Wednesday Wisdom: Writerly Catch-Up

OK, I know I don’t divulge too much about my writing project(s). The reason is: The status changes every day, every minute, every time a new idea seems like a good idea. (Seemingly too often, the good ideas aren’t as amazing as I imagined they were at 3:00 a.m.)

The craft of writing is a whorl that can only flow one direction. Fight it, and the resistance takes you down. Go with it, and you will inevitably end up somewhere unexpected but the ride was free. The process hates control freaks. It takes a very open-minded soul to trust their own subconscious mind to create the story.

I’ve been honing the skill of letting go. I’ve let go of how many versions? 47? Hundreds? Who knows? Keeping score is not a good idea. It only serves to stress the emotional freedom that is the sacred space of creativity.

I’ll take a tangent here. Currently, I’m reading a book called ‘A Girl With No Name’. It’s the true story of a five-year old girl kidnapped and dropped off in the jungle of Colombia. For five years, she survived the terror of the jungle by observing, then adapting, into a troop of capuchin monkeys. The monkeys treated her as one of their own. The girl learned to communicate through their categories of screeches, laughter, warnings, and plain old hijynx. When a monkey died, they grieved together. When the girl ate poisonous tamarind, Grandpa monkey shoved her into a pool of filthy water which she forcefully swallowed, then vomited. The old monkey saved her life.

The story chapters are organized through the girl’s discoveries. One example of this was after two or so years in the jungle, she had found a shard of mirror. Her reflection scared her, as she hadn’t known she didn’t resemble the monkeys. With the mirror, her entire sense of identity was shattered. The prior experience had become so absolute in her mind, and her body so adapted to the patterns of the monkeys, that she had no concept, no language, for what she was. And yet, she harnessed the emotional apex that the monkeys had accepted and took care of her anyway.

This story has so much significance. Creatively, emotionally, we can easily be lost in a terrifying world. But when we pause and observe the productivity surrounding us, when we recognize the break-down of skill and experience and care that sustain us, we can arrive at the apex of the human condition to feel heard and be seen. Nature is slow. So, too, must we create.

Wednesday Wisdom: Photos

Next to me is a photo album open to a page with a large black and white photo of four women at the beach at Catalina Island outside of Los Angeles. The ‘swimsuits’ are long black dresses. The date of the photograph is documented as the late 1890’s.

My husband is deep in a project of scanning his family history so that these precious and fragile inheritances can remain intact and accessible through online media. The job is tedious but rewarding. Yesterday, we had discussed how each photo reveals a story, but that the viewer is only privy to a filtered version of the story based on our own interpretations.

These women at the beach would be unable to vote for 30 more years. There is no doubt that their story of the ‘beach day’ would reveal many differences from our own experiences. We can imagine how hard life was for them, but without documentation through stories, we are stuck within the limitations of imagination.

Often, we think of imagination as a broad forest of possibility. For children, imagination is crucial to development and establishing an identity in a world much larger than them. We pride them for conceiving wonderful ideas and expressing their perspective in ways parents would never think to do. Imagination comes naturally for children, as they rely on the security of feeling that there is a place in the world that appreciates and values them.

But imagination stifles with age. We erase the potential of things and become cemented in convenience. We find a niche where patterns have emerged, filling a space that has adapted to our comfort and expectations. We forget that this place is a story, based on interpretations and filters meant to hold us there for the sake of maintaining homeostasis, the brain’s constant pull to an unchallenged status of existence.

Often, our heart and brain are in conflict during change, which is a good thing when it comes to agitating the waters of self-fulfillment. We fear hurting others. We fear failure. We fear success. Every excuse in the book can be found under the Fear heading because when we learned to silence our imagination there had to be a category for our stories. Freedom doesn’t arrive without struggle, because fear will always reside along resistance to an identity defined by others. Breaking free of limitations, of stories, requires a new perspective which challenges the status quo and pushes against the default structure. Fears can be overcome. Otherwise, nothing would change.

Catalina Island, Late 1890’s

Wednesday Wisdom: Constructs

Yesterday, I had the first fraught meeting with a new editor over the first 30 pages of my memoir. Through our respective computer screens, we came to know each other via the discussion of what wasn’t working for my story. Sending my competent-but-not-effective work to a stranger would have scared the Hell out of the old me, but there comes a point when you have to let go of fear, especially when the creative world is calling your name.

“Play with your story,” the editor told me. “The story is cerebral and fresh and you have something big that the world needs.”

The praise was great for validating my efforts, but I paid to hear criticism. The story lacks an effective structure, something to hold its complexity and my voice in one body. As it is now, it resembles a page of amateur spirograph drawings. Remember how the plastic plate would slip from its pivot, ruining the concentricity of the circle? That pivot point is the equivalent of story structure.

