Just what Do You Believe?

Is there anything out there?

Is there anything out there?

If you had to tell someone in 300-500 words what it is you believe–could you do it?

We are nearing the end of our 6-week winter journaling session with author Susannah Conway, and that was the challenge she offered us in yesterday’s session.

“What is it you really believe?”

Seven years ago, a dear friend offered me the same challenge, but I didn’t take it on at the time. She’d written her short essay and submitted it to the NPR folks in 2007. She gave me a copy of one of their published anthology books titled THIS I BELIEVE, and I enjoyed reading the diverse philosophies presented by many well known, and not so well known, people.

National Public Radio (NPR) ran the “This I Believe” writing essay program for several years before deciding to discontinue reading the essays over the air in 2009. The essay program continues on at http://thisibelieve.org, however.

The exercise is dedicated to engaging America and the rest of the world in writing down one’s core beliefs and then sharing them with neighbors, friends and family hoping people will come to understand each other a little better.

Late last night I put my thoughts on the question into my journal trying to come up with one defining thing that I believe in. I figured the only way to really get into it was to draft a working list.

I believe in a ton of things. How to mine it down to the one I might consider explaining in a 500-word essay?

The list looks like this:

  • I believe in being good to people; yes—being nice.
  • I believe in smiling and laughing–a lot.
  • I believe there is a God, even though I cannot tell you what he/she/it looks like, or where to go or how to find the entity.
  • I believe It doesn’t care a fig about our man-made sanctions and rules concerning It.
  • I believe God and the Universe are one and the same; God is Nature. I crave Nature.
  • I believe God speaks best in quiet and solitude, but not only that way.
  • I believe in an existence in another dimension beyond this one because otherwise why should we even bother? Earth is nice—for some of us—but hardly enough for far too many. There has to be something more and better. Just has to.
  • I believe in simplicity.
  • I believe we have to maintain hope, but I also believe that gets harder as we age.
  • I believe we each have a part to play for our being born—good or bad.
  • I believe this is one of the most complicated things to understand and reason through. In fact, I know it is.
  • I believe having expectations will lead to disillusionment.
  • I believe for some reason I was born lucky, but I couldn’t tell you why.
  • I believe standing still watching the sun, listening to birds or studying how snow falls is hardly wasted time.
  • I believe the practice and value of writing should be a life course taught to children as soon as they can print words and continue until they graduate from high school.
  • I believe in synchronicity.
  • I believe in sincerity.
  • I believe you should always try something new; no matter how big or how small.
  • I believe you should like yourself.

You see that it’s not an easy task. It was getting late and I needed to stop for the night.

Today I realized the first item on my list came onto the page without effort. That’s probably a pretty good indicator.

We should be good to one another. And I don’t mind if someone tosses the word nice in my direction.

For those who find this a boring concept, I offer this . . .

Tough.

“I see you!”

What are you seeing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you think you see in this wintry window?

The other night I watched David Feherty interview former President Bill Clinton on the Golf Channel. They obviously talked a bit about golf, but Feherty’s interviews are so interesting because he covers a broader spectrum of topics with his guests.

One topic they covered was the work funded by the Clinton Foundation, which is working to bring humanitarian aid and economical education/training to areas such as Haiti and parts of Africa.

Mr. Clinton noted that while in Africa his hosts took him up into the mountains, and the roads along the way were dangerously narrow and treacherous at times.

When another traveler approached them his hosts would call out to them, sawabona, which means, I see you.

Instead of the customary greetings we here in America use, such as hello or hi–it was simply I see you.

The response came back, ngikhona, which means, “I am here.” It is more involved than that, however. It tells the other person that you feel you have been seen and understood and that your personal dignity has been recognized.

That’s a rather neat trick, don’t you think?

I had to read more about this, of course. The members of these African tribes go about their day with this personal validation from all they encounter. Everybody is being seen by everyone they meet.

That must feel good.

Back to the interview. Mr. Clinton said he wondered how often during the course of our day, our lives, do we fail to see others because we either don’t want to, i.e., the panhandlers on the sidewalks, the homeless sleeping on park benches, or someone we don’t want in our social group because of their ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc, or because we are so wrapped up in our immediate lives, we can’t be bothered to look another human in the eye and acknowledge them in one tiny moment.

It is a point well taken, and not a comfortable one to pose to ourselves.

I’ve come to realize that journaling is like that. It is seeing yourself on the page. And it doesn’t necessarily go to rampant neediness, although we all have a level of that, but I believe it points us to greater aspirations and deeper self-realization.

