Saturday, December 24, 2016
Writing becomes a reflective exercise--what happiness occurred since the last letter? What travels? What milestones achieved? I receive many family letters in the mail, and while I enjoy reading them, it always seems those families celebrate so much joy, so much unity and good times. The children excel, the family trips filled with smiling faces. I wonder--did anything shake the lives of these people I care about? Did anything scare them? Did their children become ill, or refuse school, or try to harm themselves? I hope not. I truly hope not. But I know my own letter masks the sadnesses we have encountered, the crises and fears and shattered hopes.
My letters and cards always go out late--it's the nature of the beast of someone on an academic schedule. I call them my New Year's cards. But if no cards or letters go out it's because the sadnesses were too much and too big to hide.
This year, I will write my letter. I will try to make it honest by touching on both happy events and those that filled me with grief. I am grateful that this year I can write a letter at all.
So in between batches of butter stars and nut biscottis, I will draft my words, find my pictures, commemorate another year passed.
May you find peace with those you love, and yourself...
Sunday, November 13, 2016
Like many, I am afraid. I am afraid that women will never budge past the glass ceiling when it comes to running this nation. I am afraid of walls, literal and metaphorical, that will arise to keep out those who don't look white and Native-born and have male genitalia. I am afraid that the global wars will be further fueled, and more, I am afraid of war building in our country.
(Correction: I contend we already have a war of sorts in our nation--just look at the violence we heap upon each other.)
I am afraid my international graduate students will find it difficult to find jobs, despite their kindness, their brilliance, their potential to make a real difference in health care. I am afraid people with mental health and substance use disorders and other chronic conditions will find their health care no longer affordable, and that their conditions will forever be used against them when they seek insurance in the future.
I am afraid the children of this nation, including my own, will believe that bullies do win.
The election of He Whose Name Shall Not Be Uttered, as well as the election of his minions (or soon-to-be minions) into Congress, has awakened me out of complacency. Like the slap of cold air when I roll out of bed. Like the way I felt as a middle-school student reading Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I have been quiet too long.
My pledge and promise:
I will practice the art of non-violent discussion.
I will support individuals and groups who share my vision.
I will speak up and act out when I witness injustice.
I will resist the new norm.
Sunday, September 04, 2016
I don't miss the looseness of summer. While (theoretically) I have more 'time' in summer to write, I find writing comes harder when the days blaze hot and long. With the advent of autumn, my time shrinks into manageable packets, and it's in these packets that I can write because I need to--time is scarce. With summer, time looms to infinity, and the urgency to write dissipates.
It's been a week since my kids have returned to school, high school for them both, and I welcome the schedule like a favorite pair of worn-in jeans. As my children edge into young adulthood, I find myself worrying more about their well-being than when they were helpless, reckless toddlers. Having them in school gives me that emotional break for a few hours during the work week.
While glad summer is ending. I'm less happy that darkness comes sooner and leaves later. The past few mornings I've barely been able to edge out of bed because of the dark, cool air. I amble down to the kitchen and my coffee tastes better, has the edge it lacks in summer.
My writing feels mired in possibility. It seems I am forever editing and marketing, and the desire to write new words waxes and wanes. And what to write? I have several new stories in my heart, but they all call out equally. And there is something new, an idea that is not fiction, and that calls me, too. I need to decide which to pursue, and when, and stop pondering. I need to write.
I finished Lidia Yuknavitch's The Small Backs of Children. What to say other than this exquisite story makes me giddy and sad all at once? She's graphic, pushes the reader to the edge of alive. And the writing? Here is an example of not a wasted word, and where each word pulls double duty. I want read all of her now.
FINE, a small fiction, launched at Blue Fifth Review. A huge thanks to editors Sam Rasnake, Michelle Elvy, and Bill Yarrow for publishing my work. It's a fine issue, and I'm humbled to have my words alongside those of poets and writers I admire.
Let me know what you're reading and writing and thinking.
Let me know what you're reading and writing and thinking.
Saturday, May 21, 2016
Another gray morning. Rain smacks the roof, a sound I once loved but have become immune to. Just as January signifies a new start, so does this month as school winds down, summer looms, and the season of leisure begins in a few short weeks. This year I worry about the tomatoes and the berries—will they ripen? One year when I lived in Massachusetts, summer never showed up. Many plants never bloomed, fruit never set, it was that cold.
