In the new year we reflect on our goals. It’s a time when we consider what we might set in motion, complete, or resurrect as writers. It’s time when I am reminded of a simple word that feels all-powerful: begin.
Now is the time to hone your practice and find your seat at the table, writing desk, or couch. Work with me to reach your writing goals this year. I’m offering weekly and bi-monthly coaching sessions for writers looking to launch their work in this new season.
Drop me an email if you’re interested in discussing possibilities. I currently have space for new clients: email@example.com.
I’ve been working on getting “The Essay Exhibits” ready to hang at the Orwell Free Library and I think all the pieces will finally be up later today. On Wednesday, October 16th at 7PM I will be reading from Made Holy, answering questions about the book, and signing and selling books! I hope you can join me. Bring cash or checks to buy a book.
Thursday night, I met three amazing writers while reading for the New England Review Vermont Reading series at the Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury. Check out Sarah Wolfson’s beautiful book of poetry A Common Name For Everything published by the Green Writers Press and Sara London’s book Upkeep. You can also hear the work of NER Summer Intern, Middlebury College student, and writer, Rahat Huda by listening to episode 7 of the NER Out loud podcast which she worked on. It was a privilege to read with them.
Promoting Made Holy has at times felt overwhelming. But when I read the essays that speak to the current social issues we are facing right here in Vermont and across the nation I feel empowered and carried by something bigger than me. I am grateful to be of service in this way and to have a voice and a platform to talk about addiction issues.
As the season changes, I feel the familiar pull of the inner world, the longing to retreat, to hunker down and hole up. It’s a good feeling mostly. But this season is rife with fears of melancholy and depression for me. And while I have a number of ways to cope, I feel the beast of it in every corner. Of disease I make myth because in my culture we are barren of stories, guides, healers who move beyond the medical models instilled by psychiatry and western medicine–both entrenched in the masculine model (patriarchy and capitalism) of the industrial complex. And so, this black dog or angry beast or shadow self grows.
In my groups, many people offer up suggestions on how to cope with depression: Light box, eating less (for real), exercise and fresh air, meditation, and one man whom I admire said it was soul work. Depression arrives to call us back to ourselves and to remind us that we have healing and a healer within. I am skeptical but also the places that bear light for me are often spiritual and internal as well as of genuine connection with others.
Mostly I believe that depression is a social disease that comes from the despair of trying to live in a society that stifles human creativity and devalues human life. This morning, over breakfast at a friends, she discussed the ways dividing ourselves into liberal and conservative create a divide that can often shut down communication between members of a community such as those in Orwell. Our response to people we don’t agree with lays out the way we will treat them–the standard for treatment. This is hard when we feel under threat, attacked, and like our human rights are at stake. It doesn’t feel like there is room for this level of compassion. But there is.
The deepest wound of capitalism is our loneliness and our lack of connection to each other. We too often do not see ourselves in our neighbors. This beautiful essay “A Letter to my Children: Historical Memory and the Silences of Childhood,” written by Timothy J. Stanley, discusses this loneliness along with the “drearily mundane reality of ordinary people doing evil things”.
Stanley quotes the great philosopher Hannah Arendt and her understanding of loneliness, which she discusses in relation to Nazism: She argues that loneliness violates human beings’ contact with others, and undermines common sense “which regulates and controls all other senses and without which each of us would become enclosed in his (sic) own particularity of sense data which in themselves are unreliable and treacherous..”
He goes on to discuss how mass culture fosters loneliness and encourages us to replace others with whom we engage with Others we fear. “[Mass culture] replaces others with whom we are connected with Others whom we fear. It encourages the folly of abandoning the public sphere for the dubious safety of private fortresses”. We become consumers rather than producers of a shared culture.
How do we rebel? Here in Orwell I have met quite a few rebels and they are mostly farmers (hill people) and folks who want to create a different way of life. They understand that as long as we participate in the system of exploitation commonly known as the forty hour work week, we cannot heal, connect, or deeply engage in our world. As long as we maintain our to do lists above all else, we will never find time to lay and the grass and watch a chubby caterpillar or the clouds, bring food to a neighbor or spend a day in deep connection with loved ones because we are saddled to our lists, our work, our finances, our debt and not to each other.
It’s not black and white. It’s always gray. But I want more breathing room. Less drudgery. More connection. Less isolation. More spiritual journey. Less careering.
Above all else I want to be in service to this world and the people here. What can I offer today? A cup of tea, a conversation, these words, a hand? I know there are layers of privilege here. People can’t walk away from their jobs, they have mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay and so on. But most of us can argue for a different world simply by choosing different priorities. Taking time to consider what we value and how we serve each other. Yes, serve.
