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Call me the girl in the bubble, but I like the comfort of my space. I’m not an especially affectionate adult—a flaw I own and often ponder. I’m reserved with PDA, sometimes a bit stiff. So when 2020’s tsunami of a coronavirus rose from the depths of the Wuhan meat market, engulfed the globe, and banished humanity to our six-foot bubbles of isolation, I was more than willing to adhere to the restrictions. Six feet? To be frank, that was more in keeping with my preference.
Though the CDC guidelines suited my needs, I was aware that not all society felt the same. My younger sister, for instance—the touchy-feely one of the family—is my polar opposite. While she lamented the lack of sight, touch, and scent of others, I took to wearing my six-foot isolation bubble like haute couture. Paired with matching mask, all that was missing was a spot-on accessory, a petri dish perhaps. Bubble fashion was on trend, at least for me.
In deference to my bubble, I rarely left the house this past year, with the exception of a grocery run or an occasional dash to the big-box store. I even ceased all visits to the hair salon. It has been a year since I’ve seen my stylist, a fact which is all too glaring. Had we a tower in our humble abode I could let my hair down, but the strands have become so brittle I doubt it would make for a sturdy climb. My husband, on the other hand, dared to tend to the activity of his follicles when restrictions permitted. Unfortunately, this created the need for safe distancing at home as well. Kisses resembled sideswipes of the jawline, a faint smear of L’Oreal’s Blushing Berry the only evidence of our encounter (provided I even bothered to apply makeup that day).
“Are haircuts really necessary?” I asked him each time he headed out to his appointment. “Are they essential? I’m thinking not.”
Much like me, my mother, who lives some thirty miles away on the Reserve, was holed up in her bubble, snug as a winter’s waistband. An elder of slight construction and a diabetic to boot, she wasn’t taking any chances with socializing. She was masking up, sanitizing, avoiding crowds, and abandoning her shoes on the doorstep upon her return home from essential excursions. On the rare occasion I delivered something to her or stopped by the house to help with a technical issue, we kept our distance, yelled at each other through our three-ply masks, and when I exited the residence, I’m certain I heard the hiss of a Lysol can in my wake. We blew kisses from afar and though pre-virus I would normally hug my mom, instead I hugged myself on these visits and mentally teleported the action to her. We were satisfied with that for now.
But that was us.
It was on a recent trip to the Reserve that my bubble was finally burst. It occurred two days post snowstorm, when I picked up my huggy sister to drive her to a medical appointment at the health clinic. A long-term cancer survivor, she’s tough as jerky and what’d you classify as a fighter, but that doesn’t make her any less of a people person. She had sequestered herself securely throughout the year, not by choice, mind you, but mainly because her immune system had been wracked by past chemotherapy. A novel virus was the last thing she needed, and she’d done a good job of avoiding it (knock on wood, as Mom would say).
Though in her youth my sibling had been delayed in physical development, as an adult, you wouldn’t know this about her. She’s fully bloomed now, her legs long, her trunk robust. True, cancer was a setback, but she emerged from the disease with a lush head of hair and the wisdom of one who’s tread the abyss, a trait which might jade others—but not my sister. Years have kissed her delicate face, but her smile is wide and her eyes bright, the combination of which emanates a childlike affection very few of us possess. It is this affection she is compelled to express. She is drawn to hug, to pat, to touch, her fingers like those of a seven-year-old pianist, slim, lithe tendrils, the only physical part of her which has not kept time. She is a perplexing blend of woman and child with a need to be nurtured through contact with others. Thankfully, on this particular day, she was respecting my rather stringent boundaries, keeping to her space in the rear passenger seat of my Subaru.
“We’re stopping by Mom’s, right?” she asked as we headed out of town, her voice eager. “I wonder if she’ll let us in.” We both laughed. Sometimes humor is our only defense.
