The little engine that sometimes can’t

sadI hate the word depression. I would rather use any other word than depression. I usually say that I am blue. Sometimes, I say that I’m sad.

I’m blue right now. God, I hate admitting that. It feels like a terrible weakness, a part of me that I don’t have any control over and that I can’t just fight through. I can’t make myself feel happy. In fact, I’m having a difficult time making myself feel anything at all.

It’s something that happens this time of year. Usually, it occurs in January and February. This year it has arrived a little earlier. It always coincides with the short days and the long, dark nights of winter. I’ve never been diagnosed with depression but if I was going to self-diagnose I would guess that I have seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD is characterized by a change in mood that occurs with the changing of the season. It’s characterized by irritability, and low energy. It’s tied to melatonin and serotonin levels and if I had the energy I would look up what that is, what it does and what it means. But I don’t. You have the internet. You look it up.

At any rate, it’s a miserable feeling.

It happens to some degree every year and yet every time it happens, I am surprised. You think I would remember. You think I would recognize the signs. I fight it as long as I can. I think to myself that I just need to soldier through it. I just have to keep working. I’m a big believer in the most important part of getting good at something is showing up and doing it. But, when I sit at the kitchen table, it’s so much harder to find the words. I can sit for hours and not get anywhere. It would have been better if I had just sat on the couch and binged on some Netflix.

Maybe I’m just paying for my frenetic, nearly manic productivity of the summer. It’s the summer when I am busy every moment of the day. I work in the garden. I take my kids places. I pick baskets of fruit in sweltering orchards and take them home to preserve them. I write thousands of words every week. I paint. I feel invincible. I feel powerful, even limitless. I marvel to myself at my work ethic, at my drive, at my ability to accomplish everything I set out to do.

Basically, I’m the little engine that could. All summer I coast down the hills, happily zipping along. Then fall hits, and I have to start chugging up the next hill and by winter I’m basically ready to give out. What was once a feeling of being able to do anything becomes a feeble, “I think I can.” And sometimes it just becomes a sad, little, “I can’t.”

It happened last year, towards the end of December. The book I was working on completely fell apart and by January I had trashed it. The book I’m working on now is a mess. I don’t think I’ll trash it, but I have a strong desire to put it away unfinished for a while.

I don’t know what’s worse about this inevitable slowdown. Is it the sharp decline of productivity or is it the terrible feeling that it’s never going to rise again? All of the habits that I formed will just erode away until I am once more weeks away from the last time I wrote anything or painted anything. This past year, I eventually found my way again but what if next time I don’t?

So, this year, I’m going to do my best not to give out, to keep that creative engine going. It doesn’t matter if I’m not producing the same quantity or even quality as I was before. The important thing is to continue moving forward. I’m adjusting my goals, giving myself a little more downtime. I’m allowing for an afternoon nap now and then, an early bedtime, a ridiculous novel read only for the escapism it provides. I may write less and paint more. I may go for walks or just listen to music. Maybe, I’ll bake bread. On days when I feel more like myself, I’ll work harder. I’ll keep moving.

When the sun is brighter and warmer and the manic productivity of summer returns, I hope I’ll be ready.

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Needing space

relax-1276639_1280I see a lot of jabs at the idea that someone should need a safe space. I guess it’s pretty easy to make fun of people who need to be protected from words. Didn’t they ever hear that old saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me?”  Aw, the little snowflakes need to be protected. Their poor little feelings are hurt.

These sort of jeers and jabs almost always come from white people. I have yet to see it come from a person of color, someone who worships a different religion and I have never heard it from a member of the LGBTQIA community. No, it’s always people who fit into the mold of what society has deemed both normal and optimal who mock the concept of a safe space.

I mean, it’s awfully easy to make fun of someone who needs a safe space when we’ve never had a racial epithet thrown at us. Perhaps, we’ve never been the victim of sexual assault. Maybe, we’ve never felt like there was a target on our back due to what we wear, who we worship, or who we love.  We don’t really know what that feels like. However, we can try to empathize with people who may have a different experience than us. We can try to understand that there may be times when they need a place where they can feel safe, where they can feel normal and where they can feel okay.

Take a minute and listen to the theme song from Cheers. What on earth do you think they’re talking about here?

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

RaeAnn Pickett wrote in TIME, “After the birth of my first son, I had postpartum depression. I was a mess emotionally, and I was in desperate need of feeling safe. I had no idea what “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces” were, but I had been using them internally for days—avoiding the mommy movies and choosing not to go to the breastfeeding support group where I felt like a failure. Being able to know beforehand what experiences I should avoid and create an environment where I felt safe made it easier for me to share my struggles and move past them.”

