I’ve been sick for the last week. Not COVID, just a heavy cold, likely acquired from one of my giggling, spluttering, young swim students.
To be sick is to be in an alternate reality. Life goes on outside my windows. The neighbors come and go. The mail comes. They’ve been paving streets in the neighborhood. It’s rained. I’ve watched leaves falling and wished I felt well enough to go out and rake them into my garden beds. I’ve missed being out in the world. I’ve missed work. I’ve missed my friends. I’ve missed swimming and exercising.
Photo by Autumn Mott on Unsplash
I’ve had a lot of time to read, and to think. I follow a writer on Substack, Jessica Dore. She writes about the Tarot, myth, and story, and I rarely read her without new insight and perspective on my own work in these subjects. In one of her recent posts, she explores an old story dealing with wounds, suggesting there may be wisdom in “letting the wound live.” Culturally, we are focused on healing, on fixing, on freeing ourselves and others from pain. Allowing wounds to stay open is a challenging and uncomfortable idea, but some part of me senses wisdom may indeed lie within it.
I’ve been thinking about letting wounds live as I surrender to whatever virus is operating in my system right now. Not thinking logically and linearly, but allowing it to float and drift through my mind, making tenuous connections with other things I’m reading, old memories, half-waking dreams as I cat nap on the couch.
Another idea I’ve come across lately is turning weaknesses into strengths. This is my favorite kind of alchemy. I’ve always considered my wounds to be weaknesses. Could they be strengths?
We moved in May, and I’m still figuring out how best to fit my furniture into my space. I bought myself a badly-needed new mattress and a high bedframe to hold it. High because I have no closet in my bedroom and I want to store clothes under my bed. Love the mattress, love the frame, but the bed is now so high (I feel like the princess and the pea on top of twenty mattresses!) my bedside table is ridiculously low and inadequate. I had to lean out of bed to use it.
I have a tall wicker basket with a hinged lid. When I was a child my brother and I used it as a laundry hamper. I’ve taken it with me from place to place all my life. It’s the perfect height for my bedside table, nice and roomy on top, storage inside.
I have an old wound connected with that basket.
When I was about nine years old we lived in a big house in the Colorado mountains in a very small town. My brother and I had a playroom, a bedroom each, and a bathroom downstairs in the finished basement. The wicker hamper lived in our bathroom next to the tub/shower.
I was a fearful child, terrified of the dark, constantly anxious, with a vivid (fervid?) imagination. One evening I went in the bathroom, shed my dirty clothes and put them in the hamper, and took a bath. All was well (what’s better than a hot bath and a book?) until the tub was filled and I turned the water off.
Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash
The hamper creaked. Then it cracked. Then it skritched. Long silences in between noises. I had never noticed this before, and I was immediately terrified. All the unnamed, half-understood fears in my young heart coalesced into the utter certainty there was a monster in that hamper, and my life depended on escaping its notice.
I froze, my book clutched in my fingers. I didn’t dare read because I was afraid of the whisper of turning a page. I didn’t dare move. The door was closed. My parents were far, far away upstairs. I got cold, and then colder. Reaching for the hot water tap was out of the question. I’d have died first.
The hamper creaked, and cracked, and skritched.
Eventually, what seemed like hours later but was probably much less than that, although the water was unpleasantly cool by then, my mom came to check on me and found me there, fixed in place with a terror I could not adequately express. That was the problem. If I’d been able to talk about my fears they likely wouldn’t have been so overwhelming.
I’ve never forgotten that evening, and how real and visceral my terror was. I knew, I knew some dark and deadly horror crouched in that hamper, listening, scenting prey, slobbering, waiting to pounce. I knew there was no help for me. No one would hear. No one would protect me.
In spite of that old trauma, I’ve always loved the wicker hamper. It still creaks and cracks with temperature change and use, but it strikes me as friendly now, rather than sinister.
An old traumatic wound. It joined others wounds made by the claws of fear. I’ve written before about my fear of the dark, which haunted me for the first three decades of my life. Fear of uncertainty. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of scarcity. Fear of the adult world I could not possibly understand. Fear of abandonment.
Fear is an old and loyal companion.
