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Have I Mentioned I’m Going to New Zealand?

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One month from today, I should be somewhere over some ocean (my geography isn’t all that it could be), winging my way towards New Zealand. Yes! In case you missed the “big reveal” slipped in at the end of my recent post Courageous Middle Age, I am in the midst of planning a solo camper-van trip across the two islands known as “Land of the Long White Cloud,” or Aotearoa, in the indigenous Maori language.

Otago Peninsula (photo in public domain)

It’s All About Me!

Most people’s first response when they hear this is, “By yourself??” Why yes, by myself. It’s usually my favorite way to travel. Go where I want and do what I want when I want, be alone when I want, make friends if I want. See a theme here? It’s all about ME!

So yeah, solo. I wouldn’t go to Afghanistan or Yemen on my own, but this is New Zealand. They speak English, and it’s one of the safest places in the world. These people call themselves “Kiwis,” for heaven’s sake, how threatening can they be? I recently asked a Kiwi friend if there are dangerous animals I need to know about, like crocodiles or tree pythons or eight-inch spiders. He thought a minute and said, “Well, we have opossums.” 

This week I figure I’d better move beyond dreaming to serious planning. I am surrounded by travel books, maps, and random notes from conversations with Kiwis. My Chrome tabs are open to articles like The Best Secret Beaches in New Zealand; November in New Zealand: What to Pack and What to See; and A Guide to the Wellington/Picton Ferry. Even my leisure reading is all New Zealand, all the time: Janet Frame, Katherine Mansfield, Owen Marshall.

What Could Happen?

Until recently, I’ve been feeling confident and excited about my trip, except the part about driving on the left-hand side of the road. But as I wrote last week, anxiety has been worming its way into my brain. My misadventure with my financial planner has shaken my confidence, and things I thought were certain are not, like American Democracy.

I need to give myself a good talking to: I will not be governed by fear. I am a capable, experienced traveler, and what could happen? I mean, well, yes, I was robbed and lost everything including my passport in Costa Rica. And I sprained my ankle and could barely walk most of the time I was in Uganda. (Ice is hard to come by there.) I got lost hiking in a fog bank in the wilderness of Yosemite and was pretty sure I was going to have to spend the night with only bears and mountain lions to keep me warm.

Flying Solo

OK, so maybe asking “What could happen?” isn’t helpful. Instead I will envision myself tootling along an ocean-side cliff, Maori music on the radio, the turquoise waters of the South Pacific stretching out to infinity on my left, the Southern Alps looming on my right. 

One of the things I love most about traveling solo is the feeling that not a soul in the world knows where I am. I don’t know why that’s so compelling, but it gives me the same arms-outstretched feeling of unbearable freedom that I get from flying dreams. How I wish I still had flying dreams!!

Still, I guess it might be a good idea to inform someone about my whereabouts, once I plan my (very) flexible itinerary. I suppose if I drove off a cliff while gazing at Fiordland penguins or searching for blue whales, my camper-van company (aptly named Mad Campers) would eventually come looking for me.

OK, back to my maps. Thanks for reading today’s ruminations on my upcoming New Zealand adventure!

These aren’t Fiordland Penguins, but I love that New Zealand advertises a same-sex penguin couple (Thelma and Louise) on their tourism site.

 

Official Fiordland Crested Penguins (Photo: TravelWayOfLife)

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Precariousness Happens: Autumn, Impeachment, and Anxiety

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This happens sometimes, usually in the Autumn when I’ve been cloistered away at my New Hampshire retreat for a time. It starts as a vague feeling of perhaps needing someone to talk to, progresses through the sense that your skin doesn’t fit and you might need to get out of it, and ends with lying awake at dawn wondering what terrible fate is about to befall you. Sometimes cancer, sometimes bankruptcy, sometimes North Korean missiles. You get the picture.

I blame it on the shortening days, the darker nights, and the mood of these northerners who are dreading another long winter of shivering and shoveling. Today I had lunch with a friend at the Badger Balm factory where she works, surrounded by hillsides bursting with near-peak color. As I walked out of the building and into the beauty, the woman following me sighed heavily and said, “It really smells like fall, I guess it had to happen.”

Had to happen??? I just drove ten hours to see this happen! But if you live here, autumn heaviness is apparently part of life. And it might be contagious, even if you don’t live here year-round.

I guess it had to happen

Happenstance

This year the depression/anxiety engulfed me on my first day. It probably had something to do with the fact that our president is quite clearly out of his cotton-pickin’ mind, as my father would say, and also with the fact that my financial planner just really, really screwed up, resulting in a massive tax bill and the possibility of losing my health care.

