Weekly Photo Challenge: Arranged

“Arranged” is a concept with a few different connotations.  Taken one way, it can mean that something is purposefully controlled and ordered in a way that may not be totally genuine or natural.  And yet, “arranged” can also be indicative of something harmoniously organized for any number of reasons: efficiency, beauty, simplicity… without detracting from the sincerity of the thing (whatever it may be).

To me, this picture was definitely about the latter.  It was taken in Florence, Italy on an April day that was 80 degrees, sunny, and pretty much perfect.  Having hiked all over the town the day, I took the opportunity to indulge in some tiramisu and people-watching in the sunshine-y terrace of a little cafe just down the hill from the Piazzale Michelangelo.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Through

This gallery contains 3 photos.

I don’t often participate in the Weekly Photo Challenge, but have been neglecting my blog here in lieu of the stuff that pays me.  (Logical, but not always as fulfilling…).  This prompt caught my eye, since the concept of how … Continue reading

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A post directly from Bethany’s “irrelevant, senatorial level of consciousness”

Ever read a sentence that just stopped you in your tracks? Made you realize that those couple of dozen words perfectly encapsulated an unnamed thought that had been buzzing around your head? The sense of relief can be palpable. Because it’s those thoughts – or maybe they’re feelings? – that are the ones that have yet to be nailed down and made manageable. And they keep you up at night with a vague sense of unease.

It’s rooted in the concept that names have power. Go no further than the story of Rumpelstiltskin – and the idea that knowing someone’s true name gives you power over them. Is it such a leap to think that naming our thoughts is any less potent?

Perhaps therein lay the root of my reading habit. I read a lot. And for lots of reasons. Enjoyment. Education. To figure out how to write that Excel formula. Edification. It’s the last that ties in most closely to the theme of this post. I love best the books that cut closest to the bone, and the authors who seem to have figured out a bit more than me about this life game. They have this relationship with WORDS that makes enlightened description seem as easy as breathing.

The pure enjoyment of the well-written sentence is often its own reward, but every now and then, a sentence just blows me away. It’s a thought or a description that is so pitch-perfect; it creates its own moment of revelation.

For example, I read this recently:

“Sammy still refused to admit to himself – at that irrelevant, senatorial level of consciousness where the questions that desire had already answered are proposed and debated and tabled till later – that he was in love, or falling in love.”

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon*

And I had to put the book down, and just marvel in those words. Hot damn, Chabon! You are SO right. Why do we insist on thinking that we can think our way through love? That we won’t feel until we give ourselves license to…

Personal history tells me that this assumption is a common fallacy. [At least for me.] Love has always outpaced my big, beautiful, imminently rational and risk-averse brain. The verdict was handed down long before I had the chance to decide if it was a bad idea (… which, it was). But admitting that things might be otherwise strips me of a level of control that I do not easily relinquish.

Of course, I’m reading this little gem of knowledge in the midst of my own moment of denial. After a hiatus from dating and relationships, my life has started take on the basic shape of a laughable [unless you’re in it] rom-com movie.**  …Nothing like learning what people really mean by “when it rains, it pours.” … Thinking my way through it isn’t working, and I’m paralyzed by the sense that I don’t know what I feel.

On one hand, reading that sentence of Chabon’s made me feel better. One more piece has been placed in the puzzle. But, on the other … it begs the questions: “when do these two levels meet?” When will my thoughts know what my heart has already decided? If I must lose my right to think my way through this, could I at least know what direction has been decided, so that I can stop thinking about it way too late in the night? I have a sneaking suspicion that there is indeed a direction. And that I’m courting disaster and heartache by not settling on it quickly enough.

So it all comes back to the power of naming, doesn’t it? I have thoughts I cannot put into words right now, and it’s all the more frustrating because I believe those words are out there, just out of my reach.

*A seriously awesome book, for the record. Chabon writes in a way that is so lyrically perfect … sigh.  It makes you realize the difference in literature between “good” and “incandescent.”

**Woe to those who would involve themselves with me, as clearly I can, and will, process things related to them in my writing…. Fair warning.

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Priorities and active listening

It might be a bit early for resolutions.

