Friday, November 5, 2010

Ode to Praise

I thrive on praise; it got me started writing and thinking and studying, then thinking about doing that for a career: teaching. Not surprisingly, there are still a handful of teachers whose words stay with me; I recall them--words and teachers--when I can’t think of anything to write.

Mrs. Garver, my fifth grade teacher, assigned a Poetry Project, in which we had to gather published poems we liked and write some of our own, assembling it all into an illustrated booklet. I still have that booklet, peppered with my awful drawings. And when I look at it, I turn to the page where she wrote, Your poems are just as good as the published ones you’ve chosen.

In high school, Mrs. Myhr found out I wrote poems and pushed me to help edit the school’s literary journal. She thought my poems were the best of the bunch. I also had her for Honor’s English, and she told me my essays were pretty good, too.

In college, I took Professor Lon Otto for Creative Writing; I was fortunate enough to find him again in grad school, where I took a fiction writing class and worked with him on a poetry manuscript I was compiling. Once, when I was a Sophomore in college, he commented about a certain line in a poem, saying in a way that made me blush with pleasure: How did you think of that?

These days, for reasons unrelated to praise, I am not writing much. The reasons are unrelated to criticism, too, except that fiend self-criticism, which lives in a corner of my writing mind. I am not writing much because my mind is occupied with the other great creative endeavor of my life, parenthood.

Two of my grown children have drifted into the cultural pattern we now call “failure to launch.” One of them did so at my painful expense, living a life of irresponsibility at home: menial job, a limited physical and mental presence, drug and alcohol abuse. Forced into a corner, finally, when I attempted to enforce some standards of honesty, he fled. But not before turning on me in a literal rage, just inches away, his forceful breath making my eyelashes waver, threatening me and making his opinion known: he hates me. He doesn’t want to see me or talk to me. I believe he would add the word Ever.  If I had touched him that day, he would have struck me, I'm convinced, his anger so red hot it would have taken us both up in flames.

Friends, people who have more compassion now than I have for myself, who have had children or parents or family members who abused drugs, tell me he didn’t mean any of it. It was the addiction speaking, not him. They tell me to get some help. Some support. There are groups for people whose children struggle with addictions.

I know this to be true. I have even, recently, discovered that such a group meets just a mile or two from my house. But more than I’ve appreciated, thrived on, praise for my writing, I’ve craved it for my parenting. And praise is not the purview of support groups. I want to know—need to know?—that I did all right, overseeing the changing landscape that is our life as a family, now that it seems to be disintegrating. I seek the solace of being sure that for his growing, impressionable years, I offered him enough understanding, enough time, enough praise. That the goods in our relationship were good enough.

The situation is really worse than that. I can’t think of any praise to offer him now. I am still cringing from the intensity of his outburst, his fury. But even without considering that final push over the edge into what I think of as the madness of substance abuse, there is not much that is deserving of praise in his life.

There. I said it. He doesn’t deserve praise. Toward the end of summer, when he was nearing what I didn't realize was his breaking point, he asked, Why don’t you ever support me? Why are you always criticizing everything I do? We were standing in the kitchen and he was all movement—dashing in, grabbing a sandwich and a handful of chips while his cohort of friends waited in the entryway. He was already moving toward the front door as he spoke. He hadn’t been home for several days at that point, and judging from his tone, I expected that pattern to continue.

Still, my initial impulse was to apologize; I know how painful it is to seek approval—love—and not get it. I didn’t say anything that day; I stalled. He was striding away from me. And I didn’t know what to say. It was true. He had caught me. I couldn’t support excessive drinking with the cadre of underage friends who follow him everywhere; I couldn’t support his dating a 16 year old girl when he was 21; I couldn’t support disappearing for days with no word and then charging in with accusations; I couldn’t support his implied threats and gunpowder temper, his hair-trigger response to the smallest of stimuli, including other drivers with the audacity to drive slower than he wanted to.

