Boo! What Scares You?

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 It’s almost Halloween, and in my corner of the world, you can take a haunted hayride, visit an abandoned penitentiary, or dress up like the walking dead. You can, not me. I don’t like to be scared. Come October, I’m all about comfort. Hot apple cider, knitting in my rocker while I watch the Hallmark Channel, curling up by the fire with a cozy mystery.

I like the way lighted windows look on a fall evening, as if the people inside are safe and warm. When I walk through a neighborhood, my eye is drawn to the windows on the top floor. I think of the nineteenth century poet Emily Dickinson, writing in solitude in her upstairs garret. Comfortable, safe and out of sight. I can’t even begin to tell you how much that appeals to me.

When I was small, my home was an anxious place. I carried a fantasy of safety around all day like a little purse. In my imaginary future, I would read and write all day, gazing down at the people in the street below. Maybe I’d sew a little – doll clothes, or pretty skirts. And I’d have a handsome boyfriend who’d come to visit.

Emily Dickinson seems prune-like now, in her white shirtwaist and long brown skirt, a black ribbon tied around her neck. She sits ramrod straight, unsmiling, her whimsical poems her only voice. I don’t think I’d like her. If I had her cloistered life, I’d want to run for the hills. Escape the self-imposed prison and travel the world, or at least a few hundred miles around my home.

But I realize I don’t know anything about her. Maybe she had a boyfriend, maybe she liked scary stories, maybe she was nothing at all like I imagine her. Maybe she took a risk now and then.

Risk is the thing that scares me, Halloween or not. Calling strangers to ask them to support a cause. Walking alone to my car at night. Waiting for surgery. Watching the nightly news.  Risk of harm to my physical or mental state. And fear of the unknown – cancer, dementia, a storm, a war.

But fear is a funny thing. When shared, it seems to lessen. Maybe that’s what Halloween is all about. Scaring ourselves together, to make the goblins run away. Shall we try? What scares you right now?

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Be brave and comment on this post, and I’ll put your name in the hat for a copy of Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, who lived through a tsunami that killed her entire family. It’s a terrifying and beautiful story of grief and resilience.

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The winner of last month’s drawing is  Judith Heffernan Elmy. She wins a copy of Mary Jo Doig’s new memoir, Patchwork. Congratulations, Judy, and thanks for your comment!

 

 

 

 

 

Dizzy Time

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It’s been one of those days. My usual treatment for benign positional vertigo doesn’t feel like it worked. I’ll give it 24 hours. The crystals in my inner ear have been slipping out of their little vestibule, off and on, for something like twenty years, and when they do, I get dizzy. Since I discovered a great PT practice that specializes in this, my episodes are shorter and less debilitating. For a few days or even weeks, I feel off balance walking, get dizzy when I first get out of bed, and when I turn around too quickly. After the PT moves my head and upper body this way and that, poof! All better! Today, not so much. My at home instructions say don’t go to the dentist or hairdresser today as tilting your head back can knock the crystals out of whack again.

My hair appointment was for an hour after I left the PT office. What to do? I asked my stylist not to wash my hair (sigh, that’s the best part!) and to just wet my hair and cut it. She took a long time, and when I finally walked out, my hair was too short. I should have been paying attention, but I was worried about getting dizzy again. It will grow out, but darn it. My hair is way too short.

I turned on the TV at lunch to see old men who don’t believe or let’s face it, care, that some women have been sexually assaulted. What they care about is installing the accused on the U.S. Supreme Court so he can help overturn a woman’s right to choose. I realize I have been angry about this case ever since it started. At first, I thought “I’m not a #MeToo survivor.”  But I get dizzy when I’m anxious, and today it’s all coming back.

The grad school adviser on the phone with a department head, leaning around his desk to check out my legs. “Yeah, she has nice ones.” Why didn’t I get up and leave?

The relative who rubbed himself against me from behind at a cocktail party, then asked if it was good. “You men, always asking if it was good,” I joked. Why didn’t I smack him?

The college boy who did the same at a kegger, shouting “I humped her!” to his friends. I kept on walking. Why didn’t I turn around and kick him?

Report it? In those days, we pretended it hadn’t even happened. Why? Did we think it would stop? That it “wasn’t so bad, if we weren’t raped?” And why bring it up now, after all these years? Because I remember it as if it happened yesterday.

It’s making me dizzy to think about this endless trashing of females, this excusing of bad male behavior. And mad as hell. I’m glad the conversation is happening, but damn it, let’s move it forward this time. Let’s not make it worse.

What do you think? Women, men, #MeToos and not #MeToos. I’d love to hear from you.

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This month, I am offering a review copy of Mary Jo Doig’s powerful memoir, Patchwork, the story of one strong woman’s journey from abuse to a life of her own choosing.  Comment on this blog and you could be the lucky winner!

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Cathy Lamb’s novel,  The Language of Sisters. goes to last month’s commenter, B. Lynn Goodwin, author of the memoir, Never Too Lateand manager of the Writer Advice website. Take a look at both, you’ll be glad you did. Congratulations, Lynn!

