Finite

time

When I was a kid, time seemed infinite. In those dreamlike years before junior high’s end-of-innocence reckoning, summer breaks were an annual stint of freedom: three full months of 70s-era-childhood, running free range in a small town. Meanwhile, each elementary school year endured eternally; graduation to the next grade was a personal evolution.

I had no concept of the finite back then. Time was a vast ocean. I floated, buoyed and boundless. I recognize a similar mental paradigm in my own kids’ assessment of time, change, and future plans. Yes, they are impatient, and often bored as children are prone to be—things consistently take “forever,” and rewards delayed in any way will “never” happen. Yet these very words themselves belie childhood’s core naivete: sweet oblivion to the gristly existential meat of what forever and never really mean.

Through later childhood, this sense of floating in time gave way to a new mental paradigm: movement through time. Forward trajectory. The precise analogy varies with the environment of the era. A sense of transformative growth accompanied new creative pursuits and many years in school: upwards, outwards. Caterpillar to butterfly. Seed to tree. Tendrils of a vine, expanding in many directions, intertwining and combining with its environment to climb higher.

During a dark period of change in my late twenties, time’s forward-movement analogy best befit a tremulous walk along a tightrope in the dark. Only my most immediate steps were illuminated, and I had no confidence in my final destination. One wrong move seemed to threaten disaster. In such anxious times, excitement for the future was exchanged for dread and uncertainty.

In the earliest years of new parenthood, time flowed like a powerful river (please forgive the cliché). Control was surrendered to new-infant chaos—which was, in truth and retrospect, not chaotic at all, but rather a discernible pattern of feeding, sleeping, and growing. These were sweet little cycle-patterns of eddies and swirls, all moving together in the general direction of time’s rushing river. Oh, man. Time’s rush is everything with a baby in the house. Exhilarating. Exhausting. There were moments when I felt in harmony at last, flowing with All Time. There were also moments I felt myself drowning, crushed by the rush, unable to cope.

The concept of time’s finiteness has loomed dark and imminent lately. Just in the past year, my mental paradigm began to transform again, although I struggle as yet to identify the best analogy. What triggered this change? Perhaps returning to school last year—being on campus again, participating in a creative classroom setting. It was a pleasant if bittersweet re-experiencing of a youthful tradition. Or perhaps it was the onset of new, degenerate effects of age, beyond the occasional grey hair and laugh line. I hear it just gets better….

In anticipation of my forty-fourth birthday, I’ll call this new looming finiteness a midlife crisis of mind. Maybe a midlife epiphany. In all recent considerations of time, awareness of the finite has lent a new sense of exhilaration—if alongside a twinge of morbidity. It has invoked a life-affirming restlessness—or maybe it’s panic, dulled by midlife exhaustion. Time’s running out! Only forty-four more years to go! But I’ll still be in bed by ten.

In all recent considerations of time, the sense of time as finite has, for better or worse, replaced previous paradigmatic concerns. It has replaced worry over the crushing river’s rush. Replaced dread over the trembling tightrope in darkness. In the first mistaken analogy, the river rushes on forever. In the second mistake, the tightrope never ends.

Sometimes it seems like life is taking forever. But listen up, kids. It isn’t.

Time is running out, and it is never guaranteed.

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On Bukowski and Motherhood

The famous first line from Charles Bukowski’s Roll the Dice: “If you’re going to try, go all the way.” He implies: let your creative fire consume you to the exclusion of all life’s dross.

I love it.

From a theoretical standpoint, I love it.

But I have questions.

I’m compelled to sit down over whiskey shots with Bukowski and clarify.  When you mention not eating for three or four days, surely you mean just during the day? Regarding the loss of relatives, what’s the selection process? And when you say “it could mean freezing on a park bench,” could that possibly mean for just a half-hour, waiting for my three-year-old to take one last slide ride (“Okay, now say ‘bye bye’ to the playground!”)—and then I can go inside and warm up?

As much as I adore the notion of the extreme creative life—as darkly intrigued as I am by its most tragic tales—I’ve come to realize something over the years. The angsty, 80s-era goth teen in me hates to admit it: my creative life has not been representative of Bukowski’s dice-rolling sentiment. It has not been extreme.

I’ve tried several serious creative pursuits over my lifetime, but none to the exclusion of all else. Music was a huge part of my life for many years. I rarely had to choose between music and jobs, school, friendships, or relationship. My husband and I spent a decade in the same band together before we married. Friendships were a consequence of musical pursuits—not collateral damage.

Writing is different than playing in a band. A solitary pursuit. “Isolation is the gift,” Bukowski says; he’s talking about writing. Sometimes it’s hard to discern another writer in your real-life midst, but when you do find one out there, it’s a super-cool common bond. Well, or maybe it’s just my one-sided perception. Regardless, I find it motivating, invigorating.  I dig thinkers. I dig those who sanctify time to craft words to articulate thoughts. And I wholly admire what I call the “comfortable alone”: those who can withstand silence, who are willing to forego interaction long enough to reflect and process and bring forth eloquence.

When I find another writer, I’m struck by a sense of camaraderie in mutual isolation.

