Outsmarting My Smart Phone, Part I

My first cell phone was too big to put in a pocket or a purse. It was larger than a Princess desk phone, and all the rage before wireless made its debut. We bought it because everyone had one. It seemed like the cool thing to do. It sat between the front seats in the car that Bill drove. We only made calls with it when we were going to be late for an appointment or in the event of an emergency … both of which rarely ever happened. It was more a pain in the butt than anything else. It was a while before I got a flip phone that I could hide away in my purse.

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with my cell phone. Firstly, I don’t enjoy talking on the phone that much anymore. I rarely give out my phone number and I often don’t carry it with me. I simply don’t like being interrupted when I’m shopping, eating a meal, reading a book, taking a walk, or anything else for that matter. When I’m out of town I do take it with me, just so I can be reached if there is a problem at home or with my kids. I think the use of cell phones in public is way overboard. I worry about the all the little ones who know how to use these gadgets as they are learning to walk. Then there are the teens and tweens like my grandkids who spend way too much texting, playing games, and not watching where they are going. It’s quite frequent around here to watch UVA students crossing the street without looking either way to see if cars are coming, because they are checking their email. And there are lots of adults whose cell phone manners are particularly atrocious. Have you ever had dinner with a friend you haven’t seen in a long time and he or she pulls out a cell phone to check emails, even before she reads the menu, or asks you how you are?

Over the last few years and the last one especially I’ve gotten more hooked on this canned entertainment than I’ve ever wanted to be. I believed those who told me that I had to have a presence on Facebook and Twitter to sell my book, and connect with my readers. If I didn’t have friends on the internet what did I have? Nothing, I was told. So I opened accounts on both of of those time wasters and took up checking my emails way too often, as if checking it eleven times an hour would guarantee that I’d just won a prize for my fantastic writing.

Then the last election happened and because I was so caught up in the anxiety and fear that many of us experienced, I was constantly on Facebook checking out the latest Breaking News that brought me into a dark period of depression. Being a news junkie, the cell phone did not ease my growing addiction to having to know everything that was going on all around me. I no longer needed a television set to tune into. I started carrying the phone with me everywhere, as if knowing what the president-elect was doing right this very moment would cause a major world war, or stop the world from spinning without my knowing it. I even checked it while I was eating breakfast and lunch. Something I said I’d never, ever do. If I had an appointment, the first thing I did was pull out my cell phone as I walked out the door.

There were the hate posts from both sides chewing out those who were upset about the election and how to get over it. Even those I agreed with most of time got nasty to those whom they said weren’t doing enough to resist. Making phone calls, writing postcards, marching, and signing petitions was all the rage. If you didn’t do enough of any one of those things you were bashed by those who spent all of their available time doing them. I absolutely believe in resisting, but when those on my side start picking on those who can’t do it all, I really begin to question exactly what is going on here. Fortunately most of that activity is over at least for the time being.

Then one morning I woke up, feeling especially down. I realized how much complaining I was doing because I never had time to finish anything I started. As the weather warmed, I wanted to spend more time outside pruning last summer’s garden left-overs and listening to the birds chatter around me. But I didn’t have time. I wanted more time to read, write in my journal, and prepare delicious food. I spent a lot of time over a lot of days, trying to figure out how to change my lack of time. What I discovered that nothing was really holding me back from doing what I wanted to do. I was simply addicted to the cell phone, the internet and all that it represents.

I’ve started making choices about how to spend my time, rather than being run by robots and having my brain get hooked on something out in the atmosphere that I can’t even see. When ever I get the urge to check my email or see what’s happening on Facebook, I ask myself why I need to do that now. Sometimes I still go down the rabbit hole but other times I hold off and enjoy the sunshine and the newly blooming flowers that are growing around me.

I’ll be writing more about this over the next few weeks. I’ll share ways to have more time for yourself and be more mindful. In the meantime, have a glorious week. And before you check your cell phone, ask yourself why you need to do that right this minute!

