A little more than equal night.

Last night at some point, depending on your local time, was the autumnal equinox: the moment at which the night and the day were of equal length. Now night is longer. This means that, even though it was over 90 degrees today and the trees are looking more parched from drought than ready to turn colors, it’s fall.

The symbolism is there: dark and light are staring each other down, and for a moment last night in their thumb war it appeared that they were at a stalemate, but dark now is leaning over light, whose brow is growing sweaty with fatigue. But there is something comical about the idea of this cosmic battle, because it’s one that plays out annually by precise mathematical rules. We’ve had the game fixed for millennia, ever since we started clocking the heavens on our megaliths. Darkness, now holding the upper hand, will win until December 21st, when light will get a second wind and come charging back until June 21st, and so on. Just like every year, give or take a day or two, on whatever calendar you reckon by.

You might say that we don’t need to attach meaning to it. There’s no surprise left in the game. But we do. The seasons are alternating change and stasis, and every year it shows us a mirror on ourselves.

Summer, light’s realm, is the stasis of life. The leaves are out, their hands outstretched, dark green and stable. The bugs, in this part of the world, howl all day and night long. The heat looms in and sets up camp.

Winter is the stasis of darkness, silence, and death. The trees outstretch their skeleton hands to hover under the slate sky. The warm-blooded courie in to stay safe from dark and storms and cold.

The shoulder seasons, by contrast, are all movement and change. You can’t fix them, even for a day. Each week is different, for however long they last. In spring, the buds come out on their own secret schedule, and you miss them if you take a different path a few days in a row. The trees get that fuzz of infant green, and you almost wonder if you’re imagining it. When the sun is glaring in your eyes for the first time in months, you may wonder if you’re just overthinking some moss—but no, it’s a leaf, you find out soon enough, and then there are leaves as far as the eye can see.

I’ve always loved fall the best, at least in theory. I find its colors, its smells, the feel of its air on my face, quiveringly beautiful. It’s temporary, too, like spring. One day you’re looking out at the top of the hill and it looks just a little less green, and then all at once it shrieks into full yellow or sighs through brown, and it’s not all at once, but suddenly its over.

I’m sadder in fall, too, and I crave to love it so badly. Those things are probably connected. Spring is all improvement, the slow glimmer of a rising smile. Watch the light grow longer. Watch the greening. It’s all abundance—the promise of future abundance, which is the best kind, sweetest of all in the imagination. And your imagination goes wild, waiting for warm summer nights on the patio, waiting to get your toes in the water.

And fall is the opposite of this, which is the paradox of abundance and scarcity all at once. There is only so much more time before the leaves are past their peak, and are gone. There is only so much time until the biting cold will stretch out its arms and stay for a while. But for now there is the harvest, the scenery, the delicious smell of wood smoke and leaf mold on the air. Pumpkin flavored everything; pumpkins on your paper towels. Time to get out the spooky socks and the right kind of crisp in the air to put them on. And crisps—yes, do you bake? Now you do: apple crisps, and pumpkin cheesecake bars, and lumpy-crusted pies.

The changing of the seasons is such a forced reflection on time. Seasonal time is inherently objective, and yet inherently subjective. There’s the objective amount of time the summer lasts—one looks at a calendar for that, June to September. There’s the objective, but unknowable, amount of time that summer weather lasts—check the forecast, make some predictions. But the way that I will feel about summer on a certain date? I often catch myself in the feeling that I didn’t quite do it up all the way—fewer weekly cookouts, trips to the beach, hot nights on a rooftop, than I anticipated from my perch in chilly winter. Scarcity, again. The feeling that I wasn’t there. And now the nights are coming sooner and it might finally begin cooling off, I can’t do it until next year.

What a strange way to live a life, I realize, fussing at the map rather than the territory.

But now the ticking experience clock is turning to fall. So I get the urge to gather, to binge on experience, to check things off like a squirrel gathering nuts, because it will soon be gone for so long. That kind of frantic demand for enjoyment, the harvest urge, is strongest in fall.

Gather ye cider donuts while ye may,
   Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same jack-o-lantern that smiles today
   Tomorrow will be dying.

