Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Overused phrases

Yesterday I was driving to work. For some reason I have this unnatural fear of being hit by another car. And as I was thinking about the possibility of this, the phrase "sickening crunch" came to mind. What a magnificant term - how definitive of the feeling and sight and sound of metal meeting metal. But of course, we cannot use that phrase in our writing because, well, because it's so cliched.

This led me to wish that I could come up with a description so profound that in short order writers around the world would shy away from using it because it had been overused. Something as powerful as "vague malaise" or "dog-tired" or "pitch black"--they just say it, don't they?

Please put on your thinking caps--oops, cliche--and see what you can come up with. Then I'll start using it in my writing, get my writing friends to use it in their writing, and before you know it, we won't be able to use it anymore.

Oh to be the inventor of a good cliche.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Methods of change

In the past four years I have:

1. Changed faith denominations after fifty years
2. Quit drinking
3. Quit smoking
4. Enrolled in a writing class
5. Started getting up early to write and exercise

Here's how I went about each one:

1. This was the easiest. I was simply feeling lethargic at my old church and the new one called my spiritual name. I left without a backward glance and am actively and happily involved in the new church.

2. After many years of thinking I might have a drinking problem and one night of falling around in a public bathroom, I decided it was time. I quit abruptly the morning after the falling around incident. The hardest part of this was going to my boat where drinking is the most important activity people engage in. I cried for about 30 minutes the first time I went after giving up the booze, developed some coping mechanisms, and now don't mind being a recovering alcoholic for the most part. And I know without a doubt that I would not have been able to accomplish #3 if I were still drinking.

3. I gave myself one year of sobriety before I undertook giving up cigarettes. When I went outside to smoke, I asked myself, "What will you do at this time when you are not smoking?" I picked a date of signficance - the date that I quit drinking - and prepared myself mentally for life without the ritual of smoking.

4. Finding out about the writing class was purely and simply serendipity. I ran into Angela, the teacher, at Whole Foods. She told me that she was teaching a writing class and I began throwing up obstacles to my taking the class. Every obstacle was overcome in the five minutes we talked. One week later I was signed up to take the class.

5. The early morning discipline took the most preparation. I had given myself one year after quitting smoking to ignore any weight gain which came about from substituting eating sugar for smoking. I knew that I would not go anywhere to work out. I knew that I would not do it after work. And I knew that I hated to wake up early, especially to the obnoxious sound of a clock alarm. So I invested in(practically had to go to the bank to buy) a zen alarm clock that chimes once at the designated wake-up time, then chimes again every five minutes until turned off. I set up a writing desk that is inviting. I bought some yoga tapes.

If you had asked five years ago if I saw myself doing or not doing these things, I would have raised my drink in one hand and my cigarette in the other, laughing and toasting to the absurdity of the idea. In some ways I feel that changing churches, breaking a fifty-year habit, led me to be able to break the forty year habits of drinking and smoking. Then I began to think about wanting to preserve myself rather than destroy myself and the writing and exercising were natural outgrowths of that desire.

How do you go about making positive changes in your life? I would love to hear.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


My blogger image

Last night I started to tell my daughter about the prospective music director and she said she knew all about it because she had read it in my blog. "You read my blog? Do you think it sounds interesting or nerdy?" "Interesting AND nerdy, just like you," she replied.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Not So Big Life

Twice a year my church does a congregational book study. The winter book is The Not So Big Life by Sarah Susanka. Last night she came to talk to us and it was enlightening and inspiring.

My Thursday night girls are reading it too. Last week we discussed the first two chapters. One of the exercises was to do the following (my wording without going back to the book):

1. Significant objects: Write down significant people, objects and places in your past.
2. Significant moments: Think of times when something important happened in your life, something that may have been life changing.

My interpretation of why she asks us to do this is two fold. We need to access the things that made us happy in the past, reconnect with them, uncover them from the layers of crap we call being grown-up. And we need to think about what our frame of mind was when we had a life changing or more-than-coincidental occurence.