How could it possibly be a strength? Surely nothing is quite so pathetically weak as constant fear?
As I was pondering this, I came across a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favorite poets, translated by another of my favorite poets:
You darkness from which I come, I love you more than all the fires that fence out the world, for the fire makes a circle for everyone so that no one sees you anymore.
But darkness holds it all: the shape and the flame, the animal and myself, how it holds them, all powers, all sight –
and it is possible: its great strength is breaking into my body.
I have faith in the night.
Translated by David Whyte.
Rilke understood darkness. So does Whyte. Poets. Writers.
Writers like me.
Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash
So much of my writing is about shadows and darkness, the hidden thing, the unspoken secret, the uncertain future, the truths nobody dares tell … until someone does. Someone like Pandora, who opened the box anyway. Someone who blows the whistle, blows the cover. Someone like Baba Yaga, or the child who said aloud, “the emperor has no clothes!”
I am surely not the only child of fear. Perhaps we all hold its hand, or perhaps some of us are more intimate with it than others. I don’t know. What I can sense is its paradoxical nature. Fear defines courage. How often does it define, at least in part, art? Think of Vincent Van Gogh, for example.
Fear defines courage. Yes. I believe that. Courage is strength. I believe that, too.
Then it must follow that fear is not weakness. Fear has wounded me, but it hasn’t made me weak. Rather the reverse.
If things had been different in my life, if I’d never felt the degree of fear I did and do, if somehow I’d found a way to heal myself of fear’s wounds and be free of it, I would not be the writer I am. I might still be a writer, a different kind of writer, but I would not have written The Webbd Wheel series or this blog.
All my work and much of my empathy are rooted in the compost of living, breathing, bleeding fear and the wounds it’s torn in my psyche. Fecund wounds. What a strange idea.
I leave you this week with a final thought from David Whyte:
… the place you would fall becomes in falling the place you are held.
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
I wasn’t ready to do either of these things, and I’m not ready to have to go in the water and rescue someone at work, either.
Wait! Let me think about this some more. Let me prepare. Let me figure out how to do it perfectly.
Except life doesn’t wait.
Godin is so right. When someone is drowning, I’m going in. It doesn’t matter if I have the proper gear, equipment, attire, or level of energy and alertness. The temperature of the water doesn’t matter. I won’t wonder which form of entry to use. I won’t plan an approach. I probably won’t follow the exact script in our Emergency Action Plan. None of us will. I will blow my whistle, and if I don’t have my whistle, I’ll yell. Loudly. And I’ll go in.
I’ve moved house before. I’ve sold, bought, and figured out how to make it work. I’m not ready, because no one ever is ready, at least not if ready means knowing every detail beforehand. I wouldn’t have planned to decide to do this in late fall with winter and the holidays looming ahead. It just unfolded that way.
I’ve been thinking for years about ways to get my fiction into the world. Why Substack? Why now? Especially why now when I decide at the same time we need to move?
I don’t know. It’s time. It’s just time.
We re-certify every two years to keep our lifeguard status, and we train frequently. I have experience with moving. I have a disciplined writing practice and am an experienced blogger.
Performing a water rescue, buying a new home and moving into it, publishing on Substack, are all things I can do. I’ve done them, or something similar to them, before. There will be no perfect time. Rehearsing won’t help me. It’s just a way of allowing my anxiety and all the critics in my head to sabotage me.
While we’re hesitating, afraid of failure or less-than-perfect, opportunity slips away. While we’re waiting for the “right time,” we’re losing the time we have now. While we’re rehearsing how to pull a passive victim off the bottom of the deep end, they’re drowning.
For me, the key is not so much courage, which I have plenty of. It’s confidence I struggle with. But a lot of my struggle with confidence is based on old lies and distortions that are not real. I know I can perform a water rescue because I’ve done it before, many times in practice and a couple of times in real life. It wasn’t perfect. It didn’t look like the Red Cross training videos, where everyone is calm, the sun is shining, and it’s all by the book. But nobody drowned. Nobody died.
