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Resolve and Reach

Though it’s been years since I’ve made any resolution seriously I’m making one now largely because it’s been gnawing away at me for awhile, and announcing it like this might strengthen my resolve. A couple years ago one of my mentors in the MFA program pointed out that I’d been hiding behind my writing to avoid writing. We were discussing the most recent packet of work I’d sent her and she something like “You know what I think? I think you’re writing this stuff to avoid what you really need to write.” Scenes from old movies came to mind, where characters would be in some desperate situation, trapped in a burning building or hiding from a psycho. There was always one who’d be running in frantic circles, shrieking, on the edge of hysteria (almost always a woman, who’d fall and break a heel in the process) when someone finally smacks her so she’ll calm down and think clearly. With that statement I knew Emily wasn’t going to let me get away with anything, and that though I sometimes like to think I’m elusive and mysterious, she somehow really knew me and exactly what I needed; if I stayed open to her feedback and didn’t take things as personally as I usually did, she was going to really help me.

She was right. I hadn’t realized what I was doing then, and sometimes still don’t see it. Then I’d work hard at perfecting a scene, focus on description or delve into other characters and their motivations. The problem wasn’t so much what I was writing, it was what I left out. I wasn’t sure where the real story was, but she helped me figure that out by showing me how I was avoiding the real work: probing my own psyche, questioning my own feelings and motivations. Good writing requires plunging into the deep, and digging deep enough to uncover the real story requires fearless examination of what you find there. I wasn’t getting to the soul of the story because in focusing on crafting the words into vivid description I’d effectively kept myself from looking for it. I’ve since made some progress, and the characters have changed and setting have changed, but this part of my story has remained the same to a degree.

At the orientation for my cohort the program director said to us before closing, “This program is going to change your lives.” I might have said it, but definitely remember thinking Thank God – can we get started with that? Sitting in a room full of writers all beginning our journeys I had the feeling I’d finally met My People. I wanted desperately to connect with others, and was sure it would happen there, if anywhere.

Though I can strike up conversations with complete strangers and get along with most people I meet, it stops there. I mix with people in probably any social group, at any socio-economic level, and am comfortable among rich or poor, white and blue collar, liberal and conservative, one religion to the next, meeting tons of people everywhere, getting along with most. I could probably have a party and invite all of these people, float freely between their clusters making sure everyone is comfortable, enjoying themselves, and make it work. But this is both a benefit and a downfall. I get the variety pack, the sampler platter, but never really, truly get to know them. I do well breaking into conversation with others whenever we meet, but have never been good at progressing to a deeper level. Bus loads of people and I are stuck in a sort of relationship purgatory: we’re more than acquaintances, may even know some deep shit about each other, but don’t call, write, or get together. We don’t investigate that deep shit, just leave it sitting there between us, like cold pizza we’re too full to eat. I’m perpetually late for departure and watching busses full of friends drive off as I stand there stuck at the port for Friendship, ready to go but unsure how to get there. It bothers me to know there are people I could surely really connect with, but when I get to the point when we either keep talking and connect or back off and maintain friendly distance, I choke.

I listened to the readings and read the work of the others at residency and focused on how alike we were. I loosened up and confessed to one that I felt like a mere wannabe writer who doesn’t belong. “They’re going to figure out I’m a fraud, politely thank me for my interest, then dismiss me.” He nodded as I said this. “Any half-way decent writer has a fair amount of self-loathing,” he said lightly, adding that he was still wracked with doubt sometimes. Before moving on to say hi to someone else he put a hand on my shoulder, smiled and said, “This is the right place. You do belong here, and you’ll fit right in.” I wanted to believe him, and worked at it until I did. Steve had been right – things were already starting to change.

