The Tumult of Time

 

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Well, the month of June has come and gone without any mention from me, here.

I always swear I am not going to let the days smoosh together unrecognizably, or get caught up in a current of activity that is moving so quickly I am merely carried along, not noticing or marking the unique (and therefore precious) moments along the way. But sometimes it happens anyway.

Summer solstice brought us the longest day; the charcoal grill got uncovered and cleaned and put into action. The weather warmed and the garden has started to grow in earnest. A good portion of my time has been spent there.

So, in truth there have been markers along the way.

The last couple months have been full of the emotional distractions and energy-absorption of canine health issues and crisis that kept our household on edge much of the time. I am familiar with that blur that can happen with the act of caregiving (and the worry and lousy nights’ sleep that accompany it). So I am neither apologizing nor judging — merely noting and now am finally starting to pick up the threads that I had set down a while ago.

My birthday was in there too, somewhere (well-marked by an avalanche of birthday wishes via social media), but that day found me in bed with the flu.

Some years are more celebratory than others.

 

But there is some good news to this story.

I now have renewed energy for the novel-in-progress, thanks to the wise insights, suggestions and genuine enthusiasm from editor and mentor Max Regan. I have started plowing back in, rethinking and reshaping some of the characters, time lines and sequencing. It is an exciting prospect, but I am feeling a little tentative and shy and new about the whole thing, so for now am going to suspend the monthly excerpts here, and focus on the writing itself as I move ever closer to a finished first draft. It hardly seems possible from here!

And short story has been accepted by Spadina Literary Review, to be published online in the fall! So stay tuned.

So okay, it has not been a complete blur, after all.

 

But then at the end of May, Brian Doyle died.

 

Those of us who knew about his cancer diagnosis knew that day would be coming sooner than later, but it was still a shock to the system. One of those shocks that momentarily stop all awareness of the outside world, filling the senses and mind and heart and body with the roaring silence of the Awareness of Absence. Something irrevocable. As certain as it is mysterious. It’s one of those human mortal things that are difficult to explain but as tangible as a metallic taste in the mouth or the hairs rising up on the back of your neck.

A teacher and someone I consider a mentor, Jeffrey Davis, says there are different kinds of mentors: people we encounter live and face-to-face, those we connect with at a distance and online, and those whose writing inspires and informs, our mentors-on-the-page.

Brian Doyle was a prolific writer, compelling storyteller and illuminator of the marvel and grace in life’s smallest moments, but not everyone is able to love his style of writing: He had a deft hand with run-on sentences and had an amazing knack of putting punctuation-less, stream-of-consciousness prose on a page that, if you stopped and thought about it, reflects exactly how the active and curious mind actually thinks. (He told a funny story in an interview once, that after the publication of the novel Mink River his brother sent him a page full of nothing but commas, and an attached note to the effect that he seemed to have lost his supply, so here were some he could use.) For some people this makes for difficult reading. I totally get it. But, if you’re able to settle back and unhinge something in the conscious mind, wade into the stream of his writing and be able to ride its ebb and flow, it can be rich and lush, abundant in the wonders of the world.

I received one of the most gracious and encouraging rejections ever from Brian, in response to a piece I had submitted for consideration to Portland Magazine – the quarterly University of Portland publication of which he was Editor – the turnaround time was next to immediate (which, for any of you who have experience with submitting know this occurrence is on the far side of unlikely and unusual). His explanation was that he respected writers and the courage it took to submit, and he wanted to honor both with a timely response; and besides which, he knew himself well enough to know that if he waited to respond the submission would likely get lost in the vastness of his inbox and he was afraid to lose track and not respond in a timely fashion. I had never felt so respected as a writer.

 Above my desk sits a framed “self-portrait” with the inscription “with laughter and prayers, Brian Doyle.” It was his response when I handed him my notebook open to a blank page to sign; after a wonderful talk about some of his favorite writers and the imperative we should all feel to tell stories (as being the warp and weft and grist of our lives, of where we intersect as human beings), others had thought to bring a copy of one of his books to sign, but I hadn’t had that forethought. So, feeling slightly foolish but sincere, I handed him the blank page to sign. What I received instead, was this: 

Brian Doyle self-portait

It is apparently something he sometimes did – I recently saw one tacked up next to a shelf of his books in a local independent bookstore where he had done a reading in the past – and I was thrilled to have one of my own.

