17 November 2016

On Grief, Time, and Resisting the Undertow

Last time I posted here, my backyard looked so different to me. It had some older trees that had shed most of their leaves for the season, a sweep of grass, our garden beds, and the ditch and our neighbor's chicken coop and garden beyond that.

I still love our yard, but I don't feel I live in quite the same world as I did before. There are shadows I hadn't seen. At this time of year, when the fallen maple leaves and the grape leaves on the vines are all a certain shade of pale gold, usually I only see squirrels but sometimes I scan for mountain lions, which are just that shade and come down from the hills when it starts getting colder to hunt for smaller prey. I feel I'm seeing strange shapes and shadows everywhere.

My heart is breaking at everything. I had to stop reading Facebook because if I read another thing I was going to dissolve into a puddle of tears. I have been sleeping a lot and thinking too much and dancing and seeing people and reading and retreating. I have been wondering, "Is this depression?"

No. I know what it is and it's not depression. It's loss, pure and simple, and I am grieving.

I had a little spat with a friend after reposting something another friend had posted about getting one day to grieve and then it's back to work.

My friend protested that no one should ever tell anyone how long to grieve.

I countered I had only wanted to give people who wanted to wallow (meaning me, truly -- I posted that because I needed to see it) something to spur them (me) to action instead of sitting on their (my) hands.

But now that it's a week after the election and I am sitting in my bed with the curtains drawn trying to blink away my welling tears enough to see whether I'm typing the right letters, I know this is still grief. Aaron, for the record, you were right and I was wrong.

What am I grieving, you ask?

I am grieving the loss of hope -- these feelings are the opposites of what I felt after we elected Obama. My stomach has been roiling with dread. I am fearful for our future, for the safety of the people I love, for the  place I grew up, and for our planet's beauty and health. Every day I'm sickened to learn about the next batch of lobbyists and industry shills who have been appointed to NMP(Not My President)'s* transition team and cabinet.

I am grieving the rift that opened in our family. It had been there all along, perhaps, but the exhibit has ended and Christo has removed the brightly colored fabric so we can see the chasm between us.

I'm grieving our losses -- every day cancer seems to strike another good soul. I worry about their quality of life, and mourn the loss of our future together.

At one point I even felt grief for my fictional character because I knew she was about going to get a whole lot more pain in my story than she has already seen. And as the writer I am the one who will have to inflict the damage. An ongoing challenge of writing novels for me is how to put my characters through the painful and gnarly stuff. On some level, I never want to go back to those times I felt helpless and afraid, disempowered and ignored. I went to bed hungry and frozen in fear of the fight that was unfolding in the next room; now every impulse in my adult being shouts No! Don't ever let that happen again! My book is about some of the amazing things that can happen after one says No, never again. But the current political climate is a reality smackdown for me about what kind of obstacles my character would truly face along her path to freedom.

I already knew that grief has no timeline. Election day was also the birthday of my sister who died when I was just turning six and she was four-and-a-half and all these years later, I still feel that loss every anniversary of her birth and death and at plenty of other times, too. And one loss triggers memories of and grief for other losses.

These feelings roll over me in waves. All I can do is keep paddling, or floating on my back when I need a rest. I can stay at the surface, parallel to the shore, until the current no longer thwarts my efforts and I can swim back to land.

29 September 2016

The Finishing Line

I'm getting excited about my book, as some of you are aware. It's a quirky story and it's all mine. I am loving how it is coming along. I wish I could say I finished it while I was up at my friends' cabin last week, but I did not quite do so. It's OK, though. I'm close.

I titled this post "The Finishing Line" because I am closing in on the finish, which feels familiar, like the bottom of a ski run that I have to navigate carefully because I've picked up speed but the exit of the run is fairly narrow. I see the line I need to take, which helps me see how fast to go now so I don't miss anything along the way but I get there quickly. 

While I'm undertaking my first-ever book-finishing project (and am quite sure there are many more to follow), I am also enjoying the process of making watercolor paintings, as some of you are also aware. 

I find it so delightful to sit down and say, "I am going to make a painting" and have it be finished in one session (maybe two). There's a moment at which I say, "This is finished," and it is true: it is good enough, and I can let go of it. I must confess this hasn't happened yet with that big watercolor of the sunset over the water, but I'm only one or two more painting sessions from finished with that one.

