Risky

The Writing the Risky Personal Essay class I’m taking with Grub Street in Boston is wonderful. I’ve been learning how to write scenes, use verb tense to create narrative flow in a story, tell a hard story unflinchingly, and so much more. The only problem is that with my commute into Boston and back every Tuesday, plus class time, I lose a quarter of my writing time doing it. I’m brainstorming how to create more writing time in my week without becoming a derelict parent or giving up my fitness efforts or home management duties. So far my only ideas involve getting a whole lot less sleep. Man, I love sleep.

After many years of depression, I feel myself coming out of it. One of the telltale signs is I find myself having to make choices about how I can maximize my limited free time. Do I practice the songs I need to learn for Threshold choir? Do I work on my blog or next essay writing assignment? Do I do some journaling in preparation for this week’s counseling session? Do I go for a run or take a fitness class? Do I work on the enormous alpaca wrap I’m knitting for someone’s upcoming birthday? Do I make time to connect with a friend? The days of walking around as a numb shell of a person without a sense of engagement in anything are over. This is a welcome change, and an uncomfortable one. I can’t remember if I ever learned how to prioritize my passions and make time for all of them simultaneously, or if I always just gave up the activities I loved in favor of assignments from someone I was trying to please. Whether it’s a skill I’ve forgotten, or a new one, I am practicing how to press in and do something I love when the only person who’ll be disappointed if I don’t do it is me. This feels risky. It is uncomfortably selfish to take time for myself to do whatever I want, to insist on that time each week, to pay others to care for and entertain my family while I do so. Being a beginner at so many things means that I often don’t have anything to show for my efforts. I fail a lot. Everything is much slower than I expected. Somehow, this is good news. Slow, uncomfortable, selfish, full of small failures: these are the hallmarks of the life I’ve been fighting for, the life I’ve risked everything to try to live.

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Every Word Is Nonsense, But I Understand

My coffee shop time on Tuesday was dominated by a wonderful mix of songs from the mid 90’s. I sort of suspect someone broke into my attic and stole my old high school mix tapes to play at the General that morning because wow, these tunes are familiar. Bare Naked Ladies, Dave Mathews Band, Oasis, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Sister Hazel, and most importantly, Counting Crows. Their song “Anna Begins” was one of the most important soundtracks to my high school experience. I fell in love to that song, got my heart broken, betrayed my best friend, and faced myself for the first time as an adult. That song created inside jokes, made it into senior year yearbook notes, and still, nearly twenty years later, evokes some intense emotions.

There were four of us. Anna, Mike, Jamie, and me. We were a balanced group of guys and girls, nerds and musicians, theater geeks and poets. They were my best friends. There were others who we loved and who loved us – Sue, Mas, Austin – but it was magic when it was just the four of us. We had more fun doing nothing than I had doing anything else. Our nothing times might include spending an entire afternoon at Wildwood state park throwing handfuls of grass at each other; or sitting in Jamie’s living room and watching the clock tick, intermittently spraying Jamie’s elderly weimeraner, Shad, with the spray bottle when she did something forbidden. Our nothing times are my best memories from high school. We were thrilled with the chance to be together, we laughed ’til our sides ached, we created jokes and nicknames and catchphrases that followed us through graduation and college, that I still remember and would respond to today.

I was in love with all three of them. Jamie was nerdy and awkward. We played viola together, and he introduced me to many Lucinda-shaping pieces of culture, including Cowboy Junkies and Monty Python. Anna was naturally beautiful, a writer and an actress. We wrote each other poems and stories, and sat dreaming on her roof all summer. Just being with her made me feel smart, creative, funny, and less vacant and alone. I couldn’t imagine high school apart from her nourishing friendship. And Mike. Mike was my boy nextdoor, our funny leader, the light that we all competed to bask in. I have never loved anyone else quite like I loved him. I loved him enough to compete with Anna for his affection, to sneak out to the woods behind our houses to make out on cold November nights, to forgive him when he asked me to prom and then took it back when someone better wanted to go with him a few days later. My love for Mike was selfish and generous, self-discovering and self-denying. I shaped myself around him, around all three of them. Years later I still fit that shape, I still know myself as one corner of our four.