I still have to work at it though. This past year I’ve read some blog posts and essays about women and friendship…and sat silently, coveting the honesty and intimacy those women share, the type of strength and bond unique to girlfriends. The few girlfriends I have live across the country, and we remain close, but not being near enough to get together leaves a void I feel frequently, and sometimes I’d give anything to spend a few hours at a café with them. Those friendship would have even stronger bonds were it not for my tendency to withdraw when I’m not feeling or doing well and don’t want to complain, despite sometimes needing to. Some people back off swiftly when conversation is anything less than cheery distraction. My girlfriends are supportive and understanding, but I often hold back, worried. Unsure.

That doubt and insecurity have also kept me from reaching out to other women, even as I’ve read about their friendships and thought about people I’d like to know better, “Facebook friends” that could be developed into meaningful friendships. But for the insecurity. I start to write an email, but an image comes to mind bringing my intentions to a halt: a piece of notebook paper folded several times into a tiny square or some cute little shape, the message inside simple: Will you be my friend? Circle one please, “yes” or “no.” Jesus. I’m like an awkward little kid. I don’t want to look like that desperate little kid. I tell myself I’ll write it or finish it later.

I’ve also started many emails or letters (even comments for blog posts, for God’s sake!) to writers whose work has deeply resonated with me. I’ve actually got half-written letters to a few people that sit unfinished while I worry about sounding stupid, unimpressive, or just bothersome. I begin writing a post in a flurry of ideas or emotion but then I hesitate, unsure. I need to take a break and come back to edit it. I want to wait and reread it after an appointment. More than once while I hesitated someone else with the same or a similar idea has published something like what I was writing, or said it the way I wanted to, leaving me throwing my hands up with big drama. Well, hell! I can’t do it now. Someone else just did, and now I’d look like a loser trying to imitate their idea. Hesitation. Indecision. Vacillation. All the opposite of “resolve.”

In the mean time, life has gone on, others have written (and actually sent) letters, others have read them, friendships have been nurtured, all while I’ve sat on my ass, biting my cuticles and cowing down to big, bad Insecurity.

Well, screw that. I can just get over it or I can sit here wallowing in it, but I’m damn tired of letting it stop me. It is 2013. And this year I’m going to be busy. I’ve got letters to write (and send), and blog posts to get up and old friends to whom I owe more than I’ve been giving, and new friendships to nurture. Thus my resolution: resolve and reach. To stop vacillating between determination and insecurity, and to reach out and reach for.

CAPS LOCK. Commentary and a Confession

Recently I was stalking people who’ve graciously accepted my Friend Requests on Facebook, iTunes playing in the background, when I realized my pulse had gained speed. The capital letters that dominated so many comments on a political post stood out on the screen. Ugh. I stopped reading and took a break to enjoy Jim Croce for a minute. “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger and you don’t mess around with Jim.” That’s right, I thought. You don’t screw around with the dude using caps lock either.

I discovered Grammarly on Facebook, when I noticed that many of the pictures a lot of my friends were sharing were from Grammarly’s page, and was a fan straight away. Aside from their real services, they provide regular comic relief for language-obsessed individuals such as myself, often in the form of hilarious pictures, e-cards and faux-inspirational posters such as this one. These allow me to laugh a little about grammatical horrors that otherwise make my skin crawl. I take pride in my writing, and while I confess to having used caps lock on rare occasions, I know that I can get any point across with the right words, and shouldn’t resort to shoving it in my reader’s face.

As a word nerd, I am deeply disturbed when the media takes liberties with language, compounding words and names to invent new ones designed specifically for the hipster crowd. If the newscasters sound hip and cool, they will gain a loyal audience with the younger generation (or those who are no longer considered younger, yet are somehow cool anyway). The media coins terms and names like TomKat, Brangelina, and – oh, snap, I just forgot my other examples –  and inserts them in every possible newscast. Because, c’mon, it’s keewl.

These words and phrases go beyond simple annoyances to us grammar geeks, who heart language so. For me it elicits a visceral reaction, one not unlike the gag reflex brought on by the site or smell of another’s vomit. Yet I must admit it: I have used caps lock, and I have now mashed words together, to offer a new verb, one which doesn’t require further definition, but that I will define anyway. ‘Cause that’s just how I roll.

