I admit it, I’m guilty.
I have absolutely sent out material when it wasn’t ready. What writer hasn’t? (Seriously, call me. I need your secret!) The magic bullet I’m referring to, of course, is not a unique plague to writers. How do we know when we’re really ready for the next step, that one that counts?
When I was a kid, our house was lush, almost jungle-like from my mom’s plants; she has an incredibly green thumb.
Sometimes, a plant would break off, or sometimes Mom just wanted to give a piece to someone else. She would stick the clipping in a clear glass on the windowsill, where it sat for an amount of time that varied on all sorts of conditions. (Strength and type of the plant, available resources like sunlight and adequate water in the glass.)
Eventually though, the plant chunk would sprout a nutrient-seeking network of hair-like tendrils. We were able to monitor the growth of the new roots while the plant stub was on the windowsill, but how could we possibly know when that set of roots was ready to support life?
That’s the tricky part.
We just had to let them grow, adding water as necessary, and then eventually stick them into dirt and cross our fingers that it worked out like we planned. At that point, you can’t see anything. You just have to trust that your roots were strong enough.
Preparation like this requires patience. Which is why I’ve sent out work before it was ready and killed a lot of plant starts that I’ve been given. I’m not a patient person.
The past week or so I’ve been working with my friend Mike (www.michaeljornlin.com
) on one scene from one of his stories. Initially, I volunteered to read and give feedback on an image (a paragraph, really) he thought might be construed as vulgar from his mom’s point of view. That somehow snowballed into a volley of conversational feedback via email that produced at least 3 different drafts of the scene, which is actually unrelated and not on his wrath-of-mom watch list. The turn-around time was insanely quick, but the results were incredible.
A few questions and tweaks, and suddenly, it took off like one of those amaryllis plants in a box at Christmastime. You can’t quite see the stalk growing, but it has visible daily progress, and before you know it, it needs a stick to hold it up because it’s blooming.
This exchange was incredibly inspiring. (I tend to view rewrites like I do dusting. You know you need to do it, but it’s just so easy to let everything sit there. And as long as you don’t move anything, you can’t really tell how bad it is.) But with Mike’s help, I realized editing and revision didn’t need to be tedious or take forever, if I had the right conditions.
At its core, to edit means to prepare. It sounds straightforward enough, doesn’t it? You need to prepare your work for the next step, hopefully publication.
But when coupled with the word revision, the most common accompaniment, it’s obvious why they usually travel together. To revise can mean to revisit, to amend or alter (no surprise there), but it boils down to this: to see again.
I guess that’s how we know when we’re ready for the next step. Can you see it?
No one wants to step forward blindly, so we edit and revise. Prepare to see again.
My almost-16-year old tabby, Cairo, doesn’t mince meows when it comes to other cats. She hates them.
Last year, my husband and I were forced to move into a hotel suite for a month while we waited to close on our house. It was quickly apparent that the cat in the full-length mirror on the closet was going to be a problem. Cairo refused to walk past the mirror, even to get to her food dish. The cat she saw reflected back at her caused her to growl and hiss. Excessively.
Since there are few things as disconcerting as waking up in a hotel room to an aggressive round of hissing coming from the floor, we handled it by simply removing the “other cat.” (We hung a sheet over the mirror.)
Now that we have settled into our home, we no longer have to contend with reflected kitties. However, there are at least 3 different neighbor cats that like to sun themselves in our backyard. It’s not a big deal for us that they like to stretch out and catch a few rays, especially when you consider what the neighbor dogs like to do in the front yard.
The cat from next door has decided that a spot on our deck just outside the patio door is ideal. Again, it’s not an inconvenience for us humans. On my brother’s visit to our house, he even slipped out and petted the cat, preferring a purring, appreciative feline to my persnickety pet who shunned his affection.
Last week, the neighbor cat again padded onto the deck and sat down, silently looking in through the glass. Usually this would have occurred without incident, and we would have made comments about how Cairo’s friend had come over to see if she wanted to play. But on this occasion, Cairo suddenly, inexplicably, bailed off her spot on the back of the couch. She’s generally a very small cat, but by the time she reached the door, she had fluffed herself up to at least 3 times her size. Cairo proceeded to growl, hiss, and produce a sound from the back of her throat that came close to a bark. She even swiped her paw at the interloper, frustrated by the glass between them.