Ask yourself, How can I be of service today? See what happens.
The Essay Exhibits is up! Here’s a peek.
I’m so excited about this show and I hope you can all catch it at one of the libraries this year. Here’s the exhibit schedule.
For those of you who live in the Burlington area, I hope you will join me THIS FRIDAY EVENING from 6PM – 8PM at BCA (the Firehouse Gallery) upstairs for a reading, book signing, and celebration of Made Holy.
The best part about publishing this book is that so many of my friends and family have reached out to me with their own stories and emotions about loss, longing, sorrow, grace, and love. They’ve said, in various ways, I’ve felt that too. I realize that in sharing my most vulnerable self, I am giving others permission to share theirs, and that is a level of healing I never realized was possible.
I always thought I’d write an esoteric book of abstract poetry, fragmented essays, or academic gobbledygook. But Made Holy is exactly the opposite. As this book makes its small way in the world, I am heartened by how much love we all really possess and how much we want to connect with each other in these deeply vulnerable ways. We long to share our true selves and to not worry about the judgement of others. We long to let go of our fears and the shame we’ve been made to feel about who we are. My hope is that we will keep working on this and that we will speak our truths with courage to each other, and listen with courage, compassion, and acceptance to each other.
Here is what my sister Alida wrote about the book:
We are ever-flawed beings~ but ever meant to love and be loved, to be made holy not by learning perfection but by stepping into grace, learning forgiveness, and accepting every part of ourselves. It is incredible to me how raw the feeling of loss can be, so many years later, when that mourning is given shape in these beautifully written words. It is an unabashed desire to be truthful, to share through a most personal experience the parts of life & humanity that are common to us all, that takes me deep into these pages.
P. S. Still need a copy of Made Holy? You can order one from the publisher (buy two and shipping is free) or on Amazon.
Tonight at 8pm CST (9pm in Vermont), my sister Alida and I will be discussing my book, Made Holy, in Chisholm, MN –my hometown! We plan to go live downtown in the Pocket Park.
I want to have an opportunity to talk about the process of writing this book & why I wrote it.
I never thought I would write a nonfiction book about my life. I have always been a private person, secretive even. So crafting essays about some of the most intimate parts of my life would have seemed like a nightmare to my twenty-something self.
Yet, everything changed in my life around the age of 28. And slowly over the years these essays came to me in the dark hours between feeding my babies, in the early morning light of winter over cold cups of coffee, and at the edge of sleep. Writing is a solitary endeavor one toils over, drafting and redrafting, crafting and cutting apart, refining and redoing. Nobody becomes a writer casually or on accident. It has taken me years to perfect sentences, develop my craft, harness the stories that flew like kites at the edge of my dreams. They always presented like siren calls from somewhere deep within that also felt far away, and every time I built the ship that would sail them, it took months and years. I know, it sounds crazy, but that is writing and the deepest joy comes out of writing well and giving the gift of one’s labor to the world–a tiny boat in a massive sea that sails into oblivion.
Mid-summer and I am dreaming of bees. My husband, dream midwife, has given me seven days to ride a horse in my dreams, but I sleep late and wake and forget as my youngest nudges me up, Come, play. In the field adjacent to the house, a hidden stream between us, my husband and oldest son are tending the plants. Music winds its way to me from the little speaker they have brought. I lift my hand to them.
Rural Vermont feels like the shire, my husband says. It blooms full towards autumn ripeness. I prefer fairy lands and secret hovels and hidden cabins in the woods. I prefer bodies of water, long fields, a distance when looking.
I drink coffee and I think of bees. Erotic buzzing, multitudes, queen-ruled, a song like lips making a sound the ear only feels. I walk in the grass barefoot and do no work. I cut wild flowers and place them in a clear glass vase. My husband leaves for work. The two boys have a tea party with mint licorice tea, round crackers, stuffed animals. They hum and bicker and love. They grow hungry, thirsty, tired.
My husband dreamed of a golden horse dancing in the field outside this house the night before our first son was born. We did not live here. His grandfather did at that time. Cavallo means horse in Italian, which is something they also eat in Italy. It is one of our first son’s names, for his grandmother’s line–Italians and for the horse in the field where her mother once lived, June. I knew that he would be irrevocably mine, but I tethered him to Nana in this small way, like a spell. Eventually this magic worked and he dotes on her as she does him.
