Lollypop Tongues

This has been a year of reeling.  I’ve learned that it isn’t only the bad times that knock me down and shake me up, but the good ones, too. No sooner do I get my feet under me, take a few carefree steps when BOOM! – something else comes out of nowhere. The year is dense with overload, bristling with good and bad things like lurid lollypop tongues. It isn’t a bad year or a failed year or even a grieving year. In many respects, 2012 may be one of my most accomplished years, one full of opportunities, revelations, and surprising detours. It is a year of change.

blue lolly oceanAnd that’s not any kind of year for a stability junkie.

Or is it?

The shifting landscape of my life has forced me to find a calm center that isn’t based on any illusion of control. In the past, my days were ruled by an unwavering agenda. I ran my life like a tight ship, never straying from my course or getting stuck in the doldrums. Small upsets to my schedule made me anxious and fearful. I was inflexible in the weirdest of ways, and continually insisted on doing things that didn’t need to be done simply because I had them scheduled. It took decades for me to learn that life isn’t a boat, and I’m not a captain.

Life is an ocean. Beautiful-terrible, mercurial life! It is the last thing you were ever expecting it to be.

My prissily planned days were an artificial representation of the ocean of life. Sure, you can eliminate unnecessary complexity in calculating forces by assuming all horses are shaped like spheres. The rude fact is that horses are not spherical, and that forces aren’t always easily calculable. Years like this one make me aware that no matter how tightly I pin down one dimension of the equation, there are more variables I hadn’t accounted for popping up elsewhere. I’m finding this in my WIP. It started as a book, expanded to a triology, and is now projected to be a five book series. A series! I am in the second revision of the first book and the draft is … tumescing. I’ve added an additional twelve-thousand words, shutting down any hopes of writing a slim novella. And I’m not finished with the edit, which means that this book, like life itself, is going to keep me reeling.

I mentioned a calm center, but I don’t find them in these frenetic, strange words sparking in their own tinder-boxes of potential. The calm is here, though. All the time, right here.

To reach it, I had to abandon myself to the incalculable tides of fate. The waves stole my flip-flops, the undertow dragged me down. Down, down into my core. At first, it was incredibly hard to sit still quietly with myself. Panic was a threat, an intense urge to make lists was a threat, loud music and cold beer were welcome threats to the simple act of surrender. Yet in the quiet of my core, away from the spinning wheel of the daily, that is where I find true, unchanging peace. Moment to moment, I can go there and be free of what plagues me. There are such bad things, and some such good things, that shift my entire sense of self into a new spectrum of understanding, loathing, or loving. Those are the times the center is needed. Of course, those are also the times when I box in the asshole in the Beemer or snap at the nice guy from IT (and one should never, ever under any circumstances snap at the nice guy in IT!). The discovery of calm hasn’t made me perfect, but it has made me more aware of when I have spun out into the tempest. To go to my center focuses me. The stillness of calm gave me the strength to get out of my Ambition Room, the empowerment to define my own ‘All,’ and access to the conduit that sends me the stories I write.

The calm isn’t contingent on the world or reality. It is untouched by the whirlwinds of tragedy and triumph. It is within me, and it is my grace.


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Basketball in the Afterlife

Part Seven

How to Complete a Novel

Life wanted me to meet Aaron. When our first opportunity slipped by without us even realizing, life finagled us a second chance.  Aaron had a message for me and now I’m sharing it with you.

I grew up an Army brat. I moved every few years and had the good fortune to travel more of Europe and North America before I was old enough to buy my own booze than many people get in a lifetime. One of our homes was Fort Meade, Maryland. In fact, we were stationed there twice: once when I was a toddler and again when I was in middle school. Since 9-11 and the lockdown of all the bases, I can no longer visit Fort Meade and see the tree my mother and I planted during that first tour. If I could, I would point to that tree as proof that the circumstances of life can fold back upon themselves to present us with second chances.

