Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple. ~Woody Guthrie
On March 5, which already feels like two months ago, I shared something that surprised me when it came out of my mouth, and I started this blog post.
I said: This year (2019) I dealt with my inner-perfectionist, the side of me that is prone to procrastination, and my saga with drinking excessively. Three traits, it turns out, that never helped me as a writer. Or as a person really.
I’m not sure where this confession came from, but it’s all I can think about this morning. I’ll write a little bit about that here before I log-in to the fresh horrors of the world. Forgive me if you think the time is off to blog. Originally I had a section where I talked about my horror that a young friend didn’t know the reference of “This machine kills fascists” but now doesn’t feel like the time to pick apart generational differences.
I read one of my chapters that I edited down to be a short story aloud a few Sundays ago. A week later the president of my country called my governor “a snake” for trying to save lives. Life has been consistently challenging since then. More so than usual.
But let me tell you a story.
I didn’t invite my friends or my husband to join me at that reading. The Mister had plans all of his own that day, and I’m sure if I had told him that it was important to me that he was there, he would have rearranged his plans. Instead I went alone. I rode my commuter bike, said hello to somebody I knew on the way there, and as the event got started, two of my former colleagues took seats in the row ahead of me. I recognized a half dozen people from around town. Familiar people that I don’t know personally. A knitter sat down next me, and she obsessively checked her phone to look at her pattern. Every row, she’d picked up her phone and set it down to knit and purl.
After about ten rows, she settled into knit two, purl two, knit two, purl two. Stopped looking at her phone. I watched her hands and her needles. It took everything I had not to pull books off the shelf next to me in the reading gallery and thumb through them as other people read their poems, stories, and essays. Forcing myself to listen took so much willpower when there were a million distractions. Two weeks later, my brain feels like a broken version of Tweetdeck. New phrases like “social distancing” and “panic shopping” and “pivot online” loop in my mind.
I honestly don’t even know that I’ll have the focus to finish this post, but I need something that feels normal as my bank closes, my friends lose their jobs, my friends with kids face a new challenge of how to work and homeschool, my library closes, and there are too many horrors to list as I think of people who are much less fortunate than I am on a normal work day.
So I’ll just finish this point. I’ll just finish this. This.
This confession about my wicked inner-perfectionist and the part of me that is a procrastinating daydreamer are really one and the same. A frustrating mix of two forces. What appears to be hindering the other is really a constant reaction. A call and response. Part of this sharing session in my class was a recognition and a reflection to create closure to a time spent with other people. Most of the time was remote. An online class that used several platforms for remote connection. It’s part of the work of this group to honor and respect the stories of others, and I learned a tremendous amount about myself during this time.
The hardest part of making three deadlines a month was showing up to admit when I hadn’t finished something.
I always put my work first, so there were months, I had to be that student who didn’t complete the assignment. Super hard for me. I care a great deal about the work I do, so I feel like I have my priorities straight, but it’s hard when you feel like you fail at everything.
Some observations of what I learned during that class:
Weird Generosity: I gave away one of my grandmother’s best sayings because I recognized an uncle in a story as somebody I have known. When I read her description of this character, my skin crawled. Here’s the saying from my paternal grandmother who always spoke her mind. Here are the sentences: “He’s a crook. A son-of-a-bitch. He’d steal Jesus off the cross and go back for the nails.”
Dread: I sat with this feeling every time I had to respond to one writer. I dreaded reading her story each month because I knew the ending. Her suffering weighed a ton and I didn’t have the energy to hold it most days.
The Emerald City: One story reminded of a Seattle that no longer exists. (Before all of this horror, mind you). The same tentacles of Seattle’s gentrification are (were) finding its way to where I live. But I have to admit, I like the little duck pond and the fountain they built near my condo. A few days ago, I ran away some rage along the new trail around this little fake pond, and I placed in the top ten women on Strava. That made me laugh. I’m two seconds off of one of my bike teammates who was probably running at talking pace. It was probably her warm-up pace (but I’m coming for you).