There have been times in my life where I have done the same thing, maneuvered myself so that I could avoid something that I found upsetting or troubling until I could find a way to move past it. I have also at times surrounded myself with people who understood me and what I was going through so that I could work through what I was feeling. 

Pickett was able to find the help that she needed for her own postpartum depression in one of these often mocked safe spaces. “When my first postpartum depression support group facilitator said in a hushed, happy voice that this was a safe space, I felt the weight slowly start to lift from my chest. All the pent-up anxiety I had felt was dissipating—just by knowing that the physical place I chose to be in was filled with people who understood me and could help me find the tools to get well.

This isn’t to say that safe spaces can’t go too far in another direction. It shouldn’t be used to stop conversation and discussion. They shouldn’t be used to censor ideas and concepts that we don’t like. Instead, it should create a space where a person can get away from the comments and arguments that are not helpful and can be damaging based on their experiences. Emma Kromm writes in the Harvard Political Review, “A college student who has experienced sexual assault and does not want to hear someone repeat an argument that in any way belittles her experience is not the right target for an indictment of censorship.”

Perhaps, there are times when we should be less concerned about our need to say whatever we want and instead think of other people’s feelings. To be empathetic. To understand that someone else’s experience might be very different from ours and that we all have our own ways of dealing with things that we find difficult. If you think that’s something to mock, then you, my friend, are the reason why we need safe spaces to begin with.

Safe spaces, when used properly can actually create an opportunity for understanding. Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University noted that “students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable. Safe spaces provide that comfort. The irony, it seems, is that the best hope we have of creating an inclusive community is to first create spaces where members of each group feel safe.” 

Some of us build up our whole lives to be one giant safe space. We don’t go to places where we might feel uncomfortable. We don’t try to learn anything new or try anything different. We don’t make new friends. Some of us wouldn’t leave our house if it wasn’t for the responsibilities we have. If you think about it that way, then maybe we’re all just a bunch of hypocrites for making fun of everyone else for something we do every day.

Maybe you’re a tough cookie and you never needed a safe space. Maybe you never avoided people because you didn’t want to deal with something. Maybe you never wished you could go somewhere and not have to worry about being bullied or picked on. Maybe you are always out trying new things and meeting new people and you don’t feel any sort of anxiety about it. If that’s the case, I think you should just count yourself lucky and leave the people alone who haven’t been as fortunate as you.

Silence is complicity


silence-390331_1280It was always there. It kept to the shadows. It stayed, a whispered monster revered among its small groups of worshipers. We didn’t think it would ever be brave enough to come out into the light. We didn’t think it could ever be that strong. Its days of glory were gone, relegated to the pages of History books that we read and wondered how anyone could ever let it come out into the light like that.

Hatred.

Prejudice.

Racism.

Bigotry.

It has been growing stronger over the last year and over the last week, it has become brave. The Southern Poverty Law Center has counted more than 200 complaints of hate crimes since Election Day, according to USA Today.

It wrote “Heil Trump” and “Fag Church” and drew a swastika on the walls of an Episcopal churchIt shouted threats and whispered intimidation. It picked fights. It used fear like it’s best weapon.

It echoed through high schools and colleges. In its wake, it left behind fear.

How lovely it was to be white, to not be Muslim, to be what is considered “normal.” Now, it’s creeping out into the light, and we’re trying so hard not to pay attention. We’re doing everything we can to pretend not to see it. I should know. I have a lot of practice doing this.

I’m not sure why this happens but it seems to be a normal occurrence that people see my white skin and think that in me they have found someone who will understand their feeling about people of color. A woman told me in the parking lot of the grocery story how the latinos in the store were all so rude and they should speak English. Sometimes it’s not what they say but it’s how they say it. Their voices drop down to just above a whisper when they tell me how some girl we know is dating a black man. They tell me that of course not all latinos are bad but just the ones that live near them are. They assure me that I don’t understand because I don’t live where they live.

They tell me how they really feel about Muslims, about refugees, how we can’t trust any of them, that they could all be terrorists. If I’m lucky I get to hear their usually limited view of the Koran. They don’t like where they want to build their mosques. They don’t like how they pray. They don’t like how they wear their hijabs.

I also get to hear comments on gay people. How what they do is disgusting. How they choose to be how they are. I even get to see a children’s video on God’s view of gay people. Somehow, gay people are ruining marriage for all of us. I’ve had someone close to me say that two gay men shouldn’t be able to adopt children because they will molest them. Of course, who can forget the huge debate that raged on about where transexuals use public bathrooms? A hair stylist brought that up to me just a few weeks ago. She didn’t say anything but she gave me a look, eyebrows raised, the look that said, I’m just waiting for you to give me the go ahead to tell you exactly what I think.

