Blackouts & Daisies

Last week’s post received a lot of positive feedback. This intrigued me considering I had a hard time resonating with it as I wrote the words. It was a wreath weaved of brambles, a mere Charlie Brown decoration, sentences brittle twigs fastened into a single loop, twine callused and ropy holding it together in a shape nature never intended. But I forced myself to finish, because if I don’t subscribe to anything else, I subscribe to deadlines and meeting them. They are the hammer of fate that shatters the glasshouse where perfectionism lives. 

These days, I cringe before selecting “publish now.” It’s the fear of embarrassment my poorly shod words might elicit, like morning breath clinging to the inside walls of my mouth like old paint. I insist on finishing, and let it go. I hold the chick over the side of the nest and open my fist, not sure whether the tiny, hollow bones will instinctively fly, or hit the ground and burst into a million pieces. I look away from my words and hope for the best, knowing that some of the best lessons are the most painful of all.

I question whether I am seeking approval or acknowledgement from others. As much as I tell myself I’m not, that this is nothing more than being brave and showing the inside of myself when I’m not confident if I’m wearing pants or not, it’s human nature to seek acknowledgement if not approval. Even if no one agrees with me, it’s confirmation I am not alone in this world, that others are subject to the same crosswinds, the current of life, regardless if we don’t paddle in the same direction or use something other than a paddle to get where we are going. 

No human interaction whatsoever feels like neglect or abandonment, which is why some dogs would rather endure a lifetime of mistreatment, than no treatment whatsoever. We are all a social species, our communities lending a sense of identity and safety to each other. Anyway, to sum up last week’s post, the old adage must be true: sex sells. The trite in the middle is inconsequential when the beginning and end are juicy.

Since my writing class, I start my day by handwriting three pages in a notebook. This exercise is called “Morning Pages,” coined by Julie Cameron. This was a difficult exercise at the beginning. My hand could not keep up with my head eliciting a froth of anxiety. This development surprised me and frustrated me. The words breached the pages, clipped and broken, a jewellery box littered with busted clasps, garish fakes, and lonely earrings in search of their vanished mate. It will take some time to diminish the sea legs. Another “new normal” in the making.

I learned some valuable lessons this pandemic. Like any good crisis, it sifted the gold, separating it from the dirt. There is juicy fruit to be found underneath the bitter rind of any catastrophe, even long after separating from the tree that birthed it. To my surprise, I discovered I suffered from FOMO. Two days after the shutdown began, I took a deep breath seeing our city block lit at night like the tree in Rockefeller Center at Christmas, all of us rabbits tucked in our warm burrows, the streets and sidewalks reticent. After a lifetime of operating as my own island in the turbulent seas, it turns out I am a herd animal after all, proof I didn’t know myself as well as I thought.

After living with the creed, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” for the last twenty years, I’ve been quick to embrace the newly-hatched entropy. My new schedule became no schedule whatsoever and I accepted it. This is a great liberty to be afforded, but running outdoors writing have sparred this past year for the crown position in my day: the morning. As each day rushes to its conclusion, like a tuning fork, so too does the fuel in my tank. I work best in the early morning. After a lifetime of waiting patiently, athletics is no longer first chair in the orchestra. My writing practice has finally eclipsed it.

In part, the decision was stemmed from physical duress. My knees are tired of pounding the pavement. It doesn’t mean they’ll have the last word, but it does mean I take them out of the barn less often for a jaunt. A sabbatical from the miles might even pay dividends in the future. I’m safeguarding this belief for now, as the word count stretches its own exploration.

It sounds good in theory, but well laid plans are ripe targets for disruption. Last week I stood up from the love seat, and as I stepped away, my knee caught the corner of the coffee table, a short and rectangular contraption, designed with utility, lacking ornamentation, constructed using a thick piece of glass aboard a small, metal frame. The corner of the table met the soft pocket of flesh below the shield of my kneecap. It was a perfect fit, like a key slipping into its lock.

I hobbled forward, swearing. Nausea climbed my legs like bubbles in a freshly poured soda racing to the surface. I slid to the floor, ice cream melting into a puddle. Russ found me curled on my side, hyperventilating with my eyes squeezed tight. 

“Are you alright?”

“I. Can’t. Breathe.

 I think I’m going to pass out.”

“All that from walking into the coffee table? 

That’s what happens when you’re looking at your phone and walking.”

(Hard to argue that.)

My legs shook as I stood up. Pulling up the pant leg, a tab of loose skin hung from the pea-sized blush spot like a pop-top on a soda can. Cupping the knee, the flesh burned like a charred coal under my hand.

I looked over at Russ. 

“I can’t believe this is it. It should be black and blue after all that. 

Unbelievable.”

Russ rolled his eyes, but I’m still an Event rider at heart. Battle scars matter. Sometimes it is all you have left when the fireball is extinguished.

As I rubbed my leg, I thought about last summer, when I smashed the crook of my elbow on the edge of a wooden door. I was on the floor sitting on my heels,  my belly curled over the front of my legs, propped up on my elbows talking to my sister on the phone. When I finished, I sat up, my elbow caught the edge of the door behind me. 

Immediately, I knew I was in trouble. A cold sweat washed over me. I folded over my legs, my forehead against the carpet, as the velvet curtains of darkness descended. I passed out. I had this terrifying sensation of falling through the blackness. Even scarier, I could not distinguish which direction I was traveling. I was unsure if I falling down, or falling up. I only knew I was not in control of anything and was moving with incredible speed. Worse than all the above, I distinctly remember feeling panicked—I did not know who I was.

 I don’t know how long this lasted. Thirty seconds? Two minutes? Longer? Even with no idea of what was happening, the human instinct for survival is fierce. Somehow I knew my only choice was to fight. As I jettisoned through the pitch of space, I realised I was still attached to a body, but couldn’t move it. This was the answer. 

I fought the inertia. I managed to flip onto my side, breaking the spell. As my eyes opened, I had no idea where I was, or who I was still, and just as quickly, it all snapped into place. I lay there shivering in a cold sweat for another five minutes or so. I can only chalk it up to the depletion of running in a Texas summer coupled with whacking of my funny bone in just the right spot, just hard enough, to create a potent witch’s brew.

HA! Running is dangerous to my health after all!

I kid.

The business of living is a dangerous proposition for anyone. While my knees take a rest, I’m going to keep writing, and wipe the dust off my yoga mat. The studio reopened after thirteen months closed, almost to the day. The free-fall through the unknown is coming to an end. I open my eyes and lift myself onto shaking legs. Today, I am on the sunny side of the daisies, and that’s enough.

Class & Cowgirls

There’s an old saying out here: ‘If your daughter is riding a horse, no one is riding her.’

I laughed so hard I almost fell off the couch. 

Russ looked at me like Garfield peering at Odie—with utter disdain.

So, is that true?”

I stopped laughing long enough to say, “Well, I was divorced for ten years, and now I’m married. What do you think??” 

Russ shook his head and I doubled over laughing even louder. 