Elk herd #1 by Risë Keller

Also, I have been working from a recent epiphany: If I think of finishing a project as a project in and of itself, I am more likely to finish it. 

I know, that sounds kind of crazy, but somehow I feel I've given myself a mental short-cut or weird trick (Eureka! The one weird trick! I've found it and must share it on the internets!) for making the task of finishing my novel seem finite. 

And painting is part of this process, I am quickly becoming convinced. 

Elk herd #2 by Risë Keller

I picked up my paintbrushes, paint, and paper recently when I realized I couldn't not do so -- I had actually started carrying them around from place to place with me. If that wasn't a hint or clue as to what I should do next I don't know what it was. 

But do you know what else was happening when I picked up my paintbrushes? My inner critic was yelling at me about "not writing." I heard its snarky tone: "You should be writing, not painting." 

That only made me feel rebellious. "No one likes to be told what to do," I like to say (it's one of the things that can make being an editor a challenging occupation, heh heh). I don't even like it when I tell myself what to do!

So I put on some music to drown out that nagging voice and sat down with my simple painting kit and started making paintings.

I loved the meditative feeling and the results. I loved the feeling I have something to share with people. I feel the same way when I cook, and when I made a batch of concord grape jam from our bountiful backyard harvest.

Fall grape harvest, photo by Risë Keller

And I loved putting down my brush after an hour or two and saying, "OK, that's enough. I'm finished!" 

Finite Color Theory #1 by Risë Keller

I think I let my brain trick me into practicing the act of saying "The Thing is done" often -- and with something that felt like the stakes were low in putting the Thing out there. Because writing, for me, has been such a high-stakes Thing! And when working on a book, even if it's not a very long book, it feels like a Big Thing -- even more so if it is a First Book. I have had sections of this book that have had problems that I know need to be fixed for ages, and am just now working those things out or through. So my book is still not "finished" in the sense that the whole thing is complete at once. 

Yet the Thing that is my First Book is absolutely begging me to put it out there! And since this novel and this process are all about trusting the inner voice, and because I like where all this is going, I am going to start doing just that. 

So keep watching this space! Things are happening! Things are in the pipeline! And paintings!

More very soon!

21 April 2016

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Prince*

1. Share everything. Prince has shared with the world some awfully weird-ass corners of his brain. And do we love him any less for it? No, we think of him as someone brave and weird and most of all, willing to let us in to see and hear his incredible array of feelings and thoughts, melodies and sonic textures.
2. Play loud. If playing loud lights your fire, do it -- and do it now. As every death of a cherished musician or actor or public figure reminds us, we may not get another chance to play it again in our wild and loud life.
3. Don't hit people. I saw Prince's Purple Rain movie and fell hard for him at age 20. Talk about a rock god -- Mick Jagger and Roger Daltrey suddenly had as much interest for me as dust. I felt Prince was a kindred spirit: we had seen so much darkness and abuse but knew there was something better out there. We wanted more for our loved ones and ourselves -- we were determined to trade bullying and meanness for constructive and beautiful ways to express ourselves and our feelings.
4. Put things where you can find them when you need them. Prince was a master at creating the world he knew existed in the musical persona he dreamed up out of his own talent and the successes of the Jackson family and Stevie Wonder and the Supremes and Soul Train and Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix and every other rock god and goddess from whose wells he drew water. He surrounded himself with great people and insisted that he could do it his way. And then did it.
5. Clean up after yourself. Prince protected his brand, to a fault some say. Case in point: a few months after I posted a video my friend made of me air-guitaring and lip-syncing "Purple Rain" at the Boulder Theater, YouTube removed the video for copyright infringement. But I give Prince a pass because I figure it's because he cared deeply about his image and public identity. Some people let the world define them, but Prince was all about control.
Prince onstage at the 2015 American Music Awards (The Guardian)
6. Don't take things that aren't yours. Prince had an identity that crossed the usual gender lines long before mainstream Americans started paying attention to the T in "LGBT," but you didn't see Prince categorizing himself or making a big deal about whatever it was that he was, beyond coming up with the elaborate phallus-crossed-with-guitar symbol he presented as his name, becoming "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince." Until he returned to being called "Prince" and "The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known as Prince."
7. Be yourself. I feel so indebted to Prince for his incredible mastery of rock and pop and R&B and soul and funk -- and his generally badass songwriting skills. But it was his determination to always be himself that really got me. One day I cried out, "I love Prince!" My husband said, "You love the idea of Prince!" I never quite understood what he meant by that -- I have always felt my love for Prince was something true and deep and automatic ("I not only see you but I recognize you") and innocent -- wholesome, as my dear mother (who also loves Prince) would say. But above all, his strangeness and his beauty and his willingness to howl -- vocally and on guitar -- in front of people, to me represented one Willy Wonka's Golden Ticket after another: permission slips to be my freaky self and go out and share the joy of that deep revelatory feeling with others.
Prince, I thank you. Rest in peace, dear friend. I hope those heavenly jam sessions are as spectacular as the ones I hear and see in my imagination, and I promise to keep your spirit rocking in the here and now.
*With apologies to Robert Fulghum