Basically, I love fall, even if you could say it triggers me. But I’m celebrating the beginning of the season the best way I know how: with an inaugural apple cider, wearing some flannel quite by coincidence, with a candle burning, surrounded by my decorative gourds, welcoming it in.

A brief, loud noise.

On Thursday night, I was having a very normal one: sitting on the couch with my boyfriend, (re)watching “The Crown.” Because the weather is in its glorious early-fall phase (the swampiness has dried out a bit), we had the windows wide open.

At some point, there came a very loud noise. It only lasted for a second or two, but it was a big rumble, or maybe a clatter, hard to characterize in hindsight. We looked at each other in confusion. “Probably an engine,” he said, and we heard nothing else.

The next morning, the news: a shooting, blocks away. Two “males armed with AK style rifle,” the police say, shot six people (killing one) in the courtyard of an apartment complex. They drove away.

Across town, three other people had been shot less than a half hour later. Likely unrelated.

These things barely even make the news. Body count far too low. Probably gang-related, and in that troubled housing project. It belongs to other people.

It was very loud, and very fast, and very common.

The restless middle.

It’s been a strange bit of time, lately. (Isn’t it always, though, in a way?) I often get the feeling these days of being stuck in between one thing and another, or of waiting for something, or of an itchy feeling like I’m ready to run. As though there’s a soundtrack playing music quietly that makes you feel that something is around the corner, not having revealed itself just yet. And you get antsy waiting for it. A heavy restlessness.

The restlessness has some apparent causes that I won’t get into here and now. But it’s such a pervasive feeling, almost like a physical sensation, that it refuses to be broken up by logic or planning. (In any event, planning and I are on a break.)

Rob Bell did a podcast about something like this: “An Anatomy of Restlessness.” He touches on all of it, the whole feeling that has been lurking at my shoulder for a while: the guilty feeling at not being satisfied even in the midst of such a lucky life. A gut feeling that “the cloud has moved.” A stirring like in the first days of creation. The difference between the forms (the material facts of life that surround us) and the spirit that animates them: even if the forms haven’t changed, and they used to satisfy, they may no longer, once the spirit has moved.

Rob has some questions that I found helpful, and you might too, if this restlessness thing is following you as well:

  • Is the restlessness calling me to do more, or to do less?
  • Do I need to walk farther into the thing (whole-ass it, as Ron Swanson might say), or step away?
  • Is it about accepting that the situation is fine, or is it about recognizing that it really isn’t good enough?
  • Is there another challenge to take on, or is rest calling?
  • Is it about new birth, or about doubling down on what already is?
  • Is it about finding a break, or finding continuity?

For me, the answer to a lot of those questions is: yes; both; sometimes. Do more, yes, but of the right things. Let the others go. Walk further into the right things; step away from the things that no longer fit. Take on the challenges that get me excited; walk away from the challenges that only cause the joyless stomach ache.

It feels a great deal like a trip through the middle. If I take a stroll to look around at the smattering of pieces that make up my life, I can tell that the kinks are getting worked out of a few of them. Others are marinading, not ready for prime time. Others are hopping along in their juvenile way, learning to ride their bikes. Others are extremely good at the routine, doing it so automatically that they forget how they got home in the evening. And so on. It’s not glamorous, and it has a way of sagging, just as the heavy middles of so many novels do, sandwiched unceremoniously between sparkling beginnings and ends.

But in novels as in life, I might be better off to lean into it, to give the middle a bit of a sense of character. Give it a pizzazz all its own. Welcome it in. Because it’s a piece of the life, too. The restlessness, the middle, all of it, every day, forms the whole. Some day this, too, may be a joy to recall.

This morning, I took a moment to write down all the changes for the better that have happened in the last year: all the successes, learnings, adventures, small and large joys. Damn, what a year. It still feels like the middle. Just a little sparklier.

“But then time came for us too. We weren’t who we used to be but we also weren’t who we would be next, either. There was this awful in between. And we had to stay in it for so long.”

Welcome to Night Vale,” episode 152

Therapy, for the fellas.