We broke down and bought “Yellowstone.” Broke down because I can’t quite wrap my head around paying for a streaming service and paying for streaming a program on top of that. I’m all for supporting the arts, but this feels akin to double dipping in my pocket. I’m cancelling all of the streaming networks next month. I told Russ it’s time to get outside, especially after the year we have all experienced.

My first writing class wrapped this week. I am so grateful to my mom for sharing the link for the class two months ago. I could not have handpicked a better fit if I tried. The teacher was incredibly nurturing,  full of resources and ideas, and contained only a dozen students, all with the same goal. After being one of the oldest students in all of my Section4 Sprints this past year, I suddenly found myself one of the youngest in class. While I enjoy the froth of yearlings chomping at the bit and kicking up their heels, being in the field with seasoned hunters was a nice change of pace.

The writing class was part of Rice University’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies. I’ve looked several times in the past for classes in DC, but so far I’ve only come across asynchronous programs, or programs for professional writers. Finding classes that are synchronous, longer than a weekend, but not a semester long, was harder than I anticipated. 

She opened our last class with “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

After much searching, I did find another writing course with a similar format that begins in two weeks. This one originates from a writer’s organisation and is led from New York City. This should lend a different flavour to the “Brene-Brown-like-twang” experience of Houston.

I am also wrapping up a two-week Section4 program: Platform Strategy with Mohan Sawhney, Associate Dean for Digital Innovation at Northwestern Kellogg School of Business. I’ve enjoyed learning the components of platform companies and the crucial ingredients necessary for reaching critical mass (sustainability) and for thriving (reaching expansion). Sawhney started class with: “It’s not about great ideas, it’s about solving problems.” It’s identifying a customer’s pain points, such as Uber addressing what taxis fail to provide, or latent assets, such as Cessna selling the “empty” time in their jets, creating ride-sharing in the air. 

The class hosted a guest lecture with Jackson Jhin, SVP of Cameo. He discussed the inception and growth of the company. I still find it hard to comprehend how Cameo scaled a platform with the sole objective of connecting celebrities with fans for a few seconds on video. Three years after inception, the company is now valued at $1B. No doubt the pandemic added some necessary fuel, but idea must have had its own stickiness, appealing to the masses. 

We live in a culture destined to eliminate the middleman, whether you are a financial advisor (thanks to Jack Bogle and Vanguard), a real estate agent (Zillow), or a car salesman (Carvana). This list is long. Platforms bring information and accessibility to billions of average people just like me. I can take a workshop with Anne Lamott (in May!), purchase my own stocks, invite Kevin Costner into my home, and gain access to our country’s best professors for a fraction of the cost. I can compare prices worldwide, across every industry, to find the best product or service that solves my need or problem. 

This week I ran into two coworkers in the office who I haven’t seen in over a year. One has triple the grandchildren now, strengthening the point that life moves on, even during a pandemic. The other one said, “Have you seen Yellowstone yet?

I said, “Russ and I are just beginning season three!”

She said, “I was watching that, and it reminded me of you! All those horses, and the mountains.

Have you seen that girl yet? The one who likes that funny guy, the one who rode in the rodeo and got hurt.

I said, “The dark-haired girl? The one who met him at the hospital?

Lighting up she said, “Yeah! That’s the one! She reminds me of you!

Last I saw of her, she was riding a cowboy, so maybe the old saying isn’t true after all.

The Delight is in the Details

SCRIBBLESCRABBLE

My grandmother knew what a painful life had taught her: success or failure, the truth of a life really has little to do with its quality. The quality in life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.

The reward for attention is always healing. What is healed, finally, is the pain that underlies all pain: the pain that we are all unutterably alone. More than anything else, attention is an act of connection.”

—Julia Cameron

[Paying attention] “is a mixed grill of happy anticipation and dread. [Life] is a very bad match for us for those of us born extremely sensitive. It’s so hard and weird we sometimes wonder if we’ve been punked.”

— Ann Lamott

I’m reading Julia Cameron’s  The Artist’s Way. The 25th anniversary edition printed in 2016. My sister suggested it last year when homes across the globe were shuttered with locked doors. I resisted. “I’m already writing everyday,” I said. “I don’t think I have time for ‘morning pages.”

Handwriting three pages of stream-of-consciousness without taking my eyes off the page or lifting my pen seemed redundant to my already established practice. Of course it wasn’t, but I didn’t understand my habit to clump all work under one haughty umbrella was completely irrational, like boarding every animal in the zoo within a single enclosure.

Eventually I waded into the middle of the marsh, experimenting, my jeans rolled to my kneecaps, the oily earth squeezing between my toes like wet marshmallows. Sometimes this is a prerequisite for feeling the lush, symbiotic communities within the ecosystem of writing. With Morning Pages, I began to understand the differences in my writing pieces, and more importantly, I understood its usefulness.

 Morning Pages serve as a total scribblescrabble, a get-out-of-jail-free card, before you put on your writing togs and get down to the nitty-gritty.  (That’s writer humor if you didn’t catch it, because everything is scribble scrabble, despite putting a dress on it and polishing its patent leather shoes, before sending it on its way). Morning Pages is permission for the writer to dance like “Elaine,” before their rehearsal for Hamilton begins.

I’ve just begun writing Morning Pages. So far, they amount to recording tidbits of information with no other homestead available to breathe them into existence (they are unwanted elsewhere), and random suppositions searching for their missing reconciliations, which may or may not exist. Sometimes I use Morning Pages to be crabby and complain, about what a person did or didn’t do, what they said or didn’t say, brewing an extra pot of Pike’s Peak to fuel my cauldron of miscreantic soup. I write down what I didn’t say in that heated moment in the hallway that one time (all the time), hindsight’s stature questioned by the failure of its mute proxy.

When I let my recessive hand hold the pencil during Morning Pages, I swear a lot more than I generally do, which comes as a surprise, even to me. Leftover dreams linger near the pages like they can’t decide whether or not to put their quarter in the jukebox. Some do, some don’t. When I finally finish my three pages, I sigh and wave them away until the next morning, like Scarlett O’Hara bidding Rhett Butler adieu with her silk handkerchief bleached white, a momentary truce. I sing to them, “Run free little darlings!” as my derelicts bump and snarl, fighting for space.

CRACKERS

When I was home in Texas two weeks ago, my siblings and I packed the first floor of our parents house after it flooded from a broken pipe. In total, we logged 35 man-power hours in a single day. We uncovered all kinds of mementos such as heirloom family photos cast on hard paper, like thin cardboard. The people looked familiar, but we didn’t know their names. We found old magazines, white debutante gloves up to the elbows my Mom wore as an adolescent. I couldn’t get them past my wave of knuckles. We found boxes by the dozen of model trains, old school photos of us, school letters and papers my siblings and I wrote in college, and art projects that spanned generations. I found all of my father’s acceptance letters, typewritten and carefully preserved. I found old mortgages and wills from descendants and homes long perished or forgotten. I found a leather-bound copy of Bleak House by Charles Dickens, inscribed on the inside cover, “To Aunt Mary and Uncle Douglas, Love Terry and Dick, Christmas 1962.” It would be another three years before my parents had their first child, my brother.