The medical appointment was brief, and afterward we drove the few miles to Mom’s house. It was the week of my birthday, and she’d asked me to stop by to pick up my gift. With masks secured and hands sanitized, we climbed the porch steps. Mom was waiting at the door. She waved us inside. She’d had both her vaccinations by this time, and though she still wore her mask, was feeling a bit saucy. The three of us stood in the narrow hall, pressed between the washer and dryer on one side and a boot bench on the other.
“Here,” Mom said, presenting me with a large gift bag. “Open your present.”
“Right now?” I was surprised she was willing to remain in close contact with us for that length of time.
“Yeah! Go ’head!” It had been a year since she’d been able to watch any of us open a gift.
I reached into the bag and pulled out a card and three little bundles wrapped in white tissue paper: two sets of sleeveless, floral pajamas ideal for the post-menopausal woman and a pair of purple scuffs. Amethyst is my birthstone, and Mom often buys me things in hues of purple. “Mm,” I said, smiling. “So pretty! These’ll work perfect. Thank you!”
The gifts opened and pleasantries exchanged, our short visit drew to a close.
“I’m glad I got to see you,” my sister said to Mom. “I miss you.”
“I miss you too, honey,” Mom said, a nib of sadness there. Regret in a lower key.
My sister’s gaze tendered, her eyes hazed. Time lulled as a clock’s tick faded. The air grew thick, alerting me. Something was coming. Something was about to happen.
And then it did.
I watched as my sister’s arm reached out across the expanse. A hand in need. Gloveless. It emerged from her bubble, slipped through mine, eased into Mom’s. The tips of her fingers brushed the skin of Mom’s wrist, the back of her hand, her knuckles. A forbidden gesture; perhaps the first touch in over a year. “Mommy,” she whispered in her woman-child way.
I dangled there on emotion, aware of the significance of the moment—not just of the physical exchange itself, but of the struggle which had propelled it. The year-long isolation. The deprivation. I had witnessed an innate craving for affection, for an intimate connection with another human being. It was all spoken in a single, gentle sweep of warm skin: the toll this pandemic has wrought on something so human as touch. I had all but forgotten.
One’s bubble may be a comfort, but another’s may be a curse.
Born amidst the copper mining ruins of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, T. Marie Bertineau is of Anishinaabe-Ojibwe and French Canadian/Cornish descent. She is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community on the L’Anse Reservation, migizi odoodeman. Her work has appeared online with Minnesota’s Carver County Arts Consortium; in Mino Miikana, a publication of the Native Justice Coalition and Waub Ajijaak Press; and in the annual journal U.P. Reader. Her debut memoir The Mason House (Lanternfish Press) was named a 2021 Michigan Notable Book. Married and the mother of two, she makes her home in Michigan’s Keweenaw.
The Finns of the Keweenaw have an enduring core of strength called sisu. An English equivalent doesn’t exist, but stories across place and cultures capture the ability to overcome adversity. Sisu is not short-term like a moment of courage. Sisu is life’s marathon.
Regardless of familiarity with the word, writers searched their experiences and imaginations to craft stories of sisu. It’s a world-wide look at Copper Country Strong.
The following are based on the May 7, 2019. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social.
PART I (10-minute read)
Sisu by Floridaborne
“Hey, mom!” Callie shouted. “I learned a new word today.”
Mom rolled her eyes and asked, “What is it now, skooder-do?”
“What!” Mom shouted, reaching for homemade soap to wash her daughter’s mouth out.
“It’s not a curse word, Mom! It’s a word that describes you.”
“This better be good,” Mom grumbled.
“You sew clothes from remnants, make all our curtains and you reupholstered our furniture,” Callie said. “You grow our veggies in the summer and can the rest for later.”
“We can’t afford anything else.”
“Mom,” Callie said, hugging her warmly. “You’re the strongest person I know.”
Bricktown Boys by Pete Fanning
Mom pulled me into her, holding me as she sobbed. “Sam, I’m so sorry you got hurt.”
I hugged her back. A stale, bitter smell clung to her shirt, to her skin. I realized it was the smell of our apartment. Of our lives. How we smelled to people. The stench of desperation, mistakes, of dating the same men over and over again.