As is probably evident from the content of this blog, I’ve gotten in pretty deep with self-improvement-type topics. My Instagram feed is increasingly full of coaches, therapists, and spiritual writers. It’s a positive, empowering space (peppered with the occasional millennial-despair meme account I still follow).

But it is impossible to even glance at this cozy corner of the internet and not notice the glaring truth that it’s populated mostly by women. It’s not anywhere near an even split. Men are an endangered species around there.

Now, perhaps it’s not surprising that women are more drawn than men are to internet spaces for reflection, self-improvement, empowerment, for reasons we needn’t bother going into here. But don’t men need something like it?

I mean, glancing generally at the news and the unfiltered spaces of the Internet, you might well ask: are men okay?

Jordan Peterson is fairly well-known for a clinical psychologist. He’s also a voluminous YouTuber/podcaster, posting lengthy lectures about Jungian psychology and how to apply ancient wisdom from the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh to modern life.

He’s also famous for some political stands he’s taken in recent years against what he sees as the creeping dangers of rabid progressivism. Google it if you’re interested.

His star rose due to the political stands (because ADD LINK conflict pays, y’all), but he would rather think of himself first and foremost as a public professor. On the basis of his heightened name recognition, he published 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. As it promises, it’s 12 rules that Peterson believes are the key to developing character and living a worthy life.

As a whole, I found the book (like Peterson himself) full of contrasts. Deeply embarrassing, but also kind of sweet and avuncular. Fascinating and challenging but also terribly dense, as though he’s missing a chunk of every point he’s trying to make.

In the grand scheme of things, his rules, once he gets around to listing them, are great:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you.
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie.
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
  10. Be precise in your speech.
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

We could meditate on those alone and have a good time. Except for the skateboarding one, on which more later, the rules make sense on their face, and all seem like pretty good guideposts for living a good life.

But of course, he doesn’t stop there. Each chapter contains Peterson’s explanation of what he means by a rule, in prose that is personal and rambling and cerebral. He alternatively gives his evidence in the form of personal memories, clinical anecdotes, and Jungian interpretations of stories from the Bible. Sometimes it takes many pages for him to explain what he’s getting at. It’s tons of generalizing and much of it would be tagged [citation needed] on Wikipedia. But for all that griping, the book had me fully engaged and thinking the whole time, typing notes out on the silly little Kindle keyboard, and that’s got to count for something.

What we have, by the end, is a guide for how to be a particular kind of good person: one who stands up for what he believes in, who works hard and succeeds at his endeavors, who maintains a pragmatically positive outlook, who is honest and unafraid to probe his own flaws and improve them. Who takes care of himself and those around him. Who demands excellence of himself, as a moral duty.

Why do I use male pronouns? It all strikes me as such masculine—even macho—self-help. Which isn’t to denigrate it, but just to wonder: is this the men’s version of my self-improvement internet? Is this what the fellas turn to when they feel a need to grow and change?

If it is, Peterson doesn’t know it. I’ve heard him say (in my own [citation needed] moment, I can’t be arsed to find the link) that it is a mystery to him why his following is so crowded with young men, and not with women. But he must know how unbalanced his ideas are, if attracting a mixed crowd is his goal. Right out of the gate in Rule 1 (“Stand up straight with your shoulders back”) he comes out swinging with anecdotes about how lobster brains work, how dominance hierarchies are embedded into them, how subduing or being subdued by another male lobster will, through the workings of serotonin, change the lobster brain, rendering loser lobsters depressed and laconic. All this to say that you, human reader, will have a better life if you stand up straight with your shoulders back, like a serotonin-rich alpha lobster.

Oof. Is this what men like? I wouldn’t say it resonated with me (as they say on my side of the Internet gender partition).

I don’t begrudge men this, for a moment. Even if we can’t share our wellness spaces (and even if it’s because they actively stay away from my side of the therapy economy), God knows they need something.

But here’s the rub. Peterson can’t stop himself, even when he’s ahead, even when he’s ten rules deep and going strong, and we’ve learned a good deal about how one might interpret the story of the Garden of Eden, and we’ve convinced ourselves to treat each other and ourselves with dignity and respect. No, he has to get into it. The conflict. Just as you get the sense he’s convinced himself that he deserves to be famous for his depth psychology and not for those shouty viral videos…he does a thing.

