Writing & Wanderlust
I have been divorced twice and in love more times than I dare to admit. My mother has been married to the same man for over 60 years.
I grow older and the road narrows. I have fewer choices now than I once did and some possibilities will never be open to me. When I was young, I couldn’t imagine staying with the same person for my entire life. At the other end of experience, I now wish I knew what it was like to love and be loved for a lifetime.
A dear friend told me recently that she thinks we must always give up a part of ourselves to be with another. I agree and yet, how do you know when you’ve crossed the line and given up too much?
There are clues, though it seems many of us are very good at ignoring them. Last night I told my two adolescent girls about the caged canaries that workers would carry with them into the coal mines. If lethal gases were present the canary would die before the gases killed the miners. My canary is creativity. When I feel no urge to create, when the images and the words and the ideas no longer fill me up and flow out with joy, I know I have entered dangerous territory. One’s body and soul needs to be fed to create.
Falling in love feeds the soul, but new love– that wild romantic erotic love– never lives forever. It survives best on mystery and secrets, projection and illusion. It is Neptunian and lovely and, often, quite deceptive. So what do old lovers know that I don’t? How did they manage to traverse that heady early terrain to reach the solid ground they stand on? Surely they must also encounter weeks or months or years when they feel they have given up too much. How do they recapture the parts of themselves that they have lost without also sacrificing their love?
I am listening to my creativity. It has been breathless for too long. It’s time to nurture it back to full voice, to full song.
There have been many times in my life when I believed the main reason I was put on this earth was to learn patience. Often, the second I walk out the door following a job interview, I long desperately to turn back around and say to my potential employer: “Can we just be frank? Are you going to hire me or not?”
There are also the sad or sticky moments that inevitably rise with a friend or lover that bring tension, uncertainty or confusion. The bottom line in those instances is that I don’t want to see anyone get hurt (including me). I wish I could ask the other person (and I sometimes do) what I can do to fix it. But, like it or not, I know human emotions are not mathematical equations—the outcome is never certain, which is both too bad and extremely fortunate.
Sometimes it helps to take the long view and to try to step out of my own cozy but confining skin. It might be easier to be patient if I could remember that whatever I’m feeling today will be different tomorrow. This is not to say that feelings are unimportant. For me they offer lots of muck to wallow in. After a great deal of angst I’ve learned to allow the creatures from my black lagoon to simply tell me what they need to say, to rant and rave if they must. Like the best of friends I try not to push them away but simply listen without judgment. After those unruly feelings have said their piece they’re usually willing to quiet down and give up a little space beside them on the bench.
There are also moments when feelings can cast a glow on forms and figures outside my (perceived?) boundaries. Like Scrooge’s Ghost of Christmas Present raising a torch in the night, their light offers the chance to move beyond myself toward a more expansive communion. When this happens, I recall how blessed I am to be on this unpredictable ride. I am also reminded how little control I have over anything. Perhaps that also includes my own, seemingly intractable, impatience.
Sometimes I find solace thinking about other creatures on this earth and wondering how they face life’s challenges. Is the hummingbird as impatient as he looks, flitting from one flower to the next? Is his attention span really so short or is he on some quest for sweet enlightenment? And then there is the whale. Imagine rising over the tops of waves touched by sunlight only to sink again into depths darker than most of us have ever visited. I find myself projecting an unplumbed capacity for patience upon those grandest of creatures. Perhaps, if I manage to master lessons in patience in this life, I will return as a whale in the next.
I’ve been captivated this week by Antonio Tabucchi description of “A Whale’s View of Man” in his book titled The Woman of Porto Pim, which offers an interesting perspective on the human experience:
“Always so feverish, and with those long limbs waving about. Not rounded at all, so they don’t have the majesty of complete, rounded shapes sufficient unto themselves, but little moving heads where all their strange life seems to be concentrated. They arrive sliding across the sea, but not swimming, as if they were birds almost, and they bring death with frailty and graceful ferocity. They’re silent for long periods, but then shout at each other with unexpected fury, a tangle of sounds that hardly vary and don’t have the perfection of our basic cries: the call, the love cry, the death lament. And how pitiful their lovemaking must be: and bristly, brusque almost, immediate, without a soft covering of fat, made easy by their threadlike shape which excludes the heroic difficulties of union and the magnificent and tender efforts to achieve it.