Writing requires silence in a noisy world. It demands isolation and introspection in an era of social networking and immediate gratification. Pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, Charles Bukowski implied it in Roll the Dice (although he gives voice to the extreme): to bolster and intensify that creative fire, one must understand there’s a tradeoff. For periods of isolation, sessions of silence, one must push back against status quo culture.

But may I suggest, perhaps over another whiskey round—one need not trade it all to “go all the way”?

When I was pregnant with my first child, I knew everything would change. Of course: we had just dismantled my home office and repurposed it for a baby’s room. Everyone told me things would change. I was told by seasoned parents that I would put everything on hold. Music, writing, painting, drawing. All that could wait, would have to wait. My child would come first now, in every aspect. And I’d be okay with that, I was told.

I would necessarily, happily trade it all away: my creativity, my ambition, my times of solitude—all for motherhood.

Quick. Before last call. Again may I suggest—one need not trade it all?

May I hope?

I am determined to find the middle ground. To honor one’s creative fire is something I plan to teach my own children. They’re small now, and they need a lot of attention, so my carving out alone time is sometimes impossible and often impractical. But I’m willing to work gradually. They’re growing up fast, and they pick up on a lot.

In order to teach it—this respect of one’s internal creative drive—I try to do it, when I can. I want them to understand it’s not only “okay” to take that time, it’s crucial. By integrating the concept of occasional, regular alone time in my family culture, I hope to provide my kids validation to seek and treasure their own aloneness, and what creativity may come of it.

But striking a balance is key. The active pursuit of writing is, strangely, much like a child: given attention, it wants ever more attention.  I negotiate with my own writing-addicted id/ego complex the same way I bargain with my kids. “Patience, you’ll get your turn.” “Be good for me, and you’ll get a treat.” “I’ll be back, and then we’ll do something fun together!” My creative fire is a toddler.

If he could read this, Bukowski would probably laugh at me. But who knows? Maybe he’d at least pay the tab.

Either way, the angsty goth teen in me would dig it.

Red Herring in the Hot Tub

I had a long, sleepless night during my kid’s recent bout with a nasty mystery illness. Late-night DIY diagnosis effort: I googled “rash,” “fever,” “children.” Try it yourself some time for an authentic sense of this paranoia-piquing experience. I lay awake for hours next to my itchy son, thinking.

I mentally backtracked through his every known experience over the past week, reverse-engineering recognition of symptom onset and contagion opportunity. Was this a virus passed on from that sick kid at the grocery store? An allergy to the new mattress? An eczema reaction to the kiddie hot tub at our neighborhood public pool? I scrabbled through my memory for signs, symbols, dire foreshadowing. There’s a story here somewhere.

Hindsight apophenia: finding all possible past incidents of should-have-seen-the-signs that one’s memory can produce. When put to its most evil purpose, hindsight apophenia is a boundless source of regret, blame, and self-doubt. This seemed especially true at 1:00 AM, in bed next to a feverish toddler.

But at its most beneficent, hindsight apophenia makes for great stories.

Artistic conventions of storytelling invoke an apopheniac mindset. Foreshadowing, symbolism, poetic language echoing a theme – all these devices play on the reader’s self-induced superstition, the viewer’s sense of foreboding. A writer weaves a story beyond mere linearity by reverse-engineering a path to the big reveal. By crafting parallels with plot clues, symbols, and semiotics. By putting to use the mind’s natural propensity for apophenia.

A storyteller assigns meaning to the seemingly random, and then enforces the semantic weight of this crafted pattern through the story’s outcome.

Readers and viewers appreciate – and expect – a pattern of meaning to lead us to the finale of a novel or film. Random stimulus like that found in real life is called a red herring in a story’s universe. No red herrings, we futilely ask of life. We ask this in vain, and we know it, and yet our best stories unabashedly reinforce the apopheniac mindset. Keep looking for those signs, our minds concede upon finishing a particularly satisfying tale.

There’s a story here somewhere, we think as we venture out into the chaos.

Profane Space

By necessity, I’ve had to dispense with all former notions of writing’s preciousness. During this busy phase of life, I don’t have the luxury of fretting about sacred space or grand expanses of uninterrupted time. I must swiftly, flexibly invoke a writing mind-frame when the opportunity arises. Waiting room at the doctor’s office. Park bench over lunch hour. Dark living room, pre-dawn insomnia.

I like it.

There’s no time for overthinking, because this – the lunch hour, the early hour, the office wait – is it. In this stage of my life, this is genuinely the kind of time I have to write.

Mad skills are required to take advantage of these pockets of time: colloquially, literally mad. I keep hypergraphic notebooks with me, and I leave them around my home. They’re in the car, at bedside, sitting on the kitchen countertop. I write down bits and pieces of story-thoughts whenever they arise. In my head, I troubleshoot plot holes during my commute to work and run through dialogue out loud. Regularly,  before I fall asleep at night, I visualize entire scenes.

When I finally get that open lunch hour or bout of insomnia, I gather notes and thoughts. I try assembling them into some sort of piece. A scene. A beat. A chapter. Maybe just a paragraph.

Hypergraphia. Obsession. Cathexis. Compulsion. Creating this story has invoked insanity, with no sacred space to keep it confined.

I like it.