Aaron was also an Army brat. In 1990, Aaron was in the 7th grade and I was in the 8th. That year, we attended the same Fort Meade middle school, but we didn’t meet. The next year, I went to the high school and the year after that my family was stationed in Belgium.

In 2007, my husband and I moved to Austin, where Aaron and I both worked for the same company. The odds of us both ending up in Austin at the same time is probably pretty small, but the odds of us ending up at the same nine-employee shop has to be infinitesimal. Even with so few people, it took months before Aaron and I discovered our Fort Meade connection. At home that night, I dug out my 8th grade yearbook. Aaron was a skinny kid wearing a Notre Dame sweatshirt and a big smile; I had long hair and really huge glasses. A decade and a half later, and neither of us had changed too much. Aaron still cheered the Fighting Irish and I never did make the switch to contacts or lasic.

Aaron loved to play basketball and video games, lift weights, and watch sports. His speech was peppered with wonderfully unique phrasing. When complaining about bad reception on his TV, he said it was “52 inches of hot garbage.” When he talked about his new Ikea mattress he said, “it’s like sleeping on angels.” When he wanted to tell you to take a U-turn, he said, “hook a bitch.” Aaron was quick to smile, always ready to laugh, and once told me to come get him if anyone gave me any trouble and he’d take care of it for me. Aaron was my friend.

He was also suffering.

A degenerative disease stole his vitality.  Some days, his joints would swell so painfully he couldn’t walk. During the advanced stages of his illness, the bones in his hands fused together in a painful process. Over the course of a few months, Aaron’s hands went from being those of a normal thirty-two year old to those of someone eighty.

Aaron’s job involved keyboard input, burning CDs, and packaging shipments for customers. Trivial things when you have two working hands, torturous otherwise. He was in constant pain, but would not take medication because he wanted to have a clear head as long as he could.

Did he have every right to complain, to whine, to pry pity from friends, coworkers, strangers? I’d say so. He was dealt a shit hand he didn’t deserve.

Did he ever complain, whine, or resort to self pitying? No. Not once. Aaron did his job. He made a point of stopping by my cube to talk to me. When he got too weak to work in the office, he’d send me daily Yahoo! messages at 3PM. He made my charity football pool picks for me because he didn’t want to see me place last. He began to share many of his memories with me and I began to understand how bad things were for him. The last time I saw Aaron, we were in a coworker’s office, watching some disgusting video of men making a car out of meat. I remember how perfect the afternoon light was, how disgusting that meat car was, how good it felt to be with my friends in that light laughing at our queasy disgust together.

At the end of June, Aaron took a medical leave from work.

He died one week later.

At his funeral, I met Aaron’s mother. I was there with a couple of co-workers from our original nine person crew, and she made time to come and talk to us. She told us that it had been extremely painful for Aaron to complete his end of month shipments in June. It took him a long time and he had to rest often, but he finished on time.  Aaron didn’t want to leave his boss with a ton of work. Aaron didn’t want to leave his tasks unfinished, and he didn’t. Aaron had a sense of honor that his illness couldn’t tarnish.

What was the message Aaron had for me? It was that even in adversity, life can be approached with a clear mind and humor. No matter how bad things are, we still have something when we have our honor, our work, and each other.

My seventh suggestion for how to complete a novel is inspired by Aaron:

Work Joyfully

No matter how much you love a project, there will be days where the work will be harder. The words won’t flow or your characters will make you so sad your courage will falter. Some days, you swim as hard as you can, but the tide keeps sweeping you farther from shore. When a ‘retrograde day’ strikes, return to your image of what it will be like to finish. Instead of thinking of what must be done now in the negative, think of what must be done as something you want to do because you want to complete your project. Don’t think, “I have to format my book for Kindle and formatting is a tedious pain.” Instead think, “I get to format my novel for Kindle and when I am done, I will be closer to seeing the book – my book! – on Amazon!”  It may seem like mere semantic sugar, but try it. I think you’ll find that a positive viewpoint makes boring or unpleasant tasks less onerous.

Check back soon for another post in my ‘How to Complete A Novel’ series!


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