Cease worrying when you can and write about what you know

We are all human, analog creatures, never completely this or that, and we all slide in and out our of better selves as we make our path in this world.

Every so often I write something I like. I reread it and think I’m not sure where that came from but that’s profound. Then it passes, of course, and I go on writing normal stuff.

I had that experience when the lead sentence here showed up while I recently wrote a post about world peace for my qigong instructor and friend at Flowing Zen. None of us are completely this or that, and it’s worth remembering in our current heated political climate. It’s also worth remembering as we each reach inward, embracing ourselves for what we are.

What I am is a worrier, among other things, and I know in my heart that it is tied to my story-telling abilities. If you want a mind that makes up exciting scenarios from everyday events, well then, you get a mind that sees exploding cars, intricate scams and paranoid plots around every corner.

But there are limits to how much worrying a healthy person can do, and, to be honest, recent events in the international arena have catapulted my concerns to an unhealthy level. That’s where coping mechanisms come in.

Last November, I developed a new habit to calm my mind. I already do qigong, which is wonderful for creating calm, and I do a good bit of yoga as well. Gardening helps also. But sometimes I’m sitting at my computer and I read something disturbing and I need a quick reboot without leaving my seat. Sort of an “instant calm.”

And that’s when I play solitaire. I go to the World of Solitaire site, zip through a two minute game while breathing deeply, and somehow I’ve trained myself to emerge calmer. I don’t know why it works, but for me it does.

“Where do you the get the ideas for what happens in your stories?” It is a question I get asked. Okay, I do get many ideas from the things I worry about happening. But every once in awhile, I am able to get one from something that kept me from worrying, like in the scene below.

I got a real kick out of how my psychic hero Ariel finally sorted out a particularly complicated set of future probabilities. I hope you enjoy it too.

She wandered back into the hut she shared with Teddie and Vanida, and sat the kitchen table. She was trying to save the last bit of battery on her phone and her computer, so she aimlessly dealt out a hand of solitaire from a deck of cards that had been provided. She had played the game years ago on a computer, which made it more fun because it was easy for the player to redo moves.

But this would work to relax her. She started the game, doing the obvious first then moving on. Okay, now put the red five on the black six. Wait, which red five? They were identical choices. She went down one path. Not so good. Try the other five. Much better. She’d win going that way.

Geez, this game is like my life with premories, she thought. One choice is insignificant and another makes all the difference and you can’t tell the two kinds apart. And, you can’t tell which of your important choices will yield a good outcome for you because it’s not always about good decision making. Sometimes it really is random.

She kept dealing and thinking and replaying and after awhile she wasn’t so much paying attention to the cards as she was in a sort of trance. Teddie was the Two of Clubs and her mom was the Queen of Hearts and for some reason she was the Nine of Spades. The man who ran Reel News was the King of Diamonds, of course, but there were two of them; no, not really, the Jack of Diamonds was pretending to be the King which made no sense.

The worst of it was that the Ten of Clubs was trying to get that Jack to kill Queen of Hearts who could only be saved by the King but he wouldn’t know it and the Jack of Hearts who was Nell could stop the King of Diamonds but only if the Queen of Clubs who was Yuden did some random thing she probably would not do.

Ariel leaned forward and put her head between her knees and took deep breaths until the dizziness subsided. She could do this, use this, to see the arbitrary combinations and how the little things worked together in ways in she’d never understood before.

She dealt again. And again. A different sense of how events tied together began to connect for her as she used the cards to sort out a complex tapestry that would have confused her logical mind.

After awhile Camille came in and lit the gas lamp, saying nothing. A little later Fernando brought her a sandwich. She mumbled thanks but never touched it. She just kept playing.

Not long after Teddie and Vanida tiptoed by her as they went to bed. Sleep came early in a world without electricity. By then, every card had taken on at least one identity or location or time. Some had many of them. It didn’t matter. After a while the confusion subsided and the interrelation of all of them made perfect sense to something deep within her brain.

(Images shown are from the various victory images used at the World of Solitaire website. They add an extra bit of fun to the game.)

(For a companion piece to this post, see Worry about those you love and write about what you know.)

Solitaire and Nuclear War

10371641_sMy new goal is to be a butterfly. Not in the I’ve just metamorphosed from a caterpillar sense, although I think that’s a nice idea, too, but more in the a-butterfly-flaps-its-wings-in-North-Carolina-and-then-the-world-changes for the better kind of way.

