Who would you be without that thought?

Someone recently asked me if I get anxious about anything given that many of my posts are upbeat. You betcha! There were many unspoken questions in that musing. And I could say, “Yes” to all of them in varying degrees. I have become vigilant about helping fears dissolve, but sometimes they do catch me by surprise. Flying under my radar, they overstay their welcome.

It happened just last week. I held a several-week streak of improved exercise and healthy eating. I hoped to see some demonstration of success each morning as I stepped on the scale, but nada. No change. I wasn’t upset, but I couldn’t figure it out. It’s simple math. Increased caloric expenditure plus reduced caloric intake should equal weight loss. Then on this particular morning, I stepped on the scale and saw one less pound register.

Did you just imagine me “whooping”, throwing jazz hands, or air punching out a growly and glorious, “YES!”? None of that happened. I looked at the number and stepped off the scale in silence. I had the sense that I should be happy to have finally gotten what I’d hoped for, but felt not even a blip of satisfaction. I wasn’t sure why.

A couple of hours later, I caught a dark thought crossing my mind. Had I worked hard enough to lose that pound…or could I be sick? In other words, had I lost a pound because I had cancer again? It was a ridiculous thought. I had worked at this, and I hadn’t even experienced weight loss as a symptom when I did have cancer.

Morning turned into afternoon. As I stood at the refrigerator filling a water bottle, I realized my brain was telling me it had found the words. “Unexplained weight loss,” I found myself thinking. “That’s what the term is, the doctors ask if you have ‘unexplained weight loss’.” My mind was still working on “the problem”. It wasn’t really a problem, but it had crept into a recess of my mind that was prepared to tackle it. And tackle it, it would, whether helpful or not.

My weight loss was neither dramatic nor unexplained. It was a perfect case study in slow and explainable weight loss. And friends, don’t you worry about it, because that pound is already back! Still, there I had been. Around dinner time, admitting that the thought hadn’t really left me, I focused on talking myself off the ledge. Unfortunately, I’d lost most of what should have been an uplifting day to that waste of time and energy.

Do I worry about big things like dying? Sure, sometimes. Do I have rational but pointless concerns, like whether the grocery delivery is going to really include what I ordered? Will I still have to drive to the store to pick up another head of broccoli because the one they included isn’t big enough to serve all of us? Yes. Yes, I do. How do I get out of it, you ask?

When I find myself ruminating, I ask myself one of the questions Byron Katie poses in her methodology “The Work”. “Who would you be without that thought?” Who would I be without the thought that I may have fewer years left than I would like? How different would today feel if I enjoyed sitting and reading a book instead of worrying about whether I would have to squeeze in the grocery run when I least want to? When I imagine the person I would be without the disturbing thought – whether big or small – it’s like a weight lifts from my shoulders. I experience what it would be like without worrying about that, and I smile and move on to the beautiful day in front of me.

I can usually tell legitimate concerns from a “glitch” in my thinking, one that draws attention away from enchanting things, and keeps me focused on scary what-if’s. Anxious glitches are rabbit holes leading to an unending stream of worries. Go into one side, and come out the other with an opposite, equally troubling worry. What if cancer recurs? Alternatively, what if it doesn’t recur, and a perfectly good future was wasted by making decisions for a truncated stay on planet earth? The scenarios agitate, but what if none of them are true? How open would the road before us be if we didn’t live these thoughts in our minds, going through the emotions and disruptions, as if they were real?

The only way to win the anxious glitch game is not to play. We can decide in these moments to be the person we would be and will be without those thoughts. We have this day. Let’s not give it away without enjoying it!

How comfortable can you get with a changing world order?

If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be reading a book on “Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order”, you would have heard a long and hardy laugh. And yet here I am today, listening to author Ray Dalio on Audible, hoping to gain a perspective that will make the contents of The Economist remotely digestible this week.

I rarely read magazines cover to cover, whether digital or hard copy. I find an article or two of interest, then move on. Not so today, as I wondered, would be wise to go full monty for a change? Well, it might be wise, but one look at the table of contents sent me running.

From The Economist’s Americas section, I could choose between articles on COVID, electoral administration, insurrection, “Mexico’s bad, mad energy plan”, or video games in Brazil. Oh, but the video games article was actually about video games expressing the political divide. Or I could turn to Asia, with offerings like, “Myanmar’s defectors”, “Omicron in India”, or “Unrest in Kazakhstan”.

Before you tell me to turn my attentions to Glamour if I want to read horoscopes and happy handbag stories, let me say that The Economist bills itself as including politics, science, business, culture, and the arts. It’s just that the rampant rise of bad news crowds all else from its pages.

When the pandemic first hit, I wished that I’d understood more about how previous generations had handled their own pandemics, and how their cultures, countries, and economies had evolved as a result. I reasoned this holy grail of knowledge could inspire some optimism in darker days. But I was distracted by the strain of living in our maddening world, and by my gratitude in being able to still experience beautiful moments in the face of our hardships.

Well, good news. Turns out Ray was doing a study of the rise and decline of empires at around the same time, and if I understand the press correctly, he incorporated the info I was wondering about into his new book. Unfortunately, the audible version is nearly 14 hours long. Fortunately, Ray’s intro says I can feel free to skip whatever sections I want. Woohoo!! Freedom!!

So I have embarked on this reading in the hope that insights into evolving world orders from a historical context will neutralize some of the anxieties that one can’t help but feel when faced with the barrage of bad news. I am cautiously optimistic. I mean, as optimistic as anyone can be about world order changing.

