Ninja Ballet

Carter’s favorite thing to do is something he calls “swinging stuff” and that my husband and I refer to as “ninja ballet.”

Carter’s favorite thing to do is something he calls “swinging stuff” and that my husband and I refer to as “ninja ballet.” It involves a plastic sword, light saber, or stick, and lots of jumping, spinning, and twirling (of both the stick and the boy himself).

Carter is devout in his practice of this art. For at least four years, he’s spent many hours every week, sometimes several hours in a single day, working with his stick in the yard. He spins. He whirls. He shouts.

The whole thing is surprisingly graceful and fun to watch. In his imagination, he’s fighting battles like the ones in the movies and TV shows he likes (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Ninjago), but from my place in the dining room where I watch him through the sliders, it looks more like dancing than dueling.

I see him out there, toiling happily, working and puffing and struggling to master a new move he’s invented and he is an artist of his own training and invention. “I can’t wait to go home and swing my stick,” he says sometimes after a day at school, and I imagine young Mozart saying after a day with math and history, “I can’t wait to go home and get to my piano.” He’s like Emily Dickinson, devoted to his art not for fame or admiration but because the art is its own reward.

Does that seem like too much? Maybe. Comparing an eleven-year-old boy playing in the yard with a broomstick to some of the greatest artists in history is a stretch, but Carter’s devotion is unassailable. Unless something changes in our culture, there aren’t going to be any TV shows that showcase his skills. He’s not going to get rich or famous because of it.

But…is his life not immeasurably better because he has art? Because he seeks to meet a challenge he has created for himself, and is diligent in improving his form? Because he loses himself in something he loves without concern that the thing he loves is nothing most people would recognize?

He does this with almost no audience. Sometimes, he shows Brian or me or one of his grandparents what he can do. He took his stick to our church retreat and enjoyed showing a few people his moves. He doesn’t mind being watched, but he doesn’t do it for the purpose of performance, or for any other purpose beyond the joy of the thing itself.

Whether we are stick swingers, word slingers, food composers, paint smearers, garden tenders, quilt builders, or music makers, may we all find some of Carter’s perseverance and dedication in ourselves. Our lives, too, will be immeasurably better.

Frozen

I’m just…stuck. How did this happen, when I love my life? It’s a hard life sometimes, sure, but it’s good. It’s very, very good, so why am I not living, creating, and enjoying?

Sometimes, I get frozen.

Actually, scratch that. Often, I am frozen. I live long stretches of my life like a deer hypnotized by headlights and it’s infuriating and frustrating and as an excuse to hate myself, it’s powerful. As a good slippery place from which to descend into depression, it’s very effective, except neither self-hate nor depression is my goal.

Let’s say I just dropped Carter off at school or a play date. I come in from the garage, let the dogs out, and pour myself a cup of coffee. I’m good with all that but now it gets sticky because I need to make a decision: what should I do next? I haven’t posted to my blog in days or weeks and I want to write something, and I’m feeling some pressure because I hate that I don’t post more regularly. There’s a proposal for a column that I need to finish and I’m angry at myself because it’s an awesome idea, plus I need to make some money. There are submissions for my church’s literary magazine to be read. There’s a book for which I’ve promised a review and have only read half, a long list of emails to answer, and don’t forget my book, with its stacks of notes and half-finished chapters gathering virtual dust in their electronic folders! That’s maybe one-third of what beckons me from my office, but I assume you get the idea. It’s a mash of things, most of them fulfilling and interesting, but there is also some sense of…not exactly obligation, but my life is not as good when I don’t do these things. I am my best self in the office, when I am creating and exploring, but I also struggle in there.

I sit down at my desk and adjust my chair, put on some music, light a candle, open all the necessary tabs on my browser and…crap. The few words I’ve produced are awful. I’m feeling a little guilty because Carter wore dirty socks this morning, so maybe I should tackle the laundry. I get up and carry my coffee cup through the kitchen (need to clean! need to shop! try to ignore!) and down the hall. The green hamper outside the hall bathroom is so full, clothes and sheets and towels are poking through the little holes and things are spilling over the top. How this hamper is so full is mysterious since Carter’s room looks like a textile-factory explosion. I kick my way through the clothes so I can open the window because it doesn’t smell very nice in there.

To heck with this, I think. I’m not picking up Carter’s clothes. He can do that himself when he gets home from school. I’ll start with Brian’s and my laundry, and I head to my room.

