Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems.


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Buttressing in a Time of Plague

I stand staring into the refrigerator, frowning. It’s not a disappointed frown. There’s plenty of goodness in there: fruits, roots, veggies, greens, berries. And I enjoy them all. But they require a kind and level of strategy I’ve not needed to engage before.

It makes me impatient. Unsympathetic. And, I’m afraid, a little less gracious than I’d like.

I hear about people going stir crazy. I hear complaints about cabin fever and loneliness and boredom. I read about people protesting safety measures, risking their lives (and others’) by refusing to comply. I read laments about wanting a “return to normal” — the bustling, busy-ness that so many people complain about when they’re doing it. No time to slow down. No time to themselves. No time to do what they want to do, to pursue hobbies, to read. No time to “just be.”

And, now that they have it, they hate it.

Don’t get me wrong. I get that the complaints and laments — and especially the rebellions — are rooted in that greatest of “civilized” human religions: freedom of choice. I know that enforced anything goes against the grain, including leisure time. I understand that getting what we ask for often chafes.

I’m not completely unaffected. I, too, wonder if I’ll ever hug my parents again. Or my brother or sister and their spouses. My nephew. My niece, whose birthday is tomorrow. It’s been almost three months since I’ve been hugged. More than six weeks since I’ve so much as shaken a hand, that tiniest form of human contact. If, as research suggests, we need several hugs per day to thrive, I’m withering. If, as research also suggests, we need at least one hug a day to resist disease, well…I’d be better off, in these days of COVID-19, living in a bomb shelter on canned rations than risking my life by going grocery shopping, the only outing I’ve allowed myself, other than my daily (and necessary) walks with the dog.

But, honestly, outside of a drastic dearth of human contact, the global pandemic has had little effect on my day-to-day. I’ve lived alone for most of my adult life, and solitude is a way of being for me. Yes, I get lonely; and yes, my loneliness has increased a little since stay-at-home orders were implemented here in the rural area where I’ve chosen to live. But, by-and-large, I’m comfortable with loneliness, as well as being alone. I’m endlessly self-entertaining — to a fault, some might say — and there are always projects to do, books to read, cleaning to be done, my (11-acre) yard to explore, a dog to play with. For the first time in my 50+ years, the world is operating by introvert standards, and I fit right into the rhythm of it. For the majority of the world — the extroverted majority — the challenge is more keenly felt. I feel fortunate.

My own struggles — and the reason for my frown while staring into the fridge — are more pragmatic, more survival-based, albeit still first-world:

How will I care for my dog if I fall ill with this awful disease? Who will care for him if I need to be hospitalized — or worse? Can I rig up a long leash, in case he needs to go out, and all I can do is crawl to the door to open it?

How often and with whom do I need to check in so that someone will know if I’m in dire trouble? Who needs to have whose names and phone numbers in case of emergency? And what, really, can anyone do for me if I do get sick?

What buttressing do I need to have in place to care for myself? How often do I do laundry to ensure I have clean clothes? Do I have disposable plates and cups and flatware on hand, in the event that I’m too sick to do dishes? How often should I take my garbage to the waste center, given that I might have to go longer than a couple of weeks before driving out to dispose of it?

Do I have enough toilet paper for several weeks? (No.) Enough kleenex? (No.) Enough soap? (Yes.)

And food. What can I make now and freeze so it can just be thawed and heated if I’m unable to do anything more than that?

It all sounds overly dramatic, perhaps — especially to people who have “no one but their families” to interact with at home or neighbors they can depend upon living only yards from their doorstep. Oh, I’m sure my own neighbors would do what they could for me — because they have been more than generous already. And I’m certain there would be several people in my life — related to me and not — who would take the risk of coming to my aid, from hours away, because they care about me.

But is it fair even to ask? What kind of a burden am I prepared to be to people whose lives might be negatively impacted by their willingness to help? If it came down to it, wouldn’t it be more responsible to warn people away, refuse assistance?

Well. These aren’t things I need worry about just yet. But I do need to take steps to shore up my solitary life as best I can.