He was born under the sign of my mother, Aquarius. Like her he is thin, red-haired, original. Moses, is his first name. A name that came to me like a storm that never lifted. No, not Mo or Mose, I would say to my husband. It must be Moses. After he was born and grew, I wondered over the name. Why it possessed me. Why I insisted he carry such a mantle all his life. Mo, I say. Mo, like a quiet place one might find respite.
On and on they go, the two of them creating worlds. For a moment, I listen. They are fetching a pen for “research.” They lose interest. “Want to have a battle?” one asks. “No, I’m doing research,” says the other. “After my research,” he repeats, the word a charm on his tongue. He has no idea what it means, he is only four. Something to do with a pen and paper. I think about what I would like to research: bees, linens, islands, furniture carved of wood, large beds with fluffy pillows, tea that clears the mind.
We leave in two days to travel halfway across the country. To land in the bay of loons. To romp and rollick and read. Sun, water, wave. Tree, bird, stone. Wind. Summer, in the life of teachers: its soft and balmy breeze, its blanket of sun each morning, its long evening flush with fireflies, a scrap of moon above the treetops. The late fire around which we speak of things we would not, by any other light, admit.
I laze and consider the quickness of flies, how I would move if I moved like an ant, what I will make the children for lunch. I do not think of the third child I want. I do not think of the fortune teller’s words. Two children, she said. Perhaps a third, but they might not make it through. I was twenty-something then. Now this phantom child haunts me. I try to call her name: Ruth, June, Jude, Camilla, Matilda, Matisse, Elouise. I imagine if I find her name and sing it out to her she will come. Yes, she. But dare I taunt the gods.
I think of a line of poetry I once wrote: Bee, bee, bee. Once, you called the bee from me.
I make lists. Gratitude. To do. To pack. I make calls. I feed the children. They go on creating worlds–houses made of pillows, chairs in a line become a path to keep their feet from hot lava. Cars, podcasts, horses. Dragons. Stones. Scrap of blanket balled up and smelling of the blackberries they picked from the yard.
We moved to this house two years ago and have been slow to make it our own as we do not own the house. This spring I dug up the grass and planted a garden. My husband began farming the field. I made a rock garden and planted flowers. We cristened a fire pit in the early spring air. Each season here like a thickening emotion, a scent I call forth in my mind–always, the way it feels occupies me most.
Though I have avoided this out of a sense of fear and anxiety, my first book will come into the world this September. Its birth, a long coil of labor, a fierce abandon-ing of allegiances for truth, a hope of another world, a whisper at my ear–this is what birth feels like, which is what Peggy, my midwife whispered to me during the birth of my second son. The first had been born by C-section. I am the kind of person who needs a midwife at my ear whispering these words all the day long–this is what it feels like. This life.
Now the bee and the horse and the children still wrapped in their games. Now the turn of the day, the leaving, the work, the labor, the speaking and planning and doing. Now the sun hot in the sky and the field, a green expanse. Now the laundry, the dishes, the organizing, the pitch and purchase of the day.
Summer arrives in the North like a dream. Exuberant, joyous, freeing. One thing I love about my summer is watching my sons run wild. Bedtime is extended, the outdoors becomes a roving playground, and I see their swift transformation into wilder versions of themselves. They find a freedom in the unscheduled hours we occupy. Planned activities feel more exciting after hours of fluttering time that spreads like a quilt of wind over days.
They also fight and bicker and meltdown. But that’s to be expected. I try my best to stay hands off and to avoid nagging and scolding and demanding they clean up. Right now they are wrestling on the futon in the living room with a bunch of pillows. I hear screaming, laughter, shouts, demands, giggles. All of it necessary. All of it good.
Since school got out last week, I’ve struggled to get back to my writing practice. It’s difficult to focus with them here and my husband is currently away for a training. I have come to see my writing practice like a meditation practice. I listen to Tara Brach – meditation teacher, Buddhist – talks often and much of what she says about meditation, applies to writing. I’m also a big fan (as you all know) of Brene Brown‘s work and highly recommend her current Netflix special. Taking from their work and my observations, I’ve come up with some principles for summer writing practices.
Make a goal and track it. I think this is essential. Write down what you plan to do and then write down what you do. It really helps if you work with a buddy on this and either start a shared google doc to set goals and track actuals OR text each other. You can either track words or time. Think about how many days a week you want to write, how much time, and whether or not the word count matters to you. If, for example, you’re a poet or you’re editing, word count isn’t a helpful measure.