She rocked along with sobs and apologies, but I wasn’t about to wait for Troy to hurt us again. I was tired of the stench. Of our lives.
I would take matters into my own hands.
Sisu by H.R.R. Gorman
“What’s this two year gap in your resume?” The hiring manager pointed to circled dates on the paper. “What did you do there?”
Joaquin clenched his fist. “There’s a Finnish word – sisu. It means to keep trudging through multiple adversities.” He tapped the circled words on the resume. “That’s why I’m here. I want this job because I can overcome my past.”
The manager scowled. “So you were traveling? To Finland?”
“No, I…” He coughed. “I was in prison.”
“Drug charges,” he squeaked.
She handed Joaquin his resume. “Thank you, but we won’t be needing your services.”
Abundant Optimism by JulesPaige
The man has sisu. Very close to living to that century mark. Served his country in the Navy. Got into computers at the git go. Loved his wife for over fifty years with unflappable devotion.
The Vets Administration told him he was legally blind at ninety five. Sold his car to a local dealership, who then drove him back to his house.
The man has sisu. He’s lived alone for over twenty years. Refuses to leave his home. Finally accepts help from the neighbors, on his terms.
enduring strength, life;
living as you choose daily
the man has sisu
Sisu by Brendan Thomas
Jane opened the door, I was shaken. Back to back to back Cancers took a toll on her body, but not her spirit. We sat, drank tea, talked, laughed long and loud, planned for future meetings.
“I can do that, I’m in remission. My calendar is filling up with fun appointments again.”
As I was leaving I remembered the t-shirt, removing it from the bag to give to her.
“This is for you.”
Unfurled it read SISU, blue letters against white.
“What does it mean?” she asked.
“It’s Finnish for Jane,” I responded. I’m not sure she believed me.
After The Funeral by Joanne Fisher
I had just come back from the funeral of my girlfriend. We had been in a car crash. I survived, she didn’t.
“How do I go on without her?” I cried out to my father who had come back with me so I wasn’t alone.
“With sisu.” My father replied.
“Sisu?” I didn’t understand.
“It’s a Finnish word for having determination, or possessing inner strength. I know you are strong Kathleen. It may not seem like it now, but I know you will get through this, like I did with your mother.” he told me.
I really hoped so.
Sisu – DNA by Sally Cronin
They found the old bones in a cave in Southern France. They were packed carefully and dispatched to a laboratory where they identified them as the remains of a woman in her 40s. This was elderly for her time, with arthritis and healed broken bones evidence of her hard life. Her mitochondrial DNA was matched to millions of women who migrated across the continent as ice thawed, populating almost every part of Europe and beyond. Her genes survived through the centuries and 20,000 years later matched to a young woman, who discovered where all her strength had come from.
More Strength Than Meets the Eye by TN Kerr
It is born from bitter winter cold
Not a nip or chill, but a biting, vicious cold
A cold that comes with long, nights, and
It has nothing to do with gain
It’s about diving into the water
Simply for the sake of it
It’s about laughing in the face of tragedy
It’s about mocking and defeating whatever adversity is thrown your way
Always getting up
Something akin to, yet more than,
Intensity that thrives in the long days of summer
You are stronger than any one of us, or even you, could ever imagine
Plowshares by D. Avery
Her little boy and her daughters worked chores according to their size and ability but he, the youngest, wasn’t scolded when he sometimes fell to playing. But this?
Flinging the stick, she stalked off to the barn.
“Ma, it was just pretendin’!”
He had never known his father and older brother who used to do the heavy fieldwork. ‘Back before harvest time,’ they’d said, left together, eyes bright with adventure.
Pressing her forehead against the horse’s broad neck she confessed her worries.
She wouldn’t allow another son to play at war.
She harnessed the horse and hitched the plow.
Snow Storm by Abhijit Ray
Mikka was out to do some fishing, catch up with reading and have some quiet time in his cottage up north. He must have missed weather forecast. Storm caught Mikka unprepared. Running low on food and fuel, and suffering from poor cell phone connectivity, Mikka realised the extra can of gasoline in the trunk will only last so long.