I hate moving. It opens up a lot of old trauma. But we need to move, and I know I can do it. I know liquor boxes make the best book boxes. I know how to show a house. I know how to navigate the legalities. I know where my power is, and I know what I can’t control in the process. It’s a familiar journey. Waiting for nicer weather, for the market to get better for sellers, better for buyers, or more stable in general; waiting for loans to be easier to obtain, or interest rates to go down, or to win the lottery; waiting for the stars to align just right because I’m scared, is not effective. The time is now. We’ll figure it out. Whether we have two years or a month of the process ahead of us, it’s begun and it will play out the way it plays out. It will be stressful, and exhausting, and a chaos of boxes (and cats) and belongings, tape and markers, and things we can’t find. It won’t be perfectly thought out or executed.
On Substack, people will read or they won’t. People will like the fiction, or they won’t. They’ll tell their friends and share it, they’ll comment, they’ll help me build a healthy, interactive community engaged in discussing community, story, and how to live more effectively on our planet, or they won’t. I didn’t start out perfectly. I go back every couple of days and tweak things. I’m figuring it out as I go.
We figure life out as we go. Our friends help us. We learn. We adjust. We make mistakes. We do our best.
So, yeah. If you go down in one of our pools while I’m on the stand, I’m coming in after you, and the rest of my team will be right behind me. I’m not ready. But I’m coming in.
When inspiration struck and I set out to build a new website for my blog and other writing, I assumed the process would move quickly. I could hardly wait to see the vision in my head become reality. I’m a happy and motivated independent learner and felt certain I could fumble with the design software and master it without much trouble, the way I did when I created Our Daily Crime.
The software for Our Daily Crime is nearly ten years old now, a tech dinosaur. The new software requires a whole new level of skill.
I needed help. Scheduling a meeting with a professional took time. Then we had to reschedule due to a conflict. More time. I turned my attention to other things and practiced patience (not very successfully!).
In the meantime, we’ve hired a new team member at work to join us in lifeguarding, teaching, and working with patrons and patients in the pools. He’s older than I am, and he’s working hard on refining his swimming skills and learning new techniques. We’re giving him all the support and practice we can.
I admire adults who want to learn new skills. We’ve just begun to teach private swim lessons again after the pandemic, and I have two adult students. When I asked one of them what her goals were for her lessons, she said, “Not to drown,” which made me laugh.
I did eventually meet with my web designer using Zoom, and I spent an intense hour and a half taking notes, asking questions, and watching her use the design software. Since then, I’ve spent several hours working with it, and gradually I’m gaining mastery and shaping the website I dreamed of. I’m elated. Can’t wait to share it with you!
As a lifelong learner and teacher, I notice how varied our learning experience can be.
Context matters. I was wretched during my public school years. My goals were to achieve good grades to meet the expectations of my family and graduate. Any pleasure in the learning itself, for its own sake, suffocated under the long nightmare of those years. Graduation meant nothing to me, and I would have ignored it if I’d been allowed. My reward was surviving.
College was no better. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t belong there. Once again, I went through the motions of pleasing others and living up to expectations, two hellish years of depression, social isolation, and suicidal ideation before I dropped out.
I still wince when I think of the money wasted.
Somehow the joy of learning has been distorted into competition, capitalism, and perfectionism. Everyone doesn’t have equal access to education and educational tools. Many people don’t complete high school, let alone higher education. We don’t talk about education in terms of enhancing our lives and making ourselves bigger. We talk about getting a good job, making a lot of money (or not), and school loans. Capitalism defines success.
Worst of all, if we happen to be interested in literature, writing, religion, music, theater, philosophy – liberal arts, in other words – we’re steered away from those interests because “they” say we can’t earn a living pursuing them. I’ve got news for you. You can’t make a living as a librarian or medical transcriptionist, either.
Apparently, education is not valuable unless it leads to making a certain amount of money.
On the other hand, many learners in our communities are in it for the fun of learning something new. Their goals are about real life, as opposed to the construct of consumerism. They don’t want to drown. They want to do a job they’ve never done before and so learn new skills. They want to use technology as a tool to support their passion. Adult learners know learning enhances life. They’re not coerced into learning; they seek it out.
It’s a lot easier and more fun to teach someone who wants to learn than it is someone who’s having learning thrust upon them.
