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The Afterglow in the Vortex

A polar vortex is a BIG MOOD, isn't it? A week after our return from the subtropics, I'm trying to draw out the sun-doping afterglow long enough to use it to refresh my creative work--and my regular day job work, and life in general.

When I go away for a long time, I always hope that problems I left undone in my wake will have been resolved or at least forgotten by the time I get back. Usually, that is the case. The stuff we stress about when we're due for a break is often way less important than we think it is before we regain our perspective.

This time, though, hmmmm. I left in a polar vortex storm and came back in another one. And then survived another one. My daughter has now had 11 snow days, and they aren't all for the quantities of snow so much as icy, windy conditions and the sort of cold that seasoned Michiganders are describing as "offensive" and "insulting."

At work, my comrades are hang-dog weary. The bad moods I left behind in my nonprofit staff and leadership circles seem to have been recycled in the air continuously like the sniffles in a poorly ventilated dorm. This weather, I believe, damages emotional and mental health in deep ways that go beyond the generally understood symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (#SAD) and convinces me that my sun-loving bestie-since-high-school is absolutely right to hit a tanning booth every now and then for a few minutes, when she can't travel in the winter, for a shot of warmth and light that offers more mental health sustenance than a pharmy prescription and less risk. Too much darkness can kill as surely as too much light.

In a storm system like this, foul moods interact with each other and make people act just plain ugly sometimes. And the depression tells some people on the receiving end of the ugly behavior that they probably deserve it, and they turn inward on themselves. It seems to me like people around here have given up on the idea of comfort--that they can only survive by hunkering down into the pain or, alternatively, stoking enough rage inside to stay warm. I see people looking around for reasons to hurt, maybe to make sure their skin hasn't frozen up and died.

In Florida, people were relaxed in a way that amused me. Waitstaff at restaurants and air crews from the Islands nearby treated us with a sort of benevolent disinterest. In Michigan, I'm used to people in customer service positions acting much more tense--either desperately seeking approval or holding back resentment and hostility. My husband always makes a point to thank people serving us. In Michigan, they are startled and touched almost every time, as if they are dying of thirst for a little kindness. In Florida, time and time again, I sensed a way more relaxed attitude. We received good service, but nobody was trying too hard to impress us. When my husband thanked people, they hardly seemed to notice. They were sometimes friendly and sometimes went out of their way to help us (like when I walked out of a restaurant without my purse, oops) but didn't seem to care that much what we thought about them. To a person like me who is squicked out by being served and that whole power dynamic, it was refreshing.

In contrast, back up here in Michigan, there is a level of suspicion and neediness between people that I hadn't noticed before my last change of scene.

There is a spiritual stinginess going on that holds us in fear of each other and stifles collaboration and creativity. There is a defensiveness against vulnerability, maybe because of the icy draft that will inevitably knife its way inside any door that opens. There is a suspicion of art unless it has a pure and righteous moral and a clearly spelled out, singular interpretation.

I feel validated in this assessment by the perspective of a friend who came here from a gentler climate and gave it her best shot before flying away into the sunshine for good. "Meet Leyna Lightman" (in this Voyage LA interview), who came to Michigan to open the Broad Art Museum, which is housed in a modern structure designed by Zaha Hadid and built across the street from my husband's bike shop. Leyna says,

The Michigan locals had never seen anything like the reflective metal cladding covering the museum nor its wild, soaring angles and many people called it a spaceship. The staff was constantly encountering surprise issues like 6-foot long, lethally-sharp icicles hanging from the building’s entrance and threatening to impale our visitors.
In a way, the icicles were the thing that eventually ended my run at The Broad. I am a sun-loving California native, and Mid-Michigan is a frigid tundra for most of the year. I’m not talking about the kind of festive cold Angelenos enjoy when they go skiing in Mammoth, but polar vortex cold. Michigan is cold like, people get stuck in the snow trying to back out of their own driveways, cold. I went directly to Los Angeles from Michigan for the weather, but I didn’t expect the way the culture of this city would change my life and my career and my creative process. I just wanted a little heat and I got a lot more because L.A. felt so creatively abundant. The art worlds in San Francisco and Michigan always felt defined by a culture of scarcity because there weren’t enough art spaces or artistic outlets or jobs and people often had their fists up in the protection of what little slice of the pie they had secured.

Leyna was a vibrant pop of California energy while we had her, and we miss her, but I am happy that she went and put down roots in L.A. She has thrived and grown and enriched the community there in big, expansive ways that can only happen in a culture with more creative generosity. She has baked bread for Moby, taught children how to grow vegetables and tune up bikes, and lifted up voices calling for safer transportation and food security. She gives families comfort in grief, fights for justice, and never loses her capacity to play and be weird and wild and magical. I resonate with her definition of success.

And, though I am happy for Leyna and feel she made a solid, heart-led choice in finding her calling and her place in the world, and though I've taken a pretty harsh perspective of my own state lately, I know deep in my bones that this is where I am supposed to be.

Right after my family and I returned from Florida, we took our daughter to two dances. (I escorted her to the elementary school Glow Ball, and a few days later came the Daddy Daughter Dance.) In the daytime, we encouraged our daughter and her friends to sled through the backyards, which have transformed into parfaits of ice and snow that send them shooting across the neighborhood at speeds worthy of a Calvin and Hobbes toboggan run. We kept those vacation and adventure vibes going strong.

My first week back at work, I determined to stay positive through the funk of gloom and drama and roof leaks (fortunately only roof leaks--other churches in the area have been all but destroyed by the freezes and floods). The church I work for is a busy community, always doing a lot of different things. And a good number of those things are always wonderful.

I started with that thought and put up a Facebook post honoring some of the lovely work being done by congregants, and within one day, the post had been shared 14 times and reached 2,000 people. I think my bleeding-hearted compatriots had been so sorrowful about all the problems in the world and the community that haven't been solved that they were startled to be confronted with a bright, warm summary of a small portion of the positive impacts they are making right now.

I feel a freshness of perspective and a clarity, still, a week after returning, that has lowered my anxieties and given me a hint of that outsider's view of things. So far, I am making good use of it.

I am keeping up the habit of getting enough rest. I am eating my veggies and going on walks--yes, even through Elsa's fury out there, with my rubber-soled boots and my furry trapper hat. I am spending quality time with my daughter and my husband and friends. I am starting each day by rising from effervescent, deeply emotive dreams and plunking my coffee cup down at my writing desk, not peeking at the news or social media first. I am creating.

Michigan is a challenging environment for artists, but I believe the payoff in surviving its moody seasons can be great. This hardest of winters is a magical time in its own way, when nothing is certain and a small act of kindness can save a life. When the shoveling and the tromping through feet of snow and ice and the fire-building and the vigorous snuggling makes our bodies and our relationships strong. When the roads are impassable and the business of everyday life can't be done, and the dark days lend themselves to solitary and meditative work such as knitting, drawing, painting, or writing.

Here in the palm of the Great Lakes State, the winds and skies tell stories of terrible and romantic drama, shifting every minute and urging us to dive deep into ourselves to find our powers and our truths. Under the drifting snows, there is a purple shade and a thick silence where it feels safe to break open. To turn on the Hozier and the Mitski and the Regina Spektor and the Erykah Badu and open our hands to bleed pixels into the blue light of a laptop screen.


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