“Either I make an effort to reach home or freeze here to death,” Mikka reasoned and made his way following a weak GPS signal.
“Show Sisu, when in trouble,” dad taught him. In his country, “sisu” meant grit to overcome hurdles.
Make It Work by Kelley Farrell
“Find your inner strength. We all have something we’re good at. Something we’re prepared for, even if we don’t realize it. What ignites that fire in you?”
That was when Becky had one dollar to her name.
Joe was right of course. Everybody has something to be fanned from sparks of passion.
Becky had three mouths to feed and an extensive debt to the local sex shop.
“Made it work indeed!” Joe admired Becky’s new business locale. “Mistress Cyan’s Pleasure Room.”
“Number 1 in the city.” Becky smiled, “Want to try it out? No charge for my oldest friend.”
Dedication by Shane Kroetsch
Langdon sat staring at his hands. He scratched at the dry skin on his knuckles. “I did what needed to be done. It wasn’t easy, but I found a way.”
“That’s something to be proud of, isn’t it?” Emma said.
Langdon shrugged. “I gave my word. Not much more to it.”
“I think it says a lot about your character, the fact that you dedicated years of your life to the cause.”
Langdon’s lips went thin and he looked up to Emma. “Maybe it does say a lot. What it doesn’t say is whether it was worth the cost.”
Sisu by Anita Dawes
Sisu is woven into our DNA
lying dormant, waiting , trapped quicksilver
hoping the day never comes where we will be tested
Do we freeze, or jump into action to save a life?
where we meet a part of ourselves
we would not recognise in the mirror
the hero who hides behind that pinstriped suit
mild-mannered like the man of steel
we would you run into a burning building
because you heard a cry for help?
many think we could go one step beyond
if called upon to act
would you leap without thinking
does quicksilver run through your veins?
Sisu Book-su by Ritu Bhathal
Finally, time to sit down and read.
“Mum! I’m hungry!”
Don’t worry book, I’ll be back.
Child fed. Back to my book.
“Honey, do you know where my tie is?”
Tie found. Where was I?
Raised voices and screaming.
“What is the matter with the two of you? Okay, Tom, you sit here with that Lego. Amelia, draw me a picture over here. No, not near your brother!”
Ah, chapter two I think–
“Hello? Hi mum…”
Twenty minutes later.
“Okay, bye mum. Speak to you tomorrow.”
That book. I will get it read.
PART II (10-minute read)
Says You by Bill Engleson
In that moment, he prepared to let go.
Time had stopped.
Nothing moved in the room.
A spike of sun slipped along the ceiling.
No breeze ruffled the curtains.
Outside, there were street sounds.
Jill held his hand. Steady. No squeezes. Just steady.
“You’ll be fine,” he thought.
“Says you,” she said.
“Says me,” he thought.
“A lot you know,” she said.
“I know you,” he thought. “I might waver without you, but you, you have a steel spine. A Viking’s heart.”
A gust of warm wind blew in.
A candle flickered.
New Bride by Ruchira Khanna
“Dad, I can’t take it anymore!” the new bride lamented over the telephone.
“Give it some time. Don’t make a hasty decision.”
“But, Dad his family’s so different than how I’ve been brought up! They have weird tastes, and most of the time they live with us,” she sobbed.
“Look at the positive side; you have a loving husband. Give it some time; otherwise, we’re always there for you!”
She put down the phone as she wiped her tear, “For the sake of Sam, I shall become sisu for a few days and then decide what to do next.”
Cross Roads by Saifun Hassam
As a marine archaeologist, Pierre Yandeau loved exploring deep ocean waters. Then his fiance and colleague Georgina was killed in a diving accident off the Great Shelf Peninsula. Sisu. Pierre returned to his research at the Pacific Institute. He would never forget Georgina. He knew he had a decision to make.
The Great Shelf Institute invited him to join their ecological and archaeological faculty. He walked along the endless desert shores of the Shelf. Once this was under deep ocean water. Who had carved those ancient runes on the rocky plateaus inland? He would explore, he would learn. Sisu.
