Loving the Questions

I live with impatience. A live with a fierceness, always advancing towards solutions, the answers themselves call to me just outside my grasp. I am uncomfortable bridging the border between what is possible and what is not, what is true and false, what is real and imaginary—I like to explore those things in writing but not in my life. I seek certainty and definite answers.

I see weakness or indecision in the person, in this moment myself, who says “I’m just figuring it out,” or “I’m doing this job for now but only until something else happens or I realize something.”

I can hear the bullshit in that answer a mile away. Because what I’m actually thinking, just not articulating because I’m afraid I’m going to be judged by that person who’s listening, whom I presume has her shit together and is doing the thing she is meant to be doing and is with the person she is meant to be with, is that—I don’t know.

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I don’t know my future. I happened into this position of barista and cook at this coffee bar in this children’s hospital. It turned out to be a livable wage and I’m honestly enjoying what I’m doing. Pulling shots, steaming milk finding the right combination of spices and syrups, figuring out how to whisk the eggs just right so they puff up without making a mess, and the perfect and effortless way to wrap sandwiches.

It’s messy work. You always have grounds under your nails, a splash of strawberry-banana smoothie on your shoe, avocado speared on your apron. You work up an energy in your body. You are never sitting. You are sometimes dancing to a hip-hop Pandora station. You are sometimes gossiping about the hot doughnut guy. (Yes, there is a doughnut guy and he’s beautiful.) You like talking to your coworkers who are about your sisters’ ages. Early-to-mid-twenties, in-between school and making rent, musicians, dancers, models, philosophers. And somehow, I, a writer, fall right into their mix.

Effortless, fun. It’s the kind of job you can leave there and come home and be home without the sinking feeling of the millions of emails that are piling up or the dreaded meeting with your boss, or the nagging issue you still haven’t figured out that has wormed it’s way into your mind and won’t get out.

At the moment, I’m happy.

I’m happy at my job. I’m happy at home, an apartment I’ve been in for almost a year. I’m happy with my family. I’m happy with my friends. I’m happy doing yoga, writing, reading, and dancing to The Current. I haven’t been this happy since I got back from South Africa.

I’m drinking in the moments at 6am, the sun hasn’t yet crept over the trees and rooftops where I’m writing, drinking coffee, and finding the right words.

51HtEJ7YDPLA few weeks ago, I read Rainier Maria Rilke’s collection Letters to a Young Poet. And I found a lot of common themes to my lost-ness, to my dread of starting this unprofessional coffee bar job, to getting rejected from jobs when I knew I had nailed the interview. Frustration, desperation and fear mounting. And then I read this section:

You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can… to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

That was it. Maybe I was trying to pull the strings the universe had handed me to try and figure out which one was the right next answer. None of them were. Perhaps I wasn’t able to truly live them. I wasn’t meant to receive them. I was meant to keep asking, “What am I supposed to be doing now?” and “How can I someday live into the dream of teaching writing, traveling, and publishing?” Those are still questions that I have. But I believe that at the moment, this barista gig is where I’m meant to be putting my time and energy. And hopefully one day receive the next step.

 

Trust fall

A girl stands straight, arms closed over her chest, and squeezes her eyes shut. Her spotter stands behind with their arms outstretched and legs bent in a lunge position. The girl calls out cues to ready her spotter and then shouts, “Falling.” The spotter responds, “Fall away.” She tips herself backwards, hair sweeps up onto her face. There’s no sound until the spotter braces her back and stops gravity. Terror and trust in the hands of a stranger.

How far do you trust yourself to fall?

In August, I was laid off from my job at a nonprofit. I was given thirty days’ notice until my position would be officially eliminated. In the moment, I had felt lied to. Why would anyone make a position permanent and then at the end of the fiscal year decide instead that it would no longer be available? I had moved into the city, gotten my own apartment, took on utilities based on a budget I thought would last me until I decided to get a job elsewhere. Resentment and fear filled me over the next days and weeks. I did not want to start the process of job searching again. Especially since, it had taken me four months to find this job. I didn’t have four months of a security net. I barely had one.

As the days rolled on, I felt that bitter cold air at my back as I imagined myself falling backward without a spotter to catch me. In my mind, there was nothing to fall back on. Only a matter of time before I had to take whatever I could get. And I delayed the process as much as possible, believing that I had time in the imagined future. And I started skimping on the activities that made me feel more like a happy human being. Reading, writing, exercising. These things brought me mental clarity and I didn’t want to think clearly because then I would have no excuse but to move forward.

I didn’t want to move forward. I wanted to dwell in my denial. Anger, an injured, ego and fear were a crippling combination that allowed me to spin.

I talked to my closest friends, my family for support. My increased anxiety put excess stress on my relationship. It showed the unconnected threads between us, we had different expectations, different needs and therefore decided to end it before we became more attached.

