Sunday, December 26, 2010

Be Happy – Be Sad; The Choice is Yours

It’s Christmas, so we’re bound to hear it – that mommy-ish admonition from those weary of the seemingly endless grind of the season and the complaints we never fail to exhale when it mashes us. “Be happy – be sad. The choice is yours.” One of my tweeps just tweeted that, and added, “choose wisely” as a warning, or maybe as an afterthought.

That particular sentiment has been proselytized – er, I mean “said” – many times, by people from all walks of life, and in countless ways. “Only you can make yourself feel inferior.” “What you think becomes reality.” “Don’t worry; be happy.”

But is that true? Do we really have the power to control our emotions, or can we learn how? Or are we instead destined to be naught more than the eternal victims of all those ups and downs punctuating our lives?

Now, I am necessarily leaving out a discussion of those peopling the ends of the spectrum, including those who don’t have the capacity to control their emotions at all, or the Dalai Lama, who sits on the far side, and likely meditates for hours every day in his quest for yet more means to be content.

What I am attempting to discuss is what happens to the majority of us, and what, if anything, we can do about it.

I think we can all agree that we’re human, and that humans have brains. I think we can agree that when we perceive stimuli, our brains provide a response to it. We see a raging bear barreling through the trees, growing larger with every leap, and the fear that crushes our chest is not something we decide is the most judicious emotion to feel.

I won’t wax terribly philosophical, but I think you catch my drift. We don’t, as a rule, have a choice in our initial reactions to the things that happen to us. It's biology. Stimulus – response is a well-documented fact that can be observed in brains of insects to animals and in us as well. What we can do, what we can learn to do, is to not let that initial reaction be the end – the last word.

Children learn how to make sense of the world through self talk (see, e.g., this).  Any parent knows that 2- to 6-year-olds spend a lot of time talking, describing, ordering, dictating. A great deal of that is self talk, and as children age, that talk sinks inward to become a running, silent, internal narrative of their lives – a walking, breathing story. We adults are no different, but it’s likely been so long since you thought about what you were telling yourself that you no longer hear the words.

You have to change those words, my friend, if you want to change how you see the world, and how you feel about all of the stuff in it. It’s easiest to start with the extremes because they’re nearest the surface. For example, what do you say to yourself when you make a colossal mistake in front of a crowd, or your boss?

“Oh my God. You stupid idiot. I cannot believe you just did that. Stupid, stupid, stupid!”

Sound familiar?

Now imagine how that would affect someone else if you said those words to them right after they made the same mistake. Can you imagine the look in their eyes? Would they ever forget it? It is no different for you, even though it’s you telling yourself. In fact, it’s probably even more powerful.

Again: it’s that internal dialogue, and it is a running dialogue, that we have with ourselves that shapes our perception of each scene of our lives and all the events in it, that makes meanings, and colors between all the lines.

Now imagine that same mistake, but instead of labeling yourself an “idiot,” you instead told yourself, “Oh my gosh. I feel so embarrassed. I wish I hadn’t done that, but I did try my hardest. I really did. I didn’t mean to do that, but it’s all right. I know it’s going to be all right.”

Now, of course, if you make a big mistake, you’re going to feel icky about it. I don’t think it’s possible for a normal human being not to. But the degree to which you denigrate yourself is going to dictate how terrible you feel, and for how long, and it’s going to determine whether that event becomes a powerful, shameful one, and that is not something I imagine any of us want.

Changing your internal dialogue – the story you tell yourself – is a big task, but it bears mouthwatering fruit. To start, carry a notebook and a pen close at hand for two days. Make a tick every time you tell yourself something negative. I’ll bet you lunch that you will be shocked at how many ticks you rack up before noon the first day, and by the end of the second, you’ll have gotten over your shock, and will have learned how to turn up the voice you speak to yourself in, and then you can stop some of those things you’re saying, and not just about yourself.

“Fucking idiot can’t find his turn signal?”
“Maybe you could wear the entire bottle of perfume next time?”
“I am such a clutz.”

These are the holidays, friends. It’s the time we resolve to make the next year into something better. Let me make a suggestion: I think this year the best gifts you can give yourself are a healthy dose of self-awareness and a stocking full of compassion.  You can’t control the world, but how you feel about it, at least to a degree, really can be your choice.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