Sisu by Kay Kingsley
She’d been through a lot more than most but she knows it’s not as much as some others. Described as a rock, strong and sturdy, people were drawn to her strength like a magnet. And when she was young that need fed her soul, gave her purpose, direction, and she felt like a mountain.
But as the years passed, she learned that even the toughest rocks are worn smooth by a gentle trickle of water and strong winds can erode mountains into dust.
It’s a fine line she thinks between sisu and stubbornness and she walks it with grace.
Claire’s Sisu by calmkate
Claire a vivacious 32 year old roamed the world sorting out ‘awkward’ situations for a billionaire for over a decade. Confronted with aggressive breast cancer her imminent demise was her greatest challenge.
Resilience is our inner strength, our ability to deal with overwhelming even impossible challenges. It has a strong spiritual component supplemented by mental and emotional factors. Most don’t realise they have it until they are truly tested.
Claire had to dig deep and with the right support her sisu kicked in empowering her until the brain tumour took over. She died with dignity, love and real peace.
Seeding by Sascha Darlington
he rains come early. My granddaddy used to say: can’t put seeds in drenched soil.
Almost immediately it’s hot. The cool weather crops produce little. Too hot, too soon.
And then there’s more rain, and Daniel yells at me and the kids, while taking off his Cardinal’s cap, splaying his fingers through his crop of hair, his eyes searching here and yet remotely for answers that won’t come.
He sits on the edge of the bed, staring at the floor. “The seeds rot in the soil, Cam.”
“We’ll start them indoors.”
“Might work. But we’d need a butt-load.”
Sisu by Ann Edall-Robson
Some mornings she watched the moon set as the sun rose. Night and day blended into each other. Days off became planning time for the days to come. Often the work made her brain weary and physically worn, yet Hanna continued to push herself.
Mrs. Johnson understood Hanna’s tenacity, her sisu. The older woman had seen it before. There was no doubt why the young woman would not rest until she had accomplished what she had quietly taken on.
Others didn’t understand Hanna’s attitude, but Mrs. Johnson could see the reasoning in her eyes, her stance, and relentless perseverance.
We Got Grit by Susan Sleggs
“Remember when we were teenagers, we thought we had the world by the tail,” Lillian mused.
“Those were the days,” Maude answered.
“Guess we learned life wasn’t easy didn’t we?”
“Yeah, about my 40th birthday I figured out I didn’t know sh*t back then.”
“Now you’re 90, what do ya think?”
“The truth; there are only tiny snippets of peace in any one’s life. Responsibilities, hardships, and illness are ever present and only thing means anything is how a person handles all the crap.”
“That’s grit my friend.”
“Good thing we both got it. It’s what’s kept us goin’.”
Paid in Full by Nicole Horlings
He sat down heavily. She looked up with disappointment. “No overtime?”
“Not today. And I may come home early tomorrow. The market’s been dead lately.” He leaned back and groaned. “I promised to provide for you.”
“And you are. I was able to pay all of our bills in full today.”
He looked surprised, then a grin broke across his face. “Really?” She nodded, and pulled a letter out of her pocket, handing it to him. “Your artwork won first place? That’s fantastic!” She grinned, took the cheque, and slipped it into a jar of loose change labeled vacation.
No Lion Sleeps Tonight by Susan Zutautas
One scorching sunny morning everyone gathered together by the Quiver tree, deep in the forest to discuss the shortage of food.
Leo starts the meeting with, “Good morning” to the pride.
“Tonight, we will go and hunt a zebra. I spotted a dazzle last night and if we’re quick and stealth there won’t be a problem.”
“Papa, papa, can I come too for the hunt?” said Leo’s cub.
“Yes, I think it is a fine time for you to join us, time to develop your sisu.”
“Okay all, we’ll meet back here at dusk, don’t be late,” said Leo.
The Animal Facts of Life by Chelsea Owens
“Elephants are pregnent fohr two years!”
