June Recap: Books, Podcast, & Digital Community

Backyard reading with a drink and a dog

One of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken, of so many of my favorite things: a margarita, a good book, a summer evening in my backyard, and my dog, Murphy.

I’m in a fight with my writing. We aren’t really speaking at the moment. Since I have no output, I thought I’d share my intake instead. If you’re like me, you’re shocked that we’re already halfway through July, so you won’t mind that this recap of things I read and listened to in June is a little late.

I’d been waiting for Andrew Sean Greer’s Less to come out in paperback since I heard Ann Patchett recommend it in an interview she gave last fall. At her bookstore in Nashville, Patchett is often asked for recommendations for smart fiction that isn’t sad. That is key criteria for me, too. I don’t want depressing books! Since then, I’ve heard many others rave about Less…not to mention that it won the Pulitzer for fiction.

It was worth the wait.  Less is hilarious, but also tender and insightful and so very relatable. Greer dances on the sweet side of bittersweet in this novel about a writer past his prime who travels the world to run away from a heartbreak that he’d rather not acknowledge. I was charmed by the romance, but I was floored by the writing and absolutely skewered by Greer’s observations on getting older and feeling like an outsider. It didn’t hurt too much, though, because I laughed through the whole book.

One interesting note: I’m a huge fan of audiobooks but in this case, because I anticipated that I’d want to see the writing with my own eyeballs, I chose to read the book instead of listening to it. Then, my dear friend said the audio version was fantastic, so I bought that, too. I started to listen right after I began reading. It’s the only time I’ve ever tried to consume a book both ways at once. For me, the audiobook was a no-go. As I expected, I did want to linger over certain phrases and passages at my own pace. Also, I found the performance to be a bit too sardonic. While the book certainly pokes a great deal of fun at main character Arthur Less, it’s balanced with an earnestness that makes Arthur a rich character and not a joke. I found that the performance on the audiobook did not convey that balance, and it didn’t seem quite fair to Arthur.

Speaking of audiobooks, in June I also re-listened to one of my favorite audiobooks ever: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. If you haven’t read it, get a copy ASAP. It’s a fantastic book. If you have read it, listen to it too! The performance by Cathleen McCarron is perfect. I can’t believe it didn’t win an Audie. I could listen to that book a hundred times and never get tired of McCarron’s dry, Scottish delivery of this delightful main character and her funny, sad, suspenseful, heartwarming story.

I’m too cheap to buy more than one audiobook a month so I fill in the gaps with podcasts. My current favorite is Happier with Gretchen Ruben. Like her books, the podcast is about habits, human nature and how to be happier. She and her sister, Liz Craft, share tips and hacks to make life easier and happier, along with anecdotes from their own lives and input from their audience. The episodes are about 45 minutes, the perfect length for my commute! They’re light and fun, and they’re also helpful.

I need all the help I can get. One of the best investments I ever made was to join Jennifer Louden’s online community, The Writer’s Oasis.  It’s a website full of resources for writers, both on the craft and practice of writing. Each week, Louden records a session that is something between mediation, inspiration and writing practice. I don’t know how to describe it—she softens you up, delivers something soothing and uplifting, and asks you to focus your intentions for the week ahead. There’s something very, very good about those weekly recordings. They’re worth more than therapy to me. They help me get my head on straight. If you’re a creative sort—not necessarily a writer; lots of artists and other creatives participate, too—check out The Writer’s Oasis. It’s both inspiring and grounding.

I’d love to hear what you’re enjoying this summer—post a comment and let me know.

Underneath

The following bit of free writing, along with the little fox painting, was inspired by a Sarah Selecky writing prompt, which went something like this: Choose the book closest to you. Turn to page 22, find the last sentence of the second paragraph, and begin there. The nearest book to me: Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. The sentence: “Do you think you are really a cow, chipmunk, fox or horse underneath?”

Underneath I am human, am I not?

Overthinking, worrying, self-consciousness: purely human.

Cow: only grass and sunshine, maybe the occasional bull if she’s lucky, or unlucky, as the case may be for cows.

Chipmunk: only nuts, storing for the winter, scampering up trees in flight from cats or dogs or cruel children.

