Thursday, September 24, 2009

Thoughtful Thursday: Eleven Keys to Serenity

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been a frequent visitor to a site called Come In Character, where authors and characters can interact in a creative, sometimes therapeutic way. Well, yesterday marked my first day as a regular contributor to the site, and perhaps due to my current frame of mind, I decided to focus on “frustration” as a conversation starter.

As it turned out, several authors and their characters had frustrations of their own, which was infinitely reassuring. Not that I wish misery on anyone else, but sometimes, when you’re feeling a bit lost – hurt by the economy, confused about your path in life, doubtful that your fiction will ever see the light of day, and overwhelmed by the responsibilities and promises in your life – it reassures you to know that you’re not alone in your daily struggle... that you’re not like this sad gorilla, isolated by your own dismay.

Airing a few of my frustrations and hearing others’ troubles – even in an entertaining forum like Come In Character – actually urged me to consider the things that routinely make me feel happy, grateful, inspired, and tranquil – especially when life seems most stressful and uncertain. In no particular order, here are my eleven keys to serenity:

Willie’s music: Even as a child, I found Willie Nelson’s unique voice incredibly soothing, and his laidback spirit extremely inspiring. I listened to my mom’s records often – so much so that he quickly became my favorite musician – and still is today. I’ve even seen him in concert on more than one occasion – once, on a trip to Branson, Missouri, with my mom, and, several years later, at the House of Blues in Chicago. When I was considering a career in the U.U. ministry (a long story that I won’t divulge today), I even wrote and delivered a sermon about him – in particular, about how spirituality can be found in the most unlikely of places. For me, a lifelong atheist, I’d always gotten a spiritual jolt from Willie’s songs – somehow, his words and music calmed me in a way that prayers do for others. Even today, when deadlines and commitments threaten to break me, I just have to listen to one of his many albums, and the stress dissipates. While many different types of music – from movie scores to Irish ballads – can calm me, too, there’s nothing quite like Willie – whatever you might think of him, he’s truly one-of-a-kind.

Favorite flicks: Some of my favorite movies can do the trick, too. Whenever the current state of publishing unnerves me – whenever the stiff competition, troublesome guidelines, and improbable odds make me question the sanity of my writing goals – I simply have to watch one of my favorite life-affirming flicks, from Waking Ned Devine (1998) to Wonder Boys (2000), and I’m back on the path again.

Good food: What can I say? I was born and raised in New Orleans – how could food not be a big part of my life? In fact, it’s often too big a part of my life – I depend on it, at times, for more than just sustenance. Certain foods – like raw oysters, dark chocolate, sweet cherries, tomato basil bisque, havarti cheese, kalamata olives, and lemon poppyseed muffins – have a way of bringing me a lasting moment of joy and reminding me that there’s a lot to appreciate in this complicated world. Of course, when it comes to yummy foods, it’s all about portion control – not just for health reasons, but also because the less often I indulge, the more I appreciate it when I do.

Yoga: As I explained in a recent post, I’ve been practicing yoga (off and on) for nearly a decade, and the only thing that derails me at times is my inability to stick to a schedule. It actually has nothing to do with yoga itself – which I absolutely adore. Like many people, though, I often let projects and responsibilities usurp things like exercise – and it’s a constant struggle to realign my priorities. But when I do make time for a few yoga poses, it does wonders for my body as well as my psyche – and relaxes me like nothing else. Maybe what I need is more yoga and less cheese in my life. Hmm... that’s something to think about.

Natural world: Although I grew up in an urban area, I’ve always loved the outdoors. Whether camping in a forest, hiking up a mountain, fishing in a bayou, swimming alongside a beach, even exploring the desert, I feel a sense of wonder and peace in the natural world. That’s why I love living in northern Michigan during the summer months. It’s hard to stay stressed in such a beautiful, somewhat remote place. A long walk in the woods or a nice swim in the lake is usually all it takes for me to relax and refocus. If only I could take this clean air with me back to New Orleans and Los Angeles.

Meditation: Yoga certainly incorporates an element of meditation. Key poses – such as “cat” and “corpse” – as well as the focus on breathing help me to quiet my thoughts, unwind my nerves, and concentrate on, well, nothing. But sometimes, it’s nice to roll up the yoga mat, find an out-of-the-way place, and simply sit still for a while, meditating on the cosmic web, the meaning of life, my place in the world, or nothing at all. In our fast-paced world, it’s hard to take such time for ourselves, but I always feel better after I do.

Sleep: No matter what I do, it seems as though my “to do” list grows longer every day, and my schedule gets more inconsistent all the time. Ironically, though I make less money now as a freelancer than I did when I worked for “The Man,” I find that I work harder and have crazier hours than I ever did when I was living a normal post-college life in Chicago. I’m juggling so much more these days, and sleep is not the priority that it once was. That’s not a good thing, I know – as my mother is fond of telling me, poor sleep habits can cause all sorts of problems down the road, from hypertension and heart disease to stroke and cancer. Besides body health, though, sleep is also excellent for mental health – something I experience for myself whenever I manage to get a good night’s sleep, and I must admit there’s nothing quite like waking up after a solid rest and a medley of memorable dreams, some of which have inspired my stories.