I decided to apply for jobs that excited me and not merely to jobs that I thought I could get. I found one that was part time, as a tutor working in the public schools. I decided to apply to it. I interviewed for it three days later. The next day I got the email that I was accepted.

Relief filled me. I’ve been falling for so long that finally something caught me. It’s been just over a month since I started this new job, and I really enjoy it. It gives me energy and inspiration. However, this isn’t the only thing that I need to keep everything balanced, it’s one step in the right direction.

Trusting myself that I’ll get caught, I’ll fall anyway.

30 in 30: 30 submissions in 30 days

In case you don’t know already, or if you turned your clock back last night and the world also got set back a day, it’s November. What does November mean, friends? National Novel Writing Month! Yep, you write 50,000 words in 30 days. Basically you focus on not the quality that each word plays, but the story itself. You are writing to get it all out, in what Anne Lamott calls “The Shitty First Draft“.

But this year, I’m doing NaNoWriMo differently. My challenge is not in shitty-first-drafting, getting the words down on the page and figuring out what the story is really about. It’s when I’ve come to the end of the story having figured it out as much as I can. Then I move on to shitty-first-drafting the next thing. I haven’t tried to get it out there so that other people can read it beyond a blog-type formula under my name and completely without someone else’s evaluation in order to be read.

I am afraid of rejection. Yes, I fully admit my fear and own up to it. That’s why I never asked out that cute philosophical guy in my high school AP English classes. I don’t need someone else to tell me I’m not good enough. And so, until now, I’ve anticipated that what I’ve written is not good enough for publication. I cut out the middle man and don’t even try.

I short change myself experience the process of submitting work by avoiding rejection. Even though rejection letters are a writer’s bread and butter.

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Being rejected doesn’t necessarily mean that the piece isn’t good enough, merely that it doesn’t suit their needs at the moment. Maybe it’s the wrong tone, wrong genre, wrong time, wrong interest. There are countless literary magazines out there. Someone’s got to connect with something.

NaNoWriMo is also about overcoming fear in order to get the story out with the support of a community of writers. Here is Grand Faulkner, Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month.

Everyone has a story that needs to come to life, so the shelves of NaNoWriMo stretch endlessly. NaNoWriMo helps people find their voice in the act of writing and through the encouragement of the writers in the NaNoWriMo community.

I’m overcoming my fear of rejection and being revealed as not good enough with my community: friends, family and readers of becoming a sem-i-pro-fes-sion-al. Every day, you guys make me realize that I am good enough no matter what some email says. Thank you for helping me find the courage to push myself a little more this month.

If you are also interested in following this intense literary magazine submission route. This is what I’m doing…

  1. Choose 35 pieces in some stage of completion. Put these pieces into one place on my laptop.
  2. Research literary magazines and journals. Choose 35. Match a journal to a piece in theme or voice. Organize this match-up in a spreadsheet.
  3. Categorize the amount of work I still need to do on each piece. 1= near finished, a read over. 3= a few hours, rework surface level stuff, minor tweaking. 5=deep level edits, consider where the piece is going, if it’s gotten to where it needs to be. A 5 is a promising thing that requires a lot of brain power and reworking.
  4. Choose a piece and begin submitting.

Now your categories give you how much time each piece requires. So if on a particular day, you only have time for a 1, choose a 1 for the day. If you have more time to also devote some brain power to a 5, also do that.

Today is day 2. I’ve finished with step 1. Now I’m off to research literary journals. Stay tuned to what I find out!

Forward Momentum

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“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

― J.R.R. TolkienThe Lord of the Rings

I arrived at The Pub with my sisters, my mom and my dad; swamped by the sound of vivacious white haired women at the table behind us. August 21st at 12:30pm. Beers all around, me a can of Guinness, and a diet coke for the sister who forgot her id in the car. We ate filling delicious food and ran across the street to the cupcake shop and got individual cupcakes. And it all felt deliciously normal. Lunch with the family. Replaced one factor, we’re in Northfield now and not Lakeville.

For people unfamiliar with the cult of Mid-West suburbs, there’s a major difference to the culture of a small town (with two private liberal arts colleges) and a town that in 2008 hosted the Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain to speak at Lakeville South (my old high school), where a (red-neck) woman called Barak Obama a Muslim. Yep, my old high school.

It’s delightful to be in a place where in wandering the local bookstore, Con-tent, I would ask about an Adrienne Rich book of poetry. She asked, “Which one?” And I couldn’t remember the title and I responded that if I see it I’d remember. And wha-la, pulled out a thin red volume and in large gold letters, “Dream of a Common Language”. “That’s it.” And as I was checking out, she said, “That’s probably one of the best book of poetry I’ve read.”

I’ve been in Northfield for 11 days. The neighbor’s first name is Darwin. His son’s name is Micah. I didn’t ask if his parents were really into evolution. Or if his son rocks. It’s called new neighbor manners.

In terms of Peace Corps, I’m called a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, RPCV. Mission accomplished.

