing, reading, and moving to do.

The Wonderful Surprise of Turning 30

When my father turned 30, or so the story goes, he moped around the house the whole day. He was not happy about turning 30; in his mind, he hadn’t accomplished enough to be happy about this milestone. In the meantime, my mother was desperately trying to get him out of the house. She had planned a surprise party for him at another location, and his moping was preventing him from unknowingly attending his own birthday party. In the end, they went out. My dad was surprised, and everyone had a great time. “It was a waste of my day,” my dad later said of his moping. I’d always said that 30 would be a difficult birthday for me, but when I heard this story years ago, I determined that I would greet 30 with open arms and a huge smile.

When I finally turned 30 last month, it was surprisingly effortless to be happy. To be honest, I was ready to move into a new decade of my life. My 20’s were characterized by all that stereotypical, young angst—about who I was and who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do and which direction to go in. After a decade of wrestling with those doubts, I was more than happy to leave my 20’s in the past.

But my 30th year on this planet is off to a great start for a whole host of other reasons as well. Five days before my birthday, V. proposed to me! It was a hectic day in the middle of another feverish work week as I prepared for my first big user conference with my new team. When I came home, I expected nothing other than a relaxed crockpot dinner and an evening of TV. Instead, I found a trail of peppermint patties leading to a beautiful ring and an even more beautiful proposal. I was completely surprised and breathlessly, joyously said yes.

The days leading up to my birthday were spent breaking the news to dear friends and family and family-to-be. Messages of love and congratulations poured in from every direction. Then, two days after our engagement, V’s parents arrived from India, and thus began the whirlwind of merging families and lives. Given that we had only spoken over the phone a handful of times (and even then, never for longer than a few minutes), I was nervous to meet V’s parents. But less than 4 hours after meeting me, his mom cupped my face in both of her hands and asked me to come visit them every day. Spending three weeks with them was nothing but a pleasure. They instantly loved and accepted me in a way that I never expected, and I cherished getting to know them every day over the next three weeks.

Days after his parents arrived, V. surprised me again, this time with a small birthday party. After yet another long work day, I came home to find my closest friends huddled in the dark with V. and his family, all happily yelling their birthday wishes when I walked into the room. V’s mom made us a giant, delicious Indian meal, and afterwards we dug into a box of cupcakes from my favorite bakery.

In the weeks following, friends and family came in from all parts of the country to catch up with V’s parents and squeeze us in warm, congratulatory hugs. Everyone was overjoyed that we were overjoyed. We ate, talked, and laughed, and I watched with deep contentment as V shined, completely in his element with his close friends and family.

Then came the big event: the parental meeting. Three weeks after our engagement, my parents came from Southern Illinois and our two families spent the weekend getting to know each other and, of course, discussing wedding plans. In between talks of multiple weddings, bridal parties and guest lists, astrologers and holy wedding dates (Hindu wedding customs), we also discussed our family values, histories, and beliefs. Our moms told stories of our childhoods, and our dads discussed family and religious traditions. I saw cultures and lives merging over our love for one another and felt a deep and encompassing gratitude.

For the entire month of October (and still now, really) I floated on the clouds of the newly engaged, dreaming of all good things to come. I knew that being engaged would be wonderful. What I didn’t know is that it brings forth an effusive love from those nearest and dearest to you, the type of love that envelopes you in pure happiness and, for a brief moment in time, completely removes you from the troubles of the world. It’s the type of love that suddenly makes you aware of the gentle, constant love that your friends and family feel for you daily, the same one they use to prop you up in your tough times and multiply your happiness in the good.

Planning my life with V. has broken me out of the deep, residual funk resulting from a tough job and a relentlessly hard year. Getting engaged stopped my world for a minute, giving me the opportunity to reflect on the state of my life and all the loved ones who’ve gotten me here. All the opportunities and crazy coincidences and lucky breaks that have led me to this moment. I’ve always known how lucky I am, but my eyes have been completely opened to just how fortunate I am to have two loving families and a multitude of wonderful friends near and far.