Where I am hit over the head with the fact that my little red-headed apple didn’t fall far from this tree because every pair of socks I have worn in the past week is on the floor on my side of the bed. The bedroom hamper is no more than 5 feet from the foot of the bed (more like 4 feet, what with the over-spillage), yet I pull off my socks before I get in the bed every night and leave them on the floor. Here are more coffee cups (there are matching groups of cups on my desk and on the table next to my favorite chair in the living room), plus water glasses and a towering stack of books that belies the fact that I switched to e-readers years ago and much prefer them.

I sit down on the bed and clear a little spot on the nightstand for my coffee cup. I’ll just sort the laundry. I’ll start with that, and I’ll feel a little better. A little more in control. I get up to gather laundry baskets and discover that two of them are in my Abbie’s room, full of clean laundry she hasn’t put away yet. One is in the laundry room, full of soggy towels from Saturday when Brian gave the dogs their baths. Also, Spencer’s clothes are in the dryer and there is a load of sheets in the washer that smell musty because I ran them two days ago. I look around at the drifts of dog hair in the laundry room (which is also the dog’s “bedroom”) and decide I need to sit down and have another cup of coffee.

It all seems too much, too big, and the chatter in my head is unbearable. My folks, my sister, my ex-husband, my 10th grade English teacher, the psychiatrist I saw when I was 19, some therapists, a pastor from childhood, occasionally even my kids, all their voices bundled, amplified, and heavily distorted by my shame (except the voices of my sister and my ex-husband who would say my worst assessments of myself don’t go far enough). Except it’s all my voice. Sometimes I can drown them all out with an audiobook or loud music and actually get something done. Other times, I can’t get above the struggle. The voices are deafening and exhausting and I’m overwhelmed with guilt because I am wasting my day, my talent, or my life (Welcome to my ego; is it not an unlovely thing?).

I stir like this all day, almost every day. I feel like I’m witnessing a fight-to-the-death between my brain’s ability to focus, organize, and execute, and my life. I keep us functioning at an acceptable level: there is food in the refrigerator, clean clothes in the closets, bills paid on time(ish), and everyone gets to their appointments on time. I meet my obligations at church and in the other organizations I’m part of and I never miss a hard deadline (though the soft ones and the ones I set for myself are symbolic at best), but the rest of it is a relentless battle, and life is not what it could be. I don’t have energy for relationships, creativity, and fun because I’m exhausted from this internal fight.

But dammit, the noise! If I shut down and shut it all out (books, Netflix, web surfing), I can get a little peace but I don’t get anything done, don’t even really live my life. When I try to accomplish something, the nattering begins. I’m not good enough; why didn’t I do this sooner; who do I think I am. If I wash the window sill above the kitchen sink, I notice the horrifying state of the front yard, and if I dust the window sills in the living room, I notice the horrifying state of the backyard. Carter needs his fingernails trimmed, we’re out of milk, I told a friend I’d write a piece for her new website, on and on and on and I am tired. I’ve read the books, taken the medicine, talked to the therapists, done the programs and I’m just…stuck. How did this happen, when I love my life? It’s a hard life sometimes, sure, but it’s good. It’s very, very good, so why am I not living, creating, and enjoying?

I believe there’s a solution, but all I really know so far is this: being hard on myself is not that solution. I’ve done that and it does not work. What I haven’t done is share the struggle publicly so let’s see where that gets me. Maybe you’ve experienced the same thing and I’m not all alone in the world. Stranger things have happened.

BlogHer Surprise, or How I Misunderstood Almost Everything

BlogHer 2013, one of the most eventful weekends of my life, presented in 1600 words and 10 pictures. “Just the facts, ma’am,” as the saying is.

I almost never write about blogging/writing because I know that most of my readers aren’t bloggers or writers, but I really wanted to tell you this story. If you are one of those non-blogging readers, a bit of background: BlogHer is a social media company that does all kinds of things (and maybe everything), including hosting several conferences. Their flagship event is a blogging conference every summer, and it is mammoth, one of the largest social media gatherings in the world. Last weekend I flew to Chicago and attended their 9th annual conference.

My language for the past few months has gone something like this: Yes, I’m going to BlogHer, but it’s not quite the right conference for me. BlogHer is really for blogger bloggers, the ones who work with brands and write reviews and all that, and I’m not that kind of writer. I’m going to meet my friends and next year I’ll find a conference that suits me better.

Ahem.