Rule 11, purportedly about not bothering children while they are skateboarding, is about how we ought to think about “patriarchy” so as to better the lives of both men and women, both boys and girls. I dare to summarize it thusly: adults (read: women, as women are all the examples he gives) do far more harm than good by attempting to protect children (that is, evidently, boys) from the suffering and danger inherent in a life worth living. Moreover, the feminism Peterson imagines, the one that demands the diminishment of masculinity to make room for the empowerment (masculinization, he coughs) of women, ends up harming women in the long run: it fills the world with bad men.

Again, oof.

This chapter is Peterson at his dense worst. He doesn’t bother to understand what he’s refuting. But worse, it reminds you, just as you begin to trust him, that even though Peterson was doing Jung and the Bible for years, it’s taking a public stand against progressives that made him a star. Again, conflict, deployed well, is a ticket to success. Even if he fancies himself the reasonable guru, his numerous followers found him on the parts of YouTube with all the all-caps titles. No matter how much he pretends it isn’t the case, he is a star because of the brand of male resentment that burbles everywhere these days. All that to say: it’s a little hard to take him seriously when he tries to don the hat of objective critic of gender relations.

This brings up something that troubles me about therapy for the fellas: has it always got to resist women? My female corner of the wellness internet has nothing negative to say about men. But it feels to me, in my casual (and very much [citation needed]) observation, that men’s self-improvement, self-actualization, whatever have you, always boils down to being about not women. As though men were the negative space made up of whatever is not feminine, and their very existence depends on separating from the feminine. (Although Peterson would be the first to tell you that it is the feminine that is typically represented as the dark, the night, the passive. Again, I say, gesturing generally at all of this citation needed.)

All that aside for now. If it weren’t for rule 11, and for Peterson’s reputation in general, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book. Not to say that it’s without its flaws, but it’s a thought-provoking read all the way through, even if you end up tearing at your hair a bit. I think we have to understand this moment that Peterson is a big part of.

But we might be able to understand it a little more concisely from Olive, a sturdy character from Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent novel City of Girls:

“The field of honor is a painful field,” Olive went on at last, as though Peg had not spoken. “That’s what my father taught me when I was young. He taught me that the field of honor is not a place where children can play. Children don’t have any honor, you see, and they aren’t expected to, because it’s too difficult for them. It’s too painful. But to become an adult, one must step into the field of honor. Everything will be expected of you now. You will need to be vigilant in your principles. Sacrifices will be demanded. You will be judged. If you make mistakes, you must account for them. There will be instances when you must cast aside your impulses and take a higher stance than another person—a person without honor—might take. Such instances may hurt, but that’s why honor is a painful field. Do you understand?”

I think Peterson would understand Olive, even if it would be slightly ironic, all things considered, that a lesbian character from a book called City of Girls basically could scoop him in a paragraph.

Book Two: the doubt speaks up

Book Two is in the works.

However, the works are a little jammed up. 

The process of writing book one had such a nice rhythm to it, or at least so it appears in rosy hindsight. I often felt like I knew what needed doing next to inch it closer to what I had in mind.

Now that I’ve paused working on that one for the moment, I’m trying to get moving on a very different idea to keep myself writing. But choosing which of my ideas to get started on was a little hairy, and now that I chose one and got partway down the path of planning it, the doubt gremlin (N.B.: a close cousin of the fear gremlin) is noisy.

“It’s a dumb idea,” says the gremlin. Thanks, I grimace.

“No one would be interested in that concept except you, and you’re only barely interested.” Yes, thank you for that contribution.

“Even if anyone likes your current draft, they would hate this one.” Let’s leave that up to them to decide, shall we?

“You’re not even spending any time working on it.” That’s an exaggeration. I’m just spending almost no time working on it, which is different. 

“Why don’t you get started on the better ideas?” Well, obviously because those ones will take a lot more research and work, and I’m tremendously impatient and a little sleepy, I admit.

“Those don’t seem like great reasons to commit to this idea,” says the gremlin, looking taken aback, and I have to agree.