As intense as they were, none of our friendships lasted much past high school. For a few years, we’d get together on breaks or holidays, meeting for a meal at the local diner or going to a Christmas open house together. There was no big falling out, or even bad feelings. I still love these three people as I love myself. But when we lost our immediacy, the chemistry got strained. And as we grew up and moved on with our lives, maintaining connection became inconvenient, and the magic waned. For a few years, I would invite Jamie over for dinner while we both lived in Boston, and call Mike on his birthday, but it never satisfied me. Even in the age of Facebook, there does not seem to be any technology that usurp time and distance to maintain our closeness.

A few years ago, I discovered that Mike and Jamie had both gotten married, improbably on the same day, across the country from each other. My husband of five years walked into our bedroom to discover me weeping over my laptop, and asked with alarm what had happened. I choked out the “good” news. To his great credit, Scott knelt down next to me and gathered me up in his arms and murmured, “aww honey, you must feel like you lost them a little, huh.” I have rarely loved my husband more than in that moment. He held me as I cried and apologized, invoking the refrain from our beloved song lyrics. “Sorry, Scott. I’m just not ready for this sort of thing.”

End Product

At the job I recently left, we used a three digit numerical code to organize our claims and assign credit for cases worked. These codes were called “end products,” and they ruled our lives. Different kinds of claims had different end products – initial claims that would require much more research were one type of code, while reopened claims that would already have most of the evidence already of record were another.  We used end products to assign work, to organize our time during the day, and to claim credit for whatever we had accomplished during the week. End products had a long life – each lasted as long as the claim was pending, so at any given time you had end products hanging around that had been established more than a year ago, more than two years ago. End products had suspense dates, which told us when we had to look at each claim again. Most of our daily work assignments were based on end products that had expired suspense dates. As a supervisor, I spent a huge percentage of my time every week fretting about how many end products we had that were expired, that had been neglected for more than 30 days, more than 60 days. 

For twelve years, “end product” was a piece of jargon I used without thinking. I never thought of the term as I would if I was using regular English, as a “product” that would result at the “end” of our efforts, something measurable, with value. End products were merely a code, a way of mentally organizing the enormous ocean of claims awaiting action from an understaffed and undertrained team. And yet now, in my new life as a stay-at-home parent and would-be writer, I am obsessed with the idea of what kind of products come at the end of my work. What do I create as a result of all this sitting and typing? What are the measurable values that result from my parenting efforts? I spend enormous mental energy trying to justify time I spend that doesn’t have a clear and measurable result towards one or more of my goals. It doesn’t help that no one is holding me accountable here, that my husband is blanketly supportive and generous with his hard earned salary. This makes me even more obsessed with showcasing my “accomplishments” in writing and parenting, of which there are, basically, none. Neither activity is prone to produce finished products. Neither my art nor my children come with a daily production sheet.

Often, the fact of having parented, or having written, is the only available result of what feels like enormous effort. I would like to find this disconnection from productivity freeing, but actually I find it burdensome. Part of this blog, and my writing in general, is my attempt to find another yardstick, another means of measuring my worth and impact on the world. I long ago lost my idealism about the effectiveness of end products at my old job. I understood, there, that it was all pretend, that we created measurement systems to credit every action we took because it justified the system we had already created to do what we did, not because it was necessarily real. The end product assigned to any claim told me how that claim fit into the daily puzzle of my value as an employee, but it said nothing about the actual value of the communication, information, access, and money we would be giving or not giving to the claimant. These days, I work in a world that only cares about the actual values. As a parent it doesn’t matter if someone sees my patience with my kids, only that I actually have some. As a writer it doesn’t matter if what I write is prize-winning as much as it matters that I sat down and wrote today. I miss the pretend values – they were so much less messy, so easy to be sure I was doing it “right.” And I’m also immensely grateful that I could leave the pretend values behind. I might not know what I’m doing, and I might not always be able to measure the objective value of any one action, but finally, finally, I’m not working in code.