I also need to express my regrets: I apologize if I’ve been less than sympathetic when you’ve told me that being shut in with your family is driving you crazy. (You have someone to live with?) I apologize if I answer your bemoaning of having too much time on your hands with suggestions for filling it. (There are so many cool things to do!) I truly am sorry for not being more patient and kind when you say you think you’ll run mad if you can’t go out and do something you find entertaining. (Again: I’m an introvert.) What you’re feeling is real and intense and difficult to navigate. I’m not living my values when I grit my teeth and silently (or not) judge you for not seeing this time as a gift or not turning inward in meditation to find something new and wonderful about yourself or not healing some old hurt or not discovering a new hobby. (Yeah, I see what I did there. I should do better. And I will.)

And me? I have work. My bills are paid. There is sunshine. I can walk in the woods with my dog and discover what’s blooming there. I can tend to the seedlings I’ve planted in hopes of a bountiful summer. I can listen to the tree frogs and owls at night while I’m curled up with a book. I can take a deep breath without wondering if it’s my last. In short: I am well.

And, you know, there’s food in my fridge for which I need a strategy…in case. But, by god, there’s food in my fridge.

I am grateful.


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Missing

There’s something poignant about the now-blank, white paper taped to the light pole. It once held a message about something gone missing.

A pet.

A bicycle.

Some essential possession or…

I don’t remember. I just know that something important to someone went missing, and this sign was a plea for its return.

The paper’s blank face flutters against its cellophane tape restraints, whispering some echo of its message that I no longer understand. A language erased by time and weather. An image that has shut its eyes on us.

Not that anyone but me really minds. Cars zip past, their drivers oblivious. The sign is yesterday’s news. But I keep wondering: Did the sign catch the right person’s attention? Did they remember seeing that which was missing? Or was its message also lost — on the wind, in the dark, in the busy-ness of the people passing by?

Last summer, there were signs posted for miles around asking about a missing son: a young man different from his fellows, a misfit by society’s standards. The police found him days later, dead of an overdose, his body abandoned by his companions in a home patiently awaiting the return of its vacationing owners. Someone collected his signs, silencing the cruel lie of his smile for anyone who thought to look up and see it as they drove by.

My sign is different. Smaller in its seismic force. An indifferent shrug in response to a question of whereness, slowly fading, forgotten, only to become something also lost.

Weathered, blank piece of paper, stuck to a light post.


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A Gift of Donut Holes

“Here are donut holes, for you.”

The slender Asian woman behind the counter smiles and hands me a white, waxed-paper bag with a dozen or so sugar-glazed, cloud-soft donut holes nestled in the bottom. I accept it and carry it out to the car with my other bag of donuts — the ones I’ve selected for purchase — my heart doing a happy pitter-pat.

It’s not just the donut holes that make me happy — although they do make me happy; MJ’s Donuts are a local favorite — it’s the way they’re presented to me. What she says. The way she says it: “Here are donut holes, for you.” Not: “Have some free donut holes!” or, even, “Here are a few extra donut holes to add to your order,” but “Here are donut holes for you.”

It’s the for you that gets me. Like she was saving that bag, off to the left of the cash register, just for me. Never mind that she’s said the same thing to every customer who’s bought donuts this morning — and that she says it to me every time I visit the shop. None of that matters. In that moment, as she’s offering the donut holes for me, something magical occurs: She somehow knows I was coming, so she kept this small stash of deliciousness aside just waiting to surprise me with it. To delight me. To add something a little special to my purchase, knowing it would make me smile.

It’s a tiny connection, a trick of language performed by a woman whose thick accent clearly defines her as a non-native speaker. But it makes all the difference in how I walk out into the world and view the rest of my day.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash


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Starting Today

“A year from now you will wish you had started today.”  — Karen Lamb

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions.

Not-doing resolutions has been a time-honored tradition for me; I stopped making them in my 20s and have held fast to that non-practice for decades. I always felt like I was setting myself up for failure, and in recent years I’ve discovered the reason for that: Most New Year’s resolutions focus on things people want to “fix,” perceived (or real) flaws they want to correct. Resolutions usually focus on shoulds:

should eat healthier food/lose 20 pounds. 

should exercise at least three times per week.

should quit smoking/drinking/complaining.

should find a better job leave that partner find love become more spiritual be more compassionate save more money spend less be less judgmental domorehavemorebemore…

Yeah. There are good reasons we don’t keep our resolutions. They’re suffocating, demeaning, self-defeating. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Don’t should all over yourself!”

But there is still value in wanting to grow, in stretching for things just out of arm’s reach. There’s still beauty in becoming, evolving, unfolding — as long as it doesn’t start with should. Because should starts with unworthiness, and unworthiness grinds to a halt all the momentum our desires might otherwise fuel. If we start from our own inherent worthiness, if we believe we deserve what we want for ourselves — not from a place of entitlement, but from the belief that it’s all right to be happy — then all we need to do is begin. 