But perhaps my silence was all the response he needed. Perhaps that was a last straw for him, his foggy perceptions of things clarified for an instant when he could identify me as heartless. Uncaring. Deserving of his scorn.

Alcoholics have a knack for diverting attention from their behavior onto the perceived faults of others. I once got a birthday card from my father that said, Since you haven’t bothered to write, I am sending you this card. Intellectually, I know the irrationality of that. I saw it that day in the kitchen, too. But the mind doesn’t consort with mere facts. I have not been able to shake the feeling of it: underneath my skin, in the slow crawl that is my blood making its way to my heart, I am ashamed. I wake and sleep to the constant rhythm: I. Should. Have. Done. Something.

Defining the truth in words can be slippery. Actions can be misconstrued, too, but I let him walk out the door with no assurance that I loved him, that he was still my son, even if he was hurting himself, damaging our family. I needn’t have lied or defended myself; but I could have touched his arm, hugged him, looked him in the eyes.

I did none of that, so now I seek to drive out the specter of guilt that nestles just below my ribcage. Maybe I couldn’t have praised him that day. But there can be no praise for me, either, missing the cue of his need.

I Can't Think of Anything to Write About

Writer’s block. It’s for everyone. In reality, I can think of lots of things to write about, but often they’re painful subjects and I’m simply not ready or in the mood to enter a dark phase, if only for a few hours. So, I’ll just rant about a subject that is close to my heart, coursing with a different kind of emotion: the makings of a celebrity in America. As I’ve grown used to my graying hair and the plumping that comes with middle age, as I’ve watched my children grow and tried to make good citizens and human beings out of them, the culture has worked against me. In America, we now care less about good citizens and good human beings; what we spend our time caring about is fame.

When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait for Saturday nights, when we popped a big bowl of popcorn and sat shoulder to shoulder on our couch to watch Saturday Night at the Movies. It was always a classic, often a Western. We saw Paint Your Wagon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. We sat spellbound through Funny Girl and cheered at the end of To Sir With Love. We enjoyed the stories and the acting and recognized the “stars” as somehow separate, members of an elite group. They had Talent, and that’s primarily why we spent our weekends mesmerized by their performances.

I took several acting classes in high school. Locked in the invincible mindset of an adolescent, I began to dream of a life on the stage. That dream soon died. Except for my peers’ opinions, which were embarrassingly high, I didn’t receive enough unqualified praise to convince me to continue my study. My teachers were nice, and they told us all to keep acting, but that was the point: they encouraged everyone similarly. I didn’t have any particular talent; I turned to English in college, a discipline in which I really did excel.

Is excelling the point? Partly. Today, when I scan headlines, I see the word “celebrity” used for people who seem to have no distinguishing talents at all. A short list: parents like Kate Gosselin and the Duggars; socialites like Paris Hilton and Tiger’s mistresses; Briston Palin and her notorious beau Levi Johnston.

It is tempting, I’m sure, for people to want their proverbial “fifteen minutes of Fame.” But then, why don’t we allow them—push them—to move on? Joe the Plumber has retreated into the shadows, thankfully.

Why, I wonder, has the American public begun to tout anyone the television places in front of us as a celebrity? I am not suggesting that a talent for parenting is small potatoes; it’s not. But the “celebrity parents”—oops, I forgot Octomom—aren’t celebrated for their parenting, per se. They are celebrated for having a lot of kids, often in a short span of time.

I have played a lot of softball. You could film me if you wanted, but the camera’s presence wouldn’t change the fact that perhaps my talents lie more in persistence than athletic prowess.

And what has Bristol Palin done to be labeled a “star”? She’s an Advocate. For teenage abstinence. Has anyone else noticed that she didn’t abstain? Isn’t it confusing to the people she’s supposedly inspiring? A recent ad she did for The Candies Foundation spotlights the precarious position she’s in and the mixed message she sends the audience.  The gist of her message is this:  Hi, I’m Bristol Palin. I had sex when I wasn’t married and now have a child. But I have a famous family and a lot of money and support. You don’t, so you shouldn’t have sex. Please don’t do what I did.