Develop your writing boundaries. What are boundaries? People talk about them all the time but I don’t know that we all understand them. Brene Brown highlights how in order to be vulnerable we need to feel secure in our boundaries because then we know that we are taking care of ourselves and we won’t let anyone take advantage of us–we need to develop self-trust. So, create your writing boundaries. Mainly this is about carving out space and time on a regular basis that is all yours. Your own space. Your own time so that you can write. You have to keep it sacred. I find that when I leave my work for too long, I lose it. My characters hide, the story falls apart, and I feel scared of going back to it. This is why we have to stay in practice. If you do stop or take a break. You simply return to the work and begin again. No drama. No story. No judgement.
Be free. Like my children, open time and open space creates new energy and new ways of thinking. Nurturing our writing can be the same. We are looking for our voice or we are developing it. We are trying to find a way to articulate the parts of life that feel wholly voiceless and without words or taboo and shameful or too sentimental and precious. Go into the woods or the museum with a paper and pen, sketch pictures or images that have to do with your work, dig in the garden, swim in the ocean. Do nothing for a day. Find ways to break up your routine and breathe new life in to your work.
Fail. Failure is essential. Brene Brown talks about the essentiality of failing. If you’re going to be innovative, creative, and successful, you’re going to fail. Let yourself fail big time. Stretch yourself out. You will fail to keep your schedule, you will fail to hit your word count, you will fail to finish that story, you will abandon your novel. What matters is that you keep going. That’s all. Head down, keep writing. Don’t listen to the critics in your life, especially the one on your shoulder.
Risk everything. If you want to connect with your readers, if you want to be a good writer, you must take risks. In my first graduate writing workshop, one of my instructors, Clint McCown, gave us two pieces of great advice. First, whenever your character cries on the page you miss an opportunity for your reader to cry. But more importantly, because my characters never cry, he said, good writing risks sentimentality, it drives write up to that cliff but never falls off (well, it does, but that’s a fail). In writing, we expose ourselves either by writing about our own lives in intimate ways or creating characters that expose our greatest hopes and fears. You know the feeling you get when you’re onto something. That feeling comes from pushing up to the edge of an idea, a character, a feeling, a longing and laying it bare like an offering before your reader.
It’s that time of year. Time for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference and this year it’s in Portland, Oregon. Come see me talk about writing and find out what the game Neon Daycare, which I played with my sisters and cousins as a young girl, has to do with writing.
S228. The Landscape of Memory: Writing Places That Don’t Exist. (Kelly McMasters, Miranda Weiss, Emily Casey, Jericho Parms) While setting is often seen as the purview of fiction writers, place has become its own sub-genre in the creative nonfiction community. Whether tracking breaking stories in situ or casting generations into the past, the writer’s job is often to create the landscape of memory out of the ether. How, aside from Proust’s madeleine, can we gain access to places to which we no longer have access, and landscapes that are essentially make-believe? How do writers render a remembered landscape real?
Last fall I fell into a clinical depression. Partly, I suspected, it had to do with an abrupt change in my running activity–from training for races to a few short runs a week–and perhaps the change of seasons. In Vermont, the darkness can be crippling. Days are cut off around 4pm in November and the lack of sunlight imposes a sense of doom for some. I suspect others cozy up to the wood stove and find solace in that same darkness. But I found myself frozen in a state of grief and fear that I hadn’t felt in years.
Poet Jenny Xie writes in “On Melancholia” of Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholia. Here are her words:
In “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), Freud traces the distinction between the psychological state of mourning, a normal response to loss that is finite, and melancholia, a pathological mourning whose labor is endless. Whereas in mourning, the object of loss is clear and can be released by the mourner with time, in melancholia, what has been lost can remain hidden and becomes internalized—”devoured” by the ego, as Freud writes. The ego absorbs the lost object and feeds on it interminably.
I read Freud as literature as I suspect Xie does as well. I like the idea of thinking of depression as a lost object. Something we’ve misplaced without realizing it. Devoured by the ego, we can’t stop mourning–the labor is endless. In many ways I see my own bouts of depression as moments when I have lost access to my life. By which I mean, I’ve lost touch with the life I want to lead; I have become estranged from myself.
I imagine my estranged self wandering along a forest path, through a city street, stopping for coffee… Romantic, yes. But this is not at all the way depression feels. Depression is a feeling akin to drowning that I imagine would mirror the experience of falling through ice with all your winter clothes on and not being able to get out. You try to kick off the boots but they’re stuck on; you try to climb out, but the ice breaks; you call for help, but no one’s there–or at least that is the way the mind imagines it. The mind imagines a life or death situation.
