Food and Memory, a Friend’s Story

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Now, those of you who have been following along here, or who know me nearly at all, know that I am in the throes of a novel that is based, among other things, on memories of family and food.

So in that vein, I am thrilled to share the latest post on Thousand Bites of Bread, written by a dear friend of mine, Claudia Savage. It is a touching story of her mother, and of making bread, and oh so much more – you can find it here and I strongly suggest you settle in for a few heartfelt minutes of stunning writing.

The lyricism in Claudia’s writing comes from her being a poet – a published, award-winning, kick-ass poet, by the way – oh and a fabulous teacher besides. And mother to a most intense and creative little girl (no surprise there).

There is nothing like good writing. It is inspiring and enlarging to read. Claudia always makes me want to write more and better. The latest essay is but one example of that amazing quality.

 

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Learning to Discern

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I have always been curious, always loved learning new things. Was able to read from a very early age, and in high school and college inevitably opted to do a research paper over a final exam when the choice presented itself.

It took me five years to get my undergraduate degree, for goodness’ sake! I discovered when I examined my transcript at the end of my junior year that my credit hours were evenly split between four departments (as I recall, English was one in this grouping, no surprise). “Your problem – and it’s not really a problem – is that you have too many interests.” This, from my college advisor and mentor. He was right, and I ended up graduating with some enormous number of credit hours; a major (Art) and a double minor (Psychology and Social Science).

What happened to English, you may be asking? An unfortunate experience with one of my professors who (falsely) accused me of plagiarism, turned me away from that path (he has since passed away and it’s of no use to speak ill of the dead so I will let it lie) – but in truth I turned away, no one made me. It is almost laughable now, to think I could be so swayed by one person’s action or opinion. I often wonder how my personal movie would have played out had I put English at the top of the academic roster. Not a regret, but a definite curiosity, as I learn many years later about things like story arc, etc., that are probably the bread and butter of English majors, certainly of MFA students. (My beloved mentor at the time said that with an MFA and a quarter you could get a cup of coffee – tells you how long ago this was – so I opted to not pursue an advanced degree. What would have happened if I had?)

I am a bright-shiny-thing magpie when it comes to information and books.

I am a big fan of webinars, seminars, podcasts, workshops, classes, downloadable PDFs. My capacity is nearly endless, to the point of near-overwhelm. A free webinar? Sign me up! Generative writing workshops? Love them.  In my most recent attempts at decluttering, I took myself seriously to task over the accumulated paper file folders stuffed with information and things I was sure I want to keep for reference and referral. My inbox and computer files are abundant with articles, ebooks, interviews, essays, blog posts about one thing or another, much of it about writing. Or much of it good writing that I want to read.

I am an information hoarder. There, I’ve said it. And I can justify it any number of ways, especially being a writer; like I used to be able to justify pack-ratting all sorts of odds and ends and ephemera when I was actively doing collage. But seriously, it is past time for me to learn and apply the gentle art of discernment a bit more.

I have been writing one thing or another since I first could take a pencil and ride the waves of those cursive loops on those cardboard strip running along the upper edge of the blackboard in  every elementary school class of my childhood. And before I could write? I dictated stories to a willing parent, who dutifully transcribed it onto a piece of newsprint that had been stapled into pages, which I would then illustrate. I claim that now as my first foray into the world of self-publishing. So precocious.

In 2008, after having had a story about a local youth farming project published in a local magazine, I caught the bug to turn my attention again in a more directed way toward writing. What followed was a series of workshops and classes – both in person and online – that generated a cornucopia of snippets and bits for larger pieces, and put me more determinedly on the path of being a writer. It all started with a food-themed series with Cultivate Clarity (originally Ibex Studios), out of which spawned a monthly writing group that has morphed and changed members, self-published an anthology and still amazingly continues to meet monthly in a smaller, more focused version of itself nine years later. I have explored and added more workshops of all sorts, both in person and online. Two (so far) ten-day, 1000 words/day “boot camps” and some private coaching from creative firebrand (and I mean that in the best possible way) Max Regan;  an intense weekend of writing with Ariel Gore; two out-of-town multi-day intensives – one with Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and one with Jeffrey Davis; most recently an ongoing series of poetry workshops with my good friend Claudia Savage. IMG_2906

It is a trajectory that has barely slowed, once it started in earnest; though there have been no extended out-of-town workshops this year, but I have made up for it with multiple (and sometimes simultaneous) online and local ones. And now I am enmeshed in an accumulation of generated rough draft bits and pieces that could keep me busy for years, questions and “assignments” barely completed or not-yet approached. And still, I am thinking about future out of town forays – including the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) workshop facilitator training – and some personal retreats.