These two realities staged a fierce competition to see which could wreak more havoc with my brain chemistry during the two-day drive up from Maryland. Although I was listening to an outstanding audiobook (Lab Girl, by geobiologist Hope Jahren), every time I stopped the car, trump was still president and my financial world was still rocking. I had way too much time to cogitate and fret. I watched late-night news in my hotel room, diving ever deeper into the details of impeachment.

Yesterday I spoke to my financial planner over the phone and finally lost it — which I never, ever, do — when she kept telling me how complicated taxes were and how she wouldn’t exactly call this a mistake, more of a “learning experience.” It felt good to yell in the moment, but not so good afterwards. To comfort and numb myself, I spent the day on Twitter. I repeat: to make myself feel BETTER, I spent the day on Twitter. ‘Nuff said.

Hence, my 3 a.m. musings on North Korea’s latest missile launch — from a submarine, mind you, which can cross oceans — which took place while the so-called president was tweeting about his impeachment being BULLSHIT, in all caps in case we missed it. (This was all before he stood before a bank of cameras on the White House lawn this morning and encouraged Communist China to investigate his political opponent.)

Precariousness

Today I have been thinking about the nature of the word “precarious.” It just popped into my head as I was journaling and meditating this morning.

It’s a good word, even better than an onomatopoeia, which merely sounds like the action the word implies, like buzz or hiss. Precarious is more clever than that, kind of sneakily apt. As if you might unwittingly step onto the platform of “pre” and totter at the top of that brief, crisp “c” before tumbling headlong into the “AAAaaaaar-eee-ooouuus” abyss.

It doesn’t sound it, but precarious was a legal term in the 1600s — “held through the favor of another” — from the Latin, meaning “obtained by asking or praying.” This notion of being “dependent on another” led to the broader meaning of risky or dangerous.

So here I sit seeking comfort in language and writing, gazing out the window at the flaming leaves precariously clinging to their branches until the will of a breeze or a rainfall decides otherwise, and feeling grateful for my health, my financial security, and the democracy in which we live. And praying for the favor of God’s protection on all of it.

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

– Lady Julian of Norwich, 1342 – circa 1416

Courageous Middle Age

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I never call myself “middle-aged,” I hate the term. I don’t like getting older, even if I am getting wiser (here’s hoping). But let’s face it, unless I’m going to live to be well past the century mark, I am there. In middle age and a teensy bit more.

Change is Afoot

Recently, though, something has clicked, or is in the process of clicking. I am rather suddenly learning to appreciate middle age! I’ve always loved those transition periods in life when you know you’re  evolving, but you aren’t sure what’s happening or where you’re going to end up. I’ve noted periods of passage in my journals since I was sixteen, and today was jotting about my latest one while soaking up the late summer sun at my place in New Hampshire, sipping tea on my deck and feeling entirely retired and entirely blessed.

In contrast to my past inner transitions, I can see this one has a direct cause, and it’s my recent weight loss. Not the actual shedding of pounds, but more the Noom weight loss program itself. It’s a whole mind, body, spirit thing and I’ve never come across anything like it. It’s put together by psychologists and while it’s relatively “simple” (ha!), it’s having a profound effect on the way I think and consequently behave. It seems my ability to lose weight after years of telling myself I’d never have the power to do so has allowed me to see myself and my life journey in a whole new light. I have been examining my past beliefs and behaviors with a curious but not overly critical eye, challenging the age-old pesky negative voices in my head, and allowing myself to dream a little.

Growing Up is Hard to Do

One of Noom’s “psych lessons” talks about goal orientations and how they can be either performance-based or mastery-based. As we get older, our less-ego-driven selves generally shift from an orientation of performance (What do others think? How do I compare? ) to mastery (What am I learning? Is this helping me grow, making me a better person?). This has been a hard transition for me. For most of my life, I’ve cared way too much what others think of me and have craved recognition and affirmation. That’s a draining and frustrating way to live because it gives others control over your well-being and serenity.

This idea — I’ll call it ego versus spirit — isn’t new for me; it’s not some epiphany. I was in therapy for eight years, have done related twelve-step work around growing up with an alcoholic parent, and have read several books on the topic. (Two good ones, if you’re interested, are Father Richard Rohr’s “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life” and “Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey” by James Hollis.) Well, through Noom I’m finally getting it, and it’s changing everything. You know how sometimes it’s just time?

Fear No More!

I’m banishing ingrained habits of thinking and feeling, like powerlessness and fearfulness. I learned to be risk-averse and overly cautious from my mother, and the river of fear runs deep. New things are dangerous, period. Laying low is always safest.

