The pretty good books of Susan Larson

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Flow State: Finding My Zone


I am so interested in this state of being.  I have gotten into Flow State quite a lot, mostly performing as a singer in difficult operas; or horseback riding; I am always trying to return.


Flow State is also called “The Zone,” “The Groove,” or “Being Unconscious.” The official definition, by psychologists anyway, is that precise conjunction of a challenging activity with your capacity to perform it.  The task is hard but you know you have the chops to do it, and you are going to bring it with everything you have. You are neither overwhelmed by the difficulty of the task, nor bored because it’s too easy.


Peace, calm, ease of effort, take us over in Flow State.  We feel godlike. “It’s like the job was doing me, not me doing the job!” No grinding, no struggling, no forcing; and none of the sloppy carelessness and stupid mistakes that we make when it’s all just too easy.  Suddenly, Life is perfect, for this dance, this song, this game, this bike-ride.


 “I was outside myself,” “ I was floating,” “I just saw the ball! It was huge!”  “I was fully in every moment and I didn’t have to think.” “I just did it!”


You want to go there again and again.  You’re maybe even addicted; so you push for more, you dare, you risk. But flow state can’t be forced. You can tell when an athlete or an artist is forcing it beyond her capacity of the moment.  Performance is wooden, uncoordinated, mechanical, maybe physically damaging.  How to dig deep but still stay within yourself? And if you choose to stay within yourself, do you ever really find the true high of Flow State?


I go cycling with some older but dedicated enthusiasts.  They are friskier than me. Some of them are kind of maniacs. I have been told by my chiropractor that there is a limit to what you can demand of your body; staying in or around that limit will keep you healthy happy and long-lived. If you blast past that limit, the results are less good: you over-stress, you break down, you die sooner.


I am truly happy when I can go on a moderately challenging ride, making sure to warm up for the first twenty minutes even if my pals stampede out of the parking lot (I call this strategy ‘working my way to the back of the pack’), not feeling like I have to keep up with them, not mashing hard on the pedals, riding as fast as I can but not so fast that I end up as a basket case at ride’s end; to sweat and pant and live to cycle another day.


Some of my pals hammer; they push it all the time.  Sometimes I only ever see them in the parking lot. They ride hundreds of miles a week, and talk of nothing else but riding. They are so stringy and skinny they look like famine victims.  Or addicts.  


Are they addicts? Or am I taking it too easy? I tell myself I’m trying to pace myself in my golden years, while those skinny maniacs have blown through Flow State and are heading for a breakdown. Where is the good groove that lies between hanging back and working it so hard that you wreck your body? I will probably never know any more, because I am not going there. I don’t want to die sooner I want to stretch it out  for as long as I can.  I kind of want to do what feels OK– what feels, sometimes, like Flow State.






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“I Wish you were Somebody Else”

These words may be the  most murderous message one can deliver to another human being.  In “Sam (a pastoral)” my novel about horses and humans, those words are never said. But the protagonist, Ruthie gets a the unspoken signal from her Dad: he would have liked a better kid than the one he got.

When I was young, many folks thought that being harsh and judgmental with your children was something you did ‘for their own good.’ Belittling your kids was supposed to toughen them up for the inevitable hard knocks awaiting them in the real world.  Cuddling them produced adults who were soft, gay, dependent on food stamps, whatever. Today, at least among liberal thinkers, what was once a popular child-rearing method is called ‘abuse.’

In “Sam” there is a quiet, bucolic chapter called ‘At the Horse Show.’ In this chapter Ruthie, having bought the homely, cranky horse Sam, leaves him snoozing in the barn and goes to see a local horse show.  She is happy because she  is no longer jealous of kids who own horses – she has a horse now too, and he is wonderful in so many ways.

She forgets all those wonderful ways the moment she sees the pretty, graceful, shiny ponies the other kids have: their braided manes, dainty feet and sleek clipped coats. The ponies she used to dream about; just better in every way than hers.

She goes home and tries to pretty Sam up. She trims the mops of hair off his fetlocks. She cuts off his beard and whiskers. She braids his mane and hacks off half the hair on his tail, trying desperately to turn him into some other horse; but Sam is still Sam.  By the end of this fruitless makeover session, which Sam enjoys immensely, she figures something out: Sam is OK just the way he is.

Later in the book, there is a deeper echo of this story, as Ruthie and Bea Pilcher sit in Bea’s kitchen talking about the breakup of Ruthie’s family, and the terrible rage that has devoured her life ever since.  Bea reaches over and pats Ruthie’s hair and tells her she wished she had a kid like her.

This is the beginning of Ruthie’s return to herself. Somebody has said to her,  ‘you may be in a bad place right now, but you, as a person, are OK just they way you are.’