Before I finally decided to vacate the standard business world and turn to writing, I felt like I’d become invisible; not only out there among that every day, supposedly normal business world, but definitely to myself. It was not a good feeling. The fact is, I learned that women who approach that 50-something mark, one day find themselves not quite as highly valued in the American workforce. I can’t speak for other countries; no experience. Sorry.

I’m glad to say I finally figured my way out–the hard way. If you aren’t living your days doing the thing that matters most to you, you are going to get soooo lost to yourself.

Sooooo . . . . my online journaling class/exercise I signed on for these 6 weeks turned a wee bit a’challengin’ this week. I confess I am behind on some of the prompts due to other required writing I had to finish for a deadline, but I kept up with what the group was called to attempt.

I realized that journaling is greeting yourself on the page. And I’m not a newbie to this pen and paper act, but after listening to the Clinton interview it dawned on me that frequent journal writing provides a chance for me to say, I see me today.

What the hell–answer yourself back while you’re at it. It’s nobody’s business but yours.

And as one of my journal mates commented: “I feel calmer when I’ve finished.”

That is not a bad way to start—or finish—a day.

I’ll close with this:

If I handed you a sheet of paper and told you to make a list of 100 things you like about yourself, could you do it?

The Life Around Pie.

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I am a pie snob, and I admit this with pride.

We had 14 people coming to our house for the annual Groff 4th of July party this past Saturday night and I woke up that morning with a wretched sore throat that was doing its best to spread its wickedness throughout my body.

I had 3 pies to create because homemade pie at our annual function is now a time-honored tradition. It didn’t matter that I was feeling poorly, those pies needed to come together.

Some people believe pie simply comes from the freezer section of their grocery store.

Some people have never made a real pie, and could give a fig whether or not they ever do, but . . .

I’m willing to bet something of value that a respectable majority of the masses adore a really good piece of homemade pie—which, to my means and methods—means the pie crust has to be a lard-based crust. (Groan if you want, but on this I am immovable.)

I was fortunate to watch and learn from the real experts: my mother, my paternal grandmother and a couple of aunts in busy ordinary family kitchens. It had nothing to do with expensive granite counter tops, or designer light fixtures—or even degrees from prestigious culinary schools with familiar-sounding acronyms.

These women learned their pie tricks out of necessity for feeding families and large work crews.

Back to my sore throat and not feeling in the most “pie-baking” mood Saturday morning.

Because I was feeling awful, I worked slower than I normally do.

I took my time with the process. I rinsed and peeled, and washed and diced and sliced and grated and measured. With the fillings mixed up and waiting in their bowls, I turned my attention to rolling out the bottom crusts, and it hit me.

You are in this moment only. Feels good, doesn’t it? 

You are not rushing; thinking about what you’ll do after this. 

You don’t do this nearly enough, but you need to.

I took my time rolling out each crust—testing it for uniform thickness, adjusting it a bit here and there, then ever so gently arranging it in its pie plate before repeating that process two more times.

Stirring and scraping the fillings: fresh blueberry with lemon zest, rhubarb (from my garden) mixed with market strawberries spiked up a bit with freshly grated orange zest and just a touch of fresh ground nutmeg–for the second pie, and of course, apple pie for the third. I like to add fresh lemon zest to my apple pies as well because freshly zested citrus makes anything rock to the next level up.

I dabbed on the butter pieces—real butter, of course—and then rolled out the decorative top crusts, once again laying them in place, taking care not to stretch or tear, trimming excess dough, tucking and rolling the edges, before giving them finger-formed edges.

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There really is nothing better than working with your hands.

Perhaps you won’t believe me, but I swear my throat wasn’t hurting nearly as badly once those pies went into the oven to bake, and I realized I’d enjoyed my creative time at that dusty flour counter to its maximum potential.

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It takes practice at being in the moment, and I have been painfully negligent as of late in my practice of that art.

There are always deadlines to meet, the next interview to locate and set up, the myriad of things that always need doing around the house, the yard, volunteer duties, and so forth. It becomes too easy to live to rush toward that next task or duty or promise—or “always wanted to try that . . .”, and before I know it—I’m not even trying to stand in the moment and enjoy where I am. This simply is not good.

A friend recently asked me some pointers about starting her novel.

I told her to make sure she had a ball writing her first draft, because it may just be the most fun she’ll have with it.

Practicing what we preach can be such hard work, don’t you agree?

