We Went… Maybe not the Woods

2020: the year we acted like we lived in the depression. Staying close to home. Baking sourdough bread. We grew plants from starts and seeds

I got to know my neighborhood. I watched spring come with rains. I saw the baking summer sun crisp the grass.

About the time the neighbors started talking about birdcalls, I knew we had travelled even further back in time.

I picked up Walden.

My friends and I are looking to find the silver lining in the quarantine.

What is really important? Are these material things really what we want? COVID made me think about death and therefore how precious life is.  Walden does the same. What is really most important?

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately”

Yes. If I am holing up to protect life, what am I protecting?  What kind of life is a lonely solitude? Before I pout too hard about my situation, Thoreau puts the challenge out there. He lays it out: take the time to notice the beauty around you!

He went to the woods because he “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Even in the shutdown, there is marrow to suck. There are skies and plants to observe, simple skills to practice and alternate paths to try.

There is richness in the things I have passed over. The sun in the sky is a marvel. I have learned to observe it in ways I never have before.

Big cities—New York, San Francisco—they are hollowing out. People are taking their lessons from the lockdown and moving house. Sacramento and Salt Lake City are filling up with new neighbors. Now that people can choose, can do their work from their homes, they are changing the homes.

Thoreau and his Transcendental buddies. were quite thrilled with finding new classics, and making up their own minds

“Let the reports of all the learned societies come to us and we will see if they know anything”

Sounds like the internet to me. I want to know all the things the world has to offer, and I delight in new ideas. I love to be the one to make up my own mind about their value. I don’t have to live by the expected wisdom. This is a time to explore and make up my own mind. The whole world awaits.

It used to be

There is a scene in the Lord of the Rings movie where the village is being attacked and the children are sent to light the bonfire. It’s a system of fires set up to be lit across hilltops. This was the warning system.

This is the medieval 3- way handshake: light signal fire- far end sees signal fire. Far end lights signal fire.

That’s how the internet does it. But the internet hadn’t happened yet. There were a few more stops along the way between the signal fire and the internet.

The Post office changed everything. Ben Franklin had a great instinct for marketing, and the story goes that he invented electricity, white wigs and the post office, but the real breakthrough came from Victorian England.

Letters had been around since writing. The way it went is the letter writer would find some lucky person, and ask him to deliver it. The person would be paid by the person receiving the letter.

Remember that old saying “Don’t kill the messenger”? The value of a letter depended a lot on what was in it. There were risks involved.

Sir Rowland Hill invented stamps. England created a set of posts so that deliveries of these prepaid letters could be sent to anyone. And the letters were secret the envelope protected the message from strange eyes.

This was new in the world. Sir Rowland had to vision and got enough cooperation to make it a reality. No one had thought of it before, but once it existed it took off. It was so sensible it spread.

Until it was created, it wasn’t even a concept. It was impossible until one day it was normal. And once it was normal it could be made better and better until we have this internet that erases time and distance.

And we have a system that the whole world is riding on.

This normal amazing this didn’t used to be here. There are things just offstage waiting to be possible. I wonder what is next.

A Piece of Faulkner

I just finished Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! Something in the air drew me to read it again. Faulkner was wrestling with his inheritance—the legacy of the American South.

He writes a fictional story that holds his experience. He lives on the edge of a conquered land. The story is not easy at all—at no point do we hear the voice of the main character. We hear the memories and the inferences of the people who were connected or controlled by him, by Thomas Sutpen, the demon hero of the story.

Sutpen controls the people around him and no one stands against him. They seem to admire what he can do so much they allow all the collateral damage.

He is the embodiment of a pure single-minded vision, and the people around him fall into it and give him what he wants. They are mesmerized, wanting to see what will happen. Will he make his dream come true?

The main narrator—not the only narrator—is Quentin. He’s not related to any of the characters, but his grandfather knew the demon Sutpen.

Quentin is trying to piece together what happened. Everyone from his hometown has their version of the story. No one can leave it alone.

They pull his sleeve, telling him what really happened.

He is stuck trying to make sense of it. What happened? Between all their versions he is not sure of the basic facts.

The others are sure. And he’s heard the stories his whole life so he knows the basic facts.

Until he thinks about it. He is trying to sort it all out with his college roommate. Now that he is not at home where everyone is so sure, he himself is not so sure.

He talks it over and over with his roommate. They piece together what he never saw clearly, what was hidden in plain sight, this dark dark dark story of the American South.

It’s a masterpiece and it is not for the fainthearted.

Here’s the piece that I can break off for you all:

I know there are stories I’ve heard and accepted my whole life. Sometimes, when I look at them now, they aren’t true anymore. They may have been true once. But they don’t have to be true now.

