“an uncomfortable mind”

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I’m re-reading Kim Addonizio’s Bukowski in a Sundress. I needed something refreshing and grounding, and her straight shooting memoir came to mind. Her honesty about the messiness of life helps me accept my own missteps and shenanigans and work with them from a writing standpoint. Plus, I’m a sucker for feisty little nuggets of writing advice, like this:

“Have an uncomfortable mind; be strange. Be disturbed: by what is happening on the planet, and to it; by the cruelty, and stupidity humanity is capable of; by the unbearable beauty of certain music, and the mysteries and failures of love, and the brief, confusing, exhilarating hour of your own life.”

The ending there — “brief, confusing, exhilarating hour” — brings to mind Mary Oliver’s line about your one wild and precious life, but that’s not the part that grabs me. It’s the opening: “Have an uncomfortable mind. Be strange.” That’s a sweet spot for me (and for many others). I do my best work when I’m agitated in some way.

It’s perfect timing to be reminded of the generative power of disturbance. After growing my hair long during the pandemic, I’m now trying to rediscover the spit and vinegar of my signature short, short, short red ‘do and to tap into the spunky, edgy version of myself I used to rely upon so heavily. I’ve grown weary of feeling so “meh.”

I’m also pushing a bit harder on my Gertie poem project. I wrote some about it here, but the gist is that Gertie is a persona (an alter ego, I suppose) to whom I turn for protection and comfort. It’s a true story. I started talking to Gertie in my head while taking walks at the start of pandemic. Then she found her way into my poems. I was delighted by her presence on the page and also a bit spooked. I’m less likely to reveal my uncomfortable, strange mind now than I used to be. I am not sure why and hope it’s not a long affliction because I can see it holding me back.

Since Gertie is a direct representation of that discomfort and weirdness, I fall sometimes into the old bear trap of doubt: Is this silly? Will I seem ridiculous? Does this voice have anything important to say? Is it of value to anyone but me? Is this thing even going to work? Those questions are fine to ask once the poems are written, but they’re deadly as the drafts are trying to be birthed. I’m grateful for writing pals (Jill, Sarah and the Madwomen) and for amazing examples by other writers I admire, like Addonizio. Their words shake me by my shoulders and send me back in to do the work.

In preparation for a test of a hybrid in-person/remote work arrangement at my 9-to-5, I had to go into the office to clear out my old cubicle. (It will be used as a drop-in work station for anyone who needs it.) We’ve been 100% work-from-home for what’s now almost two years, and I found the recent in-office day a bit unsettling but not necessarily in a bad way. Perhaps, it was a useful disturbance.

It was exhausting to navigate so many variables and spaces. Getting ready required shower, hair, makeup and — even though we’ve always been “business casual” — the dreaded work clothes. Getting out the door required gathering keys, coffee cup, wallet and laptop. Getting into and out of the office required a commute on roads I know well but haven’t connected in this exact way since March 13, 2020. Working in the office changed-up my access to the basics (like bathroom and kitchen) and re-introduced me to an overwhelming number of lunch choices.

My mind used to work on these tasks in the background, but now I felt acutely aware of them. They took incredible energy. I felt inept and clumsy with basic navigation. Has the pandemic changed how my brain works?

On my way home from that work day, quite serendipitously, NPR was airing Lost & Found, an old episode of Radio Lab. I was amazed by what I heard in the You Are Here segment. Here’s an excerpt from the show’s synopsis:

When Sharon Roseman was five years old, something strange happened. She was playing a game with her friends, and when she took off her blindfold–she didn’t know where she was. She was lost on her own block, in her own backyard. For most of her life, Sharon feared it was all in her head, and kept her troubles a secret. Until she saw something on TV that led her to get in touch with Dr. Guiseppe Iaria, who helped her find a diagnosis…and a friend with the same condition. And Sharon’s story begs the question–how do we know where we are? What does it take to be able to walk down the hall, or down the block, and back?

The segment talks with experts in the brain’s “GPS” systems and, per Radio Lab’s modus operandi, does a fabulous job illustrating the complex scientific concepts involved. The stories resonated. My internal navigation system isn’t broken, but I do think the pandemic — specifically lock down and social isolation — changed how my brain works when it comes to moving through space. Where pieces used to just click, I now have to hoist them on my back to move them around. I’m out of practice, nervous and sweaty.

Accepting that the pandemic changed how my brain works when it comes to finding my way in a literal way helps something else make sense: how hard it’s been to be creative. Specifically, to write poems. My writing journals the last couple of years are filled with free writes and notes, along with lament after lament about the impossibility of teasing out the interesting bits and assembling them into something.

So here’s what I think now, after listening to that Radio Lab episode: I’m struggling to juxtapose details and see where things overlap. To creative brains, that can be devastating. Since my style is associative and imagistic, I’ve typically depended on being able to see the strange places things intersect. Losing that spatial awareness, even metaphorically, explains a lot. It gives me hope that as we figure out how to live with COVID and I stop hiding out as much, my brain will reconnect some of its wiring.

Winter, of course, at least where I live, is a lock down all its own. Some of that is self-imposed. For example, I decided in January that I was no longer going outside when temperatures were in the single digits or below. Except when taking the dog out (anything for that Very Good Boy), I stuck to it, and with this winter being truly frigid, I had plenty of chances to prove my resolve.

Even still, I’ve been trying to make the best of it. My writing desk is in a room with east-facing windows, and on sunny mornings, that’s where you’ll find me. And to combat the dreary starkness of white snow and bare gray-black tree limbs, I’ve been looking for brightness everywhere. I’m not Dorothy, and this isn’t Oz, but there’s something to be said for technicolor.

Part of making the best of it has been learning more about the idea of wintering, helped along by “How ‘Wintering’ Replenishes,” an episode of On Being in which Krista Tippett interviews author Katherine May. (Yes, another podcast. I’m obnoxious. But I’m also listening to May’s book and finding it quite inspiring.)

I’ve understood the concept of emotional and creative seasons — how seemingly quiet times can plant seeds — but I interpreted it in a narrow way. I took it to mean that it’s okay to be less than productive in some periods. While I was grateful for the permission, I often accepted it begrudgingly. I’m not alone in that, and May has heard (and experienced it) before. Here, she invites us to rethink its role and reputation:

…It feels like everybody else is carrying on as normal, and you’re the only one with this storm cloud over your head. And that’s a very particular feeling, because it brings up loads of emotions, I think — not just sadness, but also a sense of paranoia, a sense of humiliation, a sense that we’ve uniquely failed. And actually, whenever you start talking to people about your own winterings they start telling you about theirs, and you realize what huge community there could be, if we talked about this in a different way.

Katherine May in an interview with On Being’s Krista Tippett

In addition, May insists that wintering is more than acceptable. She says it’s necessary. Here’s an excerpt from her book, as read to Tippett:

Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Wintering is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximizing scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.

It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order. Doing these deeply unfashionable things — slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting — is a radical act now, but it’s essential.

I suppose part of my uncomfortable mind will always be the way I tend to kick and scream my way through things. Winter, for example. Creative dry spells. I’ve been told more than once I make things harder on myself than they need to be. I work on it. And I don’t work on it. Part of it is in the fix-it shop with my therapist, but part of it is just the way it is. I’m clumsy.

However, I’m fairly good at surviving these little fender benders at this point in my life. Bumper cars are an amusement park staple for a reason. Jolts wake us up. The vehicles aren’t meant to be easy steer. “Brief, confusing, exhilarating,” the sparks overhead pose no real danger.

And anyway, Gertie needs something to do.

We wouldn’t want her to be bored.

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