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Just for grins—here’s my family’s lard pie crust recipe. Just in case you want to try your hand at one.☺

Grandma Z’s Pie Crust

3 cups white flour

1-1/3 cup of lard

3/4 tsp salt

Mix flour and salt together, cutting in the cold lard with pastry cutter until crumbly, then add the following combined mixture:

1 egg, beaten

1 tsp cider vinegar

5 TBLS ice cold water

Mix, by hand, until smooth, shape into a disk before wrapping and chilling in refrigerator for several hours.

A few pointers:

  • Be sure the lard is cold.
  • I always use a  pastry cutter to work the lard into the dry ingredients.
  • Be sure the   and water mixture, as well, is very cold. (I ice a glass of water  first, then measure out my 5 TBLS of water and add the vinegar.)
  • Do  not overwork the dry ingredients/lard mixture. Just get them worked into a small crumb mixture and then add the wet ingredients.

The Novel-T of a Labyrinth

Don’t knock me until you’ve tried me.

If any of you have ever walked a labyrinth, I would enjoy hearing about your experience.

I took my first walk several weeks ago after completing a novel critique session. Will I give myself away if I tell you that it was 95% positive, but I let the 5% negative rule?  

I needed to cool my jets so I headed out for a walk and I found myself standing at the entrance to the retreat center’s labyrinth. 

I did a quick study of the overall path and started in, thinking it should be a piece of cake as I took my steps, one concisely in front of the other, around and around, following the bricked-in path. 

Sneaking peeks out my peripheral as I walked, it seemed that the center was close and I thought I’d reach it in record time—and then I came to the first blocking brick barricade. 

You have to back up here and try something else, because this way is closed to you. 

I’d been mulling over some of the critique commentary as I walked, and as I reversed my steps, looking for another path, there it was: 

Lesson No. 1: This path is exactly like writing – and finishing – a novel. 

We start into a story that’s been buzzing around our skull bone for a while and we keep putting the words down and things appear to be going amicably and oh!–we’re going to be so clever and pick this thing off in a designed timeframe inside our head bone. The path winds along with completion j-u-s-t around the next curve—there’s a brick blockade (that really is only as big as we allow it to be—but it takes us a while to get this through our head)—and the second lesson presents itself: 

So near—yet so far. You’re going to have to try another path, my dear. You haven’t got it right yet.

At one point I stopped because I came upon a doggy pile, and I thought: “How disgusting that someone would leave that here,” but a closer look revealed it to be a dried clump of sod from a lawn mower. 

Lesson No. 3 – Always take a second—or third–look before you judge too quickly. 

On and on I went—stopping to examine patches of clover—just in case there was a 4-leafer in there.  

Lesson No. 4: Do not look for, nor expect easy miracles to show up before you. 

So I paused again, restudying where I was in relation to where I wanted to be thinking I might be getting close to the center, only to discover I have to follow the  large circular swath completely back out and away from the targeted zone because there’s no way I can get into the center from where I’m standing. 

It seems counterproductive and it feels taunting and cruel. 

“But—I was almost there!” 

No. You were not. 

For those of you reading this who haven’t tried to write a novel, this is what it feels like. 

You think you’ve finally nailed it, and then in comes new and different comments, and you know you have to think on them for a while. Mull them over—see if there is merit—or not. 

And there are times you want to quit. You want this damnedable task you picked out for yourself to be over.  

But you don’t have the courage or the sense to quit.  

My measured stepping continued and I actually started to feel better. I became aware of how unaware I’d been to even the bird song going on around me, and I considered it a real accomplishment for me to become that unaware for a while. 

Pretty soon it seemed like I was getting closer to the center and would finish the winding path, and there it was again—hidden by some grass—yet another brick blockade. 

Nope. If you step over us, that’s cheating.

I didn’t want to cheat so I picked out a different route. 

By now, the whole pattern became clear to me, and it felt normal to nearly finish and encounter yet another obstacle. 

I continued the methodical stepping, glancing around to see how far I’d come—maybe peek ahead to see how much farther, and then I realized I was only a few steps away from the center. I’d made it. 

I was breathing slower and calmer. I would honor the 95% and contend with the 5%. 

And I was so glad I didn’t cheat—or quit. 

I turn around to begin the path out, and as I wind and turn and step my way back from whence I came I’m thinking, “Yeah! You got yourself into it and you can get yourself out of it.” 

There’s a reason for all of it. Trust me. 😉

Leave Godzilla at home.

A room with a view.