This is advocacy? Are we, indeed, as mindless as our preoccupations with these faux stars suggests? The main criteria for television stardom these days, after all, seem to be good looks and an unquenchable thirst for attention.

Most toddlers have that going for them.

My sister, like Bristol, had a child out of wedlock. She was nineteen. After a short, miserable marriage to the child’s father, she became an advocate, too, for her own growing family. She advocates daily for honesty, integrity, hard work, mercy. She’s beautiful, inside and out. So far, no TV offers have come her way. Did I mention she’s hard working and funny, too?

When I fume inwardly at these headlines and the ridiculous elevation of people with few discernible talents to the status of celebrity, I must remember that we make them what they are. And we do it in spite of their often unsavory behavior off screen. Remember Paris and cocaine? Octomom’s consideration of an X-rated film?

I suppose that rather than asking “What’s wrong with them?” for seeking and then courting the spotlight, I could more fruitfully ask, “What’s wrong with us?” We’ve privileged mediocrity and beauty over talent, character, solidity. In a world of constantly shifting shapes, is this the best we can do?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

All the Tricks I Know

Writing and running have a lot in common; each is a mental battle more than a physical one. Each requires discipline more than stamina, pure plodding rather than short bursts of speed (or inspiration).

It's easy to forget that if you tune in to any media outlet. Writers in interviews on my local public radio station are speaking of books they've finished; I don't blame them for sounding jubilant. Sure, they mention the length of time it took to finish (often, 5 - 10 years), but they also mention the sheer exhilaration of finding the right word or story. The pain and frustration of the actual work is not forgotten, only dimmed from the distance that's created by success. Best of all, for me, is when they speak, as Chinese-American writer Wang Ping did recently at a reading, of how the stories write them, not vice versa. I accept without flinching that that's the ultimate goal, to be picked up and flown around by a muse or a spirit of inspiration or creativity.

It's even worse in the athletic world. You can't talk for more than 5 minutes with a runner before you hear about the "high" that comes, the feeling of flying along on clouds, a euphoria that begins to seem as natural as tying your shoes. Competitions raise spirits; post-performance, winners talk about being "in the zone," a place where the body moves as if possessed, moves without pain or effort or even concentration, moves because that's what bodies seem designed to do.

My whole experience defies these easy philosophies. Yet, they cause a yearning in me so strong that I think I may be drawn to that possibility as much as anything. I long to run as I do in my dreams, endlessly, tirelessly. I long to finish each poem, sit back, sign, close my eyes, and fill the room with the sheer delight spilling out from my skin.

That sounds dramatic, but then fantasies often are. I fly along about one run out of ten, and that ratio gets worse the older I get. For a joke, I used to tell people, "I'd hate running if I didn't love it so much." Only, I wasn't really joking. Most of my writing flows out only by force; wait, that's not accurate. "Flow" doesn't describe the nearly backward progress that comes from writing one word and erasing three, or abandoning poems after an hour, never returning to them later. The backspace/delete keys wear down faster than any letter on my keyboard.

No one really believes that running or writing is really easy, producing the most dewy and fantastic feelings all the time. So why don't we talk about the pain more? I mean the mental effort, the stubborn will that seems to produce nothing at the time.

If I ever get interviewed (for my writing--seriously, who would interview me for running?), I will talk about that. I may even talk only about that, it's been so important to me lately. The "tricks" I use to get myself to bypass the mental crossbars that come down when it's time to get to work. You can't crash through those things; well, you can, but that means you have to admit your own resistance, which is akin to failing. I really don't want to write--wait! I'm a writer! I'm not supposed to think like that. I think like that; I must not be a writer.

That's why I transform resistance into something else. I trick myself, bargain with myself, and I do it with great pleasure.