As he was thus autographing my notebook page, I told him of the nephew of a friend of mine who had recently suffered a near-fatal bicycle accident. My friend would sit by his bedside in the hospital while he was still in a coma and read out loud from Mink River, which was one of his favorite books. He later told her he remembered hearing her reading from the book, and how important that was. Brian’s response was to ask for both my friend’s and her nephew’s email address; I don’t know what he wrote but he made a point to write to both of them. That was the kind of person he was.

I want to say we are truly gifted by the richness of his spirit as well as the many stories and “promes” (his word for his particular prose/poems) full of rich language and wonder that remain even in his absence. (If you would like to read more – tributes and reflections as well as some of his words in essay and interview – the links are below.)

So my return to my own creativity, as well as to the desire to live fully into each day, comes in part from this latest reminder of how precious and fleeting is this gift of time we have here on this planet, in this life.

 

Brian Doyle’s essays published in Brevity.com

Brian Doyle’s interview on Brevity podcast

Brian Doyle and Orion Magazine

An open letter from one of Brian Doyle’s students

Brian Doyle’s last poem

 

Holding Space

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This month marks Tracking Wonder’s #Quest2017, where Jeffrey Davis assembles a dozen visionaries from many directions, offering prompts for our reflection and exploration as we stand on the threshold of a new year. It is an invigorating and enlightening undertaking (this is my third year participating) and here you can read #WhyIQuest
And, by the way, it is free – it’s not too late to join in!


The first prompt comes from someone I much admire: OnBeings own Krista Tippett:

“What is your vocation, your sense of callings as a human being at this point in your life, both in and beyond job and title?

Practice internalizing a more spacious, generous sense of what animates you and why you are here (e.g. as a human being, partner, child, neighbor, friend, citizen, maker, yogi, volunteer, as well as a professional). Honor the creative value of ‘how’ you are present as much as in ‘what’ you are doing in the everyday at work and in the world.” #yourtruecalling

 

***

Sitting with this question, my first inclination was to talk about my calling as a storyteller. But I hesitated, wondered if there wasn’t something more fundamental, more elemental, underneath that; something that encompassed storytelling but wasn’t limited to it.

What kept whispering in the periphery of my thoughts was “holding space.”

There is a mindfulness and careful, sharp sense of presence that is required to holding a space. It is something I realize I practice and have consciously tried to cultivate, but that the deliberateness often follows behind a more intuitive recognition.

I emailed a Quaker friend of mine and asked her if “holding space” could be considered a vocation. She replied, “I would say yes.”

***

I think about how often, and for how long in my life – as far back as high school if not farther – friends seek me out to share confidences and heart-concerns. They trusted me to hold space for them.

I think about the years I worked as a dinner waiter at a neighborhood Italian restaurant (actually, one of my favorite jobs), and the importance I placed on welcoming the diners at my tables and giving enjoyable experience along with the nourishment of a good meal. It was a type of holding space.

I remember when I worked at a group home for pregnant teenagers, and volunteered as a birth coach to some of the girls. Getting the phone call in the middle of the night and driving to the hospital to be there as they traveled that amazing and powerful liminal journey through labor and delivery. I held space for them. They gave me their trust.

I think about the weddings and memorials I have officiated as a Life-Cycle Celebrant; of how people have come up to me, complimenting me on how well I “held space” for the ceremony and those attending. It was the confirmation of that, at the first wedding I ever officiated; I knew that something very real existed there for me.

I wonder at the job I held for more than two decades, the bulk of which involved getting needed supplies and support to multiple school and low-income community gardens. I often considered this work to be Right Livelihood. I would like to think I was able to help others hold space – gardens that can be as sacred as they are common.

I have interviewed numerous makers, told their stories in print. I have been called specifically a “good listener.” To me, that means I have done a good job of holding space for the person’s story.

Even as a fiction writer, I feel my task is to hold space for the book’s characters; to tell their story, or let them tell their own. I’m not sure how that works, but it feels like a kind of holding space. Poetry is definitely a holding space activity. Writing is an act of holding space, period.

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This photograph hangs in my kitchen, near the stove and tucked in next to the spice racks. It came from a magazine, and it is one of my favorite possessions. I thought about it when I started to respond to this prompt. It strikes me as the visual embodiment of what I have been trying to explain, here.

***

Within this prompt is a wonderful, compassionate invitation that feels like a gift:

“Practice internalizing a more spacious, generous sense of what animates you and why you are here…”

Krista Tippett, thank you.

