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.

“J” is for Journal; “T” is for Thawing

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“Out of clutter, find simplicity.”

-Albert Einstein

In last week’s blog post I told you about the 6-week long journaling class I’m taking with writer Susannah Conway, and I promised I’d offer up “bits and bobs,” as Susannah puts it, of the experience.

Six years ago, a writing friend introduced me to the trendy idea of choosing a theme word for each New Year, as it related to our writing life/goals.

My log list reads thus:

2008 – persevere

2009 – believe

2010 – continue

2011 – expand

2012 – push

2013 – (no word chosen)

2014 – reassess

That blank in 2013 is probably the reason I signed on to do this life journal class. I can’t tell you why I didn’t choose a word last year, and frankly, it wasn’t until I started writing in my classy new journal for this session that it occurred to me. Life turned bizarrely hectic, messy and sad in 2013. That I didn’t have presence of mind to choose my word is proof.

Susannah provides us with many prompts and suggestions each day from which to work in our journals. Journaling longhand is not a new concept for me, as I have a number of them in process on my shelves. But the idea of working in a cyberspace classroom with 79 other women from around the world in a common vein added the touch of discipline and connectivity I realized went missing last year. That came out in my writing this past week.

It’s startling what your mind and hands lay down on the paper while you look on, and honest journaling will take over like that when you finally cut yourself loose.

Little wonder then that my gut chose the word reassess, because clearly there was a need. (I still can’t believe that I didn’t at least try for a word in January 2013. Ah, well.)

You see the colorful, but messy array in the picture? That’s my creative notebook journal in process. That is the second part of this winter adventure. Others are calling their notebooks their creative dream journals.

I have a pretty good handle on what my dreams are. It’s these blasted U-turns and detours life keeps handing me and mine that need sorting through.

My 3-ring journal will be titled, Life View, and it will contain pictures of family and friends, pets, beautiful party tables, skies (I love sky pictures), food (of course!), ticket stubs, handwritten notes and cards from friends, journal fragments, and various other bits of my writings; even some of my poems. Elizabeth Bishop I am not, but, hey—this is my journal after all.

I’m not real artsy-fartsy when it comes to the paper crafts/ scrapbooking concept, and I was not even going to try this 3-D part of the course, because after all—I am a writer. I was planning to dive back in with one ink pen in hand, and two more in my back pocket and give it everything I had. But Providence evidently thought it would be good for me.

Allow me to report to you: I think Providence was right, and I think I’m in love.

The play time with my 3-ring binder and all those doodads, stickers, fancy scissors, multicolored card stocks, and the drawing up of page layouts all while looking at pictures of my family, my friends, all those fun times we’ve had already . . . I mean, come on! It’s positively engrossing. Not to mention, cheering.

Observing where you’ve come from goes a long ways in helping you reassess where you go from here.

And then there was this revelation: the other night, as I wrote and played, it occurred to me that my head, heart and soul were thawing out.

Whether we freeze up to protect ourselves from the hard times, or to make ourselves be strong role models for the sake of those around us could be a topic for debate.

All that I can tell you today is that it feels good to have the ice breaking away, and I owe this to a new journal, a group of honest, like-minded women on the other side of the pond, and a whole lot of brightly colored clutter scattered all over my dining room table.

I know there are people who think they don’t need to do any of this self-examining journaling crappola, but people, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

You may never be the same.

Einstein nailed it. Out of my clutter, I am finding simplicity, and from there I will be able to reassess.

Talk to you next week–

Pens–not guns.

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My 2013 WordPress report card summary begins like this:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,300 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 22 trips to carry that many people.

In 2013, there were 9 new posts . . .

And this is where I owe you a bit of an apology and an explanation….only 9 new posts last year. That is awful.

2013 grew increasingly tougher as it progressed, and frankly, I’m glad it’s gone.

As a freelancer I kept up with the paying work, because if I didn’t, it would go away. It’s hard enough to get that work these days. No matter what’s going on, a writer must work to keep it.

But my writing—that personal, deep stuff I love to dive into—and this blog–were sorely sidetracked due to life opening up on my family, and my soul has missed it.