They don’t like water, they’re afraid of it, and it’s hard to understand why they bother with it. Like us they travel in herds, but they don’t bring their females, one imagines they must be elsewhere, but always invisible. Sometimes they sing, but only for themselves, and their song isn’t a call to others, but a sort of longing lament. They soon get tired and when evening falls they lie down on the little islands that take them about and perhaps fall asleep or watch the moon. They slide silently by and you realize they are sad.”
The Woman of Porto Pim by Antonio Tabucchi was published by Archipelago Books, a not-for-profit press devoted to publishing excellent translations of classic and contemporary world literature. For more information, please go to: www.archipelago.org.
I admit I have not done any statistical research, but it seems to me that there are many more contests, periodicals, agents and publishing companies out there looking for new young writers than new old writers. I’ve heard it said that by hitching their wagon to a talented writer under 30, those in the writing business are gambling on a long-term output of books. It’s a numbers game: the more books, the more chance that at least one or two might attain some level of ‘success.’
I don’t like it, but I guess I can’t really blame them. We’re all wondering what’s happening to the world of books and publishing. Very few literary magazines now pay for poems or short stories. Though novel writers give away years of their life crafting a book with no guarantee of publication at the end, I fear that one day we might be asked to publish our work with no chance of a return. Since I’m an older writer, I’m grateful that I probably won’t be around when that day arrives.
That’s not to say that I don’t want to live as long as I can. Of course I do. And like most of us, I know this means I must eat a balanced diet and try to get some exercise every day. But here’s something I didn’t know: creative pursuits can lengthen our lives.
Yesterday, while I was pedaling away on a stationary bicycle at the gym, I read an article in the September 23, 2013 issue of Time on the “Art of Living.” According to recent findings, those who engage in an enjoyable creative activity have a greater chance of adding years to their lives than those who are bored and disengaged. Using our brains helps to keep us young—though not in every function. As we age, we do experience a decline in our “fluid intelligence.” According to the article, older people are likely to see a decrease in “working memory, computing speed, [and] the ability to hold multiple ideas in the mind at once.” But here’s the good news: our brains learn to compensate. We learn how to reorganize—older folks are more able to jump tracks to get both sides of the brain to work together. This change in how our brains function offers great benefits for the writer.
Here’s more from the Time article: “Take the metaphor—one of the writer’s prettier devices and one of the brain’s niftier tricks. Language conveys meaning, but if you want to give it particular resonance, it helps to attach a picture to the words. So the left brain has to reach into the right for help—the poet borrowing one of the painter’s brushes. That’s not easy to do—which is why not everyone can be a poet—but when the walls between the hemispheres get lower, the job gets easier.”
I don’t want to discourage any young writer from pursuing poetry or fiction or creative nonfiction—by all means keep writing! But I would like to see more buzz out there regarding the search for older ‘emerging’ writers. In comparison to our younger counterparts, we geezers may not have as many years ahead of us to pump out work. But please remember this: our brains may be far more adept at putting all our skills to work as we strive to create the next great masterpiece.
I’ve been in and out of the labor force for many years—as a writer and a teacher, a fundraiser and a program director. I’ve worked in architecture and graphic design, I’ve built houses and cleaned them, baked bread and made jewelry, dug shelters in a war zone and organized protests near the State House. I’ve been paid to skin a squirrel, to paint eyelashes on the horses in a carousel and to take a baboon for a walk. But no matter the undertaking, I’ve come to realize there are some common principles that help the work along and can even be linked to achieving successful outcomes:
▪ Communication is key. If you want people to join your cause or buy your product, you not only have to tell them about it (that’s the easy part), you have to ask questions and be genuinely interested in their needs and desires.
▪ Show up. This isn’t just about getting to where you are supposed to be on time, it means making the extra effort to offer your assistance—especially when others were not expecting anything from you.