The neighbor cat was unconcerned and just looked back at her, responding only by yawning, stretching, and settling down into a ball, head angled away from the house and my psycho kitty.
At first, we laughed. How could we not? Our lazy cat that was so content to hang out under the covers of our hastily-made bed that we could hardly coax her into action with toys or strings had suddenly been spurred into action by...another cat going about doing what it always did?
Because she persisted, I picked Cairo up, smoothed down her hair, and carried her back into the bedroom to try to calm her down. She immediately jumped off the bed and tore down the hall into the living room. She refused to be distracted or mollified in any way.
Although the other cat was doing nothing to harm or threaten her way of life, Cairo persisted in blustering and making a big fuss. Eventually, the offending cat jumped onto the railing. He disdainfully looked back down at my upset pet and gracefully disappeared.
For her part, Cairo stalked back and forth along the patio doors, making sure the cat was gone. Eventually, she lay down with her back to the glass, tail twitching, eyes partially closed but still hyper-alert. Was she feeling self-satisfied and righteous, as if she had actually done something to run the other cat off? Or was she just exhausted from her uncharacteristic burst of movement?
After watching this whole scenario play out, we chuckled about the absurdity of Cairo’s beef with the other cat when it was doing absolutely nothing to threaten her. It was completely unwarranted; it hadn’t tried to get in our house, hadn’t meowed or antagonized Cairo in any way. It simply wanted what all cats want on a regular basis: a nap in the warm sunshine. On most days, she wouldn’t even have noticed, because she would have been doing something strikingly similar in another area of the house.
We would have been mortified if we had children who acted like that, but she’s just a cat. And no one was there to see it.
Human beings can be an awful lot like my crazy cat.
It’s not as cute when we do it.
The allure of the house wasn’t really the structure; it was just a 1960, gray tri-level.
The reason we chose the house was the yard. Spread over its acre of space, it had everything from willow trees to lilac bushes, hostas to peonies, maples to something I called a tulip tree (no idea what its official name might have been, but that’s what it looked like in the 72 hours or so it bloomed every spring). The side yard could have been a football field, but we used it mostly for bocce ball and riding lawnmower time trials.
Amongst all this space was a large garden plot.
My husband and I used the rototiller the previous owners had left in the garage to tear up the clods of earth in the rectangle of dirt. It seemed massive. Since it’s just the two of us, and I’m not really a gardener, we invited some of our friends to go in on what we hoped would be fun: a community garden, of sorts. (Neither couple lived particularly close to our new place, but the theory was that we would get together for dinner frequently if we all had a stake in the garden.)
We strategized what each of us would plant so we could share the produce instead of duplicating. We ended up with tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatillos, pumpkins, cantaloupe, cilantro, and beans. (Or were they peas?)
The first few rows of the garden were pristine. They might even have been straight. We spaced them with a few strategically placed concrete pavers (more stuff left by the previous owners!) so we could step on them as we needed to weed; everyone seemed more agreeable to weeding than to muddy shoes.
But as we got to the last portion to be planted—where the cantaloupe and pumpkins, tomatillos and cilantro were to go—it began to rain. At first it was refreshing. We’d been working harder than we anticipated, and it was a warm evening.
My husband and I gritted our teeth as we prepared to stick it out and plant the rest of the garden as we started it. But our friend had other ideas. He poured a few seeds from each of the remaining packets in his hand and then just flung them across the tilled ground. He clap/brushed them together to make sure he’d gotten all the seeds off his skin. “We’re done. Let’s eat.” He let loose his distinctive, measured laugh as we gaped at him. He was just planning to leave them like that, all willy-nilly, not even poked down into the soil?
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. If they’re going to grow, they don’t care if they’re in rows.” It was raining harder, and the first savory scents had begun wafting our way from the grill on the deck.
We gave in.
It wouldn’t be pretty when it all came up, and we wouldn’t even know what type of plant was supposed to appear where in his section, but if the purpose was edible produce, would it really matter?