But here’s the thing: the doubt only matters if I’m attaching some great weight to doing this. If I need my two-weeks-to-several-decades of work to be of maximum efficiency, resulting in the written product that will create the most good for the most people in the shortest amount of time, then I’m doing it very wrong. 

That’s okay, because that isn’t really what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to stretch the muscles and follow the curiosity. I’m trying to make myself laugh sometimes, and make myself feel stuff other times, and those stakes are a lot lower. The payoff is pretty high, too, because being able to make yourself laugh while you get better at something is pretty rewarding. 

Anyway, on with it–whatever it is. 

Maybe not “conflict:” or, further Enneagram thoughts.

Conflict has been on my mind a lot recently, and not just because the world seems to be so full of constant knives-out energy (although that doesn’t help.) The very idea of conflict is central to my Enneagram type: 9s are among the more conflict-averse types, and my own conflict aversion was a huge wake-up call when I started learning about the Enneagram.

But lately, I’ve heard from a lot of people who are close to me that they don’t see me as particularly conflict-averse, or prone to merging with others to the point of disappearance, or unwilling to state an opinion, which are all ways that I have described myself. This might mean a few things:

First, I might be falling into the confirmation bias trap that lurks in all models, and certainly in the Enneagram. Especially when people talk about the Enneagram in a way that focuses on behavior rather than motivation, it can become simplistic to the point of pure falsehood. If you believe the memes, 9s are always buried under a blanket watching TV and tipping over into a fugue state when someone requires them to make a decision. So I may well be ascribing habits to myself that aren’t really as consistent as all that, falling into the gravitational pull of the stereotypes.

(I don’t think that’s the reason that I come across as less conflict-averse than I profess, though. I suspect the others:)

Second, I might have a more developed 8 wing than I realize. Like many 9s, I identify with nearly every type, often thinking I am all of them–except 8. Reading about 8s is, for me, like reading about aliens. That’s not me, at least, I can say defiantly. But don’t I have lots of rage, often internalized? Uh, yeah. And like to poke at people’s lazy thinking? Yes. And don’t I deeply resent being controlled (even if I am more prone to react passive-aggressively than proper aggressively?) Totally. But I’m only recently seeing these traits, because I think ordinarily I suppress noticing them. They don’t fit with the shallow version of myself I historically tried to inhabit: the unobtrusive, kind, peaceful, dreaming sort. (Some other time I might tell the story of intentionally throwing the Myers-Briggs test to empirically be as wood-nymph-like as possible.)

Third, and most important, at the end of the day the fear is not so much of conflict itself, but of disconnection. Conflict is a quick ticket to disconnection in a weak relationship, so avoiding it can be a shorthand for avoiding disconnection. I still get a little stomach ache thinking about the driver with whom I exchanged fingers a few weeks ago: I was walking; she nearly ran me over then flipped me off; I lost it at her quite impotently then fretted for a full day about how someone who doesn’t know me at all could have such malice toward me, and whether she’s out there thinking I’m the asshole, as though it really matters.

The thing is, instinctively, I’d rather hang on to the hollow shell of a relationship than risk losing it. So that’s when the hiding, the aversion to difficulty, is helpful.

But in a strong relationship where connection is plentiful, where I feel secure that conflict won’t lead to disconnection, I can let myself show more. I can be a bit of a pain. I can needle people into refining their opinions. I can feel, and show, my frustration. This allows me to work through it, get past it, rather than simmering internally. The phoniness drops. And it’s simplistic to call all of this “conflict,” and to say that I hate it, because it’s a part of the big complex tapestry that any relationship is.

All that to say, your girl is still trying to get comfortable with the idea that not everyone has to like me, especially if it comes at the cost of having been myself. And this is the kind of stuff that the almighty models can do well, at their best: show us the ways we might be hiding from the truth about why we do the things we do. This is when we have a chance to change those things, if they’re not working out for us.

…depending on how you count.

Tonight someone who had just read my book asked me how long it had taken to write. And as I generally do, I responded: “It depends on how you count.”

Really, how long does it take to write a novel?

