The Arthritic Turtle

I’m hard on myself. I always have been. I push myself to inhuman lengths to accomplish arbitrary goals like “keep my 4.0” or “carry this chair across the store” or “write that book in six months.” Even worse, I’m always trying to outdo myself. Once I’ve carried the sixty-pound chair across the store alone, I can’t just ask for help the next time. Once I’ve read 110 books in one year, I can’t just read eighty-five. I always have to beat the record, or else I’m falling behind.

This is an impossible way to live, but I didn’t realize how much harm I was inflicting until I tried to write a book in six months while working thirteen-hour days between two jobs. After six weeks, I burned myself out and couldn’t write for two months. During those two months — eight weeks when I couldn’t even think of writing without feeling ill — I had to confront some hard truths.

Hard Truth #1: I wanted to quit my job.

Hard Truth #2: I couldn’t afford to quit my job.

Hard Truth #3: I was going to quit my job anyway, because it was slowly killing me.

So I turned in my two weeks’ notice.

No sooner had I clocked my last shift than I got a text from a former professor, asking if I’d be willing to speak to her class.

“Of course!” I said. “What about?”

“The writing life,” she said. Specifically, my dedication to it, and what it looked like to have a job that allowed me the time and energy to write.

I had to laugh.

As I prepared for the talk, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t the right person for the job. I’d given up on my book. I hadn’t finished an essay in three years. I hadn’t picked up a pen all month, except to whine in my journal. Worse, my friends were out there writing stories, drafting books, and publishing poems, while I sat at a table and mouthed words about sacrifice and dedication and their importance to the writing life when the only thing I’d sacrificed was a shitty retail job. Who was I to tell a group of wide-eyed freshmen how to cultivate their writing?

* * * *

In her memoir Eat Pray Love, Liz Gilbert describes her encounter with a voice. She hears it in the wee hours of the morning as she lies curled on the bathroom floor in a pool of snot and tears, begging God to tell her what to do.

And so the prayer narrowed itself down to that simple entreaty — Please tell me what to do — repeated again and again. I don’t know how many times I begged. I only know that I begged like someone who was pleading for her life. And the crying went on forever.

Until — quite abruptly — it stopped.

Quite abruptly, I found that I was not crying anymore. I’d stopped crying, in fact, in mid-sob. My misery had been completely vacuumed out of me. I lifted my forehead off the floor and sat up in surprise, wondering if I would see now some Great Being who had taken my weeping away. But nobody was there. I was just alone. But not really alone, either. I was surrounded by something I can only describe as a little pocket of silence — a silence so rare that I didn’t want to exhale, for fear of scaring it off. I was seamlessly still. I don’t know when I’d ever felt such stillness.

Then I heard a voice. Please don’t be alarmed — it was not an Old Testament Hollywood Charlton Heston voice, nor was it a voice telling me I must build a baseball field in my backyard. It was merely my own voice, speaking from within my own self. But this was my voice as I had never heard it before. This was my voice, but perfectly wise, calm, and compassionate. This was what my voice would sound like if I’d only ever experienced love and certainty in my life.

The voice said: Go back to bed, Liz.

It’s been seven weeks since I spoke to that freshman class, and today, I am happy and confident. I’ve written five pages of the best essay of my life, I’ve adopted a low-pressure writing schedule that’s molded to my quirks, and I swap biweekly goals with a dear friend and fellow writer. I jump at the chance to discuss my projects. When I get stressed or miss a deadline, I take a deep breath, make a cup of tea, and get a good night’s rest before waking up and starting over.

If you asked me to explain this miraculous turnaround, I wouldn’t be able to. There’s no clear formula I followed that I can point to and say that’s it, that’s what cured my writer’s block and whisked my dread away. There is, however, a ragged, limping path leading from one doubt to another until I reached the root of my One True Fear, a simple little question with a big and booming voice.

What if you have nothing to write?

* * * *

I write at the rate of an arthritic turtle. That five-page start to my really good essay took four whole weeks to eke out, and I’ve been hacking at this blog post for hours. The only writing I can churn out with speed and regularity is the kind I do in letters, and lately, even those have waned.

Being the opposite of prolific is one of my greatest insecurities, especially when someone mentions that David Eddings quote about how “a writer’s apprenticeship involves writing a million words (which are then discarded) before he’s almost ready to begin.” The first time I heard that, I almost fainted, and then I stood up and almost fainted again. One million words is a lot of writing; a full day’s work for me clocks in at around three hundred, or, if I’m really lucky, a single page.

I used to beat myself up about this low productivity, but I don’t anymore. Instead, I love my arthritic turtle. I’m proud of her. I work with her all evening and go to bed smiling because I can’t wait to find out what else she has to say.

For ten years, I harassed my turtle, demanding to know why she wasn’t better, faster, stronger — healthy, like all the other turtles I knew. Every once in a while, this tough “love” tactic worked, and I walked away with a poem or an essay or the scattered draft of a book. But it never happened with regularity, and more often than not, my words dried up; the turtle pulled into her shell and left me with nothing to do but kick some dusty rocks.