Starting todayI’ll have more fun, smile more. 

(I want to feel happier, freer, kinder.)

 

Starting todayI’ll wake up to watch more sunrises. 

(I want to experience the wonder of the start of a new day.)

 

Starting todayI’ll write a little bit of that book that’s inside me. 

(I want to experience the challenge of telling this story, sharing it.)

 

The difference is qualitative. It’s about knowing what we want to feel, then figuring out ways to create and support that feeling.

And so: Starting today, I’ll note with gratitude what I already have so that I feel the abundance in my life. I’ll define what I want to experience, not what I want to own, so that I feel the joy of discovery. I’ll make more time for stillness and reflection so that I feel more deeply connected with the experiences I have. I’ll look for ways to be more fully present so that I feel less stressed about the future and more energized by the moment.

Starting today, I’ll stop wishing I’d started yesterday and take whatever small steps I can toward living the life with which I’ve been gifted. 

Sunlit path through redwoods


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5 Tips for Writing Your (NaNoWriMo) Novel

“Walker, your treads are

the path and nothing more;

walker, there is no path,

the path is made by walking.”

— from Caminante No Hay Camino by Antonio Machado


“Do you have any advice for writing a novel?”

The question both amused and touched me. Amused because I’ve never actually finished a novel. Touched because this friend believed I knew enough about writing one to have accumulated shareable wisdom with him. (I love my friends’ faith in me!) What he doesn’t know is that my journals and Google Drive folders are littered with abandoned drafts of sci-fi, horror, historical fiction, humor writing, poetry, non-fiction, memoirs — you name it. My writing life looks a little like the Winchester Mystery House: staircases going nowhere, doors opening out onto thin air, and rooms that have no actual purpose.

I’ve read a lot about writing over the years, believing that someone out there would have the answers I needed to finally motivate me to become the writer I think I have the potential to be. I’ve read books and articles about process, motivation, technique, theory…the list goes on. What I’ve found most successful, though, I’ve learned through failing, again and again.

My failures during National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo) have been especially instrumental in learning about myself as a writer. Writing a novel in 30 days is ridiculously compressed, an artificial situation. (Having said that, plenty of writers have eventually published their NaNoWriMo novels, as did my friend Tim, author of Davy’s Savior.) But the pressure of meeting daily word-count goals — yeah, that’s right, writing every single day, which isn’t something I find easy to do — uncovers a lot of attitudes, beliefs, and bad habits lurking in the shadows.

So, here are a few hard-won tips from my NaNoWriMo experiences, some of them offered by writers much more successful than I, and some of them things I’ve stumbled on accidentally as I wrote.

Tip 1: Don’t force yourself to write from beginning to end

I tried this. It sucks. Just don’t.

Even if you have an outline — you know, like your high school English teachers used to require — and you think you know exactly how you want your novel to unfold, you’ll find yourself miring in your own, well-planned storyline. If you insist on writing linearly, from beginning to end, when the wheels fall off — and I guarantee they will — you’ll grind to a halt and will find it difficult to get started again.

The funny thing about deviating from The Plan — whether it’s an outline for a novel, a driving route, or a vacation itinerary — is that you often end up in much more interesting places than you’d imagined existed. If you let the story unfold, it takes on a life of its own, and while that can completely blow your well-planned outline out of the water, it can also mean a more interesting character, subplot, or scene.

My first NaNoWriMo attempt taught me that writing in chunks not only enabled me to better develop my characters and story, it also allowed me to keep moving when I felt stuck. If I couldn’t figure out how to wrap up the scene I was writing, I simply picked up and moved farther down the story’s timeline — or reversed and added a chunk somewhere else that would better allow me to develop the scene where I was stuck. (Mind you, I didn’t edit — see Tip 2 — I added.) I’d either add the new material to my outline, or I’d do a little journaling around it to help set up something I planned writing later in connection to it. (See Tip 4, below, about handwritten notes.)

Had I insisted on writing linearly, beginning to end, I never would have gotten as far as I did — and I wouldn’t have a great start to a novel I plan to finish in the future, now that it’s had some time to marinate. Like, a lot of time. Um…two years. But who’s counting?