Given how this year has gone though … maybe I should start now. But why am I thinking about resolutions in November? Well, it’s something I read this weekend. I’ve been mulling over its importance. Worrying it, like a dog with a bone, actually. Is it really applicable to me? Why can’t I get this thought unstuck in my head? And today, a TED Talk – of all of things – turned on the light bulb.

But let me back up. This weekend, I was flipping through the December issue of SELF (mock me if you wish, it’s less intimidating than Women’s Health...) when I stumbled upon a quote in a section on a featured yoga workout.  

When I exercise, eat well, and get enough rest, I thrive.  Repeating those things every day is how I show myself love.”

-Mandy Ingber

At first, it seems a bit … something… for me. I’m practical. Logical. Perpetually in motion. I exercise. Attempt to eat right. Think longingly about sleep. Close enough, right?

Yesterday, I had the day off. Sweated my way through my first-ever Spin class. On the way home from the gym, I thought about how much better my workouts are when I’m not trying to shoe-horn them in between 70 other things. They feel good. More effective, even. I enjoy them, rather than stressing because it is just one more thing on my to-do list.

That feeling stayed with me, as I spent a couple of hours in the art studio, putting handles on mugs. And while I went to the library. These are some of my favorite things, and yet they are always relegated to a lesser position, and a lesser priority, in my life. There are so many other things to juggle, to keep moving in the air, and these things … well, I don’t get paid to do them.

But in case I was not getting the  message clearly enough (and in fairness to the universe, I’m occasionally a bit obtuse), an article posted to Livestrong.com crossed my path today.  Entitled “Is fitness dead?,” the blogger considers why December is so hard on our health, and wonders what could be done if only we didn’t give up only to start over in January. 

And these are the words that stuck with me, echoing what I had read in SELF:

When you’re interested in something, you do it when it’s convenient. When you’re committed, you accept no excuses; only results.

For me that’s applicable not just to working out, but to all things I should prioritize.  [Writing, mug-making, and running all seem to fall under that  “deserves commitment” umbrella]. While I’m thinking about what a nice quote that was, but generally still not getting it, I stumbled across a recommendation for a TED Talk* on one of the work-related blogs I read for my “professional developement.” This one was titled “5 ways to listen better,” and given that “listening” is a key skill to what I do in my day job, it seemed worth a listen [har har.  :)] 

Active listening is a skill, the speaker Julian Treasure says. And it’s a skill that’s endangered. A skill we are losing. A noisy world. Gadgets to cover our lack of attention.  Impatience and desensitization. 

Is it any wonder that the universe is shouting at me? So I’m listening now. My life could stand some reorganization. Prioritize the things that will make me happy, fulfilled … challenged. I’ll be more effective for it. Better at work and in my relationships. But I’ve got to commit to it.

I’ve got to remember to stop and listen.

*The interesting codicil to this story, is that I knew nothing about TED conferences or TED talks until this weekend.  And, but for the friend who introduced me to them serendipitously, I might not have felt that link worth the effort.  Sometimes, I think the universe realizes just who it needs to send a message to, and adjusts the volume accordingly.  It must get tired of the ham-fisted approach I force it to adopt…

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Just call me The Hander of the Tools

Happiness comes in the little things.  This weekend, happiness came in the form of tools.  And the correct identification thereof. 

You see, my brother and I worked on our cars on Saturday.  We have built up quite a catalog of experience when it comes to “basic car maintenance” and “slightly less basic car repair.”  [Mostly my fault, the Present Car is the most reliable thing I’ve ever owned…].  Ostensibly, some of these sessions have been frustrating.  [“Oh. Great. That IS a previously unidentified oil leak that’s routinely killing the spark plugs…”]  But, on the next level, these are actually some of our best times.

And, I’d like to think it’s not just because he’s slowly amassed an impressive collection of tools, in part due to my contributions.  [Rein Family Mechanic Rules – The driver in need of mechanical assistance will supply or purchase: all parts needed, willing -if not intelligent- labor, any caffeinated beverages requested, and any tools required that are not currently owned.]