Believe it or not, that was the most productive garden we ever had while we lived in that house. It looked crazy and completely out of control, but the blocks helped us harvest vegetables from the rows, and the tiny, grapefruit-sized cantaloupe were sweeter than any store-bought versions we had ever eaten. I even had a few “volunteer” tomatillos poke their way through the next year, too.
So I just finished my “year off” to write. I realize it’s every writer’s dream, and I didn’t take that lightly. However, the scope of what I was trying to accomplish probably wasn’t realistic in 12 (okay, 18) months’ time. And then there was the time I wanted (or needed? At some point, it becomes indistinguishable) to spend with my family as it morphed into something new. I wouldn’t give back those one-week stints for 10 publishing deals stacked on top of one another tied with a double-looped Twilight/Harry Potter-level-success bow.
You know that kind of job where you think, if I could do anything, I would do <fill in the blank>? That’s what I just started. And true, the schedule does not allow me unlimited time for writing, yet here I am, having breakthroughs of such clarity that I cannot believe I ever thought my memoir was “done,” still stoked about the imminent completion of the first draft of the dark novel that seems to have set up permanent residence in the limited space of my brain.
I guess our friend was right. If it’s going to grow, it doesn’t need a row. Reading every book ever written about gardening can’t actually help you produce anything edible; it’s about getting it all together and out in the yard when the temperature allows it. Conditions are rarely perfect, but they need to be good enough: just a tiny bit of dirt and water and sunlight.
It may not look like the pictures on the packaging or how you imagined it, but a seed is meant to grow into something bigger and better, something that can provide sustenance, so that’s what it will do, given the smallest bit of encouragement.
Some people order “just water for me, please” with their meal at a restaurant. Being a girl who always orders some other beverage and water, I’m never sure if they’re being healthy or are trying to negate some of the calories they anticipate consuming. Or if they’re just cheap.
While I wonder about the cause of this action, it’s not something that consumes me. It just is. The result is they’re stuck with water, while I enjoy my flavored iced tea or wine or chocolate milk.
As a culture, though, it seems we are fixated on causation. Truly, as overdone as the chicken and the egg conversation is, the gist of it is we have a need to know the authentic cause and effect. But then again, if an absolute answer were available, why would we have conversations about it? In interpersonal communication, the concept is called punctuation, where two people believe the starting point of a conflict is caused by something different--I do this because you do that; No, I only do that because you do this.
Perhaps it stems from our need to harness time. We’re obsessed with deadlines, how long (or short) a relationship we’re in, how many years we’ve lived, how long until we can retire. And part of time is chronology.
Last week I went to visit my mom and brother, and I used part of my time in the airports and on the planes to read a memoir so well written, so powerful, that just thinking about it now, it still makes the inside of my skin itch.
Memoir, although we expect it to be real, is someone’s version of the truth. Just by retelling a story, we necessarily paint it with our own perceptions, dilute or enhance its color for our audience and purpose.
I don’t believe that everyone who picks up a book will have the same experience with it. I recognize that at least part of the reason the book resonated so deeply with me was simply timing.
If I were 18, would I have been as moved? It’s doubtful I would have even picked it up. If I were 70? I probably would have thought the truths it revealed were too obvious, that the author was selfish and slow to come to his senses.
But I’m where I am now, and at 39, the beautiful prose seemed poetic and piercing, even though in real life the man he described himself to be at the onset—with his bad attitude and guilt and various issues—was definitely not someone I would have chosen to befriend. Last week when I read it, it vibrated my conscience so it actually ached as it stretched and expanded once the words shook it loose from where it had been buried beneath many layers of everyday filler.
When I read the fine print at the beginning of the memoir, I wasn’t surprised to see “Certain names and identifying characteristics have been changed,” but the rest of the disclaimer jarred my sense of truth. The legalese continued, “and certain characters and events have been compressed or reordered.”
At first I was offended. Timing is everything, we say. Can it be truth, can we call it accurate and authentic and real, if it’s reordered?
But then I remembered having some experience with this concept.
By stamping “objects in mirror may be closer than they appear,” automakers have deemed us worthy to judge for ourselves whether we can squeeze a thousand pounds of metal and plastic into an opening while other vehicles are trying to do the same.
