Tag Archives: Writing

Looking Back to a Kinder Future

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Vonnegut gave us more than an anti-war book; he gave us safe passage to our former selves

It didn’t work out well for Lot’s wife. As you might recall, she was warned not to look back at the Almighty’s wrath. “But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human,” Kurt Vonnegut said.

And I love Vonnegut all the more for writing this line. A timeless vulnerability.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s best known book, both time and seeing (what we’re able to see) are tightly woven themes. Vonnegut finished Slaughterhouse-Five two decades after witnessing the horrors of World War II. Maybe that time enabled him to find humor in the absurdity of violence, chaos, power, and death. So it goes.

In my worn 1969 copy, flags and folded pages help me locate dozens of jewels. But it’s a smaller, less shiny line, early on in the book when he’s speaking directly to the reader, that intrigues me the most:

People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.

Vonnegut does find a way to look back by creating Billy Pilgrim. Through Billy we can time travel to witness Billy’s past, present and future moments. In order for Vonnegut to tell his story (including the obliteration of Dresden), he needed a character who was both clueless and without choice. One that became unstuck in time, ping-ponging around from his death to his birth.

It’s a genius device, still, 50 years later. Slaughterhouse-Five is also the book I’ve found to be helpful, even therapeutic, in accepting the less-than-book-worthy stories I’ve told myself about my life.

Sometimes the war is within

Let me be clear: I’m not comparing a soldier’s war experiences with my own civilian, privileged life. I do suggest that Vonnegut’s approach to revisiting the horrors of what he experienced could be a useful way to make peace with the past.

If the looking back is painful or keeps you stuck, create a character you can empathize with.

Consider your younger self as a character in a chapter of your life’s book. I had an opportunity to try this on during my recent trip home to the Midwest. Before I left for the airport, I got in my head about letting my close high school friends know I was coming. I felt guilty for two years going by and I didn’t want to come across as ‘Hey! I’m on my way back! Drop everything!

So I tried to imagine a young girl (me) 40 years ago — as clueless as Billy Pilgrim. Not stupid, just ignorant about who she could become and all the possibilities her future might offer. As my compassion grew for her, so did my desire to see my friends.

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In fact, they were incredibly kind. Debbie came over to my parents’ house after she’d worked a full day and helped care for her friend’s aged father. Steve bought me a drink the day he was struggling with news of his sister’s cancer diagnosis and getting through the anniversary of his partner’s death. Teri treated me to breakfast, then later dropped off a gift bag with my favorite things. Signe rearranged her hospital schedule so that we could meet.

The day before we left my hometown, my husband looked at the sun setting on a 180-degree horizon. “I could see myself living here,” he said. And, while I knew he wasn’t asking to move, I didn’t roll my eyes or laugh at the idea. Instead, I remembered what Alain De Botton said,

“[It’s] Never too late to learn some embarrassingly basic, stupidly obvious things about oneself.”

Here they are:

When I moved away, I was not running from home; I was running from me.

Of course, I had a bunch of good reasons for venturing out into the world after high school. Like college and starting a career with a global company that liked to transfer employees, and going back to grad school. Each of my children were born in different states and life on the whole has been a great adventure.

Moving makes a great case for self-development, back in the day what we called “finding yourself.” But the truth is, I’m not lost. Yet, I don’t go home often. And when I do, I get anxious, feel a bit displaced.

What became apparent on this last trip home was this:

I desperately didn’t want to be who I thought I was or who I thought other people thought I was — all those years ago.

As sociologist Charles Cooley pointed out over a century ago, what I think about myself and what I believe other people think about me tend to be the same thing:

I am not what I think I am. I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.

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I probably wasn’t that different than most of my peers. But it’s hard, even now, to see who I was beyond my neediness. My insecurities. My constant worries over being good/nice/popular/smart/pretty enough.

In fact, in seventh grade I ended up in the ER a few days after the most popular girl in our school screamed obscenities at me with her circle of sycophants gawking at my verbal beatdown. I learned I had ulcers.

Someone told me later that Miss Popular made up the accusations just to mess with me. She wasn’t to blame for the ulcers (I’m sure my worries were eating my stomach lining since elementary school), nor was she the worst thing that ever happened to me. I had a pretty good life then and now.

But my small character didn’t know how to handle conflict.

She didn’t know that conflict is not just okay, it’s inevitable and necessary for social and emotional growth. Instead of avoiding conflict (how I handled the seventh-grade incident and throughout high school) I needed to address it. I needed to save apologies for when I had wronged someone. I needed to stand up for myself, even if I stood alone.

