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Three years ago, in October, my grandmother died. The following October I lost over 20 percent of my body weight, was unable to eat, and doctors were unsure what was wrong with me. The October after that I lost the only pregnancy I've ever had. And then, this October, I lost my best friend.
I don't want to be paranoid, but I'm sensing a pattern.
Fall used to be my favorite season. I loved the crisp air and clear skies, the sweet smell of decaying leaves. I loved pumpkins and apple cider. I loved Halloween. And this year, before my dog died, as the air began to cool and the leaves began to change, I found myself reaching backward, scouring my memory for that feeling. I let myself hope that a piece of my life could revert back to what it used to be.
I really ought to know better.
No, that's too harsh. I don't think we ever stop hoping to recover what we've lost, whether it's a person, a place, or something as simple as our innocence. It's part of human nature. We seek pleasure and push away pain. We struggle against change. We try to keep solid ground under our feet.
Unfortunately, we're not capable of building ground solid enough to withstand life. As Pema Chodron says, trying to control our experience "is setting ourselves up for failure, because sooner or later we're going to have an experience we can't control." We are going to lose someone we love. We are going to get sick. We are going to die. And, not surprisingly, we aren't going to feel very good about any of it.
But guess what: we don't have to. "We always want to get rid of misery rather than see how it works together with joy," Pema says. "The point isn't to cultivate one thing as opposed to another, but to relate properly to where we are." It's okay to be sad. To grieve. To be frightened or angry or anxious. Joy would not exist without sadness. Love would not exist without death. Spring would not exist without fall.
I think I loved fall so much as a child because it was a little death. I knew spring and summer would come again, and so it was easy to be right where I was, to enjoy everything the season had to offer. As the deaths in my life have gotten bigger, as the metaphorical springs and summers have become unpredictable and unknown, I've learned that love changes, life changes, and I change, too. The ground beneath my feet will continue to shift. It's time to get comfortable with falling.
Paint on bricks, art all around you.
I have a confession to make: I have another blog.
I started it in the fall of 2011. At the time I was extremely ill. I'd lost over twenty percent of my body weight and no one knew what was wrong with me. I spent most of my time on the Internet, trying to self diagnose, and running from one doctor to the next in search of answers. My obsession with my health kept me in a state of constant panic, and with no end in sight I plunged into a deep depression.
I didn't have a therapist at the time, so I went to see one recommended by a friend. She dropped some wisdom on me that helped save my life. She said I needed to separate Kelley the woman from Kelley the patient. And so www.kelleythewoman.tumblr.com was born.
I resolved to post a photograph every day for as long as I needed to. And I succeeded. It helped me to remember that my life was about much more than my illness, and it gave my body the space it needed to heal. (I had gastroparesis, which is now, thankfully, under control.)
Why am I telling you this? Because I recently had hip surgery, and the recovery has been much slower and much more painful than anticipated. Once again, I found myself growing obsessed with the state of my health, and falling into depression. Kelley the patient was choking the life out of Kelley the woman. I've decided to resurrect my old blog, in the hopes that I will regain some perspective.
It occurs to me that the advice that therapist gave me stretches well beyond those recovering from illness or injury. All of us--especially those of us prone to anxiety or depression--run the risk of narrowing our lives and losing perspective. Problems demand attention. Uncomfortable situations are, well, uncomfortable. People want everything to be pleasant and easy, and we burn a lot of focus and energy trying to make them that way. And there isn't anything wrong with that--we're human. But when focus turns to tunnel vision, and all the other layers of life go dark, we need to step back and reassess. We need to reclaim our personhood.
It's important to remember that we don't do this alone. I always forget that, and spend weeks trying to fix everything myself before I reach out and ask for help. It's scary to take that step. It's scary to admit that everything isn't okay. But once I do, I instantly start to feel better--because in that action I am widening the circle, taking those first steps out of the tunnel.
Come with me, if you would like. Tell me about your tunnels, and your guiding lights.
There are some writers out there who don't believe in writer's block. "Freewrite!" they say, with a smile. "Write about something else! Write from the point of view of one of your other characters!" These people always seem to be fiction writers. They use the word "craft" a lot. They are the ones who tell you that, in addition to writing your way through blocks, you need to write everyday--"if you are serious."
I don't mean to slam these guys. This is really good advice: for beginning writers. I followed this dogma frantically for the first four years or so of my career, so much so I damn near gave myself an ulcer. But around year five I experienced a level of language fatigue so severe I nearly quit altogether. I was out of words. I hated words. I didn't even have enough left to think a complete sentence. I'd been told that the well of creativity was bottomless, but there I was, curled in the fetal position on its floor, choking on dust.
This is how I learned to tap other sources. When I got burned out on words, I started making pictures: photographs and visual art. I listened to more music. I cooked. In short, I used my senses. Writing is so cerebral, frequently so one dimensional, that its easy to get trapped in your head. Like Anne Lamott says: "My mind is like a bad neighborhood--I try not to go there alone." The friends you can take with you are sight, smell, taste, sound. If you find yourself getting stagnant, if you find yourself hating words, stop. Breathe. Put on some music, get out a camera or some crayons, make some cookies. And do yourself a favor: stay away from Microsoft Word for a few days. It won't derail your entire writing career. I promise.