Then the Question showed up, in all her scaly glory. What if you have nothing to write? she hissed. WHAT IF YOU HAVE NOTHING TO WRITE?

And that is when my arthritic turtle stood up, poked her head out of her shell, and, as calmly as the voice that told Liz Gilbert to go back to bed, said, “Honestly, who even cares?”

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Pursue

Two years ago as I prepared to graduate college, a friend’s parting words to me were pursue your writing and nurture your intellect. In the seasons since, her exhortation has stuck with me, entering my thoughts often, sometimes as a whisper and others as a shout. It seemed fitting, then, as 2018 dawned and I formed my goals for the coming year, that the word I chose to guide me was pursue.

When I christened it my word of the year, “pursue” meant “write.” It meant that every Saturday from January to June, I would get up, pack my bag, and trek downtown to the library where I would park myself at a desk for five or six hours and write. This plan lasted six weeks before collapsing beneath the weight of two jobs and changing schedules. For a while, I tried to salvage things, but by mid-March, I had given up, not just on writing day, but on the whole book. I was too tired, too poor, and too overworked to spend my one day off wrestling the emotional equivalent of a pissed-off tiger onto pages I wasn’t even sure I wanted people to read anymore. And who was I to think I could write a memoir at age twenty-three?

So I quit. I ditched writing like I’d ditched the book and sought solace in self-pity and books. But as I read (and wallowed and read, and wallowed and read some more), I began to gain perspective.

It’s not that I did the wrong thing when I set out to draft a memoir in six months. Sure, it was ambitious, but there’s nothing wrong with a little ambition; it motivates you, gets you out of bed and in front of the laptop. The problem came when I forgot the second half of my friend’s advice; in my rush to prove myself as a writer, I’d neglected to nurture my intellect.

Once I realized my mistake, I felt less guilty about the book. I began to see not only that pursue and nurture went hand-in-hand, but also that pursue pertained to more than just writing. Or, more specifically, I understood that my friend’s charge to pursue my writing meant so much more than “sit in a chair and type.”

Pursue meant applying for that job I probably wouldn’t get. Pursue meant saying yes when friends asked if I wanted to join them. Pursue meant closing my laptop every night before bed and reading instead of refreshing Tumblr. It meant quitting a job and sleeping in; it meant driving somewhere new and spending the whole day outside. It meant making my own pizza and experimenting in the kitchen, cleaning out my closet and showing up for friends. It meant reading and reading and reading some more, then changing locations to read even more.

In short, “pursue” came to mean what it should have meant five months ago: LIVE.

As Rainer Maria Rilke puts it in Letters to a Young Poet:

Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!

IMG_6725So no, I’m not writing a book. On Saturdays, I work in a cubicle instead of sit at a desk and write, and I may have done a very dumb thing by quitting a job right before thousands of college students saturate the summer market. But I’m at peace with all of that, because for the first time in a long time, I’m really living. Everything else will work itself out.

Keep encouraged, friends.

V

I.

Lately I have been thinking about life and all its rich minutiae, the little moments that make everything so acute and achingly real. The long drag of the work day and the sudden lightness of its end. The earthy tang of kale tinting my morning smoothie, made all the more wonderful by the miracle of waking up early enough to make it before 6am. The drowsy pleasure of a 1am phone call. The startling gift of warmth on a January day. The silence of a mid-day meal spent slowly reading poetry. The hum of Adrienne’s words settling inside my chest.

II.

On Friday I climbed the stairs to the fifth floor of the library and gazed out its endless windows, soaked in the sunlit buildings, and marveled at the intimacy of watching strangers enter and exit bearing their armloads of books. How lucky I am to work here, I thought, contemplating the shelves around me. How blessed to benefit from this sanctuary of education and learning.

III.

Last week a woman and her granddaughter entered the store where I work, disappeared down its aisles and returned bearing coupons and a quiet request for colored pencils held behind the desk. I rang up their transaction; the grandmother gathered the pencils and pressed them into her granddaughter’s palms; and as they turned to walk away, I fought the urge to surrender to a sudden burst of tears. Something about their patience, their politeness, their gentleness — the tender shift of colored pencils from very old to very young — struck me as impossibly kind, and my heart swelled with gratitude for having witnessed it.

IV.

Small moments like these — incongruous, unpredictable — have heightened my awareness of this world. For every ragged sob over bruised feet and soul-sucking retail, there is the comfort of a day off and a bath in epsom salts. For every unbearable hour spent longing to hear someone’s voice, there is the release of writing a letter. For the helplessness that overtakes me as I watch Little Rock’s homeless leave the library for the bitter cold each night, there is the ability to hand out canvas totes to replace the duct-taped trash bags they haul behind their backs.

V.

