Boo! What Scares You?

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 It’s almost Halloween, and in my corner of the world, you can take a haunted hayride, visit an abandoned penitentiary, or dress up like the walking dead. You can, not me. I don’t like to be scared. Come October, I’m all about comfort. Hot apple cider, knitting in my rocker while I watch the Hallmark Channel, curling up by the fire with a cozy mystery.

I like the way lighted windows look on a fall evening, as if the people inside are safe and warm. When I walk through a neighborhood, my eye is drawn to the windows on the top floor. I think of the nineteenth century poet Emily Dickinson, writing in solitude in her upstairs garret. Comfortable, safe and out of sight. I can’t even begin to tell you how much that appeals to me.

When I was small, my home was an anxious place. I carried a fantasy of safety around all day like a little purse. In my imaginary future, I would read and write all day, gazing down at the people in the street below. Maybe I’d sew a little – doll clothes, or pretty skirts. And I’d have a handsome boyfriend who’d come to visit.

Emily Dickinson seems prune-like now, in her white shirtwaist and long brown skirt, a black ribbon tied around her neck. She sits ramrod straight, unsmiling, her whimsical poems her only voice. I don’t think I’d like her. If I had her cloistered life, I’d want to run for the hills. Escape the self-imposed prison and travel the world, or at least a few hundred miles around my home.

But I realize I don’t know anything about her. Maybe she had a boyfriend, maybe she liked scary stories, maybe she was nothing at all like I imagine her. Maybe she took a risk now and then.

Risk is the thing that scares me, Halloween or not. Calling strangers to ask them to support a cause. Walking alone to my car at night. Waiting for surgery. Watching the nightly news.  Risk of harm to my physical or mental state. And fear of the unknown – cancer, dementia, a storm, a war.

But fear is a funny thing. When shared, it seems to lessen. Maybe that’s what Halloween is all about. Scaring ourselves together, to make the goblins run away. Shall we try? What scares you right now?

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Be brave and comment on this post, and I’ll put your name in the hat for a copy of Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, who lived through a tsunami that killed her entire family. It’s a terrifying and beautiful story of grief and resilience.

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The winner of last month’s drawing is  Judith Heffernan Elmy. She wins a copy of Mary Jo Doig’s new memoir, Patchwork. Congratulations, Judy, and thanks for your comment!

 

 

 

 

 

Dizzy Time

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It’s been one of those days. My usual treatment for benign positional vertigo doesn’t feel like it worked. I’ll give it 24 hours. The crystals in my inner ear have been slipping out of their little vestibule, off and on, for something like twenty years, and when they do, I get dizzy. Since I discovered a great PT practice that specializes in this, my episodes are shorter and less debilitating. For a few days or even weeks, I feel off balance walking, get dizzy when I first get out of bed, and when I turn around too quickly. After the PT moves my head and upper body this way and that, poof! All better! Today, not so much. My at home instructions say don’t go to the dentist or hairdresser today as tilting your head back can knock the crystals out of whack again.

My hair appointment was for an hour after I left the PT office. What to do? I asked my stylist not to wash my hair (sigh, that’s the best part!) and to just wet my hair and cut it. She took a long time, and when I finally walked out, my hair was too short. I should have been paying attention, but I was worried about getting dizzy again. It will grow out, but darn it. My hair is way too short.

I turned on the TV at lunch to see old men who don’t believe or let’s face it, care, that some women have been sexually assaulted. What they care about is installing the accused on the U.S. Supreme Court so he can help overturn a woman’s right to choose. I realize I have been angry about this case ever since it started. At first, I thought “I’m not a #MeToo survivor.”  But I get dizzy when I’m anxious, and today it’s all coming back.

The grad school adviser on the phone with a department head, leaning around his desk to check out my legs. “Yeah, she has nice ones.” Why didn’t I get up and leave?

The relative who rubbed himself against me from behind at a cocktail party, then asked if it was good. “You men, always asking if it was good,” I joked. Why didn’t I smack him?

The college boy who did the same at a kegger, shouting “I humped her!” to his friends. I kept on walking. Why didn’t I turn around and kick him?

Report it? In those days, we pretended it hadn’t even happened. Why? Did we think it would stop? That it “wasn’t so bad, if we weren’t raped?” And why bring it up now, after all these years? Because I remember it as if it happened yesterday.