Caplock. (v.)  To write, post, text, tweet or what-ever using all capital letters. To lock the capitals (letters) on a keyboard, phone, ipad – what-ever! To caplock. The act of caplocking. She caplocked.

Examples:

Andy was thrown over the edge by Jim’s latest rant. He’d gone too far this time, and Andy had to walk away from Jim, after, like, more than twenty years of being BFFs, due to their heated – and capitalized – political debates. But before un-friending Jim, Andy let loose and caplocked. He never heard from Jim again.

 Or:

 The dude was constantly caplocking. On HER page. HER TIMELINE, for God’s sake! Her friends talked to her about his nasty tone of voice, and she realized they were right. She caplocked, on his page this time, and broke up with him.

Common Usage:

1. You doubt the ability of your audience (a.k.a. the recipient of your assault) to get the point without some form of visual aid. Can they fully comprehend your point just by reading your words? Do they realize how passionate you are about the subject? If they can’t see your reddening face, the veins pulsing on your temples that prove how mad you are – well, you just can’t be sure. That’s a risk you can’t bear to take. What if they don’t get it? O.M.G. What if?

2) You doubt your ability to effectively argue without some back-up demonstration to highlight your point. This stems from an underlying lack of confidence in your overall verbal skills. But language evolves, and the notion developed that a word written or typed in all caps was either spoken with more force, or had more meaning than its lowercase version. You can now rely on caps to strengthen your point in virtual “conversation.”* (Really?? “Conversation”??**).

Phew! Thank God we don’t have to take time to consider which words would do the job best!

3) In days of yore we had calm, even-toned (read: mature) conversation in which the use of wit and a wide range of vocabulary were valued and effective tools of debate and discussion. Now, what you lack in imagination and vocabulary, you can compensate for with volume. Ruefully, the tête-à-tête has morphed into a perpetual showing of individual will: all participants talk over each other, struggling to be heard over others. The winner is the loudest, he who continues yapping until others give up trying to talk. (Persistence pays!) This drowning-everyone-out phenomenon has permeated the virtual world in the only possible way: the equation of caps lock = yelling was born. If you can not rest until your post, with its enlightened message, will be the first seen, the most read, and of course, generally considered the strongest argument, you can count on caps lock. When you caplock then hit that enter, you are the baddest man in the whole damn town. Badder than old King Kong. Meaner than a junk yard dog.

footnotes:

*The recent “love” of the quotation mark, and other punctuation infatuations, will earn their own post. Stay tuned.

**Hyper-punctuation. Excessive intonation. These are but two signs of a systemic problem, symptoms of DGAPS, or Deteriorating Grammar and Punctuation Skills Syndrome. Like a flesh-eating bacteria, DGAPS has seeped into our language, and unless we stop this sickness, the disease will quickly progress like, well, uh, you know.

How Blogging is Teaching Me About Balance with Writing

Anaїs Nin once wrote, “My ideas usually come not at my desk writing, but in the midst of  living.” Ideas don’t wait to come until you’re sitting, ready to write, so I jot down a lot of notes to return to when there is time. If something in the news hits me I spit out my immediate reaction on the page then stop, and return to it later, after I’ve calmed down and can approach it a little more level-headed. When I was an editorial intern I remember reading a few essays that were insightful and necessary and relevant…and too angry to be effective. They reminded me that no matter how passionate I am about a subject, if I don’t step back, let it breathe, check my emotions and revise, my words will read as nothing more than an irritating rant.