It is worth sifting out the jagged edges to find the things that aren’t true anymore. The assumptions can be discarded. I deserve to have the true truth.

Candle

This week I burned down a pumpkin spice candle. The date on the bottom said 2006. I don’t think I’m the only one who’s kept a decorative candle for years. It’s moved with me to several homes, but this year

I burned it all the way down.

This is the year I’ve learned to appreciate candles. I’ve burned down quite a few during the quarantine. I had forgotten about the little orange pumpkin candle, but after the other scented candle ran out, I found it and set it next to me on the desk.

It’s a friendly thing.

Lighting a single candle

My daughter has gotten in on it. The supermarket had some big fall candles and I brought a few home. I’d say the scent could be dialed back 2 or 3 notches, but Veronica loves it and lights it while she is doing her schoolwork.

I saw the candle growing smaller in its glass jar.

She asked “Where does it go?”

“It burns away. You can’t really see it, but it becomes smoke and floats away on the air.”

We stared at the flickering flame together. It was a quiet feeling.

Candles have been companions to worried people for a long time. They doesn’t ask for much. They put out light

Warmth

Kindness

maybe Hope

That little flicker is known all over the world as a prayer without words

When the hope is too fragile sometimes words are too heavy.

Or

When the imagination is too rusty and life is too rigid to conceive of another way, words don’t work.

I can light a single candle. I don’t even have to know why.

It helps. And I am grateful.

Time to Work

I remember.

I remember arriving to work at a specific time, settling in to my cube and starting my day. I had routines, an overflowing inbox and a clear understanding that, at a certain point, I would leave.

THIS is work

THIS is home

I remember rock-paper-scissors with my husband for which of us would pick up the child from school.

School was over THERE.

Now all the things are here. With a few more added on. There are intruding news stories and contagion reports.

I met a new friend on Zoom last week. I told her I was working on a new book, but…Covid.

“You must have so much time for writing now.”

Well, I do have time.

But whose time is it?

My job happily takes every second I give it and asks for more.

I find the starch to draw a boundary when it comes to my kid. She needs me!

And what is left?

Used to be I could leave the house for some uninterrupted time: a “break.”

Breaks are broken. Those cheap seats at Starbucks are illegal.

So, I’m nowhere. I’m not the only one.

We had a system. We had a lot of systems this. And every last one is unavailable.

This whole thing has gone on long enough. There is a lot I can’t control. And there are some things I can.

Repeat five times fast:

NoNoNoNoNo

I am not available at that time. I have a previous commitment.
Leave mommy alone. I am doing work.
MY work.
This is my time.
Other people cannot have it. Other people will have to wait.

In a blaze of irony, it’s going to take work to take a break. It’s still worth it. We’re going to be here a while.

Choice

These are uncertain times. That’s what all the commercials are calling it.

Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt are in abundance. All of those things make people scared and unable to act.

It’s finally September. In fact, we are coming to the end of September. We are three quarters of the way through this year.

What a year! Back in March, one quarter of the year had passed and we were told to stay home. Like an inverse hibernation. Stay home this spring.  Don’t leave. Don’t come out.

And then it became the summer too. And apparently the fall.

Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt is a well-known inhibitor. It even has a Wikipedia entry. Don’t think, just do what you are told. Wikipedia says it can “discourage decision-makers from choosing”

Stay. Be afraid. Be uncertain.

But time is passing. With every moment comes the need to make choices. Even if the choice is to remain.

For the most part, I remain. But I refuse to be choiceless. With every breath I have volition.

I choose to remain. Choice brings air back. If I choose to remain, what other choices are there?

I do not choose fear. There are sure things I do not doubt. I choose the opposite of fear.

“Perfect love casts out fear”   

I can show love. I can give love to the people around me. To get outside the choicelessness of fear and doubt, I choose to love who and what is around me.

I know I can love my family. Then I can stretch that love and give it out to the people who are less easy to love.

That makes room for more choice. More air. Freedom.

There is always fear, uncertainty and doubt.

There is also

always

Love, surety and choice.

I choose love. The rest will follow.

100 books

This list of 100 novels was drawn up by the editorial board of Modern Library. Where possible, book titles have been linked to either the original New York Times review or a later article about the book.

