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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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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Writers Block and the 29 Drafts

I have 29 drafts in my Posts folder.

There are several drafts about the land I purchased in November. For instance, there’s a draft about walking my 11+ acres with a water witch. (A what?! Yeah, it’s pretty cool.) And a draft about the contrasting perspectives of folks from the local extension services and those of a permaculture consultant — and the value they each bring.

Somewhere in that Posts folder are drafts about things I’m learning about living off-grid — things like collecting rainwater and evaluating composting toilets and keeping a woodstove burning. I even have a couple of drafts about what is becoming The Great Yurt Debate — and the part the Health Department plays in that. Oh, and a draft about learning to chop wood, Denise-style, with a video that should prove amusing, if I ever get it edited.

There are drafts of stories and poetry about Bodhi, whose loss I’m still processing. And drafts about the processing itself.

So it’s not that I don’t intend to keep folks updated on how my little adventure is progressing (exciting in dribs and drabs, but mostly a waiting game). It’s not that I don’t intend to honor Bodhi with the tribute I promised you (and him). It’s just that I’m having trouble taking all these drafts through to the “publication” phase. I keep moving from story to story, trying to get something to “work,” and ending up with nothing but a whole bunch of beginnings, a few middles, and some beginnings with endings and no middles.

Which got me thinking about all the different reasons for writer’s block. Again.

Dictionary.com defines it as:

noun

1.

a usually temporary condition in which a writer finds it impossible to proceed with the writing of a
novel, play, or other work.

 

They nailed it with “impossible to proceed.” But “temporary condition,” not so much, in my case. Writers block characterizes my life as a writer. Some of it stems from a lack of faith in myself as an artist, in the value and appeal of the words I write — despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Some of it also has to do with selling out, with contorting my own, authentic voice to find the “angle,” the “differentiator” in what I write so it stands apart from all the other folks writing about the same things I’m writing about (mostly in my head) — which is two parts marketing taint and one part defeatism. And, yeah, I also suffer from a kind of perfectionism when it comes to my writing.

Mostly, though, it has to do with this weird dynamic that plays itself out with many of us who suffer from clinical anxiety (as I do): I have to give myself permission, which I won’t do until I finish the things I’m “supposed to do” as someone’s definition of a Responsible Adult.

Let that sink in. I have to give myself permission to write.

You see, if it doesn’t make money, it’s not responsible. If it doesn’t further my career or win new clients, it’s not responsible. If it doesn’t walk the dog, clean the house, do the grocery shopping, do the accounting, run errands, answer emails, research problems, cook, or perform miracles of healing and empowerment, it’s not responsible and I find it “impossible to proceed.”

Here’s the Catch-22: I procrastinate on all that other stuff because I want to write.

And the irony of it all is that my writing could be profitable, if I’d ever finish anything I write and send it out to anyone who does real publishing, which would combine being a Responsible Adult with being the creative writer I keep beating into submission with definitions that don’t fit or serve me.

So, to all of you who have been asking me how things are going: Mostly well! And to those of you who have encouraged me to write, well…I’m writing. I’m just not letting anyone see any of it. For now.

I’m going to go bake some brownies now. Because I have five spreadsheets to review, a website to build, a dog who needs a walk, a bunch of tax forms I need to fill out for my accountant, and some surveys I need to email to the first darned road grader I’ve managed to get an appointment with in three months. (Yeah, that’s part of the adventure, too: Contractors are booked solid, including folks who grade roads and clear homesites, which is the very thing standing in the way of ALL the other things.)

After that, I think I’m going to drink some wine and try to forget that I want to write. It’s gonna take a lot of wine.


Clicks “Publish” and reflects on the nature of irony…


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My Enlightened Goofball

“I was curious about his name,” she told me, gently handing me the tin containing his ashes. (How could my big, beautiful boy be contained in something so small?)  “I know there’s a story there,” she continued. “I think I know what it is, but I’d love it if you’d tell me.”

— from a conversation with Danielle Pratt at Paws, Whiskers & Wags


I rubbed my stinging eyes and rolled my head around on my neck, working out the kinks that had formed after hours on the computer. Coyote, my old husky-shepherd mix, was sleeping on her cushion in the living room, and I was in the dining room with the big, red Golden who’d just joined our tiny pack. “Bo” was the name on his adoption papers. I gazed at the gorgeous dog lolling in a sunbeam, thinking for the hundredth time that it just didn’t fit. He glanced up from his nap and caught me looking at him. Without picking his chin up from his paws, he thumped his tail loudly on the floor, his eyes questioning.