On Getting Rid Of Writer’s Block

DSCF0860I’ve been going through a few weeks of being unable to write. I spent the first week after my trip recovering from a nasty cold. The second week  I finished up laundry and caught up on missed appointments.  I don’t know what took up the third week but it wasn’t writing and that is what I wanted to get back into. During the fifth week, disgusted and scared that I might be suffering from a blockage, I decided to simply sit down at my computer and see what might come forth.  I had no problem writing blog posts. But working on my book was another story.

It probably had a lot to do with the fact that I had finished Part II of my book while I was sick in England. I couldn’t go out much and needed something to keep my mind occupied rather than allow myself to turn bitchy and unpleasant to be around.  But back at home and coaxing those first words out for Part III seemed well nigh impossible. I needed to change my style from a time line narrative to something more free and open, where I  allow myself to become the person I am now …  not the person I was back during the days before I took control of my life and began the process of healing from the trauma I’d been through.

But it was hard for me to change costumes.  Since I started this project, I’d drag out the old screwed-up me every day, dressed in her victimhood and write in her voice. I’ve been doing that for almost a year now and had gotten pretty good at.  Through the writing process the pain of that time has now been dealt with and I no longer feel the hurt, the dread or the fear I made myself return to in order to begin my travels back in time. Who says writing isn’t healing?

In my first attempts to move forward in time, my natural instinct was to return to that old time driven story which I wanted to be done with. I wanted Part III to be more open, philosophical, and forgiving of those who had done me wrong. Whenever I began to write about my process of healing I was drawn into the conflict of who to be … Joan, past or present.  The result?  Nothing! So I gave myself some time to relax and clean out a few closets, which seemed to be a natural remedy for the undertaking of making the shift I wanted. I read through journals of my healing time and otherwise occupied my time with seeing friends and having some fun.

Knowing that I was going to see my writing coach, Kevin, this week, I sat down on the weekend in front of the screen to see what would happen.  I typed a few beginning words.  I didn’t like them. I deleted them, took a deep breath, and started again.  It took a while but before too long I was on my way to writing the transition chapter into Part III.  Monday night having finished that chapter, I started another.  Same thing.  I couldn’t stand the opening words I chose, deleted them and tried again. Words started to pour out in bucket loads.   The next morning I sat down again to continue work on that chapter and wrote another five hundred words before my appointment with Kevin. I didn’t want to stop. All I want to do now is keep going. I have no difficulty getting back to where I was after taking breaks and I seem to have entered the third phase of my book without further difficulty.

As in the past when I’ve had difficulty writing, I’ve taken some time off and allowed the project to simmer on a back burner.  Sure, I pissed and moaned about my lack of words, but eventually when I stopped fighting it, I was able to relax and try again.  It has always worked.

How do you end periods of being unable to write?  I’d love to hear about your ways of getting back to work.

On Burning My Journals

A  Journal collage and some writing.

A Journal collage and some writing.

When we decided to move from our house on the banks of the South Fork Rivanna River Reservoir almost three years ago, I was in a hurry to get out and move into a smaller place in town, rather than out in the country. We were in the midst of a cold season that was very much like a Vermont winter, with two major snowstorms and lots of cold. The first storm brought three feet of snow and the second delivered two more.  We lived on a private road and had to hire somebody to plow our road and the driveway.  I was stuck at home a lot that winter and had a serious case of Cabin Fever, which usually means depression, anxiety, and a nasty temper. Being cooped up in the house where my mother had lived with us for six and a half years, brought back the many sad and unspeakable memories I’d gathered during her time with us. All I wanted was out.

Once March came and we found the house in town that we now live in, we put the river house on the market. I began the hard work of packing up what we wanted to keep and finding homes for the rest of the stuff we would have no room for in the new house … one half the size of the one we were leaving. Hard decisions had to be made. We still had many of Mom’s belongings … things I hid in closets so that I couldn’t see them … things that reminded me of the trauma of watching her as she slowly died of lung cancer and old age.