One of my graduate students flew the coop this week. She is a brilliant young woman, an ambitious one, but most of all, kind and compassionate. Her parents flew from Taiwan and I met them, gracious people and proud parents. They are the lucky ones—they get to claim her forever. My student will start her new life in Boston, where she wanted to go, working with a colleague that once was my student. She will do well there—her new work group does important work and they are great folks. I feel pride and joy for her, but also sadness because we’ve worked together for almost five years, and there’s a little hole in my heart.
At work, soon I will shed old roles and take on new ones. Exhilarating and petrifying…
My dear daughter got into the high school program she applied to—bio-medical sciences. She wishes to be a forensic anthropologist. Truth be told, she'll be an amazing scientist: curious, seeking, persistent. In a few weeks my dear son returns home after nearly two years away at private school. He enters his senior year, though we’re still not sure where. I feel grateful and excited that my nest will be full again. And then… the nest will begin to empty again. I see families with babies and toddlers and I yearn for those times, long for the first words, first steps, first every things…
In three weeks I’ll fly to Denver for a week of writing. I’ll meet up with my good friend Barbara, an amazing writer and my soul sister. We met three years ago in Taos, and bonded immediately in the line for drinks at the opening reception. Another writer friend, whom I’ve not yet met, will also be there. We’re taking a juried workshop with Jenny Offill, author of the phenomenal Department of Speculation which managed to touch every nerve I possessed and rubbed it raw. I’m excited, and nervous; my own book, still in process, touches on many of the same themes.
My friend and writing colleague Jacqueline Bach has a cool blog called THE PROCESS PROJECT, where she interviews writers about their approaches to the craft. I'm up this week, so please take a look and read the wise words from over two dozen other writers.
What’s new with you? What’s old?
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
For these students, this Spring signals an end. And a new beginning. Just not with me.
Which saddens me because lately, as I grow older, it seems I stand still while the rest of the world streams by. The world is their oyster; for me, it's already eaten and digested.
I know I should welcome this time of relative stillness. I can write (and I am). I can meditate (and I'm not). I can spend time doing nothing, which we all know confers tremendous health benefits (and I'll try). But still... I have a growing hankering for more. But more what?
When younger, I'd satisfy my itch with travel. Now, travel is a lot of work, although once at my destination, I usually appreciate the views, the people, the food, my single room with control of the remote. Or new experiences, like zip lining or karate or learning how to piece together a handbag (and use the sewing machine). I have been cooking lots of new recipes, inspired by my daughter's vegetarianism.
But I sense a need for change. The last time I felt this yearning, about ten years ago, I woke up one morning and started writing. The words flowed from me like lava, hot and uncontrollable and vivid. And unexpected. So whatever comes next, I will be listening, waiting.
Of course, maybe this perceived need for change will be solved with a new pet or a new pair of sandals. And I know, from experience, that wishing for change sometimes brings about change you don't want. So for now, I will quietly gather my energy, enjoy the peace, and wait for the Next Big Thing to announce itself.
Tuesday, March 01, 2016
Not sure why I dislike February so much. It's likely the weather--bitter winds, lots of gray, and here, in Maryland, indecisive about whether to pitch snow or freezing rain from the heavens. Or maybe it's the lack of holiday breaks. President's Day? Washington's birthday? Mean little to me, I still go to work. A few friends get excited over Valentine's Day, but I prefer the day after, when chocolate gets marked down.
There's nothing to look forward about February except getting it over with.
And so now this dreaded jail time is over, and I am free. Spring lurks around the corner; grackles populate the lawn like mushrooms after a sogging rain. On Sunday, posted pictures of croci flooded my Facebook feed. For myself, spring gets real when I find the first purple-green asparagus tips pushing through cracked earth.
What I'm Reading... Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout, the master of getting into character using close third. And I love the dynamic between frustrated mother and maturing daughter--a dual coming-of-age story. And Jenny Offill's Last Things, a story about love and loss. For non-fiction fun (and edification), I'm reading Steve Silberman's Neurotribes, about the discovery--and future--of autism.