1. I'll do some revising and see what happens.

2. I'll try some freewriting, starting with that image of a squirrel's tale, backlit with sun, delicate as lace.

3. I'm going to read now, because reading is a form of writing.

4. I won't write about this painful experience with my son; I'll describe the yard approaching winter.

5. It's Friday night. I'll pour myself a glass of wine and sit down at the computer to read Poetry Daily.

6. I'll write the same essays as my students are writing.

7. I'll borrow a line I read from someone else's poem.

8. I'll write a blog entry.

All this just to keep going, to keep the fingers clicking away at the keys. I want to write. I fear writing. Writing is such hard work, with so little tangible reward. And I feel the same way about running, develop the same system of tricks and distractions to bribe and goad myself to keep at it.

1. I do not have to run faster to make it up this hill; I just have to push off my back leg.

2. That wind that's slowing my stride will be pushing me all the way home.

3. If I get tired, I can always walk (I never do).

4. Here's the last half mile; I could make it that far even if I was sick.

5. When I get home, I will reward myself by drinking water and sitting down to stretch out.

6. If this is the hardest thing I have to do today, at least it's almost done.

7. I'll bet I can recite the Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales by the time I get to that stoplight.

8. If I can see the end of the route, I'm practically there already.

My impulse is to measure my progress by impossible standards: editors seek me out, instead of vice versa. I run so far and so well, Nike wants to sponsor me. That's an impulse arisen from a supposition that productivity needs recognition, and it covers up the panic that lurks just under the surface of rational thought:   I can't do this. I'm not good enough.

But that's not how my world works. I don't work for money, nor write for fame, nor run for praise. I do it because of the occasional thrill of accomplishment, the finished poem, because of the possibility of the next run, because there's a deep joy that comes, sometimes, that reminds me of a favorite line from Wordsworth: "effort, and expectation, and desire, and something evermore about to be."

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Not a Good Runner

I am not a good runner. This is a confession I ought to have made years ago.

I am a runner, but I know it conjures up images of lean, long distance types wearing tank tops and runners' shorts with mesh in the side seams, for breathing, which they wear not to show off their muscled legs but because they run such distances that they keep cool any way they can. I imagine they don't tire, or plod, or wish they could let themselves off the hook. When I am driving and see their intense, focused faces on road shoulders or paths, I give them a thumbs up.

My dentist is such a runner. When I visit him, I prompt him for stories. Once, in New York, a friend of his who was running that city's marathon (for which one must qualify) stopped to massage a cramp in his leg. Apparently this race wends its way through some tough neighborhoods; he heard the voice before he saw the homeless drunk slumped in a doorway, training one bleary eye on him: "Ya' loser! Ya' quitter!"

Once, I saw my dentist in June, in the week after Grandma's Marathon, Minnesota's famous hilly and chilly race. After asking him how he did (he always places in the top 10 for his age group), I said, "So, are you pretty tired? Are you taking a little break?"

"Yes," he replied, "I haven't really done anything since the race." Then he paused, his pick hovering above my top lip. "Well, I guess I did go for that long bike ride on Saturday. And I played tennis for a couple of hours on Sunday."

It's time to dispel any assumptions that I resemble him or any other serious runner. (I hate to use that word: I am serious. I have been running steadily for 16 years, I buy good shoes, I stretch before and after, I do what I can to match my socks and shirt. And yet. And yet.) Contrast is the key here. My list of confessions is long and painful to write:

1) I run 3 miles. It used to be 4 when I was 15 years younger. More than once I've run five. Now it's three. Did you hear that? Three.

2) I don't compete. A few times, I signed up for the Anoka Halloween 5K because it's near where I live and it's mostly for fun. Groups of people run in costume. The first time, I panicked in the pack at the front; I wasn't used to running with elbows bumping my elbows, other people's breathing in my ears. After the first half-mile, the pack thinned out, and then I cruised along at my usual pace. But when I told a friend who asked my time, she laughed at me. "Really?" she said. "Why so slow?"