 

 

 

 

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 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.

 

Lipstick Print on a China Cup

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Coffee doesn’t like me anymore. It upsets my stomach. But whenever I see someone walking down a city street, lidded paper cup in hand, I want one.

In my early 20’s, coffee and a cigarette started my day. On the way to work, I stopped in the lobby of the Erie County Welfare Department to buy a coffee and a buttered roll before stepping into the elevator. In college and away from home for the first time, coffee made me feel alert, ready for anything. Safe. An anxious kid, holding and sipping that hot dark cup of Joe made me feel sophisticated. Like I belonged to the tribe of grownups.

This thread winds back to my two aunts at our family’s Formica kitchen table, talking and laughing. Their coffee was light and creamy, and the rims of their cups held the print of their red lipstick. Cigarette smoke plumed from an ashtray. They cared about me and I loved them back.

Follow the thread even farther back to an open house at Bigelow Sanford Carpet Mills, my Uncle Clarence standing beside a loom so high it reached far above his head, or so it seemed to me. Laughing, he offered me a cup of coffee and I was mute, serious. My father said it was a joke, my uncle was only kidding. I was too young for coffee, for sophistication.

I grew up to love the bitter taste of strong black coffee, but now it bothers my stomach. I switched to decaf then tea in the morning. I thought I’d build up a ritual with tea, evoking England, gentility, scones….

But old habits are hard to break. Once or twice a week, at coffee hour after the church service, or during a morning of writing, I treat myself to a cup of Joe. Because I’m forever captured by the image of red lipstick prints on the rims of china cups. The stamps of women who loved me when they were younger than I am now.

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What about you? Is there a habit you can trace to your childhood? Comment here and I’ll put your name in the drawing for a copy of The Collection: Flash Fiction for Flash Memory. One of my stories is included in this beautiful anthology of stories for the memory impaired (or the short of reading time!)

The winner of last month’s drawing is Marielena Zuniga. She gets a signed copy of Anna Quindlen’s novel, Miller’s Valley. Congratulations, Marielena!

 

 

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!

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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Origami Morning

Origami Sample

 Her little fingers fumbled with a sheet of yellow construction paper. An over-sized white camp T-shirt hung down over her ruffled skirt. Her bright pink sneakers matched the headband in her jet-black hair.

Inside the activities room, nineteen other kids, ages five to twelve, sat at tables scattered with sheets of colored paper. A middle-aged Chinese American woman demonstrated how to fold paper into origami flowers. I was learning, too, and having a hard time of it.

When I answered the call last spring for volunteers at a Chinese Culture Camp, I imaged a fun-filled week with little children, maybe something like the days when my boys were small. Instead, it turned into quite the unexpected challenge.  The arts and crafts were so complicated, I felt inept from the start. The only thing I was good at was untangling yo-yo strings and handing out snacks.

I work best when I have explicit instructions. Do A, then B. “Help them with this” was not remotely clear enough for me, and that was all the training I got. The first morning, I wanted to go home. I thought of saying I was sick and had to leave. The second day, all morning, I practiced another excuse: I forgot, there is somewhere else I have to be!  But I couldn’t find the right time to say it.

The third day, the children sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in Chinese, complete with hand signs, and I was hooked. I wanted to be with them, to bask in the joy on their openly eager faces. At snack time, I put out bags of pretzels, helped little hands peel oranges and passed out water bottles.

Still, no day was easy for me. And origami made me feel just plain stupid. Although I concentrated on the teacher’s flying fingers, my folds all went in the wrong directions. I followed her from table to table, watching her turn ordinary construction paper into beautiful flowers. But try as I might, I just couldn’t do it. I felt a tug at my shirt.

“Can you help me?” The little girl with the pink headband asked. Uh oh.

             Do not fail this child, I thought to myself. Breathe and focus. I picked up a sheet of bright red and working slowly so she should follow, carefully turned my precise folds of paper into… a crumpled ball. She threw her own paper down on the table.

“I want to go home!” she said with a frown. Me too, I thought.  But I was one of the grownups, the people who are supposed to know how to do things. My face felt hot.

“Can I make something else?” she said.

“Of course,” I said with authority, my grownup shoulders relaxing. “You can make anything you want.”

“I need scissors,” she said. I could help with that. She took them from my hand, snipped here and there at her folded paper, and opened it, triumphant, to display a lacy pattern of holes.

“Can I hang it up?” The walls and windows were already plastered with coloring pages and paper snowflakes autographed in crayon.

“Yes, you can.” Her little shoulders wriggled. “But put your name on it first.”

“I need some tape,” she said. I could help with that, too. I held the chair steady as she climbed up and taped her work as high in the window as her little arms could reach. Sunlight poured through the holes of her design.

“Beautiful,” I said. She smiled back at me. I believe she thought I meant the paper.

Have you ever wanted to just quit and, as my mother used to say, “Pick up your marbles and go home?”  Did you leave or did you stay?