I was wrong.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Yes, BlogHer conferences do connect bloggers with brands (I am in no way critical of that; it just isn’t my aim right now, and besides, I’m pretty sure I misunderstood exactly how that works, too), but there is so much more. I met people—hundreds and hundreds of them—who are brilliant, funny, creative, energetic, talented, and fierce. I talked with knock-you-out writers and change-the-world activists. I heard talks by Guy Kawasaki (Read his book Enchantment today.) and Sheryl Sandberg (Read her book Lean In the very instant you finish Kawasaki’s book.). I talked and talked and talked (and talked) and heard stories that had me alternately laughing until my guts ached and scrambling in my bag for tissues.

Of course, some of the emotionality is just about exhaustion (4-5 hours of sleep a night 3 nights in a row? I’m way too old for that shit.), but most of it is about the energy of the people and the being-togetherness. I am every bit as close and connected to some of my online friends as I am to my local friends, and to be together in the same place for the first time is a powerful thing.

Case in point:

That’s Jen, also known as @TheNextMartha, but for me, she’ll always be my Internet Fairy Godmother. She came to the airport to meet me and share a cab to the airport, and it was so fitting, since she was my very first internet friend, way back when we both had fewer than 100 Twitter followers (You know, back in the day. 2009, I believe.).

Then there’s this one:

Can I just say, photography is kind of a big deal in the blogosphere, and we are probably a very rare pair of bloggers in that neither of us can take a photo to save our lives. But that’s Alex, my hero, my Wonder Woman, the Southeastern US version of Southwestern US me (It probably says bad things about me that I admire her so much since we’re so similar.). We roomed together, and the first night we decided to hit it early because we were both tired, and proceeded to flap our gums until after 1 am. I could have kept talking with her for days and never gotten bored.

I never took a picture with Katie, which was seriously stupid (see above about how I am photographically challenged; not only am I bad at taking pictures, but also bad at remembering even to try) because I love her like wildfire, but I squeezed her no less than 15 times, and maybe sometime I’ll edit a couple of photos of us to make it look like we’re together.

I spent some time with Abigail:

I have loved her like a younger sister for a long time, but did I recognize her when I met her? No, I did not (I plead exhaustion.). Did she hold it against me? Not a bit. She even let me play with her baby later in the day. (Cute? Oh, yes. Painfully cute.)

We laughed and laughed at lunch. I was holding that baby over there on the right and I was laughing so hard I had to pass him back because I was afraid I would bonk his head on the table.

I met new people, so many new people, and thank goodness they were all passing out business cards because my head was swimming after the first hour. For a person whose work life is spent at a desk in a little office next to the kitchen, with music and occasionally (OK, maybe more than occasionally) MSNBC to keep her company, that was a whole lot of people. An avalanche of humanity. I met a tiny fraction of the people in attendance, and still, it was more faces and voices than I can possibly keep track of.

These are not new people. These are people who’ve been blowing my mind with their words for years. If it seems like I was a little starstruck, it’s only because I was. From left to right, me, Varda, Michelle, Jean (Stimey), Jennifer, and Mir. If there is a brawl in an alley, these are probably the women who started it. Don’t let their beauty fool you; they are badass in the extreme.

The highlight of my weekend was Voices of the Year, which is the big event on Friday night every year at BlogHer. Nominations for blog posts open every spring, and the BlogHer team of readers chooses 100 posts to honor, and from among those, they choose 12 and invite those writers to read them onstage. When I got the email inviting me to read A Dislocation of Mind I was honored, but I had no idea what it really meant.

This is the space at the Chicago Sheraton where they had Voices of the Year, before the people came. It’s hard to tell because of my lousy photography skills, but I think the room had a capacity of something like a half a million people. (Perhaps a little less? Who can tell.)

We twelve readers, plus hosts, were tucked into a backstage space to await the beginning of the show. I peeked out around the curtain from the far side of the room and snapped this not too long before we started, in between two of my half dozen trips to the bathroom to stress-pee.

Whoa. No less amazing than the audience were the other writers. I took this backstage, when Lisa StoneElisa Camahort Page and Jory Des Jardins (BlogHer co-founders) were introducing the evening’s emcee.

I wish I’d managed to get a picture with all the readers in it. In between trips to the bathroom, I kept thinking, “I could sit at a table with these women and we wouldn’t run out of things to talk about for months.” The intelligence, passion, and hilarity among them is epic.

Oh, and the emcee?

Yes, that’s Queen Latifah, who liked my triskele tattoo and who is even more beautiful and gracious in person than she is on screen.