In a nutshell, I found myself scared breathless by a life-changing medical diagnosis for my husband, along with an aggressive cancer diagnosis for our favorite fur-face kitty, while monitoring with great concern the ineptness of the building contractors for our youngest daughter and her family’s unfinished house—which left them with no place to live. All of this on top of literally finding myself standing in septic-tank-contaminated, hot-soapy-sudsy water one lovely warm September morning last fall; water that destroyed the oak flooring on our first floor level.

Want to hear more? Both my husband and our lab grandpuppy were attacked and bitten by unruly neighbor dogs. Neither neighbor offered to pay for the emergency room visits.

All. In. One. Month’s time.

We all grew afraid to even stick our feet out of bed in the morning.

I’m happy to report I’ve got my chutzpah back, in spite of it all. And I. Am. Eager.

A friend and I are going to take on a 6-week personal journaling class called JOURNAL YOUR LIFE with British writer Susannah Conway .

Angels come in all shapes and sizes, and my friend Cynthia who mentioned this class to me, is one of them. The graphic with this post today is what I’ve picked out for this session. My sister had the Cross pen inscribed with my nom de plume and gave it to me a couple Christmases ago.

It’s become obvious lately just how much anger—and heartache—I’ve pushed down deep so no one else would have to see it. Including me. Several unhappy incidents lately forced me to see how astute I was at accomplishing that, and how not smart that is.

There is no more room at the Inn called Suppressed Emotion.

It feels good to write that to you today, and this upcoming journal project has me on fire.

I cannot say this enough: If you are hurting, don’t pick up a gun. Don’t pick up a bottle. Don’t pick up a syringe.

Pick up a pen.

Find yourself.

Write whatever you want to. Scream, rant, cry, swear, berate, accuse . . . cry some more. And if you see a glimmer of Accept trying to peek around the page at you . . . maybe—just maybe—let it sit down. Give it a spot all its own where it can remain with you.

I believe, eventually, we come to feel better, or in the very least, stronger.

Author note:

The new oak floors are installed and gorgeous. Lexi had to lose her front leg, but her blood work indicates she is healthy and the cancer most likely gone. The kids are moved into their new house, but their contractors remain inept baboons as far as we are concerned. Neither of the dog bites turned serious.

And most importantly, we are all learning how to make every single moment in the now count, because once a person’s memory starts fading, all we can do is face it.

Are you EXCLAIMING!! yourself to death?

I realize that most people, when they think of Washington, DC, probably wrinkle their nose, or at least scrunch some fold in the memory area of their brain.

Granted, we all can’t be consistently happy with what does, or doesn’t get handled by the U.S. Government in Wash DC, but if you’ve ever read any history, you’ll know that the people have never been–nor do I believe will they ever be–really happy with their governments–U.S. or not.

But in Washington DC there are wonderful museums and monuments and libraries and things that serve as testaments to the fact that in spite of such statements, we’ve come a good piece and we do continue on, and I cannot wait to take it all in.

This weekend I leave on a muchly-desired guided bus tour vacation headed for such sites. And before the 9-day tour concludes, I will also get to walk the ground at Gettysburg and visit the crash site of all those courageous souls of Flight 93 during the time of 911.

Of course when one is going to be gone there is preparation work to do. Deadline writing had to be turned in, interviews in place for right after I return, yard work/house stuff/errands/arrangements, you name it.

By the time we are done preparing to go on vacation, we r-e-a-l-l-y do need it!

Notice that dang exclamation mark?

Wellllll . . . there’s my real rub today.

It occurred to me—while on my most favorite-ist bike trail the other night—that as of late I seem to be living with a constant exclamation point chasing me.

Exclamation point: n. A punctuation mark (!) used after an exclamation or interjection of sudden, forceful utterance.

Maybe that’s not so good—at least not as much as I appear to do it.

I have high hopes for this bussed vacation. Someone asked me (and they were wrinkling their nose, by the way) why I didn’t just fly out to the sites I wanted to see instead of “taking a bus?” (much wrinkling by now)

Because if I have to deal with air travel and all that that has declined to, I’ll have even more exclamation points chasing me!!

