I’m cleaning out my copies of backed-up backups and free-writes that are scattered around my PC hard drive. The blurb below is from a word document last saved on Christmas day, 2009.
The document is called “Storytelling”.
I have to write because my mind is constantly storytelling. If I’m not telling stories, then my daydreams become the fiction I live in. My life ceases to be livable and is instead a pile of disjointed chronological details heaped together in a chain of to-do lists, hopes, logistics, dreams, escapes from everything that is real, because I will create fiction whether I do it consciously on the page or not.
I’ve learned that when I’m writing often enough, passionately enough (quality really doesn’t matter nearly as much as quantity and fervor), I won’t ask myself “What’s next?” as I try to get through the day.
When I’m letting too many things tell me they are more important than my stories, and I let myself forget this lesson, I become ensnared in the frenzy of living in a series of “…and then… and then… and THEN!” moments that don’t necessarily add up.
When I’m constantly telling the story, I’m not living it.
Without living the story, I’ve got very little to tell. But at that point, I’m unaware of this, the narrative author of my own daydreamed life. In this anxious web, I’m only aware that the blanks must be filled in. The gaps must be eased with some sort of action, motivation, character motion. How does an author fill in the blanks? Details.
When I’m not writing, when I’m not alive in the moment, I’m mired in the details. My logical timeline of future events grows from the line items on my to-do list: and then I will go to this store; and then I will drop off the prescription; and then I will get the photos printed; and then… and then.
But additional details alone will not sustain the blank spaces in an unlived life. As the to-do list is endless, and the “what next?” daydreams overcome my ability to be Me in the Now and the Here, then emptiness expands. How does one fill this void in a story? Create crisis.
I breathe life into my simple to do list. Everything becomes more pressing, everything becomes more urgent, it becomes impossible to prioritize – and suddenly the details become a Monster. It grows up and up like Disney’s Maleficent changes herself into a dragon; I see my to-do list engorge itself into a gargantuan, epic foe. A leaky toilet becomes life-threatening! The choice of hostess-gift for the neighborhood Christmas party becomes vital!
Slaying the dragon has become a practice of catching a “What’s next?” and asking something different. “No. that’s not what I need to know,” I realize.
This question I can begin to answer from my five senses. I’m walking across the same mall parking lot that I cross twice each day on my way between the office and the train station. I am feeling the wind nipping at the tip of my now-red nose. I can hear my breath. I can feel my legs pushing and pulling, drawing and holding, I can feel how seamlessly my muscles work in concert to perform the act of putting one foot in front of the other. How my spine and back and tummy hold me upright, how my shoulders and neck hold my head high. And I realize that this miracle of walking is not an easy task for us, or we would be like horses – able to walk within an hour of birth. I am thankful for how well my body works; there are so many people for whom walking is far less simple and pleasant.
I look around the parking lot and I listen to the whisper of the leaves that get swept across the pavement like a dry blanket crackling with static electricity. I think about the way that wind doesn’t make a sound unless it has something to blow up against. Canyon walls or tree limbs, even the ground or wind that runs in the opposite direction. Wind can really only be heard if it’s got something against it.
When I’m trying to ask about the Now, I won’t pause to think about the profound statement that wind could make about challenges in our lives. I won’t pause to think about how I need to push myself against a page with ink and paper to make my own wind-sounds. In this practice, I pick the next sense and I gaze up at the brilliant blue sky. Atlanta winter feels like Akron’s autumn. It’s barely a winter at all. Kind of hard to get into the holidays that way, but nothing beats a walk on a day that’s full of both sun and wind.
I suddenly have a vivid memory of the day I sat outside struggling with the acceptance of opposites without choosing one over the other. Mulling over the idea that the concepts we term as opposites are one and the same: warmth and chill can exist only with our awareness of each to understand the other. Feeling the sun and the wind together on my face, I remember the day I got sunburned while the wind chilled me with goose-bumps.
I remind myself that this is what it means to be alive.
Impatient with the memory, I’ll lapse into the need to continue story telling. And automatically, I ask myself “What next?” My internal palm-pilot wants so badly to remind me of all the things I should be doing. That I’m walking to the office, that I’ve got deadlines looming, that I haven’t finished all my Christmas shopping, I must have a plan of action, I must know what’s next on the list.
“No.” I firmly say – out loud this time – there’s no one on this walk to hear me say it. “What NOW?” I ask again.
My Holiday hat is shaped like a 12” Christmas tree of green polar fleece. Instead of a pom-pom on the top of it, a yellow felt star. I’d bought it online, and I love wearing it. I added five jingle bells to the flap-like “branches” of the “tree”. So I can hear myself jogging across the street and darting through traffic, my head sounding like the start of Jingle Bells. “Dashing through the snow…” I start to sing as I cross the median and reach the sidewalk on the other side.
People look at me oddly when I wear my conical jingle bell hat. Some people smile and comment on it. Some people look and then their glances dart away quickly, as if it were impolite to stare at someone with a jingling green cone on her head. I catch them looking back, obliquely, later on. Just like my polka-dotted rain boots, I like to wear it because it reminds people to smile.
There are lots of things to be serious about in this world. We hear about them on the news, in our mail, at our work, from our kids and neighbors. We are constantly reminded to be serious. But like the sun and the wind, we must learn that being alive means achieving simultaneous silliness and seriousness.
Without silliness, we forget that “What’s next?!!” can be something a child asks us when it’s time to place a bookmark in a story we’re sharing and go to bed.
We so easily forget that without the now, there can be nothing next.