Fox: only hunting, or when hunger is satisfied, hiding, tucked up in a hollow with her tail over her nose.

Horse: only grazing, running over meadow and creek bed and dry windy earth, stopping for cool streams and green grass, tender shoots between rocks, or the comfort of fellow horses huddled together against the weather.

All these urges are mine, too: to eat, to mate, to hide, to roam, to retreat, to huddle for warmth, but they are conflicted, muddied by other drives: to belong, to amass wealth, to be heard, to feel good enough or better than or worthy of.

No chipmunk questions her ability to hoard nuts or climb trees; she has only instinct, the next nut.

No fox frets or speculates; the field mouse is hers or it isn’t. There is hunger or there is rest.

Do horses worry? About inclusion or exclusion, or even about predators? Do they know of mountain lions in the surrounding hills? Or do they live in happy oblivion until they scent danger, hear the stamping hooves and high whinnies of their companions, until flanks tense and ears twitch and the herd launches in one motion, away from the threat of fangs and claws? Does the horse know what it flees, or does it only flee? Is there a premonition? Or is it all peace until the flight?

How many hours have I wasted in pre-flight? A hundred narrow escapes a day, aching muscles tensed to fight, pulse raised—in vain, exhausting anticipation of monsters who never appear and peculiar, specific, tiny deaths of my own imagining.

Little Fox- acrylic on canvas by Meg Faulkner 2018

Are you a cow, a chipmunk, a fox or a horse underneath?

New Year Optimism: Happy 2018!

I love New Year’s Day. I wish that I could boil this feeling down into concentrated drops and place one under my tongue every morning, so that each day starts with this page-turning feeling full of possibility and hope and freshness. There’s no reason it shouldn’t. My intention for 2018 is to make that a practice.

2017 was a very difficult year for me, as it was for many people. Beyond the state of the nation and the daily onslaught of horrible news, I went through some personal crap that really hurt me. I became obsessed with those events and the feelings they triggered, my brain repeating and magnifying the pain on a non-stop loop that would literally wake me up at night. That negativity became a sort of involuntary, wordless mantra that crept into all aspects of my life.

The good news is that I’m old enough and self-aware enough to realize that this is not okay and furthermore, this is not ME. I have learned, after years of managing depression, to separate the part of my brain that beats me up from the part that is worth protecting, and I can intervene. (Worth noting: if you cannot see that separation or you can’t muster the will to intervene, that’s when you need professional help.) So I fought it, but it’s been a tough battle that I’ve been fighting for the better part of a year.

Apparently, as every podcast, self-help book and spiritual tradition in the world will tell you, the solution to this swamp of negativity is gratitude. Over the last month, I’ve received that message in a hundred different ways: notice the good. Be grateful. Celebrate what’s right, what’s working, what you have. Direct your focus to the positive things.

So, that’s the plan for 2018: to be more deliberate about noticing the good, being grateful and celebrating. This applies to everything: my job, my home, and especially myself. I want to keep a gratitude journal but I also want to pause several times a day to quickly inventory what’s good in the moment. I want to develop a new pattern in my brain.

In that spirit, I sat down this morning and made a list of good things that happened in the generally craptastic year of 2017.

GOOD THINGS THAT HAPPENED IN 2017

The Women’s March: I walked in the Women’s March in Orange County last January and it was incredibly uplifting. Throughout all the ugly political news of the year, I could close my eyes and remember what 20,000 people marching in solidarity looks like, and know they are just tiny sliver of people in this world who will stand up for good.

Murphy’s Surgery:  In 2016 I found and fell in love with an injured stray dog who needed an expensive knee surgery. In February 2017 I was able to get him that surgery, thanks to donations from friends and a charitable grant. A couple weeks ago, we watched this little guy running on the beach in blissful abandon: four solid knees and one huge pit bull smile.

Our garden:  My daughter and I removed some ugly old shrubs in our tiny back yard and replaced them with a bed of interesting plants and a raised vegetable garden. Some of our plants were more successful than others, but the process was a pleasure, and we ate food that we grew ourselves, so we’ll call that a win.

