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Moving Time

I thought about writing a substantive post, but I still have some boxes to pack up, so I’m going to keep this short.

This morning I’m picking up the keys to the new place and starting the process of turning it into my new home. I’m also taking a few days off from writing because…so many things to do and not enough time to do them in! I’m sad because I don’t want to take any time off from writing; I want to finish the rough draft of this novel. But I know it’s only a couple of days, and I’m sure I’ll be busy enough to be distracted from the writing withdrawal pangs.

I thought you might enjoy seeing the current chaos that is my living space:

So many boxes everywhere.

So many boxes everywhere.

These boxes hold most of my library.

These boxes hold most of my library.

I’m a little nervous because expense! And change! And what if I don’t like it! But I also know that I have all the raw ingredients to create another lovely home nest for myself. This place that I’m leaving felt like home very quickly, and I know that was because of the people I filled it with. Home isn’t so much about the walls and the layout and the roof (although having shelter is up there on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). It’s about safety and friends and a little white dog and a piano. It’s about game days and movie nights and chatting on a sofa that has seen better days. It’s about brownies and take-out sushi and curling up in a blanket with a good book and writing writing writing.

The next few days will be closing one chapter of my life and beginning a new one. I’m aiming to do so with grace. I know I am doing so with hope for what the future might bring.

 

I thought I’d write today about self care, since I’m in the middle of a move, and moving is on that list of highly stressful life stuff, which means self care is something that I’ve been making extra effort to pay attention to right now. And it’s actually working; my stress levels are on the high side but not crazy high, and I have been having cheerful and happy times in spite of the move, and without that weird frantic edge that signals the presence of overwhelm.

So here are some self care things I’ve been doing:

1. I talk about the move. Whenever I want (within reason). This is huge because it means I’m getting emotional support during a high stress time. I’m getting to vent, I’m getting feedback about what’s going on, I’m getting comfort when I need comfort and celebratory time to help me remain positive about all the good things this move is going to bring. And it’s such a relief to have people know what’s going on with me.

2. I ask for help. This past weekend, my friends came over and helped me pack my entire place. In mere hours they completed a job that would have taken me days and days and reduced me to an incoherent, exhausted, and injured person. One of my best friends came with me to see the place I ultimately decided to rent to give me a second opinion. Other friends have been giving me information about the neighborhood and reaching out to give me doses of moral support. Feeling so supported and cared for definitely reduces the stress I’m feeling.

3. I fight the impulse to be frugal. When I know something is going to be expensive (like, say, moving), my first impulse is to do whatever it takes to save as much money as possible. This attitude puts a lot of additional stress on me, to put it mildly. And it’s so much easier to be frugal when you’re not in the middle of a mini-crisis. So I’ve been allowing myself to hire the movers who are slightly pricier than I feel completely happy with, and to pay for extra body work so I don’t fall apart physically, and to spend money to make problems less huge.

4. I make sure I have time for classic self care. Did I have a Gilmore Girls marathon, complete with frozen pizza and strange pie, a few nights ago? You bet I did, and I appreciated the energizing alone time. I’ve also been prioritizing sleep, walks and snuggle time with Nala, and hot tub time.

One of the pillars of my self care routine.

One of the pillars of my self care routine.

5. I take advantage of focus but rein in bigger ambitions. Things are going so well, I think to myself, perhaps I could up my daily word count, or query more agents, or do some more semi-stressful social things. And then I realize that no, instead I can appreciate that things are going well and keep the pace I set myself, while resisting the temptation to push myself too hard. I don’t have to do all the things right now. I can focus on my five top priorities and let the rest go. (For those curious, those are moving, novel, Nala, personal growth/care, and friends.)

6. I give myself a reward. When the move is completely over, I get to go to Seattle for a week. Thanks to frequent flyer miles and wonderful friends, I have an amazing trip to look forward to. So whenever I think, “Ugh, I hate moving,” I can then counter with, “But then I’m going to Seattle!” And then I can add on, “Plus my friends are fabulous! And I love the novel I’m writing!” Which makes it really hard to spiral into serious negativity. So maybe this one isn’t so much about giving myself a reward and more about feeling gratitude.

Of course, none of this would be as effective without this last one:

7. I clean up my life in the hopes that one crisis/setback won’t set off a chain reaction. I spend time with people who are good to me. I set and hold boundaries. I cultivate good things so it is easy to find gratitude.

Here’s to leveling up with my self care.

 

While I was at my annual writing retreat in the rainforest this year, I had an interesting experience. It was Saturday morning; I had already been writing intensively for two days, and I had one day to go. I launched myself into a scene in my novel that was particularly emotional and heart wrenching.