▪ Express gratitude. Let others know that you appreciate a job well done. Or if your team is slogging through hard times, thank them for hanging in there to find a solution.
▪ Find common ground. Get to know the people around you, where they come from and how they got to where they are now. Find the places you overlap—there is always something, even if it is only a shared love for mocha chocolate chip ice cream—and use that as a foundation for building trust and respect.
I could also talk about honesty and humor and humility. This is not a complete list, but it’s a start.
Today is October 16, 2013. Tomorrow the U.S. government comes up against the deadline to raise the debt ceiling or deal with default. I wonder: what have our Congressional representatives learned from their daily work running this country?
As members of the U.S. Congress play chicken, glaring at each other across the aisle, more people will experience the day-to-day crisis of lost wages and income insecurity. If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling by mid-October and the nation defaults on its obligations, things could get far worse. According to a statement issued by the U.S. Treasury last week, “[A] default would be unprecedented and has the potential to be catastrophic: credit markets could freeze, the value of the dollar could plummet, and U.S. interest rates could skyrocket, potentially resulting in a financial crisis and recession that could echo the events of 2008 or worse,”
Just what we need.
The U.S. is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession that began in 2009. And its my gender and age group, women born between 1946 and 1964, that have suffered the most. Women were entering the work force in record numbers as the new millennium started but our participation rate has fallen sharply since late 2009. It is now at 57% compared to 70% for men. Both women and men of the Baby Boomer generation who do not yet have access to Medicare and Social Security, have lost more of their earning power than any other age group.
I am hidden somewhere inside those statistics, though if one could paint shades of grey among the picture of the unemployed, I know I am luckier than most. After I was laid-off, I received a four-month severance for my nearly 19 years of work with the same organization. Earlier that same year, I had finally paid off all debts on my home. My son was honored with a substantial merit scholarship for college and I had managed to build up a cushion of savings above and beyond what I hope to use for my retirement. Though I’m a single mother and wage-earner, I’ve kept my family afloat by finding short-term work and contract jobs while I search for regular employment.
I’m also a writer, so I’ve made use of this time by writing as much as I can. I’ve made good headway on a novel and last month I completed a ‘hybrid memoir’ that tells the story of the last few years through personal reflections, poetry and fiction. Like the careful construction of a crazy quilt, this collection works to create a whole from what is real and what is imagined, what passes and what remains. Needless to say, I want to see these hard economic times pass. For anyone on survival mode, what remains is the affection and support of our loved ones, our friends and our communities.
I’d like to stay optimistic, but things are not looking good. Baby Boomers have a reputation for trying new things, pushing the boundaries, giving our all for something we believe in– if we have the chance. But according to a Gallup study, older workers who were unable to find work for a year or longer showed measurable declines in their health, self-esteem and overall emotional well-being. And why wouldn’t they feel this way? After 17 months of unemployment, those between the ages of 50 and 61 have only a 9% chance of finding a job within the next three months. This figure falls to 6% if the person is over 62. When, and if, older workers are able to find work, studies show that it will take them longer to recover emotionally from the experience of joblessness than if they had lost a spouse. No wonder the highest rates of suicide currently fall among the Baby Boomer generation.
Like most older workers, I was cut from my job just as I was entering my prime earning potential. Those of us who do manage to find regular employment will almost inevitably suffer greater wage losses than our younger co-workers just starting the climb up the income ladder. Over the last several years young people were more likely to get stuck with layoffs, but they recuperated faster by finding a new job sooner than older workers, and with less of a hit to their paycheck. In an uncertain economy, young workers give employers what they want: cheap labor and lower healthcare costs.
This does not mean that the rest of American workers are sitting pretty. According to the Social Security Administration, half of all wage earners who filed a W-4 with an employer and paid FICA taxes earned $27,000 per year or less from their job. We are a nation of working poor. How could we possibly survive another recession?
Colder, darker months are approaching. Perhaps you’ll find me with the heat turned low and the tips of my gloves snipped off so that I can keep typing. I also hope you’ll find me on the job.