Noom to the rescue. They urged me to create a morning affirmation, and I’ve done so (don’t laugh, it’s working): “I have the ability to do whatever I choose because I am strong, determined, courageous, and wise.” At first I used “smart,” but smart is for younger people trying to impress others. By affirming my “wisdom” instead, I give myself permission to embrace what comes with middle age. I’ve been through a boatload of painful crap and I’ve learned some stuff! I’m owning it, along with the lines in my face and the sunspots on my arms. (Well, sort of.)

COURAGE
Courage is armor
A blind man wears;
That calloused scar
Of outlived despairs;
Courage is Fear
That has said its prayers.
— KARLE WILSON BAKER

So guess what? I’M GOING TO NEW ZEALAND!! Just like that. By myself. In a camper van. Don’t care what anyone thinks. So there, fear! I bought my (first) NZ travel book this week, read, researched, and emailed camper van companies and travel bloggers late into the night, and I’ve decided! Am I scared? Sure. But I’m also tingly excited. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like this. Time to get over the idea that middle-aged women can’t get tingly excited!

Milford Sound, New Zealand (Photo by my cousin, Richard Boyter)

 

I’ve Missed You!

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I miss you. It’s been months since I’ve written here, by far the longest silent stretch since I started Writing with Spirit six-plus years ago. I can’t explain it, it just is what it is. For a few weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get back in, but I haven’t found an obvious doorway.

It’s Lent, I always write during Lent. And there have been lots of mass shootings — I always rage and offer prayers after one of those. The person in the White House continues to be an embarrassment, a danger, and an outrage. What’s new? Why waste the ink on him? Why contribute to the negativity? America made a huge mistake and it may take us down; take the planet down. We all know that.

At last count there were approximately 323 Democrats or sort-of Democrats vowing to take on the monster in 2020. In the past, I would have had plenty to say about all of them.

And yesterday the Mueller report came out – now there’s something to write about! But no. No words for any of that.

Am I a Pastor or Am I a Lap?

One reason I think I have not written is that I had news to share but I did not know how to share it. I stepped down from my pastoral role at church in the fall. It was a difficult decision that played out over the summer, during which time I lost both my cats. (I think I told you that part.) I don’t know quite why that was relevant, but it was. Perspective, I guess. Life is short, live in the moment.

I remember at one point thinking, “The most important role I have in life right now is to sit in this chair with this sweet dying cat in my lap.” That’s it. I realized I was just a lap. A loving lap.

Mostly it had to do with space. I was supposed to be the Pastor of Prayer and Healing, leading people into silence and contemplative practices, preaching about making space for God in your life. And there was no space in my life. I wasn’t practicing what I preached. And as long as there was no space, I could not sense God nudging me into different paths, or whispering to me about who I am meant to become. It’s always uncomfortable to step away from one thing before you know exactly (or even vaguely) where you are headed next, but sometimes it’s wise.

Anyway, I’m still leading retreats and groups and occasionally helping with worship and so on, but the burden is less. It was a good choice. Maybe I’ll write more about it in the future, but I just wanted to get it out there, because I felt a big part of my identity had shifted and it seemed disingenuous not to share that. Maybe now I can move on and write more regularly.

Entering the Desert for Lent

Most years, Lent is a busy season for me, while at the same time being reflective. This year I simply skipped town. I went into the desert for Lent, which is appropriate, since the season is meant to reflect the forty days Jesus spent in the desert wilderness before he began his ministry.

But I didn’t spend much time in self-examination and repentance. No ashes on my forehead for Ash Wednesday. Instead, I flew out to Albuquerque with a girlfriend and spent two weeks cruising around the New Mexican desert in a rental car. We collected cool desert rocks, visited museums, parks, and wildlife refuges, wandered through the ruins of Spanish missions and Pueblo Indian villages, drank margueritas, bought turquoise and silver, and soaked in the same hot springs that Geronimo is said to have frequented.

We gazed at distant horizons instead of computer screens. I read only books about New Mexico: no politics, spiritual growth, or fiction. Living in the moment. We drove for what seemed hours without seeing another car. At night the starfields left us speechless, which is perfectly comfortable when you’ve known someone for sixty years, as E and I have.

In short, I’m practicing “living life to the full,” as Jesus recommended.

There — now I’ve slipped back into the blogosphere. More pictures and stories from New Mexico to come.