Editors of “reality” shows make choices like this all the time in order to create villainous or sympathetic characters and keep us watching.
My brother called me in late July to tell me that my dad had passed away, and although I saw his name on my caller ID, he sounded like my big brother (if you accounted for the strain of emotion and exhaustion in his voice), and I knew Dad was a patient at the hospital where my brother works as a medical professional, I still said stupidly, “What? Really? Are you sure?”
Several hours after I had called my dad’s siblings to tell them the news, I received a text stating that my dad had had a good appetite and seemed stronger today.
I knew it had been sent by my aunt around lunch time. Stupid technology delays.
Obviously, that text didn’t change the facts just because I received it out of order.
There’s a lot of pressure in writing to maintain believability, to create a degree of realism so that readers can willingly suspend belief and enter the world of the fictitious. But perhaps changing the order of events is warranted in memoir, as we must balance that with the need to create a smooth story arc, display redemption in our characters.
Even if an event is not in its original context, it doesn’t make it any less real. Timing doesn’t always work the way it should. It’s up to us to make meaning of what is, regardless of how it’s presented to us.
I think it’s really beautiful.
We desperately need the moisture.
I know it’s winter.
I didn’t do an official tally; however, I know I heard each of these statements numerous times with the huge caveat of “but” before some statement that explained why the person disliked the snow. True, it’s slippery and inconvenient, and sometimes it’s hard to shovel out, and you may even slip and fall. No one likes the depressing specter of the dirty gray snow after the excitement of the storm has passed, yet it just is.
My perspective may stem from growing up in Wyoming, where it’s not uncommon to have wild fluctuations in weather. I remember Christmas breaks with very little snow, attempting to sled on a scant 3 inches only to have it turn to mud in the bright sunshine before we’d made half a dozen runs down the hill. (Not that it stopped us; it was just much messier.) On the other hand, I also vaguely remember a winter when the fierce wind drifted the snow high enough that we went sledding off the rooftop next door. During my senior year, the excitement of prom was blanketed by a snowstorm; I went to my graduation in a sleeveless dress, but by the time the after-parties were all supposed to start, visibility and the roads were both terrible due to blowing, wet snow.
Although this is our first winter in Kansas, we felt as if we knew what to expect: 3-5 inches would send everyone who was unfamiliar with the concept of clearing or driving in snow into a tizzy, and we would shrug and go about our business. Apparently though, naming something gives it power, as we were slammed with both Storms Q and Rocky.
So after the first 14+ inches, I located our snow pants and heavy gloves, and my husband and I tag-teamed the white stuff on our driveway and walkways with the 4-wheeler/plow and snow blower (I’m sure you can guess which one I was stuck with). Our neighbors had noted we would never need these two pieces of equipment when we moved in during the summer, though they didn’t outright laugh in our faces.
I was almost finished, and my husband decided to take the plow over to help the guy struggling with a shovel next door. Five driveways and half of the subdivision later, he returned. He’d cleared the way; life could move on, provided the city plowed the major streets. Although he likes helping people, the grin on his red face made it obvious he viewed what he had just done as simply playing with his snow toys.
We repeated the process again a few days later with the next storm. We scored baked goods from various neighbors; it was sweet, but it wasn’t why we did it. The downside of living in a place with generally mild and semi-dry winters is that the impact of storms is magnified. Despite feeling good about having the tools to provide assistance and relief to our neighbors, we were already worn down, tired from the efforts of keeping up with the snow and our everyday lives. Somehow, in the space of 22 inches of snow (or so), something novel and fun had become work.
People spout platitudes about finding something you love to do so it will never feel like work. I’m not sure I agree with that. As much as I loved teaching, there were times when I hated the tedium of being a teacher, the endless meetings where nothing was accomplished (or worse, where we undid something that had been the best idea just two years ago); preparing and giving the same lessons and grading assignments was sometimes painful work, but I loved working with the students. And I understood that they were necessarily intertwined.
Is it simply beautiful? Or is it necessary and timely, but ?
It’s always going to be there, that qualifier that keeps us from truly enjoying something fully.
I believe we can choose—some days will obviously require more effort, a conscious choice—which part of it we emphasize.
Maybe it’s all about which side of the “but” you land on.