One Book, Two Book: After completing this course, I realize I have a second or third book. One about teaching and learning. The other about teacher burnout. I can’t seem to tell one story without bringing up another. There have been so many things said about teachers that have sent my fingers to the keyboard this past week, but I can’t share that story. It doesn’t do me any good. Rather than type and respond, I made myself walk up and down our stairs every time I saw something that pissed me off. I logged an extra 15,000k of steps that day, and I kept a lot to myself.
Resistance Learner: During this class, I revisited some stories that I love thinking about, but I’ve resisted others. One of the readers shared that she sees me as a “resistance learner.” She understood how I thought, she shared, because she’s the same way as a thinker. Apparently I had said, “I’ll have to think about that” quite a bit when people asked me to share more. Though I don’t remember saying this phrase often, but if I’m honest, that is my go-to response, when I think something is a bad idea.
Rejection: I revisited a rejected story, revised it, and people really liked it. They asked a lot of questions. Wanted more details. Became incredibly interested in one of the characters. They laughed at the shenanigans of the narrator (c’est moi) and her hiking partner.
I wrote that story in 2010, I reread the initial rejection from an editor who later apologized to me for the way his response may have sounded. He had been drinking, he said, when he sent that email and it was inappropriate. I didn’t say I accepted his apology nor did I acknowledge that he had sent it. I deleted the email, and I didn’t write anything of worth for almost two years. I now know how to deal with these critics. I know how to deflect asshole comments and move on.
But back then, it broke me.
I’ve thought a lot about the things I should have said to him, but really, all I ever came back is the retort, “You know, I’ve written emails and letters while drunk that I regret too, but I never clicked sent nor did I lick the stamp to the envelope because I try to not be an asshole.”
In the sober light of day, those words never looked like a good idea. They never help anything. The best thing to do is move. Write more words. Try to essay through it.
Time With My Magic Machine: Making the time to write, I shared with my class, was the biggest accomplishment of these last months. I don’t schedule the time because I don’t want to deal with the shaming notifications of my phone, but I do set an alarm each morning. I have one alarm for when I wake up, and the another to remind me write for at least 30 minutes Monday through Friday (like today).
On the weekends, I’m super-selfish with my mornings and I work for hours before I do whatever it is that is the second highlight of the weekend like riding my bike, running, or whatever. I’ve let go of joining bike rides where people want to start out early in the morning so they can do other things on the weekend. Me and the mister agree on this, so we end up riding together or with others who like a late start.
Two Saturdays ago, we had one of the nicest days we’ve had in awhile, and the route was a bit busy with people walking dogs. It was almost warm. My first bike ride without a neck gaiter in months. On one of the climbs, I took a chance on a wheel lift to get up a bridge. A wheel lift looks effortless and you may not even know that’s a skill of sorts if you don’t ride bikes. It requires a bit of timing with a kick of the pedals while lifting your handle bars to pull your front wheel up. This prevents slamming your front tire into something that might cause a flat. It’s like a mini wheelie, and it’s taken me years to figure out how to do these.
I’m not always that great at them, especially on an uphill trail. This particular wheel lift was onto a wooden bridge where one year ago I crashed. Hard. Wooden bridges are a great idea for tributaries over water, but seven months out of the year they are either treacherous with rain or slippery mold.
This past Saturday, I tried a wheel lift again on a smaller bridge than the photo above, and as I felt my front tire sliding, I hit the brakes, unclicked from pedal, and caught myself with my left foot.
“Nice save, lady,” I heard.
I looked up to see a super fit trail runner. She pumped her fist and nodded her appreciation. It was a good save and I didn’t yell FUCK!, I thought. Who dis!
A small victory witnessed by a stranger. Bellingham suddenly has a whole population of trail runners who appear where nobody but cyclists used to go ten years ago. Parts of the woods where I used to never see people, there are now runners.
“Thanks,” I said to her. We smiled at one another. I kept pedaling thinking it was nice to have somebody witness something I committed to. Something that I finished and kept going. Something that somebody else knew was hard and had the empathy to recognize that. Something that somebody else witnessed as a personal challenge. Something I failed attempted but I succeeded by accomplishing the save.
Something very human.
This is the feeling that I’m taking into my work day today, and I wish you the same.