The most fantastic part is that if you had asked me at 20 what my life would look like now, I could never have predicted this for myself. I could never have told you that I would spend two years broadening my mind in graduate school, or that I would live in Ecuador for two years. That I would learn to speak Spanish and learn to work, live, and make friends in a culture entirely different from my own. I could never have told you that I would eventually move to the big city, something I once thought I’d be way too scared to do. And, most of all, I could never have told you that I’d be marrying an Indian man, planning two weddings, including a Hindu ceremony, and preparing for a trip to India with my family later this year. If there’s anything I feel more than an immense and powerful love, it is a deep and profound gratitude. All I can think lately is that I’m so grateful for parents who raised me to challenge my fears, to be open minded and kind, to respect other cultures, and to have a sense of self confidence. I’m grateful for V’s parents, who raised my kind, gentle, thoughtful, funny, selfless, smart, and downright fun other half. I’m grateful for my Peace Corps service, which taught me how to fully appreciate other cultures and step out of my comfort zone. And I’m grateful for myself, for waiting for someone who is worthy of the love I have to give.

Life doesn’t always go as planned, but I’m very thankful that mine has gone this way. As I always tell V., life is too short. And if there’s anything I know now, it’s that life is too short to be anything but grateful, happy, and taking on my next adventure with the one that I love. To the next 30 years!

Settling Back Into Writing

It seems like everyone but me is writing and publishing and diving head first into their creative endeavors these days.

I follow a blogger who has a 5 month old son and a full time job and still manages to blog three times a week. Many times, the content of her posts aren’t to my tastes, but she’s a good writer with over 40,000 blog followers and every time I see a new post from her all I can think is fuuuck.

While I have much more time to write than before, I still struggle to actually sit down and do it. This past summer was a particularly dry time for creativity as I moved, changed jobs, and tried to focus on slowing down and settling in after a particularly out of control time in my life. Having a panic attack opened my eyes to a new, all-encompassing world of terror. Anxiety drains everything from your life. The only thing left after a panic attack—the only thing you can even think about—is anxiety. Every day is a never ending string of frightening thoughts. What if I have a panic attack on this bus? What if this train gets stuck in the subway, and I can’t get out? What if I don’t pass this test and I lose my job and I have to start the job hunt all over again and I can’t support myself and I get evicted from my apartment and I have to move back in with my parents and…and…and…?!

You know how it goes.

Luckily, as I settle into my new apartment and into a new routine, I’ve also been able to gradually stabilize my anxiety. And as anxiety finally takes a back seat to my regular life, I find myself turning more and more to the things that fill me up with hope and peace, including, and especially, writing.*

In my college days, I could sit at the computer and write for hours without moving. In fact, that’s how I preferred to write. If I didn’t have a long afternoon to sit and think before frantically typing my inspirations to the page, then I didn’t want to begin in the first place. Now, I can barely sit at the computer for more than 10 minutes before my mind wanders elsewhere. This is partly thanks to my adult life, which no longer offers me the freedom to sit and ruminate; I often write in the spare minutes I have before going to sleep or going to work, sitting at my desk in the dark, my eyes barely open and my fingers stumbling over the keyboard. I’m also greatly influenced by our internet-driven, ADD culture. I write a paragraph, then check my Facebook. Buy a Groupon, then scribble another half page. I change the song that’s playing, shoot off a quick email, then get back to my piece for another 10-15 minutes. It’s a type of schizophrenia, writing this way.

Ultimately, for me, part of getting back to writing is getting back to the habit of putting my butt in the chair and words on the page—no moving, no tab collecting, no coming back to it after the dishes are done or the laundry is finished, no picking it up tomorrow when I will be less tired or distracted. (There will never be a day when I’m less tired or distracted.) My desire to write is coming back in full force, and I want to take advantage of this momentum. Even when I’m struggling, when I’m frustrated and annoyed by my lack of ability to capture the right words, writing is the only thing that truly puts my soul at peace.

