Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Being Mr. Bucket

Kristopher Avila/Flickr
The other night, while screwing the cap back on to the toothpaste I had an epiphany.

I am Mr. Bucket.

Poor Mr. Bucket,as you might recall from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," is the sole provider for a family of seven, including two sets of bedridden parents, a wife and one soulful little boy.

"He worked in a toothpaste factory, where he sat all day long at a bench and screwed the little caps on to the tops of the tubes of toothpaste after the tubes had been filled."

OK fine. I'm not the man of the house. I'm not caring for two sets of elderly, invalid parents. I don't have a son. And I don't work in a toothpaste factory (though I might argue that working in the content marketing factory is no less tedious).

Mr. Bucket is representative of so many parents at a certain stage of life. The endless cycle of doing in order to provide. Feeling swallowed by the mountain of toothpaste caps and the mountain of toothpaste tubes (the laundry, the bills, the dishes, the meal preparation, the commute, the email inbox, the what have you). Avoiding eye contact with the futility because confronting that would surely cause a psychotic breakdown. 

And anyway psychotic breakdowns would be ill-advised and inconvenient because there are people you love and who interrupt the assembly line to deliver little boxes that when opened spill over with giggles and joy.*

Mr. Bucket's character isn't really fleshed out too much. Which is probably fine for a children's book. I don't think that as a kid I would've cared to read more about the tedium of Mr. Bucket's days. Not when Willy Wonka was around.

I feel kinship with Mr. Bucket. I'm sure as a child, he had dreams of being a Wonka – maker of edible grass, chocolate rivers and lickable wallpaper. Isn't that what childhood is about? All the possibilities? And even as an adult, I have to believe that Mr. Bucket, like me, still imagines building magical, beautiful things. But then the sun comes up and the day and its distractions slam into me in waves I attempt to swim over or under. The space for making gets pushed further and further back into the day until it's the night and then it's time for sleep.

Elizabeth Gilbert would tell me to just do the creating anyway. That it's not just the thing to do to pass the time, it's the thing to do to fill that part of your soul that's murdered daily by those damn toothpaste caps. 

It's an investment in your spirit and so an investment in humanity as a whole. The act of creation sending ripples of inspiration and empathy and beauty to the collective.

I think it takes tremendous courage to be a Wonka. And I think that our society doesn't value our Wonkas enough. We value them as far as the next cool gadget they design for us, maybe for the diversions they offer us from our own lives as Mr. Bucket. But I think if we really valued the Wonkas in a meaningful way, we'd all be Wonkas. 

Because It would be impossible not to be inspired and absorbed by the power and possibility of creation. More so than the allure of consumption.

Wonka knows.

"We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of the dreams."

I'm forever amazed by the Wonkas I know. And not just because of the things they create, but because of how they live their lives -- dedicated to things that bring them joy regardless of what the rest of the world might think. 

Like my friend Ellen who wouldn't think twice of wearing the sequined pizza shirt I found at Target (if only it came in a grown-up size) and our mutual friend Sam who has built an entire art empire around her obsession with bulldogs. And Beth and Megan whose dogged pursuit of fiction never ceases to amaze and inspire me. Or my cousin-in-law and her husband who have made art as essential to their lives as pants or water or (in my case) ice cream and who are raising their two little wild-haired girls to do the same. 

She shared this video, which says better what I'm trying to get at here ...

I imagine the Wonkas I know have moments (maybe many moments) when they feel like a Mr. Bucket. And I know I have times when I'm more Wonka, less Mr. Bucket. We are all both characters. Both practical and impractical and all the things in between. It's maybe a matter of whose voice we choose to listen to on any given minute on any given day. 

Ultimately, I think creation is an act of love. So then living creatively is living a life centered around love. And maybe that's why I struggle so much with feeling as if I'm sitting on that bench in the toothpaste factory. It feels more about survival than love. 

Over the summer, I attempted to do one act of art a day -- maybe it was just coloring something silly with the girls or writing a few words that weren't work or dancing in the kitchen. Nothing big or deep or anything. Just little acts of joy. 

I should probably get off my bench, get on that glass elevator and try that again.

*Today's little box of giggles came in a conversation with Jovie about our fish. I was attempting to determine the genders of the five baby fish we now have when Jovie informed me they'd already named them all girl's names.

