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!

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.

 

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!

 

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?

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?


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.