2019- Ready or Not!

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As the old year ends, I feel an urge to finish what I started, as if I need a clean slate to begin 2019. And then I laugh. As if that’s ever going to happen.

Just last month, I stopped reading a book I hated. It was for my book club. Which I’m dropping out of. I didn’t like the story or the characters or the writing. Or the members of the club. Or the hard wooden chairs we had to sit on. Can I quit now? It wasn’t worth my time, but I don’t like to leave anything unfinished. 

I have a half-done quilt on my sewing machine, wrinkled clothes waiting on the ironing board, and a Christmas tablecloth with stains I haven’t managed to remove. And then there are all the short stories and essays in progress on my computer.

My kids grew up before I was finished raising them. Wait, I wanted to say, I’m not done. I forgot to teach you to ice skate…or to make a pie…When they walk away, I still want to wrap my arms around their ankles.

My parents died before I understood them. I didn’t ask my dad what his childhood was like. I forgot to ask my mom if she ever doubted her faith.

I dropped freshman organic chem. I didn’t care about the experiments, my grades were awful, and a boy said I was taking the place of someone who had been drafted to fight in Vietnam.  

I dropped friends who moved away. Staying in touch was too hard in our busy lives. Or maybe they dropped me.  

It’s okay. If we hold on to everything we start, our lives would be a spaghetti-ball mess we could never untangle. Life is about choices.  

A new year is about to begin, a turn of the calendar’s page, opening more possibilities. What will I choose to start this year? What will I finish? And what can I quit in the middle of, knowing full well that “enough is enough,” that forcing myself to complete something that is no longer important is just a waste of my precious time? Time I could use for the things that matter.

Do you always “finish what you started?”

Comment on this post and I’ll put your name in the drawing for a copy of The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer, a practical book about inner peace and freedom.

The winner of last month’s drawing is Susan Berrodin. She will receive a copy of Old Friend From Far Away by Natalie Goldberg. Congratulations!

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 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 Not To Do List

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It’s the end of January, and according to businessinsider.com, 80% of New Year’s resolutions have been broken. I’m no longer a “business insider,” if I ever was, having left the corporate world 27 years ago, nor did I make any New Year’s resolutions. But like most people, I have lists of things “to do.” They are useful reminders, and so satisfying to check off when completed. But what takes their place? Another to do list! It’s an endless daily process, and while it certainly helps me remember what I need to do next, that list can get overwhelming. Recently I came across the idea of a “not to do” list. Business writer Michael Hyatt writes here about how and why you need one to succeed at work. https://michaelhyatt.com/do-you-have-a-not-to-do-list/

Since I’m not reporting to anyone but myself these days, my not to do list is aimed at getting out of my own way so I can be happy, a lifelong quest I’m getting pretty good at. Since I believe it helps to write these things down, here’s my 2018 Not To Do List:

  1. Spend time with people I don’t like.
  2. Watch TV every night.
  3. Eat anything that doesn’t taste delicious.
  4. Compare myself to someone else.
  5. Take the best parking spot.
  6. Ignore my feelings.
  7. Say yes when I want to say no.
  8. Silence my voice.

What do you think? Is a “not to do” list is a good idea? What would be on yours?

Comment here on my blog and I’ll put your name in the drawing for my next book giveaway: The Moment of Truth by Damian McNicholl. Based on true events, it’s the story of a female bullfighter in 1950’s Mexico faced with all that the machismo culture can throw at her.

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The winner of last month’s drawing is Mary Lou Baldwin. She gets an autographed copy of The Promise of Pierson Orchard by Kate Brandes. Congratulations, Mary Lou!

 

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!

Bits of Christmas Light

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My Jewish friend once said he felt left out at Christmas, that the sparkling lights on the trees and buildings “are not for me.” A teacher we both knew told him about the pagan origins of the festivals of light celebrated around the world at the darkest time of the year. “The lights can be for you if you want them to be,” he wisely said. But what if all is not peace and light?

It’s a fraught time of year, I find, with trapdoors of angst, regret and disappointment. If I’m not careful, I fall in. Flashes of memory come and go. Dear faces I’ll no longer see. Sweet voices I won’t hear again.

Some years, I was so lonely I couldn’t wait for the holidays to be over. Other years were so frantic with shopping, traveling, and family dysfunction, I was too tired and anxious to be full of good cheer. A close relative used to joke with me about wanting a Thanksgiving table like the one on the wine commercial – big, happy family, everyone getting along. Then we’d laugh and say: “Those people are actors!”

This week, as I dug out my fancy salad recipe for Thanksgiving, I remembered my mother working hard in her kitchen. She was a good baker, but got pretty strung out when she put on a holiday feast. I wish I could have understood her better when she was still alive. Next month, when I bring out my vanilla-stained cookie recipes, I will think of my mother-in-law and her son’s favorite peanut butter cookies with a chocolate kiss in the center. I wish I could talk to her now.