Yes, one reason is that I do feel small and powerless these days, like I’m no match for the storms around me. And part of it is that I am more concerned about man-made catastrophes than I’ve ever been in my adult life. But much of it, really, is that I’ve been playing a lot of solitaire lately.

3I had no idea that is was such a fascinating game. My favorite part of it is how one little decision, like whether to put this king at the top of the stack instead of that one, can make all the difference as to whether you win or lose even though both moves were equally logical based on what you knew at the time. But, thanks to the fact that I play on a computer with an unlimited “Undo Move” feature, I’ve played many of my games two, four, or even eight different ways. I’m fascinated by how one series of more or less reasonable decisions yields a totally different outcome than another. And the problem is that while you are making the choices, you have no idea that you are locking in victory or disaster.

And  then there’s what happens if you make a couple of stupid decisions, or outright mistakes, mixed in with a fair number of those okay choices.

I’m thinking about how wars start and how peace is made, how markets crash or don’t, how criminal activity succeeds or is uncovered, and how alliances are forged or broken. How many if-that-little-thing-hadn’t-happened components are there to any major world event? I’m thinking there are a lot of them, most of which we never know.

5We are all basically playing solitaire, aren’t we? We get up every day and do the best we can trying not to make a mistake while hoping that our random choices don’t paint us into some corner where we find ourselves saying if only …..

Because we all know that life doesn’t have an “Undo Move” button, and it probably should.

(For more thoughts on Solitaire and life, see Mindless entertainment?)

 

That’s Why You Make the Trip

img_3402Cinnamon on oranges and cumin on boiled eggs. The inside of a walled city so confusing that it has spawned an entire cottage industry devoted to directing lost tourists. Surfer towns painted in hippie colors and seaside resorts caught in a 50’s time warp as they offer hospitality to a smattering of elderly Europeans.

None of this is what I expected when I came to Morocco.

This is a blog about predicting the future, and over the past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about the unexpected. Three of us have just spent some time in Marrakech, and now as we leisurely make our way to Casablanca we have three nights to spend on the road. One of us wants to simply drive and stop when we feel like it, with no research ahead of time and no plans. Us other two have agreed. For me, planner that I am, this will be a true exercise in embracing the unexpected.

img_3345The first night we land in Agadir, the vacation spot for aging Anglos. Our adventurous non-planner has become ill, so he rests while two of us walk along a boardwalk under the watchful eye of an old but festively lit Ferris Wheel. We order pizza from a Lebanese restaurant on the beach. My vegetarian version is covered in eggplant and is some of the best pizza I have ever had.  Okay, I didn’t see that coming from Morocco. Back at the hotel, I go searching for something to calm the stomach of my sick friend. The kitchen staff barely understands me, but they insist I take plain rice and “water with gas” for him at no charge. They also insist that it will help, and it does.

The next day we move north along the coast, sticking to the small roads that keep us in view of the sea. The surfer town where we stop for lunch has people wearing clothes that fully expose their limbs. Something deep within me wants to stay longer in this part of Morocco, and live on the beach in a tent while I write deep brooding novels that I’m already sure will far exceed anything I’ve written yet. Okay, maybe someday I’ll come back and do that.

img_3371We’ve been advised to be off of the roads by nightfall, but as sunset approaches we are nowhere near a sizable enough town to have obvious lodging for strangers. Luckily one of us speaks some French, the second language of Morocco, and he is able to talk to a young man in the street who sends us to the town’s only open restaurant which also serves as an auberge. I didn’t know what an auberge was, but it turns out that this fairly common form of lodging is somewhere between a B&B and a hostel.

The young Moroccan working at the auberge is quick to offer us local beers. Fresh fish is a possibility for dinner, but when he has trouble communicating the kinds of fish that are available he simply brings me a bucket of everything that has been caught that day and asks me to pick one. Turns out I don’t know a sea bass from a grouper, so I point and hope for the best. We dine gazing at miles of desolate beautiful coastline with a sunset behind the mixture of cliffs and beaches that could fill dozens of different postcards and no two would look alike. My travel companions are generous and let me end up with the room that literally hangs out over the ocean, and I have one of my most memorable nights ever as I sleep to the sound of the sea.

img_3453Our last day takes us north into the greener, more populated and more industrial part of the coast. This time we turn to Lonely Planet for lodging ideas, and at sunset we find ourselves in a traditional Riad inside the town’s walled city but overlooking the lovely Oum Er-Rbia river (which translates as‎ “the mother of springtime”). I get the small bedroom with my own flower-covered terrace and consider what this sort of privacy and beauty would cost me for one night in the United States. I don’t think I could afford it.