Amuse Bouche

 

Tapas

In keeping with my intention to share the writerly process and occasionally post an excerpt from the novel-in-process, still tentatively titled One Dish at a Time: a Story of Family, Forgiveness, and Finding One’s Place at the Table, I decided it was time to post another one. (The first two are here and here.)

The question of what to choose was answered for me when recently assigned by Jeffrey Davis to share the first five hundred words of our book with the other participants in his eight month long author’s mentorship program.

This was the first declaration of the beginning of the actual container that will hold this story, and was the first step in being able to start assembling the many pieces and scenes and conversations – both past and present – into what I hope will eventually be a coherent and captivating whole.

So in the spirit of writerly courage, here you have the first draft of the first five hundred words:

 

 

Amuse-bouche

 

 

Amuse-bouche: noun \ˈä-ˌmüz-ˈbüsh, from the French meaning “entertaining the mouth.” A single-bite appetizer or hors d’oeuvre that sets the tone or theme for the meal that will follow.

 

 

Bea’s grandmother made bread every Wednesday. After school, when she and Alice walked – or more typically ran, bursting through the kitchen door with the slap of the screen door behind them – into the house, it was to be enveloped by the heady aromas of baking and heat. Bea would sit on a tall stool by the massive butcher block, watching the choreography of her grandmother’s hands and the moving ball of dough. “You just get a feel for it in time,” she’d say.

 

* * *

 

Every time Tyler smelled freshly baked croissants he thought about Octavia.

As the years went by, he got to know the shape and texture of his grief in such a way that he could almost feel it, pliable and soft, but ever-present with a tenacious solidity.

 

* * *

 

Alice breathed deeply and caught a whiff of the Plumaria blossoms near the steps – that faintly spicy, faintly sweet combination that brought her comfort. The scent that welcomed her home after a long day or occasional week or more away for a photo shoot. It was the scent she had first encountered when she stepped off the plane at the Honolulu airport; the woman walking ahead of her was greeted by a group of friends, one of whom placed a lei of creamy white flowers around their returning friend’s neck. When she later saw the Plumaria tree growing next to the porch of a cottage she was looking to rent, she knew she had found her new home.

 

* * *

 

Michael eased himself down onto the step of his airstream as the sun was just beginning to dip down and color the western horizon of the far hills. He groaned slightly and then coughed. It had been a long day of pulling a stubborn engine out of a Studebaker, and he wasn’t as young as he used to be. He coughed again, ran a hand through his graying hair. He took a long drink from the cold beer and sighed with satisfaction. He never got tired of this view, of so much sky that held so many stars to look at in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep. He was glad he found this place on the periphery of town and beyond the reach of the lights that obscured the stars.

He coughed again.

 

* * *

 

Bea sits at table on the deck, overlooking the greenway and beyond it the river, with stacks of recipe books and her laptop and an indulgent mid-afternoon glass of wine. She picks up a fawn-colored file folder with long-ago notes and scribbling on food-stained pages; the remnants of her months in culinary school. She slowly turns over page after page, looking for a clue, an idea, an inspiration from these ghosts from her past.

     Goddamn it, she thinks. I need a plan.

 

One (more) Dish at a Time

Raw coriander, garlic and flax on vintage desk

The first excerpt of the novel-in-process was published last spring (with much thanks to  Marisa Goudy for giving me the nudge and the venue). It was anxious-making and exciting to see it out in the world as a Real Thing, even virtually, and I decided I would post more bits and pieces as I went along.

Since that first excerpt, I have doubled my page count (up to over two hundred pages, though I know there’s still quite a ways more to go on a first draft that has yet to be subjected to the editing and shaping process), and have added to the working title. For now at least, it’s:

One Dish at a Time: A Story of Family, Forgiveness, and Finding One’s Place at the Table

And now I am in the midst of a several-month online mentorship program with Jeffrey Davis and Tracking Wonder which is helping propel me through this process. Their encouragement, too, reminds me that I said to myself I would share more of the process with you, too.

So, here is another draft excerpt. Hope you like it.

     “Did you know that if you hold the end of a piece of string to your nose with one hand and take the string in the other hand and stretch it out straight to your side, that piece of string will measure one yard?” Michael Smithson’s face held a grin and look that made Bea think of a magician that once did an assembly in her school. “Although you’re still a little small, you might have to turn your head and stretch the other arm back some,” he added. “Shall we see?”

