Four years

It’s been four years, and a few days, since my soon-to-be published book, unimagined at the time, began. Five months since I lost my 50,000 words, folded up my checklists, became a routine coffee drinker, and started taking a closer look at what I’ve made, what I’ve promised (to you and to me), what I’ve learned, and what is next.

When I started to blog in November 2014 it was the only feasible creative outlet that I could imagine. It was something I did on the side, in tiny pockets of time that felt borrowed from other responsibilities, slightly embarrassed, apologetically—an experiment. Starting the novel, and devoting significantly more time to writing, though still very much on the side of the other responsibilities, still a guilty pleasure, was another experiment. Can I do it? What will it be like? But after all the experiments, failed, embarrassing, or otherwise, documented in these pages, I find that I can no longer imagine a life where I do not write.

So many of the pieces I have written have changed me, the way I see life and myself. I can recognize, now, what is my voice and what is not my voice, when I am saying the things I have heard and when I am saying something I feel to be true. I have felt a connection to something outside of my own mind that if I open to it will move through my hand onto a page. It frequently does not feel comfortable, but sometimes it can feel like witnessing a miracle. 

It has been interesting to watch the process where my mind recognizes something new: I don’t need an empty notebook. I’m not an empty notebook. Integrating a new understanding into how I live my life, watching how that changes interactions, or my feelings about myself…Well, I can’t say for everybody but for me it takes a while and I’m learning to be kind to myself: Remember? You’re a dog-eared notebook. It’s cool.

The would-be break-in piece, written in October 2016 but never published on the blog, marked a big shift for me, in life and in writing. I can see that now, but I didn’t know it then. I think the ideas in Lemon vs. Knope were also very important: stop focusing on your foibles and flaws as the most interesting things about you, embrace your inner Knope—it is okay to express love, enthusiasm, and not just for things that don’t really matter, like hot dogs. 

Writing the Happy Atmosphere Challenge was also important (if overwhelming), and that experiment will certainly inform my future work. I learned that motivating to do less bad feels very different from motivating to do more good. I am loathe to make any promises here, having seen so many in these pages that are still not fulfilled, but I think it is safe to say that you will be reading more about Do More Good in the near future (or at least safe to say I will be writing about it). Writing Happy Atmosphere also started me down the path of learning something else I want to think/write/share more about soon. The Challenge is filled with SO MANY THINGS to think about, to measure yourself against, to monitor. Maybe it feels good to have a large menu of possibilities. Or maybe it is better to say, hey, change these three things, they make the biggest difference, and then live your life where you are, be flexible, relax. I haven’t written this one yet, but I look forward to learning this lesson.

The piece called Piggly Wiggly, and more pieces where I consider race and my southern heritage, were things that I wrote about but never published to the blog. The Piggly Wiggly piece was a draft in August 2017, right after the violence in Charlottesville, and a reasonable amount of the thinking, and the conclusion, were done more recently. I don’t feel qualified to write about this. I don’t feel free to write about this. I feel scared to write about this. But the conclusion of that piece changed me. I thought I had loved people, but after revisiting, editing, and considering this piece, I don’t know that “love” is the right word. I had loved in a child-like way. But now I am an adult. I think love is more active, more interested.

Feminism, Me Too. I have written a lot about this and unlike Piggly Wiggly not a single one of these pieces has made it into this book (well, maybe that one bit about the patriarchy). There is so much to be said, and so much feeling and anger circling this topic. I haven’t wanted to get involved in the middle of that. But I do have a perspective, and writing, even what I have not shared, has helped me. I’d like to share. I think I will.