Susie said, “Hey. Look at this.”

She help up a large dark-blue thin book.

I leaned in searching the cover. “What is that? What does that say?

It’s Dad’s yearbook.

From college?”

“Nope. High school.”

I reached for the book taking it from her. 

Peering at the bottom were raised letter.

I looked up with wide eyes. 

Does this say….CRACKER?

The room was silent, but my brain was screaming against the echoes inside my skull.

Yep,” she said.

“Are you kidding me?

I looked her in the eye.

“Why does it say Cracker on the front?”

“I’m not sure.”

I crouched down on the weathered footstool, leafing through it. The book was created in 1955.

I turned the pages carefully. At some point in time, my father added yellow tabs to mark the important ones. I flipped to one and found an arrow written in pencil pointing to himself in the group photo: The Honor Society. 

I chuckled at his lifelong penchant for labelling and organization. 

Squinting at the black and white photo, I realised the arrow was helpful with identification. I thought to myself, “We sure do change with the decades. Why am I so surprised by this? No one escapes it, yet I am always so intrigued by time’s ability to transmute.”

“I think it is what they named their yearbook: Cracker.”

I looked up at my sister from the footstool, the yearbook’s insides filleted open, the spine resting in the seam of my thighs pressed together. 

So…Dad’s yearbook was called Cracker …

and I have a blog called … Cracker???”

She smiled. “Yes, I think that’s right.”

My head exploded with all the well groomed postulations why even a solitary hint of serendipity was absurd, as tears made haste for the exit doors behind the curtain of my eyes, only to be painfully stopped, jammed in my throat. 

Maybe it is only a coincidence, sixty-six years later, but considering two “Crackers” is wrought with emotion. Even now, the yearbook is a strange portal when held in my hands. Chalk the arbitrary synchrony to your own sensical explanation, because I have none, and will leave it as such. Some things are so extraordinary to define them is to diminish them.

Dad was involved in many activities, many of which no longer exist: Model Train Club; Glee Club; United Nations Club; Challenge Case Club; Usher Club; as well as Varsity Track and Varsity Cross-country. 

The other day I asked my father, “So, Dad. How did you get to school?“

Oh, I walked up this long hill and took the trolley car from there. That’s how we travelled anywhere because we didn’t have a car.” 

Well. what about after school, Dad? I noticed you had so many extracurricular activities. How did it work for you to get home? Did you take the trolley car then, too?” 

Well, when I ran track, we had to walk a couple miles to another school, since we didn’t have any of that [gymnasium, etc]. They had a track so we practiced there. It was usually late by then, so I would hitchhike home.” 

Seriously…You hitch-hiked to get home?” 

Oh yeah, we did it all the time,” he said nonchalantly.

One time this guy put a hand on my leg. He started getting a little frisky, so I jumped out at the next light.”

Oh my God, then what did you do?

He chuckled and shrugged.  “I caught another ride with someone else.”

Stepping into my father’s yearbook, seeing his aspiring adolescence poised behind his big brown eyes was intoxicating. While already successful, his self-assurance of the inevitable possibilities awaiting him stared back into my own face broken apart. He didn’t know where he was headed, but he was confident wherever it was would be good. He just knew. His classmates peered from the page just the same, the entire world laid before them.

It’s bittersweet these days to peel my parents away from their personhood, like carefully removing the skin of an orange to find the soft, vulnerable fruit underneath. Who were they before I, or my siblings, entered the world? All the stories we were told as children we adopted without question, cherishing the beginning chapters of our legacy as our natural rights into this membership. Familial stories carry tenacity and safety for any child. Who are we if we don’t have common stories belonging to each of us? Who doesn’t want to be pulled into the orbit of their parents’ sun, little emerging planets circling the source of their light, searching for our rightful place in the universe?

As I’ve grown older, I understand we are in constant orbit, our places within it always in flux. Sometimes it’s not as we thought, and other times it is and we are not ready for it. We haven’t prepared. We don’t always know and we can’t always be certain, but still we circle the sun. We do it for as long as the sun exists.

Post Script: I’ve been trying to link my WordPress account to my social media accounts, but I had to create a Facebook page seperate from my individual page. Then Facebook had a problem with the title “Cracker.” It suggested, “Unofficial: Cracker” as an alternative. Hmmm. Adding the word “unofficial” suggests an unsavoury propensity for rakish material and a lack of culpability for posting it. Facebook instead accepted “CrackSmack” as the new title of my Facebook page.

When you no longer see the page, CrackSmack, and find me manually adding Cracker to my individual Facebook page, you will know what happened.

It is just the name of a dog, after all.

Tax-a-taxia

I held myself accountable. I said I would start painting as a new challenge. I’m sharing this as a good reminder how hard it is to produce anything beautiful and creative. Funnily enough, I walked away from the experience viewing it a lot like snowboarding: I really suck, but I don’t actually care. It’s so much damn fun, and that’s a really great place to find yourself immersed.

March is a busy month on the calendar. The start is a slow emergence away from the dormancy of winter, but halfway through, March is marked by betrayal, Et tu, Brute?, followed closely by the death of a patron saint, Slainte!, and culminating in the start of spring, rebirth!, a few days later. Sometimes, March even includes the Resurrection of Christ. It’s like a burst of  extinction and sanctification, all in a short period of time. At least this year Mercury isn’t in retrograde at the same time… like it was last year…right before the pandemic pissed all over the global directory.

April brings climatic improvement, but that alone isn’t enough to negate the angst of Tax Day for Americans everywhere, amid the myriad of emerging blooms. This year I decided I was going to use Turbotax. Last year, Russ and I filed jointly using a major accounting firm. Despite the extension added to the deadline, Russ and I gathered our papers and handed them over on time. The experience wasn’t overwhelmingly positive. I left thinking, “If it’s so straightforward and easy, I’ll save us a few bucks, and do it myself.”

My experience with accounting firms has not been great. I want to attribute these bleak encounters to the emotionally riddling services they instigate, sort of an ancillary byproduct, like waking up with sweaters on your teeth, after failing to brush them before bed. 

I chose a small firm to do my taxes a few years ago. The first two years the experience went as smoothly as a gaited Paso Fino gliding across the plains. My taxes were prepared efficiently and professionally. After that, they filed for an extension, without having a consultation. I don’t even know if that’s kosher really, but I chalked it up to being a small fish (me) in a big pond (them). My stuff could wait. The next year I proceeded as usual. Once again, I was not notified they had filed for an extension until after the original deadline passed. That year, I ended up owing a significant penalty. I had intentionally liquidated some holdings into cash that year. Filing late does not mean a person can pay taxes on any capital gains late. Who knew? 

That’s not actually a rhetorical question. I thought they would know. The only silver lining is they didn’t send a bill those last two years either, but it sort of begs the question.

What kind of accounting firm does that?”

So Turbotax it was. After aggregating your data, it’s a matter of plugging the right number in the right box. Turbotax does the heavy lifting calculating your fiscal status as you fo through the program. However, adding the wrong number in the wrong place causes Turbotax to stop until you fix it. 