Is there anyone who hasn’t written a book (besides me)?

I feel like I can’t shake a stick and not hit someone who has just published a book. It begs the question, “Is there anyone out there – besides me – who hasn’t published a book?” And the obvious followup question arises: “Was it worth it?” And then the next: “Should I do it?”

When I began writing my blog, I wasn’t sure anyone would want to read it. As I continued to write post after post, I found some posts focused on the audience, and others were more about personal expression. Balancing the content so that there is enough of both allows me to continue to connect with an audience and express myself.

That’s not the case with a book. A book is all about the people who will read it. They will spend a healthy amount of time with it, so it shouldn’t disappoint. Orbit Media’s Annual Blogging Survey, now in its 8th year, shows average blog post length to be rising year over year. Still, the per post length for 2021 is estimated to be just over 1,400 words. Blog readers may give five minutes to a post. Masterclass estimates an average book is around 90,000 words depending on genre, or six hours if you did nothing but read cover to cover without a break.

Books also present the need to engage readers’ interests through or between disruptions, to inspire them to return often enough to read through to the end. While a blog post is short enough that it may not fight for attention once a reader begins, reader distraction for longer pieces is real. It’s been attributed to an increasing loss of “reading habit” prevalent in those raised in the digital age, the prevalence of multitasking, and even a fear of missing out. Universities and their faculty are exploring ways to support “engaged and active reading” and to promote a “reading culture” to offset the trend, which has a significant impact on learning.

One thing that many people who feel they have lost the ability to concentrate mention is that reading a book for pleasure no longer works for them. We have got so used to skim reading for fast access to information that the demand of a more sophisticated vocabulary, a complex plot structure or a novel’s length can be difficult to engage with.

“The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world”, Harriet Griffey, The Guardian, October 14, 2018.

With all of the challenges presented by longer pieces, it’s ironic that more new authors than ever appear to be emerging. It’s very difficult to get any reliable statistics on newly published first time authors, but the growth of indie publishing platforms in recent years seems to indicate a growth in authorship. Statista research into 12 independent publishers indicates a median growth rate of about 77% for indie publishers from 2018 to 2020, with some doubling and tripling their sales growth during that period. The pandemic and access to self-publishing platforms is thought to have increased indie-publishing in 2021, as well.

The answer to the question “Should I do it?” is simple for me: If I have something of value to share, then I should. But whether the road to writing and publishing the average book is worth it or not is something into which I have no personal insight. Written Word Media’s 2021 survey of indie published authors found that the median number of books per author was 10. At some point you would think that if it wasn’t worth it, authors would simply lose interest or momentum before reaching those numbers.

In terms of worth or return, it doesn’t appear to be about the money. Most authors don’t make a living on book publishing alone. And the road can be extremely long. Take Nancy McCabe, whose 2020 book Can This Marriage Be Saved: A Memoir was 30 years in the making. So what is it that sustains authors on the long journey from blank page to publication? Was it worth it, and why or why not?

If you’ve written a book, I’d love it if you’d share in the comments below whether you feel it was worth it, and why. It’s the story that statistics alone can’t tell.

Wading into writing contest waters.

Although I love a good challenge, writing contests hadn’t interested me until recently. A friend shared her experience with NYCMidnight, a contest that launches at midnight on a specific date, and allows you only 24 hours to write and submit a newly written piece. It sounded like a fun effort, and I loved the idea of so many people taking the same prompts at the same time and turning them into unique works.

I decided to give it a go, and signed up for an October 15 contest of micro-fiction (250 words or less). As midnight approached, I couldn’t wait to find out what my prompts and genre would be. The anticipation was so exciting! It felt like Christmas! The launch message came, and I navigated to my name for my group assignment. My face fell. I’d be writing something in the Romance genre, including an activity of swimming in a pond, and using the word “dawn”. A few important points here:

  • I have never written micro-fiction in any genre.
  • I have never written or desired to write romance.
  • Swimming in a pond is my personal nightmare given my aversion to dark water and what lies beneath.

The thought of ditching it crossed my mind, and not just once. But I pulled my big-girl socks up and gave it a shot. Given the challenges with the assignment, I am pleased to say that I did manage to write something and submit it. I’m also pleased that, despite falling into the romance genre, it’s not too blush-worthy for prime time. I won’t know how I fared in the contest until December, but I have to admit that I enjoyed rising to the challenge of stretching into a new genre and format. I’m sharing the micro-fiction here, as likely the only piece in the romance genre I’ll ever write…unless another contest comes along.

Sunday Ritual

Written October 15, 2021

She caught her breath as the chilled night air greeted her. Walking toward the pond he’d built, her lips spread into a smile as she thought of how his vision, though not his hands, had made it reality. A pond for their children to swim in, but no ordinary pond. She walked past steps flanked by urns with cascading bright flowers. Her toes broke the dark water, irises and rocks surrounding it on all sides, backlit as the sun peaked up in front of her.

Waist deep now, she spread her arms wide, and watched the water swirl around her fingers as she moved through. In an hour it would be dawn, and she would lie next to him in the silence of the smooth teak deck, slightly warmer than the night, but not as warm as his chest and thighs. They would watch the sun rise, and speak quietly words for just the two of them. When another hour had passed, the patter of tiny feet would run toward them, starting their day, wondering about breakfast.

Having crossed the length of the pond, she turned back toward the house just in time to see him slip out of the bedroom doors, a towel slung around his waist. He was more than she had imagined when they married. He became even more each day. She waited for this man who had made her the woman she was at that moment. Waited for their Sunday ritual.