Basic Training. I don’t know if I would have managed to write the things I did, to grow in the way that I did, without Basic Training. When I am hardly drinking alcohol, eating very little refined sugar, not on Facebook/playing iPad games that surge my neurochemicals, I’m energized, mostly positive in outlook, patient, and many other things that I like to be. Add meditation and eating veggies with some regularity and I’m positively pleasant to be around. But there is a fear that goes along with all of this normalcy. What if I can’t keep it up? What if I get back in the bad place? So my flexibility dries up. I am steady, but possibly less joyful. Basic Training was a huge benefit because I got to see the balance that could come from some different, regular habits and I could assess which ones were most helpful. I needed that. But I don’t have to LIVE there. I want to learn to walk the line of moderation. Enjoying things, but not overmuch, eating cheese and knowing that it will be okay, skipping a week of meditating and then starting again, living in the flow of life. But I think it’s important for me to have some basic guidelines and principles and to know that, if I want to do the work that matters to me in the world, if I want to be awake to life as it is today, if I want to have experiences with my kids where I share my spark with them, I need to mostly moderate. Checklists can work for me. Checklists with love and flexibility.

Bono. I think this is the best piece I’ve written to date. I don’t know how other writers work, but what I like about the act of writing, and about my writing in particular, is that I’m not out to teach you something, I don’t have an ending that I’m trying to convey, I’m not trying to convince or persuade. I’m trying to understand something myself and sharing my questions and the answers that I find, that are in process. The exercise of writing this piece was truly transformational for me, for my understanding of myself and of life.

Eating and other problems. I know this one is heavy, and incomplete. But I’ve included it in the book because, again, the process of putting this down on paper totally shifted my perspective. For twenty years, instead of singing a lovesong to my home, instead of embracing, and celebrating, and shining a light on beauty and connection, I have fretted about tablecloths. I have seen life as damage. Hard to write, hard to read, possibly confusing out of context here. When I read these words back to myself, it kind of knocked me over, imagining myself as my own child, learning about how people live on the earth, our relationship to it. I guess I will spend a lifetime figuring this out, but it has stayed with me every day since writing it. I want to sing a lovesong to the world, I want to know what I mean by that. This feels like it has become a basis for what comes next.

And what about Jenny? I thought Jenny Goodguts was separate from me. An ideal—a superhero—that I aspired to be closer to, more like. Someone who always knew the healthy choice, someone who held me accountable to being my best self. I felt that I could never quite meet her expectations, and I felt a growing frustration with her inflexibility, with her constant judgment of my behavior. I felt she was watching me, saying: you’ll never reach your potential if you keep not following my advice, if you keep falling short, if you keep slipping. But Jenny Goodguts never said those things.

I thought that Jenny Goodguts was the me I could become if I could get my act together, fix all my habits, make a plan. I was wrong though. I tried to send Jenny away, but I don’t want her to go away. Because she’s me—I’m her, of course. The person who knew to tape the quarter up on the kitchen wall, to make a game, that was me. Was the same me that sometimes raises my voice and feels bad, or who is sitting here in a magenta hoody sweatshirt having eaten no breakfast, face unwashed, typing these words to you. I don’t need to be more like a superhero, I just need to be quiet, and still, and listen to the voice inside, to love her, to give her some space, to do my best. I still love Jenny Goodguts, who was never a superhero, who never expected me to be either, who just wanted me to be myself. I’m not sending her away, but I’m taking off the mask and the cape that I thought she needed to wear, handing them back to Control-o, the dark vixen of constriction who keeps us small by making us feel like not good enough. Together, Jenny and I, who is just me and my soul, can notice, maybe even laugh, when Control-o is up to her usual tricks.

***

Four years ago, on the day I blogged about my pants and began the journey that would lead to this book, I had a skill—I could organize words into a logical, frequently pleasing or amusing, arrangment. I could take the words and the thoughts around me and I could reflect them back. I could translate the things I heard people saying into a comfortable language for my handful of readers. But something was knocking. I knew I was missing something. Oh, I thought, maybe I need to organize x or y, maybe I need to change p or q, maybe if I can fix myself somehow, if I can fix something about the world, crumbling around me, then the knocking will stop, I will find some peace.

When I started writing what would become this book, I had vocabulary, and structure, rhythm and a backpack of life experience. But I had not learned how to listen. How to pay attention. How to be open, to be brave enough, to say something new, something that I hadn’t heard before.

Learning to look and to listen will change you. Except you don’t need to be changed. It will open you to what is true and real and beautiful. It will connect you to the light inside yourself and the light inside of others. Four years, and all of these words later, I will say: It is worth the time.

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