I could get emotional here, and talk about how it seems like an important piece of our bonding ritual.  Or how much it meant this weekend that he could send me trotting off to one of the tool boxes and trust that I would know what he meant when he asked for the 1/2″ socket extension or C-Clamp, even though I’m not a mechanical person by nature.  [Note: I really love that I know these things.]  But I won’t.  Instead, I’ll share something with you that I read him a few years ago, when I first came across it:

I love the work.  Love to get in there.  Love grease on my hands …. Love to see the whorls of my skin outlined in black, a topographical map in the palm of my hand. I like the feeling of lying on my back beneath the chassis trying to reach a rusted nut with the heat of the trouble light in my ear … I know how to work like a mechanic.  I just don’t know what to do.  At best, I am a good helper.  A hander of tools.

-“Truck: A Love Story,” Michael Perry

As far as titles go, I’m good with Hander of Tools.

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The fear of over-sharing … or The Worst Excuse for Writer’s Block

A recent series of back-and-forth emails trying to straighten out my piddly paycheck at that other place I write for (woo-hoo! it actually pays me, albeit mostly in peanuts…), has forced me to acknowledge my extreme slacker-tude in this 2011 goal of “write more.”  Wasn’t that the point of this blog?  [Answer: Yes.  See the Inaugural Post.]  Long story short, I’ve donated some of my peanuts back to the pot by being “inactive.”  GRUMP.

Even here, my last post was in July – a grand post on books (my favorite!) inspired by one of these daily emails WordPress kindly provides me with potential ideas to get the creative juices flowing.  

Further reflection has me asking “why?”

I’ve long been irritated by those blogs that read like diaries better kept under the bed, never to see the light of day.  There’s a level of over-sharing enabled by the ease of blogging that makes my skin crawl.   I have this grand notion that my blog will be something witty, occasionally insightful, and generally delightful (… y’know, highly reflective of me as a person.  🙂 ).   But NOT a cringe-worthy seething mass of over-sharing.

While ignoring that subtly nagging sense of guilt that I hadn’t been trying hard enough, I stumbled across something on an author’s blog I regularly read.  She blogs every day, but she also has a bona fide readership and published books, so perhaps I’m comparing apples to oranges…

What she said was this:

“I do try to remind you that I lie by omission a lot.  I write the blog about the stuff I feel like making public.  It’s not about my life.  It’s about certain carefully selected bits of my life, scrubbed up, costumed and professionally lit for dramatic excitement. “

A small light-bulb went off.  Yep, this is part of the issue.  Part of the reason one my tags here is “selectively edited chapters from the Life Story.”   I tell the things that are too funny, or too real not to share, but that I CAN share, with any likely embarrassment only occurring to me.  And not likely in a manner as to put me out of my day job [still required for the eating and rent paying].   So the timid bit, still unsure of this writer’s lark, whispers to that guilt … “well, there are reasons for not writing.  What would you write about?  The Kidney Exorcism of 2011?   The highly-entertaining-but-not-necessarily-likely-to-end-well moil you’re making out of this return-to-dating thing?  My daily life?

In order:  No – too depressing.  No – must protect the innocent.  Heck no – Need something longer [and more interesting] than “Work. Gym. Finished a Book.”

Conclusion – while the advice may be “write what you know,” it’s a mite bit harder than that phrase betrays.   I had to laugh tonight, while finishing Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller.   It’s ostensibly  a book about her mother, made all the more ironic for the fact that, throughout this book, her mother consistently refers to her first book [an auto-biography-ish book] as the Awful Book for what Fuller has shared.   That’s why it’s hard to write about who you know.   Sometimes they don’t like it.  But sometimes, rarely perhaps, a good writer can take those hurt feelings and constant goads, and turn it into a luminous and compellingly wrought portrait that’s equal parts apology and testament of admiring affection.

I’m not quite there yet, so will be settling for writing about my perceived writer’s block instead.   At least for tonight…

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Five books

I read voraciously.  With a speed and appetite that has kept me up far too late on far too many evenings.  To the amusement of my friends and family when I drop out of the room, the conversation, the space I seem to be inhabiting, with nothing more than the turn of the page…

So WordPress challenges me to list the five most important books I’ve ever read.   And then tell you why. It is a challenge I cannot resist.  Here goes:

One of my freshman-year roommates lent me this; told me I had to read it.  She was right.  Ostensibly a parable about an Andalusian shepherd, it’s actually a love story to the challenge we all face to live our dreams.  It’s kept me going when I’ve felt lost.  It’s reassured me, showing up again and again – when I’ve traveled, when I’ve killed time in a train station – reminding me to keep living the way I should.  And I think, maybe, it broke my heart.  It started on a cool September evening when I lent it to a boy  who saw what I saw in its words, and I didn’t even notice my heart slide away from me. 