I hadn’t yet been able to deal with all that, but clearly if I was going to move I’d finally have to put on my big girl panties and make some grownup decisions. It was much easier than I thought it would be, but then there was my studio and all of the paintings, photographs and the artist materials that I had easily stored in the river house but now had no room for in the new one.  I couldn’t decide what to do with it all.  Of course I would keep my finished work, but I was in a rush, not thinking clearly, and thought I’d just give the rest away and start over again.

The final straw that broke the camel’s back were the number of large boxes already filled with the journals I’d been keeping since I began writing them in the 80’s. I threw up my hands and felt I had to get rid of them. It was all stuff I didn’t remember writing and considered most of it, if not all of it, to be the worst writing in the world. Not only were the journals terrible to read because of my poor grammar, misspelling and the boredom rating I gave them, there were things I’d written about that I didn’t want anyone else to read, ever. I decided I’d burn them all, along with the past in the old wood stove we kept in the basement.

The day before I planned to do the deed, I was swinging back and forth between “should I or shouldn’t I burn my work.”  There were a number of paintings as well that I’d thought I’d include in the blaze, but I kept hearing a little voice in the background repeating constantly: “You’ll be sorry.”

The next morning I called my daughter to ask her opinion of what I was planning. She roared over the phone that I must not do it.  And when I finally told Bill what I had in mind, he too was of the opinion that I shouldn’t burn anything. He promised that we would rent a storage room where I could keep my artwork, boxes of journals, artist supplies and anything else I wasn’t yet sure I wanted to part with, for as long as I needed to.

A box of my journals.

A box of my journals.

Over the past few months I’ve been rereading through many of those journals as I sit and put my memoir together. They come in very handy for filling in the blanks that show up in my memory.  And I’m finding them surprisingly fun to read, despite my grammar usage and spelling mistakes. I’m so very grateful that my conscience, my daughter, and my husband, encouraged me to keep them instead of burning them, flushing them down the toilet, or any of the other juvenile things I thought of doing at the time.

Have you ever considered destroying your writings or your artwork? If you do it, know that one day you might be very angry with yourself!

Chasing Ice

© 2007, Joan Z. Rough. August 15, 2007, off the coast of Greenland.

It’s November. Halloween is over. Americans spent eighty billion dollars on candy and costumes this Halloween. When it comes to money, what we have spent on the current election is unspeakable. Christmas carols will soon be echoing throughout every mall in every state of the union. The big push will be on to get the biggest and bestest gifts to put under the tree, so that we all can have more things that we want but don’t really need.

There are millions of our fellow citizens still without power, water and food after the visitation of Hurricane/Super Storm Sandy.  Many of them have lost everything and are homeless.  On Tuesday, we will all trek to the polls to vote (I sure hope YOU do), making decisions that will affect how life will unfold during the next four years and beyond.  The big decision we make together as a nation will have consequences one way or another for all of us.  We all need to rethink what we value most.

I will be seventy years old this month.  I am not as concerned about my own welfare as I am for the children of this world and this beautiful blue orb we call home.  I have grandchildren ages nine and twelve, as well as a step-granddaughter who is twenty-four.  I think about how they will fare in the upside-down, topsy-turvy world they will be inheriting from US.  Yes, from you and me.

What will it take for them to reach their seventies as easily as I have? Will our nation be continuously at war, trying to keep peace around the world, while we ignore our own citizens? Today we argue about the issues we have with the economy, unemployment and health care. What about our infrastructure?  There is much of New York City that will need to be rebuilt in order for it to survive the New Normal that Mother Nature has in store.  There are bridges all over our nation that need rebuilding. Our ancient power-grid will not last forever.  Almost every aspect of life will need to change if we are to continue living here on this planet without destroying it and ourselves.

I could write pages filled with the things we need to do in order to keep us all safe and comfortable as we move into an uncertain future.  I could climb on a wooden crate on a street corner and yell and scream about the alarming rate at which glaciers in the far north are melting and that water levels around the world are already rising.  Would you listen if I told you we are running out of fresh water?  That the air we breathe is full of toxins that will eventually bring death and suffering to all of us?