I managed to take the stage without falling down, and then there was magic. I’ve made the joke a thousand times: there are few things I like more than an audience. Ask my mom and she’ll tell you that from the instant I figured out how to use my mouth to form words, no one has been able to get me to shut up. But this? This was something different. Extraordinary. People told me that they really enjoyed it, but I have a hard time imagining that anyone was having a better time than I was. To have people hear my words, to understand my daughter’s story, gives me real hope. Many people don’t get what’s happening with mental health in our country, but here was a group of powerful, passionate people, many of whom have their own experience of mental illness and the mental health system, who care.

And then I went backstage and my phone exploded with encouraging, celebratory tweets, and I won’t lie. That was fun. When BlogHer posts the event on YouTube, I’ll link to it because if you weren’t there you’ll want to watch the whole thing. It will blow your mind, from laughing about intestinal worms to weeping over the injustice of poverty to raging because the Christian church is so often outrageously un-Christ-like, and so much more.

BlogHer had one of these boards made for each of the 100 winning Voices of the Year posts, and the reception room after the event was gorgeous, filled up with all those words. Alas, I couldn’t figure out how to get mine home on Southwest Airlines.

On Saturday afternoon, I spoke on a panel with Alex Iwashyna and Cora Harrington called Blogging the Unbloggable: Writing About Hard Topics Without Being Hated. I hope the people who attended the session enjoyed it, and maybe even learned something, because for me it was important. In preparing for the panel I had to really examine myself and my blog, and I’m asking some questions, namely, why am I taking so few risks? I don’t know the answers, but I don’t think it’s a bell I’ll be able to un-ring.

I kind of hate uncomfortable, un-ringable bells.

But what the hell, right? A life without surprises and risks is hardly worth the effort. I came home with a new understanding of the power and limitations of this medium and I’m excited to find out what will happen next.

Next week, I mean. After I sleep. A lot.

Into the Heart of the Thing

If I wanted to do this blogging and writing thing with a bag on my head, I would have had to make that choice at the very beginning. I don’t think I would do it differently even if I had it to do over again.

I kind of hate it when bloggers write about blogging because duh, most of my readers aren’t writers at all, so apologies in advance.

In November, 2010, I decided to take a short break from blogging and and all things internet-y to spend some time with my youngest son, Carter, during his fall break from school. That was true, but it was only half the story. Over the summer of 2010, No Points for Style had gained a respectable readership. I wasn’t playing in the big leagues by anyone’s definition, but my blog was growing and it was thrilling. I wanted (still want) nothing more than for people to read my words. Yes, I’ll cop to it: I want to be famous on the internet, and maybe even famous in the real world. That’s more complicated than it sounds, because it has more to do with wanting to be heard and needing my life to matter in some broad way than it does with fame per se, but I don’t guess I’ll figure everything out right here, right now, so, on with our story.

While watching my blog gain readers was exciting, it was also terrifying and confusing. I’m still not exactly sure why. Comments and emails about how I am poisoning Carter by giving him medicine, or how I’m ruining my relationship with my older kids by sharing stories of my marriage to their dad, or the occasional generic hate-filled diatribe peppered with misspellings and grammatical errors don’t particularly bother me.

I do know that I was paying far too much attention to the noise in the blogosphere (and social media more generally) about what was and was not OK in a blog and I pretty much tied myself in a knot over what other people might find acceptable.

Which, well, let’s back up a little bit, because this is what I do. I define myself, not based on my own preferences, talents, abilities, limitations, etc., but based on what others expect. And this is no small thing. In fact, it’s been pretty much sucking the life out of me for as long as I can remember. On meeting me for the first time, people tend to think I’m shy, but I’m just taking a few minutes to suss out who you would like me to be so I can be that person for you.

However (and this is one big-ass however), I am also an extremely passionate person with strong opinions, and I don’t just share those opinions; I deliver diatribes. In meetings, at church, at community events, in groups, I’ll be sitting on my hands thinking, “Be quiet. Just skip it this time,” but alas, I’m what you call mercurial, and before I know what I’m doing, my hand is in the air and there I go, speaking, and I have big gestures and high volume to go with the words. Put the passion and the fear together and (as my husband would be very willing to tell you), there is one sorry-ass puddle of shame-filled Adrienne to be found in the after.

Oh, Lord, The After. It can be ugly.