This is what’s hard for me about blogging. The very nature of it demands letting go of infinite revision. Some bloggers don’t revise their posts at all and just sit down, write it, and up it goes. Others write short essays, revise them a little, and up they go. We each need to find our own balance, I suppose, which might depend on the purpose of each individual blog. I don’t want to spit out a rant as quickly as possible for the simple sake of posting, only to have a blog comprised of spontaneous emotional outbursts that weren’t given enough time or thought. But I also need to post frequently, regularly, and silence my inner perfectionist to do so. I’ve let too much time pass without posting while waiting for the muse to come and say “This is how it should be done.”

I have to “feel” it!

Recently I was watching Robert DeNiro, (because I watch him every chance possible) in an interview on Inside The Actor’s Studio. He talked about how he “was afraid to make a move,” when preparing for a scene and felt like he had to go through some whole complicated creative process to get into the character and scene, and would hesitate, thinking “I have to feel it, I’m gonna have to do this…”  A teacher told him simply, “At the end of the day you’ve got to get up and do it. And the sooner you get to knowing that you’ve got to get up and do it, the quicker you’ll do it.” Once he just jumped in he realized he hadn’t needed to pamper himself or go through this or that first: “You’d just arrive there, you’d be there, believe it or not.”

Okay. Simple enough. Just sit down and write. I’ve got a great idea and all the emotion in the world to fuel the writing, and can get myself to sit down and just write it. But I can’t always stop there, and do sometimes have to go full speed ahead, take a breather, then come back. What I’m finding though, is that something lights a fire under me so I sit down and spit out my rant. Then I back off to let out some emotion and let in (hopefully) some rationality…and then while I’m letting it brew, I discover someone else has written something very similar, or taken an idea similar to one I had and was sitting on, but they actually did something with it. Which, of course, elicits another annoying voice that says “Well, now you’ve done it. You’ve waited and someone else wrote it and now you can’t, lest it look like you are taking someone else’s ideas due to the lack of your own.” Great. Allow me a moment, if you will, to respond to that voice: Shut the hell up.

A few nights ago I called my friend L to get her opinion on a post I was writing. News of Representative Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape” was spreading across websites like a trojan horse, and though I often remain silent on the idiotic things politicians say, this was an immediate and ferocious blast of isolated thunder for me; my fingers could hardly keep up with my thoughts. It seems a couple people misunderstand the word “empathy,” so I wanted to demonstrate how they might come to better understand it, but was worried that it might be a little graphic for a blog post, so I read it to her to see what she thought. Then today I get online and see an article responding to the same thing, with a couple paragraphs written the same way I wrote mine. And all is lost. Surely I can’t write it like that now, when someone has already done it the same way.

I fired off one of those “I can’t believe this!” texts to my friend, who has encouraged me to finish and post it anyway. And I will. For one thing, there is a similarity, but so what? We argue two different points, both valid. If we all stopped writing essays and books and songs and films because someone had already tackled that subject before or written it that same way before, we’d be missing out on a lot of good work. Anaїs Nin also wrote that “It is the function of art to renew our perception.  What we are familiar with we cease to see.  The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.” So someone wrote something the way I wanted to and they beat me to it. So what. I’m learning my writing needs distance and time – just not too much.

I’m going to put my that little insecurity to bed, finish the piece, and post it soon.

Diary of a Diagnosis: What a Patient Might Not Tell You

“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

-George Bernard Shaw

It seems doctors, among others (lawyers, the IRS), are keeping secrets, withholding essential information from us. If you have somehow managed to miss the books and infomercials, you’ll find plenty of conspiracy info online: a Google search for “What the Doctor Won’t Tell You” brings roughly  182,000,000 results. Go on, open another tab and check. I’ll still be here. The numbers vary daily, and according to paranoia – oops! I mean wording – for example, whether you’re considering what doctors (in general) won’t tell people versus what yours doesn’t want you to know. Conspiring as a group they bring over 39,900,000 results, and don’t rank as high as lawyers (we might have guessed), who earn over 50 million, or the ominous group of all those conspiring against us: They, who have the power. 733,000,000 results will make you privy to everything “they won’t tell you.” That, my friends, is one hell of a lot of conspiracy.