Needless to say, this is where the rubber met the road. 

Like a school crossing-guard standing in the middle of the street stopping traffic, Turbotax raised its yellow flag at the end of its stick with the giant exclamation point in the middle of it. 

You have exceeded income limits for your ROTH IRA contribution and are subject to penalty.”

Huh?

That. Cannot. Be. Possible.

I added $6,000 which is the limit. 

Wait. Income limits?

Is that even really a thing?

Dazed and Confused (life imitating art), I consulted the expert, Dr. of Economics, Google.

I discovered income limits are indeed subject to federal regulation, but only to ROTH retirement accounts. I had surreptitiously tripped over the fence boards into its jurisdiction, for a variety of  reasons, a collision that ended with a tightly wound ball of hot wax caked in horse shit, the wick dangling dangerously close to the flint, like a hand outstretched desperate for its mate. 

I sat scratching my head, disgusted with Turbotax and Google, twin contrarians in cahoots. In a nutshell, I’m being penalised for paying taxes on my retirement contribution now versus paying taxes on it later. That is the only difference between a ROTH and traditional IRA. My blunder will cost six percent in penalties for 2020…and 2019 as well  (the year the big accounting firm did not catch this oversight the first time). 

Nothing holds a Democrat’s feet to the fire like the pervasiveness or perverseness of unexpected taxes. Despite my best efforts to be fiscally responsible, the penalties felt like a mortar strike just as my tourniquet snapped into shards. 

It’s ridiculous Turbotax’s feckless little bot, not the professional accountant, is who uncovered this massive oversight. (Robots: 1 , Human: 0). I knew the inevitable plan of action for correction was outside of my bailiwick. I called a new boutique firm. They came out of the gate swinging, sucker punching me hard, confirming I will actually be eating a 12% penalty for 2019 since it’s been in the account for two years now, for a total of 18% in fines. 

This experience alone has me flirting with the other side of things. 

Sweep the leg, Johhny. 

Russ and I are at the bottom of our tax bracket, like millions of others in the same situation. This isn’t too dissimilar to being the youngest player in an age brackets for youth sports. A nine year old and a twelve year don’t always have a lot in common with height, weight, maturity, and otherwise. Smaller players aren’t usually as strong, or as resilient, as their teammates. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and a lot of other factors to be considered. 

The comparison between tax brackets and age brackets is loosely hung, but what does a couple making $20,000 a year have in common with another couple pulling in $80,000? Or how about a couple making 90K more than those at the bottom of their own tax bracket? Everyone is paying the same percentage of taxes on their income, but they are world’s apart in their standard of living and opportunities. 

This blunder I’m still ironing out made me consider a lot of other policies, such as why an employee can contribute up to $19,500 to an employer-sponsored 401K, but the self-employed can only contribute $6,000 to an IRA, which is likely their only retirement account. Independent contractors are hogtied before they get the shingle on the door. 

I’m mad at myself and this federal regulation, but I’ll get over it, but it does make me wonder where all of our tax dollars go? I believe in taxes and supporting the social good, but it would be nice if Americans were assured they were well spent, or better yet, weren’t squandered, misdirected or spent duplicitously. Being fined for acting as a conscientious steward of my financial future seems highly….contradictory… to the principles of American Dream.

“In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

-Ben Franklin

KNIVES IN, BRUSHES OUT

I hopped in the car and backed down the driveway after a few teary hugs goodbye. The car was brimming with bounty, not unlike a pirate ship after a successful pillage. Tucked inside was a marble-topped table belonging to my maternal great grandparents, and a Victorian rocking chair, its skids brittle and faded after floating trapped in the recent great deluge indoors. A large silver tea tray set made the trip, complete with every accessory except the teapot, which got packed in one of many boxes somewhere else, not to be discovered until another chance moment in the future. 

As I headed north towards Shreveport to pick up I-20, imagining the worst was not hard. Passing through small town after small town, the schools once epicentres of these sparse rural communities, they sat forlorn, dark and empty, their presence foreboding. Only the cows dispersed on either side of the highway, heads down, ripping the last of the pale winter grass by the roots, followed by a Dollar Store planted in the middle of a paved square, were the only indications of commonwealth whatsoever. I couldn’t help but envision the best of samaritans turning spontaneous swindler, like a chameleon changing to meet the color of its environment, after glancing the cavity of the swag bag in transit should mechanical calamity occur. 

In total, it took 25-hours to drive home. I spent the night in Gadsden, AL, about an hour past Birmingham. It was a dry and dark run between the two cities. Finally exiting the interstate, it reminded me of the cluster of hotels in Elkton, MD we frequented when competing at Fair Hill. There were five all stacked together, along with a gas station and a Cracker Barrel. I picked my way through the parking lots to get to the “nicest one,” the Holiday Inn. I unfolded myself like a pretzel and walked my sea legs inside to the lobby. 

Sorry, we’re sold out.

Huhh?

I picked my way back through the parking lot to the other side, what I considered the second “nicest” hotel. When I asked if they had a room, the young guy was hesitant in his answer, but after scrolling his computer screen announced, yes, they did. Shortly after, two other couples came in looking for a room, only to be told what I had already heard before: Sold out. I asked what was going on. We were in the middle of nowhere. Without looking up he said, “High School Basketball Tournament.”

Who knew?

I got the last room, caddy-corner to the front desk, and across from the ice machine. Needless to say, I discovered people’s affinity for ice is an around-the-clock necessity. I watched Killing Eve on my phone until fatigue bettered the day’s stream of adrenaline. I woke early the next day and showered, starting the day by rubbing the complimentary lotion into my hair, instead of the shampoo. It was not a great start for the last leg of the trip. Luckily, I found the Starbucks only a mile away, attached to the side of a truck stop. 

With coffee in hand, I buckled up and started my entertainment for the journey: Wondery’s The Apology Line. It’s a true story about what started as an art project in the 80’s, turned into a cultural centerpiece that lasted well over a decade. I was only a young kid when this artistic experiment began, but listening to the voices and recorded messages from adults at that time made me realise the world was just as fucked up ideologically for a lot of people then, as much as it is now. Human struggle is as persistent as nature’s mission to fill the void with its own kind: relentless.

While I was visiting in Texas, I managed to stay awake during my second writing class. We learned a creative method called “clustering.” It is sort of like roping the stampede of your stream of consciousness into little seperate corrals for identification and branding. I had never done this exercise before and I found it very useful. I tend to operate habitually, which I don’t think is all that uncommon. Good habits are the sunny side of determination. But working on my own comes with benefits and constraints like anything else. I have no choice but to listen to my own words, developing attunement, but also coddling my idiosyncrasies hovering beneath the surface. This is the dark side of habituation. In short, I attribute some of my dry spells as nothing more than hitting the end of the runway that was built intentionally with consistency and determination. It is time to lay new rails in order to go different places.