1. As you've no doubt noticed, my website design has changed. (Not radically; I was just ready for some new pictures, a different background. Some of the other pages are in desperate need of an update, coming soon.) What do you think of the changes? Drop me an email or tweet me if you have feedback.
2. I recently landed a full-time job. It’s insanely perfect for me. As writing is something I love to do, I will still make time for it. The quest for publication will continue; it will just go back to being a part-time obsession. But…I’ll keep blogging about it.
I have an obsession with words, so it’s not unusual that I searched the dictionary for the actual meaning of the term cruise. It means, among other things, “to travel about without a particular purpose or destination; to fly, drive, or sail at a constant speed that permits maximum operating efficiency for sustained travel.”
How perfect. My childhood best friend AJ and I lived for cruising Main when we were teenagers.
Unfortunately, when I read further into the informal section, I found this gem: “to move slowly through or visit (a street, park, bar, etc.) in search of a sexual partner; to make sexual overtures to; attempt to arouse the sexual interest of.”
Umm, not so much.
When I visited AJ’s town before we could drive, she and I walked on Main Street, waving and meeting new people. (It’s not as pathetic as it seems; we actually had a lot of fun.) The only down side was the amount of time it took to get from one end of Main Street back to her house. I remember one summer night when we were at almost the farthest possible point of the route and it began to rain. At first we squealed as our clothes absorbed the first drops. Despite the fact that it was a warm rain, we felt chilled as we moved from dry to damp and quickly advanced to sopping wet.
Somehow, we ended up flinging mud from the new puddles at one another. At first it was shocking, perhaps something close to an argument, but before long we were laughing until we could barely suck in enough air to breathe. We were actually startled when someone stopped and spoke to us, interrupting our time together. Despite the fact that we were on Main Street, it felt private, like the times we whispered secrets to one another after dark at sleep-overs as we were growing up. We blinked at the offer of a ride; a few minutes before we would have appreciated it, but now we looked at one another, grinned, declined.
Once she had a car, we blasted cassettes like the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing (yes, I realize that dates me, but I guess that’s kind of the point), using sips from our bottles of sarsaparilla to wet our throats gone raw from singing so loud. We still waved and met new people, but generally, it was our time to be together since we didn’t see each other often enough.
As an adult, I don’t dislike driving long distances, probably because it means I’m going somewhere fun, or at the very least, my husband and I use the time to talk and dream aloud. Driving around town, weaving onto Main Street for errands and such seems torturous to me.
But when you’re young? That cruising is essential, first and foremost, because it seems like so much fun at the time; we didn’t really need a reason beyond that.
My husband tells a story of his Highway 100 cruising days, where it was all about jockeying for position and then racing someone to the next stoplight. He had a bittersweet realization one night while pulled over by a squad car. He learned that by constantly moving down the road and focusing on trying to one-up the others around him, the girls walking alongside the road were only able to wave. He had to stop long enough for them to be able to get in the car.
Cruising is a traditional rite of passage that happens in some variation in almost all areas of the country. Main Street might be a straight-away used for drag racing between stop lights, or cruising might be a combination of oil soaked and gravel roads with the only light coming from the headlights, the moon and stars. On a recent visit to my hometown, I learned that one of the newest means of meandering around town is apparently eco, or at least wallet, conscious. My cousin’s kids plan routes to take advantage of the decline on one road coupled with the lack of stop sign on the next to avoid using too much gas. It sounded odd to me at first, but then I thought how much a gallon of gas cost 25 years ago, when I cruised those same streets, as opposed to today.
Perhaps the reason we eventually give up cruising is we figure out how to approach our adult lives: do we focus on being first to the next light or stop to get to know people during the ride? Do we wind our way through the oil field gawking at nature or stick to the town roads and go slow to save some cash? Do we choose to laugh and enjoy the unexpected moment or take the quickest route home?
I guess I’m not sure. Maybe I should cruise down to pick up AJ, and we can talk about it, if we can hear each other over the music.
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At first, I just noticed an inordinate number of band T-shirts: everything from Styx to Poison to AC/DC. I smiled at the memories. As we went deeper, it changed.
Several young girls had finagled their hair into side ponies, each with one shoulder bared by their shirts artfully torn to be wider at the neck.
