Friday, May 28, 2010

Anonymous Behind the Wheel

Have you ever noticed that some people turn into complete ogres as soon as they get behind the wheel of a car?  People you like, your friends and family, who otherwise appear to be perfectly decent human beings? I have a theory about that.

When I was little and my grandmother caught me sneaking around, doing something I shouldn't have been doing, instead of yelling at me she told me this: You can tell what a person is really like by what they choose to do when no one is watching. (Yeah, Grandmother Crews was an immensely cool lady.) I think this is what happens when we drive.
Think about it. Unless you drive a convertible or live in a really, really small town (or both) the other drivers don't know who you are. They can barely see your face. They can't identify you by your license plate. So you can do pretty much whatever you want and get away with it.

I have a few friends and relatives (thankfully, only a few) who take advantage of this anonymity. I have begun to wonder about their true nature, how they really view themselves in relation to the rest of mankind, due to their driving habits. These are people who appear thoughtful and compassionate when in direct contact with other human beings but who morph into The Angry Driving Beast when they get behind the wheel.

You've met people like this on the road. They tailgate you because you're not going fast enough for them, even if you're already speeding. They cut you off. They lay on the horn when you don't zip ahead quickly enough the moment the light turns green. They speed like nobody's business, not just a little but a hell of a lot.

Here's the thing: When you get your drivers license, after you've passed the written and driving tests to prove you KNOW the law, you sign a contract. This contract says you will obey that law (you can't claim ignorance here since you've just passed the test) and will drive in a safe and courteous manner. Most people choose to do so. But there are a few who don't.

Do they think they're above the law? Maybe where they're going is vastly more important than where everyone else is going. Maybe they're angry that so many other people are out on "their" road, blocking their progress. This kind of driving behavior makes me think that these people believe themselves to be somehow better than everyone else. Otherwise, I just can't explain it - why would a decent person suddenly become indecent in the driver's seat of an automobile?

I've got to go take my daughter to a petsitting job now. Let's hope I don't meet too many of those drivers along the way.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Wrestling with Demons, or How Not to Be a Nice Person

I'm a writer. It's what I do. I decided a couple years ago to shift from non-fiction to fiction. Nobody bothered to tell me that, in order to write good fiction, you have to become sadist and torture your characters.

Here's the thing: Unless you prefer overblown literary fiction, when you read a novel you want conflict. That's what drives the story, what pushes people to do things that make a difference in the outcome. Without conflict the reader might die of boredom. Or at least put the book down and never buy another title with your name on it.

Look at the classics. Huckleberry Finn. War and Peace. Wuthering Heights. Shakespeare. Heck, even going back to Homer, every good story has battles, either literal or figurative, between the characters. There's not always a clear-cut good guy and bad guy, but the central figures in the plot need to be at odds with one another in some fashion. Maybe they disagree about how to handle a situation. Maybe their values are very different, so different they can't find common ground. Maybe one of them is just a dirtbag.

So here I am, sitting at my desk, beaming over the great plotline I've thought up and tweaked with the help of illuminating conversations with friends and spouse. I've got a great main character - she's really three-dimensional, I know her backstory all the way down to her birth, and she has great motivation to do all sorts of interesting things in my story. Even though she isn't a flesh-and-blood person, I'm kind of fond of her. And in order to write the novel, I have to be really mean to her.

I have to put her in situations that encourage her to make mistakes. I have to make the other characters attack her, undermine her, plot against her. Maybe her first mistake is an honest one, something anyone could have done in similar circumstances. But what happens when we make mistakes and then panic? We make more mistakes, trying to 'fix' the situation the first one caused. The snowball effect ensues, bringing down disaster on my beloved main character. Yikes.

I hate this part. I guess I'm not really a sadist at heart (that's probably a good thing) but I know what is necessary to create a gripping story. I've read books that bored me to tears because the conflict didn't seem real or there wasn't enough (or any) of it.

So I have to allow my imagination to roam into the darker realms of meanness...if I were the bad guy, what would I do? How would I trip up an opponent, a really sweet woman who only wants to see justice done? What would I do to embarrass her, encourage her to make mistakes, push her to panic?

The good part is that I then get to figure out how she gets herself out of the mess. At least I have that satisfaction. After all, I do believe in happy endings.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Have you done enough penance yet?

When I'm meditating (which I do regularly) my guides often 'pop in' and offer thoughts about whatever I'm concerned about at the moment. Usually it's just a hint to point me in the right direction, an idea that will help me move along in life. A couple days ago, however, one of my guides decided to apply the hint with a two-by-four.