It’s making me dizzy to think about this endless trashing of females, this excusing of bad male behavior. And mad as hell. I’m glad the conversation is happening, but damn it, let’s move it forward this time. Let’s not make it worse.

What do you think? Women, men, #MeToos and not #MeToos. I’d love to hear from you.

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This month, I am offering a review copy of Mary Jo Doig’s powerful memoir, Patchwork, the story of one strong woman’s journey from abuse to a life of her own choosing.  Comment on this blog and you could be the lucky winner!

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Cathy Lamb’s novel,  The Language of Sisters. goes to last month’s commenter, B. Lynn Goodwin, author of the memoir, Never Too Lateand manager of the Writer Advice website. Take a look at both, you’ll be glad you did. Congratulations, Lynn!

 

 

 

 

Big Girl Pants

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It was raining lightly when I got to the Borough Hall Station. I saw the sign on the street; all I needed was to find the entrance. People walked snappily by, like they knew where to go, and I wanted to look that way too.

When I was young, New York City was my dream place to live and work, the apex of my career girl life. In the 1960s, we called grown women girls and didn’t think anything of it. You could count the career girls in my upstate New York mill town on two hands: teachers, nurses, one doctor. Was a “private secretary” a career girl? My parents wanted me to go to Mildred Elley Secretarial School in Schenectady. But like Richard Russo’s mom, who lived in a nearby town, I longed to be Elsewhere.

It took a while. After college, there were business trips to midtown on the train to and from Philly, and whole days in big convention hotels with other librarians. Post-career now, I write and teach. I want to write well, to learn how it’s done, and so I travel to writing conferences in the literary city, sophistication town, like the big girl I want to be.

Sometimes I’m still the scared Catholic schoolgirl inside, remaking herself late in life. After two times crossing the street in drizzle, I found the subway staircase from the street. A young black man held a door for me as I deliberately stepped down. I thanked him, pleased that of all the busy people, he stopped for me, because he saw me looking uncertain. My son who lives in Brooklyn said, take the 2 train uptown, it’s best, to Times Square, then the 1 right across the platform to 50th Street. On the 2, a young Hispanic woman offered me her seat. I smiled no thanks, then saw the sign: Please give seat to the elderly or disabled. Okay, fair enough. I feel slow, unsure, and frazzled by the rain, the confusion, the tangle of people in every direction. My son was right; I got off the 2 and the 1 was right across from me, waiting. It all seemed to work for me that day. It has to, my son’s girlfriend says, in a city this big you have to be civil.

At 50th, I walked upstairs and took out my foldout laminated map, walked to 6th between 53rd and 54th  and laughed as I spotted my conference hotel.

People around me paid no attention. Cars, buses, and taxis clattered by. Storefronts glittered, the rain stopped, and my heart lifted like the red one on the T-shirt I refused to buy because it’s too tourist hokey. I heart NY. I really do.

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Have you done something you were scared to try? Big or small, share it in the comments and I’ll put your name in the hat for a copy of Styx and Stone: an Ellie Stone mystery by James W. Ziskin. Ellie is a career girl in 1960s New Holland, New York, a thinly disguised version of my home town of Amsterdam, who travels to New York City.

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The winner of this month’s drawing is Cheryl. She gets a signed copy of Dorothea Benton Frank’s By Invitation Only.  Visit her terrific blog, Mind Kind Mom. Congratulations, Cheryl, and thanks for your comment last month!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Comfort of Words

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I read today that Joyce Carol Oates describes sitting down at her writing desk as “low dread.” Hmmm. Just how I see America today: “low dread.”  What new horror will our president and his enablers bring upon us? Crying children torn from their parents, closing the door on immigrants because of their country’s majority religion, taking healthcare away from millions who cannot pay out of pocket…I could go on. But I won’t.

Low clouds cover the sky as I write outside on my deck, as if someone unrolled the batting I sew into a quilt and spread it over the world I see. Birds chirp, but is that a happy sound or a frantic cry for help, like the sparrow under attack on my porch last month? I think I smell something burning, go inside and search my house, but no. It must be outside, or in my head. “Low dread.”

I know somewhere the sun is shining. I know it’s above those batting clouds. But how far? I know they will part, even here. But when? What comfort is here for me now, on a day with a lowering sky?

I turn to this poem from my writing teacher, the late Judi K. Beach.

No Matter How Dark

There is always the possibility
of light. The deepest forest spills its
leaf to leaf like rain, falling.