"It's OK," she said. "If one of them's a boy, we can just change his name to Josh."

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

In search of serenity in the suburbs

I've been craving nature.

Well, more accurately, I've been craving solitude in nature. After reading "Wild" last year, I've been fantasizing about running away on an epic toe-nail dropping, armpit hair growing solo trek through the wilderness in search of my inner Earth Mother/Goddess/She-Ra (Princess of Power). It's not about running away so much as trying to run into myself.

Anyone else with me here? Anyone? Anyone? Is this thing on? 

In York, whenever I wanted to be away from cars and people, I visited the farm, which always felt well removed from all civilization, even if it was only minutes from a Walmart.

Northern Virginia never feels far removed from anywhere. No matter where you go, you'll always finding yourself stumbling over a subdivision or tripping over a strip mall. A Starbucks around every corner.

I've been wanting to feel away, away. To be swallowed by a forest, travailing narrow dirt paths -- like those hikes my dad used to take us on as children (we called them death marches at the time ... ahh ... hindsight) or the long walks I used to take that summer I spent in Duluth -- finding endless trails through endless trees where it felt like there were no other people in the world. Just me and the unraveling paths with peeks of Lake Superior. And bears. There were probably bears. I didn't think about them too much though.

But it's hard to do that here in the few hours I have before it's time to pick up Jovie from preschool or Lily from Kindergarten. (See: All the Traffic)

Strangely enough, this place is covered in trails. Asphalt pathways for running and biking and stroller pushing. They run alongside wide roadways and tall fences past neat shrubbery and tidy trees. And it's all very nice and clean and well appointed. 


But ... but ... but.

Today I took Jovie to a park near our house I'd driven by a few times. I was saddened to see the standard black asphalt path leading into the yellowing woods. But as we walked, the asphalt gave way to gravel and the gravel gave way to dirt. Then dirt rippled by tree roots and rocks.

I kept choosing narrower and narrower paths to go down, hoping to find what? I don't know. Absolute quiet? Absolute stillness? The divine?

It wasn't buried in these woods – so close to the airport you can see the landing gear of the planes overhead and glimpses of grills on the decks of houses surrounding this (kind of) wild place.

Choosing the rockiest paths did not lead to grand vistas or untouched wildernesses, but it did make us slow down. To tread carefully over unearthed rocks and roots. To scrape by thorny vines and grabbing sticks. Here it was that I had a thought about stillness, about slowing down. Maybe it didn't matter much  where the path led, only that it forced me to take my time. To stop and check for rocks in shoes and the best way to cross the creek. If we had been biking or running or even walking at a faster pace, we might have missed the cardinals on the creek bank and the turtle on the branch and the salmon-colored mushrooms growing on the toppled tree.

The green spaces here and their warren of asphalt paths might ease our journeys and keep our feet mud free – but I don't know, isn't the whole point of disappearing in the woods to find your way back to the earth, grime and all? Even if it is only a scrap of trees between your neighborhood and the grocery store. Can't we pretend to be even a little wild?

There were no grand adventures in the woods today. It was sun dappled and beautiful -- littered in gold leaves and smelling sweetly of the changing seasons. 

We took the path less traveled and it took us to tennis courts and a playground where Jovie could ride a giant chipmunk and climb a plastic rock wall like the pioneer girl she was born to be.

It wasn't so depressing actually. The woods seemed to giggle along with me at the absurdity of it all.

Guess I'll be keeping those toe nails for now. 

They grow chipmunks big around here.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Be still my raging brain

Photo courtesy of

Last week, given the overall dismal state of my mental affairs, I decided I was long overdue for a yoga class. The last class I'd gone to was in York and I came out of it with a new way of thinking about my then-impending move. The instructor had focused the whole class around transitions and it left me with a feeling of ... maybe not peace with  ... but at least in acceptance of the move. 

A month later, here we are. Moved. 

I found a studio that offered a class while Jovie was at preschool, so I went. Power I with Megan. The studio was much warmer than the classes I'd been going to. And the class was active. Like, Yoga as designed maybe by Tony Horton Lite. It was heavy on movement and sweating, and a little less focused on meditation. I spent some time in Child's Pose as the rest of the bendy, stretchy ladies around me powered through planks and Eagle poses. I'm probably a little out of shape. 

