Not About Gratitude

selective focus photography of left hand on top of right hand on white pants
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My friend is 95. She is dear to me, a sweet woman who is frail but feisty. Can you be both? I think so. She is kind and hospitable when I come to call, and offers me food: an apple, an orange, a cup of tea. The feisty part comes out when she argues with her caregiver about what to wear, and when to stop talking and get dressed. Over the last year, I have seen her mental sharpness fade. On the phone, she asks me over and over what time I am coming. She cries easily, missing her husband who died years ago. She talks to a life-sized photo of him propped on a chair in her living room, facing the couch where she sits. I know it’s not him, she says with a smile, but it makes me feel better when I talk to him.

I bring food because it gives us something to do together, and is easier than trying to hold a conversation as she repeats herself, asking me the same question over and over, and generally making me crazy. I bring two cups of coffee and bagels with cream cheese. She enjoys them after she gets up and down for sugar, milk, and paper napkins for us both. I give up trying to get her to settle down and just wait her out. She’ll get there.

We had a visit scheduled for the morning after the 2016 presidential election. She had the TV on when I walked in. How can Donald Trump be president? she screeched. I was in tears but she didn’t seem to notice, or maybe she did and understood.

She likes to tell me about her childhood, growing up black in New Jersey. I asked her how she could stand it, being always put down, even by so-called friends, and told you were second class. She said you have to decide you’re not going to be angry all the time.

I think a lot about what she said. I’m a little bit angry every day since the presidential election. I hate what I see – the incivility, the overt racism, the ugly nationalism. In my youth, there was hate and violence too. But I was white, and young, and sure the country would get better, more egalitarian. More compassionate. It did, for a while. I worked for the state government in the Great Society; I was a bureaucrat in the War on Poverty during the Lyndon Johnson administration. Sure, there was waste, and too many rules. But now, the subject of poverty hardly comes up in the public sphere, and not because poverty is gone. 

Some days, it’s hard holding on to hope. I’m older too. Will I live to see a better day? My friend is getting ready to leave this life, and talks about where she’s going next. She’s not angry, that’s for sure. I almost envy her.

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Do you have hope for our country? How do you hold on to it? Comment below under “leave a reply” and you might win a copy of Old Friend From Far Away, a book on memoir writing by Natalie Goldberg.

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The winner of last month’s drawing is Carolyn Ferris Gombosi. She gets a copy of Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, a beautiful story of grief and resilience. Congratulations, Carolyn, and thanks for sharing your thoughts here!

 

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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!

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!

 

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!

Broken Handed Writer

Exactly one week before Christmas, I slipped off a step inside my house and broke my left hand. Suddenly, I was on a forced winter vacation. I can’t write, can’t knit, can’t quilt, and can’t drive. What I can do is read, watch TV, take long walks, and think about all kinds of stuff.

I’ve already written a memoir about how I came to be the woman I am. Now, my unexpected limits have me contemplating the present. What do I want to do next? Where do I want to go?

Questions like that used to make me sad. Writing my memoir, Off Kilter, taught me that suffering was my way of operating in the world. For a long time, I believed I had to pay my dues for every happy moment with some equal measure of pain. But somewhere along the way, the pain bucket got so heavy I couldn’t carry it anymore. Perhaps it was the day a friend told me I always looked a little sad and I realized I was more comfortable that way. I was always asking myself how I could be “good enough.” There was never a satisfactory answer. Nothing I did was good enough for my internal judge. When would I get to be happy?

Sine then, I’ve come to re-evaluate that question. I’ve decided it’s me who gets to say. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, people are as happy as they make up their minds to be. It wasn’t so easy for him, either; he is said to have been depressed many times in his life.

There are days when it just seems like too much work, with my hand in a cast or brace, to do a simple thing like take a shower. It’s such a big production: even with the help of my husband, even as we giggle at our reflections in the mirror while he blow dries my hair. ,There are days when my back gives out due to stress, or lack of exercise, or lack of the right kind of exercise. You can see where I’m going with this. On those days,the old familiar mantle of suffering beckons. I want to wrap myself in it, but then I remember: it really is a choice. For much of my life, I chose to be sad. Way back when, it seemed like a good idea. Today, not so much.

This morning, sunlight angles into my dining room, touching the soft gold carpet, making shadows of the backs of my chairs, making me remember moments like these : My son brought home a bag of my favorite cookies. My husband stood ready to put my socks on my feet without being asked. My friends brought lunch and stayed for hours. Others took me out for a drive. They told me, without words, that I am valued. It’s time I told myself the same thing.

This sudden, forced vacation will soon be over. Unlike many others, my disability is temporary. My prayer this morning, is that I will remember to take time to enjoy the sunlight and shadows, when I am once again doing all those other things I miss.

Hardships, even little ones, connect us, don’t they? It’s how we learn compassion for ourselves and others. For that knowledge, I am forever grateful.

(Typed using Dragon Naturally Speaking.)