“You’d save me a lot of trouble if you’d just tell me what your name is,” I said.

Bo thumped his tail as an answer but was no more forthcoming than that. I sighed and turned back to the slew of bookmarked baby name sites I had open on my laptop. Years ago, I’d stumbled on Sachi’s name in a baby book. A kind of play on my own name, which often translates as “joy,” my sweet little Golden girl’s name had translated as “child of joy” — a moniker that also reflected her sunny disposition. I was hoping to get lucky with the online version of a baby book and find a name whose meaning resonated with this new member of the household. I’d given up any meaning-driven kind of search about 30 minutes ago and was now combing alphabetically through the names listed on the sites, one after another. Nap in a sunbeam - fade

When I said nothing more, Bo closed his eyes again, and I smiled. Even at only two years old, he was a good five or six pounds heavier than my little Sachi was when she left us, with the solid build of a big, strong boy. His vibrant personality made him seem bigger-than-life, so “Bo” wouldn’t have been far off, if that was all there was to him. But…there was also this mood: profoundly still, completely at ease, yet acutely aware of his surroundings. He filled me with a curious kind of wonder. How could this Being burst with such playful vitality one instant, yet be so gentle and calm the next?

“I have much to learn from you,” I said softly, eliciting only a lazy cracking of one eyelid and a sidelong glance. “But, then, my dogs have always been my greatest teachers.”

At that moment, my cursor landed on a name in the B’s. I paused, letting the name roll around in my head before saying it out loud.

“Bodhi.”

The big red dog lifted his head, yawning, then held me with a steady gaze. Yes?

“It means ‘awakened,'” I told him, excitement growing in my chest. “It’s also the first two syllables of the word bodhisattva, which is Sanskrit for ‘enlightened teacher.'”

As if in response, he wagged his tail and grinned at me, panting. Let’s try it, I thought.

“Bodhi,” I said again, decisively. And the newest member of our pack, the brother Coyote chose to share her space and her mom with, shot to his feet– wriggling with glee — to lay his head on my lap and look up at me. I like it, too, his sparkling, brown eyes seemed to say.

“And I can make the transition easier for you because I can still use ‘Bo’ for short,” I told him, scratching his silky ears for him before he dashed off to find a toy.

I texted Barb, his foster mom, about the new name, explaining my reasoning and hoping she’d like it. I didn’t have to wait long.

Thank you for putting so much thought and effort into his new name, came the fond reply as Bodhi bounded back into the room with his squeaky tennis ball and dropped it on floor at my feet. Staring at the ball with laser focus, he quickly glanced up to see if I’d noticed his invitation before boring holes into the ball again with his eyes, his body quivering with anticipation.

I laughed. Something told me that this big, glorious goofball was worth whatever effort I might make on his behalf. Because teaching me would be no small feat, even for this brilliant ray of light.

Bodhi barked. I pounced on the ball, and the game began.


“And so I named him Bodhi,” I finished my story, tears streaming freely down my face. “My dogs have always been my greatest teachers. But this one…this one was something special. He was the embodiment of joy,” I told the kind woman sitting in the chair across from me. 

“Bodhi…for Bodhisattva,” she said, smiling through her own misty eyes. “I knew it would be something like that. Even as I prepared him for his final services, I could still feel that energy around him. I could feel the gift he was.” 

Yes, I thought, wonder and love tugging at my broken heart. You and everyone who ever met him.

Pounce - fade


A note of thanks

If the experience in the veterinary hospital was traumatic, the experience with the crematorium they contracted with was downright horrific. Only hours after I’d left my sweet boy’s body at the hospital, waiting to be picked up for cremation, I received an automated — yes, AUTOMATED — phone call with a canned message regarding “understanding your grief after the loss of a beloved pet” and attempting to sell me additional services on a deadline. That call nearly broke me. Nearly wild with rage and anguish, I did something I rarely do: I reached out for help.

I’m deeply grateful to Jane Rose at Rose Pet Memorial Center in Indianapolis for connecting me with Carol and Danielle at Paws, Whiskers & Wags in Charlotte so that Bodhi could receive the kind of loving care in death as I tried so hard to provide him in life. These caring, devoted souls helped me rewrite the ending of the story in a way that honored us both. Thank you all — not only for what you do but also for who you are.