Adult learners have lived long enough to know how to learn. Not how to compete, how to cheat, how to work the system, how to manipulate good grades and references, and how to create their own personal perfectionistic demons, but how to learn. Adult learners also know something about how they best learn, and are able to communicate their needs and goals.
Learning requires time, patience and practice. It takes courage to seek new skills. It’s messy. We make mistakes, flounder, and fail. Good adult learners persist anyway, pursuing their creativity or passion, satisfying their curiosity and desire for mastery.
I’ve had the good fortune to know and work with wonderful teachers who have inspired, encouraged, and challenged me. I’ve also known destructive teachers who permanently damaged my trust, confidence, and sense of self-worth. The difference between them, I’m convinced, has nothing to do with their level of education or training, but rather with their power management. Good teachers seek to empower their students. Destructive teachers not only refuse to share their power, they actively disempower their students.
Healthy communities support learning and teaching, not necessarily as a formal process, but as a natural one. As a teacher, I know my students give me at least as much as I give them. Teaching and learning are collaborative, a sharing of power. To teach is to learn. To learn is to teach. Passing on my love of swimming doesn’t change the world, but it’s a contribution I can make joyfully.
Everyone succeeds when we teach and learn together.
From Seth Godin: “When we adopt the posture of commitment, something extraordinary happens: The lessons get more profound and useful. The questions asked get more specific and urgent. The connections that are made get deeper.”
“The discipline is to invest one time in getting your workflow right … Hacking your way through something “for now” belies your commitment to your work …”
This year I decided I was going to build a more secure life over the next three years, and I began to work on a business writing plan using a holistic management template created by Allan Savory. I’ve been writing about this process as I grope my way through it.
I’ve spent a great deal of time asking myself questions, writing notes, identifying obstacles, defining the whole I’m trying to manage, listing resources, outlining my holistic context, and thinking about interconnection and ecosystems.
A concatenation of recent events and more closely identifying my needs and resources led me to find a new hosting company and migrate the blog from one host to another.
My skill level is way below this kind of data transfer, so I researched and chose a new hosting company, gave them my credit card number, and sat back to let the tech wizards do their thing.
After the transfer, everything looked good. I had a minor problem with my header image that was obvious and easy to fix. I immediately went back to weekly posting and plodding through SEO work.
A week ago, it came to my attention that all my internal links, the links from one of my posts to another, were broken. This amounts to thousands of links, and is a major catastrophe for SEO rankings.
I had chosen the new hosting company based on, among other services, the availability of 24/7 tech support and their advertised expertise with WordPress, which is the platform for this blog. Everything had worked perfectly on the old server and I was sure this link problem was a glitch in the transfer process. I called tech support.
I called tech support three times that day, in fact. I explained the problem to each person, gave them examples, and told them what I’d done with the previous support person, but I quickly lost track of who was suggesting what changes and got more and more confused and desperate with each call. I followed all recommendations. Nothing fixed the links.
I struggled all week with tech support, in between work shifts and a power outage. I didn’t post or do SEO work, because I began to have trouble even signing in to WordPress, let alone working on the blog.
Later in the week, during my fifth call, the support person said that she’d never seen links break the way mine had before, she didn’t know what to do, and the hosting company doesn’t actually work on internal links anyway! But to please call back if I continued to have problems and would I stay on the line and take a short survey about my support experience?
The depth of my distress over this is hard to overstate. I had not realized how much this space means to me until it seemed to be irrevocably broken. It’s not that I have a big audience or an intimate social community around it. It’s not that I get a lot of comments or feedback. It’s not that I think it will make me rich.
I think it’s that this writing is the most authentic, truthful thing I do in the world that’s in the public view. It’s also a significant exercise in self-discipline, courage, and commitment. I love my paid job and the people I work with, but I’ve had many beloved jobs and made satisfying contributions in my work before now. I am not the job.
I am the writing. The threat of losing it made me realize how meaningless my life would seem without it.
The part of me that’s so good at stepping back and observing from the corner of the ceiling has been watching all this. In trying to take some forward action and gathering the courage to make a true commitment, financially, internally and publicly, the blog broke. The financial commitment of a new hosting company didn’t pay off. I couldn’t find the support I needed. Not only that, whatever went wrong wasn’t a normal problem, but something (supposedly) never seen before. All my old beliefs about being a burden and broken in profound, ugly, and no-help-for-you ways sprang into life again.