The book that made moving home from Scotland bearable.   Ever read something or had someone say something, that makes you realize that those words are EXACTLY the shape and sound of the indescribable feelings just out of reach, buzzing around your brain?  The relief of naming those feelings is palpable.   

Proof that “importance” doesn’t guarantee “enjoyment.”   Read it for my high school AP English class.  Had to try to draw a plot diagram, amongst other projects …  Painful.   I thought I hated this book.  Because at 16, I still believed lives and minds were linear.  The truth of adulthood is something else.  So it goes…

Perry makes me think.  And helps reconcile the intellectual and the “simpler” pieces of myself.   He made me feel better about love, when I didn’t really think I liked it anymore.   And, explained in a mere paragraph exactly why I work on my car with my brother.

Can I explain this book?  Vicky is me.  There.  That comes close. 

Five books that have been utterly important to me.  Some for the time in which I read them.  Some for the timelessness of the story, the message to be imparted.  And, some for helping me learn about myself by holding up a character to be my mirror.   Yet this list doesn’t touch some of my favorite books: things by Neil Gaiman, or Robin McKinley, or Jane Austen, or Margaret Atwood.  

The lesson to be learned from that contradiction is a thought I’m still trying to find the right words to wrap around…

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When Neil Gaiman reads, I listen

Neil Gaiman read me a poem the other day.  Okay.  So he actually read it to a lot of people last Friday night, as part of MPR’s most recent Wits show at the Fitzgerald, but I caught it on YouTube, having unfortunately been unable to attend.  The poem was called “The Day the Saucers Came.” 

I wondered if it was something new he was working on.  In planning this post, I Googled it (editor’s note:  I just used “Google” as a verb … hmm).  I realized, I had actually read it before, as it’s published in Gaiman’s collection “Fragile Things.”   And I verified … it’s in my copy of the book.

This may seem a bit strange to have not remembered, especially to those who know me well.  Gaiman is one of my favorite authors.  I’ve said before that he could write my grocery list and I would find it fascinating.  People usually think that’s funny. Little do they know it’s probably not a joke.   I first encountered Neil by way of the estimable Terry Pratchett.   My lovely friend F had gotten me to read “The Colour of Magic” and I was hooked.   So I took a gamble on the co-authored “Good Omens,” which was bitingly funny.  Then “Stardust” came across my path, and I read that too.   And then, I got to “American Gods.”   I have yet to describe that book in a way that feels fully satisfactory, when someone asks “so, what’s it about?”   It’s dark, deep, and completely engrossing.  It’s that good.  And that utterly unique.   Seriously, just go read it already.

It’s hard to say what I like best.   His writing is intelligent and articulate.  I’m a sucker for a good vocabulary.  At turns, wry, or snort-out-loud funny, or even scary, I think … it’s because he writes life authentically.  The funny, the awkward, the scary things we never want to let out of closets much less the dark corners in our heads … 

Neil Gaiman likely never set out to be a self-help type of writer.  But, some of the things that have rung the truest with me have been things that he’s said about relationships.  For example, I remember stumbling across this, more than a year ago, in the midst of a heart-shattering break-up:

“Have you ever been in love? Horrible, isn’t it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens your heart and it means someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses. You build up this whole armor, for years, so nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life. You give them a piece of you. They don’t ask for it. They do something dumb one day like kiss you, or smile at you, and then your life isn’t your own anymore.

Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness, so a simple phrase like ‘Maybe we should just be friends’ or ‘How very perceptive’ turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart. It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It’s a soul-hurt, a body-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain.

Nothing should be able to do that. Especially not love. I hate love.”

— (The Sandman Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones)

Those words didn’t necessarily make the situation suck any less.   It frelling* hurt.  But there was this tiny bit of relief that there were the words for it.   The ability to name it with words was the first step in taming the beast, as it were.

So yes, Neil read me a poem the other day, that I didn’t remember.  And, as is often the case, he read out the last stanza … and I sat back, in stunned disbelief  at the perfectness of the sentiment.  “You clever man, you are absolutely right.”   It’s not worth missing the saucers.  Or the zombies.  Or Ragnarök.  And definitely not the fairies.