These are all things that I hear in real life. This isn’t from people hiding behind computer screens. This is from people I know and love. This is from strangers in parking lots or in stores or in hair salons indulging in small talk that suddenly takes a dark turn. They see my white skin, my normal American life as a stay-at-home-mom with a husband and two kids and they think that they can say what they want to me and I will be their ally, that I will understand then and I will agree.

I don’t agree but until now I haven’t said too much. I wanted to pretend I couldn’t see it. I kept my mouth shut even when I didn’t agree and worked hard to justify not speaking out. I would say that obviously the person didn’t mean what they said. She doesn’t actually feel that all Latinos are rude.  I would think that there was no point in saying anything. I wasn’t going to change her mind. I would tell myself that I didn’t want to make everyone uncomfortable. If he really feels that way, it’s not really going to effect anyone. He’s just one person. I had a list of excuses that I would make, but none of them ever really felt good enough. I would walk away feeling uncomfortable, feeling like a coward and knowing that whoever I was talking to was right when they thought I was an ally. When the conversation was done, they still probably felt like I agreed with them.

And for all of my excuses, they were all to make me feel better about myself for not saying anything. I told myself that I was empathizing, that I was trying to understand how other people, that I was accepting all people even if I didn’t agree with them. Oh, the hoops I jumped through to justify my silence.

The prejudices and bigotry leaked out from the shadows and I looked away.

I’m not going to look away anymore. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t hear what was said. I’m not going to be silent. When I speak out, I might not be polite about it.

About other things, I’m still trying to be open-minded. If you want to talk about politics or our government, I’m ready. If you want to talk about this past election and have a constructive conversation about the president-elect Trump and the future of our country, I can do that too. If you want to talk about the protests over the last week and whether they are riots or protests protected by the second amendment, let’s go. You don’t have to agree with me. I won’t feel like I have to change your mind. We can just talk. We can share ideas. We’re all Americans after all.

We’re all human beings.

But, if you want to talk to me about generalizations that you are making on a whole group of people based on your limited experience or based on some fake news story on Facebook, I’m going to tell you I don’t want to hear it. I’m not going to listen to your view points on why all Muslims are dangerous. I have a strong aversion to religion but I’ll still defend everyone’s freedom to practice it. I don’t want to hear any hate speak at all about gay people or transexuals or really anyone.

My mom always liked to repeat that old adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

So, if I can’t urge you to change how you feel about the people in our society that are marginalized, if I can’t get you to change your biases toward them, then I’m going to ask you to watch your mouth when you’re talking to me.  I’m taking this seriously.

I can’t kill this beast that is hatred and prejudice and bigotry, not when it seems to always survive, but I will fight to push it back to the shadows.

The siren song of NaNoWriMo

crest-05e1a637392425b4d5225780797e5a76This is the fourth year that I’m going to attempt to do NaNoWriMo. To those of you who are not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it is a celebration of National Novel Writing Month where the participant endeavors to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It comes down to writing exactly 1667 words each day, every day. I have been successful one time.

Now, let me give you a couple of excuses for my other failures. One reason is that every November I get some sort of illness. Without fail. It’s usually a cold, something small to just make me tired and lazy. One year I was pregnant but I was in the first trimester and I think we can all agree that pretty much counts as an illness. Getting ill and missing a few days of writing can put you behind pretty quickly on your word counts and if it happens at the beginning of the month it can be pretty discouraging. Also, let’s not forget that there is a rather large holiday that happens in November.  Pre-Christmas. I mean, Thanksgiving. Now that I’m a grown woman, I can no longer just appear at the dinner table, empty-handed and hungover. I have to prepare food. I have to get children ready. It eats up a lot of writing time.

I usually start the month off strong and hit the wall about half way through and then do a sort of limp/crawl to the finish line. And remember, only one time did I actually make it to the finish line.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to do NaNoWriMo this year. I have an antagonistic relationship with it. I like it because it helps a writer get into the habit of writing. It gives the writer a goal to work towards. There is also something really nice about sharing the experience of writing with other writers. Instead of plinking away at my keyboard alone, I can go to write-ins. I can talk to people on the forums. I can take what is usually a very solitary experience and make it a social one.

