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 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!

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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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?