Acting My Age – Take 2

time

While it may be cliché, it is nonetheless true: the older you get, the faster time passes. As I was walking to work this morning, I became keenly aware of this very concept on a number of levels. The first happened as I was thinking about writing this blog. I realized I hadn’t blogged in a little while. As it turns out – it’s been six months! Those common and all-too-real words popped into my head: “Where did the time go?”  Like everyone else I know, my life is filled with an endless variety of things which take my time and run away with it. Some of these are wonderful – my time with my grandson, my oldest daughter’s wedding, working on my yard. But some of them are not as enjoyable – my hour-long commute twice a day, a job that is financially rewarding and emotionally draining, and my seemingly endless struggle to balance the things I need to do against the things I want to do.

As I was making my brisk walk from the parking lot to my office (about two city blocks), I became very aware of both time and age. There had been an accident on the freeway which had slowed me down considerably, and I was feeling frustrated at being late when I had every intention of arriving early.

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It felt as if some unseen monster was taking a bite out of my valuable time pie, and I grew tense and angry. When I finally reached the parking lot, the temperamental machine required three attempts for me to make my payment. More time wasted, more frustration. By the time I parked and gathered my things to start walking, I could feel the tightness of anxiety in my chest and across my shoulders. My jaw tensed, teeth clenched, I started my walk toward work.

A few paces ahead of me was a young woman making her way to her office as well. She wore the requisite uniform of a young executive: a grey skirt, pale yellow blouse, grey sweater, and tennis shoes so she could walk faster on the uneven sidewalks. A leather bag hung from her shoulder, the heels of her beige pumps sticking out from one side. She stared straight ahead with fierce determination as she prepared to storm across the intersection when the light changed. Her hair was pulled back in a tight twist and I tried not to laugh as I wondered if her brain felt as tight as her hairdo.

blurred shot of business executives in a hurry

blurred shot of business executives in a hurry

As I watched her launch into the cross walk and move with quick, steady strides, I developed a kind of sadness for her. She was speeding up her world and rushing through time in a way she would one day come to regret. I instantly felt myself slowing down. I lost the urge to rush to the office building and instead took a moment to enjoy the shade of the trees that line Main Street. I listened to the clacking and squeaking of the light rail train that rounded the corner to head to the university. I watched a robin hoping along the steps to the great grey building that is now a courthouse, but that I remember as a kid as being the huge post office we came and visited in fourth grade.

I found a good pace and realized that the young woman who’d been hard-charging ahead of me had disappeared into a building. I thought about her uniform as became aware of my own choice of clothing for the day: white, knee-length shorts; a reddish shirt with an imprint of the Hindu deity Ganesha on it; a beige sweater (it gets cold at my desk), and gold sandals to match my gold jewelry.

ganesh3

There was a time I would have dressed exactly like that young woman. It would have seemed appropriate. Uncomfortable, but appropriate. All the time that has passed by me has brought with it the opportunity to dress how I want. I’m happy to have landed in a place where suits and skirts aren’t expected – but even if they were, I’d put my own spin on the uniform.

I realized another thing as I reached my office this morning: I’ve survived enough work environments to know that being true to who I am is far more important to me than trying to conform to what I think others expect of me. It’s far easier to relax (usually) and to allow the world to just be what it is than to allow myself to get upset about things over which I have no control. I didn’t cause the accident that slowed traffic, and I surely couldn’t speed that up. I didn’t cause the silly parking payment machine to be persnickety and uncooperative. Allowing myself to become frustrated by it was a waste of energy and time that I could better use somewhere else.

This is truly one of the benefits of learning to act my age. And the Ganesha tee-shirt doesn’t hurt either.

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The (Endless) Circle of Life – And Writing

In the past week, I’ve been reminded multiple times of just how life keeps going forward regardless of what we, individually, happen to think. The first reminder came when my brother-in-law’s father passed away quite unexpectedly. It’s terrible to lose a loved one, and worse at this chaotic time of year. I offered our family’s love and support and asked him what he needed. He said something to the effect that his world had become frozen and he hadn’t really had time to figure out what the next step was. I know that feeling. I know it well. I felt exactly the same way when my own dad passed away about eight years ago.

I sat in the house with my dad’s empty shell of a body, waiting for the men from the funeral home to arrive in the worst snow storm of the year. I was there for nearly 10 hours, but I wasn’t even aware of the passing of time, and in the days that followed, time somehow became irrelevant. Those things that had all seemed so important just moments before I got the call from the sheriff suddenly lost all meaning and value.