1. “Ulysses,” James Joyce READ

2. “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald READ

3. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” James Joyce READ

4. “Lolita,” Vladimir Nabokov READ

5. “Brave New World,” Aldous Huxley

6. “The Sound and the Fury,” William Faulkner READ

7. “Catch-22,” Joseph Heller READ

8. “Darkness at Noon,” Arthur Koestler

9. “Sons and Lovers,” D. H. Lawrence

10. “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck READ

11. “Under the Volcano,” Malcolm Lowry

12. “The Way of All Flesh,” Samuel Butler

13. “1984,” George Orwell READ

14. “I, Claudius,” Robert Graves

15. “To the Lighthouse,” Virginia Woolf READ

16. “An American Tragedy,” Theodore Dreiser

17. “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” Carson McCullers

18. “Slaughterhouse Five,” Kurt Vonnegut Started

19. “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison READ

20. “Native Son,” Richard Wright Started

21. “Henderson the Rain King,” Saul Bellow

22. “Appointment in Samarra,” John O’ Hara

23. “U.S.A.” (trilogy), John Dos Passos

24. “Winesburg, Ohio,” Sherwood Anderson READ

25. “A Passage to India,” E. M. Forster

26. “The Wings of the Dove,” Henry James

27. “The Ambassadors,” Henry James READ

28. “Tender Is the Night,” F. Scott Fitzgerald

29. “The Studs Lonigan Trilogy,” James T. Farrell

30. “The Good Soldier,” Ford Madox Ford READ

31. “Animal Farm,” George OrwellREAD

32. “The Golden Bowl,” Henry James

33. “Sister Carrie,” Theodore Dreiser READ

34. “A Handful of Dust,” Evelyn Waugh

35. “As I Lay Dying,” William Faulkner

36. “All the King’s Men,” Robert Penn Warren READ

37. “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” Thornton Wilder

38. “Howards End,” E. M. Forster

39. “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” James Baldwin

40. “The Heart of the Matter,” Graham Greene

41. “Lord of the Flies,” William Golding

42. “Deliverance,” James Dickey

43. “A Dance to the Music of Time” (series), Anthony Powell

44. “Point Counter Point,” Aldous Huxley

45. “The Sun Also Rises,” Ernest Hemingway

46. “The Secret Agent,” Joseph Conrad

47. “Nostromo,” Joseph Conrad

48. “The Rainbow,” D. H. Lawrence

49. “Women in Love,” D. H. Lawrence

50. “Tropic of Cancer,” Henry Miller

51. “The Naked and the Dead,” Norman Mailer

52. “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Philip Roth READ

53. “Pale Fire,” Vladimir Nabokov

54. “Light in August,” William Faulkner READ

55. “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac READ

56. “The Maltese Falcon,” Dashiell Hammett READ

57. “Parade’s End,” Ford Madox Ford

58. “The Age of Innocence,” Edith Wharton READ

59. “Zuleika Dobson,” Max Beerbohm

60. “The Moviegoer,” Walker Percy

61. “Death Comes to the Archbishop,” Willa Cather READ

62. “From Here to Eternity,” James Jones

63. “The Wapshot Chronicles,” John Cheever

64. “The Catcher in the Rye,” J. D. Salinger READ

65. “A Clockwork Orange,” Anthony Burgess

66. “Of Human Bondage,” W. Somerset Maugham

67. “Heart of Darkness,” Joseph Conrad READ

68. “Main Street,” Sinclair Lewis READ

69. “The House of Mirth,” Edith Wharton READ

70. “The Alexandria Quartet,” Lawrence Durrell

71. “A High Wind in Jamaica,” Richard Hughes

72. “A House for Ms. Biswas,” V. S. Naipaul

73. “The Day of the Locust,” Nathaniel West

74. “A Farewell to Arms,” Ernest Hemingway

75. “Scoop,” Evelyn Waugh

76. “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” Muriel Spark

77. “Finnegans Wake,” James Joyce

78. “Kim,” Rudyard Kipling READ

79. “A Room With a View,” E. M. Forster

80. “Brideshead Revisited,” Evelyn Waugh

81. “The Adventures of Augie March,” Saul Bellow READ

82. “Angle of Repose,” Wallace Stegner

83. “A Bend in the River,” V. S. Naipaul

84. “The Death of the Heart,” Elizabeth Bowen

85. “Lord Jim,” Joseph Conrad

86. “Ragtime,” E. L. Doctorow

87. “The Old Wives’ Tale,” Arnold Bennett

88. “The Call of the Wild,” Jack London READ

89. “Loving,” Henry Green

90. “Midnight’s Children,” Salman Rushdie

91. “Tobacco Road,” Erskine Caldwell

92. “Ironweed,” William Kennedy

93. “The Magus,” John Fowles

94. “Wide Sargasso Sea,” Jean Rhys

95. “Under the Net,” Iris Murdoch

96. “Sophie’s Choice,” William Styron

97. “The Sheltering Sky,” Paul Bowles

98. “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” James M. Cain

99. “The Ginger Man,” J. P. Donleavy

100. “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Booth Tarkington READ

Say that again

A how-to-do-webinars webinar from Zoom told me that I should repeat questions three times in order to get the attention of the participants.

