On Rules and Breaking Them

In writing and in life, there are rules. The words “creative” and “writing” don’t always coexist, even for fiction writers. Yes, it’s creative to come up with a great plot full of surprises and twists and insights, but in setting that plot down on the page, there are constant rules. Sentences! Spelling! Grammar! And so on.

Genre writers have even more rules. Happy Ever After for romance writers. The criminal will be captured and made to pay in mystery. Those are the biggest rules and there are so many more that, should you be lucky enough to find an editor or agent to read your manuscript, you’ll hear them all. There are also books and workshops and classes and blog posts that will give you the rules as they understand them. Many writers will attempt to abide by these rules because they want to be published.

Yet something strange happens if you adhere too closely to these rules as a writer. You lose the creative impulse that spurred you on to write in the first place. You paint by number. You give your publisher and your readers more of the same, book after book. Readers expect it. Publishers demand it.

The art of creating something new is the thrill and now it’s gone. But if you persist in your specific vision, if your work is both original and compelling, it might win you acclaim, prizes and money. Or not. So following the rules as a creative writer brings risk, just as, recently, gathering in public is a risk. Certainly if you are not wearing a mask, you pose a risk to others.

I hate the mask, but I wear it because I try to live by the rule of “First, do no harm.” If you are out in public in a crowd without a mask, you may be doing many people harm. I used to suffer with my mask and become annoyed, even angered, by those who went without. Why were they being so selfish? Didn’t they understand that the mask is not only to protect themselves, but to protect others?

There are several answers to this question of why people do not obey the health guidelines to wear a mask in pubic. There’s not a thing I can do to change a single one of these folks’ minds. I wouldn’t even try. So I simmer in anger and bitterness, which I dislike almost as much as the mask.

The Buddhists have a solution, of sorts, to my anger at people who refuse to wear masks in public. It’s not easy, but it works. Anger and other negative emotions are the perfect opportunity to practice compassion. The practice goes like this: you find yourself angry because the person is not following a rule, you recognize you are angry, you turn your anger into prayer for this person, and for all persons like them.

It’s akin to the Christian rule to love your enemy. Turn the other cheek. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,” said Jesus on the cross. “May all humans be free from suffering,” loosely translates the practice of turning your own anger into compassion. For a person not wearing a mask in a crowded public space, the prayer might be “May this person (or these people) awaken to the need to protect their brothers and sisters from this virus.”

On this Memorial Day, I give thanks to all the women and men who have lost their lives fighting wars for our country. And I honor all of those who have lost the fight against this virus. Namaste.

Appreciating The Journey

I can’t get away from myself these days, though I’ve made the usual tries: television, food, books, writing. The pandemic caused “Blacklist” filmed in New York, to become part graphic art, part cinema. That was interesting. By far my favorite escape is books and as soon as I got home I grabbed my copy of Emma by Jane Austen. I’m deep into the activities of three or four families in a country village.

My non-fiction book, the book I read at night to ease me into sleep, is Pema Chodron’s new one: Welcoming the Unwelcome. Pema is a Buddhist nun, but this book seems written for everyone on the planet at this particular moment. Because…the pandemic is the most unwelcome thing ever, at least in my life. Traveling home through the pandemic was challenging although there were more cars in the Starbucks line than on I-75.

Once home, I got busy using my three most missed machines: washer, dryer, and dishwasher. One way to appreciate something that seems like drudgery is to do without it for awhile. There was never a happier sound of all three of my mechanical helpers cleaning things all at once.

And that’s one of Pema’s lessons: appreciating whatever is in front of you. For me that would include this husband who is suddenly with me all the time. Dropping judgements and negative labels and just let things be as they are between us. I haven’t worn make up in two months and I think I may possibly never wear it again. I am 65 years old. I see myself just as I am. And I’m okay with that. Al is too.

What comes when society is moving, with lunch dates and dinner parties and sitting on the patio in the sun chatting with the neighbors is this need to “put on my face” like every other female in the room. One of the lessons I want to fully take in during this time is wanting to know myself, my authentic self. I’m not saying makeup and hair and a lovely pair of jeans plus cute sandals are not okay.

It’s not either/or, it’s both. Female dressing up is great. So is not dressing up. I’m dropping judgement on this topic. It took the pandemic to make me really see that I don’t need to “fix myself up” because I’m fine just the way I am. And so are you. Buddhists believe everyone has a basic goodness under the fixed ideas we have of ourselves and others.

So I’m letting go of some of the concepts and labels I’ve attached to myself and to Al, too. They no longer serve me. Instead I will really look at what’s right in front of me and appreciate fully exactly what and who that is.

Anxiety is Annoying

I read that “anxiety is annoying” in dismay a few weeks ago in a book about anxiety. My dismay was real. I am often anxious and so, what, then, people often find me annoying? What a bummer.

Cotton Exchange in Savannah

This weekend we went on a long-planned trip to Savannah, Georgia. It was planned for three couples and one couple, very good friends, opted out due to Covid-19 anxiety. I did not find them annoying. Before we left Friday, I saw the weekend as a time out from all the bad news. Later that same day Trump declared a national emergency. The next day, the governor of Georgia did the same.

Our group did not know that on March 17, St Patty’s Day, Savannah has a huge party. It was a weekend that worked for all of us, that was it. We’d planned an off/on trolley tour to see the entire city in a day. Which we did. As the day wore on, more and more drunk young people in green tutus and t-shirts partied in the squares. One lady in a Porche yelled at a bystander “Where can I get a shitload of beads?”

I saw some beads in Walgreens, but no hand sanitizer. As an anxious person, I always have my own. Downtown Savannah wasn’t a mad crush as it usually would be on this special weekend. The city was busy, the bars and restaurants were packed, and even the trolley was full or almost full. OTOH, there were no lines. For restaurants, in stores or for seats on the trolley.

My feet behaved with my new shoes and CBD balm for about five hours. We walked a lot. Still at the end of the day, I was happy to get in the car for the motel and some well-earned cocktails. That’s when it happened. I was triggered. Three times. By my husband, who stared down at his phone on an upward curve of freeway.

Our friends were in the back seat, so it probably didn’t look like a panic attack to them when I said “Al! Please watch the road and not your phone!” He did look at the road, still curving, still going up, for about two seconds. Then he looked down at his phone again.

I tried to make a joke out of it. Opened the center console and pulled out my mini bottles of emergency vodka and offered them one. They laughed. I did too, while I cracked one and emptied it into my throat. I got calmer, but I could tell, with my new knowledge, that my anxiety annoyed my friends. Also, it always annoys Al, even though he knows more than anyone I can’t do a damn thing to stop anxiety’s roll.

Good weekend, though. You would have never known there was a pandemic going on.

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