All I have is my own minimal experience, of course, but let’s try to tabulate. Our counting options are below:

  1. Hours. I wrote for an estimated average of thirty minutes a day for roughly 182 days or six months–at least for the second draft. This works out to about 91 hours, or a hefty two-week timesheet.*
  2. Months. I wrote consistently for six months in one year, then let it sit for a while, then wrote for another six months, during which time I ended up rewriting virtually the entire thing. So that’s either six months or twelve, depending on whether I credit that first draft with really being part of the finished** draft.
  3. Years. I started seriously planning this book a little over three years ago. Serious planning involved making outlines, character sketches, and doing some research. This planning bears almost no relationship to what’s in the draft now, but it was a start. In short: planning in 2016, first-drafting in 2017, introspection and re-planning in 2018, and second-drafting in 2019 (with further edits TBD, perhaps also in 2019)?
  4. Decades. This story has been banging around my head as a little novel kernel since I was a kid. It was pretty insistent on getting out one of these days.

So there you have it, folks. If you’re looking for anecdata about how long it takes to write a novel, it’s somewhere between two work weeks and your whole life.

*I work in the government, after all.


Three Greek words for a fresh start.

As my pastor recently observed, it’s the new year. Sort of. At least it is the sense that kids are going back to school and the blazing hot summer is starting to break. There’s an opportunity for a fresh start–which is to say, even though a fresh start is always available, right now it might feel a little more possible than it often does in the middle of things.

A few days ago, I was introduced to Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies, which is a program to help with procrastination and follow-through depending on one’s type of accountability. Are you accountable to your own expectations, or other people’s expectations of you, or both, or neither? You can take her quiz here if you’re curious.

But the quiz didn’t really illuminate anything for me, because I’m so inconsistent and ambivalent. I’m accountable to others–and I’m not. I’m accountable to myself–and I’m not. I’m often saying yes to invitations and requests when I’d rather say no. This builds resentment on my part. It also may cause resentment on the part of those who kindly asked me to participate but who wouldn’t have asked if they’d known I would be sullen and difficult, or half-present.

And when it comes to commitments to myself, I’m the same way: I over-commit, always making ten plans when one would do, and then when I only end up completing one, I irritate myself. Or I burn the candle at both ends striving to get all ten done just to say I did. Plus, the weight of the ten expectations I set makes me want to rebel by procrastinating like a toddler striking from naptime, with more or less the same predictable results.

Still, for an optimistic committer such as myself, the lure of the new plan is often irresistible. I use Google Keep to store my dozens of to-do lists, containing everything from the grocery list to the daily to-do list to the weekly to-do list to the prioritized list of movies I want to watch soon (I know) and, of course, the long-term to-do list that is the only barrier between me and fatal inertia. A lot of this in Enneagram terms is down to my type’s tendency to struggle with priorities: all priorities seem equally urgent, so I put them all off equally, which causes total chaos. My two most productive times are the panicked hour before I must leave work, and the panicked hour that straddles my planned bedtime.

As an experiment, I’m taking a break from the to-do lists. We’re going to see what happens. May need to schedule a wellness check just in case this experiment results in me starving to death because the list didn’t tell me to shop for groceries.

But contrast this list-making, task-obsessed, rebellion-inducing behavior with the following:

Right around the new calendar year, I printed out a page with three Greek words on it, that I hoped would set the tone for my year. It hangs on my fridge thusly:




Eudaimonia: literally, “well-daemoned,” “well-spirited.” Happy, virtuous, excellent, living well. For me, this meant to aim for the things that create that sense of joyful ease, creative flow, peaceful purpose.

Eucharistia: gratitude.

Metanoia: transformation.

These words are a guidepost, not a to-do list. This means they don’t provide the tremendous satisfaction I associate with the conquered to-do item (seriously, nothing like hitting that check box on Google Keep; how I miss it…) But I see them every day, and every day I’m a little more likely to think about what I have to be grateful for, or how to lean further into the things that give me joy, away from the things that don’t. Or to reflect on the ways transformation is always possible.

I think it’s helping, even if it’s hard to know without being able to cross it off as complete. I still have a long way to go with the transformation part. But for today, I’m sitting outside with the birds and the breeze, and that is hard to beat.