What now? A new door. Not sure what that exactly looks like, but it’s somewhere out there. And it’ll be a new exciting and scary opportunity.

And I’m freaking out. Why? Because job search websites are incredibly depressing. For most things, I’m underqualified for. And for things that look like 0 fun, I’m overqualified. In general, I’m in a bad position to look online for something that I want. In the back of my head, I know that I have to create my job out of a few smaller commitments. Things that I know subconsciously. The opportunity I’m looking for will happen because of someone I meet who will hook me up with a beginning of the next employment phase of my life. But wouldn’t it also be nice for something to just appear on a website that says, “Danielle, apply here. This is what you should be doing right now.” But life isn’t like that. Opportunities don’t work that way. But wouldn’t it be nice if they did?

Things I know. I have to figure out what the next step is. And the next step doesn’t have to be the thing I’m going to do for the rest of my life, or for 10 years, or even 5. It’s just the next thing. And the next thing has to involve putting myself out there, going to mixers, doing random volunteer work, until I talk to the right person at the right time and then the next thing will work itself out.

The right connection, the right opportunity, the right person, and bam forward momentum.

Alma Mater

There are these moments when we’ve realize that we’ve come full circle. When we’ve finished a project or a degree or a service commitment and you come back to the place you originated from and you don’t feel like you did back then. You don’t talk like the way you did back then, you don’t walk the some way, you don’t carry the same bags, you don’t wear the same clothes and you don’t operate under the same nagging anxiety of the next thing that’s due.

I’m talking of course of Decorah, of Luther College, my alma mater and my dearly missed home.

58106_10150287024200705_8263242_nAlma mater is Latin and roughly translated to mean “bounteous mother, someone or something providing nourishment”. And I couldn’t agree more with this definition of my college and the time I spent in Decorah. Decorah itself is a nourishing, abundant community. A place where we can learn, love and crow for the rest of our lives. It’s such a special, dear place to me. It’s my home no matter where I am.

Although I am no longer a student, that most of campus and even the professors I worked with have gone; this place, this energy still has a lot to teach me. My spirit is planted I the bluffs and the people that are here.

I have never before learned and gained so much from a place and its people than I first did in Decorah. It could have been the age I was when I came, the fact that all of my friends were in Ylvisaker Hall in our first year, that 3 of my best friends lived on 4th floor with me, which was referred to among students as the “Virgin Vault”. Or maybe, just like my village, there is something magical yet tangible in the community, the place and the spirt of the place.

I visited Decorah a few weeks back and it triggered comparisons of the person I was back then and who I am now. I don’t think I could have imagined my current self when I was a freshmen in the Virgin Vault. Or maybe I was always meant to become this person. Or perhaps the choices I have made brought me to the person I am today.

Even though I am clearly not in college anymore, I definitely felt like I should be rushing off to a class or a project or have a paper to work on. In the flow of the student body in and out of the Union, for a moment or two, I thought I had never left. I was right back in the tide, pulled right along, on my way like everyone else. A clear-cut path, measured and constantly evaluated, self-determined effort equals success. You always know where you stand.

So it was a very odd feeling, being definitely older and mature and on a path beyond what students were on; yet not quite at a level where I had behind me a definite career streak, definitely in the mist of being a semi-professional.

It was exciting and comforting to be remembered around town and on campus. This was the same feeling I had come home with. Excitement and comfort and a little jarring whiplash. Much of what I had remembered stayed the same but little things had changed. It was as if this place was a Twilight Zone version of Decorah. If you don’t witness these changes day by day you are taken aback by it, shaken up.

But as things change, they improve what was there before. I was sad to see many of the English Department faculty had retired, these were professors I had had, and among the department are still talked about—mythologized even. Professors are like that, they leave shadows of what they did and who they were, always a bit quirky and passionate and occasionally loud and sometimes hard to read when they give you a knowing smile. Their faces seem to say: “You’re so close!” or “You should really stop talking. You have no idea about what you’re talking about.”

But I was impressed by the current English department, the new faculty, the ones who had “replaced” the professors I knew and loved, had new energy and a fresh perspective. The future of the English department at Luther will go far, transform in the same way the world is transforming.

If are unable to evolve or unwilling to change, you will be crushed by evolving times.

This return to my alma mater made me realize how much I have evolved, how much I had moved forward and realized what I could do, really do.

I wasn’t sure I would be able to teach but I proved to myself that I could teach and that I am a good teacher and that I want to teach and continue to do so. That I loved culture exchange, especially with young people and in class. That I want to use my writing skills to serve a higher purpose, such as communicating stories of resilience of the human spirit. That I’m ready for a relationship based on trust and open communication. And I’m ready to be close to home for a few years.

I want to put my skills and knowledge to good use here, in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Area. I want to become a part of a community of writers, of volunteers, of friends. This is my next adventure.

And may my new home be a new alma mater, a bounteous mother, in her own right.