This week one of our exercises was to write a passage of our own making with the opposite hand. I learned my right hand is highly critical when given the mic, as if it took a speedball and crashed into Jack Nicholson holding the knife standing in the hallway of the Overlook Hotel. Demons really do exist….inside of ourselves. 

The last writing exercise she said, “I want you to write about the four qualities you can become…”

I was off and running. I listed “insivible” and “flying.” Then I got a little more grounded with “generous” and “intelligent.” (Combined, I thought, that sum would be much greater than its parts!)

“…I want you to write about becoming your creativity, your fear, your judgment, your perfectionism. If these parts of you were speaking to you, what would they say?”

Hmm, not as fun.

Looking down at my paper, I always want to start at the beginning of the instructions given, but Judgment leapt to the front of the line screaming, “Look at me, look at me, DAMN IT!”

 This is what I wrote: “I am your judgment. I WIN!! I’m shiny blue like a rosette. No one can touch me, you fucking bitch. I taste like saltwater brine. Too big a mouthful and you choke, just like I want you to. I smell like erudite because I’m clever. I am Villanelle in nice clothes. I am beautiful, unassuming, even in my silver leggings and combat boots. No one ever sees me coming. I smile in your face as I submerge the knife.”

We read our writing to each other in breakout rooms. That was an unsettling experience, sharing our writing so off the cuff and spontaneous, with not a modicum of curation, but it was fun to hear what others wrote using the same prompt. Strangers transformed into peers, their writing pieces each a signature calling card all their own.

This is what I wrote about Creativity: “I am a flower girl with a coronet of daisies in my hair. I am free, a cloud, floating. I am Brene Brown, following the trail, leaving fresh prints. I taste like a desert morning, high above the boulders at Hueco Tanks.”

I said to Russ last night, “Guess what?

He got the same funny look on his face he always does when faced with this ambiguous, always rhetorical, question.

“What?”

This morning I bought paint, brushes, and paper.”

He smirked. “Why?”

“So I can paint.”

“Why?”

“So I start to rewire my brain and access parts of it that are frustratingly dormant.”

No response.

“So get used to some really shitty art happening in this house!”

He smiled, shaking his head. “Oh…I will!”

“Maybe we can paint together and you can help me!”

“Hmm. Okay, we can do that.”

Because I married an artist. Someone who studied art long enough to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. It’s still in there. It’s in all of us. It’s taking the time to coax it out, inviting it to dance, even when we don’t know who is leading who, or we step all over each other’s feet as we round the floor. 

In lieu of the potential bickering between a husband coaching his wife (in anything), I predict one of us in this marriage will end up with paint swatches all over our clothes, hair and faces instead. 

Who will it be?

Turkey In Charge

There is too much to write. The dry island of writer’s block is now overrun by the volcanic eruption, the rivulets of lava, like details on the page, pour across the canvas fighting for their own purchase . Where do I even begin?

Saturday was the big day. Between five people, we filled 70 boxes with belongings, shredded 60 pounds of decades-old documents, moved furniture out of the house into two piles–keeping or not–rearranging the rest on both floors of the house. It was an emotional day for everyone as we uncovered memory after memory: old letters from my siblings and me, and their kids, all written as small children or young adults; cards full of the kind words from old friends; art projects from elementary school; my parent’s wedding album; Dad’s chemistry textbook, and his precisely-written notebook, a complete analogue with perfect manuscript, documenting his high school classes; it’s eerily similar to his final resume, a bound book chronicling the successes over his career; baby clothes that were either my mother’s or her parents, beautifully kept, but time disintegrating the fabric between our fingers nonetheless; speeding tickets and court appearances of my Dad’s, never mentioned, the fact he had a lead foot discovered sixteen years later by his youngest daughter; model train magazines from the 50’s; my grandmother’s set of Windsor tea cups, long forgotten in the back of the cupboard, carefully wrapped for their imminent journey to their new home in DC. The list of treasures discovered is immense.

It was fun to discover an essay I wrote in college, although, I question whether my writing was better then. The sentences were written in a simple and straightforward sequence, a true moniker of how unaffected, how unfettered, my life was back then. I thought I would share one of these old stories. This one is from my sophomore year of college.

This is dedicated to K.T.

A Turkey In Charge

For someone who never had a cat before, this was quite an experience. It happened two years ago, when on Thanksgiving Day, I was given a little tiny fur ball that could fir in one hand. Turkey, as she was appropriately named, was a longhaired white kitten with chestnut and grey calico spots and blue eyes. At first, Turkey would sleep constantly. I attributed this to her small size, because after she put on a little weight, she became Turkey the Terrorist.

First, it would begin by her climbing up the leg of your jeans to your shoulder. She could do it so fast, that you almost couldn’t stop her. I thought this was real cute, until she tried to do it when I had shorts on. But those she most terrorised were Barney and Autumn. They were the dogs that belonged to my roomate. Barney was a Peek-A-Poo, older, cranky, and set in his ways. We called him Barney the Bohemian Peek-N-Snort because of all the lovely noises he liked to make. Autumn was a middle aged Cocker Spaniel that would pee at the dop of a hat.

Barney didn’t like this newcomer in his house. He used to wait for her to come out of my room, so he could chase her. Turkey didn’t mind though. In fact, she thought this was great fun. She would peer around my bedroom door, and then make a run for the couch in the den. Barney would be right behind her, running as fast as his short little legs would go. He would run so fast, his belly looked like it was touching the ground. Turkey would run under the couch to safety, but this did not last long. Eventually you would see a little white paw sticking out from under the couch, usually swaying at Barney to get his attention. Barney would get so mad that he would run up and down the couch, crouching to try and see her. Sometimes Turkey would climb up the back of the couch and sit and watch Barney as he ran back and forth wimpering to get to her. She would then make her position known, and really irritate Barney. Barney once tried to climb under the couch to get to her, but he got stuck midway. Only his back legs were sticking out like frog legs trying to get himself out from under the couch. My roommate and I left him like that for a few seconds, partly because we were doubled over laughing, and also to teach him a lesson. We had to lift the couch to get him out. Needless to say, he never tried to crawl under it again.

Turkey really liked to antagonise Barney, probably because he was infatuated with her. One time she decided to sleep in his food bowl. She curled herself up all nice and cozy, and went to sleep. At first she went unnoticed, but then Barney saw her. He walked over, and looked at her, and then he started to circle around her, growling. Then he began to bark nonstop. Turkey never moved. She didn’t care. I think she did it just to irritate him.

Autumn really liked turkey. I think Autumn though she was her puppy. She would just lick Turkey until she was sopping wet. Turkey thought this was great fun, because then she would jump on Autumn’s head and attack her. Turkey loved to play with Autumn’s huge ears. All three actually got along well. When nobody was around, they would all three sleep together. As soon as Barney noticed you were there, he would jump up and chase Turkey away. He liked her, he just didn’t want to admit it.