Tip 2: Write first; edit later

I’ve read this bit of advice in so many books and articles that I’ve lost count. The bottom line is that if you start listening to your inner editor, you’ll quit writing, and you’ll never finish your novel. Simple as that.

The writing doesn’t need to be a great work of art as it flows out of you (or claws its way out, in a kind of eviscerating birth, as in the Alien movies) — heck, it doesn’t even need to be good. It just needs to be written. Get it out. Get it down. There’s time later to shape it up, and you might miss writing a nugget of brilliance if you’re wrestling with trying to turn what feels like piles of poo into gold ingots before you even finish the story.

So tell your internalized college professor — you know the one — to shut his or her trap. You have work to do, and you need to concentrate. (And I’m betting that critical voice in your head has never even attempted, much less written, a novel of its own, so it has no right to criticize yours.) I frequently have to turn “we are not editing right now” into a mantra I repeat while breathing deeply and forcing my fingers to just keep typing.

Tip 3: Set a timer and write until it dings

I’m not sure where I first heard this bit of advice, but I most recently heard it from Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) in her Calm.com Master Class, “Creative Living Beyond Fear.” She suggests using a plain old kitchen timer rather than your phone, which, as she says, should be nowhere near where you are working so you don’t get distracted. Then you write for that period of time — no getting up to make a cup of tea or look at email or play with the dog. Just keep your heinie in the seat and write until the timer goes off, even if it’s only one sentence, over and over…

As a twist on the concept, the NaNoWriMo site builds in opportunities for timed writing as a speed-writing/brain dump exercise, called “word sprints.” You log in and set a timer, then write as fast as you can as the seconds tick by. When the timer goes off, you enter your word count for the sprint and move on.

Again, it’s artificial, I know, but I’ve found it useful, especially when my internal editor won’t shut its loud mouth. And I’ve also used the word sprint approach when I have just 15 minutes and am tempted to head out to social media for a little distraction. (I’ve been pretty successful with staying out of there, but relapses are starting to occur, especially now that I’m making progress, which might make no sense to you unless you read Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art. Resistance to creativity is real, folks.) Instead of distracting myself, I set the timer and write until the (rather humorous) alert tells me to stop. The funny thing is that, once I’ve input my word count, I often find that the sprint has kick-started my creative energy, and I’m ready to keep writing.

Sometimes, though, I just close my laptop and go do something else for a while, letting the writing marinate for a while before returning to it. What I write next often has more texture and interest.

Tip 4: Keep a journal with handwritten notes

This is me, all me, as far as I know. What I’ve found is that writing notes by hand engages a part of my brain that my laptop keyboard simply can’t access. Moving my hand across a page, pen in hand, triggers a different mode of processing than typing does. I often switch back and forth, from computer to journal and back again, allowing the different modes to activate as necessary.

My handwritten notes range from outlines to bits of dialogue to character descriptions to notes about scenes I want to write. Sometimes they’re stream-of-consciousness conversations with myself that morph into storyline. Sometimes, they’re notes on something I’ve researched — like geographic locations, terminology, or the stages of decomposition — that I need to work on or work out through the physical, manual act of writing. Highlighters occasionally come out; color-coding occurs. Margins fill with jottings. Diagrams and maps get drawn. Oftentimes my handwritten notetaking never sees the “official” writing pages, but it informs them.

And jotting things down by hand allows me to keep writing because I’m not distracted by the worry that I’ll forget a little gem that has potential or a fact I need to check about dog behavior. Or whatever. In short, journaling allows me to…

Tip 5: Just freakin’ write

Seriously. The only way to write anything is to write it. Sit down. Open a laptop or notebook. Write. And keep writing until the writing is done.

You’ll know when that is.

Photo of journal pages

Messy journal pages from my 2016 NaNoWriMo attempt.


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NaNoWriMo: The Third Time’s the Charm

If a story is in you, it has to come out.  — William Faulkner

Woo-hoo! Welcome to my third attempt at National Novel Writing Month (which we “Wrimos” affectionately call NaNoWriMo)!

Yeah, I know: We’ve been here before. Me, promising to post daily updates of my progress. You, reading all two of the posts I actually get around to writing. Then…nothing.

Mostly because I’d stopped writing my novel.

In 2016, I announced The Demon Project. I made it about halfway through my 50,000-word target* for finishing before Thanksgiving travel completely upended my writing, and Jaqi and her Demon went into what appears to be semi-permanent hibernation. (I just read back through a few pages, and I’ll be finishing that novel someday. It’s funny stuff.)