Another time I ran the race with my sister, and we carried bags of candy to toss to children sitting on the curbs waiting for the upcoming parade. Approaching the final hill, I urged her to run ahead if she wanted; I was content to jog my way to the finish line. She took off. Later I overheard her telling a friend how she "kicked my sister's ass" in the race. I never ran it again.

3) I carry a Walkman. Yes, I said Walkman. Sony's original. It sways at my hip like a pendulum, and I switch it from my right to my left hand at the half-way point, listening to the same tape over and over, like little children who go on food jags. Please don't suggest an MP3 player or an I-pod or anything that straps to my arm. I run with this device in my hand because it provides an additional upper body workout. It's more practical than carrying weights; I get music, not just heft.

4) I don't run with other people. I don't want to talk before, during, or after, though I have deigned to speak to my sister after our race. She's family; she doesn't count.

5) I don't run outside in winter. I toughed it out for many years. 2005 was the last year I managed to go outside all winter, and I often shoveled the driveway before I ran. The next year I tried, but mincing along on top of patches of ice was not that fun, or that strenuous. I got a treadmill.

6) I have no desire to run a marathon. Years ago, when I was going through a divorce and savoring those first months of speed and stamina, I considered it. Then I reconsidered, after hearing stories of people who limped for a week afterwards or crawled across the finish line. For ten more years, I kept it as a possibility in the back of my mind; but I have decided I don't have to run one, just because all the runners I know well have done it.

7) I sometimes walk half a block when I get tired.

8) I don't wear those runners' shorts, though I do own and wear several really nice sports bras.

9) I am slow. I really jog, rather than run. That's why I don't time myself or run with other people. Though sometimes I do get that old feeling of flying along, not winded, and then I wish for a stopwatch. And I have a recurring dream that I can run without tiring or stopping--and I mean run--forever.

10) I recite poetry to myself as I run. When I'm not doing that, I write lines of poetry in my head. Or, I repeat to myself poems I've written. I am the proverbial poet-runner, and I'm not going to apologize for that.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Running on Empty

As I get older, I run less often. Big surprise, right? But it's more than slowing down that concerns me (and it's more than my usual summation of a run each time I return, puffing to my front door: I'm old, I'm fat, I'm out of shape.). Somehow, what running has meant to me over the years has begun to disintegrate.

dis - a separation, a parting from

integrate - make into a whole

Running did, once, make me whole, sort of, in an intellectual way. From the time I was 14 or 15, I was an occasional runner, usually to get in shape for sports seasons or to occupy my time and expend some hormonal energy during the summers. But in January of 1994, I became a runner in earnest, to cope with the stress of an impending divorce. My married life had been as restrictive as a girdle, just as painful. I gained a sense of freedom and a lightness I thought had been lost forever when I worked up to my first 3-mile run, after a month of struggling on a stationary bicycle. Outside, I thought, if I could just get outside.

I ran to outpace my fear and shame and an awful sense of fate. I ran because I liked the way my legs began to look, toned and shaped, with definition. I ran to keep ahead of despair and loneliness. I ran because pounds dropped off me--I had never been overweight--and I thought my body was finding its natural balance. I ran so that I could indulge myself in occasional junk food nights, when I wolfed down bowls of tortilla chips, dipped in salsa and sour cream.

It felt good to work up a sweat. I will never forget the joy of discovering what a boost a diet soda could give me before a run; the caffeine and I flew along, hardly feeling the pavement underfoot. A practical accomplishment, that's what it was. Something I could measure. I began to invest in good running shoes and sports bras.

Around this time, in the summer of 1994, I also began to tell people that I ran because it was something that no one could take from me. Once I completed my 4-mile loop, it was mine. I owned it. The feeling was tangible: my legs pushing off, rhythmically, the sensation of strength in my thighs.  The band of muscle running from hip to upper thigh, where I often allowed my hand to rest.  If I had to, I told myself, I could do it again immediately.

The need to prove I could survive loomed large in those days. I wanted all my friends to know I was in charge, that I could handle it--my life as a single parent, a teacher, a jock.