In the August 10, 2012 issue of THE WEEK magazine, editor-in-chief William Falk writes about the hold that the Smartphone-iPad-laptop techno Godzilla has on our lives—at work and on vacation. Pair this with the typical American work ethic these days and the picture begs for serious examination. 

A short excerpt from Mr. Falk:  . . . not long ago I would have found it unthinkable to work while on vacation . . .I recall glorious two-week sojourns where I had no contact with bosses, employees—even friends . . . But that was before I traveled with a Smartphone, an iPad and a laptop . . . 

Read his brief, astute editorial at: http://theweek.com/article/index/231444/editors-letter-tech-masters-or-tech-slaves 

Last week I attended a writer’s academy/retreat located in the sticks—and glorious sticks they were! 

One-hundred and fifty acres curled around the bank of Chub Lake, complete with wooded walkway across a marsh covered in water lilies that leads to a hill where we could sit in a swing and look through the trees overlooking the lake. This retreat center offers five miles of hiking trails through woods and wildflower prairie land, a labyrinth, swings, picnic tables and fire pits placed throughout the grounds, along with three meals a day prepared by someone in the kitchen who knew about “Mom cooking.” 

There wasn’t a burger, French fry or pizza in sight the whole time. 

We enjoyed smashed cauliflower served with roasted pork loin topped with a spicy and sweet raisin sauce. There were roasted vegetables, and wild rice side dishes and tender pot roast accompanied by real mashed potatoes (with just the right amount of lumps) and interesting green salads (no iceberg or macaroni salad allowed). There were desserts—cranberry bread pudding and hot caramel sauce . . . fresh blueberry crisp—not too sweet—and real whipped cream for topping. And breakfast was ready at 8 o’clock every morning.

We had 24-hour access to the dining room where hot water and tea or coffee, iced drinks (no sodas on the premises – impressive!), granola bars, fruit and yogurt awaited us if we wanted it, not to mention bars, cookies, M&M’s or nuts snacks that appeared on the counter just for us between lunch and dinner—and late in the evening before bedtime. 

I mean—come on—who couldn’t handle this?! 

I took plenty of work along–(yup—I did)—just in case. I even took one freelance project draft copy; looked at it once and put it away. This was my fiction-editing and creative writing retreat and I wasn’t going to screw that up.  

What I did: 

  • Ate smashed cauliflower – for the first time. (It looks like mashed potatoes, but with fewer calories.) 
  • I attended a short chapel session every morning in a sanctuary with 3-sided window views of woods, lake and prairie. 
  • I went to a couple of writing sessions on poetry and flash fiction—141 character flash fiction. It ain’t easy, but it was fun playing around with it. 
  • I enjoyed quiet, uninterrupted time in my private room ticking off edits on the novel. Yea! 
  • I walked a labyrinth. Timely it was, too—right after a critiquing session that left me a bit displeased—at first. I was back to breathing normally by the time I completed the labyrinth.  (Additional blog post to come on this. Finishing a novel and walking a labyrinth are first cousins. Six pages of handwritten, single-spaced journaling shot from my brain.) 
  • Over meals I visited with interesting people; the majority of them older than me. People who’ve been to Haiti and Ethiopia and Israel and know of the Palestinian struggle. People who are exceptional writers, poets, essayists and published authors. Not one person dragged out their Smartphone or Blackberry in the dining room during mealtime. Not one. 
  • I filled my digital camera with pictures of the marsh land, and videos of the sounds of the wind through broad stands of tall cattails, and the breeze around the creaking wood swings placed among ash and aspens, cottonwood and bitternut hickory trees. These videos will be fun to view next winter, when the snow comes. 
  • I slept with my window screen open at night so I could watch peach-toned moonlight while raccoons scratched around in the dirt below, looking for something we human types might have dropped during the day. The stars had the night sky all to themselves. No ambient city light invaded from any direction.  
  • And I pitched the novel to an editor who gave a presentation. I didn’t know I was going to do that. She agreed to take a look at it.

 What I didn’t do:

  • Didn’t post to or read Facebook, LinkedIn, or check my blog. 
  • Didn’t spend any time on the cell phone except to let my family know I had arrived safely. 
  • Didn’t read any editor, agent, publishing world blogs, newsletters or other “do’s and don’ts” emails pertaining to the writer’s path. 
  • Didn’t look at world news headlines. 
  • Didn’t watch TV until the last evening after the retreat concluded. I had to see how the Olympians were doing. 
  • Didn’t count calories. 
  • Didn’t use the laptop to journal. I wrote with a pen—and often—sitting outside. 