Magpie, like I said.

I am in need of some serious discernment.

And yet, I have absolutely no regrets about how I have done all this so far. Quite the contrary: I have not only stepped out of my comfort zone, I kicked down a lot of the walls along the way. But kicking down the walls has meant I had almost no boundaries, no door I could close when I’d had enough for awhile. It was a classic pendulum swing. So now I need to discern what I do and do not need for this next chapter (writing pun intended). I don’t need more. I need more focused. I need to slow down and stay with a story, a poem, the book, and delve more into the gristle and meat of it. Even the scary heart of it. But I long for that now. It’s time for that now. Hence, the personal retreats. I am finding a certain lack of time to circle around and settle into that flow (an adolescent puppy is a lot like a human toddler, and my appreciation for those moms who are also trying to maintain a creative life has once again grown ten-fold. I bow deeply to you). I am astounded, week after week, what can be gleaned from an uninterrupted two-hour poetry class, with eye- opening, mind-opening, heart-opening inspiration and prompts, what juicy and evocative bits and launching-off points can be discovered. What if I could bring that presence to my desk every day? I am on the threshold of 150 days into #continuouspractice – which astounds me no end – but it is time to make even that more mindful, more specific, more directed.

I have thrown down the gauntlet for myself. Pretty exciting stuff, because it’s time. If I have learned anything, it’s that timing is everything.

I have started learning more about the characters in my book. I like them. And the more I know, the deeper the story becomes. I like that too. So stay tuned. More will come. And for those of you who are wrestling with creative projects of one sort or another, stay with it – it is the most important work you can do.

But I think discernment is the key.

Writing Time Do-Si-Does With Nap Time

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This is Moe. At fourteen weeks he is all teeth and wiggle, vacillating between running and chewing and sleeping, back and forth and back again,  in a glorious display of life-loving, open-ended sense of wonder at the world  – something that is so much the province of small animals, humans included. He reminds me to delight in the simplest of pleasures, and calls upon my deepest reserves of patience and compassion (especially at the end of a busy, tiring day, when I want him to go to sleep so I can). He is my teacher in being exquisitely present and discerning of what is and isn’t important, as these days my available time is in small, not always yet predictable, parcels.

Having a puppy reminds me of the attention and prioritizing of time and energy that is required with a baby and toddler. It’s been a lot of years since my son was new in the world, but in these last few days I have been reminded of that particular juggling act: The need to try to get things done in those periods during the day known as Nap Time. Sometimes utter exhaustion demands I take a simultaneous nap; or the siren’s call of the sheer pleasure of being able to sit, unencumbered, basking in the peaceful quiet of the house or porch is not to be denied. But there quickly evolves a fine-tuned sense of importance and the artful streamlining of tasks. My focus becomes more sharp-edged and certain.

I dislike the notion that I work more efficiently when I have a schedule or a deadline, but it is sometimes true.

Last year, after a long life of being employed by others (with a delicious three-year break when my son was born), I was able to leave my day job, and suddenly found my schedule was entirely a product of my own creation. I had a couple regular freelance writing deadlines, chiropractic and acupuncture appointments to hook my new life calendar onto, but that wasn’t much.

I was surprised at how adrift I felt. I who had been for so long craving and dreaming about quiet mornings to myself in the house and garden; not having to get in the car and join the stream of others motoring toward their jobs that took up the bulk of the day. But, I realized, I hadn’t been without a prescribed daily/weekly schedule since I was, what? Six years old, when I started first grade? Yikes. And that was a hell of a long time ago. So that I couldn’t be the master of my daily doings yet wasn’t my fault, I’m out of practice!