At the far end of the tunnel,
light dilates as you drive closer
and darkness falls behind.

No matter how dark, the light
finds a way in. The night of no moon
is sequined with stars.

Even this blackness, this treading
in ink, this ebony residence, this
vulnerability to the opiate of despair

has light, though your eyes
have not yet adjusted to it, looking
as they do to the well-lighted past.

There is always a time of blindness
moving from bright into black.
Remember the sun

is making its way to you and remember
how far light must travel. Somewhere
the sun is rising and somewhere

it is high in the sky. In your house
this night, this fortnight or year,
the sun will find the loose clapboard,

the east-face of your sorrow.
Your world is
turning toward the light.

p.107, How Far Light Must Travel, 2007, Fithian Press

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What words do you turn to for comfort? Share them in the comments for a chance to win a signed hardcover copy of by invitation only, the new novel by Dorothea Benton Frank. Family drama, comedy and a Lowcountry landscape – great for beach or poolside reading.

Congrats to this month’s winning commenter, Linda Hehn! She will receive a signed copy of Boardwalk Summer, Meredith Jaeger, whose mom also happens to be my cousin. Set in California in 1940 and 2010, it has #MeToo, racism, single motherhood and a whopping big family secret.

 

Lipstick Print on a China Cup

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Coffee doesn’t like me anymore. It upsets my stomach. But whenever I see someone walking down a city street, lidded paper cup in hand, I want one.

In my early 20’s, coffee and a cigarette started my day. On the way to work, I stopped in the lobby of the Erie County Welfare Department to buy a coffee and a buttered roll before stepping into the elevator. In college and away from home for the first time, coffee made me feel alert, ready for anything. Safe. An anxious kid, holding and sipping that hot dark cup of Joe made me feel sophisticated. Like I belonged to the tribe of grownups.

This thread winds back to my two aunts at our family’s Formica kitchen table, talking and laughing. Their coffee was light and creamy, and the rims of their cups held the print of their red lipstick. Cigarette smoke plumed from an ashtray. They cared about me and I loved them back.

Follow the thread even farther back to an open house at Bigelow Sanford Carpet Mills, my Uncle Clarence standing beside a loom so high it reached far above his head, or so it seemed to me. Laughing, he offered me a cup of coffee and I was mute, serious. My father said it was a joke, my uncle was only kidding. I was too young for coffee, for sophistication.

I grew up to love the bitter taste of strong black coffee, but now it bothers my stomach. I switched to decaf then tea in the morning. I thought I’d build up a ritual with tea, evoking England, gentility, scones….

But old habits are hard to break. Once or twice a week, at coffee hour after the church service, or during a morning of writing, I treat myself to a cup of Joe. Because I’m forever captured by the image of red lipstick prints on the rims of china cups. The stamps of women who loved me when they were younger than I am now.

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What about you? Is there a habit you can trace to your childhood? Comment here and I’ll put your name in the drawing for a copy of The Collection: Flash Fiction for Flash Memory. One of my stories is included in this beautiful anthology of stories for the memory impaired (or the short of reading time!)

The winner of last month’s drawing is Marielena Zuniga. She gets a signed copy of Anna Quindlen’s novel, Miller’s Valley. Congratulations, Marielena!

 

 

The Space Between Stories

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I’ve heard that writers write to make sense of the world. That’s certainly been true for me. And yet, the world seems to have become even less understandable over my lifetime. Aren’t we supposed to become wiser with age? What is the reason for the interpersonal division in our country? We seem to be on ever more opposing wavelengths.  We can’t even talk to people we disagree with without insulting them, in person or online, so we mostly just give up.

Author and speaker Charles Eisenstein says our world looks so crazy because  we are in “the space between stories.” The old story said our society was sound, our ecology was fine and our economy was just. But that old story is falling apart, and many of us are afraid. We want to go back , when life was safe, stable. As progressive as we like to think we are, a friend and I recently shared a longing for the “old days” when folks aspired to work in a shoe store or deliver milk on a truck. It feels as if the world is falling apart around us. We feel alienated, unsure of our place. We are in what Eisenstein calls “a period of true unknowing.”

We are between stories.

Who knows what the next story will be? I am hoping for one called “We Are All In This Together.”