An Excerpt from the Upcoming _Blowing Embers_

This is an excerpt from the opening scene in Blowing Embers (Pearlsong Press, summer 2011): 
Some say Death glides in on angel-black wings while others say that it kisses away one’s last breath like a gentle grandmother. Kiera’s reaper, however, hurtled down the frosted field on four razor-clawed feet.
Narrowed eyes sharpened the terrifying vision of more than two thousand pounds of raging bear, leaping as he ran, and larger with every heartbeat.
So much larger.
Again she set her feet and leaned forward, hands up. Her throat squeezed when she swallowed.
“Hold it fast,” Lady Agni yelled from the sideline, spurring a snake of annoyance to wind through Kiera’s chest.
Adrenalin shook her hands, numbed her lips. Further crisped the details of the horror coming for her: ruddy fur, erect on rippling shoulders. The needle white of bared teeth. The grunt of forced breath each time those massive front feet crushed circles into the snow.
And then he was there.
What must have been fifty thousand pounds of force slammed into her shield, shoved her back three yards and to her knees.
The shield held, and fire sung in her veins. “Ahh!” she screamed joyously. Defiantly. Her feet pushed her back up as she leaned forward and fed more air into the space between them, forcing him back.
Undaunted, the bear continued his drive. Twisting like a cornered wolverine, he clawed furiously, used knife blade teeth to tear the unseen barrier between them, but as her air continued to flow, the space grew larger, wider, and she knew he was losing. All at once he drew back, away from the shield’s edge, and in that split second Kiera wondered if he would accede defeat. A smile began as he threw himself like a supplicant to the ground at her feet, but instead of begging her mercy, open jaws roared his furor. Giant claws blurred, ripped bloody gashes into the black earth dividing them.
Too late Kiera understood, and before she could send a sheet of air deep into the winter’s dead soil between them, the knife’s-blade claws broke through to her side of the shield. Without pausing, he leapt up and back, lifted the shield, and Kiera, off the ground. A vision of trees, mountains, fog, and sky flashed across her eyes, and her breath, and the elemental air that she held, oomphed out when her back slammed into the snow. 
An enormous naked man landed on top of her, a rare grin lighting his face. For a moment, she stared into deep brown eyes set in a god’s rugged mien, skin as dark and warm as umber, as the wind blew a tendril of black hair across his jaw.
“Damn it,” she wheezed.
Instead of answering, he kissed her mouth.
She pressed her own smile away and shoved him back. “Get your clothes on, you barbarian.”

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Good Story

I don’t know what to do.

My lover has asked me to marry him. He’s great. More than great. Kind. Gentle. Strong. Listens when I talk, and thinks I am something . . . I don’t know . . . more than special, I guess. I trust him. Believe he really loves me. And yeah; I’m a little giddy. 


But I have this problem. There’s this other guy.

I know; I know. But it isn’t like that. I’ve never even held his hand.

He’s . . . I . . .

He’s got these eyes. These hands. And when he smiles. Wow. I could listen to him talk forever. And it isn’t like we have everything in common. Not at all. In fact, we’re worlds apart on some things. But when he talks, there’s something. An undertone. It’s bright blue, like an ocean roiling beneath his calm exterior, and there’s this part of me that wants to strip away the cover, ripple the still waters, and lose myself beneath the surface. 

I feel almost giddy when we talk. My stomach knots when he smiles. I can't stop my lips from lifting when I see his name on an email in my mailbox.

I’m in love with him. I know that. But . . . there are these . . . I don’t know. Complications, I guess. Big ones. And I just don’t know if they’re surmountable.

So. And so. A marriage proposal means a time of reckoning has come.

Do I love my lover? Yes. I do. And he is nothing but good for me. He would keep me safe, and hold my hand as we walk, and wrap his arms around me when I cry.

So. What do I do?

= = = = =

So. Do you believe me? Is this story above true, or just an imagining of mine?

Someone recently asked me, “what makes a good story?,” and my answer was something along the lines of “words that capture me; a telling that I can see, and hear, and believe.” But I also added something else, because a good story is more than just a product of the craft of the teller. It captures more than your sight; it captures your heart.

When you read my telling above, did you find my words strumming the strings of your heart? Did you feel something for me, or for my lover, or the other one I love? Did you find yourself feeling outraged, or sad, or chagrined, or maybe you even identified with one of the characters? 

If so, I’ve created a small something that is, in my opinion, worthwhile. I’ve asked questions, important ones, that we – the narrator and the reader – can explore together. And whether you ultimately agree with the narrator’s decision, you’ve done some exploring on your own as well. Asked yourself some questions. Maybe had to rebury some guilt, or blow a breath to get through the wave of pain those images evoked.

That’s good. That means these words mean something. To both of us.

We want answers to life’s hard questions. We long for resolution and peace. Often, we read books to escape life’s turmoils, but I think we choose books that explore those things that matter most to us, because questioning inside those pages is far safer than taking leaps in the real world.

Authors, too, use their writing to mull their own questions, explore their own pain, and proclaim their own faiths.

Through the pages of books, authors and readers walk both light and dark paths together. It’s important, I think, to remember that. We travel beneath the same crescent moon, heartblood on our hands, and turn our faces to the sky.

And so.

What I’m saying is that a good story is one that isn’t. It’s a vehicle for real life, with its concomitant pain, and angst, and longing, and exploration. It’s a place for strife, and struggle, and rest, and for resolution.

What do you think?