The After wasn’t particularly applicable to writing for a long time, in part because my audience was tiny, but more because writing gives writers as much distance from their subject matter as they choose. If a topic feels safe, I might dance right into the heart of it, and if it is dangerous I can stay safely away from the tender center.

And authenticity, integrity, blah blah blah. We analyze and dissect these ideas in the blogosphere as if they were real, achievable goals, an endpoint that some will reach and some will ignore in favor of a well-managed online identity and the product endorsements that are the supposed result of such bedazzled lives.

For the record, I always thought that was the falsest of false dichotomies. Whether we aspire to authenticity or not, we are all carefully managing our online identities with every word we share. I just had no idea how trapped I would become between the two non-existent poles.

I have never lied here in the virtual pages of No Points for Style, which is not to say that everything I’ve written has been factually accurate, but storytelling is the very definition of subjective. The truth as I have written it here belongs to me and no one else. The facts? Well, I don’t know to whom those belong. God, I guess, or maybe the past, but certainly not to me.

Even more strangulation has come in the form of replaying over and over the random bits of advice I’ve heard across the years. Be funny, said some; focus on mental health advocacy said others. Write shorter posts, from one corner; be more casual from another.

Why I even listen is beyond me because I know good and well that the only real advice I need is stop investigating your damn naval and write, you foolish woman. Some of it will suck; some will be brilliant. Most will be passable. Just fucking write.

I took that short break from blogging in the fall of 2010 and when it was over what happened was this: I found myself sitting at my keyboard, staring at the screen and thinking not about what I wanted to say, but how you would receive what I did manage to say, which is sort of like dropping a soggy wool blanket over a dancer: it stops all the art and replaces it with futile, ugly struggling. I tried several times to find my way back in, without much success.

I don’t know how one negotiates two desires that are so entirely at odds. I want to speak, and speak loudly, and be heard. I also want to hide under the bed where no one will ever have reason to call me names or fart in my general direction.

To speak and to be treated civilly is too much to ask if one is doing one’s speaking on the internet. All of us who put our hearts and minds into the public in this medium know that. If we haven’t experienced it directly, we’ve witnessed it.

If I wanted to do this blogging and writing thing with a bag on my head, I would have had to make that choice at the very beginning. I don’t think I would do it differently even if I had it to do over again. There’s nothing to do from here but shut the whole thing down, or take a leap back into the heart of the thing. I don’t know if the world needs my words or not, but I do know that I need to speak them. I am made of, for, and by words, and to be silent is to wither.

 

Even the knowledge of my own fallibility cannot keep me from making mistakes. Only when I fall do I get up again.
—Vincent Van Gogh

Behind My Eyes

I start a load of laundry, take the boy to school, pour a cup of coffee, put the dogs out, answer email.

I fold a load of laundry, make some phone calls, drink another cup of coffee, sit at my desk and write a few listless words that won’t go where I want them to go.

I drink more coffee, let the plumber into the house, fold more laundry, stare at the listless words.

I have little notes on my desk, reminders of the things that, if I could do them, would make me happier, or so I believe…

Tell the truth no matter what.

Give yourself a fucking break.

To thine own self be true.

I breathe.

What is the story, the first story, the one right behind my eyes, the one clogging up all the other stories?

The not-an-answer comes back: I’m tired. So tired.

On the heels of the not-an-answer comes the familiar diatribe: Other people survive. Other people live with worse traumas, larger griefs, more pain. They get the fuck on with it. They create. They work. They move on.

I breathe again.

Give yourself a fucking break.

Do something new, something that will rattle the script and force a change, anything to break the stalemate.

I walk the dogs, call a friend, eat a bowl of rice, say a prayer.

I sit at my desk and the story right behind my eyes is the same as it ever was:

I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids.

I want my fucking kids.

I want them.

But here is the terrible truth: no matter what he did, no matter how terrible it was, he wins.

He has my children.

I don’t kiss my integrity goodnight, or drive it to school in the morning. I didn’t buy my integrity a prom dress or teach it how to drive.

My integrity is a cold and heavy stone when my kids’ beds are empty. Not something in which I take pride, but something I drag behind me everywhere I go.

I’m OK. Really and truly, I am mostly OK. I sing, sometimes, when I do the laundry, and I enjoy the coffee, and the little boy and the less-little boy and the husband and the dogs are lovely and warm and they make me so happy and grateful that I sometimes weep.

Until I sit down to write and the story right behind my eyes is the same as it ever was:

I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids I want my kids.

I want my fucking kids.

I want them.