Writing passion: This might seem bizarre, but sometimes, when I’m feeling discouraged by the modern publishing industry and stressed by all the revision work ahead of me, I find strength and peace in the realization that there’s nothing I’d rather be doing than writing. I wrote skits as a child, short stories and scripts as a teenager, longer works (like novellas and screenplays) in college, and a novel in my post-college life – and at every step of the way, I’ve loved escaping into the worlds I’ve created and interacting with my characters. They’ve calmed me – even when the road to publishing seems insurmountable – and given me a reason to keep trying.

Rich experiences: I think it’s easy for all of us to slip into regret and disillusionment at times. Am I on the right career path? Am I with the right person? Should I have waited to have kids? Should I go back to school? Should I have sewn my wild oats when I had the chance? No matter what the pressing issue at the moment, it’s critical that we embrace the positive aspects of our life experiences. When I’m feeling down about something or confused about my direction, I try to focus on the rich experiences that have defined my life: fishing excursions with my dad, road trips with my mom, close relationships with my grandparents, my vision quest experience as an adolescent, good times at Northwestern, all of the unusual travels that I’ve shared with my husband, and all the crazy things we’ve seen over the years (including the Florida Keys’ obsession with manatee mailboxes). And I realize that I wouldn’t trade any of those memories for all the money and fame in the world.

Supportive hubby: No doubt about it – what really keeps me going at times is the love, respect, and support that I get from my husband. Dan is truly my best friend, my favorite traveling companion, and the person who keeps me on track when stress and self-doubt threaten to derail me. He encourages me when the odds of publishing success seem impossible. He urges me to keep trying, no matter what, and in the immortal words of Galaxy Quest to “never give up, never surrender.” Hopefully, I do the same for him.

Loving kitty: During the first week of this blog, I posted an ode to my cat, Ruby Azazel, a furry feline with a sweet face, an affectionate nature, and a mind of her own. What I said then still holds true today. “When the best of intentions fall apart, all I have to do is look at Ruby – sleeping on a pillow, nibbling treats from my palm, staring at a chipmunk outside the window, leaping up and down the stairs, or doing one of a dozen other favorite activities – and I feel a great sense of calm, love, and perspective. Because most things – save for perhaps death or the knowledge of some terminal illness – aren't worth all the worry through which we put ourselves. One look at my crazy, little girl, and I know that’s true.”

So, what helps you overcome stress, frustration, self-doubt, and all the other nasty little entities that plague us at times?


TLH said...

Aww what a beautiful tabby!! Sounds like you have a wonderful home, very conducive to relaxing and concentrating. I might have to post about this tomorrow... hmmm... :D

Laura Martone said...

Hi, Tara! Yeah, she's a sweetie... she makes me smile and/or laugh all the time. And while it's easier said than done, I think the key to finding serenity is that it's possible to relax and concentrate anywhere - if you make it a priority.

Angie Ledbetter said...

Willie, New Orleans oysters,'re living the life!

Becky said...

I agree totally with nature. I'm not sure I'd ever be happy in a big city again, although places like Audubon Park make it easier.

Music yes! When I feel stressed, it's usually the first thing I do... turn on music.

Let's see, my other big ones are friends, family, and hobbies... getting out my sewing machinge or my beads make me very happy.

Sleep and excercise are 2 "musts". I honestly don't know how you keep the schedule you do. I worked swing shift with 2 babies for many years, and LOVE the fact that I can now go to bed shortly after they can now :-). It took me about 2 months after quitting my job and moving to Michigan to catch up on all the years of sleep I missed, and I don't ever want to go back to that!

I love the lyrics on Cheryl Crow's song "Soak Up the Sun"... "It's not having what you want. It's wanting what you've got."

Kristi said...

I love these tips! I'm an outdoor girl, which is why I live in Colorado, and nothing helps me feel more relaxed than being out in the sunshine - even if it's just sitting on the deck while the kids are playing in the yard. I'm also a huge believer in yoga and meditation - my 2-year-old can now do a mean down-dog. :)

Lazy Writer said...

Some of my fondest memories as a child are of sitting in our boat out on the lake at night with a big bright moon and listening to Willie Nelson. He's my dad's favorite, and this has caused me to also have a fondness for him. Oh, and I happen to adore sleep!

Laura Martone said...

Angie - You betcha!

Becky - I like rural and urban settings - I need both to survive, which is why we move around so much, I s'pose. But music is a definite must, wherever I am. Friends, family, exercise, and hobbies can also help (funny about the beading - I used to do that, too), but I'm still working on the sleep factor. Sigh.

Laura Martone said...

Kristi - These tips help me, for sure, but I figured not everyone would agree... I'm glad, though, to see that I'm not the only one who thinks yoga, meditation, and being amid nature are healthy forms of stress relief. Rainy days can soothe me, but sunshine is terrific! And that's awesome about your two-year-old!

Susan - Yay! Another Willie fan. Cool. Oh, sleep, why have you forsaken me... or perhaps I've forsaken it. :-)

Strange Fiction said...

I love all of your de-stress tactics. Most outdoor activities do it for me--especially gardening. Music, a good book and of course relaxing times with hubby. I considered writing but there are times when it is the cause of the big stress :)

Laura Martone said...

Thanks, Deb! And I agree - music, a good book, and time with the hubby help - although, sometimes, a good book can stress me out and make me wonder why I'm reading and not finishing my revision. Same with gardening - while I love having a garden, the need to water and tend it can come at inopportune moments... when, again, I should be writing. Ah, such a conundrum.