Bear in mind, I do a lot of shamanic working so I'm used to talking to otherworldly beings. Yep, just like those 'invisible friends' you had as a kid, only I'm still doing it as an adult. And yes, I know there's medication for that sort of thing!
Over the past three or four years I've worked hard to heal the wounds from my childhood, forgive and release and move on. I've been putting myself back together, figuring out who I really am. I thought I was doing well with this process. So there I was, sitting in my favorite meditation spot in our art/sewing studio, which happens to be in the dug-in end of the basement, completely surrounded by Mother Earth. I began the meditation. I focused on my goal for that session and an image popped into my head.

I was in my Inner Chamber, standing between two pillars. Each one was topped with a clear box containing an item. One box gleamed and glowed, emanating a soft, golden light. Inside it lay a crown. The other box was dark. It just squatted there in the shadows, full of what looked like old, corroded hand tools. My guide appeared and told me that either box would get me to where I wanted to go, figuratively speaking. I looked at the golden box, turned my back to it and reached for the other one. I grasped the tools - they were heavy - and turned back to her, expecting confirmation of my correct choice.

She was staring at me, scowling, her hands on her hips.

"Have you done enough penance yet?" she asked.

Well, tie me to an anthill and smear my ears with jam.
Of course, I put the tools back and took the crown instead. But I realized, thanks to the two-by-four, that the ultimate healing comes not from identifying and releasing each individual bit of ick, salving each individual wound. The ultimate healing comes from recognizing our own worth, our own value. I realized that for much of my life I had chosen the old tools instead of the crown, figuratively speaking, because I believed I wasn't worthy of the crown. I've been doing penance for being imperfect, for being human. How very Calvinist of me.

Sure, I can point to all the horrible things that happened during my childhood as evidence that I had my sense of worth beaten out of me, literally. But I know a lot of people who are struggling with the same problem, people who had perfectly happy childhoods. What is it that causes us to shift from the young child's innate sense of worth, the sense of knowing they deserve every good thing in this world, to the adult's bad habit of self-criticism, of finding everything wrong within us instead of looking for what's right?

Little kids instinctively know that they come straight from the Divine, no question. They are, as the poet said, fresh from God. They don't stop to ponder whether they deserve every little thing they want - they demand it all, right now. Sure, we adults build up in our minds exactly what we want, how we would prefer our lives to be, and sometimes we even ask for those things, but there's always that little voice in the background saying, "Please give it to me only if I'm worthy." We step on our own toes all the time.

I'm pretty sure the Source of All that loved us into being thinks we're worthy, KNOWS we're worthy. So I'm going to turn around now and face who I was as a child and find that sense of value again. It doesn't come from what we've done or what other people think of us. It's built in. If you believe in a holographic universe then it's in each and every cell of your body, each and every molecule of matter everywhere, everywhen.

I'm going to go try on that crown now. I'll let you know how it goes.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Curses, Foiled Again! Plotting Against Myself

Yesterday I had the wonderful experience of sharing writing time with my 10-year-old daughter. We were both in my office, on separate computers, working on our stories and occasionally tossing out comments and questions to each other. I had a great time and actually got a good bit of writing done. I'm hoping these 'write-ins' become a regular part of our daily life.

What I found most interesting is that we were both facing the same issue in our writing: The Dreaded Middle Part. I can come up with a great beginning to my story and I know where I want it to end up, but getting from Point A to Point B can be dodgy, especially when I include the necessary psychological changes in my characters as I go along. My daughter's story is about elves and fairies in a made-up galaxy. Mine is about human beings in North Georgia. But we faced the same dilemma.

Somewhere in the course of our conversation, when my daughter was sounding way more deep and grown-up than a 10-year-old is supposed to, she asked a profound question: How do you get from Point A to Point B in real life? The same process should apply, she suggested, to characters and their storylines.


First of all, I don't know many people who apply themselves to life with the mindfulness necessary to even identify Point A and Point B, much less figure out how to get from here to there. Sure, most of us follow the standard go-to-school-and-get-a-job plan, but my daughter's Point A and Point B included more than just the practical bits of reality - she meant, how do you get from the person you are at Point A to the person you want to become at Point B?

Sure, no problem, kid, I'll just outline the process to you in three easy steps. Not.

Thirty seconds of conversation yesterday morning has kept my mind busy for more than a full day now. I've identified my own Point A, who I am and where I'm at right now. I've identified Point B, in both practical and philosophical terms. Now I'm patiently waiting for insight as to the path between the two points. All right, not entirely patiently. But I'm filling up the time by working on those same points and the path between them for my novel's main character. I know who she is when the novel starts. I know who she is when it ends. Now it's my job to present her with situations that force her to change, to undertake the process that moves her from Point A to Point B on an inner level. It won't be pretty. Life rarely is. But I'm sure it will be satisfying. I hope I'll be that fulfilled when I reach Point B, too.