I don’t often eat meat, especially when traveling, but for my last night in Morocco I opt for the adventure of a beef tagine, where the meat is steamed in a special clay pot to make it particularly tender. I’m hoping for couscous and vegetables with it and my French speaking fellow traveler tries to find out what else my tagine includes. He finally gives up. “I don’t know what they’re saying. It keeps sounding like prunes and that can’t be right.”

But it is.  I get the most tender beef brisket imaginable served with a mess of very tender stewed prunes on top. It’s delicious. Who would have guessed?

img_3431The next morning I get a final surprise as we try to do a little last minute shopping. We didn’t consider that the market in this town would not be like the markets of Marrakech but rather be a place where men and women buy small treats and cheap plastic items much like they would on a Saturday morning back home at Wal-Mart. Yes, there are more motor bikes than cars, more women wearing scarves loosely over their heads than not, and there is more fresh-picked produce and whole carcasses of animals than I am used to seeing ay my local supersaver, but otherwise this could be the small city I live near now or the Kansas town where I grew up.

Why in the world would you want to go to Morocco? I did get asked that question, and I understood it because I had heard about the pushy sales techniques in the markets and the difficulties for a female traveler in a Muslim country.

img_3363But I went to taste the fig jam and the mint tea. I went to discover the things I didn’t know, like how you can see a dozen or more goats in a tree, chomping on the argan fruits.  I went to see the amazing graffiti painted on the crumbling ruins along the coast, even if I didn’t know that was why I was going.

I went because I didn’t know what I would find.

(For more about my trip to Morocco see  Happy International Day of Peace Lahcen and NajetI see ghosts, It’s an angry world in some places and My Way on my other blogs.)

Is it over yet?

I admit it. At least once a day now I type “election news” into my search engine and hold my breath. I can’t help myself; it’s a little like not averting my eyes from a traffic accident as I pass by. Now what, I mutter as I clench my muscles while the headlines roll in.

stressedImagine my stressed-out surprise today when the second news item was about how much stress this election is causing us all. Yes, according to ABC News nearly half ( 46 percent) of likely voters “describe the election as a source of stress in their lives, including roughly equal numbers of Clinton and Trump supporters. Nearly a quarter, again among both candidates’ camps, say the stress is serious.”

Well, it looks like we finally all have one thing in common and you’ve got to love what it is. We all can’t wait for this thing to end.

Because I can’t do anything to make November 8 come any faster, I’m thinking about what I can do to try to make November 9 better. The best thing I can think of is to can say this.

Please vote.

Whatever you believe or don’t believe, no matter how much you do or don’t like the choices in front of you, we are all going to feel better on November 9 if this election has the greatest percentage of registered voter turn-out ever. We’ve all heard all sides, more times than we wish, but if many of us hide under the couch that day then we will all have to wonder if the outcome reflects the difficult choice that the majority of our people would have made if forced to choose.

Yes, many of us aren’t going to be completely happy about everything. That doesn’t mean we should not weigh in on the real choices before us. And yes, roughly half of us are going to have to work hard to understand what in the world the other half was thinking. I remain hopeful that everyone, myself included, is capable of making that important effort and moving forward.

Florence and the MachineWhile dealing with my own stress, I’m also in the process of looking at the last song referred to in each of my books. This sort of thing keeps me entertained. Because d4 is in part a book about working for the greater good, and finding the balance between that and ones own desires, my hero Ariel goes through much as she struggles to do what is right. As it all comes together in the end, I have her listening to one of my favorite songs, Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days are Over”.

But because everything takes me back to politics these days, playing the video that I link to in the electronic version of the book makes me think hard about this particular election. If you haven’t heard the song in awhile, check out this from the 2009 British musical event called “T4 on the Beach. ” It does a wonderful job of showcasing lead singer Florence Welch, a nice job of capturing the crowd and even a decent job a making you feel like you are on the beach outside of Somerset, England. And in spite of all of its Brexit issues, right now England seems like a relatively peaceful place to be.