Just for laughs I tried “What writers won’t tell you;” Google asked “Did you mean ‘what waiters won’t tell you?’” If waiters keep secrets, most likely it doesn’t involve information we truly want to know. Should curiosity compel you to look though, any of 1,140,000 possible links will take you there. Writers, are less trustworthy than physicians, with 73,300,000. (The answer, Alex, is “Who is James Frey?”)  Judging by search results, that is. Even funeral directors can’t be trusted (is no profession sacred?).

There are things doctors won’t tell you, to be sure. There are also things your mother won’t tell you. Even your significant other. (The pants, if we’re all honest about it, probably make all of our butts look big. But no one’s going to bring that one up, now, are they?) There are also valid reasons for a doctor not to mention certain things (which we won’t get into here, lest my attention be diverted). But to assert that doctors do not want you to know something goes further. It breeds a collective mistrust for people that everyone alive will need at some point. And mistrust leads to lack of communication. For the patient, this could be detrimental. Leave out some vital piece of information, and you could cost yourself your health, or even your life.

Over the past two years I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in physician’s offices, and an even greater amount of time sifting through medical literature, reading about the thyroid, the back, the this, the that, and poring over sites like PubMed, Medline, and Mayoclinic.com.  Reading about symptoms. Searching for answers. Learning about various disorders and diseases. Having them ruled out. Starting over. I’ve learned so much about the body that I’ve found myself fantasizing about going to med school (St. Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to student loans). And though I know things now like why a symptoms timeline is important even though you’ve already told your doctor all of your symptoms, and understand why a problem with hormones is anything but as simple as it sounds, much of what I’ve gained through this on-going quest has more to do with what’s going on in my mind than in my body. It’s an understanding of what it means to be a patient, what my role is, with medical professionals, with family and friends, and also with myself. One of the most important things I’ve learned in all this is that communication in the patient-doctor relationship is as much my responsibility as it is theirs. Often there’s so much focus put on what physicians communicate and what everyone’s responsibility is to the patient, that the patient’s role gets very little attention, if any.

I have found myself at times not wanting to tell my doctor or family or friends things. Which brings to mind my mother’s voice, from years ago: The only one you’ll be hurting is yourself. The energy supplements I took were not something I brought up at my first few appointments. I didn’t tell my mother right away about the time I passed out. When I did, I devalued the incident, then let months go before I told her about the aura-like moments that preceded each occurrence.

And I told no one how much it actually scared me. Many of the symptoms come and go, the level of pain sometimes waxes and wanes, but the one constant is this: how much I downplay most of it, to everyone.

 *

 We were sitting at the table talking about the news, veering into dreaded territory: politics. We left that political ground soon after, when my voice started wavering and tears started to flow with no apparent warning. (No, it wasn’t because of our political climate, although that certainly can incite an urge to sob.) E looked at me, studying my eyes and expression, but remained silent. It was one of those looks men sometimes get when in the company of a woman who’s on the verge of taking the discussion somewhere, but where that may be, he can’t be sure of yet. There could be danger ahead. Or Pleasantville. It is a wise man who has learned to wait for a glimpse of the terrain into which they are headed before commenting on that landscape.

Researchers studying the mind-body connection have found evidence to demonstrate how stress affects the body, some of which you can read about here, and it is now widely accepted that we can use our minds to alter our physical response to stress, with calming and relaxing exercises.

We hear less about how our physical health affects our emotional and mental well-being, and more often than not when we do hear about it, the focus is on how things like regular exercise can help with depression and stress. (A Google search for how the physical affects state of mind brings gazillions of results about how emotions affect health. I’m not even going to give numbers on this one though. Rewording it fifty ways still brings this reversal.) My physical and emotional thresholds had been circling each other like prey, and when the former finally pushed me to the latter, the result was like the creative outburst that ends writer’s block. I spoke without reservation, letting out things I’ve long kept to myself, little truths that, had I divulged them along the way, would have avoided many of the misinterpretations that resulted from my lack of communication.

