Thursday, January 12, 2017

Hesitantly Pleased

Looking back, it seems like each year I get a bit harder on myself about not having achieved my goals in reading and writing. As December dwindled down, I felt the compulsion to make my end-of-year post start tugging at me. The familiar guilt started tugging at me too. It's taken me almost two weeks after the start of the New Year, but I think I'm finally ready to sum up my literary goings on in 2016 without being (too) overcritical.

I'll start with the books I read last year, since the list is short.

Secondhand Souls - Christopher Moore
Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman
One Punch Man Volumes 1-3 - Yusuke Murata
When You Are Engulfed in Flames - David Sedaris

I recommend them all wholeheartedly. Just know that Secondhand Souls is a sequel, and also you won't like One Punch Man if you don't like Japanese manga.

I also started approximately seven more books during 2016, but did not finish any more of them during the calendar year, so I won't be adding them to the list.

Next, my writing. I did not write as much as I should have, or nearly as much as I wanted to. But I did write, and that is important. I took two huge steps forward in that I 1) Joined a writing group and 2) Read my poetry at a couple of open mic nights.

These might not sound like huge feats to most people, but for someone as neurotic as I am, these are ticker-tape-parade-worthy accomplishments (that is, if ticker tape parades thrown in my honor wouldn't totally freak me out).

The writing group was (yes, was--I'll explain in a bit) an interesting experience. Invited by a lovely acquaintance, I joined a group of talented individuals to workshop some writing. The group meets every other Tuesday, and most of its core members are published and have been participating the group for years. Needless to say, I was very intimidated. It felt amazing to be in the realm of writing again though, after having been away from writing courses in college for what feels like so long.

The first week, I failed to bring enough copies of my poetry for everyone and therefore freaked out and hid the notebook I brought when asked if I had anything for the group.

The next time, I hauled out one of my favorite poems, which I have been working on periodically for a couple years. It turns out, no one in the writing group really writes or even reads poetry much. I got a lot of flat feedback to the tune of, "I liked it." And then one individual, nameless to protect the guilty, told me that I should Google how to write poetry. I was so flustered, I think I actually replied, "Okay." No indignant defense. No line of questioning. Just meek acquiescence.

I cocooned myself in righteous anger, texting my best friend about the ordeal as well as coming home and stuttering an iteration of what just transpired at my stunned husband. I dismissed this person's appraisal of my work as uneducated, and I put the folder of marked-on copies of my poems to the side. For a while.

I had already decided that since the group's forte was certainly not poetry, that I would only bring prose in the future. However, it would be dishonest of me in the extreme to say that was the only reason, and that I was not also very, very afraid.

In weeks to come, I workshopped the first chapter of a long piece, which I have worked on and laid aside intermittently since college. I received a lot of really great feedback, and just letting myself delve into the world in which that piece takes place felt very much like home.

It was then, in July, when I injured myself quite badly. Following that, I got wrapped up with Tokyo in Tulsa, and after that came blood clots and general poor health, which plagued me for quite some time.

I'm sorry to say I haven't been back to the writing group since. Every time I consider it, I feel anxiety bubble up my throat and take a firm hold of me. It seemed commonplace for other writers to appear and disappear from the group, so I'm not sure why it feels so wrong of me to want to go back after a long hiatus, but it does. I hope I get the courage to go back this year. I really do.

I did find the gumption in the fall of last year to attend an open mic night for poetry. This might come as quite a shock to some, since public speaking is not high on my list of favorite things. It probably ranks below getting a flat tire, but still above minor injuries. The truth is, I was kind of rooked into the thing, and once I was in the midst of it, I was too ashamed to admit I'd been had.

A newcomer at the writing group happened to be there the day I had my poem workshopped. She told me she occasionally went to a group, who met once a month, that loved poetry and was always looking for new members. I could not have been more delighted. She told me they met at a certain coffee shop, at a certain time, and, what luck--the next meeting was in a few days. She told me she'd see me there.