One of my goals is to build a support team for my writing. Was this a message that my writing and I are not worth supporting and will never be successful? Was it a message that there is no support for such as me and I must find a way to learn and do it all?
I was beyond discouraged.
Then, in less than an hour, an extremely bizarre string of events occurred. My partner unearthed the business card of a web designer from whom we bought drums off of Craig’s List about five years ago. We met her in a parking lot in Portland. She and my partner hit it off and she handed him her card. He came home and added it to one of his innumerable piles.
He remembered that card, found it (perhaps the biggest miracle of all), called her at GreenLight Websites, and left a message. She called him back, he explained the problem, gave her the login information, and within half an hour she emailed me that the links were fixed. The fix had been so quick and easy, she said she didn’t need any money for her work.
I checked, in between mopping my face and blowing my nose, which I’d been doing for days. She was right. The links were fixed. Free of charge.
The links were fixed!
In the process of leaving a review for her business, we realized she hosts as well. Her prices are much higher than the host company I originally chose, as money is a very limited resource for me right now, but she specializes in WordPress (backed up by action this time), she’s local, she’s a successful female small business owner with an amazing portfolio, she’s a drummer, she has green hair, and she’s my age. She also does all kinds of web design and consulting.
We considered for about 10 seconds before deciding to host with her.
Nowhere on my wish list of a writing support team was a web designer and consultant. I’ve been looking for an agent, editor and publisher.
I’ve lived long enough to recognize this as one of those completely unexpected journeys we take as we’re carefully plotting and planning a straight line move from A to B. I made a commitment, and those who know me well will tell you once I make up my mind everyone might just as well get out of my way. I think Godin is right, though. The act of making the commitment causes things to start happening.
It was not my plan to start spending significant amounts of money before figuring out how to make some money, but here I am.
It was not my plan to include a web specialist in my support team, but here I am.
It was not my plan to have the blog break down and temporarily undo all my hard SEO work, but it happened anyway.
Progress is a funny thing. Sometimes it looks like collapse, breakdown, and reversal. Often, it’s not going in the direction we had in mind, but in another direction entirely. The purpose of Savory’s model is to accommodate unexpected, edge-of-chaos events and unintended consequences in whatever our situation is.
This week I’m moving on with a holistic business writing plan, based on Allan Savory’s Holistic Management. See the first posts here and here.
Whatever our situation, if we want to change it, we need a map from the place we are now to where we want to be at some future point in time. What this means is we have to move beyond our unhappiness with the way things are now and think about how we’d like them to become.
This point in the process requires a further commitment. We’ve all spent time spinning our wheels and feeling stuck. When I do that, I’m sucking the juice out of my grievances and resentments instead of letting go of the rind and moving forward. Eventually, I get bored with myself, stop focusing on the fact that I don’t like how my life is working, and think about what would work better.
It seems easy, but getting unstuck requires more effort and courage than staying stuck. Stuck is familiar. Getting unstuck means … who knows? Maybe we’ll fail. Maybe things will be required of us we don’t think we can deliver. Maybe we’ll wind up in an even deeper, muddier, icier ditch than we’re in now. Maybe we resist dreaming (my hand is raised). Maybe we’re quite sure we were born to be stuck, and we’ll betray our family or tribe if we dare to do better than they told us we could.
I have all kinds of reasons for staying stuck. Some I’m conscious of, and some I probably haven’t identified yet. They’re still lurking under the bed somewhere.
We might decide we don’t want to change things, after all, at least not using this model. It’s too much work. It’s too overwhelming. We can’t see the point in all these “holistic” complications. Taking on life in neat little reductionistic pieces is a lot easier. We don’t want to think about this stuff or ask ourselves hard questions.
I, however, am determined to continue, so my next step is to think about defining my holistic context with a statement of purpose, what quality of life I want, and how I intend my future resource base to look.
A statement of purpose is just that, one statement exactly describing our goal. Obviously, this requires some forward thinking, as opposed to sulking about our present undesirable circumstances.
(I’m reminded of a saying I once heard: If you’re in hell, don’t stop!)