Yucca at White Sands National Monument

E wandering in the desert

Native American petroglyph of the Easter Bunny (Petroglyphs National Monument)

Bee in Apricot Blossom

Memoir Madness

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MEMOIR MADNESS

The good news is, today I wrote almost 1,300 words. I know that’s not much compared to the over-achieving masses who will participate in National Novel Writing Month in November, dashing off 1,667 words every day for 30 days in pursuit of a 50,000-word novel. But it’s pretty good for me. Yesterday was only 500 words, and it was crap.

The bad news is, only about 350 of today’s words have the slightest chance of contributing to my final word count because I went on a 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum (about which I will tell you), and because I got mired in shame.

The downside of searching for patterns and themes in your life is that when you find them — or they find you — they may not be the lovely themes and patterns you had imagined were the narrative of your life. Alarmingly, my redemptive spiritual coming-of-age story seems to be all about shame and secrecy. Mind you, neither “shame” nor “secrecy” appear anywhere in my chapter outlines (such as they are), yet every scene leads me there.

I knew that the alcoholic father/enabling mother business would produce a few sentences on shame, but when your alcoholic father is also an undercover CIA agent in Miami during the Cuban missile crisis, the secrets can multiply quickly. Next thing you know, you’re writing about stealing your friend’s stuffed mouse, and your sister’s souvenir coin, and the shiny set of keys dangling from the door of the shiny new Dodge at the dealership, and you’re thinking, “This isn’t what my memoir is about.”

So then you take a break from your memoir and you draft a blog post about shame, which you start thinking is not half-bad, and so you begin revising and playing with words and researching outlets that might publish something like that, but while you are doing this, you remember that last spring you were working on a piece for the New York Time’s Modern Love column and so you find that and start revising it, and then you are googling your dead ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend and so you stop.

At some point, I also searched “shame” in my blog archives and discovered that I’ve written 59 separate posts that at least mention it. This makes 60. I may soon have to acknowledge its existence.

Now about that 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum: As an ethical memoirist, if someone told you a story when you were a child and you have always believed it to be true but then you find out it’s not technically true, actually not even close, can you still use the story without fessing up that it’s not true after all? If everyone involved is long dead? I’m asking for a friend, of course.

And – BAM! Another 482 words, done.

 

Memoir Misery

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I keep reminding myself, I did this on purpose. I am sequestered at my solitary little house in New Hampshire for a month; whole days pass with no human contact except an occasional text message that’s somehow made its way over the rivers and through the woods to my grandmother’s house.

I am here to write, or at least to think about writing. I also had dreams of repairing broken windowpanes and painting mildew-pocked walls, but once I got here I realized that a month isn’t that long after all. I do need to find a way to keep the chipmunks from bringing all their belongings through the broken attic window and settling in for the winter, but otherwise, writing is enough.

More than enough, it seems. I’ve been messing about with this memoir for years and have now promised myself that by the end of this month, I will either have found the themes, patterns, and connections that give my life meaning, or I will stop pretending that I’m writing a memoir. Grandiose, right? Perhaps I need to narrow my scope a bit. (I’ve always loved an existential crisis.)

The Grand Endeavor

I’ve been reading books about writing memoir and I’ve been reading memoirs and I’ve been reflecting on memories. I’m not certain what type of memoir this is trying to be, but it has elements of coming-of-age and of a spiritual journey — and it’s hard to ignore my struggle with addiction. All of which require mining the past for often-painful memories.

This is why I’ve been here five days and only yesterday put pen to paper.

As Sven Birkerts says in his brilliant book, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, “The memoirist writes, above all else, to redeem experience, to reawaken the past, and to find its pattern; better yet {s}he writes to discover behind bygone events a dramatic explanatory narrative.”

Think about that. It’s kind of overwhelming!

Especially when you consider Virginia Woolf’s theory that what makes certain memories stand out is that they have in some way shocked our systems. So when you write memoir, you are nudging long-buried “shocks” back to the fore. Woolf, though, saw great value in this. “The shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it . . . it is or will become a revelation of some order.”

Her philosophy, she says, is that behind everything “is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the world is a work of art.” (This is a fine example of the universality that writers seek: Woolf called herself an atheist, yet this Jesus follower completely tracks with her philosophy of life.)

The Challenge Ahead

So here I sit, swinging from Virginia Woolf’s soaring philosophy to the more practical considerations of “Chapter One.” In their user-friendly book, Breaking Ground on Your Memoir: Craft, Inspiration, and Motivation for Memoir Writers, authors Myers and Warner lay out a step-by-step process of building a memoir. The first step is to identify turning points in your life, important “moments of change” that provide the hooks for your story. They may seem clearly significant, or they may not. You start by brainstorming freely.