Reconnecting with an old friend: This was a twofer. My dear friend from high school, Christina, is also a writing coach and all-around wise woman. We went for years without talking, then years when we’d talk once or twice. In 2017 we began regularly scheduled calls where we’d have a long talk, then do a writing prompt together. From those calls, I got writing practice, some desperately needed human connection and a reminder of who I am from someone who knows me better than almost anyone. (A threefer, I guess.)

New Job: I started a new job in 2017 that pays much better than my old one and offers better opportunity for professional growth. It also brought new friends, a new area of SoCal to explore and an hour-long commute, which seemed like a minus until I started thinking of it like this: each day, my commute affords me a couple hours of solitude in which to listen to audiobooks, music and podcasts…which brings me to…

Podcasts: I found some podcasts that I love. Thank Oprah for Super Soul Conversations which has featured some of my heroes including Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, and my new guy, Shawn Achor, whose book The Happiness Advantage is first on my reading list for 2018.

The Story Intensive: Christina recommended an online writing course called The Story Intensive that I completed in the fall. It was difficult and uncomfortable, and I learned a lot about my writing and myself. I also wound up with new writing friends around the world, a draft of a short story of which I’m fairly proud, and a renewed relationship with writing.

Morro Bay Girls: Out of the blue, I got an invitation to spend the weekend at a beach house in Morro Bay (on the Central California coast) with three cool women, none of whom I knew well (outside of Facebook) before that weekend. Just hanging around those girls in that sleepy, beautiful place was a balm to my heart. We’re having a replay this weekend and I can’t wait.

Last night, I was ranting about what a terrible year it was; how glad I was to see it go…and this morning, after making this list, I realized that there was a lot to be grateful for. I want to notice the good things in real time and not let the pain of life cancel out all the joy. So, more lists, I say! Lists every day! Notice the good things, document them, celebrate them. Train my brain to be constantly on the lookout for what’s positive.

Happy New Year—regardless of what kind of year it turns out to be—let’s be happy in 2018.

On Writing, Gardening, and the Death of a Grasshopper

Q.  How many posts will I write about getting my groove back before said groove returns?

A.  Every post I write will always be about getting my groove back.

The last several years have been a constant struggle to find my old creative energy.  Much like starting a new diet every Monday, only to find myself face-down in a pizza by Friday, I have made many declarations of, “This is it! I’m going to live like a writer now! I’m going to write every day and post regularly and work on my book and paint paintings and generally be glorious!” –only to find another six months has passed between blog posts. The paints dry up in their tubes. And the book remains in snippets and half-developed scenes in my head.

I sit down at my keyboard, again, to draft another post, again, and write about not writing. Again. My brain skips from angle to angle. I force myself to stay in the moment. Follow one singular line of thought. Start with the basics. Ask one question and answer it.

What gets in the way of working on creative projects? What interferes with the discipline of creativity? Answer it, Meg: what keeps you from posting to this blog?

I am not too busy.

I am distracted. I’m frustrated.

I’m afraid.

I am afraid that there is nothing worthwhile in me to share anymore. I’m afraid that it’s all canned and reheated. I’m afraid that there’s nothing novel or interesting about my life.

I’m living in such a way that nothing is novel or interesting.

I’m wasting my life.

There it is. That’s what’s in the way. I’m afraid that I’m wasting my life. I sit down to write and try to think of something interesting to say, and nothing comes up, so I am forced to consider that terrifying possibility. The title of this blog rubs it in: The Midlife Adventures of Meg. I’m halfway through my years on this earth, and no adventures are happening. Not even small ones.

Surely, I can find some small ones.

#             #             #

A few days ago, I was watering my plants. My daughter and I got a raised planter bed, and we are attempting to grow vegetables. I’ve carved a bed out of one corner of my yard and filled it with California native plants. And all along my fence I have pots: succulents, flowers, and a collection of culinary herbs.  Gardening is meditative, rewarding, and endlessly interesting to me. But if you look at my garden closely, you’ll see the leaves are riddled with holes.

Holey basilIt seems that no matter what I try to grow, grasshoppers come and eat holes in all of it. Grasshoppers are my nemeses.