I didn’t know what I needed, because approval was paramount.

Second-wave feminism was happening somewhere, but it was not happening in rural Illinois. Not only were other girls’ judgments of me potential powder kegs, I continued to harm myself by acting how I thought boys needed me to behave.

By conflating a location (home) with a fixed identity, I missed opportunities for character development.

Not only my own character development, but those of my friends and family members. I’d been short-sighted and unfair, somehow assuming that friends and especially my parents would be virtually the same people they were (and only as I saw them) decades ago. So I assumed they continued to see me as I was.

My own stuck perceptions were the problem.

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A steel helmet, a pipe, and a one-way train

If the former you as a sympathetic character doesn’t work, Vonnegut provides another theme: how little each of us is able to see.

Thanks to Billy’s abductors — four-dimensional beings who see all events in time simultaneously — we’re given this Earthling metaphor: Billy is strapped to a flat slab on a railway, his neck immobile, a long narrow pipe attached to one eye.

Every human perspective is all of a stationary pinprick. And the train we’re attached to is moving in a single direction.

“Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, ‘That’s life.’”

But aren’t I different? What about that free will thing?

I’d like to believe that I can see more than a pinprick. But I think the metaphor works. I may have added detail to my tiny aperture when I moved from place to place, but I don’t have a wider perspective than anyone else.

It literally took going home after recently rereading Slaughterhouse-Five to see that I have been unnecessarily stuck in the past.

More than anything, I want to believe I have choice. To change, to love, to learn — even if it means finding out more embarrassingly stupid things about myself.

But those rascally abductors, the Tralfamadores, tell Billy, “Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

Whether free will exists doesn’t really matter.

I found a way to get unstuck. I’m giving the credit to Mr. Vonnegut.

There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

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Is There a Problem If I Can’t Stay Put?

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After 25 moves and six states, it’s time to find out

My household moves are hardly Ripley’s worthy, but given the average American moves 11-12 times over their entire lifespan, should I be concerned? According to the Social Security Administration, I have 25 more years to move. Biologically. If the government is right (what are those odds?), I could easily triple the average American. Why do I care?

Friday, we returned home from seeing a new listing. My husband says, “Maybe we should look for a place where it’s always spring or summer.” I look up from my laptop — 17 open tabs, 10 of them houses. Surely he’s not trying to sneak Costa Rica or Belize back on our list of locations. (We decided last year: even paradise is too cold without family a few hours away.)

Then he adds, “I’ve noticed that you start looking toward the end of every winter.”

Swallow. Okay, fair. And fairly accurate. With one 14-month exception in Nebraska, I have sought progressively warmer climes. But I wasn’t convinced that escaping winter is the whole story. (Maybe it is. I am all for finding out.)

What is “Normal”?

Although recent stats are hard to find, the average American moves about 11 times over a lifetime. Average doesn’t define what’s “normal,” it’s just one big mean. Money, mobility, age, education, ethnicity, and the economy (among other things) influence frequency of household moves.

Mover by Choice

There’s no term, none I can find, for people like me who move every few years. For me it’s usually 2–3 years a stretch. But here’s a crucial point: unlike millions of Americans, I have almost always chosen to move.

Counting all my household moves as an adult, 90% of them were based on my decision to move. Urban, poor Americans also move — driven by poor housing conditions, unresponsive landlords and other subsidized housing issues. One study found that about 70 percent of many relocation “decisions” among the poor are not decisions at all, but rather reactions to outside forces.

Also, Not a Serial Mover

Besides choice, another distinction is that people who move more than average are not necessarily serial movers. Yep, it’s a thing.

New York Times is where I first saw the term serial movers: “Those who eagerly hop back on the open-house circuit even before the aroma of fresh paint and polyurethane begins to fade — that is, if they ever stopped looking in the first place.”

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Despite the obvious connotation of the word serial and my desire not to have a moving-related psychosis, I don’t believe I am a serial mover. For one thing, I don’t continue looking after the closing. I do like to paint, and unless ceiling height poses safety issues, I do my own interior painting (and lawn mowing).

Serial movers seem motivated by everything from a desire for exploration, to the perpetuation of habit born in childhood, to a hunger for drama and excitement, to a fondness for extreme housekeeping. And these days, such appetites are stoked by a smorgasbord of aggressively marketed new buildings engaging in a constant battle of one-upmanship.

Desire for exploration: Check. That’s it. No childhood habit, no desire for drama beyond that which my three (now grown) daughters have already gifted, and certainly, above all, zero fondness for extreme housekeeping. (What is extreme housekeeping? Isn’t housekeeping unpleasant enough?) As for the one-upmanship, I care to impress as much as I’m an extreme housekeeper.