In the past year, it’s become abundantly clear to me that my future must involve a career in writing, even if it means writing the boring stuff. As Truman Capote said, “To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” The satisfaction I get in placing one word after the other is unlike any other, and ultimately, scrambling to fit writing sessions into a typical corporate American workday is just not working for me.  I’m 30 now (!). It’s finally time to create a 5 year plan that brings me closer to that reality.

In the meantime, I’m wracking up ideas for writing projects and setting milestones for myself, albeit flexible ones. I’ve got big plans for this blog and a collection of essays on Ecuador, and I’ve been looking into volunteering for a writing-based nonprofit in the city. My boyfriend and I have also been talking quite seriously about finally bringing our idea for a musical to fruition, and although I’ve never attempted to write musical theater, I can’t stop jotting down little snippets of dialogue, dreaming of putting lyrics on paper, and ultimately pitching the idea to producers. (Is that what you even do?)

For now, I’m relieved and immensely grateful to have the time and mental capacity to write.  More than ever, I’m also confident that if I keep believing in this dream and keep writing when I can, my dream of producing beautiful work will soon be a reality.

* Those who live with anxiety know that stabilizing that anxiety is not as easy, natural, or effortless as I make it sound, but that’s another post entirely.

Gratitude and Struggle

Two Mondays ago, at 2:30am, I awoke to the sound of deep, guttural retching in the apartment below, the sound of someone desperately trying to vacate their stomach. There was cartoonishly loud spitting, then three hard, blunt slams against the wall, so forceful that my bed shook. I rolled over to look at the clock and groaned. My downstairs neighbors had been waking me with their blaring TV or screaming matches at 2:30am like clockwork for the past two months, but this already seemed much more serious than normal. I slid out of bed and quietly, oh so quietly pressed my ear to the floor. “What the hell? What the hell?” my downstairs neighbor shrieked. “You boys,” she said in a motherly tone, then began wailing in a high, oddly tranquil melodious voice. And so it continued—powerful retching, spitting, a series of wall-shaking poundings, and snippets of incoherent babbling—for three more hours.

The saga of my downstairs neighbors began the second week in January. My apartment building had been remarkably quiet before, so much so that my parents marveled at it every time they visited. “I can’t believe it’s so calm around here. I expected a lot more noise, living in the city!” After 13 months of peace that I didn’t even know was a blessing, the shouting began, so loud that I could hear it through my floorboards. At first, it was only the woman who shouted, the only person legally allowed to live in the apartment. I could hear parts of her conversation as if she were standing in my bedroom—”I’m sorry, Aaron!” and “You need to be more tolerant!” and “You can’t control yourself!” Other parts of the conversation, the parts that took place in other areas of their apartment, were more mumbled, but the tone was clear: tense, provocative, dangerous. Then, days after, I could hear both parties shouting. At first, I did nothing. I’d never been in this situation before; I didn’t even know what steps to take. Then, when the fighting became more frequent and the cursing more intense, I called my landlord. He issued a warning and things quieted down for a bit. A week later, their throbbing TV kept me awake again, the bass pulsating in my floor and in my head as I tried to fall asleep.

“Are you sure your apartments aren’t connected somehow?” my boyfriend asked, more than once. “How would our apartments be connected?” I asked. “Maybe there’s a microphone in your floor,” he’d say in jest. Then, more seriously, “Maybe your sinks are connected and sound just travels through there. I don’t know. It’s just…bizarre.”

Bizarre. That was the only way to describe it. I never heard my next door neighbors, yet I could hear my downstairs neighbors as clear and sharp as a violin chord in a silent room. And they weren’t always fighting or shouting. Sometimes they were just talking, about friends, about their days, about their beliefs, albeit strange beliefs about reincarnation and powers from another planet. I pressed my ear to the floor, trying to gauge the true volume of their movements and conversations. Were they really that loud or was I being too sensitive? Is my floor abnormally thin? If I can hear everything they say, can they hear everything I say? This went on for months. Fighting and not, floor vibrating along with their TV or not, odd noises in the middle of the night or not. After months of this, I was tired, crazy, worn raw.