The first turning point that came to my mind? The day I discovered my tiny toad Sally’s pale legs sticking out of my big toad Fred’s mouth and I chose to extricate her despite my poor mother standing behind me shrieking, “Melanie don’t, Melanie don’t!”

So you see what I’m working with here.

(To learn Sally’s fate, you have to buy the book. It should be out in about a decade.)

Confessions of a Twitter Addict

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CONFESSIONS OF A TWITTER ADDICT

I am quitting Twitter cold-turkey, and I do not use that addiction language lightly. I’ve been fighting a social media addiction for what feels like a long time, but it only became serious about a month ago. I’m not sure exactly what the addiction is, but I can feel the dopamine shooting into my system as surely as if I’d just snorted a noseful of cocaine. I had been a recreational Twitter user for quite a while and dabbled in softer drugs like Facebook, but I recently hit bottom.

I’m not sure how it happened. In mid-August, I suddenly started getting tons of notifications in my feed from people I had never heard of. I’d somehow ended up on several threads that engaged in — well, let’s call it “political discourse.” I’ve always loved a good political debate, but of course it isn’t really debating these days. For most Twitter users, it’s just trading insults, the nastier the better.

These people on Twitter are beyond ugly — mean, vitriolic, crude, vicious. Truly. And it’s not just the trump people. Mostly, but not always.

ONLINE HELL

I quickly became part of a de facto “liberal team” against an opposing “alt-right” team, and it went downhill from there. Many of the fifty people on the threads have apparently been yelling at each other since February.

Here’s how it works: One person makes a statement of “fact” or opinion and then those who disagree run off and google to find counter-arguments. I recently had tabs open to a glossary of hard-rock mining terms, an EPA report on toxic waste in Colorado, Michelle Obama’s thesis from 1985, Helen Keller’s biography, a speech Joe Biden made in 1992, and court records of a foreclosure hearing involving the parents of the woman who has accused Judge Kavanaugh of attempted rape. You see what a good use of my time this has been?

“Libtards” or “snowflakes” generally post major news outlets or analyses by government agencies, and then the tribe of trump shouts “fake news!!” and tweets random fake news and conspiracy websites and crazed blogs as sources. Then they post an anti-Hillary meme or two, and usually end by tossing insults: Liar! Fraud! Fake! Hater! To which a liberal occasionally replies: Liar! Fraud! Fake! Hater!

One of the many “Christians” in the tribe of trump might quote Bible verses that damn you to hell while posting memes of trump standing on top of a tank with bombs bursting behind him. Recently “Daughter of the Most High God” told me to pray that “the Democratic Deep State will stop conducting mass shootings in our schools as a ploy to take away our guns. Amen.”

For a while, I tried arguing with said Christians about what Jesus might think of taking children from their parents or taking healthcare from the poor or turning away refugees or destroying God’s creation. But those people are scary, really scary, and I eventually blocked most of the religious ones.

HOOKED

I knew within a week that I was hooked and that I needed help. But I couldn’t stop. I’d get several hundred notifications a day and started to feel as if I knew these people. I’d get a feeling of accomplishment and superiority whenever I scored a “point” against the opposition and my fellow liberals would applaud me and say, “Way to go, Mel!”

Oh, there were redeeming moments and comments, and I did establish a certain joking rapport with a few trump people. I had some good laughs, like when one woman wrote, “I don’t believe in history.” But then of course she was mocked mercilessly by the liberals and it wasn’t funny anymore.

A POWER GREATER THAN TWITTER

This “confessional” blog is part of a ritual I created to give myself the strength to deactivate my account. If you have not had such an addiction, you won’t understand. I didn’t really understand either. So as part of my ritual, I journaled a stream of consciousness to find out what it is I’m addicted to — what I think I get from Twitter. I wrote words like “excitement, belonging, relevance, engagement, competence.”

There’s nothing wrong with any of those desires, but from Twitter?? God, this is embarrassing.

Anyway . . .

Last night I lit a candle, I said a pray, and then I recited a version of the first three steps of the twelve-step program: “I am powerless over Twitter and my life has become unmanageable. I know that only a power greater than myself (which I call God) can help me be free of it, and so I turn my Twitter addiction over to You and ask You to help me let it go.”

Then at 7:13 pm precisely, as the sun went down, I deactivated my account.

In thirty days, I will reactivate it to see if I can go back to reading the news and interacting with other writers, readers, literary magazines, and spiritual seekers in a healthy way. If not, I’ll deactivate for good.

Wish me luck!

 

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