Neon colors, particularly pink, popped everywhere, even on the men. Lace gloves clutched cups and cans. Doubled-up polo shirts, both collars pulled skyward, were tucked into Levis rolled and tucked (aka “pegged”) at the ankle. Shoulder pads, acid-washed jeans and jean jackets, over-sized shirts and sweaters cinched in at the waist with wide belts were the predominant features.
And the hair, in general, was huge. One blonde woman had honest-to-goodness crimped hair.
No, I wasn’t looking through my high school yearbook. This flashback was real; I could smell the Aqua-net from the bathroom.
Last month I attended a concert celebrating the hairspray years of rock music through a unique tribute band; the lead singers (I think we counted 3) of Hairball actually dressed up as the front men for about 20 different bands from the era. They were completely convincing in both their looks and mannerisms and pretty close in their vocal renditions, which made the show somewhat surreal. It was fun to listen to (okay, dance and sing along with) them, but the experience felt bigger. Somehow, with the majority of the people there dressing the part, the entire attitude of the place was transformed into something I only dimly remember. It wasn’t just people around my age enjoying a show of music they remembered; they were there, with their children and parents, to embrace the past they loved by embodying it.
Briefly, I wished I would have thought to dress the part—I still have my concert T-shirts from that time—but in the next instant I had to admit that cloaking myself in bygone garb would not appeal to me no matter how many people were doing it. The first time those outfits were popular, I was paralyzed by crushing uncertainty, so why would I want to put myself through that again?
I distinctly remember a few points from the late 80s and early 90s that illustrate my confidence crisis.
I tried out to be a cheerleader the summer before my freshman year. I’d practiced the group dance incessantly and was sure I’d nailed its choreography, but the individual cheer loomed. My cousin, who was a senior cheerleader going into the next year, had given me a few unique moves, and I felt fine when she let me practice it for her in her room. Once I started, I could hardly hear myself over the blood rushing in my ears. Somehow I got through it, but instead of walking on my wobbly legs back to my spot, faking a smile for the judges, I sprinted off the floor; I had to get away from people staring at me! (Do I even need to say I didn’t make the team?)
At a leadership conference when I was a sophomore, each group had to lead a cheer involving the entire hotel ballroom, and to be different, our group hopped up on stage. For that one moment, I conquered my fear of being in the spotlight, of deliberately drawing attention to myself to be judged…and then when we jumped off the platform, I promptly fell to my knees, splitting my tight, pegged pants at the knee. (How could they not rip? There was absolutely zero give left in the fabric.)
I spoke at my high school graduation, but from what I gather, it was likely more of a race than a speech. At one point I looked up at the audience and honestly couldn’t remember if I had said anything yet. I assumed I must have, since I was halfway through, according to the numbers on the note cards.
Yes, as a teen I enjoyed the music, even the sweaty press and smashed feet from being “on the floor,” pushing to be right in front of the stage at one of the big arena shows. But for me, that era wasn’t the magical time it was for most of the people who attended the concert. There were certainly things I was good at, but most of them involved me hiding within a group, or at least behind a book or an instrument.
Fast forward 7 years, and I was content in front of a class of high schoolers, talking about grammar or the finer points of a given piece of literature or public speaking as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Tack on another few years, and I presented academic papers at state-wide conventions, addressed audiences at funerals through my own emotions, defended my Master’s thesis to a panel of scholars so far beyond my level I only understood some of their comments later, when I had a chance to look up a few terms.
So maybe I'll never sport a half-shirt and mall bangs again. (You’re welcome.)
Looking back is more than just giggling and poking one another; it’s about celebrating how far we’ve come. And it’s also about realizing how cyclical life can be.
I need to remember, as I scrape and dig to make my newest niche fit me, there are bound to be some dark times. But as anyone from the age of aerosol hairspray remembers, it just takes a little spark to light it up.
When we’re put on the stand in court, we promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. (Of course, never having been to an actual court, I’m relying on movies for that nugget of verisimilitude.)
In our everyday lives, we have half a million vocal tags that assert we’re telling the truth—literally, totally, completely, honestly—and nearly as many to confirm we are getting the truth from others. Really? Right? Seriously?