I’m back home with another freelance job to complete, and dealing with article sources who can’t—or won’t—follow through for me on a story assignment. There’s a stack of bills to pay and the laundry is in piles in the hallway—and I am eager to get the novel query package into the mail to that editor. 

Returning home is always good. Don’t get me wrong. The whole concept of what home is, is what makes me tick in the first place. 

But Editor Falk makes a good point. When you go on vacation—or retreat—you need to make the conscious decision to be there. 

All of your electronic toys and phones,  as well as the rest of the world, will be there when you return.

Marshlands don’t need to hurry.

There’s always at least one angel.

         Down through the years in random, casual conversation my mother would tell me that when it came time for her funeral service I was to be sure that someone sang her favorite hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross,” at her service. She also made it very clear that the song, “Somewhere The Sun Is Shining” was also to be a part of her funeral celebration. Blessedly, I had tucked these thoughts away, and when the day came I was determined to make good on the promise that I had made to her so many years before.

        In the final weeks before mom’s surrender to breast cancer, I knew the time was drawing near for me to begin making the arrangements. I had a good friend whose splendid singing voice my mother had always enjoyed, and I knew that mom would love for Marcia to sing the chosen songs at her memorial service. Marcia said yes as soon as I asked so I told her the two songs we would be needing. Of course locating “The Old Rugged Cross” was not going to be a problem, but Marcia was not familiar with “Somewhere the Sun Is Shining,” and I didn’t have the music in my collection. She knew I had my hands full in dealing with the impending death of my mother in addition to making the funeral arrangements so she told me not to worry. She would locate the sheet music.

        The day of mom’s funeral arrived and Marcia, true to her word, showed up with her accompanist and both requested pieces of music, performing each beautifully. I just know that mom was standing somewhere off to the side in the church that morning listening as Marcia sang.

        What I didn’t know until several weeks after the funeral were the circumstances under which Marcia finally located the music for “Somewhere The Sun Is Shining.” She shared the story in a card to me:

        “The actual title of your mom’s special song is really “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere.” My discovery of this is a story I think you’ll enjoy knowing. I was in Malone Music and Gary, the owner of the store, and I had been checking all over for the title with no luck. We were close to admitting defeat when a woman–unfamiliar to both of us as well as the other clerk in the store that day, was suddenly there while we were discussing our search. She knew the actual title and told us where to find the music! Angels are everywhere, Bec.”

There’s never been a doubt in my mind but that my mother wanted to make very sure that she had the songs of her choice, so she stopped by to lend a hand in the music shop when it was needed.

It’s not nice to ignore the Wild Child.

No doubt there are probably a goodly amount of people out there who don’t believe in the energy of the Universe, or the voice of God, or intuition—or any of a combination of other names for It. But I do. Personally, I think such people are missing out on something powerfully spectacular, but that’s their business—not mine. 

I’ve been living like a “responsible person” today and it’s been gnawing at me as all I really wanted to do when I woke up was sit in front of a clean page in Word and compose. Sometimes I think I just haven’t allowed the “wild child” nearly enough room to grow, and that isn’t a comfortable thought when it hits. 

But, noooo—the clothes hamper lid was bulging again, the insurances, utilities and other bills needed writing and mailing. There’s a ton of stuff scattered all over my computer desk that should be filed or put back on the shelf, the dishwasher needed swapping out, the cat’s box needed scooping, there were phone calls to make for promises I’d made to other people, and blah, blah, blah— 

So after I got done being responsible this afternoon I finally opened up today’s paper and read my horoscope. I like to do this every day. It’s a hoot—and on days like this—it’s most definitely the Voice of God. 

Here’s how mine read for today: 

Virgo (August 23-September 22)—

        Clean up your desk and get it ready for a special writing project: a blog entry, a love letter, a short story…it’s your choice. You’ve got the words. 

All day long I’ve been trying to put words in order in my head for a story I will write about my dad. The deadline for submission is close. The story will revolve around a pair of  paint shoes he used to wear. I failed my intuitive nudge a long time ago when I allowed myself to put those shoes into the garbage as I cleared his things away after his death. But I won’t let that stop me from getting the story written. 

God has spoken. I’ve completed all that responsible stuff, and now the wild child gets to play at her keyboard for the entire weekend. 

I have to admit, though—I wish those paint-splattered shoes were going to be sitting on my desk talking to me as I draft this next bit about an ornery old welder from a long time ago, but since my horoscope seems to think I’ve got the words already, I’m just going to trust it.