This world is not perfect. It is cruel and unfair and unkind. But even in the darkness, there are moments of improbable light.

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A Wider View

There’s so much I want to say about 2017, but I’m not at all sure how to say it. How to describe such a momentous year? In twelve short months, I moved to a new state, got an apartment, worked four jobs, and came out to my family and the world of social media. I also bought a car, wrote two drafts of a book, and spent the holidays away from home. I cried a lot, laughed a lot, and drank a little wine. It was a good year. And that is such a poor way to describe it.

I guess in the end what I want to say is this: 2017 felt like a gift. A gift of unimaginable proportions, a year both unwieldy and wonderful, brimming with laughter, anxiety, joy, and tears. I grew so much as a person, a writer, a worker, a friend, and that growth is gaining momentum. It’s propelling me onward into something — I don’t know what — and I’m excited. I am eager. I feel ready to face the challenge of this year.

So much of this momentum comes from the media I consumed. I headed into 2017 desperate to change my life circumstance, yes, but also heavy with questions and aching for answers. I wanted to understand 2016, this year that had wrecked me so thoroughly, that had brought me to my highest high and dropped me to my lowest low. I wanted to understand my family’s broken dynamics. I wanted to understand the election. I wanted to understand racism. I wanted to understand homophobia. I entered 2017 with a deep desire to know, not just what was going on in my life, but in the world around it. And so of course I turned to books.

Annie Dillard says it best in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”

Below is some art that helped me take a wider view, that drew me gently back and encouraged me to look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on. It’s a list shaped by my preoccupations, driven by my need to understand my country’s flaws, my queer heritage, and my white, Western, Christian one, as well.

As 2018 unfolds, I encourage you to explore these titles. But more than that, I urge you to ask your own questions and seek out your own answers. Or, if there are none, then at least continue to question. Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote, “I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being ‘politically conscious’ — as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”

Keep inquisitive, friends.


The Books

taking a wider view

The Movies

looking at the whole landscape

The Shows

really seeing it

The Music

wailing the right question; choiring the proper praise


Here’s to 2018, the year of describing what’s going on.

Highlights

It’s been a while since I last posted, and I want to apologize. I left some threads dangling with the Mother God post, and I’m sorry for that. Life has been … well, to put it vaguely, life has been life, and this hasn’t been a writing season.

Correction: It hasn’t been a blogging season. I am, in fact, writing, but the words are rough and tender, like a scraped elbow transitioning from scab to new skin. My words aren’t ready for the wider world yet, and to be honest, neither am I. (And here is where I retract my earlier apology, because something I am learning is that I do not have to apologize for what I am feeling or experiencing.)

I’m not sure how many of you care to read the sporadic ramblings of a broke twenty-something, and to be honest, I’m trying not to pay attention to how many of you may or may not be out there. If I’ve learned anything over the past three months, it’s that stats don’t matter in the face of genuine human connection. And now we’ve reached the root of my vague rambling: I haven’t posted since September because I haven’t needed to.

I still don’t.

But I do want to, at least a little bit. I want to share — if only for myself — what I’ve read these past few months while coffee cooled and candles burned and a warm cat dozed on my lap. So, without further ado,


The Highlights

or, some books I have been reading that I think you should read, too 

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (novel) — A soft book. Quiet and aching and kind. It picks you up and settles you in a place of warmth and light.

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde (essays) — A fierce book. One that is still frighteningly, shamefully relevant. One I think all American adults should challenge themselves to read.

All About Love by bell hooks (nonfiction) — A freeing book. It will shake you up, rattle your chains, cast your preconceived notions down into the dirt. You won’t escape this book unscathed, but you will walk away with tools for healing and growth that you didn’t know you needed.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (graphic memoir) — An awe-inspiring book. Sharp, incisive, textured, brilliant, subtle, and yet shockingly clear. No one does memoir quite like Bechdel.

If you like Fun Home, be sure to read the sequel, Are You My Mother?, and Bechdel’s long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For.

Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science by Mike McHargue (memoir) — A saving book. One that reassured me of what I tell my friends whenever they confess their fears to me: Doubt does not equal disbelief. Your questions honor God.

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates (memoir / essays) — An essential book. One that, again, I implore every American to read. Particularly white Americans. It will force you to confront uncomfortable questions, such as, what have we done to this country? or worse, what have we done to our fellow human beings?

Worth mentioning

or, books that made me laugh, smile, cry, grin, gasp, or scramble for a pen (but that I’m just not up to talking about)

Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden (novel)
Blankets by Craig Thompson (graphic novel)
The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank by Ellen Feldman (novel)
The Chosen by Chaim Potok (novel)
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (nonfiction)
God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines (nonfiction)
I Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin (ed. by Raoul Peck) (nonfiction)
Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor (memoir)
The Secret Loves of Geek Girls (ed. by Hope Nicholson) (mixed-media memoir)
Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl (memoir)
The Ukranian and Russian Notebooks by Igort (graphic nonfiction)