Sometimes, letting go of original constructs is what it takes to improve the overall coherence of a story. Psychology is the spine of our emotions and we create stories in our mind to explain how things must be, but what if we’re wrong? What if we toss our own doubts and fears into the air and let them land differently? Where might we go when we accept an invitation to step from a point where we were once positioned to a new, different approach?

So, now I must play and think creatively to better serve the story which only I can tell. How about you? Are you emotionally wrung out? Which stories in your mind can be let go? How might you construct a better perspective of your truth to align with the worth of your one and only life?

Wednesday Wisdom: Uncertainty

On Monday morning, I woke up feeling energized and ambitious so I went for a run. It was short. A change of pace in my week, I hadn’t run in years, ever since it had proved challenging to my joints after giving birth to Kid A, (yes, a reference to Radiohead) but I ran with the mindset that nobody was judging me: I was slow and a little knock-kneed and, because of my life, a little nostalgic.

Now, eighteen years after giving birth to my first daughter, I am feeling uncertain as she is about to leave the house for college and begin a life of her own. I’m afraid of what the household will become without her, afraid of who I will be to the world—this woman with one less role visible to my friends and acquaintances of an identity I had sacrificed a career to become.

Stripped of this identity, who am I? The uncertainty is crushing. To be known as a mother is a privilege in which one doesn’t anticipate loss, but loss is a mother’s playground, an interpretation of growth and change weakened by the fear of feeling incomplete.

I am sad and I am grateful: grateful for being there to see her first smile, her first steps, her first tumble, and the many more that would follow. She was ambitious and alive and it was exhausting to keep her safe. In fact, keeping her safe was my career, but now I must retire.

Where do I put my energy? Where do I put my worry? It would be crazy-making to worry about her and I trust I have done my job well enough to forsake the helpless act of fearing the worst.

I must move forward. So it is here, in these words, on the page, where my identity finds me. It is here where a map to understanding my own emotions makes sense of the confusion. In two days, I will be a different parent, a different spouse, a different writer. I will be an identity both old and new, wisened, and free. Isn’t that the point life makes over and over? That freedom still possesses sacrifice and uncertainty? That we must continually move forward because it is the only direction to go?

‘Wonderland’ by Jaume Plensa, Calgary, Alberta

Beautiful words on parenting: The Last Time

Wednesday Wisdom: Family Ghosts

Many gaps exist in my family story. In trying to piece together my parents’ younger years for my memoir, I am befuddled by the complexity of mistaken timelines and the absence of information. One example that surprised me was the fact that I had always believed my mother was twenty-three when I was born. I have done the math. She was twenty-four.

What difference does this make? A lot. The mind relies on every bit of information as one navigates the world. My stories have built me and I process life through the filter of my understanding. Finding an error in what I have believed to be true means I must recalibrate my truth to a different and unfamiliar understanding. Seeing things differently forces me to step back and question my own beliefs and preconceived notions of how I fit into the world.

With more gaps than I had previously realized, I have to question how much I know my family. As I’m seeing it now, it seems to be very little. The more I delve into photos and years and events, the more wary I become of my relationship to the people who raised me. Certainly, if I don’t know a lot about them, then there must also be a lot they don’t know about me. It is evident to me now that many of my childhood struggles circulated around the feeling of ghosted by family.

Writing is a process of discovery. We write to learn about ourselves, but finding the truest meaning of ourselves also means discovering the truest meaning in our relationships. Merging into this territory is dangerous, difficult work. Now, I am able to do this because I have a strong support network which has taken years and courage to build. My husband and the world of creativity are the backbone of my emotional health. It has taken commitment to my own well-being and letting go of previous truths to undergo this process, and I am so grateful to have people to hold me up when I want to crumble. My fortitude has grown with the belief that my story matters, because even with loneliness, no person’s story exists in isolation.

Perhaps I was called to writing because I never felt understood. Or, maybe I always wanted to be known on a deeper level. Humans need connection. Like so many of us, all of us, in fact, the layers of identity are deep and tragic and uncertain. Loneliness is a trap we can release if we take the initiative to identify what we seek. Generating creative work provides meaning in an otherwise shallow life and illuminates our blind spots. Still, I am realizing that the gaps in my family story were never there to be filled, but to be examined. It’s through the existence of an incomplete that I see myself more clearly as my parent’s daughter. Stubborn. Hard-pressed to finish what I start. I’m finding my connection to them as I write. Present or not, they are here with me.

My paternal grandfather, Robert Wallace. A grandfather I never knew.