By the time I finished writing the scene, I’d become so deeply involved and invested in my protagonist that I was literally very upset. I felt like I’d gone through an emotional wringer: my chest was tight, the place behind my eyes ached, my breathing was more shallow. It was time to go over and have a communal lunch of homemade soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, but I found as I ate my mind wandered back to the scene I had just written, and I was having trouble focusing on conversation.

My heart felt bruised, and it took a few hours before I felt more like myself again.

I thought of this experience when I stumbled across an article in the Atlantic: “How Actors Create Emotions: A Problematic Psychology.” It talks about the research being conducted by assistant professor of psychology Thalia Goldstein about the links between psychology and acting. In the article, she talks about the distinctions between pretense, lying, and acting from the perspective of cognitive psychology.

What many writers of fiction do is very related to this as well. We joke about telling lies for money, but most of us also believe that what we’re doing when we tell a story is communicating an essential truth through our fiction. Nancy Kress, my teacher at Taos Toolbox, compares her writing process to Method Acting, and I go about much of my writing in a similar fashion. I inhabit the lives and worlds of my characters, and I try to feel as they feel. Just as actors experience psychological effects from their acting, so too do fiction writers. And it’s part of our job to learn how to deal with such effects in a healthy way.

Photo Credit: Phil W Shirley via Compfight cc

The article cites Tony Grego, a well-known acting teacher, who says: “And you can imagine that if you decide to take on Blanche DuBois, when the play is done you don’t go home and not think about all the questions that these great roles bring up inside of you. If you really decide to go where these great roles will take you, then you come out of them a changed person.”

And if you really decide to go where your story, your novel, your characters are taking you, then in the process, you the writer will change. It’s not that every word I write changes me, but I am a different person at the beginning of a novel than at the end of that novel. I even change over the course of a short story, although usually not as noticeably.

I wonder if this is true of all art, that in the process of creating it and engaging with difficult questions and truths, the artist inevitably changes. I also wonder if this is one of the reasons why art does make us feel more alive, because it is forcing us to grapple with truth in different ways than we are otherwise called upon to do.

Back to the retreat. I let myself feel those feelings that had arisen from writing my emotional scene, and I reminded myself where the feelings had come from. I gave myself some space, had some food, took a little walk. And they faded. But the experience of writing that scene and going to the place my character needed to go to be true has made me a richer person. And that’s what I’ll carry with me going forward.

 

I was talking to an old friend this weekend about the meaning of life. You know, the way you do. It wasn’t even ridiculously late at night, and we didn’t take the morbid side path that’s usually an option in such conversations. The next day I happened to read Theodora Goss’s “Feeling Alive,” and so here we are, delving back into one of my favorite topics.

One of Dora’s main points is that there is the Frankl theory about meaning (projects, connections with people, and attitude) and then there is the Campbell theory that it’s more important to have the feeling of being alive than to know the meaning of life. (Does this make anyone else think of Sondheim’s song “Being Alive?”)

While there is an overlap between these two, many of the little things in life that I appreciate so much fall into the “Feeling Alive” category. Feeling alive can be a very physical experience, even hedonistic, whether we’re talking about having an amazing foodie experience or jumping out of an airplane or traveling around the world. Waking up after a good night’s sleep, sitting in the sun, hiking in the hills: all of these experiences remind me that I’m alive.

Photo Credit: Spencer Finnley via Compfight cc

And then there’s art, which in my experience falls squarely into both categories. Because art makes me feel more alive AND it is often through art (both creating and appreciating) that I find my own meaning. And I think those things that do fall into both categories have particular resonance for many of us.

What I don’t think is that every category like this is going to have the same resonance for everyone. And I also reject the notion that there is only way to find meaning for all of us. Finding meaning through art isn’t going to be right for everyone. Finding meaning through having kids and raising a family isn’t going to be right for everyone. Finding meaning through saving lives isn’t going to be right for everyone. (For example, I am sadly way too squeamish to ever have made it through medical school.)

But when we find something (whatever that something is) that works concurrently to make us discover our meaning and feel more alive in the process, then we’re onto something important.

I feel lucky because from a young age I realized art and meaning were intimately connected for me. For a long time I envied other people who had practical aspirations and knew what career they were going to pursue, especially when the career in question had a relatively straightforward path to success. Art isn’t like that. Art isn’t usually straightforward, and art is never a sure thing. But art has always been my personal pathway to fulfillment, and now I realize how precious that really is.