So I was watering my holey plants, and when I got to the herbs, I spotted a small, green insect on the basil. It was narrow and oblong, with long antennae and arched legs. GRASSHOPPER! Caught in the act! I was filled with righteous anger as I adjusted my hose nozzle to JET and blasted it off its dinner.

Then something snagged in my mind and I looked more carefully at it, wiped out on the fence behind the herbs. It wasn’t a grasshopper. It was a praying mantis. A tiny, baby, praying mantis about as long as my pinky nail.

A month or so ago, I bought praying mantis egg sacs, specifically to combat the grasshoppers. Praying mantises eat all kinds of bugs. The store clerk told me that I wouldn’t see them hatch, but the egg sacs would produce hundreds of praying mantises. I didn’t really want hundreds of them, I told him. I’m not sure I could handle that.

Mantis eggs

“Don’t worry,” he assured me. “They’re very territorial, so they actually eat each other until there are just one or two left.”

Apparently, I’d wound up with at least one of these charming, helpful cannibals, and I’d just blasted it with my garden hose.

I could see the poor thing, about a half inch long, and obviously not a grasshopper. I could see its tiny, sideways head and its signature, articulating forearms.

“I am so sorry,” I whispered, and I meant it. I crouched down in front of the wood fence where it lay, swamped, its antennae twitching slowly. “I totally thought you were a grasshopper. Clearly you are not. Any idiot could see that. I’m very sorry. Please be okay. Please stay here. There is so much for you to eat. I promise I will be more careful.”

As I finished watering, I cursed my knee-jerk reactions. So stupid. Serves me right if I have grasshoppers. I wound the hose and stopped to check on the mantis before returning inside.

Gone. Damnit.

I poured myself a glass of wine and sat on the patio to mourn.  I texted my daughter and told her I’d killed our one surviving praying mantis. She sent a sad face emoji.

Then I went back to the herb planter to try to find him one more time. And there he was, standing on a sage leaf three times his size, walking around on perfectly functional legs.

Mantis“Hello!” I said, no doubt scaring the bejeebers out of him. “I’m so glad you’re okay! I’m so glad you’re back! Please stay! Eat everything you can!”

I cannot overstate how happy I was to see that bug. If my neighbor overheard me talking to it, he probably thought I got a new puppy.  I took pictures of it and posted it on Facebook.

I texted my daughter to tell her that the mantis was still alive. “I was thinking of naming him Walter,” I told her. “But then I remembered that he probably ate all his siblings and decided he needs something a little more badass than that.”

“Skullcrusher?” she suggested. “Doombringer?”

We are currently trying to decide between Doombringer or Vladimir the Bloodthirsty.

I was able to track my little friend for several days in a row. I may have spotted one additional mantis on the poppies, maybe a shade greener than Vlad and a bit smaller. Or it may have been the same mantis in a different light. Either way, I did not spray him with the hose.

I also spotted one small grasshopper. I watched him for a few seconds to be sure he was a grasshopper. Then I killed him.

#             #             #

Would this be a proper Midlife Meg post if I didn’t circle back and clearly explain the analogy for you with a tidy little lesson?

Seriously, this is when my inner critic starts to slap me around.  Here you go with the tidy little lessons again, Meg. So canned. So convenient.

Real life doesn’t come in tidy lessons. Everything doesn’t happen for a reason. Must an experience mean something to be important? Can’t it just be an experience? What kind of a writer are you, Meg?

And yet, this post wrote itself.  Unbeknownst to my waking consciousness, my brain made a connection for me and served me the praying mantis story as I free-wrote, searching for blog-worthy adventures in my small, simple life.

So here you go, O Ye Who Search for Deeper Meaning. A metaphor explained. Let the garden be the creative landscape of my mind. Let the grasshoppers be that self-loathing that creeps in and eats holes in everything. Let the mantises be the hundreds of ideas born there: tiny, fascinating creatures both helpful and powerful, if only I recognize them and let them live.

Mantis 2

Why I Really Don’t Care About Your Grammar

Click on the image to learn more about Grammarly. Thanks for inspiring this post, Grammarly!

Click on the image to learn more about Grammarly. Thanks for inspiring this post, Grammarly!