Because “Dog Days are Over” makes my personal list of top ten favorite songs ever, I smiled the entire time I wrote the scene of Ariel’s rescue and the comfort provided to her by this music. Enjoy a short except below, and then, don’t forget to vote. The dog days will be over soon.

(From Chapter 28) Ariel thought that the beautiful small Icelandic town of Seyðisfjörður would now always be one of her favorite places on Earth. As Toby’s rented speedboat made its way to the barren, snow covered docks in the deepening afternoon twilight, the many wooden buildings stood out in the remaining light, beaconing with the offer of comfort.

It had been difficult to hear each other as Toby used the expertise he had gained from years at sea to speed them safely back to Iceland, so talk on the trip back to shore had been minimal. Rather, Mikkel had gently placed earbuds in her cold ears, and then put his own dry, warm hat over her head while he played a song for her. It was Florence and the Machine singing their anthem of happiness “Dog Days are Over.” The message that her ordeal had finally ended sunk in as she enjoyed the music. Fatigue and emotion took over, and she let herself cry in relief.

Rooms were available at the small hotel in town. Better yet, there was a liquor store, and—bless these fine people—it was open too. The thoroughly chilled, damp foursome received food and care, and warm, dry clothes all around. Thankfully, they were asked remarkably few questions about why they had needed to rent a boat this time of year in the first place, or why two people had left the harbor in the morning and four people had returned before nightfall.

 (For other oblique election commentary see my posts Everything is Going to Be Alright,  Our brand is crisis?, and We need to talk about this, just maybe not so much)

Prepare for the worst?

I’ve always been a believer in “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” I suspect that is why my monkey mind is staging a quiet revolt today in my yoga class.

The instructor says “be totally present in the now.” This is a common prompt for anything involving meditation, but the problem starts when he takes it one step further and asks us to reflect on what keeps us from doing so.

dream“I know, I know” the eager student in my head clamors.  She likes getting answers right. “I replay scenes from the past, and I concentrate on tasks and I worry about the future.” But another voice in my head speaks up, and it is less anxious to please.

“You don’t just worry,” it says. “You prepare. You plan ahead. Those fantasy scenes you love to invent allow you to try on various scenarios and practice problem solving before it is crucial to your survival.”

“You mean I’m not a day dreamer and chronic worrier?”

“You probably are that too,” my monkey mind concedes.  It tends not to sugar coat things for me. “But if you never let yourself live in the future, you wouldn’t make plans. You’d pay a ton more for airfare, and find every Bed and Breakfast you ever want to stay in is sold out. Admit it, you do more if you plan, and you do it better.” Monkey mind is convincing and I’m thinking maybe this yoga instructor has it all wrong and I should be living more in the future, not less.

evolver 1“So you’re going to turn into one of those crazy survivalists who waste their life and resources stockpiling a cellar to live in in case the word falls apart?” I appear to have grown a second monkey mind, and this one is having none of this focus-on-the-future argument.

“You can prepare without paranoia,” the first monkey shoots back.

“You can plan ahead while still being in the here and now,” the second one retorts.

“You can have this discussion later,” my inner self says firmly. Both monkeys disappear, along with the dreams and worries that matter so much to them. I breath slowly. For just this moment, tomorrow will take care of itself.

My character Ariel has a special relationship with the future, having an innate ability to see the most probable outcomes in front of her. It doesn’t stop her from worrying either, as this excerpt from d4 shows.

“I am glad I met you,” he said. With that he turned and left the little conference room quickly, like he needed to use the restroom badly or had just remembered an important call he had to make. Ariel watched him go in silence, as the remaining board members left still talking among themselves, oblivious to the bit of drama that had just occurred.

There was no question that Baldur had just set off the most unusual premories that Ariel had ever experienced. Ariel considered whether it was because the man would somehow play an important role in her life. Was it possible that he too had her curse? On the other hand, she had been so shook that she might have imagined his response to her. Finding another person with precognitions like her own was incredibly unlikely. Ariel had decided long ago that what she could do had to be very rare, or the world would be so different.

So she needed to get a grip, and do her job and stop worrying about this future stuff. She needed to become far more familiar with exactly what Baldur’s professional needs were and do her best to see that her firm met them. She thought that it would also be a good idea to find a way to avoid touching him ever again.

(As for what my monkey mind had to say about focusing on the past — see my post Bring back the good old days? on my z2 blog. For thoughts about my never ending focus on performing tasks — see my post Frittering life away? on my c3 blog. And find out what my yoga instructor thought the problem was at Are you performing, or performing? on my y1 blog.)