     Bea’s father just happened to have a small ball of string in his jacket pocket (of course), and demonstrated how it was done.

     “How do you know that’s a yard?” asked Bea with small-child skepticism.

     “Hah! I tried it once and then measured the piece of string,” her father replied. “I don’t have a measuring tape on me, I don’t think,” patting his pockets to be sure, “but look, remember how I showed you once that the tiles here in the kitchen were twelve inches across? How many feet is twelve inches?”

     “One.”

     “Good. And how many feet in a yard?”

     Bea squinted in concentration. “Three?”

     “Yes ma’am. Good work. Any chance you know how many inches in a yard, then?”

     Bea squinted her eyes almost closed, trying to make a number appear in her mind. She opened her eyes and shook her head.

     Her father laughed, “That’s okay, sweetie, that’s a hard question and more math than you’ve done yet. I’ll show you on paper later, draw it out for you so you can see it. For now, though, let’s measure. See? This is how it’s done. Now take this end – hold onto the string right where my fingers were so we get it right – and put it at the corner of the tile there at your feet. Now don’t let it move.” Bea squatted down and did as instructed, being small-child-careful to be precise. She watched as her father took the other end and, laying it along the edges of the tiles, until it was a straight line, just past the corner of the (one, two, three) third tile. Bea’s eyes opened wide like she’d seen a magic trick, was waiting for the string to suddenly change into a strand of knotted, colorful scarves.

     Her Father smiled, triumphant. “See? Pretty neat, isn’t it?”

     “But it’s more than three feet….well, just a little” she hurried to add, seeing her father’s eyebrows raise and not wanting to hurt his feelings.

     “Right you are. Using a body ruler – that’s what they call it – is good for approximate measurements. You know what approximate means, right?”

     “Almost?” Bea answered, her voice raising into a question with uncertainty.

     “Yes! Almost, or more-or-less, or close enough to count. You couldn’t build kitchen cabinets that way I don’t think – we could try it though. Think your mother would mind?” Bea giggled. “Now, let’s check your body ruler.” He handed her the string and she copied what she’d watched him do. The results were a little short of three feet.

     “Try again, and this time turn your head toward the side of the hand that’s on your nose, and stretch your other hand back as far as you can.”

     This time the measurement was almost three feet.

     “Approximately,” said Bea, smiling.

     “Exactly right. Now, no matter where you are, you’ll be able to measure a yard of anything you can hold like that in your hands. Back in the olden days, women used to measure fabric that way for the clothes they made. I remember watching your grandmother do it when I was about your age.” He wound the string back into its ball and returned it to his pocket. “There’s lots of these kinds of measurements. I’ll teach you more of them if you’d like sometime.” Bea nodded enthusiastically. It felt like she and her father now shared some kind of important secret. She could hardly wait get home to show her sister.

***

     Bea hadn’t thought about that afternoon in years. But she realized she had committed all the “body ruler” measurements her father had taught her to memory and used them often. Just now, she had unwound a length of kitchen twine and, knowing from experience that to tie a pork shoulder roast of this size required about three feet of string, put the end to her nose and reached her other arm out, reaching back and turning her head to give her a bit of extra to work with, then cutting it with her kitchen shears. She bound the piece of meat into a nice, even cylinder; she recalled as she was tying the ends together that it had been her father who had also taught her a lot about knot tying. That was the summer before he left. It was a lesson that had been left unfinished, for he knew more knots than he had shown her. It had been hard for Bea to make her seven-year-old fingers work together right, but he had said it just took practice, that she had good slender knot-tying fingers and when her hands got a little bigger and stronger she could probably even enter knot-tying competitions. What a bullshitter, Bea thought to herself, shaking her head.

     But she realized she loved knowing practical things like tying knots and being able to measure things without having to first stop and scrounge in a drawer or toolbox for a ruler or tape measure. For example, she knew the span between her thumb and little finger, when she opened her palm wide, was eight inches. Handy (no pun intended) to know when picking a pie or cake pan out of the cupboard and wanting to be sure whether or not it was eight or nine inches (or ten, for that matter. She could determine an inch or two beyond her hand span).

     Bea placed the roast in the oven, wondering what more her father would have taught her if he’d stayed.