What I'm Writing... Small pieces, for sheer pleasure. I'm marketing my work more aggressively, including both novels. Working on a memoir--why not? And revising, always revising.
I'm honored to have Mainstreaming at the Middle-School Social up at Flash Frontier an international journal of small fictions founded my Michelle Elvy. Thanks to Guest Editors Elizabeth Smither and James Norcliffe for selecting my work. Take a peek around--some excellent writers and stories.
Spring. Around the corner. It invigorates me and productivity surges. I'll be writing and reading and doing karate with my daughter--what about you?
Tuesday, January 19, 2016
In part, it's my day job. I'm a professor, so I don't really have a job I can clock out of at 5 and then go home, kick back my feet, and suck down a glass of Cabernet. It's a job which I mostly love but which sucks me dry at times.
But even so, I should be able to get into my writing when that blasted alarm clock blares at 5:30 am. I DO get up, but even as I walk down the stairs telling myself to open word and not gmail, email, facebook, or that blasted twitter, I still do exactly that. Minutes pass, my hour goes, and I might have half-heartedly put in edits for a couple of pages.
I think the major reason I'm not into writing, though, is that I have two many projects. I have two books, finished, that need homes. I am pitching them, and this also seems to suck me dry--the tedium of researching agents, the tedium of writing query letters, the fear galloping ahead of me that these books will never reach the world, that I'm a hack, I'm wasting my time with this 'hobby'. The rejections slowly roll in, usually on a Friday afternoon (ever notice the timing of declines, fellow writers?), usually with some form of personalization but always with the latest market lingo, "I didn't connect with the writing the way I'd hoped to."
And then there's The Minister's Wife, which I have just picked up again after a year. This work is a Mess. A Very Big Mess, and as I poke through pieces I realize I need a thousand pages to tell this story, it is too big, so what do I do? Change the story line? Reduce the POV characters? Make it into multiple projects with overlapping characters?
What really frustrates me is that all of the above isn't 'writing'. It's editing and revising, pitching and marketing, and I really feel I can't afford to stop these things because I need to get something published. And this need paralyzes me from writing new words, even though I have other ideas and projects lining up like jets on the runway waiting to take off.
I will plod along. This too shall pass. But I ache for more time to just write, I ache for some conclusion for the words I've already written. I ache for a modicum of validation that my writing is worthwhile, that it makes a difference.
How do you push past self-doubt? Any and all advice welcome. Peace...
Friday, January 01, 2016
I went to bed last night (well before the witching hour), plotting in my head the wise words I’d share today, the launch of a new year. I love the first day of a new year—it’s akin to shedding old clothes and wearing new, shiny togs. I was going to say something about a new year providing a new chance for hope, which led me to ponder what it was I hoped for. And of course, I hoped for calm and peace for my family, health and resilience for my children. But these are ‘things’ I can’t change, through persuasion or brute force; these are things I’m graced with, through luck or God or both.
I’ve said before I’m not one for resolutions, and I’m not, especially as I realize what I want most I can’t guarantee. But I can help shape peace and calm and health, and I can do this by living my best possible life. Two years ago, through necessity, I started to live my best possible life. Those of you who don’t know me but who might have met me at a conference or a grocery store would likely think to yourselves, “Jeesh, that woman, such a mess!” And I was a mess, but I was the best I could be at that time. Back then, there were days when getting myself on the metro to work was a triumph. Fear has a funny way of paralyzing me (maybe you, too?) but at some point something snapped in me and I got pissed off and decided to rub fear’s nose in my happiness. Which was feigned, but another funny thing is when you fake your joy and peace, it becomes a state of being.
As 2016 marches down its preordained road (and we get an extra day of joy this year), my game plan is to continue being the best possible me every second of this year. That means checking myself when I find impatience and frustration growing in my gut, approaching life as a listener rather than a talker, and establishing boundaries that provide the ability to be the best I can be. It also means forgiving myself when I screw up (and forgiving others when they do), because I (and others) will screw up—it’s part of our messy humanity. It means seeking daily balance in my physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs, and keeping each well fed. Being the best possible me means having goals (not resolutions) and striving toward them. I want to tumble into my sheets each night feeling I accomplished much, have nothing to feel badly about, and knowing I did the best I could—and that I can do better.
