Thursday, November 3, 2016

Making it up as I go along

As I was changing the calendar from October to November, I realized that in two short months, another year will have ended.  Where in the world did 2016 go?  If I look back on my blogs and journals, it’s been a time filled with unexpected adventures.  Not that that’s any big surprise.  Ever since I left a traditional job in 1999, I’ve been making life up as I go along.  There’s been no template, no rules, no rubric, no role model to follow.  In many ways it’s been completely terrifying, but for the most part, it’s been an incredible ride.
Not that I’m even close to the finish line. 
Still, if I’ve learned anything along the way, it’s that the slower I go, the faster I get there.  Sounds like a paradox, doesn’t it?  When I was younger, the idea used to frustrate me to no end.  (And to be honest, sometimes it still does.)  Now that I’ve lived several rounds of the same lessons, I figured out that to consciously move step-by-step means I won’t skip one up the spiral staircase of my ever-evolving existence. 
Yesterday I was working out in the free weight area with a few men who were pumping iron.  As I’m looking forward to climbing Bear Mountain the next time I visit Sedona, I’ve been training on the steps, the wooden benches, and the highest incline on the treadmill.  Once I’ve mastered the mobility, I’ll wear a backpack and slowly add water bottles to mimic the supplies I’ll have to carry on the five-hour hike.  I started preparing for the trip the week after I returned from Arizona last August, and have been making incredible progress over the past several weeks. 
Still, last night I took some ribbing from one of the trainers who jokingly ordered, “Faster, Kate!  Go faster!”
That struck a nerve.  I grew up with a father who constantly told me to work faster.  Just the other day my neighbor was watching while I cut the grass and playfully admonished me to move faster.  It seems this entire culture is hell-bent on rushing productivity and I used to be as well.  Now I’m no longer interested in speed.  After years of pushing myself too hard, it’s a joy to let my body lead the way, telling me how far it can go, reminding me when to stop.
“No, thanks,” I told the trainer, shaking my head.  “I’ll lose my balance and fall.  It’s better for me to add weight or use a higher platform.”  Then, just to prove it to him (and myself) I picked up the mid-range bench and steadily climbed up and down, holding eight-pound weights in my hands.  Not an easy feat after a long day of teaching yoga and housework.  Even so, I was thankful to be able to do it at some level, for I don’t have a specific workout plan or target goal and I don’t really need one.  
If you’ve read “A big bag of Butterfingers”, then you know how Type A I used to be when fueled by adrenaline and sugar.  Imagine that coupled with the stress of working in a service industry that relies on demand all the while striving to establish myself in the publishing world.  Nothing in my professional life has ever been predictable, except for the fact that it’s always been inconsistent.  Some days are diamonds.  Some days are stone.  Some years are feast.  Some are famine.  Yet along the way there has always been more than enough work to sustain me.  More than enough time to accomplish the things I want to do.
More than enough freedom to move at my own pace.

It’s been two years since I wrote The Lace Makers and I’m a little anxious about starting a new novel.  I always get like this at the beginning of anything, as staring at a blank screen when I sit down to write can be daunting.   Particularly with Sapphire and Karin’s stories, I agonized about who they were, what their voices would sound like, how to fully express the images that floated through my mind.  At first, I thought I knew what I was doing.  For over a year I had researched both the Civil War and the Holocaust.  There were stacks of notes at the ready.  A library of books to reference.  Yet for the first third of the novel, it felt as though I was pushing too hard, rushing the story, trying to meet a self-imposed deadline...and eventually stalled out.
Then, like always, a miracle happened.
Someone asked me what it’s like to be a writer.  “How do you do it?  I mean, how do you pull ideas out of thin air and put them on paper?”
“I don’t know,” I shrugged.  “I just sit down and write whatever comes up in my imagination.”
“Do you know how the book will end?”
“Yes, I always have the last scene in mind,” I told him.  “But I never know how I’m going to get there.”
“Are you going to write tonight?”
“Yes,” I nodded.
“What’s coming to mind now?”
Rolling my eyes to the ceiling, I saw a clear image floating up to the surface.  “Something about shoes and feet.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know,” I replied.  “I’m making it up as I go along.”
As I drove home, I thought about one of my favorite movies of all time.  In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is on a quest to discover the Ark of the Covenant, and not without some incredible plot twists and turns.  In one pivotal scene, he’s about to chase after a truck with no vehicle available.
How?” asks his friend, Sala.
“I don’t know,” Indy replied dryly.  “I’m making this up as I go.”
What followed was an iconic chase scene that kept me on the edge of my seat, not only because of the stunt work involved, but because, as a teenager, I was enthralled at Indy’s ability to improvise at will.  These days, I’m inspired by his courage, his tenacity, and his full-throttle approach to staying in the moment so that all options can be open as he makes his way forward.  Next month when I start writing Moon Dance, I won’t have to battle the bad guys.  I won’t even have to fight with myself, for after ten books, I’ve finally figured out how to let the story make itself up as I go along.

One of my yoga students recently enrolled in an improv class at our local Repertoire Theater.  “It’s so great!” Shannon gushed.  “I get to let my inner Tigger come out!  It’s just what I need in my high-stress life.”
“I’ll bet you look forward to it all week,” I said.
“Yes!  And the best thing that I’ve learned is that you can’t plan ahead when you’re doing improv,” she grinned.  “It’ll ruin the whole thing if you even try.”
“Kinda like life, huh?” I asked.  “We can’t really plan ahead too much or it will ruin all the surprises along the way.”
“Right!” Shannon beamed.  “The director taught us that the three most important things to remember while doing improvisation with other actors are to love, trust, and play.  We have to love each other so we can be ourselves, trust each other so that no matter what happens, we know we’ll be safe.  And then of course, once those things are in place, the play part just comes easily!”
“Love, trust, and play,” I echoed.  “How simple and yet challenging.”
“It is,” Shannon agreed.  “But oh, how wonderful to practice!  Improv is life!”
Kinda reminds me of another great line Indiana Jones said in The Last Crusade:  “We don’t follow maps to buried treasure and X never, ever marks the spot.”  
I sometimes think it would be grand to follow a list of directions that would indubitably lead to finding an incredible agent, a spacious new home in the country, and the most wonderful man in the world.  After all, it wasn’t supposed to take this long for any of those things to happen.    Still, I’m inspirited by an interview with a twelve-year-old Native American boy who is being raised by his grandmother and uncle in a small trailer along with numerous other children.  President of his class, captain of the football team, and an accomplished tribal dancer, Robert Looks Twice wisely knows how to value his own path and not strive to follow an easier route.
When asked if he’s jealous of more affluent kids, he replied, “No, because my uncle told me that there’s gonna be a muddy road and an easy road.  The rich kid takes the easy road and the poor kid takes the muddy, rough road…and they’re building up strength the whole time.”
I’ve waited decades for my heart’s desire, all the while taking a muddy road on the way to the mountain top that finally seems within my reach.   There’s been no map.  No X marking the spot.  No indication of how much longer I’ll have to climb.  But none of that matters.  
I know who I am.  
I know why I’m here.  
I know that even when I reach the top, there will be even greater heights toward which I will aspire.  
Moment by moment, I'll go at my own pace, building up strength, building up my character.  I'll improvise when I need to, take action when I can, and stay on the lookout for endless treasures which are always revealed every step of the way.