I’m saying art instead of writing because I was a musician before I started writing seriously, and my connection to my music felt much the same. I had a short period of time in my 20s in which I wasn’t engaged in any art whatsoever, and even though I’ve lived through much harder times, that period of time stands out in my memory for its relative bleakness. I realize now that is because that has been the only time I’ve been without much connection to meaning. I just kind of did things to do them, with most of the passion leached from them. Without my meaning, I also felt less alive overall. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and one I’m not eager to repeat.

What did I learn from it? That art makes me happy to wake up in the morning. Art inspires me and challenges me and keeps me from getting bored. As long as my relationship with art continues, I have meaning built into my life. It is a very intimate experience, one that both encompasses outside influences and all the people I’ve met and one that excludes them because the art goes on with or without them.

Which do you think is more important: finding meaning in life or feeling alive? Or are they linked, as they are for me?

Why I Need Beauty

Ever since Rahul wrote about beauty and how we don’t have the language to discuss it, I’ve been wanting to write about beauty. But it turns out he’s right, and it’s surprisingly difficult to talk about. For starters, beauty is measured so subjectively, and then I’m not used to saying anything about it except for, “Oh, isn’t that beautiful?” Which does not a blog post make.

But what I can talk about is what beauty means to me personally. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot of beauty as it pertains to my home, and how critical it is for my well-being to have some beauty in my surroundings. I felt silly about this too, I think because this is not something we normally talk about. This is not something I feel like I ought to expect or prioritize. Square footage or number and type of outlets or layout, no problem. But beauty? I feel spoiled for even considering it.

But as I thought about it more, I realized every place I’ve lived has had its beautiful aspects that I have loved. Most often, it’s about the trees. Redwoods grew right outside my windows in Santa Cruz, which I loved so much that whenever I’ve had the chance to live near redwoods, I’ve taken it. Another place had a beautiful bay window in the front, as well as this pleasant curving opening between the kitchen and the living room. One place had beautiful cherry flooring that shone in the sunlight. And another had quaint lace curtains that hung in the windows.

So in my recent search, I rejected place after place. They all had many additional problems, but the main problem as far as I was concerned was that they lacked beauty. There were no trees to love. They were dark, grimy, not cared for. They were in neighborhoods with chain link fences around each yard, or they smelled strange and I left with a sore throat, or they were in sterile communities where I wouldn’t feel happy walking Nala. After I left, I wasn’t thinking about this or that piece of beauty that had caught my imagination. Instead I was worrying about crime rates and how much water and garbage would cost and if I could impose enough of my personality on the place in spite of itself that I could be happy there.

Until I found my new place. Its main feature of beauty is a very tall window that pours light throughout the space. I fell in love with the sun, and that was that. I knew I could turn the place into a home.

What beauty means to me. Photo by Amy Sundberg.

What beauty means to me. Photo by Amy Sundberg.

Why does beauty matter so much? Whenever I witness beauty, I feel an easing in my chest. When I’m happy, beauty adds to my sense of appreciation, and when I’m sad, beauty reminds me that all is not lost. The world cannot be a truly desolate place for me when I’ve just seen a hummingbird zoom by or watched the clouds being perfectly reflected on a still lake surface or looked at my copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Head of a Woman.” It is why, last year when I was under so much stress, I instinctively went to my study and stared out at the tree outside, the piece of beauty that had persuaded me to choose to live here.

Beauty reminds me that there is more than whatever is going on for me in this moment.

Of course, there’s a lot more to beauty than what I’ve said so far. But this is, at least, a beginning.

Definition of kindred spirit:

“A bosom friend–an intimate friend, you know–a really kindred spirit to whom I can confide my inmost soul. I’ve dreamed of meeting her all my life.” – Anne to Marilla in Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomerie

Theodora Goss recently wrote about soul mates, and when I read her post, I recognized what she was talking about. Her idea of the soul mate is my idea of the kindred spirit. And when we use either of these phrases, what we’re really talking about is connection.

I really like the idea of practicing being a kindred spirit, both to yourself and to others. Because if you are not a kindred spirit, how can you expect anyone else to be? And being your own best kindred spirit plays right into the idea of loving ourselves, which is incredibly important.

And there are so many different kinds of kindred spirit. One of the things I like about the Anne books is that we get to see Anne discover many different types as she grows up. There is the romantic kind, the kind we’re most likely to think of when we say soul mate. And there is the best friend kind, in whom we are perhaps most likely to confide. But there are many other kinds as well, just as there are many different ways to support and appreciate each other.

Some of them run deep, right through the core of who we are. Others (like Mrs. Josephine Barry in the Anne books) are closer to the surface but still marked by the hallmarks of a kindred spirit: a sense of understanding or kinship, along with a sense of appreciation for who the person is. What this sense of understanding revolves around and how widespread it is will vary from relationship to relationship.