Then the retching happened. I sat in my bed, unmoving. I was scared, and somehow doing nothing seemed like the best option. I desperately did not want to call the police, although my landlord had advised me to do so after multiple nights of noise led to repeated calls to his office. Despite the wall-shaking bangings below, it didn’t seem as if anyone was being hurt. Or maybe that’s what I wanted to believe in the strange darkness of the morning. Finally, after dozing and waking once more to a shaking apartment, I called the police. It was 4:45 am—an unforgivable amount of time after the incident began. Immediately afterwards, I called my boyfriend. He picked up after two rings and was on his way to my house 10 minutes later. He patiently listened to me complain and fret as I packed my things for the week. He let me lay my head on his lap and cry about how tired I was. Then we both got in a cab and I moved to his house for a while.

Sleep deprived and disturbed, I walked into a challenging work week. Every day was grueling, and I finished out the week feeling awful about myself and terrible about my work. I cried no less than three times throughout the course of five days. All in all, it was an atrocious week at the end of three increasingly horrible months.

Yet, despite the onslaught of awfulness, my week was abnormally full of wonderful moments of calm and, more than anything, profound gratitude:

  • V. and I talking about our work days while cooking in his tiny kitchen.
  • A long and adventurous run through the Lincoln Park zoo.
  • Nights full of Chopped marathons.
  • A quiet morning spent sipping coffee and catching up on the long list of essays I’ve been trying to read for months.
  • Listening to seagulls crying from the nearby lake, their calls echoing in a city not quite yet awake.
  • V. making me stir-fry at 7am on Monday morning and packing it up for our lunches.

Ironically, the same Monday that started with awful retching ended with the greatest moment of calm: a leisurely walk, hand-in-hand with V., as the wind of Chicago’s first 70-degree day lightly caressed our skin. As we strolled, we talked about the dark and terrible thing consuming my downstairs neighbor—whether it be drug abuse, domestic abuse, or heartbreak—the peace and safety we both want for her, and how grateful we are to have each other. Then, at 9pm, I changed into my pajamas, crawled between soft sheets, and slept for 9 uninterrupted, quiet hours.

Giving Up Indifference

Last week, the Catholic community celebrated Ash Wednesday, and for the first time in over a year, I voluntarily went to church.

Throughout my life as a Catholic, I have often skipped church, but my attendance was always more on than off. It wasn’t until my last year of Peace Corps that I truly began quitting church. For an entire year, I sat through an hour of barely-understandable readings and prayers—many of the words in the Bible are foreign in English, much less Spanish!—before I realized that I didn’t feel a connection. Going to church no longer offered me a sense of community, or that deeply satisfying feeling of self-understanding, or the closeness to God and to others that I once felt before. Furthermore, singing and quiet reflection time are two things that I have always relished about going to church, and neither of those things were present in Ecuadorian masses. (Believe me, there is no such thing as quiet in Ecuador.) So, I finally stopped going.

After returning from Ecuador, I attended mass with my parents for a few months, both out of a sense of obligation and a secret hope that maybe a fire would be rekindled. Instead of finding my way back to God, however, I found myself quietly fuming over politically-driven homilies about abortion and presidential elections and ranting to my family about our priest’s dictator-like behavior. I couldn’t even follow along with mass anymore; unbeknownst to me, the Vatican had changed the prayers I’d been saying since Kindergarten and many parts of the mass itself while I was in Ecuador. What I had previously assumed were differences due to translation or culture were actually permanent changes to how Catholics worship. Why can the Catholic Church make a major decision on how every priest in the world will say mass but not on who can lead mass? Or how to grant women positions of leadership in the church? Or how to become more loving towards populations that we’ve previously shunned? I would think as I loudly said the wrong words at the wrong times. After much stewing, fuming, and head shaking, I decided to quit church for good.