So go ahead, let Neil read to you too.

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Wood and clay and inspiration

Pottery classes have recently become an anchor to my weeks.   On Friday nights, I show up and throw, or mold, or trim, or glaze.  Or maybe a bit of everything.  In three hours, you probably wouldn’t think I accomplish a lot.  A creativity high was reached a few weeks ago, when I threw five things in one session.  But what I make isn’t the always the sum total of what I accomplish in that class.   

Somewhere between walking in and walking out, I unwind.  From work.  From life.  From all the questions I don’t have answers to.  From the things I can’t seem to put down, even when I know carrying them is just wasted energy.  I can’t pinpoint the moment.   Does it start at the wedging table?  Or when I’m elbow-deep in clay-splatter at the wheel?  [I’m not the neatest artist to have ever thrown.  A unlikely fact perhaps, given the general smallness of my pieces, but somehow I think you’re not surprised?]  But I lose myself a bit, and time disappears.  I’m not entirely sure I’m talented, but I do know I have to be creative in some facet.  It sustains me in a way that I’m still learning to articulate.  To not be apologetic for, when caught out in my little hobby.  And, I leave from there, a little lighter.  Exhausted.  But lighter.  I sleep easier on those nights.

I’ve taken two sessions at the art center now, and have been welcomed into the core group of stalwart throwers who regularly attend throughout the year.  And, truly, they are as much a part of the reason why I feel the way I do when I’m done, as the clay.   I value their company, and their insights.  “Bethany, don’t pet your pot!” one chides, gently but firmly; when I’m tempted to break a cardinal rule, and touch a wet piece without the wheel spinning.   She was right, and my first-ever mug gives thanks for her timely intervention.  So I watch, and I learn.  I ask questions, and I learn.

While perusing the Instant Gallery at the American Association of WoodturnersNational Convention, with my aunt and uncle this weekend, I had a thought.  [Well, several, actually.  But I think it can be distilled downwards into the essence of one cohesive thought.]  Seeing these beautiful pieces of varying sizes, shapes, and color (is it really so easy to forget the myriad of colors and patterns wood can take on??), parallels could be drawn between my uncle’s return to woodturning and my own to pottery.  

He showed me a box he had made.  A tiny, exquisite thing of painstaking detail, with a lid so seamless …  And told me the story of a woman he’d met at one of his association meetings.  A recognized woodturner in her own right, who regularly makes tiny, exquisite boxes that sell for thousands of dollars, she had donated one of her boxes for a raffle, and he had won it. And used it to learn from – to inspire him.

This sounds not unfamiliar to how the creativity and talent of my classmates have worked on me, and my own efforts.   I like these moments.  When I realize what it is I’m actually doing.  But more than that, it was nice to connect with my uncle over that shared form of learning.   To find another thing to be inspired by.

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Running and writing

… are two things I’ve missed recently.  I’m not always super diligent in doing either of these activities – life’s always a bit crazy in the Bethany Lane – but both are appear regularly enough on the schedule. 

And yet, it is more than halfway through June.  And I’ve not run in a month.  Or written in even longer.  I feel the lack like an itch between my shoulder blades.  Or perhaps a hum in my brain.   The hum is likely all of the unsorted thoughts I have, bouncing around my skull like agitated bees in a too-small hive.  Usually, they would get processed into some sort of order over a couple of miles, and the more intriguing or entertaining ones end up written down somewhere.

But the last month has been a wild ride, complete with an ER visit and a couple of surgeries, and lots of prescription medicine.  Mostly, it’s left me with not a lot of energy, and an overwhelming desire to just watch ‘Doctor Who‘ until it all feels better.   My brain’s a bit fuzzy (what could possibly congeal into a writeable topic?) and my body’s not a lot better … and now it’s June.  [sidebar: Don’t piss off your kidneys.   They are very mean when provoked.]

In the interim … well, there has been baseball.  And of a better quality, as of late (thank you Twins!).  And there have been babies.  And, the indescribable force for good that is friends and family.  And then there’s me, sitting up on a Monday night, trying to marshal any two thoughts into a straight line.

That seems like a beginning.

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