So no expectations for dramatic change this year; merely paddling down the same creek in hopes the water and my work carve the earth ever deeper. What are your goals for this year? What paths are you hoping to meander down?
Happy New Year, and peace...
Friday, December 25, 2015
One Spring day, a wren chose to nest in the smallest fir tree. Mornings, the baby birds chortled as their mother searched for grubs and worms. One afternoon, as the littlest fir tree and the baby wrens drowsed in the wan sun, the wren squawked loudly, rousting her family from the tree. A man and a boy, both clad in overalls, walked through the orchard, throwing fertilizer around the firs.
"There, there.” The boy tossed pellets under the littlest fir tree’s boughs. “Grow strong and healthy and green.”
He squinted up at the nest perched in the littlest tree, his Red Sox cap on backwards. His fingers stroked the needles and the tree shivered.
"So soft, papa,” the boy said. “Like a kitten’s tail.”
"Yup,” said the man. “He’s the youngun here – just like you.”
That summer, the wind smelled of sweet hay. Buzzing bees filled the air with song. The farmer and his son came to the hill almost every day, watering the trees when the sun withered their needles. The boy panted and groaned as he hauled the full pails up the hill, but he always watered the littlest fir tree. Afterwards, he collapsed in the cool shade cast by the littlest fir tree and told stories about the puffy cloud creatures scudding across the sky.
One morning, the farmer came with a machine that whirred and twirled. The smallest fir tree watched the farmer trim his brothers and sisters into triangle shapes. The other trees danced in the breeze, happy with their new look, but the buzzing tool scared the smallest fir tree.
“This won’t hurt,” the boy said.
And it didn’t, the tool tickled. The fir tree shivered with delight.
The leaves of the forest Maples flamed red. Shadows stretched long across the meadow. The man came to the orchard, but always alone; the littlest fir tree missed the boy’s visits. On the first hard frost, the hill sparkled with diamonds. The man walked the orchard, still alone, pulling long red and white and yellow ribbons from a leather bag slung over his shoulder. He tied a ribbon on each tree and soon, the ribbons fluttered like flags in the brisk autumnal air. The littlest fir tree wondered what color ribbon the farmer would tie on him. But when the man reached the hilltop, he paused before the littlest tree and sighed a deep sigh, then walked back down the hill.
The sun dropped behind the forest ridge. The fir tree shivered, sending needles to the ground.
The ground rumbled. Cars and trucks filled the bottom field. Shouts of children filled the air.
“There! This tree!”
“No, this one!”
The children swarmed around the small fir tree, sometimes even saying “This one!”
But the fathers said, “This tree is too puny. Besides, it has no ribbon,” and strode past, saws and axes thrown over their shoulders. The littlest fir tree trembled as his brothers and sisters groaned and fell to the ground.
Snow dusted the stump-stubbled hill. Without the protection of his brothers and sisters, the northeast gusted hard and cold, coating the trembling fir tree in ice. The mockingbird trilled as the wagon, pulled by the man, bumped and creaked up the hill. When the man reached the top, he pulled off his wool hat and wiped his sweat-shined forehead. In the wagon, the bundle of blankets moved; the small boy, pale and drawn, poked out his head. He smiled at the littlest tree, but the smile seemed as big an effort as lugging pails of water.
"This one?” the man asked the boy. “You’re sure?”
The little boy nodded and closed his eyes. The man gazed at the boy for a long moment, then turned away, a tear frozen on his cheek.
The fir tree looked down the hill at the stumps of his family one last time. Then he pulled his limbs tight and waited for the axe’s blow. But the man plunged a shovel into the frozen earth. He chipped a circle, deeper and deeper, around the tree, loosening the dirt around the fir tree’s roots.
The man pulled the tree tight to his chest; more than anything, the littlest tree wanted to stay in his embrace. But the man tugged hard, yanking the tree from the cold ground. The boy clapped his hands, his laugh sounded like birdsong.
“Your little tree will grow strong in the front yard,” the man said. “There, we can see him from the kitchen.”
"And I can visit him in the spring?” the boy whispered.
"Yes.” The man wiped at his shiny cheek. “Yes, you can.”