Since we lived over a horse barn, Turkey would spend most days outside finding lots to do. She would scamper through the barn attacking horse blankets that were hanging up or anything else that looked good. If there was a horse in the aisle way, it had to be careful not to swish its tail in fear that turkey might attach herself to it. She did like to swing from the horses’ tails. She had no idea that she was suppose to be scared of them. She would really antagonise the horses when she would hide in their hay in their stalls. A horse could be munching away, when you would see Turkey get down in her pouncing position. With her eyes set on the horse, she would pounce out from under the hay, attacking the horse’s face. Most horses would just pin their ears and look disgusted. One day, when it was really cold outside, I was walking down the aisle way, when I noticed a little white furball all cuddled up on one of the horse’s backs. She was just a happy camper, all warm and cozy. The horse never felt her.

Turkey spent most of her days entertaining herself in these ways, but like all good things, everything must come to an end. College would be starting for me in the fall, so I had to take turkey back to Texas to get acquainted with her new living conditions, and my parents, who would be taking care of her. I wasn’t sure how Turkey was going to take to the domestic life. After all, she wouldn’t have any horses to amuse her. She would have our dog, Bonnie, to keep her company, but Bonnie didn’t like to play with cats.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Turkey adjusted just fine. She would harass Bonnie by grabbing her leg as she waked by but Bonnie didn’t pay any attention. There were also small lizzards to be caught in Texas. Turkey substituted these for the barn mice. Turkey fir right in, and started to takeover the household. She instantly became my dad’s alarm clock by sitting on his face when it was time to get up. Turkey learned Bonnie’s tricot get someone to let her inside. She would sit at the kitchen window, that went almost to the ground, looking in at everyone who would be eating breakfast at the table. If this didn’t get your attention, then she would start climbing up the screen. As soon as you got up to go to open the door, Turkey would run around to seet you, just like the dog,

Now every time I call home, I have to listen to cute turkey stories from both my parents. It never fails. After fifteen minutes of “Turkey this” and “Turkey that”, then its “Oh, by the way, how are you doing?”. There really is a Turkey in charge.

A Lot of Firsts

The irony is this: The writer fell asleep during her much anticipated first writing class of her life. 

Okay, maybe this is only half true. 

There was a bit of a situation…

An hour into the class, we took a ten-minute break. 

I nodded off slightly. 

In case you don’t know, there is a technical term for this condition called “resting the eyes.”

 I learned it long ago walking upon my mother repeatedly splayed out on the couch in our den, eyes closed, with her fingers still clutching the edges of the newspaper that now rested on her chest, the spine bent like the roof of a temple , giving her the angelic look of  of a monk wearing vestments.  

Mom. What are you doing?…Are you sleeping?

(I was that kid.)

Her eyes eventually blinked open, tap-tap-tap, like a housefly priming its wings before takeoff.

What??

Are you sleeping? What are you doing?

No, no. I’m just resting my eyes. 

Hmm…

Russ gently shook my shoulders.

Jenn, come to bed. 

I opened my eyes confused, then panicked.

 Oh my God, are you off to work already??

No, Jenn. It’s nighttime. Come to bed.

Relief.

Wait….My class!!

Class is over. Come to bed.

 I realised then I had failed to rejoin the second part of class after the break. As Russ gently pushed me toward our bed, I quietly congratulated myself for having decided earlier in the evening to put on pants before class began. 

Now morning, I am questioning whether everyone present garnered a clear image of my slack-jawed sleeping face, knees pulled up to my belly, arms positioned as if I were in the middle of a rave, but they weren’t moving, so actually much more resembling haphazard toothpicks stuck in a cake all catywompus. 

I shudder at the image in my mind. I must have looked a cheap mimicry of still-life art, a video installation of an awkward woman wearing her husband’s oversized buffalo-plaid flannel shirt, mouth shaped like a cavern entrance, engulfing the entire purview of her video camera, emblazoned in a small box across everyone’s screens.

At least there were pants.

Did they write about that? 

Did that become the writing prompt for the second half of class?

I wonder if they asked themselves: Where did she go? What happened to the girl named Jenn Schuessler?? Was that even her name, or a fictitious fabrication, because she is a girl on the run?? From who? From what? Oh my God. What did she do??? Is she a killer?? Oh no. Can’t be. That’s harsh. She must be in hiding from an abuser. Yes, yes…that must be. Didn’t you get the feeling when you met her at the beginning of the evening that she was a nice girl? Well, she didn’t have to say anything. We could see it all before us, in that tiny zoom box. In fact, she looked so tiny, so innocent, she must be in hiding. And look, tsk, tsk, the poor soul is so tired! So tired of running and hiding. Poor “Jenn.” Yes, let’s give her that much. Let’s honour her chosen name by not questioning it. Somehow she ended up here, in our group. It’s serendipity. She needs us. We need to remember this when critiquing her writing. Compassion must rule. 

The entire class agrees unanimously. 

This is how a writer thinks. Now I’m questioning what I might say to the teacher when I email her today to inquire if there is any homework. The thought of this conversation conjures up snippets of embarrassment as I envision her having called my name last night, volunteering me to answer her question, my attendance clearly marked as present, only for her to be handed a fat slice of silence in return. Do I lead with an omission of full admission, of why I find myself in this position in the first place, or regurgitate my lame excuse like a wily country songwriter?

Good thing this is a long flight. I need time to whisk up a terrific lie with some legs to support it. 

So what pearls of wisdom did I take from half of a writing class?

First, to learn what feeds my writing. My ego let loose a rip-roaring crack hearing this pronouncement. The little bastard cried, “So many things!! So many things!! Where do we even start?,” as he shook his tiny little fists in the air.  For being such a scrappy little minx, my ego is also the first one to laugh at me, and not with me. 

Second, writers need to suffer through the reality our “taste” will likely always exceed our “craft.” Our thoughts and ideas are always beautifully curated centrepieces swirling through the grey matter, but once we clip them to the leash, they hit the page feral like mongrels, tangling their cords, each mutt fighting relentlessly for the top position that wins.

So, lesson number one is: Ego and Suffering.

Perfect. 

Just as Russ put me to bedfast night, he also shook me awake this morning at his daily witching hour of 2:30 AM. It took a few tussles. It seems the activity of contemplating whether I really need to awaken or not has hardwired itself into a default setting. 

Oh yeah….Houston.

I got up. This is the third time in six months I have arrived to the airport before a single representative of the airline makes an appearance. Checking in later, the representative’s demeanour rather crusty, I could’t help but wonder, “What did you do to deserve the graveyard shift?,” as I held my ID up to her face. Of course, she did nothing wrong. Only her job. Sigh—the service industry—the welterweight of working America with little voice.

Being the very first person to check-in for the day made the process smooth and quick. The inverse was true at security. My tits and ass got a friendly petting before breakfast was even served. The clasp of my bra (in front) and the back pockets of my jeans indicated suspicious items.

Hmmm.

I was also the first person to Starbucks in the terminal. (A lot of “firsts” today.) The lights were on, but no one to be found. I considered walking behind the counter to help myself, noticing the coffee was ready, but Big Brother scares me, even more than the idea what my fellow classmates saw of me on their zoom screens last night. So I waited. 