Three times. Webinars are so annoying right? No one pays attention!

Well…

This week reminded me that getting things wrong is far more common than getting it right.

There are so many many many ways to get it wrong! And only one way to get it right.

That’s how it is. I’m going to have to come back around and do it again to get it right.  First pancake is always a disaster? It’s not just pancakes, I fear.

First time is not the charm. If I’ve ever gotten it right the first time it was a fluke.

And yet. I hate making mistakes.

Some mistakes are barely noticeable. Drop a cookie? 5 second rule, pick it up and I’m back on my way.

Some mistakes hurt. They hurt me and they hurt others. I know that crushing disappointment in myself: regret and shame.

How do I make it right?  What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I get it right?

Didn’t I just finish saying that mistakes are inevitable? I still feel like there is something wrong with ME. How do I grapple with this?

This is how the world works. Mercifully, there is a corollary system: resiliency. We can recover and heal from mistakes. With patience and goodwill, things get on track.

Do-overs have to be part of the plan. And do-overs can include doing it over as something completely different. There is more than one way to do is right the second time.

With persistence, there will be a way to get to good.

It’s not helpful to have a get-it-right-right-now expectation. I will be disappointed.

I have to plan on a few tries. And keep trying.

Equally Impossible

Weekly wonder

Six months ago, our government asked us to stay home to avoid spreading the Coronavirus. No one expected that we would be home this long. I am in a situation I never thought I would have to face.

I am not sick, which is good. I am, however, trying to keep my spirits up. All my plans are impossible now. Or, at the very least, not possible NOW.

I hear people say they are trying to figure out what the new normal is going to be. And I hear other people say normal is never going to happen again.

But I never wanted to be normal.

I am thinking of a life maxim I found years ago. This was a time when I felt trapped and hopeless. Everything was impossible.

But if everything was impossible, then everything was equally possible. It’s algebra.

This maxim lets me shift my focus on the other variable in the equation. There is some possibility in everything.

It may be small, but I can look for it. Or I can believe in it.

Right now, looking for it takes imagination. What will be possible?

What can I imagine and what can I plan for?

I would love to go to Paris. That is something I can plan for. I can make sure I have a passport, and I can think of what I will pack. That is practical imagination.

I like my career, but what if I imagined a better one? What would that be like? What kinds of things would I need to know to make that upgrade? What could I start to work on?

Normal was a long time ago. This is a time for imagination. This space is intentionally blank. And I plan to fill it with intention.

What else is possible?

The Good Fight – by Liane Davey

I don’t like to fight.  I can be clear with my opinions, but sometimes when I get resistance, I can compromise to reach consensus. Can’t we all just agree?

I don’t like how that feels. I’ve had that after-the-fact burn when I didn’t stand up for myself. I’ve spent sleepless nights plotting how to turn things around to how I wanted it to go the first time.


I’d like to be poised and articulate in tense moments. That’s why I picked up this book. I was not disappointed. Liane Davey gets it. The Good Fight shares how she learned to take her “conflict avoidant” instincts and become a person willing to have the fight that needs to happen.

It’s not easy. We weasel our way out of it. She calls out the sneaky tactics. I know I’ve cheated and not invited the opposition to a planning meeting. I’ve thought “I already know that person won’t like it, so I’ll go AROUND him and get what I’m looking for.”

She calls this “conflict debt.” It is building up a bunch of baggage that will need to be dealt with eventually. And it doesn’t’ smell better with age.

I know I’ve wasted years of my life avoiding conversations. I’ve left jobs because I couldn’t see a way around it.

This book made me rethink everything. That one co-worker I couldn’t stand for YEARS? What if I’d said something earlier? How would things be different? Even if he didn’t change, I wonder if I would have been happier if I’d spoken and been true to myself.

And what if I tried it in now? That just got real.

Liane has chapters for that.  If I’m supposed to start a new habit of facing the conflict, I need some scripts. She has some good ones.

I like the “two truths” where she suggests stating the two viewpoints in conflict.

For example:

The customer says they didn’t get the equipment that was shipped.

The warehouse is hot, swearing that they shipped it.

I’m the PM so I call I meeting to come up with our plan. Warehouse is so mad they’re barely speaking. Salesguy is not about to back down.

After some tense discussion I say:

“Our customer says they did not receive the equipment. Warehouse says they shipped it. This can’t be the first time this kind of discrepancy has happened. What was done when this happened before?”

No blame. I stated things clearly. This broke the logjam. We got a plan for action that everyone could agree with.

Here’s what we avoided: months of back and forth finger pointing and business lost because of poor service to our customer.

That’s what developing a conflict habit can do. It’s not impossible. People can learn, and things can change.

I’d like more of that. I’m going to read this book more than once.

Written by Murphy