Many of us have rejected the old duality of this or that, one or the other, Republican or Democrat, us or them, liberal or conservative, male or female, East or West, cat people or dog people….okay, just kidding. But really, haven’t you noticed the breakdown of the old story? The old roles bind us no more. Women are now empowered in fiction and movies, men in the programs we watch are stay at home dads with real feelings, and even gender can be fluid. Voters give up, feeling alienated from our leaders. Young people are calling BS. We’re all restless, looking for a new story to explain our place in the world.

“We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for,” said the poet June Jordan, the author Alice Walker, and the lyrics of a song by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Looking for signs of the new story gives me comfort. Maybe this is the time I was meant to be alive. What do you think? Are we really “in the space between stories?” Do you like that idea?

Comment on this blog and I’ll put your name in the hat for an autographed copy of Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen. Set in a small town in the 1960s, it’s the story of every woman who has had to leave home to find herself.

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The winner of this month’s drawing is  suppressionisminart. She wins a hardcover copy of The Moment of Truth by Damian McNicholl, the tale of an American female bullfighter who travels to Mexico to follow her dream, a great example of the story for women.  Congratulations!

The In Between Time

This is the week in the year when I feel most in-between.  Thanksgiving and Christmas are over and a New Year waits in the wings. I feel like the director of a play in which I hold back the actors for just another moment. Not yet, it’s not quite time, we’re not ready, please wait.

This is the week I launder the tablecloths from Christmas dinner, recycle dented gift boxes and toss out leftovers nobody wants to eat. It’s the week to relax and enjoy the pile of new books I received and to binge watch The Crown and A Place to Call Home, an Australian drama my husband and I both love. We’re both retired from our careers and enjoy artistic pursuits and volunteer work, but this week even those things take a back seat to just lounging and reflecting, reading…and eating.

As a writer of creative nonfiction, I’m a “reflector” by trade. This in-between time seems made for me. No rush, nowhere I have to go. I’m preparing for a party in the New Year, but even that feels relaxed, checking if we have enough wine, beer, plastic ware and ice.

I journal every day, but this week I read about other people doing the same. The newspapers, internet, and even TV all offer stories about new resolutions and looking back. It’s quite a lot of pressure to do something.

But not right now. I took a year off from teaching to finish my first novel. The second one is outlined, but I just can’t get into it yet. I have a new memoirs class coming up in March, so I need to plan. I’ve published four essays this year, and I’d like to write more. I finished editing A Woman of Worth, a project I’d been working on for a couple of years.  I have an idea for another book-length memoir. But none of these projects is calling me right now.

I could be anxious about that, but I feel lucky I can stay here a while. The kids are grown and living their own lives. Whatever I choose to do or not do is up to me. The weather is freezing cold and we’re in between snow storms here in southeastern PA. I know another one is coming but we’re not sure when.

So, this is the week I ignore the inner urge to “do something productive.” I read over the Christmas cards and newsletters, remember the leisurely conversations shared with family and friends by the fireplace, and allow gratitude for the love, warmth and companionship that graces this time of year.

There is a certain pressure to make a “to do” list for 2018. I know I work best when I choose one project to put most of my energy behind. This in between week feels a bit uneasy, but I’m going to stick with it. If we hurtle from project to project, we don’t fully appreciate what we’ve accomplished. We don’t allow ourselves to enjoy having written, being published, hosting a dinner party, receiving gifts. I’ll meditate every day and let myself off the hook for productivity for now.

What about you? What do you do when you’re not sure what to do next?

Comment and I’ll put your name in the drawing for my next giveaway: The Promise of Pierson Orchard by Kate Brandes.  Written by an environmental scientist, it’s the story of what happens when fracking comes to a rural community, told through the eyes of a family already breaking apart. Speaking of what to do next! You’re sure to enjoy this balanced look at both sides of the environmental debate.

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The winner of last month’s drawing is Nannette Benson-Nicol. She gets an autographed copy of An Uncertain Path by Sandra Carey Cody. Congratulations, Nannette!

Time Enough

 

Seventeen years ago this fall, I collected acorns from my driveway and put them in my pocket as symbols of rebirth. When I entered the hospital for major surgery, I took the acorns with me, as well as these affirmations for the surgeon: “I am very pleased with this operation.” “Linda’s surgery is a big success.” “Linda will heal quickly.”