I walked to my gate and sat down to write. What’s funnier than an overly-enthusiastic amateur writer falling asleep in the first writing class of her career? I had to get it recorded asap. So I clacked away on my keyboard, sipping my Starbucks, laughing at my idiocy. The loudspeaker called for a flight to Atlanta. One even earlier than mine at 6 am? It was a Delta flight, headed to their hub. Clacking away, I wondered half-curiously how it was some airlines commingled at different terminals. So much confusion and chance for error.

Knee deep in my written confession, I looked up to find a long line of passengers queued to board at my gate. Quickly I put everything back in my bag and rushed over…..only to realise it wasn’t my flight and I wasn’t at my gate. I had accidentally read the seat assignment on my ticket as my gate number instead. 

I would like to say this is the first time this has happened.

Moving on…

…I ran to my gate.

At least I made the flight. 

If I didn’t, no surplus of expendable time could override whatever thin veneer of an excuse I would have to scratch together to justify it happening twice.

Water, Dirty Panties & Finding The Words

PADDLING

Tomorrow I head to Houston. As a result, I can’t seem to sleep. The fuse burns at both ends. This will of course come in handy when its wheels up at 6 am. I have the tasks to complete before departure, the list for day one, wheels down, and the subsequent list for the rest of the week with the many appointments necessary to deconstruct the first floor of all its belongings after my parents house flooded from a broken pipe 10 days ago. 

My sister and her husband are taking the brunt of it, dealing with the contractors, plumbers and adjusters—the ones who call five minutes before they are supposed to be there and cancel after she has driven an hour to meet them. Fun times. 

My mother said, The Calvary is coming! 

Who’s that?

YOU!, she laughed!

It’s all hands on deck this week. We will tear it apart together, and reassemble it into a temporary space our parents can move around in, while repairs are made. The rugs have been sent to the cleaners, the carpets and mattress thrown out, as well as a dozen pairs of shoes, and anything hanging on a low rack in their closets. 

Now the old hardwood furniture needs their drawers and spaces to be emptied of their contents, preparing for their departure to the craftsman who will gently rub the stained rings off their legs and panels.

Water, the source of life, is also a cunning opponent. 

“A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.” 

Our greatest gift has the strength to become our biggest liability.

So it goes. (Kurt Vonnegut)

ENJOY YOUR STAY

Yesterday a friend recalled an unusual experience he and his wife had encountered checking into a hotel room. I really wanted this story to take place in New Jersey, where all good stories begin, but it begins in Lubbock, TX. 

In Texas, when asked where Lubbock, or Odessa, or Midland is, we use the technical term: “really far away,” sweeping our arm, our pointer finger stretched west,  like a laser might shoot out of it at any moment, pointing to “somewhere over there.”

When they opened the closet to their room, they found a black skirt and a white shirt hanging, and a bra and panties on the floor. The undergarments looked freshly worn as opposed to fresh. They couldn’t help but wonder who the woman was. Did she walk out of the hotel naked? Was she folded into a duffel bag and thrown out with the trash?

I said we had a somewhat similar experience in Manassas. Feeling the top shelf of the closet, I felt something soft and pulled it down for closer inspection: a pair of panties. Being a woman, I didn’t get past more than the fact the owner of said panties voluntarily chose these cheap, white and nylon ones above all others, and she was about a size 10. Cleanliness wasn’t even a factor for contemplation, as I quickly realised I now had bigger fish to fry: the questionable state of the bedding linens we would be wrapping ourselves in later. The hidden treasure had erased any confidence we had entering the room.

But I’ve seen a lot worse. 

Also “somewhere” in TX, there was the hotel with shag carpet, no bathroom door, and the squishy bathroom floor. It was dry on top, at least until the first shower, then it was no longer dry above or below the vinyl.

There was the hotel in the forests of Georgia next to the highway, also with shag carpet thirty years past its prime. I slept on the floor in a sleeping bag and gave the only bed to my sister and her boyfriend. I woke up to something crawling on me. Panicking (always a good plan), I shook it off, jumping out of my bag and dancing around to get everything off, like I had walked into a swarm of bees. I woke my companions, who turned on the bedside lamp. Sure enough, two scorpions were trolling around on the floor doing whatever scorpions do. 

Jesus wept. (Bible)

That was their last night in Georgia.

Or anywhere else…

Question: What is your worst hotel horror story?? Please share!

WORDS MATTER

Beautiful or sharp, simple or visceral, words matter.

We all owe death a life. (Salman Rushdie)

All children, except one, grow up. (J.M. Barrie)

All this happened, more or less. (Kurt Vonnegut)

I’m pretty much fucked. (Andy Weir)

Call me Ishmael. (Herman Melville)

You better not never tell nobody but God. (Alice Walker)

It might be lonelier, without the loneliness. ( Emily Dickinson)

What are men to rocks and mountains? (Jane Austen)

And then later in the darkness:  (Cormac McCarthy)

[The Boy:] Can I ask you something?

[The Man:] Yes. Of course you can.

[The Boy:] What would you do if I died?

[The Man:] If you died I would want to die too.

[The Boy:] So you could be with me?

[The Man:] Yes. So I could be with you.

[The Boy:] Okay.

There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable. (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.  (Rafael Sabatini)

Dear God, she prayed, let me be something every minute of every hour of my life. (Betty Smith)

A dream, all a dream, that ends in nothing, and leaves the sleeper where he lay down, but I wish you to know that you inspired it. (Charles Dickens)

And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good. (John Steinbeck) 

America, I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing. (Allen Ginsburg)

In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart. (Anne Frank)

I would always rather be happy than dignified. (Charlotte Brontë) 

Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. (Cormac McCarthy)

Mr. Twit was a twit. He was born a twit. And, now at the age of sixty, he was a bigger twit than ever. (Roald Dahl)

People complain about the bad things that happen to em that they don’t deserve but they seldom mention the good. About what they done to deserve them things. (Cormac McCarthy)

I would not like them here or there. I would not like them anywhere. (Dr Seuss)

We thought we had such problems. How were we to know we were happy? (Margaret Attwood)

One must be careful of books, and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us. (Cassandra Clare)

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. (Mark Twain)

Cassandra,

Mark,

It’s like you get me.

The Two-Headed Snake

Talking with a friend, I admitted my writing was more aligned to constipation than anything else, each word embedded in the dark tunnel, a reluctant turd to squeezing through any gap into the light, almost squeamish with the thought. This is where Russ accuses me of talking about shit incessantly, the barometer extolled for anything that lacks boundaries and context, or circumvents expectations in the outcome. It really boils down to laziness, which I doll up by christening it utilitarian, or Ockham’s Razor, or succinct, but in all honesty, it is nothing more than lipstick on a pig. (Lazy…again.) Complaining, I said to him, “The words that finally shoot onto the page look as if a ‘bot in the box’ wrote them.” This is true. I dig into my toolbox, only to retrieve the wrong tool over and over. The hammer does not fit the head of the screw, try as I might.