“Uh-huh. Dhey also have duh biggest bwains of mammals.”
She smiled in the rearview mirror at her son. He sat hunched over his animal facts book.
“You know,” she ventured, “there’s a saying that ‘an elephant never forgets.’ Maybe because of their big brains.”
He didn’t answer. She knew he heard; he always did. That, the slight speech impediment, and his obsession with one topic made adults think he didn’t.
She sighed and rubbed her stomach, wondering how he’d handle being a big brother. Unlike an elephant, they only had nine months.
Targets Targets! by Anurag Bakhshi
“Get up,” he called out, insistently, incessantly.
I shook my head and tried to get on to my feet, but tumbled down, again.
It was just too cold, and my body needed rest, desperately.
But he just wouldn’t give up.
“Get up,” he cried out again, “they’re counting on us.”
And that, more than his pushing, is what led me to dig deep into my sisu, my inner strength, and with a huge heave and a loud wheeze, I finally got up.
Harsh winters or not, Christmas Eve was no time for one of Santa’s chief reindeer to sleep!
Sisu by Roberta Eaton
I have been thinking about my situation. Now that my headache has receded, I need to formulate an escape plan. I must exhibit sisu and find a way out of this locked room.
I have no idea why I have been locked in, but I know that my wife and son must need me. Someone brought me food and drink while I was sleeping so my superiors are clearly monitoring my movements. I need to find a way to fool the microchip in my head into believing I am sleeping. Then, when someone comes, I can make my move.
Something Evil in the Night (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Successive gun shots startled Danni from sleep. 2:04 a.m. She reached for Ike’s AR-15 resting between the dresser and wall. Years of Ike drilling her lent a strange familiarity to her husband’s weapon. But he was halfway around the world in Iraq. She dialed 9-1-1. The nearest deputy was 25 minutes away. Stepping outside, rifle cradled in the crook of her arm, Danni watched a silent pack of wolves run like liquid silver across the frozen pond in moonlight. Danni understood: Wolves run with sisu in their blood, outpacing the malevolence that follows – men with no regard for life.
His Darling Susi by Di @ pensitivity101
Her name was Susi, but to him she was his little Sisu.
From an early age, she had always been the stronger of the two of them. She had this way about her, would accept anything that life pushed her way and simply deal with it without complaint or fuss.
He’d read to her that night and like every other night, she told him she loved him.
‘Don’t worry Daddy,’ she said snuggling into his chest and pointing to his heart. ‘I’ll always be in here.’
God came for her that night, his darling Sisu, just ten years old.
Marathon Reversal by Anne Goodwin
At fifteen miles, she hits the wall. A stich in her side, legs in cramp, she staggers, sapped of juice. But she’d run through the pain in training. Today, the crowds and her fellow runners would cheer her on.
Wolfing down an energy bar, she recovers her mojo. But what the fuck? When she turns around to jog back to the beginning, they ask if she’s lost her mind.
If all goes well, she’ll do the distance. And a little more. She laughs at the thought of missing that marathon medal. ‘My way’ fills the hollow in her head.
Keeping Promises by Jo Hawk
Eino said caring for his invalid mother wouldn’t be easy, but his work took him abroad for months. The cabin had been her home since childhood. I didn’t imagine it would be this difficult. The closest neighbor lived miles away. We were alone.
Daytime was bearable. Aiti’s care and the daily chores kept me busy. I marked the calendar, counting days.
Then the storms descended. Howling winds crashed waves against the cliff, and spray pelted the windows. The house creaked, while my mind played games. The meager fire staved off ghosts while the clock counted the minutes until dawn.
Ranch Yarns by D. Avery
“Pal, you been on the ranch yer whole life?”
“Yep, reckon ya could say so. In thet I cain’t remember nuthin’ afore bein’ here.”
“Well, that’s a whole lotta hard work, all that ranchin’, day in and day out.”
“Yep, I reckon. Jist what a ranch hand does, Kid. Roll out ever mornin’ an’ jist do what’s gotta be done.”
“That’s sisu, Pal.”