Do Not Want That.

I won’t have to deal with searching for directions, or places to park, or places to stay, or obtaining tour tickets or finding guides, or any of that.

I get to sit back and anticipate the next item on the itinerary. (I had to resist the urge to use an exclamation mark here—twice.)

An old-fashioned lined journal and a notebook will go on the bus with me. The notebook has a picture of famous pirate Jack Sparrow, aka Johnny Depp on the cover. Another traveling buddy of mine gave it to me the summer we took off for a girlfriends’ travel week. And pens. I’ll take pens. The laptop is going, of course, for use at night in my hotel room only.

I get to sit and stare out the windows while someone else does all of the driving and have interesting – if not unique – conversations with people I’ve never met, and journal freehand—just because I can.

In the world of writing, the exclamation point should be treated like it is a fine rare wine. Drink very little—or none at all.

When I receive a piece of communication that is filled with exclamation points I feel like I’m being shouted at. I don’t like being shouted at. I’m going to guess you don’t either—so why do it?

I said I felt like I’m always being chased by an exclamation point?

When I made my list of to-do’s for this week in planning out what all I have to get done, I promised myself I would not put one exclamation point behind anything on my daily clip boarded task list that I keep on our kitchen island.

I have been making daily plans lists on a kitchen counter ever since my high school days, but it’s in these last several years – and it is interesting to note that since I took on my freelancing writing life—that that screaming exclamation point has pushed its way into my life so consistently.

This is not a rant against freelance writing. It is a rant against the way I’ve responded.

Would you believe I had to think consciously to not tag any exclamation points onto this week’s tasks as I wrote: fertilize and water everything, water the church flowers, pay all bills, get Derek’s birthday gift, use up those bananas, finish those last two articles and submit, try to transcribe one more interview, look for a new gold chain, get Lexi’s new food . . .

I am so looking forward to my trip where I won’t be shouting at myself about anything.

My hope is that when I return home, I’ll remember how to continue avoiding too much shouting.

Could your life and your writing use less shouting, too?

Readers: Butter crème for writers.

Who doesn't like butter creme?

Who doesn’t like butter creme?

She calls herself the piano lady and she came to my house to inspect the 9-inch scratch I accidentally caused across the lid of our grand piano.

And  before she left, she made my day, and it had nothing to do with a miracle fix for the scratch—which she isn’t sure she can repair. She’ll get back to me about that.

When she asked to take my contact information again, I handed her my business card.

She looked at it. “I know this name –,” she said.

“When I heard your message on my machine, I knew I’d heard that name somewhere before, but just couldn’t remember exactly where . . . ”

This, of course, caught my attention, as being a freelance writer for my city’s  newspaper and area magazines kinda’, sorta’ came to mind.

I explained to her about the weekly column that I and another freelance colleague supply to on an alternating basis.

Her expression lit up at that, but still didn’t hit solid pay dirt.

“Did you by any chance publish a book of short stories . . . about Midwest living or something like that? Something about Walking Beans Wasn’t Something You did with Your Dog, or . . .?”

My head and heart smiled. I’m fairly sure I was smiling on the outside, too.

I told her the book wasn’t  solely mine, but that I was one of the contributors and that my story “Small Town Ghosts” closed out the collection.

Pay dirt.

“Oh, yes!” she said, finally connecting all the dots. “I love that book. I can read a few stories at a time, and one of the writers even has the same last name as mine, so I started checking into it to see if we might be related . . .”

We visited briefly about this possible family connection to another of the contributors to the book, and I filled her in on Shapato Publishing and its founder and how these Midwest anthology books came about.

“I don’t remember where my copy of the book came from,” she said, “but you signed it.”

I loved the concept of all these short stories written by Midwesterners about local history, family tales of hardships as well as good times, remembrances of world wars or The Great Depression, coming together under one title. I did everything I could to bring the book to light in my city, and did so with success, finding venues and outlets for selling copies.

I enjoyed doing small group talks promoting the book and speaking on the importance of getting personal family history and stories down on paper, or on tape—any way possible–before the elder ones in our families are gone, taking their stories and impressions with them.