But the world did not stop spinning on its axis, the universe didn’t freeze and wait for me to be functional. It kept going just as it had before. At the same time that I was experiencing life in a jar of molasses, other people experienced things spinning nearly out of control. My need to take time off to attend to family matters meant added stress and frustration for the instructors who had to pick up and teach my classes. My slow swim through grief made me feel as if time were crawling past, but as my dad passed away just before Christmas, there was a sense of last-minute urgency among other family and friends to make sure the holidays were as enjoyable as possible.sad-christmas-treeAs a writer, these lessons have value beyond just being potential fodder for stories. Life is what happens within a story. No matter what happens to a character, the world continues moving forward at a consistent rate. As the character’s world slows down or speeds up, the universe keeps doing what it has always done, and what it always will do. This consistent thread within the tapestry of a plot is sometimes subtle, and sometimes more obvious, but it is always present. It acts upon the character, and in turn, the character reacts – time feels as if it’s fluctuating to the character, but the universe remains the same.

New babies are born even as beloved family members are taken from us. Grief subsides eventually and we get back to the tasks that were once critical, then became trivial. We feel time return to its regular pacing, not because time changed, but because we did. It is a strange phenomenon (as if any phenomenon is not strange?), our experience of time, and of life, changes based upon what happens around us and to us. But life doesn’t change. This same cycle has been happening since we emerged from the primordial ooze.

Primordial-oozeStrangely, the writing process is very similar – things go along at a “normal” pace, then there is interference that slows me down, and deadlines that speed things up, and as one story comes to a close, another one is finding life. Sometimes I marvel at art imitating life, but it all seems to work in some great, universal synchronicity. So before I start singing the opening song from The Lion King, I think I’ll slow down, call it a day, and wait to see what there is to surprise me tomorrow,

Milestones

My oldest daughter graduated from high school this week.  This is one of those milestones that you reach and you remember for the rest of your life.  Her graduating class was huge – 850 kids.  That’s about 200 more than when I graduated, and I thought I went to a big school.  It was a nice ceremony, marked by the usual speeches and silliness that accompany such moments.  They show each of the kids on a big screen, just before receiving their diploma.  Some stood calmly and smiled, others danced or assumed poses. One guy pulled up his gown to reveal a college sweatshirt.  All-in-all, a day to smile and celebrate.

It hardly seems possible to me that my daughter could have reached this important point already.  I know that every parent feels this way – the time just flew by and I’m left wondering how this moment arrived so quickly.  Did I just go through this myself not so long ago? 

The whole space-time continuum is such a confusing thing to me any more.  Weeks rush by in a blur of activity and stress, and I wake up to realize the season has changed already.  I keep hoping time will slow a little, but life appears to be picking up speed instead.  I feel as if I’m looking around for a brake of some sort and finding an accelerator. 

A friend and I were discussing this very subject at lunch on Wednesday.  “I want my life to slow down,” I said across the table.  “I really like my life and I want to slow it down so I can enjoy it a little longer, or at least a little more attentively.”

“That’s the bitch of it,” she said.  “When life sucks, it seems like time slows way down, but when it’s good, it speeds up.”

I thought it over, and she was right.  “When I’m God,” I said, tongue firmly in cheek, “It will work the other way around.”

“When I’m God,” she said, “I’m stealing ideas from you.”

I’d like to think there is some tremendous reason for time to work this way – slow when you want it fast, fast when you want it slow.  I’d like to think that, somewhere in the master plan, it all makes sense.  Like maybe we have more good times than bad, so to balance things out, the time goes faster to make more room for the good ones.  I don’t know. 

Maybe the lesson is just simply to appreciate each moment.  I guess I could go all Hallmark card on that one, but I won’t. 

We’re hosting a party this weekend to celebrate this milestone with my daughter.  I’ll spend much time over the next few days cleaning house and getting food ready.  That will go slow, and the party will go much too fast.  I guess I’ll focus my energy on enjoying every moment of the party.  I’ll let you know how it goes. Fast, for certain, but I meant the concentration part.

Bless This Moment

Bless This Moment

  

Time is like a butterfly wing

comprised of delicate pieces.

It brushes across your fingers

leaving traces of itself on your skin

as it moves away from you with each breath.

Your attempts to hold it tighter,

to hold it longer,

to keep it somehow captive do nothing more

than destroy what you have so fleetingly

because what you want you can’t have anyway

at any cost

no matter how carefully you try to hold it.

So bless this moment

and let your breath out

and as it floats away from you

look at your fingers for gold glistening there

because that’s all you have left of it

when it leaves.

But it’s enough.