I admit I frittered a lot of time in that interim, with the help so many interesting things crossing my screen on the computer; because well, I could. The feeling of open-ended time was divine. But at the same time, in an extreme pendulum swing, I found myself scheduling the hell out of myself, with workshops and seminars; coffee and lunches with friends I no longer saw everyday at work; a sizable freelance writing project that was on a very tight deadline.  It was exhilarating. And exhausting.

My creative learning curve went into a steep trajectory as I put myself in the company of an amazing group of people via Jeffrey Davis and Tracking Wonder, both in person at YBNS and more recently in an intensive online workshop known as ArtMark. I put my butt in the chair in a serious way for an online “boot camp” with Max Regan that proved I could indeed crank out 1000 words a day of decent early first draft material. Wow. Work on the fledgling novel rekindled. Experiments in a poetry class proved fruitful and expansive in rich possibility. I continued to meet monthly with the writing group I have been a part of for several years. I submitted pieces to journals and started amassing the requisite stack of rejections. Posted photographs for an online photography workshop, and a daily posting of a writing (usually) – related photo via #continuouspractice  – as exciting and enriching as all this has been, it was too much. I hit a wall. My attention was too divided, even though with a cornucopia of wonderful experience and new friends and colleagues.  What to do…

And there were all those ongoing distractions, false starts and near misses that come from trying to work/produce at home, that many writers and freelancers have talked and written about at length. Though it was nice to not be alone on this crazy roller coaster, to have the company of so many others that have faced the same challenges.

I freely admit this is a good problem to have. But I still hit the wall.

So I started to discern and be more selective, started saying no to invitations and not having to take every interesting short course that crossed my radar. All with a determination to start to more productively craft and sculpt my time (for in with all the creative work there was also the more temporal matters of a clean house, healthy food, regular exercise, attention paid to partner and dog, friendships maintained). I had some good tools for this in hand: Jeffrey Davis’s time management and prioritizing tools, the Mind Rooms Guide and 7-Minute Prioritizer.  I was set. I was ready to really get into the groove of regular creative work, self-care, life’s practicalities covered, relationships not given the crumbs of what was left. Okay, here I am.

And then along came Moe.

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All of a sudden, I knew I was going to long again for those stretches of totally self-directed time, because it was going to be awhile before I got them. It was funny, in a way, to think that years’ worth of my days being scheduled, followed by months of flailing self-determination, suddenly finding myself back to an almost 24/7 accountability to another being; molding and shaping my time to his needs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doing this by myself, I have help – but there is this sense of having to nevertheless be always at the ready. His needs will come before mine, much of the time. He is the one needing shepherding and guiding to find his place in the world. And in this task there is an amazing sense of grace and purpose. I enter into contract with this pup willingly. I have had to learn to parcel time to available slots before; I can do it again for a while. And I have my dog to reassure as to her place in the pack.

Tonight I cooked dinner while the puppy was resting after his dinner. I started this post during an afternoon nap and am working on it more as he is sound asleep after lots of running and playing with my older dog Juno (bless her heart, my special dog helper).

I was still able to attend my final poetry class today. In the coming weeks, when my partner gets home from work, will likely be the time that I will take myself to the pool for a swim and sauna. It will all work out, and it won’t be forever. Puppies grow fast. Faster than human babies.

One day there will be two dogs instead of just mine keeping me company in my office and when I take my laptop out on the back deck as the weather gets warmer. Time will again open out and become more spacious. I have the feeling that the lessons I learn and the priorities I discover in this compressed period of available time will make that time to come more potent and purposeful and directed. I’m keeping hold of all the pieces. Nothing is getting truly lost.

All this makes me think of the wonderful writers and creative people I know who are successfully making their way – and time for their creative work – while in the midst of raising children: Jeffrey Davis is one. Marisa Goudy is another. My good friend and poet Claudia Savage is collaborating with her musician husband John Savage on joint projects and performances (watch for their emerging recording label, THrum), as well as collaborating on the raising of their young daughter, River. Claudia’s blog, aptly named: While River Sleeps.