Those of you who have been following my blog since I began it last September know I was given the gift of a whole year off to write without working for money. I innocently assumed that would be enough, and I dove in, heady with euphoric literary fervor. At some point, I bemoaned my lack of success and discovery to my husband, who responded with his typical, sensible, “Are you doing everything you can?”
I started to answer yes automatically, but then I thought about it. There had been a few days where Spider Solitaire beckoned more than writing, a few more when research far surpassed the time and depth it legitimately required, thus degenerating into merely reading fun new information. And a few where a nap stretched longer than I intended, several deadlines for submissions I’d allowed to pass, justifying that I had several out already.
So, was telling myself the whole truth and nothing but? Nope. I had not, in fact, tried everything I could.
We condemn others for lying to us, but when we fail at something, we shrug and talk about how we “tried our best.”
Early in childhood, we are trained to justify not succeeding at a goal; we’re told it’s acceptable to fail at something, as long as we tried our best.
Now, I’m not advocating that we start maligning every child or adult who falls short on a goal, and I’m not naïve enough to believe that competition doesn’t require both winners and losers, but I do have to wonder if this excuse is even remotely valid once we’ve learned to lie to ourselves.
Consider these gems: I can quit any time I want. I believe in everything in moderation. I deserve it because this-that-or-the-other-thing.
Excessive rationalization is probably the most dangerous lie, and we do it to ourselves. If someone else continued to deceive us the way we lie to ourselves, we’d be incensed, shut them out of our lives, seek revenge and retribution.
So why do we do it?
I wish I knew, but I can only guess. Fear, perhaps? What if we really did go all out, leave nothing in reserve, submit ourselves to the task or goal completely and still failed?
Certainly, that could happen, especially in a subjective area, and because sometimes, other people are just better.
Yikes. Even that little kernel of truth stings, doesn’t it? It’s difficult to handle the ugliness of that truth. Which is probably why we continue to deceive ourselves.
Regardless, the next time I start to justify something by wailing that I tried my best, I need to hit the pause button. Did I actually, truly?
If the answer is yes, then I have to come to terms with my failure, which will be hard enough, but if it’s a lie? Well, then I guess I have something even bigger to try to swallow.
I know it’s not going to be easy. But I’d really, really like to prove Jack Nicholson wrong.
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Light and dark: there’s no purer juxtaposition.
About 4 days ago, I suddenly noticed the amount of light had increased dramatically, and it made me happy almost beyond reason. (I mean, I know it happens every year, but this year I was particularly struck by how I mourned the dark time of the year, craving the light.)
Intellectually, I know there is a whole other population going about its business while I should be sleeping. My brother and some of my friends are 3rd-shift workers, so I get it, and I have actually experienced it, but since I was grumpy with insomnia, I don’t give much credence to my opinion of how normal life on the other side of the clock works. For some reason, though, the change in the time of darkness got me thinking about the rules we impose on ourselves for things we do in the dark and the light.
Having an alcoholic drink? That’s generally a dark-time activity. (Otherwise, where did the 5:00 rule come from?) Yes, I’ve indulged in a Bloody Mary on a weekend morn, but in general, unless you work 3rd shift, you’re going to get some looks if you stop into a bar before lunchtime.
Hanging out on a beach? Definitely light-time. Some private ones close at night, and the majority of night-time beach activities are meant to be covert.
Despite our rules for light and dark, or perhaps because of them, there are cultural exceptions. The songs “Afternoon Delight” and “Fishing in the Dark” evoke celebrations that occur when we push the limitations we’ve placed on ourselves.
And when we extend that meaning—as I always do—people still have distinct preferences.
I’ve known people who sit for years on a quiet knowledge that something is absolutely wrong with their body, refusing to go a doctor. They don’t want to have their worst fears confirmed. For them, it’s preferable to stay in the dark than sit and look at a medical scan light up with colors shading the densities of a tumor.
As I’ve said, I’m a girl who craves the light, in all cases. There is nothing darker than no hope, so I listen to my body carefully, and if I suspect something is wrong, I go seek answers right away. Dark stories—in fiction and in real life—still need a glimmer of light, of hope, to be satisfying. It’s the contrast that makes us appreciate the opposing side. The light, for me, comes in knowing for sure, in making a plan. Because I’ve lived through the dark more than a few times, it’s hard for me to comprehend another way of dealing with situations.