Even when I’m not in the throws of depression (which is normally) in my mind the voice of doubt is strong. I have talked to her for years and have learned to talk her down as well as to simply detach and observe the workings of the mind. Thoughts are not reality. Repeat after me: thoughts are not reality.
Tara Brach, meditation teacher, writer, and speaker, has noted that the ego doesn’t like it’s own training and thus turns on itself. I would equate this notion with her (and the Buddhist) notion of the second arrow. The first arrow is the harm done and the second arrow is the voice that scolds: how did you let this happen, you’re bad, worthless, etc. Thus, the voice of the second arrow is always telling me that I’m failing (it is also the more harmful arrow, the poisonous one, if you will). As in this morning when my four year old was having an epic tantrum and I held him down to brush his teeth before school–fail! I thought, what have we done? We are awful parents, bad bad bad. But my own training popped up (luckily) and said, it’s just a bad day, it’s temporary, he won’t be four forever, he’ll learn to brush his own teeth.
Failure is relative. You decide. You can change your thoughts, I’ve learned. Yet our sense of not being enough (doing, having enough) is a powerful part of our conditioning as human beings. We are locked into this conditioning and unless we see it for what it is we can’t get free. Even when we intellectually understand it, there are powerful triggers in our lives that catch us up again and again. But if we practice noticing and choosing different thoughts, which lead to different feelings and in turn different actions, we can overcome this.
Perhaps, as long as we are walking our path and engaged in what we love and what interests us, we mostly feel content. Do you believe that you deserve this? Do you think you have to suffer? Why? Alienation from our path (our best lives) is when depression and melancholia arise, in my experience. Often the texts go like this: What am I doing with my life?!?
Me: I’m fucked, seriously fucked!
Friend: What’s going on?
I admit to being a little dramatic.
The lost object, then, is not (of course) an object but the action of living our lives in ways that feel meaningful, purposeful, and right for us. A sense of being engaged in our right work, supported by our communities, and well-loved. A belief that we deserve to have all our needs met.
Last fall I began therapy again, which I have done off and on my entire life. I’m a huge fan, but you need to find the right person. I found someone magical, which has felt like a gift. She began by telling me that my expectations were way out of synch and that I was trying to do too much so I was crashing. My body was protesting the expectations I had forced upon myself. I thought of the previous two years, the insane amount of work I’d been doing to form and build our faculty union while revising my book, teaching, parenting, running, editing, and all the other life stuff. I let that sink in and then I said, predictably, but I’m not enough and I listed to her all the ways I was failing as a writer and grown-up person.
Her response: What if you just stop trying to do all that? What if you just write in your journal everyday and see what happens? What if you take a break? Have you ever done that?
No, I thought, I cannot take a break. I have too much to accomplish. I’ve got to start my second book and it needs to be a money-maker, I’ve got to promote my first book, I’ve got to generate shorter pieces for publication, I’ve got to get a new full-time job. Whooeee…. that sounds stressful. I told her I felt behind as a writer, publishing my first book at the tail-end of my thirties instead of my twenties. (Yes, I realize how ridiculous this idea is! But, conditioning!)
What if you aren’t that kind of writer?
What kind? I ask.
The rich and famous kind.
Well, that’s obvious.
We laugh. Then she says, what if your life, what you’ve been given, is the material you have to work with as a writer. What if your life is the material of your work?
I like that. I say, and think of my two children.
And so, I began to write to “X” everyday in my journal, a blue covered wireless notebook. I quit the novel I was working on. I didn’t attempt any essays. I just wrote to X. The Winter Solstice passed into the new year. Slowly I felt myself returning and in my hands a lost object emerged, small and quiet, a well-loved path.
Clinical depression often requires medication, medical attention, and other care. I do not mean to imply that we can simply think or journal our way out. Rather, I believe that depression can be rooted in our life choices and needs, triggered by responses to fear.
I want to be clear that seeking to live your “best life” and be your “best self” are somewhat privileged notions when most of the world is forced to labor in tenuous survival mode. I want to recognize this. And I believe I have a responsibility to use my privilege in service to others to help everyone access opportunities for growth and success. Some of the ways I do this is through teaching at the community college level, mentoring students, activist work, listening to and promoting the ideas (and work) of marginalized individuals/communities, teaching students how oppression functions, and donating money or time. I believe we all want to live our best lives (regardless of our socio- economic status) and there is enough for everyone.
To Read Jenny Xie’s extraordinary poem “Melancholy” click here