One Dish at a Time

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So, today (thanks to the generosity of Marisa Goudy) marks the publishing of the first excerpt of my novel!  There, I’ve said it out loud – I have called it a “big hot mess of a fiction piece” as recently as a year and half ago, but not too long after, at the end of a five day intensive workshop with Jeffrey Davis and Tracking Wonder, I found myself willing to say that yes, I was actually working on a novel. In the time since then there have been scenes sketched, characters poked and prodded to see who they were and what they were about; there was a blooming of sorts, like a picture coming gradually into focus. You can read this short excerpt here.

I have carried this story in fits and starts for a long time, but haven’t ever been able to simply walk away from it: This story of family, of the struggle to understand and forgive; of the connections and anchors that come through food; the physicality of cooking, of the stories and shared experiences that get passed down through the generations, that weave family members together whether they like it or not; of finding one’s own place in the world. For some reason this story has captivated me, so I have to think that there are readers who might likewise be captivated by it. I hope so anyway.

I printed it out the other day, and yowza, I had a stack of a bit over a hundred pages of text! Well what the hell…. that’s not huge, but it means I am definitely a good way into a first draft; further than I’d anticipated, more substantial in its still-growing parts than I’d thought. A good thing.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I have set myself the goal of having the first draft done by the end of the year. It is time for me to settle in and write this. Seriously. I have just signed on for an eight-month mentorship program with Jeffrey Davis and Tracking Wonder, which will help me focus and direct my trajectory toward that goal.

Last week I  finished a five week “hammer & nails” novel workshop with Jennifer Springsteen and PDX Writers, and there were some significant breakthrough moments – including  A WORKING TITLE! Even though the title may change and change again before it’s in print (note the optimism, there?), for now One Dish at a Time suits me just fine. A title makes it real, right?

I’ve decided I am going to post snippets and scenes every so often here, just to keep the tease and hopefully the interest (of you, dear readers) sparked and alive. Also to keep me accountable, for this is a fairly daunting project. But it needs to be written. I really believe that. I like and have stake in these characters, so I need to tell their stories. So, here’s the first published bit. Thank you very much to Marisa Goudy and #365StrongStories for honoring me with a place at their table.

I hope you come back and read more as it’s posted, here. And leave me your thoughts down there in the comments box.

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.

The Story Behind 2015

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One of the recent prompts in the Quest2015 project I’m in the middle of came from creative visionary Todd Henry: “If you knew your life’s story will be written based upon your choices and actions in 2015, how would you live?”

(No pressure, right?)

At first I balked, resisted the question.

But wait…aren’t we already writing our life story every day, every moment? Aren’t each of us a living, breathing, acting-out-the-play embodiment of our life story? 

Yes, but Todd’s question asks for a pulling back and taking a longer view. A deeper looking within, as well as out to that horizon-point of the end of 2015; inviting a more purposeful and intentional trajectory through the year.

My fellow Quester Erin Coughlin Hollowell answered this question in a way that resonated deeply with me, and helped me toward further contemplation when she said Be All In.

The more I sat with that invitation, the more I settled into it. Realized that what has so often been missing as I have been growing up and moving along through my life, is the ability to fantasize or imagine an ideal future for myself. How could I gather and direct energy and action in any meaningful way without a target to aim for, without a horizon line to direct my sights, to help pull me toward it? There were glimmers, moments, false starts (or maybe just too-early beginnings). But mostly it was the persistent fog of uncertainty and indecision  and self-doubt.

My Life Story of 2015 actually has its prologue in 2014. 

As a result of big losses and gains and changes that occurred in 2014, I found myself poised on what felt like an abyss of opportunity. The chance to dream and dare bigger than I had ever allowed myself to do before. Still, I wavered. And then, sometime in that fateful summer, Jeffrey Davis posed the question in a posting about his upcoming workshop Your Brave New Story:

“What are you waiting for?”

Oh. That stopped me in my tracks when I read it. Took my breath with it. I was pinned, couldn’t look away. What indeed? Death had shown me how precious these days we inhabit are, and how numbered we can’t know. I felt driven to be able to answer the question posed by poet Mary Oliver, when she asks “…what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” So I signed on for Your Brave New Story. And taking place a month before that, a week-long intensive workshop in the beautiful Colorado high desert with Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, entitled “Igniting the Creative Fire.”

I was not only stepping outside my comfort zone, I was kicking out its walls along the way.