I suppose it is natural for people to fantasize about whatever they like the best—all hot, sunny weather or all snow, all light or all dark, all mashed potatoes or pizza every day for every meal, but a literal all-or-nothing reality would be completely unsatisfying.
I’ve come to realize that when there are seemingly two choices, there are always more options. Even in the squishy twilight times of dusk and dawn, we need one to see the other. The between times are comforting for some, but I find the quality of the light horribly frustrating. Yes, the time between day and night is beautiful when the sun splashes indescribable shades across the sky as it rises and sets, but have you ever tried driving in that twilight time? It’s brutal on the eyes, where harmless shadows and legitimate hazards mix dangerously.
And so, knowing that I am an optimist and a sunshine fanatic, it’s humbling to realize that to survive, to get where I need to go, I must accept the contrasts. I can’t muddle along in the middle, blindingly endangering everyone around me, and I can’t possibly perceive or appreciate the light without the dark.
When I was learning to drive on my parents' 1982 3/4-ton extended cab pickup,
it wasn't the clutch or the camper shell or even the size that created the
biggest challenge. It wasn't the landscape: dirt roads winding through the oil
field that were treated with frequent showers of oil to keep the dust down. And
the rickety, one-way bridge where people flicked their lights to let the person
on the other side know that they should go ahead was something I had known since
we moved to Wyoming, so it actually phased me less in a vehicle than trying to
negotiate the cracks in the wood planks with my 10-speed bike tires.
The hardest part of learning to drive was mastering some of the maneuvers my
dad thought were essential for me to be a good driver.
I remember practicing my driving one particular damp evening on those oil
field roads. After several minutes, Dad told me to stop, but he didn’t want me
to pull over. “Now, you see the tracks you made in the road?”
I craned my neck, turning to see through the dirty camper window, eventually
indicating, “I think so.”
“Now back up, and stay in those tracks,” he instructed me. I started to turn
around, arm on the seat back, and he stopped me. Apparently, I was supposed to
use my mirrors. Uh-oh. This was going to be harder than I thought.
I took a deep breath and started, but then jumped when Dad flipped the rear
view mirror down so I couldn’t use it either. “Don’t use that one. What if you
can’t see anything there? What if the shell was packed full? You can’t rely on
your rear view.”
I was 15, and I was frustrated. I just didn’t understand how I was supposed
to back up without turning in my seat or without my rear view mirror.
Technically, I understood that there were two other mirrors, but it was so hard
to see my tracks that way, and I kept turning my wheel the wrong way.
This week, I spent some time back in Wyoming with my family, and I was
treated to my first ride over the new bridge. Thirty years after we moved to
Wyoming, the county has finally replaced the one-way bridge. It now has two
lanes, and as nice as it is, it’s difficult to make yourself drive on “your
side” after all those years of taking up the middle, and everyone I talk to
still finds themselves wanting to sop when they see a car coming from the other
direction. Habits can be hard to break.
While we were at home, my brother and I also had a chance to reflect when my
mom produced a box of our elementary school “treasures.”
By looking at my old report cards, I learned that it was apparently in
5th grade when my math skills stalled out; that’s when I stopped progressing at a rate even remotely comparably to my classmates. By looking at homemade cards, I learned two things: I was apparently obsessed with glitter, and I was a terrible, literal poet.
But I also learned that I have always been a writer.
In a card dated September 27, 1995, I proclaimed, “I started my book.” Even
though I was only in 6th grade, the language is telling. I didn’t begin to write “a book,” as if it was a whim. “My book” implies it was something larger, almost a given.
As my Dad pointed out so long ago, sometimes the rear view can actually be
unreliable; you may not be able to use it because of all the stuff packed in
behind you. He knew that habits can be hard to break, so he wanted to me to have
multiple tools to maneuver myself wherever I needed to go.
But in returning home, I was reminded that the rear view mirror can remind
us of where we’ve been, and it can help us to return to a point we’ve passed.
But you’ll never know, unless you risk the glance in that mirror.