It interests me that with many people, we never have the opportunity to share our entire souls, or even a large portion of them. But we often have the opportunity to share a piece of our soul, to shine a ray of ourselves or open one of a hallway of doors. Even if it’s a very little door, its opening still has meaning as it creates its feeling of connection.

I wonder if this is why we sometimes think it’s harder to make friends as adults. With old friends that you’ve known since childhood, we share the understanding created through a shared past. When we make friends in school, it is often also through a shared context and experience (taking place during a period of transformation, oftentimes), which can persist for the rest of our lives. When we’re adults, we have to work harder to find that shared understanding, but it is often still there if we decide to go looking for it.

Of course, now I know many kindred spirits with whom I’ve bonded because of writing. A shared passion can be a powerful magnet. Shared passions or interests, shared past experiences, shared personality traits, sometimes even shared social groups can be enough to light the first spark. I even have my blogging kindred spirits: Rahul Kanakia and Theodora Goss. I rarely get to speak with them in person, but I often talk about their posts here, sharing my own thoughts on their ideas.

One thing that most of my kindred spirits have in common is that they LISTEN. Some of them are better at it than others, but at least some listening on both sides is key. That is the only way to create the necessary understanding. It is the only way to actually get to know someone, and we can only truly appreciate someone if we know at least some part of them. Similarly, we can only be a kindred spirit to ourselves if we learn to listen to ourselves and pay attention to what we hear.

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.” -Anne in Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomerie

What does being a kindred spirit mean to you?

I am not in a good mood right now.

I have spent the last few weeks dealing with my landlord and his real estate agent, both of whom act like they’re doing me huge favors by, say, not illegally breaking my lease or being willing to pay for professional cleaners to clean their property before their open house event. No acknowledgment is being made of the fact that I am the person in this situation who is hemorrhaging money and time and stress from the inconvenience.

Where is our compassion?

I am supposed to be appalled at how non-inclusive the science fiction community is becoming because of the recent hoop-la about this year’s Hugo host. Did things get out of hand? Yes. And ultimately both sides of this drama suffered. How terrible it must be to have to worry about having your win of a major writing award punctuated with a joke about your weight or gender. Can we stop for a moment and imagine what that would feel like? (Kameron Hurley has more to say about this, and it’s worth reading.) And how unfortunate that the con committee didn’t prepare Jonathan Ross for the current climate of SF&F and take more care in making and presenting their choice. Meanwhile, how ironic that this is being held up as an example of science fiction not being inclusive, when the circumstances from which this situation arose exist because of a backlash against science fiction not being inclusive.

Where is our compassion?

I recently had a conversation with a female writer, who also happens to be a mother, about how she was told that since she is a mother, she will never be as good a writer as either someone with no kids OR a man who is a father. How painful a comment that is, to tell a serious writer, “Nope, sorry, since you have reproduced, you’ll never live up to the rest of us. Oh, and by the way, if you were a man, this wouldn’t apply.” Painful, unnecessary, and untrue.

Where is our compassion?

Photo Credit: jorgempf via Compfight cc

Now that I try to be very mindful about setting boundaries and standing up for myself (go, Backbone Project, go), I notice it all the time, this lack of compassion. Some of it is simple thoughtlessness, and some of it is deeper and more troubling. Some of it is people who honestly feel if they can get away with taking advantage of somebody, then they should do it. I have been told there are entire cultures based on this principle.

There are two obvious choices when confronted by this problem:

Choice 1: Shut up, sit down, pretend everything is fine, blame everything on yourself, learn to believe your emotions aren’t valid or important, become used to being treated like there’s something wrong with you for having perfectly normal emotional responses to being treated badly, take what is given and be thankful for even that much, lose your voice if you ever had one to begin with, or else never learn to speak in the first place, let people trod all over you as you sink deeper and deeper into the muck and learn to value yourself as little as you’re being valued. In short, be a victim.

Choice 2: Stand up and demand respect. Value yourself. Protect yourself. Set boundaries and don’t allow yourself to be talked or shamed out of them. Be compassionate, but do not allow your compassion to be used against you. Trust people, but only when the trust is deserved. Love people, but do not try to save them because they’ll be perfectly happy to pull you down with them. Give yourself the compassion other people may not be willing or able to give you.

With the landlord situation, I picked Choice 2, and I am now going to be compensated for my time and inconvenience. This would never have been the result if I hadn’t spoken up. Loudly. More than once. And I’m prepared to do it again.

Where is our compassion?

It starts with ourselves.

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