This Ash Wednesday, however, I found myself sitting in the hard wooden pews of the Catholic church down the street from work as the priest read the opening prayers of mass. Despite my willful indignation towards the Catholic Church, I find myself waiting in line for ashes year after year. Something about Lent speaks to me. Apparently, something about Lent speaks to many people. According to the Catholic Church and an article recently released by TIME, more lapsed Catholics come to church during Lent than during any other time of the Liturgical year. The Church hypothesizes that it’s the practice of fasting that draws people back to the Church during Lent. Naturally, the article implies that most regular and returned worshipers treat Lent as a second chance to make those forgotten New Years resolutions a reality, giving up chocolates, fatty foods, and other things that benefit nobody but the person doing the fasting. Although that explanation is entirely plausible, I would also argue that Lent is the one time in the Liturgical year when Jesus seems the most human, and therefore the most accessible as a religious figure. It is during this time that he escapes into the desert to reflect and pray. In his time of solitary fasting and worship, he is tormented relentlessly by the devil, constantly made to face his own weaknesses. He struggles with his own mortality and ultimately faces his fear of dying. Who can’t identify with that? And yet Jesus overcomes these weaknesses, resists temptation, and ultimately conquers over death. His story is one of faith and hope and triumph. How can we not be moved?

All theories about increased church attendance aside, I admit that most of us are prone to making superficial sacrifices during Lent, myself included. In the TIME article, Pope Francis elaborates on what it is he believes Catholics should be giving up for Lent:

[I]f we’re going to fast from anything this Lent, Francis suggests that even more than candy or alcohol, we fast from indifference towards others….

Describing this phenomenon he calls the globalization of indifference, Francis writes that ‘whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.’ He continues that, ‘We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.’

As I read the remarks, I couldn’t help but think of the many populations to which the Church itself has been indifferent over the years: women, gay people, those who have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of priests and other members of the Clergy. Let us not forget that former Pope Benedict was, before his days of infallibility, responsible for addressing cases of child abuse within the church. As the Guardian points out, “The evidence of church delay and indifference, if not obstruction, throughout the 80s and 90s is copious – and it came about when the [former] pope was the Vatican’s most senior official, second in this matter only to John Paul II.” And yet, despite his inability, or rather unwillingness, to protect children, he rose to the most revered position in the Catholic Church, a position that involved providing daily counsel to followers on how to be good, loving, and devout disciples of God.

“If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” the current Pope said when asked about the Church’s stance on homosexuality, and yet the Catholic Church still firmly condemns those who “choose the gay lifestyle.” Two short week ago, my best friend married her longtime partner and now wife. Despite her own reservations as a devout Catholic, my friend’s grandmother decided she wanted to attend the ceremony, to celebrate the happiness of her dearly beloved grandchild. When she asked the Church for permission to attend, however, she was quickly denied.

And the Church continues to uphold edicts against contraception and a whole host of women’s issues that the leadership can’t even pretend to intimately understand. I saw the harmful consequences of this most vividly in Ecuador, where women were literally weighed down by their children, their eyes dead and dull. In a society where men control sex and women, especially those who are married, have very little say in in the matter, the prohibition of contraceptives is especially harmful. Whether they want to or not, women continue to have more and more children and families quickly sink farther and farther into poverty while the Church tells them that this is a cross they must bear.

I know that I can’t and won’t forgive the Catholic Church for their shortcomings; they have never even asked for such forgiveness. And yet this suggested Lenten resolution still resonates with me. It touches a part of my heart that has been aching for a while now. It’s difficult to live without a wall of indifference. As a small town girl in a big, bustling city, I often depend on my indifference to survive. Every day, I am completely and utterly surrounded by people. On the train on my way to work. In the streets. In my own apartment building. Every day, I face the poor, the hungry, those struggling with addiction and mental illnesses. As I listen to my neighbors shout obscenities at each other and blast their bass so loud that I can feel the floorboards shake against my bare feet, I build my wall of indifference. As I walk past the babbling man on the corner with the crazy look in his eyes, I build my wall of indifference. As I work and work and wonder what good all this working is for, I build my wall of indifference. Out of fear and exhaustion and frustration, I continue to build and build my wall of indifference.

