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Past, Planes and Tectonic Plates

IMG_3639I’m on a plane, tens of thousands of feet above the speeding ground of an indeterminate point in North America, headed for California to move forward with my writing, when it hits me: I spend a lot of time thinking about the past. A moment triggers a memory, and it pulls at me. I give in, let the memory play out in my head, try to look at it from a new angle. Whether it’s full of pain or joy, I experience it all over again, an echo of the original. But often with the power to steal me at length from the present and make people pause. Dana, did you hear what I just said? No—the answer is always no. I was somewhere else.

At work lately, I’ve been immersed in articles on having a healthier and more mindful workplace environment, hearing experts talk about living more in the present. Focusing too much on the future brings anxiety; fixating on the past can lead to depression, they say. Being fully present in time produces the most happiness. I used to think this was because my brain sought closure. That once I figured out what I had missed the first, second, fiftieth time I processed the memory, the last puzzle piece would click in. I would be left with a full and complete understanding of what happened, what it meant or will mean for the future. And then I could focus more on what was in front of me. But maybe not.

“They” are the experts, so what do I know, right? But as I read an article quoting David Constantine, author of the short story that inspired the acclaimed movie 45 Years, something about that plane ride brought clarity that contradicts such a notion, at least in part. “If you survive long enough then the past is extraordinarily potent,” says Constantine. “I hate the idea of closure, I think it is a detestable idea. Things don’t get closed when you are dead. It’s not history that I write about, but a person’s life. And within that life nothing is ever dead and buried.”

His words connected with what’s been bubbling in me for some time: the past isn’t static—our memories don’t exist as some finite movie, moments of time captured and preserved, put in a jar for later viewing. The past is alive and breathing, evolving and changing as we do.

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Bernhard Schlink talks about such living memories in his novel The Reader, about a man who tells the story of his adolescence, growing up in post-WWII Germany. In his youth, he has an affair with a much older woman. She vanishes from his life without notice, then reappears ten years later on the stand of a Nazi trial, accused of war crimes, as the now grown man is in law school and watches from the stands. He stares at her and experiences everything all over again, realizing the deep impact that relationship had, and continues to have, on his life. He cannot shake her presence, even with so much distance.

“The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive,” Schlink writes. “I understand this. Nonetheless, I sometimes find it hard to bear.”

There is truth there, I think, truth in declaring death to closure. And yet, as a culture, we crave it. We are obsessed with endings. How bad does a movie have to be before you will turn it off? You want to see how it ends, even if you don’t enjoy the story. You feel a pressing urge to witness the conclusion.

In books, films, television shows—I feel the same. I want to know how the writer imagined that last moment for the audience. However, when an ending is too neat, it ruffles me. I stop wondering about the characters, what happens to their lives once the cameras turn off. They become flat, two-dimensional, as opposed remaining alive off the page somewhere, which is what I want them to be.

The best endings, the (slightly) ambiguous ones, give the reader or viewer a jump-off point for the brain to colour in the possibilities. You are no longer experiencing those characters in real time, but they stay with you “absolutely present and alive.” With novels, these writers are creating outlines for us to bring the rest to life, full of our own perspective and history to tilt the story in our direction. To give it personal meaning and significance beyond the intended layers.

As a writer, I strive to understand how to map the ever-evolving movement of life’s layers, in order to create characters that are present and alive, with pasts that move and evolve as they do. As a human being, I must revisit my own past in order to understand the tectonic plates the present rests on. Otherwise, I’ll never see the earthquakes coming.

Time is a Slippery Thing

blue-balloon-1193182-1600x1200I don’t let my place explode with festive decorations for Christmas, or squeal at the sight of chocolate from a Valentine or crave artificially green beer and dark, murky pubs on St. Paddy’s Day. But make plans for New Years Eve, the countdown until things are new again, and I’m on board.

While I still appreciate the stories of the past that lead us to continue seasonal traditions, I can’t help but feel less attached to holidays that perpetuate the status quo. They can be painful, good, even great times spent with family, yet it never evokes a passionate response. I know. I’m weird (and over it).

It’s been a year since I’ve written a blog on here. I can remember the last time so vividly, on the eve of 30th birthday, feeling excited about the year ahead. My fingers raced across the keys and words flowed freely, clicking into place in the best way a writer can hope for. I hit the publish button and scooted off my bed, eager to meet a boy with whom I would celebrate my last night as a twenty-something. A boy who would, later that night, break my heart and leave me standing there, watching the shattered pieces collect dust on the floor before I even realized what had occurred.

I stopped writing after that. I let life pull me away—extra work assignments, full-bodied red wine and lazy Sunday mornings. I have spent 365 days in a drunken haze of normality. Gym, desk, bar, couch, bed. Not a conscious decision, but now, a year later, it’s hard to hide the lack of progress. My life has moved forward but my writing has not.

“Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.”

all-the-light-we-cannot-see-9781476746586_hrI discovered these words in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, just this past fall, a novel full of profound revelations as the characters experience each extraordinary and banal day of living through a war carving it’s way through the landscape of their homelands.

Time, writing—it’s all the same. Rather than use it for fuel beneath my fingers, I let someone else’s actions loosen my grip on the string. I took on additional work and sold my words so another could, in turn, sell ideas to the masses. The balloon rose high in the sky. I rewarded myself for hours in front of the screen in my cubicle with a generous pour of Pinot Noir. The wind carried the balloon westward. I slept late on weekends, ignoring the unedited manuscript and the unfinished story that waited in my laptop’s personal files in favour of crumpled sheets. For the past few months, the balloon has been just a dot I stare at in the sky, daydreaming about having arms long enough to reach up and grasp the string again.

But, by ringing in the New Year, somehow it feels like we get time back. We start over. A magic moment when things are made new again. Our exhausted hands regain strength and resolve and the end of the string reappears, snatched back from the sky, if only we reach. Anything is possible. Even lofty dreams of novel writing.

If I have only one resolution this year, let it be that. To reach, grab and never let go.

A Day in Madrid

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Waking Up 30

We’ve been taught to treat the 30th birthday like a really, really BIG DEAL. How are you going to react? Do you feel nervous about it? Will you have a massive freak out and run away to join the circus, throwing your ID into the Atlantic on your way to a brand new life?

I’m a big believer that the actual BIG DEAL moments in life are things for which you can never really prepare—they catch you off guard in a way that always brings me back to that time I fell off the high bar and had the wind knocked out of me, I lay frozen on the mat, eyes wide with fear, for what felt like several minutes. Stunned. Speechless. Paralyzed. An accepted apprehension that these moments will eventually come and snatch away my control is perhaps why I am a fairly obsessive planner for all the small things. Steer when you can. Then you’ll at least know where your boat is when the perfect storm hits.

While I know this birthday could pass without any effort on my part, I do feel like it’s important to prepare for this small moment that will give way to a decade of bigger ones. Or so I hope.

So, in preparation for the momentous occasion, I find myself reflecting on milestone birthdays. I can remember nothing about the celebration of my first decade and very little from the second—other than for my 20th birthday, while I was still recovering from a nasty bout of Norwalk, my university boyfriend gave me one of the season of Buffy on DVD, which perhaps made me smile at the time, but now I just think, Okay, all that means is that he had at least two conversations with me. Deep.

The only aspect of relevance, something that joins the two occasions, is the direction of my gaze: forward. At 10, then at 20, I was resolutely focused on what was in store for me over the next ten years: the changes, the privileges, the challenges—it all seemed very exciting. A lot gets packed into one decade.

Now, for 30, I find myself looking backward, not because the best is behind me, but because I finally understand the importance of reflecting as a way to understand what is to come. That history is sometimes our most prized possession, because it helps us to understand the present and, God willing, the future.

I’ve read a lot of articles where the person in question offers sage words of advice once they hit 30. Advice for those still rising in the ranks of age, building the rings of the tree—or even wistfully to the younger you who can’t listen, but wouldn’t even do so if the opportunity were scientifically possible.

However, I feel unqualified to do so. I feel as though I am no longer learning any new lessons. Rather, I am at last understanding the ones taught to me years ago. With every breath, I am not growing but waking up. Each limb is lifted from slumber with a dawn of realization that is not new, just underused. It has been waiting.

So, here is what I have woken up to lately, which I will share with you on this special occasion.

“Can’t” is a bad word.

photo 1 (4)For nearly a decade, I spent the majority of my free time in a sweaty gym that always smelled of chalk and disinfectant, training to be a competitive gymnast. For most of that time, I had the same coach. She seemed like an extension of my family, which makes sense, seeing as I spent 4 days a week with her. She must have been one patient woman—my curled pigtails might have been cute, but I’m sure my personality was not always. She taught me how to cartwheel and handspring and how to look graceful when not gracefully balancing on the beam. But she also taught me about possibility.

See, she made up this rule. No one in the group was allowed to say “can’t.” I can’t do this. I can’t try that. It was forbidden. Coach said so. I don’t remember what the punishment was; we just accepted it as a boundary not to be crossed. It was a simple way to teach young athletes the connection between thoughts and actions. Mind and body. When we ruminate in doubt and negativity, the outcome will follow suit. When we embrace certainty and possibility, we can do anything—even fly.

10404276_10100761177807250_8366290446009790356_nMy body still carries the memory of how to do handstands, walkovers and the occasional front tuck into a pool—like an echo lingering in my muscles—but this rule took longer to sink in. I re-learn it every day. When you remove thinking about what you can’t do, there is only room for what you can achieve.