So How Much More Crazier Am I ?

Between birth and before moving into a shared dorm room, I lived in two places (actually, three: an apartment until I was months old, but have no memory of it). So, I don’t fit the army brat profile. I’m not replaying my formative years.

Photo for reuse: Wikimedia Commons

My first choice was to go to college; I was assigned to live in the tallest dormitory in the world. Given freshmen and sophomores had to live in a dorm, I wanted to try every conceivable type of room: After the double with Mary, I sought a single — which I learned made me less happy — and then a triple with Mary and Chris.

My desire to move within constraints is probably not inconsequential. It tells me that regardless of where I have to be, I want to explore all the possibilities.

Openness to Change

I like change. I get antsy or bored with too much certainty. When I taught trait-based leadership I’d take the Big Five Personality assessment with my students and plot our scores so we could see ranges and means. I was usually the highest data point at 95% on openness to experience. When another student scored similarly, I was able to guess: they were the one that loved to color outside the lines, suggest new colors, redraw the lines.

I can’t find any research on propensity to move and personality traits, so I’m spit-balling an educated hunch. The main question remains: is there a point at which moving reflects more than one or two dimensions of a “normal” personality? When might moving become a compulsion or something worse?

Experts Say:

When it comes to a psychological profile of movers, clinical psychologist Nancy J. Crown says that cookie-cutter explanations don’t exist:

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It would always have to be understood within the context of the particular person and their unique history. So you really couldn’t say that moving a lot means the same thing for everyone.

(Whew.) Yet, as Crown warns against overpathologizing frequent moving behavior, she also says:

There are some people who — either because of a lack of sense of who they are, or some feeling of inadequacy — may want to redo themselves in one way or another again and again. Something new is like anything is possible — you can sort of imagine yourself to be the person that you’d like to be.

Do I feel inadequate? No. Do I really know who I am and what I want to be? No. I’ve wanted to be everything from a blue fairy princess to a union organizer, a social scientist to Joan Didion. This year it’s Didion.

And I’m totally on board with anything is possible.

Finally, Crown adds that excessive moving could signal a fear of commitment and a consequent fear of closing off opportunities. Or, like procrastination, it can be a way to avoid failure.

Aha. Am I on to something? A fear of commitment to an imperfect place that follows me wherever I go? Or a fear of missing out on a place that’s out there… waiting for me?

A place to write in a sunny, warm, simple but comfortable, secluded but accessible, inexpensive yet quality-built cottage where tiny goats, cats and dogs frolic with or without our grandchildren on a few acres. Something in between Thoreau’s rustic single-room at Walden Pond and the airy Spanish Colonial of the Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West. A place where I’ll never feel depressed or lacking, old or tired, worried or worn.

Or am I avoiding failure (or the chance of success)? Am I using my Zillow hour each day to inadvertently rob myself of writing time, to put off being as productive as possible in a perfectly imperfect house that is more than good enough for the next 25 years?

I’m momentarily calmed and then, just the thought of things being close to perfect reminds me of Ricky Bobby’s daddy Reese in Talladega Nights:

Yep, I guess things are just about perfect… it’s making me feel kind of itchy.

And without thinking, I open another tab.

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Digging My Way Out of Scarcity: A Writer’s Tunnel of Reads and Claps

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I started feeling competitive and it wasn’t helping.

Feeling that edge every now and then can be good motivational fuel. But the edge was becoming the whole cloth. The fibers didn’t feel right.

I knew too much about my own traits, motivations, and the science behind them. Twenty-plus years of reliable data that I’m highly agreeable, tend toward collaboration, and have little need for power. Collaboration is intentionally baked into the other work I do. I’m not unselfish. Choosing to work in spaces of shared ideas, recognition and rewards yields the most meaning for me.

So to confess my competitive jealousy here is both a relief and a self-reprimand. To admit imagined rivalries between myself and other Medium writers feels immature. Even ridiculous.

I’ve been a writer here since January. My husband, an avid reader of all things non-fiction, occasionally sends me links on writing by Medium writers. A recent piece by Shaunta Grimes included staggeringly high stats and payouts over three months. Even seeing her first month’s earnings of over $100 evoked a green monster within me. I felt anxious, almost panicky.

Points of comparison poked into me like those plastic T fasteners that hide in the label of your shirt after you’ve cut away the tags. I chafed as I read to find something I was either doing right (confirmation bias) or to reveal holes in the writer’s logic (to reduce cognitive dissonance).