Every once in a while, a friend will express concern that I’m judging their grammar.*
I’m not. Yes, it is my job to communicate in writing and yes, I notice misspellings and most mechanical errors. I can’t help it. But much of the time, I don’t care about your grammar. I only care about mine. So I would appreciate it if everyone would just relax.

Three main reasons I’m not uptight about grammar:

1.  In casual usage, formal grammar can actually be distracting.
*Did you notice the subject/pronoun disagreement in that first sentence? Yeah, that bothered me. It bothered me because it was my error and I don’t want anyone to think I don’t know better. But that particular error never bothers me when someone else makes it, because that’s how most people speak. And sometimes, using the plural pronoun is less distracting than using the singular pronoun and having to choose a gender. (As in, “A friend will express concern that I’m judging her grammar,” which would imply that the friend was a girl, and might have you wondering if I meant you or your sister.)

You may also notice that I don’t give a rat’s patootie about starting a sentence with a conjunction, though that is technically incorrect, too. I’ve already done it at least four times in this post, because I’m a rebel like that. Which brings me to point #2.

2.  Sometimes rule-breaking works better.
In a blog post, I will write run-on sentences when I’m trying to convey breathless excitement. I will write fragments for emphasis. Occasionally, I will incorrectly structure a series, because I prefer the rhythm with a whole bunch of conjunctions instead of commas. I break rules to establish tone or to create an effect. I try not to habitually break rules, because that can become a distraction of its own. But in my own writing, I use the rules to my advantage and disregard them when it suits me. It’s a choice I make, and other people can have that choice, too.

 3.  Lots of smart people suck at spelling and grammar.
I learned this early in life. Some of my super-smart friends were terrible spellers. Spelling and grammar come naturally to me. You know what doesn’t? Math. So if you don’t mock my inability to do quick math, I will not raise an eyebrow if you occasionally misspell things.

Language is just a tool for communication. Communication is sending and receiving messages, right?

If I’m sending a message, I want my grammar to support that message and not distract from it. So I follow rules to the extent that it helps my audience receive the message. Sometimes that means following formal rules; sometimes it doesn’t. I guarantee you, when I’m commenting on Facebook, the only reason I care about my grammar is because some smartass will point out my errors, especially if they think I’m a Grammar Nazi. Which I’m not. (Fragment for emphasis, see?) When I’m texting with friends, I don’t even think about mechanics.

If I’m receiving a message from you, and you are a friend of mine who’s attempting to communicate with me, whether that be on Facebook, via text, or in conversation over dinner, the only reason I’m going to be concerned about your grammar is if it garbles the message you’re sending so badly that I can’t receive it. Usually, that’s not the case; I can figure out what you mean.

Bottom line: I care about your message much more than your mechanics.

Proper grammar has its place, but the burden for proper grammar is on the one who sends the message. My job as a listener is to receive your message and seek to understand it, not find fault in its delivery.

Someone once told me, “Over-attention to other people’s grammar is the mark of a small mind.” I wholeheartedly agree with that. The truth is, I don’t quite like the way he structured that sentence. My brain struggles with the awkward subject clause. But I am not small-minded, so I didn’t pay attention to his sentence structure. Instead, I received his message. And I have never forgotten it.

Sometimes I Even Write Things: Observations from Press Publish

“Meg, you should be a writer.”

This is simultaneously one of my favorite and least-favorite things to hear.

Of course I’m flattered when people say that. It means they think I’m good enough to get paid to write.

The downside is that I’ve known that I should be a writer since I was about 13. I always figured I’d grow up and be a writer. I just didn’t. Instead I became a mom and a breadwinner and a marketing communications professional. I never really got to the writer part. Sometimes I feel like it’s too late.

Which is ridiculous, of course. It’s not too late. I’m 43, for god’s sake, not dead.

I started this blog three years ago, when I turned 40. In the beginning, my head swam with ideas. Every thought spun itself into a potential post. I blogged about nothing and everything. Thinking like that made me more observant…you know, like a writer. I blogged with steady excitement until I found myself in a serious romantic relationship (the advent of which I blogged about extensively) and then suddenly my observations weren’t so entertaining anymore. The really meaty stuff felt too personal to share (not for me—I have, shall we say, very flexible boundaries—but for my former partner). I was so consumed with the relationship that playful, everyday observations just stopped happening. My writing became more labored and my posts felt forced or canned.