Most of us don’t like to think about those questions. Who wants to consider painful scenarios in which there seems to be little hope. Some say we have no problems. They believe that we can live just as we are. If certain plants or animals become extinct, they won’t notice or care. But fifty-eight percent of us agree that we do have some major problems.  The rest deny that anything is changing and if it is, it certainly isn’t being caused by human activity.

Every November, Charlottesville hosts the Virginia Film Festival.  This is it’s 25th season.  Yesterday, I had the privilege of seeing, Chasing Ice, a film that will be released to the general public in the near future. I urge all of you to see it, the creation of world-renowned photographer, James Balog. In 2007, he founded the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), a photographic project in which the rate of ice melt is being visually recorded in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and Montana. Using the art of photography and the known science around global warming, he presents moving, visual proof that the glaciers are melting at a rate so fast, that it is almost unimaginable.

The stunning beauty of this film will take your breath away, as well as raise questions that all of us must consider. Through recognizing the tragedy that we are all participating in, and speaking about it openly, I believe we will find ways to adapt our behaviors in a changing world.

The Clock

Big Ben

The Timex on my wrist, the old Seth Thomas clock on the wall that rings the hours, and the small, black electronic cube that sits on my nightstand beeping at six AM have been with me always.   They not only denote the hour and the passage of time, they have been the enemy. I have fought with them constantly.

Stop the clock. I’ve run out of time. It’s time to eat, time to sleep, time to feed the dog, pick up the kids. Time is short, too long and are we there yet?  Forever in a hurry, I was constantly running.  But somehow I was always on time or even early getting to the places I was supposed to be.  Why didn’t I have ulcers?

One afternoon while reading a good book and needing to be at an appointment in fifteen minutes, I caved in. Tired of rushing and feeling rebellious I kept on reading even as the clock ticked away.  I finished the chapter, got in the car, and drove to my appointment.  I was only five minutes late but I had been overwhelmed by anxiety on the way, thinking I’d be terribly late.  I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone, my stomach churned filled with a load of worry stones, and I didn’t know what I’d been thinking.

Like a drunk who finally hits bottom and knows that the sauce will kill him soon, I knew that if I kept running the way I did,  it would be the end of me.  I’d crash the car, fall off a cliff and/or my heart would simply quit because it couldn’t keep up. My life was a train wreckwaiting to happen.

Changing my pace has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  But somehow I’ve managed to slow the train, though it can still be easy to fall back into old habits if I’m not careful.  I do still have occasional overly busy days, but if I’m feeling overbooked I reschedule an appointment or two for another day when things aren’t so hectic. I’ve learned to say no to the one more thing that will tip the scale sending me into overwhelm and yes to breathing deeply and taking whole days when I don’t have to go anywhere but stay here and tend to whatever I want and need to do. I love those days the best and manage to get to my writing with time to spare for a nap, to garden, or read.  I still worry about being late once in a while, but I’m also beginning to trust that the clock does sometimes run slow and I’ll arrive in plenty of time without being frazzled.

I wrote this poem back in 1993 in the heat of my war with time.  I’m so grateful that battle is over.

The Clock

A tranquil pool reflects
As only water can
The confection of moon
Star lanterns
Show the way down
To the mouth of a cave

A tattered moth
Hands me her flame
Tells me to wait
Just inside at the edge
For a ferry to deliver me
To the middle of night

Aboard the vessel
The oarsman leers
With eyes that glow
In burning sockets
His mouth overflowing
Knots of squirming eels
I hold the flame closer
Easing my fear
A solitary owl hoots
At the sight of land

I am lifted to shore
By rigid talons
Left on the sand
Where a porcelain clock
Elephant high
Stands guard
Naming the hours
As they race around
An eroding track

The clock strikes twelve
Spilling sleeping cuckoos
Severed hands
Frantic numerals gather momentum
Left without time
Lifting the flame to possibility
I ignite the ticking sky

jzr, 1993