Just as Pope Francis said, all of this indifference has left me numb to the concerns and struggles of those around me. As the days become more and more hectic, I draw further into myself, enveloping my mind in an endless string of my own struggles. Now, I look out from a well of self-concern and perpetual dissatisfaction—with work, with Chicago, with running and writing, with myself—and I can’t help but wonder how I got here. Perhaps breaking down the wall of indifference is what will also break me out of this mold, this endless feeling of exhaustion.

Every once in a while, I contemplate going back to church, even more so in the past couple of weeks. Even if I never return to those wooden pews during this Lenten season, I’ll be thinking about how to lessen the influence of indifference in my life because I know that Pope Francis is right on this one; it’s a truth that I feel in my gut. Even if the Catholic Church, as an institution, has not always modeled responsibility in its words and actions, we have a responsibility to each other: to make a place for the joys and struggles of others in our own lives. As Brené Brown so poignantly says in Daring Greatly, “we cannot selectively numb emotions; when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive ones.” So as the Pope suggests, I’m not just giving up Starbucks for the next 40 days, although that is also part of my Lenten resolution. I’m also giving up indifference. Because as much as I want to avoid pain—my own or that of others—a life devoid of the human experience, good or bad, is really no life at all.

Like Moths to a Flame

Last night, I went to a story slam. Those who know me know that I generally steer clear of literary events that involve the word “slam.” Cue Leslie Knope.

But this was The Moth, a podcast often referred to in reverent tones by trusted friends and of which I’d heard short, funny, and interesting clips on NPR’s This American Life. So when a few coworkers suggested we go after work on a Monday night, I happily agreed to tag along. When we arrived an hour before the event, the bar was already packed; the walls were lined with people in tall chairs, groups of friends sipped beers around crowded tables, and the bar was abuzz with waiters scurrying back and forth between customers. My coworkers and I found an open space on the hardwood floor where we sat cross-legged in front of the low stage. A microphone stood alone at its center. Behind it, a small poster board sign announced the rules of the event.

the moth
Picture courtesy of http://moth-stories.tumblr.com.

1. Your story must be true.

2. It must be on topic. Each StorySlam has a different theme to which the storytellers are strictly bound.

3. It must have stakes.

4. It must be your story to tell.

5. And, lastly, it must be on time. Each storyteller has 6 minutes to tell their story and not a second more.

The sign also made it clear that the Moth was not a place for stand-up routines, rants, confessions, or gratuity. Instead, it was a place to tell a truly good story, one that makes us care about the storyteller, explores fears and desires, introduces conflict, and, more than anything, demonstrates that the storyteller has been truly changed.

Three groups of ordinary listeners were designated as judges, and then the storytelling began. The theme of the night was snooping, and while many of the stories followed the conventional story line—purposely reading a significant other’s emails to see if they are cheating or accidentally finding a loved one’s porn stash—a few others resisted the ordinary and stepped into truly wonderful territory. One storyteller, a medical student, described the “snooping” he’d done to discover who his med school cadaver had been before death and the touching facts you can discover about a person’s life through the small details of their appearance. Another woman told us of the time she snooped through her neighbor’s encyclopedias when she was in 5th grade, frantically searching for more information on a topic that her family refused to talk about: the ominous arrival of her period. Another woman detailed the awkwardness that ensued when her husband discovered that their son and his girlfriend had exchanged nude pictures. Finally, my coworker’s husband riveted the crowd with a story of how spying on the cops led him to an active crime scene and a misunderstanding that left him in handcuffs.

