Unfriending, Impractical Jokes, and Other Foibles

facebook unsplach CC Zero pic by William Iven_editIf I were to graph my mental health over the past five years, the line might resemble a stegosaurus spine with several points and plunges, that, thanks be to God, climb overall to a place of greater acceptance and peace.

But damn, do those jagged edges hurt.

Over the past couple of months, hormones, summer sleeplessness, and the stress of starting a new business have joined forces to throw a deranged dance party in my brain. I’ve felt more vulnerable than usual, especially surrounding the perceptions of others—my go-to place of desolation.

In sum: Does this person like me? If not, why not? And what can I do to fix it?

Suppose someone unfriends me on Facebook. The adrenaline of anxiety kicks in as I quickly review my statuses and develop theories. In one case, I convinced myself that someone deleted me for posting pictures of a local parade. Although I reveled in my town’s annual event, a highlight of the summer, I wondered if my friend thought I was mocking it. [Read more…]

Conference Envy: A Survival Guide

Sad Web SurfingYesterday I was running around the park in a T-shirt with a birthday party full of seven-year-olds. Today, I walked downtown through a flurry of hard, tiny pellets of snow that I couldn’t escape from. It was a little like the experience of going to bed a happy, underpaid writer and waking up the next day as a miserable, underpaid writer who is staying home while everyone else you know is traveling to a conference.

No matter where you look online, you’re getting smacked in the face with these niggling little reminders that you’re here dealing with laundry and kids and deadlines and your friends are off brown-nosing editors and eating dinner in absurdly large groups and developing inside jokes and memories that you’re going to be outside of the next time you get together.

You can complain to and commiserate with the three or four other people you know who aren’t at the conference, but you’re aware that it’s petty and fruitless, so you stop after a few hours and just try to avoid the Interwebs for a few days—which means that, no, you didn’t see that video of Trump as Lex Luthor or whatever it was. [Read more…]

What Happened to Fun?

slumber partyI was so good, and for such a long time, two weeks at least of decent work and adherence to my schedule. Two weeks of self control, discipline, and a rule—twenty minutes of prayer, ten of spiritual reading, thirty of new writing, one to two hours of old writing and editing, fifteen of cleaning and picking up, with the rest of the afternoon devoted to planning and executing dinner.

Evenings are entirely for the children from two-thirty to ten. Exercise after the kids are in bed, go to sleep at a reasonable hour (sometime before midnight), and I felt so satisfied, was coming to such a place of peace with my life and what I’m doing with it.

And then I took a day off, if you could call it that. It was a Saturday. I refused laundry and dishes and meaningful work, because I was spending time with the kids, see, going to soccer games and helping them visit their friends, and otherwise resting and waiting and falling deeper and deeper into a pit of unquenchable longing.

This happens sometimes. I can almost predict it—though I never bother to try—when I have been unbalanced in my affairs, often, ironically, while attempting to live a life of balance. Evil can only fill a void, the spiritual teachers say. There’s no time for misbehaving when I’m living a full life, but there’s also no time for fun, and I miss play.

By play I mean something primal and social, but not exactly childish. It’s a matter of improvisation in the company of like-minded people, inhibition set aside, a bit more physical than ordinary conversation, with a hint of practical joke or slapstick, and it involves guttural laughter. [Read more…]

Autistic Lives Matter

4121837708_b3d12f0f30_oWhen I first met Daniel Bowman Jr. at the Festival of Faith and Writing, we both experienced that you’re-not-how-I-pictured-you-from-Facebook moment. While he may not have felt self-consciously compact, I became quite aware of my own awkward, lumbering stature that banged into a book table or two. Still, I tried to make a good impression while obsessing over the fact that I wasn’t wearing earrings twenty minutes before my appointment to read a poem at the chapel.

“I’ll feel naked up there without earrings,” I told him. “Wanna come with me to the campus store to find some?”

Nice to meet you. I’m neurotic and say inappropriate things.

Dan, on the other hand, was fighting a whole ninja army of thoughts: What do I say to de-escalate the anxiety rising up from standing in the middle of a conference with hundreds of people? How can I be endearing and likeable? If I’m witty will she want to get to know me better?

We not only survived the encounter, but over the next couple of years, grew in our friendship. We shared our writing, spent time with mutual friends at retreats and conferences, and even set up a co-reading at a local coffee shop in my area. Meanwhile, I began to observe some quirky patterns in Dan’s behavior—nothing too worrisome, since we are, after all, poets. But he often avoided eye contact or had trouble transitioning to hellos and goodbyes. Sometimes he became agitated during unpredictable social situations. [Read more…]

Talk to Me in Letters

Elizabeth_Bishop

Dearest Cal: Please never stop writing me letters—they always manage to make me feel like my higher self (I’ve been re-reading Emerson) for several days.

— Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell, July 27, 1960

Dearest Elizabeth: I think of you daily and feel anxious lest we lose our old backward and forward flow that always seems to open me up and bring color and peace.
— Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop, March 10, 1963

My office bookshelves are segregated topically, and one entire shelf is devoted to books of letters between writers. Most are towering mid-century literary figures about whose lives I obsess like one might Facebook-stalk a crush, looking for new bits of information or examining the edges of pictures for other famous people lurking in the blurry background.

There’s the correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, the missives Simone de Beauvoir sent Jean-Paul Sartre, decades of letters between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, others between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, the love letters Vladimir Nabokov sent his wife Vera, stacks more.

Obviously I’m not alone in this: Carlene Bauer wrote Frances and Bernard, a fictionalized correspondence (and entirely fictional romance) between characters modeled on Lowell and Flannery O’Connor, who met at Yaddo in 1948. I have my students review the book every term, purely for my grading pleasure. [Read more…]