Last year, 2017, I got no farther than announcing the title of my novel. But I’d just lost my best friend, a big, red Golden Retriever named Bodhi, and my energies were solely focused on things like getting out of bed in the morning, dressing myself, occasionally showering. Writing a novel was not a viable option.

So, here we are, at the end of 2018. I’ve announced my novel on the NaNoWriMo site, given it a title, written a (really bad) synopsis, and I’m off and writing. In just three days, I’ve managed to make the 5,000 word mark. And I’ve promised myself that, this year, I’m not only finishing, but I’m also doing everything differently. Everything.

So, for instance, I’m participating in social events, like write-ins at my favorite library branch — sitting alongside other Wrimos, all of us with our anti-social earbuds in and a soundtrack playing while we type furiously on our computers, not speaking but building the kind of collective creative energy usually reserved for group meditation sessions.

I’m also challenging myself to word-sprints, which means setting a timer and breaking the sound barrier with the speed of my typing as I race the clock to word-count goodness. And there are group sprints on my horizon, where a virtual herd of Wrimos race each other as well as the clock.

I plan to participate in workshops on finding an agent and how to self-publish a book at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Main Library.

And, too, I’m earning my badges (the whole affair is delightfully gamified), making donations, inviting others to write, cutting my fingernails short so their tapping doesn’t bother my fellow write-in Wrimos.

This year, I declared myself a Plantser (a combination of Planner and Pantser, as in “by-the-seat-of-my-pants”) and wrote some loose outlines, ideas for storylines, bits of dialogue — then went out and started writing whatever came to mind, leaving the planned bits for days when inspiration trickles instead of flows.

Oh, and I also declared myself a NaNo Rebel this year. As I started my Plantsing, I realized that — despite my efforts to write it as fiction — this is a story best told truthfully. So, this year’s “novel” will be a memoir. I have no idea what it will be after that because I’d originally planned for it to be a “choose your own path” digital experience, but I never quite got it off the ground. For one thing, I noticed there was an embarrassing lack of story in my story. Maybe forcing myself to compress my writing process during the next 30 days will provide the impetus to do something more…extraordinary…with it.

Then, again, maybe it will be extraordinary enough just as I write it.

Whatever happens with it, it needs to come out into the light before it eats me alive. Because that’s what stories do when you don’t let them out: They fester and churn and wake you up at night and sometimes eat your breakfast or your favorite dessert, just as you get ready to take the first bite.

Stories are like that, you know. As Faulkner says, “Better out than in.” (I might have paraphrased that a tad.)

In any case, I make no promises this year regarding keeping you updated. But don’t write me off just yet. Because you never know…

 

* Correction: I originally wrote that the “required” 30-day word count was 40,000 words. The target word count is 50,000 for the month in order to claim oneself a NaNoWriMo “winner.”


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The Yurt Adventure Continues…

…over there —>

Have you ever gone hiking in the wilderness and encountered little stone cairns?  You know, those rocks that other hikers or park rangers have piled one atop the other to reassure you you’re still on the trail, still headed in the right direction?

Consider this post a stone cairn, pointing the way for you to keep traveling with me on my journey to creating a new life in the mountains.

Small Conceits began its life as my space for self-indulgence, a place to put my reflections on grief and loss and the luminosity of life as Coyote slowly left this world; a place to reflect and tell stories about what matters to me; a place for me to share my poetry when I’ve felt brave enough to do so.

But the yurt journey…well, that’s become a different animal altogether, and it no longer feels like it belongs on Small Conceits.

So, I’m moving the whole yurt thing over to a site I’m calling The Unhurried Path. There, I’ll recap and continue my story about purging my stuff and finding property and discovering new perspectives about what it means to live lightly on and in harmony with the land. I’ll also post now and again about the skills I learn and the gear I buy and the people I meet along the way.

Small Conceits isn’t going away. In fact, I plan to expand it, reorganize it, maybe even give it a new look. So if you like dog dialogues and aikido moments and random musings about life and stuff (or, for that matter, my attempts at poetry), keep following me here.

For more about yurt-ness and homesteading (or whatever it is my life turns out to be), I invite you to head on over to The Unhurried Path.

Thanks for being there for me. I love you all for reading my stuff. I hope you’ll continue to do so.

Photo by Nick Tong on Unsplash