It was time to conclude this piano-investigative appointment—and what I viewed as a godsend of a conversation about a bit of my writing.

She looked at my card again. “So. You are a writer,” she said. “I like the way you spell your name.”

Another conversation commenced about how I switched life gears when I realized the old way of office-world life appeared to point my creative life to an early death.

She shared how she, too, restarted her life after the death of her husband.

“I was too young to not do anything,” she said. “I knew I could learn something new, so I learned how to tune and repair pianos.” That was 13 years ago.

My freelancing brain is always on the prowl. There might be a story here. Ask her. Which I did. She hesitated, but finally said she’d think about it.

I pointed to my card. “Let me know what you decide.”

I hope she’ll locate her equipment for buffing out that unwelcome scratch across my black lacquered beauty. I also hope she’ll let me write an article about her new career one day soon.

But I have to say, to have someone come into my home for one reason, and make the connection back to something I wrote made for a really fine day—piano scratch be hanged.

Writing is good and therapeutic and all that. And I’ve heard people say they write only for themselves. Well—not all of us want to stop there. We want to write for you. We like writing for you.

And we love it when you take the time, not only to read it, but when you will talk with us about it.

And if we get lucky enough to have someone like what we wrote–well—that’s just pure butter crème on our cake.

Thank you for stopping by to read my blog. I mean that sincerely. You have other things you can, need or have to read today. So—really. Thank you for today.

My Champs Elysées Warrior: For Writing. For Life.

Nope. This is not a plug for Paris perfumer Guerlain and their Champs Elysées Eau De Toilette.

It is a plug for resilience.

Recently I captured a graphic (and I do mean graphic) captioned photo from Facebook. The sentiment grabbed me. The language used to convey the message isn’t a member of my vocabulary, but like I said—the message hit home.

It was the scene of a grizzly bear kill. The grizzly is lunging over the dead body of a wolf it obviously had already taken down, and it’s not pretty. But the wolf’s mate or companion is poised dangerously close to this severe looking grizzly, with its own ears laid back, fangs bared and clearly not going to take this aggressive bear lightly.

The caption?

“A true warrior feels fear, but says f**k it.”

As I said—not my favorite word, but the sentiment of the photo juxtaposed to the quote stuck with me.

Allow me to share another example of such resilience.

The perfume mentioned at the top of this post was my mother’s favorite–and last. She enjoyed wearing it when she dressed up and the scent was quite lovely about her.

When I cleared out her room at the care center after her death I brought her empty bottle home to be sure I’d never forget.

My mother had breast cancer and as the disease progressed and my sister and I could no longer care for her at home, we had to move her where there would be plenty of people around to help lift her and be there at all hours for her. The time does come when a person cannot even turn themselves over in bed.

But before that day arrived, I’d stopped in one morning to visit her in her room. She was standing in front of the mirror studying herself. She had no hair left because of the chemo treatments, and she wore the ubiquitous turban on her bald head. She was finishing up at the sink and I watched as she picked up this lovely bottle of perfume and sprayed some about her neck and shoulders—took another long gander at herself in the mirror and then turned to greet me.

My mother, the fighter, defined herself in that moment and taught me a lesson I’ll never forget. And not one word was uttered or necessary.

Here was a woman who knew she was losing the battle to cancer very fast and yet she still cared enough to spritz a little perfume on herself.

Now—fiction writers know all about “show, don’t tell.” You tell me—is this not a most fully loaded scene of show, don’t tell?

It’s not unlike the abovementioned wolf poised, ready to fight, in spite of knowing the bear had already killed its mate—do you agree?

I read another writer’s comment on Facebook this week. He was most frustrated because he’s sent off queries for this article, and queries for that story, and no one is responding to him. And then he was most skeptical about these ads that come out telling writers “they, too, can make $50K a year copyediting,” and yadayadayada . . . well, it just does get to us sometimes. I felt for him.

I wanted to tell him that he needs to make up his mind about what kind of warrior he is in all of this writing game stuff.

Do you know what kind of warrior you are?