It’s easy to obsess over what’s not working. We’ve probably been doing it for a long time. Thinking about what would work better is kind of a refreshing change, for me, anyway. Coming up with a one-sentence statement of purpose sounds easy, but that’s deceptive. I began with one word: security. I want to build some security for my future.
Great, but what does that mean, exactly? Security is pretty vague. I thought about it, journaled, made notes and lists, and gradually shaped a statement of purpose that felt true.
With that out of the way, I turned to thinking about what quality of life means to me. It means security, to begin with. This feels like a good sign – harmony between my statement of purpose and the quality of life I want to achieve.
At this point, I can mine my grievances for information. I’d like a roof that doesn’t leak. Check. I’d like a house that isn’t slowly tilting on its cracked foundation, mouseless cupboards, a better floorplan, a lot less stuff. Check, check, check and check.
Of course, I want to be able to afford a more secure place to live. Financial security. I also want to shape a sustainable life, which means investing in less gas and oil (heating fuel) dependency and having a more energy-efficient home, among other things.
Quality of life, however, depends on more than our housing situation. This is a holistic plan; we must look at a wider picture than we’re used to. I need healthy relationships for quality of life. I need to be able to make a meaningful (to me) contribution to others. I need to be creative. I want to be physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy. I need privacy and quiet in which to recharge and write.
I made lots of lists, allowing myself to fantasize without worrying about what I deserve, what I can afford, and all the rest. The result is a final list of what quality of life means to me, and what I mean by a sustainable life.
Lastly, and this is one of the unique aspects of this framework, is defining what we want our future resource base to look like. We must consider possible present actions through the filter of the future.
For example, if we want to clear land of unwanted plants (called weeds) in order to make a garden, one option is to douse it with weed killer. That might or might not destroy all the weeds in the short term, but it certainly degrades the soil, which will need intensive rehab and reclamation to become healthy and productive again. We’ve just killed our garden.
I’m not managing a ranch or farm, but thinking about the future still applies to me. If I want a future financial resource base that’s healthy and gives me financial security, taking out a big loan to fix our roof is a foolish choice. Not only does it further destabilize my present inadequate financial resources, it locks me into future debt. Fixing the roof would keep the water out, but the rest of the house is no longer sustainable in the long term. Much better to find another way to achieve and invest in a more sustainable housing situation.
Thinking about how the decisions we make now affect the future is one of the biggest weaknesses in how we plan, individually and as businesses. We’re impulsive, we’re impatient, and we’re more concerned with our present challenges and problems and our bottom line than we are with whatever might happen in the future. We clear cut part of our land to pay bills. We poison our dandelions because the neighbors object to them. We pick up leaves in the fall so our yards look neater. All those actions ripple into the future in destructive and unexpected ways, but we rarely stop to weigh the possible or probable consequences.
We’re in permanent reactive mode rather than being proactive and taking time to plan holistically. We set ourselves up for one unexpected problem after another, one unforeseen consequence after another. Our plans and policies fail, and we’re not sure why and don’t know how to fix them.
These two first steps, defining the whole we want to manage and defining the holistic context, present and future, force us to clarify and focus not only on the problem, but on the tapestry into which the problem is woven. We are not leaping to a solution for a problem we’ve only glimpsed from the corner of our eye.
In other words, we allow ourselves time to correctly define our problem.
This process also gives us a chance to make observations, identify resources, and gather information, which can redefine or erase perceived problems. If we have the good fortune to be responsible for a piece of land, raking, digging, tilling, removing rotting wood, using herbicides and fertilizers, and limiting diversity of plants and insects are not only unnecessarily expensive, they’re actions that will impoverish and degrade our future resource base.
This is what I learned as I struggled with my health. My problem wasn’t autoimmune disease. My problem was my diet. When I fixed that, the autoimmune symptoms disappeared.
Working to define a holistic context as part of management doesn’t satisfy my desire to find and implement a solution NOW. Even as I resent the time I’m giving this process, though, I’m conscious this is a more complete way to problem solve, a more thoughtful way, a more intelligent way. So I’m holding my horses and taking a step at a time, fascinated, in spite of my impatience, by the elegance of managing my life and goals with this new tool.