I miss it. I miss the days when writing—blogging—was an intrinsic part of my daily discovery process, instead of some kind of calculated response to it.

So this weekend, I did something writerly: attended Press Publish, a conference hosted by Automattic, the people who create WordPress (which is the platform on which this blog is built).

At the conference, there were maybe 150 bloggers like me in attendance. By “like me,” I mean other humans with blogs. Some were younger; some were older. Some were men; some were women. Some sounded like blogging experts, and some, to my great relief, sounded less informed than I am. There were folks who blog about food, crafts, women’s issues, religion, health, aging, photography, business, fashion, and on and on.

The conference included technical workshops, writing clinics, how-tos on topics like SEO and self-promotion. For me, the most exciting part was listening to bloggers—regular schmucks like me—who’ve experienced various measures of success via their blogs.

My blog hero, Katherine Fritz, was the first speaker. I am not making this up: her talk made me cry. (I was slightly mortified, but no one saw me.) Katherine writes a personal blog like mine, which she started on a whim. Now she occasionally has to pinch herself because her blog landed her on big media outlets like Yahoo, MTV and The New York Times. THE NEW YORK FREAKING TIMES. A literary agent sought her out and persuaded her to work on a book. That’s right: the agent came to her.

Katherine (and several other wonderful speakers) talked about the strong sense of connectedness that blogging allows us, how gratifying it is to put a piece of yourself out there and have total strangers identify with you and respond with their own stories. She talked about taking risks and being authentic. She talked about how her blog made her happy.

So why the crying? Because I see myself in her. Yeah, she’s younger and hipper than me but whatever; she’s still a regular person. I met her. She’s real. Just a regular person who started a blog, like me. When she talks about the opportunities that have resulted from her blog, I feel a swell of possibility. Somehow, her success validates my aspirations.

She said that since she started blogging, she sees herself as a writer.

What a coincidence. I’m a writer, too.

Probably the greatest benefit of attending Press Publish was the opportunity to be surrounded by writers. I listened to writers and thought like a writer and talked to writers about writing stuff. And sure enough, my heart filled up and crowded my brain with ideas until I could hardly follow the scrawl in my notebook.

Man, I needed that. I have a lot of writing to do.

January

This is a perfectly ordinary and wonderfully extraordinary Saturday.

This morning, I saw January sunlight slanting across a weathered wooden potting bench. I taught something. I learned something. I got soil under my fingernails.

I spoke with a woman I admire. She reassured me and challenged me at the same time, and I left feeling full of possibility.

And then home: the exuberance of a canine welcome. The soft fur behind their ears, the boundless excitement as I leashed them up for a walk in 75-degree sunshine and under huge shade trees where the cool, early-morning air still lingered.

I tidied up after last night’s festivities, enjoying my home, which really is perfect for me. It’s everything I need and filled with things I love. Things my kids made. Things I made. Books I’ve treasured, photos of loved ones, crazy bargains that still make me feel lucky and shrewd.

The clinking of empty wine bottles as I bagged them up brought my girlfriends to mind and I remembered two of them at the stove the night before. I thought about how good it is to have friends who know their way around your kitchen.

Last night my teenage daughter sat with us for hours, listening and talking, not even cringing while we moms talked as we always do on Girls’ Night: all the stories we can’t wait to tell each other, no detail too personal. One dear friend shared a part of her life we hadn’t heard before, and we cried with her, though her pain is over 20 years old. But mostly we laughed, because that’s what we do. I realized that my daughter is nearly grown enough to be part of my adult circle, and that I’m surprisingly comfortable to have her there.

Tonight there will be more laughter, and kisses from a man who, though still little more than a friend, has the most compelling dimple just left of his lips. And the glory of being forty-two is that I can enjoy the company of this man without worrying about where it will go, what it will mean, or what anyone else might think.

I’m recalling a bit of wisdom I heard this week, the crux of which was, “You do not lack. You don’t need fixing. Everything you need is already within you. You’re not some imperfect version of your future self; you’re a perfect version of yourself at this moment.”

My throat gets thick with gratitude when I realize how true that is.