Have you figured out how to be resilient enough to spray on a little perfume when you need it, or open those teeth and prepare to bite into whatever it is you need to in order to survive?

Just keep putting you and your work out into the world, no matter what.

Thanks so much, Mom.

Simple words; Leviathan results.

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I think Martha Stewart and Maya Angelou were lucky early on.

In a recent interview in Parade Magazine, Ms Stewart said her father was the smartest guy.

“He said, you can do anything you set your mind to,” she told interviewer/writer Dotson Rader.

If there’s any truth to the messages in the words we tell ourselves as far leading us to an outcome, I’d say her father’s words were a fair representation of proof.

Whether or not you are a Martha fan, there is no denying the success she has achieved through creativity, perseverance and continual hard work, in not only one career arena, but in several. The lady has lead an interesting and  successful work life, and at age 71 she isn’t ready to sit and rock the hours away. We could see Martha Stewart storefronts in the not too distant future, according to the article.

Everyone should be so lucky to have someone say that to them in their young years. Heck, even in the older years, people should count themselves among the blessed to hear such words aimed in their direction.

In an excerpt from Maya Angelou’s latest book, Mom&Me&Mom, she recounts the day that her mother told her . . .

“You are the greatest woman I’ve ever met . . . you are very kind and very intelligent and those elements are not always found together. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, and my mother—yes, you belong in that category . . .”

Now I thought of what she had said. I thought, “Suppose she is right? She’s very intelligent and often said she didn’t fear anyone enough to lie. Suppose I really am going to become somebody. Imagine . . . “

Maya Angelou was 22 years old at the time, and had the good sense to stop and wonder at those words on her behalf.

These past several weeks I’ve been working with 4th graders on writing instructional stories in which they give their reader instructions how to play kickball, or ride a bike without training wheels, or prepare for a baseball game—and even on how to correct a poor softball throw. They chose their topics and we took it from there.

It became apparent quickly that they’ve had little exposure to composition and most of them had no idea how to begin. I began by asking them questions about their personal experience with their chosen topic. Do you remember the first time you pitched a game, or learned to ride without training wheels? What does the coach have you do before the ball game begins? They had no idea they needed to think to that level before they began writing.

Their first drafts were basic (and boring) step-by-steps because they believed all they had to do was tell someone the steps, in order, and that would suffice. (Yikes.)

When I kept asking them questions and encouraging them to think back to an experience they had with their topic, one girl commented, “I didn’t know writing was going to be so hard.”

I explained to her that it was important for her to remember her experience so she could share from it in order to write a more interesting article with dimension for her potential reader.

We talked about tone of voice in the writing, and using words unique to the topic, or even adding a touch of humor to make it fun, yet informative for the person who might read it. And I explained to them the importance of starting out with that one interesting sentence at the beginning that either hooks a reader, or doesn’t.

The second drafts of the kids’ articles definitely improved—and it took some time on their part and mine, but it was worth it. It gave me a chance to listen and then work in a learning moment as they remembered small tidbits we could weave into their writings. I’m hoping each one took one small tidbit of writing knowledge back to class with them.

When the last boy came for help I read through his initial draft, and I knew he was a better thinker. His instructional piece was about constructing towers using Legos®.

“The most important thing you need when working with Legos®,” he wrote, “is an imagination.”

When I told him his opening sentence was the best one that I’d read, his face lit up. And I meant it, too. Layering on insincere praise is an act of condescension as far as I’m concerned and does no one any good. That kid floated down the hall to his classroom. The light in his face was as good for me as it appeared to be for him.

It’s interesting how small comments come home to roost. When I obtained my first full-time secretarial position, my mother told me what she felt was one of the most important qualities to possess. I can hear her saying it.

“Whatever you are, make sure you are resourceful. Know how to do all kinds of things, where to find stuff–who to ask, when you need to.”

Years back when a critical financial document went missing from my department head’s office, he tagged me with finding it—and fast. Several hours later and beau coup steps around our cement-floored production facility I returned with it in my hands. I tend to like missions–or challenges.

“If anybody could have found it,” he said, “I knew it would be you.”

That’s the kind of little stuff that hangs with you.