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!

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!

 

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?


Publish Before I Perish



I’ve been working on my novel for several years now; I have lost count of how many years exactly. At workshops given by experienced novelists, I always learn something that will make my story better. I love the process of adding subtext, developing characters, and using place mini-crises to move the plot forward. But some days, like today, I allow myself to feel discouraged by all I have to do before I am finished.

Because I read writers’ newsletters, blogs and social network posts, I know many authors are churning out thousands of words a day, publishing their exciting novels, meeting with agents…and I wonder if I am too slow. Will I ever be ready to say “it’s done?” Will I live that long?
Although I’ve always loved to write, it was only after my fiftieth birthday I began to take my writing seriously, to send my work out into the world, to make money from it. Feature stories for the local paper, magazine articles and personal essays take me hours, days, weeks to complete. I don’t think it has anything to do with perfection. I just want my work to be the best it can be.
Some Monday mornings, it seems I’ll perish before I publish my first novel, which may well be my only novel. I can’t just throw it out there, unvarnished, not when I know better. The only thing to do, I guess, is to get back to work.
Let me know if you find an easier way. Please.

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.

Rosemont Writers Retreat

Looking forward to the second annual Rosemont Writers’ Retreat, presented by Rosemont College and PhiladelphiaStories, especially since they just awarded me a scholarship!

I’ll be studying Novel Writing with Marc Schuster, going to readings every day and practicing yoga before breakfast.

The event is June 14-19, and a weekend version is June 12-14. More info is at www.rosemont.edu/writers.

This should give my novel a big boost toward completion (I hope!)

Characters

The novel is slowly taking shape, mainly because I am writing it. Who knew? LOL
These things don’t happen by themselves. A friend asked me if my characters are taking over and telling me what they want to do next. I wish they would! My characters are just standing around, doing laundry and shopping…