He was, it was and I did. Life went on, as it does, and I got older. A big birthday last year jolted me into a state of anxious rumination. Had I done enough with my life? Short answer: No. So, what’s an older woman to do? I journaled and pulled my spiritual reading off the shelf. I started a new spiritual practice, lighting a candle and reading something inspirational, then journaling about it for 20 minutes, first thing in the morning.

That year of rumination is almost up, and I’m pleased to say the anxiety is going away, albeit slowly. Somehow, I realized I had done quite a lot. That the years I remembered as preoccupied, worried, angry or scared were my learning time. The twenty years since I began writing about my life have been my practice time. Some of my work was published, much of it not. Some of my time was spent writing, much of it not.

Yesterday, after an outside appointment, I thought of stopping to pick up some birdseed, or to spend that coupon from the clothing store, or maybe pick up a latte. But my writing had taken over part of my mind and so I drove straight home and sat down at my desk.

One reason I’m motivated to write these days is the example of other women like myself. Women like romantic suspense author Alice Orr. Her latest novel, A Time of Fear and Loving, is the fifth in her Riverton Road series. I met Alice through the International Women’s Writing Guild. She is a former book editor and literary agent who suggested I turn my complicated first novel into a trilogy, advice I am happy to say I am following.

Alice is the author of 16 novels, 3 novellas, a memoir and No More Rejections: 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript that Sells. She is a mother and grandmother, and she’s not letting the passage of time get in her way.

I hadn’t read romantic suspense since I was in my twenties, but reading Alice’s work reminds me how much I loved this genre. I was pleasantly surprised to find her series is set in the North Country, the beautiful part of upstate New York near the river town where I was born and raised. In this latest book, a young widow investigates the disappearance of her old friend and soon runs into a long ago crush who is now a police officer with his own issues from serving in Afghanistan.

So, here’s the question: how does the passage of time affect you? Do you ignore it? Do you use it to motivate you? Something else? Comment on this post and I’ll put your name in the hat to win a signed copy of A Time of Fear and Loving.

I’d love to read your thoughts.

The winner of last month’s drawing is Susan Schoch.  I’m sending her my copy of Dorothea Benton Frank’s Pawley’s Island.

 

When Things Were Not So Different

The following is a blog piece I wrote last year and never published. I think it’s time to let it out into the world.

Today I went to a life celebration for one of my memoir students. Lee was 93, a sweet and gentle man who smiled at his own frailties and took seriously all my suggestions to make his writing better. The gathering was small but filled with love and laughter as his family recalled his attention to detail and his endless storytelling.

It’s been a tough week here in the U.S. of A. Another mass shooting, angry ranting in the media, social and public, about the merits of gun control and the true tenets of a religion whose extremist members are suicidal would be killers.

Added to that is the ever present fact that I’m not getting any younger. No moisturizer or beauty sleep will iron out the wrinkles on my face. No amount of zumba or chiropractic will stave off forever the aches in my back and knees. I feel the pressure of time. Enjoy life, now, while you can, I tell myself. Use each moment to live your best life, there may be no tomorrow.

How can I reconcile my desire to accomplish certain things, to savor each moment, and to rewire my brain for happiness with the outside world and its horrors?

Can I stop watching the news? Cut off my social media? I’ll know it’s there anyway.

Hearing about Lee’s long and full life, at the funeral home this morning, at the lunch the family hosted afterward, and in his stories in my memoir class, I understand why this man was so loved. He was kind, he was gentle, he was tender. He lived through another horrific time: the Second World War, and worked as a young scientist on a secret project in the desert, far from home. And went on to establish a family and a network of friends, a home and a lifetime of useful work.

My mother once told me of the sad and lonely wartime Christmas holidays, for three or four years in succession, when she missed her husband and three brothers, all of them in mortal danger, knowing she’d only hear from them weeks after a letter was written, hopefully always by them and even then not knowing for sure they were all right.

We’ve been through tough times before. The world is like that. This is our time, and we can hide from that truth or use our time here to make our patch of earth and sky, the place from which our light shines forth, warm and suffused with love. A comfort. Like Lee.

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One Thing At a Time

 

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photo credit: Wojtek Witkowski at Unsplash.com

Writer Louise DeSalvo has been a favorite of mine ever since I picked up her memoir, Vertigo. Because I love to read, write and teach memoir, I recommend her work and delve back into it for my classes. Writing as a Way of Healing and The Art of Slow Writing are two treasure troves of advice, quotes and tips from famous and successful authors as well as very personal anecdotes and helpful encouragement from DeSalvo herself. For the past ten years, her words have kept me going when I needed a friendly push to keep telling my own story.