The man wrapped the trembling tree in burlap and nestled him in the wagon beside the boy. The boy snuggled into the littlest fir tree all the way down the hill and across the bumpy field. When the wagon stopped, the farmer unfurled the littlest fir tree from the cloth and propped him in a large hole. Shovels of dirt and snow covered his roots. The boy clambered from the wagon, falling twice in the deep snow. When he hugged the littlest fir tree, icicles tinkled to the ground.
I originally wrote this story three years ago but wanted to share it again. I think often of the lonely tree, and the lonely children in the world. May your winter nights be full of talk, of laughter, warmth and love. May you never be lonely.
Wednesday, December 23, 2015
Physically, I've traveled many places this past year. In visiting my son, I've gotten to know Utah more than I'd ever thought possible, and come to appreciate her grand mountains and gentle people and mercurial weather. With my graduate students, I attended a conference outside of Los Angeles, and we've walked Venice Beach, dipped our toes in the warm Pacific. I've visited family in Massachusetts and North Carolina, always a blessing. I traveled briefly to New Orleans and marveled at that City's resilience and grace and eccentricity. I spent a week in Taos, a magical place, with a gracious and strong writer friend who I consider a soul mate. I could spend every night watching the skies in New Mexico shift under God's paintbrush.
Literally, I've struggled, for the first time, with my writing. My novels overwhelm me; just as I think they're finished, something surprises me--an omission, a plot hole, a character flaw--and I fix these, and revise again. And again. And again. I ache to write new words, fiction and non-fiction ideas that wake me up at night. And I will, once I have wrangled these other two beasts to the ground and sent them out to others. I have begun that quixotic search for agents and received personal rejections already. Which feels good because it means I'm almost hitting the sweet spot, and I am letting these stories go.
Physically, I have pushed envelopes. I zip-lined down a mountain in Park City, surfed on synthetic waves, climbed a rock face. Big deals for someone afraid of heights. I'm learning karate with my daughter, which also pushes me.
In a nutshell, this is where I've been this past year. What about you? Where have you traveled, physically or literally? Peace...
Monday, December 14, 2015
And then there's the holidays.
I'm feeling a tad grinchy this year. Not ungenerous so much as irritable. Or maybe it's the bah-humbugs that bubble around my heart. It seems the end of the year came at a rush, and all of a sudden it's time to bake and shop and write cards. And thinking (and kind of doing) it all simply exhausts.
I did manage to drape lights on the Nandina bush outside my front door, and get my wreath, decorate it, and hang it up. THAT felt good, felt Christmasy. While the mood lasted I tied our stockings on the stairs railing.
My family is in 'eh' mode too this year. Probably because the last year's been tough, and it seems whenever we kind of breathe slow and dare to relax, BOHICA* happens.
I realized late last night that I was working too hard to get myself and everyone else in that holiday spirit. So I think I'm going to lean back, take each day on my terms. Hanging the wreath, lighting the bush reminded me why I appreciate this nexus of the year. So for the next week I will try to remember to bring the outside into my home, bring the light into the dark, then settle in for the rest of the winter.
Wednesday, November 25, 2015
Thanksgiving is more than family, though; Thanksgiving is about the courage to go to new places, to dare to try something new. The people who settled America found enough bravery to sail across the unknown ocean to a land they’d never seen. And ever since then, people have flocked from every corner of the world to settle on this quirky piece of real estate.
I’m thankful to live in this great country where I am free to gather, for in some places this is illegal. I’m thankful that I have opportunities to choose my path, and that my children have the same opportunities because in some places your job is chosen for you from birth. I’m thankful for the men and women who care for my nation, who protect it from those who wish to take away my freedoms (enough said).
I’m thankful for my health care providers, and thankful to be able to pay for those services. I’m grateful for my education, my home, my poor accident-magnet Honda. I’m thankful I can shop at small local stores or chains or Wal-Mart or Amazon.
I am thankful for my children; until recently, in some countries I might not be able to raise more than one child and certainly not a girl.
I’m grateful I can write and read anything I wish, without fear.
In this era of terrorism and corruption and inflation and Mother Nature run amok, I’m thankful to be alive and experiencing the world, for it reminds me that even though I’m small and only human, I’m still capable of doing good.
What are you thankful for?