As we were going into half-pigeon, Megan reminded us to think about stillness. That because of the awkward nature of the pose, we often found ourselves wiggling and readjusting, when really we just need to stop and allow ourselves to stop moving and be still.

Still. This word stuck out to me. 

I'd been sending my sister Laura long mopey texts about how tough it's been to feel motivated here. And how strange its been not having the girls at home. Lily is gone all day at school and Jovie is gone for three hours in the morning three days a week. Next year she'll be at kindergarten all day, too.

I wasn't prepared for this transition. In York, Lily was going to half-day kindergarten. I've been home with them full time for five years now and I figured I'd have another couple years at least with at least one kid at home for most of the day. 

Not so, though. All the sudden those long days of tending to babies then toddlers then preschoolers is becoming something else. And I just have the two of them. I don't see foresee more babies on the horizon, so here I am on the eve of the next phase. And completely lost as to what I do next. I can't quite envision myself going back to work full time at a regular job (god, if for no other reason than I loathe the thought of shopping for professional-looking pants and sitting in a cubicle devoid of windows and natural light). And I can't quite envision myself doing the freelance work I do now forever and ever. And I can't feel that creative drive I'd felt so strongly in years past. The one where I could be a professional writer of real, live books. And I can't quite envision what the compromise is. What that "something else" could be because mostly I feel like I, as I told Laura, "a big sad sack of human bones who isn't even trying to transcend." (Maybe that's the depression talking ...)

"Sue ... I think I have experienced this panic. It's hard to be still with yourself," Laura texted me.

There's that word again. Still.

And yes it is. We as a species are not particularly good at being still physically or mentally.

Our culture doesn't value stillness. We value productivity and perseverance (especially if there's data to prove just how productive we are). 

But stillness? Stillness is almost a vice. Evidence of laziness or lack of drive. Like when we're not busy doing, we're just busy dying. 

Jokes on us though. 

As I settled into half-pigeon in that very sweaty yoga class, I got to thinking about stillness. I kind of yanked myself into the position and then started sinking. Trying to avoid excess wiggling and readjusting and fidgeting. I was still. But I noticed even in my stillness there was subtle movement. Not intentional on my part, just gravity slowly tugging me down further and further. 

And I thought about how stillness might not mean the absence of progress or change. Just a willful quieting of our bodies and minds. It's not as if we are ever truly still – our heart keeps beating, our neurons keep firing and my muscles (at least in half pigeon) keep shaking. 

The words still has multiple meanings.

There's being devoid of motion. Uttering no sound. Free from noise or disturbance.

But still is also used to describe the continuance of something.

It's both ceasing and ongoing.

I found this great quote from David Foster Wallace:

"Everything takes time. Bees have to move very fast to stay still."

So the stillness of right now, this small moment of my life, does not have to be about a failure to change or to grow – the real source of my panic. 

After my sister texted, I thought about the still things I know are forever changing. I thought about a trip to Utah I took years ago with my dad and uncle. There, we visited Arches National Park where millions of years of wind and rain have carved the desert sandstone into some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes you will ever see. Even those monolithic, seemingly immovable rock formations are ever-changing and impermanent. They, too, sink with the endless tug of gravity

The stillness of the arches allows us to admire the artistry of passing time, even as they're perpetually sculpted into something new.

So here I am. All the mania and stress surrounding the move is slowly filtering away (well, sort of, the house goes on the market tomorrow, so that will add another level of nail biting and gastric discomfort and sleeplessness to the proceedings).

Most of our things are put into their new places. The walls are still bare, but over time we will cover them. The house is becoming more lived in (i.e. covered in fur and figurines from various Disney Channel shows). 

We have new morning routines and new afternoon routines that are already starting to feel old. The system has been updated and rebooted and is now running along on its own.

And here I sit at my old dining room table in our new, borrowed dining room. The girls playing on their own – one in the living room the other in the sun room. I can only hear them, not see them. The house is a traditional Colonial - divided and subdivided into neat compartments of activity. As if we live in a bento box. I will myself not to think about our cozy little house in York, where sometimes it felt like we could barely escape each other. 

As I sit here, I start to think. Even here, immobilized as I am by what was and what will be, I am being reshaped. And who that person will be? Well, I guess only time will tell.