Often, I find my mind spinning with ideas. I have a hard time deciding which one to focus on. Which writing project best deserves my attention? Which is a waste of time? I don’t know. I want to know. Ahead of time, before I even write it.

The next novel, a short story, a personal essay? I have files of unfinished pieces. I open one and get bored with it before I finish reading the entire draft. I reach for Slow Writing. I flip to a highlighted page. “In writing, it doesn’t matter what you choose to do; it only matters that you choose to do something.” Yes, but isn’t there a best thing to write today? Apparently not, or at least, there’s no way to know what that ‘best’ thing is. Like meditation, just sitting down and doing the practice is the answer.  I know from experience that the “best” way to meditate is to just do it. Let the crazy thoughts fly in and out and focus on your breath or mantra. In writing, DeSalvo says it works best if she focuses on one decision at a time. Write five hundred words. Develop the characters. Add details. Line edit word by word.And so on. One thing at a time. I can do this.

DeSalvo says it gets easier with practice and I believe her. Because most things do. Meditating. Exercising. Healthy eating. Cooking. Why not writing?

What about you? Do you have a book of writing advice you love? What do you do when you can’t decide what to write?

 

 

Your Attention, Please

 In his book, Buddha’s Brain, neuropsychologist Rick Hansen says what we  give our attention to literally changes our brains. It’s called neuroplasticity. I like the metaphor he uses: our “attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain – and your self.”
This week, like many people, I’ve been giving my attention to fear because of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the barrage of news and social media posts about “smaller” recent attacks in Beirut and elsewhere. If that weren’t enough to kick my occasional vertigo into high gear, there is that particular American terror of a deranged gunman who can walk into a school or movie theater on any given day. And so I search for the reasons why, and how “we” can prevent these acts and protect ourselves and those we love.
On one level, it makes perfect sense. According to Hansen, in order to survive, our ancestors evolved to constantly scan their surroundings for threats. But are we really so unsafe? I won’t quote the statistics here about the likelihood of a gunman or a terrorist in your city or town or neighborhood. Statistics are floating all over the internet this week, and you can find what you need to prove any point. Instead, think about this: What if focusing our attention on danger is exactly what we don’t need?
Fear of terrorists and gunmen leads to fear of “the other,” i.e., anyone not like ourselves, our friends, our families. We start scrutinizing our neighbors. And fear makes our evolved brains scramble for all sorts of creative ways to protect us. Like keeping “the others” out of our country, city, neighborhood. Passing laws, writing angry letters, passing judgment on people because they resemble the latest evildoers.
The world has always been a dangerous place. The Middle Ages, Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust… as Gilda Radner used to say as her comic character Emily Litella on Saturday Night Live, “It’s always something.” Sadly, this twenty-first century horror is our “something.”
Yet for most of us, the world is safe. We don’t like to think about that, because we’re afraid of “letting down our guard.” But for most of us, most of the time, we are essentially okay.
After a treatment for my vertigo, I was surprised at the change in my mental state. From sadness at the killing of innocents and the demonizing of strangers, not to mention the gloomy rainy day and my creaky aging body, I drove away feeling light, safe and cared about. I saw that something could be done to help my dizziness. And I took that in, because Hansen says it activates the left frontal region of the brain which lifts my mood and grows neural pathways of inner contentment.
Yes, we should care about the suffering of others and do what we can to help. So I’ve decided to devote one hour a day to news and social media posts about the state of the world. Surely I can learn what I need to know in one hour a day and support my causes. Surely the dead are not served by my fear.
I plan to savor the lightness of feeling cared for, the smiling faces of people I meet, and the good all around me if only I pay attention long enough to see it, take it in and make it part of me.
What about you? How are you coping today?

Elsewhere: my review of Richard Russo’s memoir

ElsewhereElsewhere by Richard Russo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So here’s a memoir focused on a man’s relationship with his mentally ill mother. You’d think it would be sad, depressing, frustrating. Not so. It’s all about survival and resilience. True, some things don’t get better: the author’s hometown of Gloversville, NY, went downhill after the glove factories closed, much like my neighboring hometown of Amsterdam, NY, when the carpet mills moved out. Russo writes about the pollution and the disregard for workers’ health, and the common identity and pride of place, lost when manufacturing left so many American towns in the mid-twentieth century. In that context, he gives us the story of his mother, Jean Russo, trying over and over again to reinvent her life. After her husband left, she was unable to break free of her parents and “live independently.” It was a life’s dream she was unable to realize without the constant help of the author.