It has been 16 years since that first summer. For most of that time, I have kept it up, through snow and rain and heat and oppressive humidity. Through love and depression and troubles with kids. I had to quit in the summer of 2001 when I was diagnosed with a herniated disc in my neck. I dutifully walked or worked my legs on a used NordicTrac we had at the time, but when I emerged from 9 weeks of intense physical therapy and was declared "healthy" again,  I ran my first mile on a tread mill, crying out of sheer joy. In the summer of 2005, in order to survive, I took a job that kept me at work from 3:00 pm to 1:00 am. I switched to walking. A mild depression that Fall compounded matters; by winter I was seriously out of shape, and I have been gradually working my way back since then.

Except. Except.

I am 47 years old. Racing has never interested me. Competing in this solitary sport is not my desire. Now I feel something else as tangible as my initial delight, and that is a separation from what once made me whole. A dis-integration. I have always wanted to age gracefully, without hair dyes or any kind of prosthetic. With aplomb and with a minimal effort. Running these days takes so much effort I can barely stand it. A slight breeze makes me panic: Can I make it?

Who is this person asking this question? Is part of aging the willingness to give up the image I have cultivated for so long? Isn't walking just as good, just as healthy? Isn't it out of vanity that I want to tell strangers, such as those who wait on me in Dick's Sporting Goods, that I just went for a run before I entered the store?

I wonder if I have what it takes anymore. When I am out there, breathing through my nose and keeping a steady rhythm with my feet, I feel good. I feel capable. It is hard work, and I sweat a lot, but I have always enjoyed my own sweat.

But I also tell myself--almost every time--that I should take it slow. No pressure. The goal is to make it the whole distance, not to break any records. It has become annoying; I am not in shape; I am always trying to get in shape.

There has never been any pressure except that which I placed on myself. Maybe that pressure is lifting. Maybe I can think of myself without envying Mary Decker Slaney or seeing the faces of my many friends who do the daily grind. I do not know what to think.

Not knowing what to think is a sign of failure for me. Perhaps it is time to hang up the shoes after all. Who besides me would wonder at it? Who besides me would understand that to be whole now demands so much more than a brisk jog can ever impart?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Inauguration--what a surprise

I had a dream last night that I was laughing hysterically and couldn't stop.  Right now, I can't remember the actual setting/circumstances, but I know it was a more serious occasion than my wild laughter would indicate.  A case of doing the forbidden, the uncharacteristic, which is one theme in my dream life? Or, a sign that I need an outlet?  Maybe.

The fact is, I compose this inaugural post with some hesitation.  I am a writer, but I am also a Minnesotan and a former Catholic, a child of stern parents who taught us not to draw too much attention to ourselves.  When I was a child, I remember laughing loudly in a group and being told it sounded fake. That's not your real laugh, someone said.  I was accused, guilty, but I hadn't done anything. I swear it was just me, an awkward 9-year old in a room of relatives.

Putting myself on display knocks at the door of one of my deepest neuroses, being exposed as a fake, an imposter. Until I was in my late 30s, I thought I was the only one who feared this.  Now I see my naivete as just another sign that the Midwestern grain belt in which I grew up did its work, tightening around me so that I was not smothered so much as squeezed. I have lived a mostly normal life, made a living, raised children, with no noticeable outward traumas except divorce. I have stayed within the bounds of the expected. But I think about what happens to a peach when you grip it too tightly or catch it as it rolls off the counter. Juice leaks out of skin that looks unbroken. 

That sounds dramatic, so maybe I am onto something. This blog is for those "leaks," the thoughts and ideas that squeeze out, even though I try to avoid editorializing or making long pronouncements in my classes.  My thought life has remained mostly that--mine--unspooling in monologues when I run or hike or garden.

Trying to shape some of those tangles of ideas into mostly coherent pieces on writing, running, gardening, cooking--my daily life--is my goal.  I don't plan to write a journal-like exploration of my emotional life; I'll leave that to my subconscious in my dreams. 

So, blog on in peace.