“How is thet Japanese physical combat training?”
“Says you. An’ finish whut? Ranch work ain’t ever finished Kid. No matter the weather or season. But it’s who I am. It’s what I do.”
“Sisu, Pal. Means yer tough, resilient.”
“If ya say so, Kid. Jist know I like ranchin’, an’ this here’s a good outfit. Shorty’s good ta work for.”
“Ya sure ‘bout that, Pal? This job have benefits?”
“Lots uv’em. Fresh air, wide open spaces, good folks,—“
“No, Pal. Benefits. Health insurance, fer instance. What happens if ya git hurt on the job?”
“Reckon Shorty’d take care a me.”
“Ya’d let Shorty take care a ya?”
“Now that’s true grit. Heard she heps till it hurts. Might wanna talk ta her Cowboy ‘bout her care givin’ skills.”
“That’s cold, Kid.”
Collected beach rocks spray across the dining room table. The most promising specimens I submerge in a bowl of water to illuminate agate banding or pink pools of prehnite. My rock-hounding days are numbered because Lady Lake Superior grows cold. Instead of an evening of exercise beneath a lingering summer sunset, I take a mad dash mid-day to the beach when I can. My last trip I hitched a ride and combed the beach rocks until my daughter and her husband fetched me.
I don’t really have time to hunt agates; I’m far too busy.
Busy is an affliction. I’d say it’s modern, yet I suspect it’s as old as any form of distraction. When we think of a busy person we think of the executive or young parent. We could say both have important duties. One chases after meetings and deals; the other after toddlers and laundry. We could also say one is a workaholic. Perhaps both. What is the difference? When business becomes a form of mindlessness, it’s a distraction.
“Look busy,” is a phrase I’ve heard often from childhood on up. It’s hard for a day-dreamer to engage in mind wandering when you’re supposed to look busy. I struggle with tasks I call busy-work. When I didn’t look busy at home as a child, often I was given a broom and told if I had nothing better to do I could go sweep. I learned to daydream while doing chores. To this day, if I have a problem to solve in my mind, I clean. When I was in college, I discovered if I rewrote my notes after class and then dusted, mopped or did dishes, I wouldn’t have to cram for tests.
I had the cleanest house ever when I graduated college.
Some people believe the image, though; they believe they are supposed to “look busy.” They don’t problem solve or engage in mind-work at all. Instead they become human flurries of activity. These people, I’ve noticed, are praised for “keeping busy.” It’s an ingrained message and I’m not saying I missed it –it’s just that I developed a way to think while busy. My busy tends to come from the mind rather than activity.
The other day my SIL caught me staring out the porch window. He smiled, catching me un-busy, staring beyond the glass pane. He even glanced to see what I was looking at and upon seeing nothing of interest to warrant such staring he found my behavior amusing. I spared him a moment’s glance and explained, “I’m writing.” He laughed and walked off. Seriously, I was writing. I’ve had a huge breakthrough in my WIP, Miracle of Ducks, and the story was flowing so fast I had to watch it unfold, like an observer.
Stephen King is another writer who stares out windows. In an essay, he writes:
“Sitting down at the typewriter or picking up a pencil is a physical act; the spiritual analogue is looking out of an almost forgotten window, a window which offers a common view from an entirely different angle . . . an angle which renders the common extraordinary. The writer’s job is to gaze through that window and report on what he sees.”
Writers gaze out different windows. Sometimes the view is a different perspective as Stephen writes, and sometimes it’s to see with the inner eye. Of course, being the master of fantasy and thriller, Stephen’s mind wanders to the curious idea of the window breaking. In other words, he posed the question, “…what happens to the wide-eyed observer when the window between reality and unreality breaks and the glass begins to fly?” If you want to know his answer, read his novella, Four Past Midnight.
Stephen understands the busy writer — reality might be typing, staring or scrubbing dinner plates, but unreality is a rich inner world of exploration and discovery. It’s endless with archives of stories, some greater gems than others. When a writer gets busy that mental space thunders like Superior waves, scraping story over story until the writer spots the agates tumbled in the mind. Is it a danger or a joy to become so busy?