23 January 2016

Against the Rules

Image result for quotes about rulesYou know how a lot of parents bring up their kids with certain beliefs and as an adults they realize that their parents shared or even imparted their worldview, but they're free to choose from a zillion other views and ideas in the world?

Here’s an example: On a highway, my father had rules about how fast he would go if he thought no one would catch him. He would follow different rules if he thought he might be caught or knew a Highway Patrol car was likely be lurking in a nearby speedtrap. He had rules about going five to ten miles an hour above the speed limit around town.

I absorbed a lot of these anti-rule rules growing up and riding in cars with him. By the time I started driving, I started thinking this way too. If someone was going a couple of miles an hour under the 35 mph limit on Iris, I would always take my first opportunity to pass them, so I could go 39 or 40 or 42 miles an hour. Going faster means getting there first, not to mention getting out in front of other traffic for a clearer view. I still hate it when another highway driver matches my speed and settles in just behind me — or even worse, one lane over.

It came as a revelation when I noticed I didn’t always have to accelerate into the lead; I could drop my speed and let someone pass. Slowing down had seldom been presented as a valid option — unless it was to make a point to a tailgater (as a child when I heard that word, I imagined the terrible green animal that would roar up from behind to chew the car with its spiky teeth).

Breaking rules made people stand out. Sticking to the rules was for squares, or people who didn’t have the nerve to stand up for themselves. My parents came along at the right moment to be swept up in a mass movement of disruptors and rebels and dropouts and sidesteppers and hobos who would rather do anything but get a 9-to-5 gig and dress like all the other cogs in the corporate machine. To my father, not being like his suit-wearing father was on the level of moral imperative. And every rule my father broke put more distance between him and all he rejected.

I have a child who is in a religious phase (at least I think it is a phase — ask me about this in a few years!). After an hour of discussion, she cried, “But I want to be told what to do!”

What a tightrope we walk in this life, between doing what we want to do, and what needs to be done and what we’re asked to do (because no one wants to be told what to do) — while wanting to be told what the heck we should be doing here in the first place! Each of us has so many counterweights to balance as we travel along our own private highwire.

Scoop Nisker used to say on KFOG, “If you don’t like the news, go make some of your own.” More and more, I feel that way about the rules. Instead of presuming that breaking rules makes life worth living, and that somehow we are all entitled to have this slightly inflated portion of what is officially granted to us, I want instead to try to change the things I detest. As I like to say, "It's your world; I'm just redesigning it."

Of course, as someone who grew up around radical activists, I am well aware that there are a lot of great reasons to break rules that don't make sense. I believe in a healthy mix between following and questioning authority. A lot of authorities have a lot to answer for these days, and I am glad to see more and more people speaking truth to power and demanding change. There's no reason the game should be rigged in favor of white people or men or rich people or Christians or any single group. I just don't feel as entitled as my father seemed to -- whether it was by our smarts or our privilege or our willingness to break rules to get ahead. But we're all in this jam together, and it seems to me a few rules will be more of a help than a hindrance as we try to make our way down the line.