Putting your mother’s fears to good use

Ariel is in her mid-twenties and is adept at yoga. I’ve practiced a much simpler version most of my life, and only recently begun to explore the art more. I’m now taking classes, learning to breathe better, to chant, to try harder positions, and to be open to the unexpected.

There was such a surprise on Friday. “We’re going to go back to when you were in the womb.”

“We’re going to what?”

Apparently I was attending a class for a branch of yoga that believes that we inherent issues from our ancestors in general, and from our mother in particular during gestation. In fairness, maybe all branches of yoga believe this, I’m not sure.  Anyway, the goal of today’s session was to heal some of the problems arising from our pre-birth experiences.

“That’s ridiculous,” the cynic in my head says.

“Oh be open,” I reply. “Give this a try.”

As my breathing slows, becoming deeper and more regular, I recognize that I do know quite a lot about my mother’s state of mind when she was carrying me. She was afraid, very afraid that she would lose me. She’d had two miscarriages already, and she and my dad had begun talking about adoption.

I feel her fear. I breathe. I tell her it’s going to be okay, I will be her first child.

zig ziggler 2But wait. She’s scared about more. She’s scared that I will be born, and will change her life in ways that do not entice her. She’s never particularly liked babies, and she feels bad about this. She has a job she loves, directing the content at the local radio station.  She’s good at it too, and obviously will be quitting soon. Some guy not half as capable as her will take over, and get to do all day what she loves.

She adores my dad and their dates, she loves to dress up and fix her hair to look like Liz Taylor and go out to dinner and have “highballs”. She likes trying to be glamorous, she’s driven to have a lifelong love affair with my father. A baby is not going to make that any easier.

Oddly enough, I am not at all bothered by her ambivalence at my arrival.  It makes sense to me. When I had my own children, I was conflicted about work and child-raising, but I had choices.  She has none and it seems a shame. I understand why a part of her dreads my birth. I want to tell her that much of it will be okay.  She will come to love me, she will do a reasonably good job of raising me, and decades later we will be friends. She’ll never get back her career, but she will keep my dad’s love and do many other interesting things.

I tell her that I think she should let go of the guilt about the way she feels. Unfortunately, I also know that wrapped in that guilt is another layer of fear. She is afraid that her lack of enthusiasm is somehow causing the miscarriages. She is driven to please my father, and having children is very important to him. If she loses me, she strikes out for that magical third time. She will be deemed not capable of producing his child, as they move on to adoption. The adoption will really be for him, because she is even less excited about the prospect of raising the child of another woman than she is about raising her own. But she will do it, for him, even though she is afraid that she will do it poorly and that he will think less of her because of her failures.  So much fear, so much worry.

“It’s really going to be okay,” I tell her. “You’ll have a second daughter eighteen months later.” I know that problems in that pregnancy will convince her not to try for more, but my father will adore his two children and be content. Raised in a highly patriarchal rural culture, he will insist that he has the perfect family and he will instill confidence in his two daughters and give them every opportunity. I will benefit greatly.

“See? It’s all going to be okay,” I assure my pregnant mother.

“You never lose the emotions that overwhelmed your mother while she was carrying you,” the instructor says. “But you can learn to work with them, and mitigate them.”

Seriously? Okay, maybe I am a little inclined to worry. I do fret a bit about all the possibilities. In fact, when I wrote about Ariel’s premories and how the futures she sees the near fringes of probability cause her distress, I was thinking about my own tendencies to imagine less than likely possibilities and get concerned about them. “You know, a tornado could come through and blow that thing over.” That sort of thing.

Good grief.  Am I life long worrier because of my poor mom? That seems a very unfair thing to lay at her feet.

True voice 7Of course, all that worrying about the outliers is where my stories originate. Every plot, and every plot twist, comes from the same part of me that frets about finding a bear in the woods. The instructor has moved on and in fact the entire class is moving into the restful meditative savasana pose that finishes each class.

I know that I am now supposed to clear my mind. Let my thoughts turn into wisps of clouds that move on in a bright blue sky. But I have one thing I need to say first.

“Mom. Just in case this guy is right and you’re the source of these crazy worry stories that fill my head and my life and my books, I just want you to know that I’m putting all those fears of yours to really good use. So thank you.”

That’s it. On to wisps of clouds and blue sky and total relaxation.