My biggest bias, though, was my illusion of superiority: a tendency to overestimate our positive attributes and underestimate our negative attributes when we compare ourselves with others. Although I didn’t feel superior to Ms. Grimes, I convinced myself that I didn’t have much to learn from her.

Of course I did. My tunnel vision of stats and earnings had trapped me in a fixed mindset, a world of scarcity and competition.


The Thief of Joy

Teddy Roosevelt left us with some killer quotes like “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Comparison is also the foundation of all competition. Especially the disabling kind of competition that makes you doubt the what, why, when, where, and how of your work.

Of course, comparisons are beneficial. Without a system of measuring, how do we know we’re getting closer to what we need or where we’re headed? A good answer is not to stop comparing, but to compare your progress against your former self — yesterday, last week or last year. Benchmark on personal bests. Don’t worry about anyone else’s.

The ancient thief that Roosevelt referenced, the one that can rob us of our serenity and gratitude, is based on anyone else, not ourselves. Comparing to others robs us of honoring what we have achieved and aspects of success that society doesn’t recognize as valuable: self-care, good relationships, and understanding what’s enough.

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Enough Versus Scarcity

So as I’m driving back to Athens from an overdue self-care-with-a-friend weekend in Asheville, that Medium article — the reminder of how much money I’m not making, how much time each article has taken me to write and edit, and (as a self-flagellating bonus) fifth-guessing my decision to quit academia — is poking into me. I turn on NPR to distract myself with Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain.

The Scarcity Trap: Why We Keep Digging When We’re Stuck in a Hole could not have been more salient for me.

https://www.npr.org/2017/03/20/520587241/the-scarcity-trap-why-we-keep-digging-when-were-stuck-in-a-hole#

When you’re desperate for something, you focus on it to the detriment of everything else.

People who lack money to meet basic needs worry constantly about feeding their families today; they can’t worry about rent. The loneliest people who hunger for companionship appear awkward when talking to strangers. If they seem desperate, that’s how they feel. The time-starved (e.g., physicians who work 80 hours a week) overspend their mental energy on juggling time. Scarcity affects more than our bodies: it affects our brains. Detrimentally.

You can become so obsessive about what you lack, you can’t focus on anything else.

We all tunnel in on what’s missing. Inside our own tunnels we are consumed by this lack, leaving us no bandwidth to focus on anything else. Inside the tunnel, there’s no outside, no bigger picture to attend to. Scarcity captures the mind. One out-of-reach goal is all we think about. Not because we don’t want to. But because we can’t think about anything else.

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Scarcity as a Mindset

An important point: Lacking money for food and housing is not the same as a doctor being over-worked. Fascinating, though, that a mother who had spent her last $500 on food and diapers while forgetting to save some for gas had made the same decision-making error that a new doctor made after working consistent 18-hour days. They were both making decisions without the ability to think past their immediate lack.

Scarcity tunnels are equal opportunity offenders. Here are some simple strategies based on what I gleaned from The Scarcity Trap. In case you find yourself in a hole:

Stop digging deeper.

Turn around to see that sliver of sunlight above you. Take a break and come to the surface. We’re not built to see much, let alone gain insights, in the same underground dwelling. Scarcity is its own trap.

Balance being in the present and doing for the future.

While out of the tunnel — even momentarily — breathe. Would life crumble if you took 10 minutes to meditate or mindfully breathe? Without fixating on the past, what would it look like to regularly emerge from the hole, to be more present with those you love?

Don’t be fooled (anymore) that more = more.

Shankar’s epilogue revealed how the working mother and doctor had escaped their respective tunnels. The doctor, who’d ignored her own health and had almost forgotten to order insulin for a Type 1 diabetic patient, now makes room for a hobby and a social life. She is able to hold more patient care ideas and data in her head. She’s a better doctor. And she’s happier.

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This resonated. Spring semester, sophomore year, I finally got my single dorm room. I cut my credit hours to 14 and worked a lighter work study load. I was determined to pour everything I had into academics. My grades that May constituted my lowest GPA of eight semesters. I was also depressed. All I was doing was doing — and mostly alone.

Let other people help you see the light.

Get out of your head and onto a more work-life-balance path. Schedule down time for yourself and with those you care about. I’d “taken” two full days to meet friend in Asheville, hoping I could catch up to all my real and imagined work (and worries) when I returned.

Instead, I received relaxation, the loving company of a good friend, and a bigger idea of what success looks like. I met Monday with softer edges of a lighter texture. It’s much more me.

I’d love your feedback. As a writer, how you respond to your scarcity traps?

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