When I wrote Off Kilter, my own memoir about growing up in Amsterdam with an unhappy mother, I tried to show her tenacity and resilience, too, and can only hope I did it half as well as Russo.

“What nourishes us in this life might be the very thing that steals that life away from us,” he writes near the end, noting that his “paralyzing anxiety at the thought of returning home” is his mother’s legacy. Gloversville is described so well in this memoir(and in his novels, by other names) it’s hard to believe he wasn’t there just the other day, and maybe that’s because the place where we grew up remains a part of us always.

Written with a novelist’s sensitivity to the story hidden in every life, “Elsewhere” is a beautiful testament to love, survival and putting one foot in front of the other, just to see what happens next. Russo’s message: even if we can’t, in his mother’s words, make “it all work out,” we keep trying. That’s what it all comes down to, for all of us.

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Small kindnesses

This little story is from Chapter Nine of my memoir, Off Kilter.

Practicing the piano was a nerve-wracking challenge, thanks to my father. He sat in an easy chair nearby and made tsk noises with his teeth when I hit the wrong key. I kept on, though, in spite of the anxiety. Playing the piano was one way I could strike my own chord. I could put feeling into my fingers, and expression into the notes I played. No one could say I was wrong to feel that way. It wasn’t me, after all, but the music.

After a few years, my teacher, Mrs. Winslow, enrolled me in a competition at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. There I would play the pieces I’d been practicing for weeks, careful of my fingering and posture at the bench. Everything counted – hitting the right keys, playing at the correct tempo, holding my wrists parallel to the keyboard and remembering to do all this at the same time.

On the day of the competition, I’m sure my family, all four of us, looked scared as we climbed out of our black Chevy sedan. We were scared of something almost every day – new places, strange people, unexpected events. This day had the potential for all three.

A familiar man in a tan windbreaker stood in the parking lot. He walked confidently away from his car, shook my father’s hand and greeted my mother. I knew his daughter, one of the other piano students, but I was too shy and nervous to meet his eyes.

He squatted down to my level. “You go in there, Linda, and knock ’em dead,” he said. A light breeze ruffled his dark brown hair, then lifted my fear and carried it away.

Inside the building, I won my first blue ribbon.

Do you remember a time when someone you barely knew paid you a small kindness? 

Small Kindnesses, a novel by Fiona Robyn is available for free on Kindle all day November 27th! 

And be sure to check out all the other “small kindnesses” post today at Writing Our Way Home!

This month of June in our house is a breath-holding time, suspended in waiting.

        At the end of May, we attended our younger son’s graduation from college. He followed us home in his car, ready and eager to go on with his life. Over the next three weeks, he arranged interviews by phone and Skype and in person, and this past Monday, landed a great job in his field, in the city he loves. The search for a place to live takes up most of his time now, and it’s all going on in silence, online, which only adds to the hushed sense of waiting around here.

        Meanwhile, it’s summer. We want to take trips. I want to finish revising my novel. He’s not happy because he doesn’t have his own place yet, and we’re not happy because he’s not happy. The tension hangs over everyone but the cat. Oblivious, she continues sleeping at our feet or running up and down the stairs alongside us, meowing at her dish morning and evening.

        All my mindful self-help Buddhist knowledge, what there is of it, is called into play. This month will never come again. I tell myself in my journal and in my head on my daily walk: Focus on the beauty of the day lilies and hydrangeas. Breathe in the fragrant candle. Feel the tendons stretch in your hand therapy exercises.

        Peace does not come easily. Unless: I accept the tension, the anxiety, the waiting. Let it come. Do not fight against it nor fall into a hole of depression over it.

        This June offers me another chapter in my imperfect life. Another challenge to not be challenged by it. Just be in it. So hard to do, letting go of worry. We want to control the outcome, and so we pray hard for the future and visualize success, because the alternative – utter helplessness over events and people – is so frightening we think we cannot bear it. But maybe we can. Maybe I can.

        The advice and suggestions and support and hugs have all been given. And just like I walk through the rain, I walk through this time of breath-holding before the next phase. And the next.