Thoughts become words. Words become actions. Actions become character. Character becomes destiny. Start with thinking, I can.

This is how I’m preparing for the big 3-0, a small moment, really. I will cross this point in time technically while sleeping (I was born at 3am or something obscene like that). But, for me, it means being aware of both past and future, all the while trying to focus on the present. A balancing act requiring a lifetime of patience and effort.

When I get overwhelmed, when I start dwelling on the order of things, of this mad Benjamin Buttoning I seem to be doing through life (marriage to serious relationship to single life; running my own business and managing others to running things on my own to running around for someone else), sometimes I think, I can’t do this. And then I remember. It’s not allowed.

Life isn’t as linear as our birthdays would have us believe. It’s sporadic and twisted and wonderful, borrowing lessons and jumping roles, forever changing, keeping us on our toes. Sometimes I’m ready for it, sometimes I get caught completely unprepared. But always, always, in every stage and at every age, I want to ask myself, What if I can?

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Fire and Ice: Why You Shouldn’t Let Other People Tell You Who You Are

matchesSo, I posted this photo on Instagram not too long ago. Most people were baffled. And rightly so. Very few know the significance behind a box of matches from a restaurant I have only entered once before and barely stayed long enough for the overpriced cocktail to make its way into my bloodstream.

For me, it represents the turning point in a traumatic evening that ended with not a single match lit—neither literally nor metaphorically. But I’m not really into telling intimate details of recent dating escapades, partly because I feel like it’s no one’s business, but also because it’s still too close to spread the table with, so to speak. That carnage I reserve for myself, for now.

However, the story I want to tell is one of larger implications, of which the matchbox is a factor. Let me show you why.

A boy once told me, before we parted, that I spend way too much time thinking of myself as damaged. “You are not the dark and twisty person you imagine,” he said. His wish was for me was to be bright and shiny all the time, a desire that he seems to have since fulfilled in the form of a new and bubbly paramour, who writes every post with a plethora of exclamation points, to which I can only reply with violent air vomit. I mean, totally happy for him. Cough.

Over the next few months, I marinated in the headspace of 24/7 smiles, attempting to project an aura of optimism, regardless of what I was feeling inside. There is one particular image that I held in my mind whenever sadness seemed to overcome me, and I would use that to drown out the real emotions to keep from breaking down—sometimes more successfully than others. I dated beautiful men who, on the inside, were either empty, rotten or unable to choose between Jekyll and Hyde—surface romantic relationships that allowed me to keep people out. I avoided rocking the boat that desperately needed to be capsized at my job. I pretended that everything was fine. (Side note: is there not a more fake and pretentious word out there than “fine”? Does anyone actually mean this when they say it and not have some sort of passive aggressive or completely neurotic message behind it?? Doubtful.)

Spoiler: I was not fine. Between losing someone I loved, my mom’s battle with cancer and my career taking an unexpected dive off a Mario Kart ramp (will she make it into the cave of short cuts or just crash into the boulder on the side?), my insides were being burned to the ground. And it hurt, worse than any hell I can fathom. It was constant and awful and oh so necessary. Change is often like this. We carry the scars and scorch marks as a reminder of the refining process.

Here’s the self-realization moment of this piece: the boy was wrong. I am damaged. Perhaps even MORE than I imagined. But here’s the twist: that’s the way I like it. Because, you see, damaged to me means that I’ve taken chances and been thrown tomatoes and pushed down the hill and into in the valley where you find a taller mountain to climb and I’ve raced out in the world and been affected by it’s elements, the sleet and the rain and the pomegranate-sized hail. I’ve also basked in the warmth of its rays. Never do I want to be seamless and smooth and boring and flat. It’s the bumps in the road that make you soar higher. I am, and want to be, constantly being ripped apart, only to be sewn back together in a patchwork quilt that is more colourful and interesting and dynamic than the original creator ever imagined. I am human. To pretend otherwise isn’t just stupid. It’s sad.

We spend way too much time absorbing what other people tell us and thinking that it’s fact, or should be fact, when really, a lot of what gets spewed in our direction is some sort of self-analysis gone wrong. Others project their own insecurities and misgivings onto us and call it “perspective.” We need to stop listening when other people tell us who we are or what we should do. We need to start trusting our own instincts.

And so, to the people in your life who ask you to be fake or phony or something other than the deep, rich, maybe even damaged individual you are, you need to close your ears to them. Or, at the very least, turn the volume down. Replace their damning words that worm their way into your subconscious and make you doubt yourself and your journey, replace them with music that speaks the truth: I cannot fill the empty core inside of you, nor fix the broken bits, nor fight against your true nature. And I never asked you to do that for me. So let me be.

As a reminder, I have matches. For the night that it burned down again. For the moment I realized my opinion mattered more than his. For the proverbial match I have not found yet. For the time in the future when it will strike and set my world ablaze. And then, wild horses.