I think that’s a valid question for any of us. Does the busyness serve a purpose? Does it provide joy or distraction?
Traveling to VA appointments recently, we stopped at Keweenaw Bay, a small roadside resort on Lake Superior. No matter where we travel in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, we are surrounded by this grand shoreline. Keweenaw Bay is on the northeast side of the Great Lake, and directly south of Copper Harbor. The VA hospital in Iron Mountain is considered one of the most rural VAs in the nation and yet we live two more hours north in even more remote terrain. If wilderness seems a pattern in my life, I won’t deny it.
So here we are near the ends of our nation and a cartoon at the roadside cafe shows a waitress refusing to take a table’s order until they all turn off their cell phones. The line drawing shows no one looking at the menu and everyone instead staring at their screens. It occurred to me that cell phones fulfill a need to be distracted by busyness. How does that differ from escaping into a good book? It seems a book engages the mind, creates meaningful busyness, whereas screen time does not require the mind to actively think.
A hallmark of anxiety is that too many choices make us unhappy. Thus most people will choose to be mindlessly busy because it doesn’t require making choices, or thinking about choices. It makes me wonder if writers are some bizarre creatures who thrive on possibility. Or maybe some writers simply like making the choices for their characters’ lives. I can say my mind winds up and whirs before it settles into the resolution. For me, I think I see what can be and get excited when I find a path that appears to go there. That’s true for me in life and fiction. It’s the a-ha moment.
When I say I’m busy, I don’t mean I have lots of tasks, though actually I do. The busyness right now is the solar flare of my brain excited for the scenes I’m writing, the launch of our first Flash Fiction Rodeo at Carrot Ranch, the open call for new Rough Writers and the upcoming release of the current Rough Writer’s first anthology. Without the worry of homelessness thanks to our daughter and her husband, and with the Hub in a better VA system I’ve let go of much worry and stress.
So pardon my distraction, but I have rocks scattered across my brain and I’m sifting through them all. I feel more than relieved; I feel released. I’ll corner this energy and direct it better, but it feels good to have it back. It feels good to be making breakthroughs and seeing that paths are aligning. It’s a good busy.
If you missed last week’s announcement, I have an open call for The Congress of Rough Writers. This is a literary community for all writers. Everyone is welcome to come and go, to get what they want or need from participation. That participation includes writing, reading and joining discussions. If you want to go a step further and take part in events or anthologies, that’s the work of Rough Writers. It doesn’t mean you get roped in. Even as a Rough Writer, how you participate is up to you. It’s about willingness. If you are willing, shoot me an email: email@example.com.
And stay tuned for upcoming announcements about the Flash Fiction Rodeo. It’s more than a contest — it’s eight different contests! The weekly flash fiction challenges will go on break during October. Between Oct. 5-31, a new contest launches every Tuesday and Thursday. Each one has a $25 purse and there are no entry fees. Winners will be announced consecutively during the pre-sale and launch of The Congress of Rough Writers Flash Fiction Anthology Vol. 1 every Tuesday in November and December. That gives our event leaders and their co-judges time to decide and collect the Best in Show for each category. And it invites the greater community to participate.
September 7, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a busy character. It could be a busy beaver, gnawing birch trees endlessly or an executive on the go. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by September 12, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published September 13). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Monastery Jam by Charli Mills
Thimbleberries scattered across the floor. “Brother Mark! How careless..!”
Mark shuffled to fetch … a broom? Dust bin or bowl? A rag? He stood like the garden statue of St. Francis. His mind calculated each solution rapidly.
“…just standing there. Look at this mess. And leaves me to clean it. Never busy, that Brother Mark. Idle hands, you know…”
Mark blushed to hear the complaints. Father Jorge’s large brown hand rested on Mark’s shoulder. “Let’s walk the beach.”
Waves calmed Mark’s thinking. “I didn’t know if it was salvageable.”
“Brother Mark, your mind needn’t make jam of every situation.”