Writing on Paper Towels

This time of year, time is a precious commodity.  Between giving finals, grading, attending parties with family and friends, and supporting children in their holiday programs, the time to write is limited to what I can sneak in for a few minutes here and there.  Often these minutes come very late at night.

Many years ago, when my children were quite young and I was new to writing, I learned to write in fits and spurts while they were at preschool, or napping, or occupied for ten minutes with a toy.  I learned to keep a  notebook with me everywhere so that I would never lose an opportunity to write down an idea, a snippet of dialog, a character description.  I had notebooks stashed by my bed, in the kitchen, in my car, in my purse, in my laundry room (I get great ideas doing laundry).

It was my normal way of writing, grabbing a few minutes here or there, writing from the top of my head.  It was by no means easy, but it was what I could do.  It’s how I wrote the first book I ever had published, and I learned valuable skills from it.  I learned to focus quickly.  I learned not to waste time daydreaming, I learned not be get distracted by the phone ringing or the dog barking.  These skills have served me well for a lot of years.

Then, when my children were all in school full-time, I discovered the luxury of writing full-time, of spending hours and hours at the computer and creating.  I had days where I would start as soon as the kids were at school, and I would work until they came home at 3:00 in the afternoon. I would work and rework a scene.  I would develop complicated, in-depth character studies, and I would write until my wrists were numb. I had a lot of success with magazine and internet writing, and I sold a little project to Klutz publishing this way.  I also went back to school for my Master’s degree (and met Alison McGhee, whose blog I’ve added to my blogroll!  Check her out!).  After starting my Master’s I wrote two novels in my first six months!  I got used to having my butt firmly planted in my chair in front of my computer. But after I graduated, I had to figure out a way to pay for my student loans, and my royalty checks just weren’t enough to make the payment (the degree cost about $30,000).

So I started teaching English at a private business college.  Part-time worked into full-time, which worked into full-time and paying for our medical insurance (that’s a long story for another blog). Once again, my writing has been reduced to fits and spurts that I fit in whenever, and wherever, I can.  I’ve had to go back to the strategies that I used when I first started out.  Once again, there are notebooks stashed all around my house.  There is a notebook in my purse, and one that I carry in my rolling cart that holds all my teaching materials.  And yes, there is one in my laundry room, which my kids use to leave me messages that we are out of milk or they want me to buy cookies the next time I go to the store.

On rare occasions, I get caught without a notebook handy, and I have to resort to whatever I’ve got.  I’ll write a description on the back of my bank receipt.  I’ve got envelopes with dialog written on them, and a paper towel that has a scene outlined for a s/f book I’ve started work on.

There are some advantages to working this way.  When you work under time compression,each minute you have is precious, and you are less inclined to waste time.  This is why I don’t post a blog everyday.  Some days I just need to focus on the book, and there is nothing to spare.  Working this way also cuts out a lot of the bulls**t.  I can’t rewrite a scene three or four times, so I work it out in my head before I commit it to the computer.  It will get revised later, but it won’t get rewritten.  I strive to make it as good as possible before I put it on paper.

Working this way also forces me to think about the common mistakes made by me and other writers.  I can’t afford to commit verb tense shifts because I don’t have the time to go back and find them.  I keep a sharp awareness of pronoun use, of melodramatic language, and of dialog tags so that I don’t waste time fixing beginner mistakes over and over.  Not having that time makes me more aware of my writing style.

I met Kate DiCamillo during my Master’s program. She is a funny, self-effacing young woman who tells a delightful story of working full-time for a book distributor while writing her first novel, “Because of Winn Dixie”which received the Newbery honor.  She would get up at 3:00 in the morning so that she could write for an hour before going to work.  She would only have a few precious moments each day to spend on her manuscript, so she made sure to make each one count.  While she was at work, she would think of ideas, jot herself notes, and then go home and do a little more work on the book before going to bed.  I forget how long it took her to write the novel, but she worked this way for quite some time, and she said in her visit that she knows it made her a better writer.

It would be easy for me to whine about not having the time I want or need to do what I love, but the truth is it wouldn’t change the reality.  I have what I have, and right now, I’m content with that.  I believe that it makes me a stronger writer both technically and emotionally.  Of course, if I win the Idaho lottery next week, I’d go back to writing full-time in a heart beat.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or extra cash to drive to Idaho and buy the tickets, so I guess that’s not going to happen anytime soon!

Until then, or until I win the Prinz award next year, I’ll be happy doing what I’m doing, and scratching notes on stray pieces of paper.  At least I can take pride in knowing that I contribute to my family, do something I believe in, and still have time for things I am passionate about.  Now if only I could learn to play the Celtic harp sitting on my window seat . . .