I’ve come to realize that these winter holidays can be just what we need “if we want them to be.” No one knows where the path may lead, but there are things we can hold on to regardless.

Often, it helps to write or read about them. In the absorbing new novel,  An Uncertain Path, by Sandra Carey Cody,  an unexpected and tragic accident links the lives of two young women, unknown to one another, and sets them on a path they never imagined.

We had an unexpected loss in our own family this month, and our path through the holidays will feel different. But that’s okay. These days, Change is my new middle name. My perspective has shifted quite a bit. I focus on the things I love about Christmas: spending time with friends and family, making and sharing traditional food, listening to special music, driving around to see the lights, attending a Christmas Eve service.

I don’t care anymore if my holiday season is as good as anybody else’s, or like the ones gone by.  In the fullness of time, they all run together anyway.  My wish for you is that these short days are filled with all the peace, love and warmth your heart can hold.

Now it’s your turn. What’s the most important part of the winter holidays for you? What can you do without?

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Post a comment and I’ll put your name in the drawing for a signed copy of An Uncertain Path.  

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The winner of last month’s drawing is Donna Galanti, a wonderful writer herself! She gets an autographed copy of A Time of Fear and Loving by Alice Orr. Congrats, Donna!

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.

 

Mercy, mercy me!

 

20140308_043253Maybe it’s my Polish Catholic upbringing, but the themes of forgiveness and mercy are showing up in the books I choose to read. And a glance at the magazines near the supermarket checkout would lead us to believe we have much to forgive. Whether it’s how to be a better parent or spouse or cook or lover, our culture says we are doing it all wrong. We need to work harder to correct our ways.

I’m all for self-improvement – to a point. The older I get, the closer that point is to where I am today: human, imperfect and perfectly okay. Self-blame is corrosive and saps our energy. I’m encouraged by the recent upsurge in magazines about simple living and authors who advocate getting rid of self-doubt.

All this may explain why I related to Dorothea Benton Frank’s 2005 novel, Pawley’s Island.  When artist Rebecca Simms loses custody of her children to her cheating husband, her self-esteem is already at rock bottom. She judges herself harshly for simple mistakes until a retired female attorney with her own guilty conscience comes to her rescue and learns to forgive herself in the process.

Often, it’s our friends we turn to when our self-image needs a boost. I count on women who have known me for decades or just a year to remind me I’m worthy of love, despite my mistakes. They teach me that mercy is for everyone, including me. They have also, on occasion, come up with some good solutions for knotty problems, but only when I ask. Most of us, most of the time, can figure things out for ourselves. We just want our pals to be there, cheering us on through the sticky parts.

What about you? Have your friends helped you navigate those days when you wanted to pull the covers back over your head? I’d love to hear about it. This time next month, I’ll randomly pick one person who comments to receive my copy of Pawley’s Island.

And speaking of next month, come see me and a bunch of other writers on Sunday,  October 15th at the Prallsville Mill  in Stockton, New Jersey, for River Reads. Lots of fun – wine, crepes, readings, signings and workshops!

 

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?

 

 

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.

View all my reviews

Rest When You Are Weary

Today I’m back from a week in the mountains, where I wrote for 2 or 3 hours every day, went on long hikes and read. A retreat I had planned all summer, hoping to finish revising the novel I’ve been working on for years.

What happened with the writing:

I found plot holes and plugged them.
I tied up loose ends in the story.
I found ways to make the main character’s actions believable.

But…

I didn’t finish.
I figured out how to make the story better, which means:
I have about 25% more of the novel to draft, then revise. I have been writing long enough to know that means more than one revision.

The good news:

My story is really fun to write and spending so much time on it makes me eager to keep going.
After months of struggle, it’s all coming together.
I know exactly what to do to “bring everybody home,” which means all major characters reach a satisfying conclusion.

Now I’m back in my regular world where:

Laundry must be washed, dried and put away
Phone calls and email messages need replies
I need to get some exercise today

But I’m tired, physically, mentally, even emotionally. The end of things, even a vacation writing retreat in the beautiful mountains, always makes me a little sad.  And writing, even when it’s fun and good and rewarding, makes me tired.

The weather is gloomy now, which doesn’t help. So I’ll put off the to-do list for later. First, I’ll curl up with a good book I started this week: The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro. And maybe I’ll take a nice little nap.

Why not? Do you need a “good reason” to rest besides being just plain tired?


Having It All

This week I’ve been enjoying a wonderful novel by Rachel Pastan. Lady of the Snakes is an artful, satisfying story about a young woman’s struggle to create a meaningful career, be a good parent, and sustain a loving marriage. When men do all those things at the same time, we call it – well, we call it a life. Women doing the same things are said to be “having it all.”
It’s 2009, people. We’re supposedly post-feminist. The novel was published last year. And it’s so NOT ‘last year.’

This is an exciting, entertaining, read with intriguing, sympathetic characters and a compelling story. I recommend it highly.

Read it and let me know if you think there’s something off kilter about the way we look at women’s lives today.