What I unleashed on E was, as I told him, “all of the things I’m really thinking and feeling while I’m walking around making a conscious effort at convincing everyone, myself probably most of all, that I’m not that exhausted and that it doesn’t hurt as bad as it does. This is what’s on my mind when I say nothing is, or what’s always in the background, even when I’m thinking or talking about something else.” My voice was cracking. Tears were leaking out. E was looking at me, still silent. I read the look on his face. It said he was surprised, that he had no idea. Or maybe it was only my emotion, misreading his reaction.

My health is not a subject I broach with any depth too often. When someone asks “How’ve you been?” or “What’s new?” I resist the urge to crawl into a hole. What do I tell them? “Still wiped out, back still hurts, still don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I’ve picked up a new symptom since last time. And you? How’s the new home?” We’ve all known someone who says the same things every time you see them, generally a complaint about some body part. I don’t want to be that woman. The Whiner. The Bore. The downer at the party, who drives people away. Nor do I want to be the patient who can’t take the pain. The one who always rates high on the pain scale. The one who magnifies this or minimizes that. But most of all, I want to be seen for who I am, not for my health to define me. I don’t want to be that lady whose blog sounds like a symptoms checklist; I want you to read my blog and talk about that fantastic new writer who is going to go somewhere with that talent. Just kidding. Sort of. So I try to avoid the subject, and only let it out  when it’s driving me to wit’s end.

Instead I spend days and nights online researching my symptoms and diagnoses, desperate to put a name to it, so they can tell me how to treat it and I can start feeling better. And everything I learn leads to more questions, and the more I dig, the more I realize how easy it is to misunderstand or misperceive so many things in the worlds of health, illness, and medicine. The more I realize how many people I’ve seen who looked fine, normal, but were really standing there in pain all the while I was doubting them. The more I realize how many things I do can be easily interpreted in a way drastically different from reality. A quick example: a couple of times my landlord has come over to fix something, and each time dishes had piled up until it looked like they were protesting. Occupy Counter: the Place Setting Resistance. (Rest assured, were there a dishwasher – someplace where They could Contain and Control the Place Settings! – no such movement would be necessary.) He must think I’m an utter slob. The truth is I hate having dishes laying around. Have they been washed? Then they must be put away. Right now. But the time it takes to wash, dry, and put them away is just enough to provoke my back, and that’s where the real protesting begins. Do I share that little tidbit with my landlord hoping he won’t think I’m a slob, or offer such explanations whenever someone might read me wrong? Depends on how I’m feeling at that moment (and on who or how important the person is).

 

“A man’s illness is his private territory and, no matter how much he loves you and how close you are, you stay an outsider. You are healthy.”
-Lauren Bacall

When I was in the MFA program, one of my mentors and I were discussing books and writing about illness, when she paused, then said “Illness is a very isolating experience.” I think about this often, realizing more all the time how true that is. But I also realize that though by its very nature illness will always be isolating, to what degree that is, isn’t something over which I have no control.

 For one thing, there are health forums galore where, whatever symptoms you’ve got, you can find someone who has had at least a similar experience. Reading them has been an education in itself, but it also made me question whether or not to write about this long road to a diagnosis – to a destination I may never reach. I didn’t want to put my symptoms out there for the world to scrutinize, or prattle on, à la navel-gazer, about my little life. But journaling (yes, I just used a noun as a verb. If you can “friend” people, I can journal.) about it, the writing gains its own momentum, taking me away from myself and my symptoms and into a vast arena of questions to explore.

My decision to blog about it was driven by equal parts frustration, isolation, and also motivation: all this learning has given me new purpose. It’s not to inform the reader about what They don’t want you to know. It’s about what a patient might want you to know, but may not say, for any number of reasons. It’s not about hiding any truths, but bringing them to light. Not about information kept secret or confidential, but about conversations we should be having more often.

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