I arrived a bit early to get the lay of the land, and also some tea. I spied a small stage set up for what looked to be a local band, who had already done a sound check and left their instruments propped up and ready. I found a seat in a corner, where I could observe everyone a little better. Most seemed to be college students, working frenetically, or people in their mid-30s stopping by for a drink before commuting home from their work nearby. Then I spied a group of women with slightly frizzy hair, lots of silver and turquoise jewelry, quirky boots, and handmade capes and shawls.

After the top of the hour came and went, I decided to make my way over to their table and see if this was the group I had been told about. Before I could, an older gentleman stood up in front of me and beat me to them. One of the ladies produced a piece of paper for the man, and he signed his name on the top line. She explained to him that after the band played a set, the group would have their turn. After the three regulars, he was first in line. He turned, brushed past me back to his seat, and the smiling woman with the paper asked me, "Are you here to read too?"

This wasn't a poetry workshop. It was an open mic night. I frantically glanced around, looking for the woman who had been at the writing group. Had she even been real in the first place?

I then had what I can only describe as an out-of-body experience. It was like those dreams where you watch yourself do something that you would normally never do in real life, all the while, you scream at yourself, "No! Don't do the thing!"

I heard myself say, "Yes!" and watched myself sign my name on the next line.

After I made my way back to my seat, I mechanically dug in my purse for my anti-anxiety meds, took one with my tea, and sat slightly slack-jawed as the band performed their first few songs.

The regular poets introduced themselves, each read a poem or two, ranging from political diatribes to peaceful haiku, and then turned the mic over to the older gentleman who had signed up before me. I cannot even begin to say what his poem was about, or even if it was good or bad. I had ceased being able to feel my hands at this point, and the air tasted like copper.

Then I was standing in front of the microphone, and I started to read. "Louder!" I heard from my right. I looked over, and the affable woman with the paper gave me a thumbs up. I tried again, and soon, there was applause. I was finished. I think I may have managed to smile before darting back to my stool. As soon as I got there, the nice woman found me and introduced herself. She told me she loved my piece, that the other poets felt the same, and she would love for me to read another poem later, if I would be so kind. I looked up to see the other women smiling and waving from their table, and a few other people scattered around the coffeehouse smiling at me as well.

I did read another poem that night, and I was hounded after the whole thing was said and done to come back and read again the next month. And the next.

2016 was a mixed bag for me, but toward the end of it, I was afforded a lot of clarity. I've changed an incredible amount in what feels like a very short time. I think if the me from five years ago could have a conversation with me now, she wouldn't recognize herself. And I'm glad for that.

Tonight, I just finished reading Jenny Lawson's second book, Furiously Happy. It is brilliant, witty, irreverent, and perfect in every way I needed a book to be today. Her insight into mental illness and depression always hits very close to home. The title alone is a testament to her current outlook on life. In October 2010, Jenny Lawson decided she had had it with sadness, and that from then on, she would be furiously happy, out of sheer spite. After just a few hours of turning that phrase into a hashtag on Twitter, the response was tremendous "as people loudly fought to take their lives back from the monster of depression."

I will continue to push myself to say yes to opportunities, even if it just means changing out of my pajamas at 6:00pm and going to see my best friend for a couple of hours on a weeknight. Because even that much is very hard for me sometimes. And you know what? I'm getting better.

This last year was not a red letter one, in terms of my mental health. But, with the patience of my doctors, the support of my husband, family, and friends, I am still going. For the most part, my symptoms are under better control, and I am pushing forward. Most of the time, I am not furiously happy, and that's okay with me. As much as I adore Jenny Lawson, she and I are two very different people. I feel like I'm satisfied by less grandiose gestures of emotion and well-being. My anxiety likes to tell me (constantly) that when I am happy, something terrible is around the next corner. But I've decided to try not to care (as much). As of this moment, I am hesitantly pleased.