I’m reading a lot: Tracy Guzeman’s “The Gravity of Birds,” and Joan Didion’s  “The White Album.” Two entirely different styles, yet their sentences roll off the tongue like warm caramel, despite kernels of sand caught in the drip. It’s the grit that comes with painful discourse. Like a gifted architect, the beautiful lines drawn word after word, allows the range of emotions to pour into the reader as if the authors were softly squeezing a warm sponge over the crown of our head. I can’t help but drink it in, almost revelling in the pages, not unlike facing the characters on the Broadway stage. I wonder when we will get to do that again. We go to laugh and we go to cry. We show up to feel something that is an extension of what already lives within us, untapped and brittle.

Tomorrow I begin a writing class, once a week in the evening, for the next six weeks. This is my first “investment” in writing and I hope it serves as a bridge off the floating patch of glacier trapping me like a forlorn polar bear. I peer for any sight of the promising continent, the lifeline to what is next. I am dubious, because of course, I believe you either write well or you don’t, in the same way you are born to play basketball, or not, or you are born to be a financial aficionado, or not. I register the variants in between, but standing contrary is the truth that the relentless effort granted by some, chasing whatever it is desired, is often humiliated by the lack of a single conciliatory bone in the universe’s limbic system, absolving us of our limitations. We either accept the fact we are our own worst malady in this pursuit, or we must choose to chase an alternative diversion.

I define middle-age as the realisation that “do-overs” are a gift no longer on offer, bestowed only to those with more time before them, than already spent. Tracy Guzeman says it much more eloquently:

“He’d reached the age when his possibilities were no longer infinite; what he had now was all he was going to have. He could detach his personal satisfaction from his professional…what? Disappointment? Too strong a word. Averageness, perhaps? To his mind, the personal and professional were seperate; one did not diminish the other….

Within these rooms, he was blessed to be the most important man in the world [to his wife]. Outside of them, his success had been limited. He was not destined for accolades; there would be no superlatives conjoined to his name.”

Pivoting away from the horses, five years previous, was more challenging than all the lessons I learned throughout my entire riding career. However, I credit the lessons, in the tack and otherwise,  for bolstering my transition. Hitched together like a bundle of cordwood, the lessons were my only insight in a future coloured opaque and unknown. But it is only now, aided by the humourless pedagogue, often referenced as hindsight, do I realise the attempt at conversion, back to the point of origin, would be an impossible challenge now, bordering on tomfoolery. It was really hard then, but there are things unknown now that are harder still, even if inconceivable.

This is my epiphany of what it means to be middle-aged. 

I enjoyed all of my riding lessons. The best ones weren’t when nothing went wrong, try as I might, but the ones ushered in with pain and frustration. It’s not uncommon to resist straying from the comfort of what is familiar. Often a hard push off the gangplank unceremoniously into the chop of the sea is necessary to spur any real changes in a person’s life. I remind myself caterpillars endure the chrysalis every year, only to emerge with rainbow dust on their wings. Pain, effort, shedding, friction are just a few of the ingredients necessary for growth, whether moving forward, or with reluctance, backwards. One does not always know which is which.

My friend wondered if I critiqued my writing much the same as my riding. The answer is yes. I would rather be a barnacle trapped in a tin of sturgeon roe, than to be the predator swimming amongst its spread in open waters. I never minded being enmeshed in the stratification of the east coast Eventing scene because there was always room for more. The runway was without end, an indefinite journey beckoning my heart to continue.

Now on a different path, at a different time in my life, I question whether this choice, this reconciliation of logic, with its dizygotic image fallacy, is a faithful servant after all. Is this new journey worth the toil with no results to tally, or at the very least, not a token of improvement?

I don’t dwell in this way with the newly-adopted snowboarding, where the law of diminishing returns prevails. Why does this question only torment my application to writing? 

When I rode, it was impossible to detach the personal from the professional. They were entwined together like a two-headed snake. Eventually one suffocates the other, the irony being, of course, it kills them both. Despite writing not being my profession, I hold it close to my chest, and wonder if the torment it brings is none other than the serpent in the wicker basket waking from its slumber, daring me, threatening me for trying so hard, for my audacity to push past my limits and survive the journey. 

Does my writing diminish me, highlighting my averageness? Am I my own worst malady in my pursuit of excellence? Which direction am I moving? I do not know. I lift my arms, reaching for the words.

Unconditionally

This morning I gave Russ a card that said, “I love you unconditionally, like 85% of the time. Happy Anniversary.

The fact today is Valentine’s Day, and our anniversary was almost a month ago, is an accurate summation of our marriage: a little late, sloppy, with a lot of sticky humour and finger-poking as we circle each other in the kitchen like naughty children on the playground about to skin their knees, grinning with affection and a hint of malice.

I laughed when I picked up the card in the store. As much of a yoga-babbling, philosophical writer that I am, only my good friends know my unbridled verbosity is the flame at the end of a short match stick. The writing process starts with friction, otherwise known as life, creating heat as it claws the chamber that traps it, only to shrink in blindness meeting its first light. Still, some of the words come to life, breathing on their own for the first time, like slippery tadpoles in the stagnant pool of the amphibian nursery. But the ember inevitably wanes, leaving only a charred shadow of what is yet to come, an uncertain death of verbiage, before there can be any more life.

I hang on. I don’t want to let go. I love my little darlings, even the ones I hate, and the ones that humiliate me. But when I am spent, so are they, the capoeira dance entangling us lost without momentum. We get lazy. I have many flaws as a human being, some I know about, some I’m still greeting reluctantly, and some I may never meet. What’s clear is my inability to resist whittling the bark off trees when there isn’t another word to be found, and any residual thoughts have spun themselves vacuous into a reductionist flywheel. 

Trying to accrue any order or meaning from life is a relentless pursuit. When language fails me in this mission, I rely on the oldest story in life, written with the simplest of characters: that of numerals. The numeric sequence, and all its permutations, are the true soothsayers of this universe. When I can think no more, they prop up what is left with the gift of  their truth, surrounded by what is leftover: chaos.

My Anniversary card, turned Valentine’s card, reminded me of the Pareto principle, which I often contemplate, because it is often encountered. Do I notice this dynamic because it happens, or does it seem to happen because I’m primed to notice it? It makes me laugh every time it crosses my mind, despite the underlying frustration of watching it play out. 

Seeing the card on the shelf, I congratulated myself, and Russ, for having surpassed this widely-recognised economic concept in our relationship by 5% on either side. Of course, the 80/20 rule can be viewed a variety of ways, like looking through a kaleidoscope. It just depends on how you turn the cylinder casing. I did consider Russ might have a different opinion of what the Pareto principle, or even a 15% vs 85% split, might mean to him and our relationship when he opened the card. 

And he would be right, whatever he thought.

He is usually, 85% of the time.

Numbers may not lie, but human manipulation leaves them vulnerable to varying interpretations, much like everything else in life, even chaos. Is 80% of the experience good? Or is it the other way around? I guess that’s up for interpretation, too. Maybe the answer really is to “eat, shred and love.” I like all of those things. Just like writing. They are all my little darlings, even when they hate me, and humiliate me, and burn me before flickering out. It doesn’t matter. I love them.