Some of the stories had clearly been rehearsed, told and retold aloud until the teller could say the lines without thinking. However, the ones I liked most were off the cuff, stuttering, a bit halting, both serious and funny, casual and yet structured. As the night drew on, I also discovered that the stories that truly captivated me were the ones that made me worry. I wasn’t worried for the guy who recounted the series of supposedly funny occurrences that led him to discover that his couch surfing host was gay. There was nothing at stake, and so I was indifferent from the beginning. However, I did worry for a number others—that they wouldn’t finish their stories in time and I’d never hear the ending or that they’d be caught in the act or that a simple misunderstanding would lead to physical harm. My anxiety deliciously crested as the storyteller zigged and zagged towards an ending that I simultaneously craved and dreaded.

After every story, the judges presented their scores, which were inconsistent at best. They often awarded points based on sympathy and a well-rehearsed delivery when I would’ve awarded points based on the amount of stillness in the crowd, whether or not the story made us collectively draw a breath, the vivid details that can only come from a lived experience and truly give life to the story. I walked away from the event disappointed with the chosen winner—a Guatemalan guy who told of every sadsack story about cheating that I had ever heard while living in Ecuador—but I was still deeply satisfied with the experience. What a luxury to be so thoroughly riveted by strangers’ stories. What a privilege to live in a culture where StorySlams even exist. I’ve already taken to the internet in search of other storytelling events. Hopefully I will soon be a teller as well as a listener, because I, too, have stories that are just waiting to be told, to strike a quiver of anxious energy in the listener, to draw others into the unique set of circumstances that makes my experiences so different and yet so utterly human.

Finding Focus

Despite good intentions, my year of focus is off to a rocky start. After a visit home for the holidays, a few glorious days of fun with friends and family, and an unexpected trip home again for my grandmother’s funeral, I’m struggling to get my schedule back on track and myself back in motion. I’ve spent most of this month catching up on the work stacked on my desk, the dirt layered my floors, and all the random-yet-pressing obligations scribbled on random pages of my Passion Planner (which I finally got this week!). In the meantime, my downstairs neighbors have taken to screaming at each other in a manner that quickens my heartbeat—partly out of frustration, but mostly out of fear—and my upstairs neighbors continue to walk incessant laps around their apartment, taking extra care to hit the squeakiest spots.

In this the first month of 2015, I’ve barely managed to squeeze in a half hour of writing once or twice a week, if I’m lucky, and I run so little now that I can’t even call myself a runner anymore (or justify my monthly gym fees). Sometimes, most times, I feel like I am descending into madnesss, that I will forever be swirling in this tornado of chores and overflow work and frantic running here and there. But I keep reminding myself that small, consistent actions lead to big rewards, so I continue to seek focus in all aspects of my life.

At work, I’ve relegated personal emails and texts to my lunch hour, so I can focus all my attention on work tasks. I’ve imposed a strict 8-5 work schedule and I’ve quit checking work email when I’m not in the office. Instead of giving 110% to all of my tasks, I give 100% to the things that matter and let everything else wait for the next day or the next available person.

At home, I wake up an hour earlier than before to sneak in some writing time before work. Unfortunately, like the true night owl I am, I often wander about in a half conscious state until a half hour before I need to leave the house. Sometimes I end up using those early morning minutes to pack a gym bag or consolidate leftovers for lunch. Sometimes, I sit at my computer and write a mish mash of run on sentences, half complete thoughts, and notes for later. It’s slow-going at best, but at least it’s going. I’ve moved my computer from my comfy couch to the more business-like table. I’ve created an editorial calendar for the year, outlining both my blogging deadlines and estimated completion dates for a collection of approximately 7 essays. I’ve written the first sentence of my first essay on Ecuador, and I’m picking out a handful of writing residencies that I’ll apply to later this Spring.

In the meantime, I continue my attempts to gain control over a life spun out of control. I map out my work engagements and writing times, coffee dates and bed times. A queasy, regretful feeling spreads in my stomach every time I think about my neglected running practice and my quickly deteriorating Spanish skills. I hate prioritization, for the impossibility of its nature and the anguish it causes me. But I continue to do it, because life is short and my goals are big. So stay tuned; I’ve got some exciting things in the works.

One day at a time.

I can and I will.