Boo! What Scares You?

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Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

 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!

 

 

 

 

 

Lipstick Print on a China Cup

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Photo by Pexels

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!

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!

A Simply Christmas Birthday Cake

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At Christmas, or maybe just because it’s the end of the year, I try to make everything perfect. Big and little worries come out and tug at me to fix them. But I can’t.

It’s just a holiday, that’s all, I tell myself, albeit a big heavy one laden with all kinds of expectations. It does not have to be so fraught. Like December 26th, it’s just a day until we make it something more.

Going downstairs this morning, I saw the photos of my family on bookshelves, some gone, all of us older, and perhaps because I was ruminating on life’s imperfection, I saw them in their flawed beauty and I loved them. Each one has strengths and quirks and weak places, traits that make them who they are. And I wonder whose story shall be next. My mission as a memoir writer is to bring them all to light.

Do not worry and whine about how hard it is, I tell myself, or how widely your words are read. Love it and do it.

In the kitchen, I see the cookbook, open to the page for Simply Cheesecake. My husband wants it for his birthday cake. He and Jesus have the same birthday and guess who has felt overlooked on December 25th since he was a little boy?

The origin of the recipe is lost in the mist of time. It has been published in two fundraising cookbooks, one for my faith community where you are welcome if you are open-minded, and one for Dining for Women, a nationwide giving circle of bighearted women. Openhearted church, generous women: two communities where I am welcome, with or without my perfect cheesecake.

Lighter than the densely packed New York style, my cheesecake can be served with or without topping. My husband has chosen strawberries and whipped cream this year, and I plan to whip the cream myself, no pressurized can of chemicals for me. This will be a pure and natural gift of love. I slowed my worried mind and made a list of what I’ll need, and felt calmer, knowing I can grab that list and go, or even let him, the one who actually enjoys grocery shopping, take it and run.

Sipping my coffee, relaxed, I remembered that when I slide that cake into the oven, I will bless it with the sign of the cross, a salute to my mother, who made the sign before the open oven door whenever she baked. I wonder if she did it as a salute to hers.

Feeling close to her, I look down at the cheesecake recipe in the open cookbook on the table before me.  “After one hour, turn off the oven,” I read, “and leave the cake inside for one more hour. Do NOT open the oven door at any time!” I never have, in all the years I’ve baked that cake. Will it “fall” if I open the door just a crack? Why chance it, I reason, after all that mixing and blending of cheeses and sour cream, eggs added one at a time, vanilla. Even when it’s done, after two hours in the oven, one with the heat turned off and the DOOR CLOSED, the cake needs to set, to cool on a rack then chill in the fridge. I don’t question the magic and the mystery.

My thoughts turn to the friend who tells me every time she bakes this cake, and I realize: This is my specialty. I don’t do everything well – who does? – But this I enjoy, both the making and the serving. It is my birthday gift to my husband– this year we will light long thin candles for him to make a wish on – and the Christmas dessert for the friends who will join us for dinner. All this cannot be rushed. And it’s damn near perfect.

photo credit: Flickr.com by quinnanya, Creative Commons licensed.

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?


Knitting Knotes

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This is the second in a series of posts by Kat Kowalski, protagonist of my novel in progress, Memoirs of the Queen of Poland.

Now that I’m back from my journey, I’ve thinking more about life in the 21st century. It seems like everyone blogs these days, especially writers, and I wonder if we do it just to get our voices “out there,” and if we take enough time to think about what we truly want to say, what truly needs saying.

My intention is to write here every month or so, after considering carefully what it is I need to say.

For this month, I’ve been thinking about my relationship with knitting, and how I love it. It soothes me, heals me, makes me feel useful. But I’m usually doing something else at the same time. Watching TV and knitting. Talking to someone and knitting. The excellent memoir writer, Louise DeSalvo, was an inspiration to me when I began to write my own story. She says “I can’t seem to write unless I knit a little.” That got me wondering: Is writing a kind of knitting? We weave our words together like yarn, following a pattern, always with the end product in mind. And is knitting a kind of healing, too?

These days, there is so much heartbreak and pain in the news. I don’t want to watch it anymore. In fact, I’m not sure I want to watch TV at all while I’m knitting. Meditating always helps me feel better, if I can get myself to sit down and actually “do” it. And knitting, all by itself, is a form of meditation, if I do it mindfully. I’m going to try this and see how it goes. Knit and meditate. Or knit and pray. Or just knit and breathe.

What’s your take on crafts and writing and healing? Do they go together?

Namaste,
Kat