I returned from Colorado and launched immediately into a 10-day, online writing “boot camp” with the amazing Max Regan – 1000 words/day. Prompt arrived by email in the morning, email the results to him by midnight. Not a lot of time for editing, but finished work was not the point. Putting my butt in the chair and writing, every single day like I meant it – that was the point. It was exhilarating. Then, two weeks after that, I was on a plane toward upstate New York and YBNS. Followed closely now back at home, by Quest 2015. What a wild ride. What a fucking wild ride.

I took on some freelance writing clients, I submitted fiction pieces and have received some rejections and waiting for word from the others. I started a Writer’s Blog (you are here) and even a fledgling Celebrant Blog, still in its infancy, far from polished or complete, but that’s okay. It’s a start, a committed start. I have been throwing myself, headlong, over and over again into that abyss of opportunity. Why? Because I feel like I can’t wait any longer.

If this is the prologue, what the hell is the Story in 2015 going to look like?

For the past several years I have, on January 1 or thereabouts, selected a Word For The Year. I write it on a post-it and stick it on the bulletin board above my desk, where it can remind and inform me, act like a touchstone for the year. “Clarity” was the word for 2014; I look up and see it asserting itself to me as I type this. Maybe I will carry it over for 2015, because I think I am not yet done with it, that I still need more clarity. Even though MY LIFE STORY may be written from what I do in this next year, the search and acquisition of Clarity is still a big part of that story.

And, as Serendipity would have it, a post by Marianne Elliott landed in my inbox the other day, the topic being Clarity. Here’s an excerpt:

“Clarity means clear boundaries. It means clear priorities. It means getting clear – as Danielle LaPorte would say – on how I want to feel and being clear on what helps me feel that way.

Clarity helps me recognise the days when I need 20 mins of meditation more than I need a sleep in. And clarity helps me recognize when I need a glass of wine and a movie more than I need to get another item ticked off my to do list.

I don’t always feel clear. Often I get confused. But I know how to find my way back to clarity – it takes space, it takes regular practice, it takes the curiosity to ask myself the important questions, and the courage to be honest in my answers.”

So. With that prologue, I guess my life story’s first chapter, as lived in 2015, will hopefully be titled “Getting Clear.” And we’ll see how it unfolds from there.

Grit and Compassion

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Grit is the stuff that eventually becomes the pearl nestled with the oyster in its shell.

For human “grit” to be able to eventually be turned into a pearl, there requires a certain amount of compassion. Jennifer Louden, in her prompt at yesterday’s opening of Tracking Wonder’s December online adventure, Quest2015, invited us to consider that “grit without compassion is just grind…” and to envision what would be the most fun to create in the coming year, and how could grit and compassion help bring it about?

First of all it is a good reminder, that writing can be fun.

Sometimes I get caught up in the oh-so-important seriousness of it all; having to force myself to put my butt in the chair when I don’t particularly feel like it, or start to get bright-shiny-thing distracted by one thing or another; worrying if what I’m writing has no value except to me, my family and my ever-supportive writing group, will I ever get anything besides polite rejection emails; when editing sometimes feels just like I am treading over the same ground, again and again, with no end in sight…..yeah, gritty stuff.

Compassion – self-compassion especially – helps keep the grit from turning to grind. And being open to wonder is a great deterrent to grind (thank you Jeffrey Davis). And the two of these keep the heart and mind and body open to fun and play, and especially to the adventure that is being a writer.

So. What fun am I going to create in 2015? For starters, I am going to reclaim a studio space that for a long time had been losing the battle with it turning back solely into a garage/storage space. A leaking skylight has been replaced with a larger one (more natural light and bigger view of the sky!) and the moldy insulation and drywall gone. Then comes the gritty task of sorting and purging through years of stuff – and not just my own, but also some of my father’s things that I brought into my home after he died earlier this year. This is where the compassion kicks in – both the tough-love type that understands but still demands a purging and clearing of space, and the softer type that understands if I decide I need to find space for all his many sketchbooks, watercolors, and photographs.

What I will get for this effort, however, will be a pearl indeed – a space where I can spread out a bit and create; put big pieces of paper on the wall and make brainstorms with myself, story-eggs and character maps to my heart’s content.

But not just a writing space, but also once more I will have a drawing and painting space. This side of me long-dormant (but bubbling like on a personal back burner) is about to be allowed to reawakened. And that, for me, is a fun and exhilarating notion. It won’t take away from my writing, but will (I hope) enhance it by the simple firing of more of my creative jets.

And, it appears I have started a blog.