What I don’t like about NaNoWriMo is the push to get words on the page. It can lead to a situation where you are pushing quantity over quality. It can lead to a draft that was rushed through to reach a sort of arbitrary goal, but that is a mess and needs a complete rewrite. I also have a difficult time writing a complete novel in 50,000 words. Depending on what genre you’re writing in, that is going to be a very short novel. The one time that I finished NaNoWriMo, I was only about half way to finishing my book and the first draft was such a disaster that by January I had thrown in the towel.

Still, I have to give credit where credit is due. It wasn’t NaNoWriMo that got me back into writing, but it was the thing that got me used to setting goals and word counts and pushing through each day, even when I would have much rather been taking a nap or watching tv. I don’t try to write a novel in a month but I do try to write one in three months. I don’t like to push my word count about 1500 words a day but I do keep it over 1000. Those have been the rules that I have been using for my work this past year and by the end of this month I should have three complete first drafts for novels.

As much as I don’t love NaNoWriMo and as much as I don’t feel that I need it anymore, I still felt the call as November got closer and closer. Now, here we are. I’m not doing it as a way of writing one novel in a month but I am using it to push myself a little farther. I upped my word counts and I put away my paints for a few weeks. I have a novel that I’m working on. It won’t take that many words to finish it, but I intend to make up the difference with other writing, including blog posts, short stories, and essays. I’m also hoping to begin working on a query letter for the novel I finished writing in July. I have a little more work to do on it. I have friends reading it now and giving my feedback but when I am finished with the next draft, I am going to begin querying for an agent. (Eeeeek)

It’s going to be a busy month and although I’m excited, I’m looking forward to slowing down a little bit in December.

Also, I’m already behind on my word count.

My first Inktober

inkto2

My mascot for Inktober.

As is always the case with me, participating in Inktober was a decision that was made at the last moment. I was reminded that it was October and therefore it was Inktober and if I wanted to do it I was already two days behind. Nevertheless, I completely committed to doing it. For the uninitiated Inktober is a monthlong challenge meant to improve drawing skills and habits. The rules are pretty simple. Make a drawing in ink. Post it online. Hashtag it. Repeat. You can do it daily. You can do it every other day. You can post once a week.

I wanted to do Inktober but not at the expense of my writing. The time that I can find to write is sacred and cannot be used on other hobbies and endeavors. So, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do one every day. I also wasn’t sure that I would be able to do one every other day. There might be a few days in a row where I could work and a few days in a row that I wouldn’t be able to. So, I decided to commit to fifteen ink drawings, created through the span of one month. I thought I would be able to do more than that, but I finished the fifteenth at 11pm on October 31st.

I didn’t post  online as I went. I wanted to share them all together at the end here. There are prompts that are provided for each day, but I didn’t use them either. I like doing portraits, so that’s what I stuck with. My Inktober is my own bastardized version of what I think it’s supposed to be but I still think I got what I needed out of it.

inkto3

Sharpie, Pigma Micron pens

I haven’t worked with ink in a while. When I first started doing portraits, I did them in Sharpie and Pigma Micron pens, but it’s been three years since I did those. Ink washes I haven’t done since college. Understandably, I felt pretty rusty. Ink (I use Higgins waterproof ink) is very permanent, in a way that watercolor isn’t. Paint can be gently lifted from the paper, softly scrubbed away. Ink, once it make’s it’s home in the fibers of your paper, is everlasting. Therefore, when you place it on the page, you should do so with confidence. Mistakes can be worked into the piece, but even if the viewer doesn’t know it’s there, you will. There were moments where I sat with my brush or my pen poised over the paper asking myself if I really knew what I was doing. I felt an anxiety working with ink that I rarely feel with paint anymore.

inkto5Still, there is something really beautiful about how ink moves through water. I had more control with pens but I quickly moved to washes when I saw how the black ink bled into the water, how it could be moved around the page, following the wet like a river. It lent itself better to texture, creating a smooth solid color at times, and transparent layers built on top of each other at others. You could have sharp crisp lines and fluid, open shapes. I could have control or I could feel helpless with the way it pooled and bled.

I was most successful when I relaxed, when I didn’t try so hard. I enjoyed those ink washes more. Still, it was difficult to accept the permanence of the ink while relaxing into the method. It felt almost contradictory at times.

It was good for me to work in a different medium for a while and I am interested to see how it will effect my watercolors when I get back to them. I hope it improves them. I also think I might want to do this again. Choose a different way of creating and stick with it for a period of time. Get to know the graphite, the colored pencil, the charcoal or the pastels that I ignore in my collection of art supplies. Get to know them and see how they can affect what I already think I know about drawing and painting.

In the end, I’m glad I participated. I will probably do it again next year with better planning and hopefully, better results. For now, I can’t wait to get back to watercolor.

My Inktober portraits: