Friday, February 8, 2019

Things you can't write about

The arguments you have with your mother or the raw inner workings of your marriage.

Conversations with your kids, unless it’s a funny anecdote and you know they won’t mind. The secrets of your best friend. The crazy thoughts that wake you up in the middle of the night.

Weddings are fair game. But not funerals. Births. But not deaths. Unless the death was a really long time ago. Your father’s, for example, when you were seven years old.

That was your first introduction to death, by the way. The randomness of it. The confusion and seemingly bottomless grief. The rage. Also, the unfairness. For example, how he was thirty-four years old. But mostly the finality. How one moment you had this person in your life and the next moment, you did not.

No one wants to hear about it. Not really. A few words of sympathy for the bereaved and then let's all move on. The alternative is remembering that the dead are gone from us forever. That we too will die. That everything we do or don't do ultimately ends, and only for a little while will we have someone left behind to remember.

Something I have forgotten about funeral processions in small Southern towns is how all of the cars pull over on the side of the road. Strangers taking a moment to watch the procession pass. The police officers at the intersections holding their hands on their hearts.

It's a windy day at the cemetery. The soldiers stand grimly before they fire their weapons. One of them announces that we should prepare ourselves for the shots. But how do you prepare yourself for something like that? The noise, each time, is a shock.

So loud our ears sting during the playing of Taps.

I could tell you more about the person we lost. The memories shared. The tears. The confusion and seemingly bottomless grief. The rage. The talk of unfairness.

But this story is not my story to tell. And so I will not write anymore about it today.







Thursday, January 31, 2019

If writing is your practice

the only way you can fail is to not write.

I have been thinking a lot lately about motivation. Last week at the monthly Ohio SCBWI Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators meeting we set writing goals and talked about self- discipline. I had invited a guest speaker to the meeting, the lovely young adult and adult fiction writer Kerry Winfrey. She spoke about the importance of setting small, achievable goals.

(Kerry, for the record, is the mom of a toddler, so she can't always count on a long stretch of time to write. Some days, she admits, 250 words is all she can manage, and she feels good about that!)

We had a lot of new faces at our meeting. Brand new, just-dipping-their-toes-into-living-a-creative-life writers and illustrators. You can see the stars in their eyes. The dreams of bestsellers and awards and movies being made out of their books.

I didn't want to burst their bubbles by telling them that while it's great to dream big, the reality will likely fall far short. If they want to be writers, they're going to have work hard at it-- work hard at it, in all likelihood, without any acknowledgement for a very long time.

If ever.

Which isn't to say that you still can't have a fulfilling creative life. For me that means writing most days. Scrawling out a few pages in my journal in the morning or during my fifteen minute break at my day job. Writing a few pages on the novel I've been working on. Writing a post for this blog.

These are all things I can control, examples of my writing practice. Most of my words are not read by others and may never be. I've had to make peace with that over the years. Honestly, I continue to make peace with it every day. The trick, I've found, is to go All In with the work--throw myself wholeheartedly into writing and revising-- while at the same time acknowledging that the final product (ie: a published book on a shelf) is out of my control.

Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic explains it better:

"My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me (if I am to live artistically), and it also must not matter at all (if I am to live sanely)."

Yeah. So, that's not easy. But today at least, as I write the words I am writing to you now, as I prepare to open up my work in progress,

it's all I've got.





Wednesday, January 30, 2019

There is a possum the size of my dog hiding in my garage

and I am having a hard time focusing on my writing.

I sit down to work and I think of him curled up? sprawled out? Sleeping? hiding in there somewhere. I know he is there because last night when my husband was taking out the garbage, he yelled, OH MY GOD THERE'S A POSSUM THE SIZE OF OUR DOG IN HERE!

Today is the coldest day of the year. Minus 3 degrees as I write this, with a wind chill of minus 24. I hardly blame the possum for sneaking in.

But back to my writing.

I write a sentence. I delete it. I write another. I sneak downstairs to look through the window into the garage. I don't know if I want to see the possum of if I don't want to see the possum. I go back upstairs to my office. I move a paragraph from one section of the chapter to another. I move it back. I google possums.

Thankfully, they are not known to be dangerous or destructive animals. Unless they are cornered. I go back into my book and remember something I wrote in an earlier chapter. I get stuck in that chapter for a while. Writing sentences and deleting them. Moving paragraphs around. I google how to get a possum out of the garage. I write a sentence.

I delete it.

Meanwhile three hours have gone by and I have made no real forward movement in the book itself.

The late poet Mary Oliver wrote about distractions in one of her essays:

"It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist."

This is all well and good.

But Mary Oliver did not have a possum the size of a dog hiding in her garage.




Sunday, January 20, 2019

Why I March (part two)

A high school student asked me at the rally. She was doing a class project, an interview. Why are you here?

She asked my husband first, and he held up his hand and said, Wait. I need to think about it.

He was with me this time around. Actually, he was the reason I was there, at the march. All morning I kept changing my mind. It was cold outside. It had started to sleet. Soon, it would turn into a blizzard, the weather channel kept saying. Maybe the March would be cancelled. I mean, who would drive downtown on potentially treacherous roads to wave a sign in the freezing rain?

Come on, my husband said. I'll drive you. 

I didn't wear my pink hat this time. I didn't even make a sign. I didn't know what I would put on a sign. Honestly, my head was sort of muddled up about why I march.

Two years ago, my first march, it was crystal clear. I was shocked by the election outcome, outraged at the treatment of women by the new president, disgusted and appalled by his views on anyone who isn't white, his bullying of people with disabilities and veterans and refugees. That day I stood with over 500,000 other people, who seemed equally outraged. I didn't know until the drive home that there had been marches in cities all over the country, all over the world, with millions of people sharing the same shock, horror, rage, and disgust.

Today, I have all of those same feelings of course (except shock). Plus, a whole new slew of things to be horrified by and enraged and disgusted over, too many things to fit on a sign.

Something you may not know about marches is how Not-Angry they are. It's just a group of people standing in the rain. A cross section of humans. Take away the signs, and we are any crowd gathered in a park. People in wheelchairs. People pushing strollers or carrying their toddlers on their shoulders. People walking dogs. Women and men. Black people and white people. Christians and Jews and Muslims.

The signs and chants are angry, clever, funny. We listen to speeches. Mull around with each other. Walk together.

After the first march I came home fired up. I joined political organizations and went to meetings and called my congressman and my senator so many times the people answering the phones knew my name. I gathered signatures on petitions and wrote letters to the editor and canvassed neighborhoods to remind people to vote.

I know on a logical level that this is what democracy looks like,

that change takes time, that organizations aren't perfect, that the people who run them are flawed, that every election will not go my way, that even so, it is worth it to stand up, to be a body in the crowd.

Standing outside in the cold, in the rain, I remember.

Why are you here?

I stand with women, my husband answered. My wife. My daughter. I stand with everyone here.

And you, she said, holding her phone out to me?










Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Stress-Tidying into the New Year

Whelp, the whirlwind of holiday company is gone, the grown kids back safely in their homes, and after doing my day's writing, I find myself wandering around the quiet, empty house stress-tidying.

This is not the same thing as straightening or cleaning. This is haul-every-item-out-of-every-closet-and-drawer and pile-all-of-the-clothing-you-own-on-the-bed and ask-if-it-gives-you-joy tidying.

Yes. I am currently binge-watching Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Netflix and while I admit that I am not quite ready to kneel on my dusty floor and say a prayer of thanks to my house, I have been rolling up my socks and tucking miscellaneous items into shoe boxes. It is strangely soothing.

Something I (and apparently a lot of other Americans) need lately.

As every day the news from Washington gets darker and crazier and no end in sight, who does't want to shut themselves into a closet?

The alternative is to blindfold yourself.

Yes. I am talking about Bird Box, another show I recently watched. If you haven't seen it, the premise is that terrible monsters are whirling around us and even just one glimpse causes people to violently kill themselves. The only solution is to close your eyes.

This is strangely soothing too. And is probably why I have stopped watching and reading the news. But just as the blindfold sometimes slip off the Bird Box people, the crap news of the day often slithers into me.

So it's back to folding.

Marie Kondo is obsessed with folding. Entire segments of the show are dedicated to demonstrating her folding techniques. You can also find her instructions online. 

This sounds like it might be boring, by Marie is so lovely you'll find yourself immediately wanting to fold a fitted sheet. In the book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up she comes off like an obsessed drill sergeant. On the show she's darling, speaking through her translator, prancing around people's cluttered houses and squealing about how much she loves messes so she can teach everyone how to tidy them. She doesn't bat an eye at the woman who has an entire room full of piled up Christmas ornaments or at the man who's saved every item of paper from his childhood.

Our goal is to touch each thing we own and ask if it gives us a spark of joy. If not, we thank it sincerely and into the trash it goes.

To bad we can't do that with all of our monsters.







Saturday, December 29, 2018

One day,

one night really,

tucked between our visiting Christmas and New Year's guests, we found ourselves in the house alone, the four of us, my husband and I and our two home-for-the-holidays grown-up kids,

just like old times,

except, not exactly like old times because in old times we were the harried parents, and they were the babies, and then they were the non-stop talking children, and then they were the retreat-to-their-rooms teenagers.

We used to play a game at dinner called High/Low where each person said what the high point of their day was and the low point, but it got a little stale over the years because each person always said similar things about their days, stuff about what was going on at work, at school,

stuff I can't quite remember now, but back then was apparently repeating itself after a while, because one night my son suggested that we say each other's High/Lows, since we knew them so well, and we did that, thinking it was hilarious, and then the game petered out and somewhere along the way we stopped playing it.

The other night when we ate dinner together, we didn't play High/Low, but we did catch each other up on what's going on in our lives. We had a surprising amount to share.

This year will be a year of big changes. Graduation. New jobs and new residences. Not just for the kids but for us too.

It occurs to me that next year at this time, when we eat dinner just the four of us, if we eat a dinner just the four of us, (we might have some new additions at the table, wink wink), we will likely be sitting at a table in an unknown-to-us now place, sharing unknown-to-us-now news.  

This is kind of scary. 

Much easier to curl up on the couch together and watch old home movies. Because it was so lovely back then, when everyone was young and the kids were portable and living under our roof and we knew so well what everyone's day was like that we could recite it to each other. 

News flash: Only old people like this game. The kids think it is boring and silly. 

Did you ever notice that one of the signs of a stale, possibly dying friendship is how all you can do when you get together is reminisce about the fun times you had with each other in the past?

So, let's stop doing that, people.

Okay, okay. Wallow in the home movies one more time, linger on each other's young darling faces, remember the smell of your baby's hair after a bath and hum the lullabies you used to sing to him at bedtime.

But then, let that old game peter out.

Enjoy each other's company in the present and make new memories, such good ones that some day, far far into the future, even the grown-up kids will want to curl up on the couch together and linger there for a while.






Sunday, December 23, 2018

Best Gifts

There was the typewriter, of course, the Christmas, I was thirteen.

This was a manual one, with ribbon you had to change and keys that stuck together if you typed too fast, but I loved it immediately, typing out stories and books and even my daily diary, two-fingered, until I took a typing class in high school and learned the proper method.

A stereo and albums I had my heart set on. Don't tell anyone but I was a huge Van Halen fan, once skipping school with a friend to stand out all night in line outside the Hartford, Connecticut Civic Center, a night so cold the radio DJs over the radio were making fun of us and joking about sending us hot chocolate so we wouldn't freeze to death. Side note: the concert was awesome, although I was mostly slack-jawed, watching the lead singer prance around in leather pants with the butt cheeks cut out. (google "David Lee Roth butt cheek pants" if you want a good laugh)

But I digress.

Mostly, I can't remember gifts, things I once longed for, the packages I tore into. What I always liked when I was a kid was the lead-up to Christmas, the anticipation, when time seemed to crawl and practically freeze, those first steps down the stairs and the peek into the room with the tree, the floor bare the night before, now magically piled with presents,

and then a seemingly endless day playing and eating and visiting relatives while Sing-Along-with-Mitch blasted from the record player.

This year my husband has been converting old home movies--the ones originally on videotape cassettes and then converted to dvds-- to computer files. A good 25 hours+ of movies, some we have never watched before, many of Christmases past,

our own children stepping downstairs and peeking into the room with the tree, the first surprised glimpse of the mound of presents. And then the obligatory million shots of unwrapping packages, the holding up of new clothes, the demonstration of longed for toys. A parade of Legoes and American girl dolls, motorized cars and Barbies, plastic food kitchens and sports equipment.

Here's something funny: my husband and I have been fast-forwarding through those bits and instead have found ourselves lingering over the smaller moments

our four-year-old son dancing through the kitchen while I baste the turkey, his baby sister toddling around eating cheerios. They were so little and darling and I want to believe that we saw it, we knew it at the time, but there I am in the videos, a blur at the edge of the screen, scooping up crumpled tossed wrapping paper because I was annoyed by the mess, my husband not shown at all (he was holding the video camera)

while our very best gifts were growing up fast right in front of us.