One of the objects that I wrote about was the wooded area that surrounded our neighborhood. We used to pack food and go into the woods for hours. Although I wasn't a tomboy and didn't like to get dirty, I did get a thrill out of the hint of danger that skirted our play - picking up giant bullfrogs, getting wet when we knew we weren't supposed to, walking across creeks on mostly rotted trees that had fallen, being out of sight of "civilization" and adults. I'm not sure how to bring this forward to my present day life in order to make positive change. Hint of danger? Freedom? Bucking the rules?

Most of the significant moments that I could think of were recent. I think that's because I have recently become open to the idea that if I just quit trying to control my life things will go a lot more smoothly. I am reminded just about every day of the AA admonition to "Let go and let God" and of the book we did called "Get Out of Your Own Way" but DOING this is very hard for me. I have set it as a goal for this month to relinquish my tight-fisted hold on my future and just see what the Universe will do.

It's a start.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

My Space

After our children were out of the house, we did an addition. We had already added space for them when we were a growing family, but this new space was definitely for us. It includes a den with large windows on three sides and a very comfortable sofa which is perfect for reading or listening to music. The downstairs of this new space, though, is what makes me the happiest.

It has evolved. We moved the treadmill down there first, then all my exercise videos. (I am reminded here of a quote: "Watch exercise videos and don't do them.") Then I started meditating and got meditation cushions and inspirational books and put them in there. I branched out from doing just photograph cards to making them with Japanese paper after visiting a store called The Paper Source in Chicago. So I set up a desk which stays covered in layers of beautiful paper and hole punches of circles and dragonflies and stars. I began a writing class and on the other side of the room there is a desk with a lamp, dictionary, grammar book, Frank Warren's Post Secret book for prompts, my meditation timer, and my writing journal. The writing desk faces the window where I keep orchids that are dormant. There is one orchid in bloom right now. It is what I call "my sobriety orchid" because I bought it the week I quit drinking and it bloomed constantly for almost two years. I want to keep it downstairs for only me to enjoy.

I go into this room for the first time at around six a.m. each day. I do a yoga tape and then write for fifteen minutes. I am now beginning to see the sun come up as I finish writing, and the birds sing. Today my cat sat at the door meowing to come in. I made him wait until the timer went off.

When I walk into this room, I feel inspired. The smells of the room, the sight of beautiful paper waiting to be made into cards that will grace the mailboxes of people I know and don't know, my writing desk with all the tools I need to make word art, the inspirational books and my meditation cushions - I bow in honor to this sacred space as I enter the door, and again as I leave.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of my mother's death. I had no idea then that this many years from the event, I could still be brought to deep sadness missing her.

This morning I got up to do my yoga and daily writing, fully intending to address something in my short story that has been bothering me. Instead, I wrote about my mom. There are two things I wish I could rewind and redo. The first is the day that I've talked about before, the day our maid called to say that my mother had drunk a bottle of wine after five years of sobriety. Looking back at all she gave up for this relapse - the most public being that she was on the board of Fellowship Hall - I realize that something had happened to cause her to feel great despair. I wish I could ask her what happened that day.

The other thing I have also written about - the day before she died. That cannot be undone either.

When I think of the legacy of this loss, the cliched admonition to never go to bed in a fight of course comes to mind. But really for me the legacy is about taking time to examine other peoples' sadness and pain, see through their anger, pick at the emotional scabs until you get blood. And to listen, really listen to their anguish. You can't take it back, you can't do it over. I needed to get it as right as I could the first time because I'm still living with my regret and she's long gone.

I know my thoughts about this have bled into my daughters' belief system too. Last night my youngest daughter was on a plane getting ready to fly home from a weekend trip. As we hung up, I said I loved her and she said somewhat impatiently that she loved me too. Not a minute after we hung up she called back and said that she really did love me and was sorry she had said it so impatiently.

Legacy of loss. Pass it on.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A day of joy

Today I woke up feeling hopeful for what the day would bring, and it has not let me down. I needed to spend most of the morning at church. One of the most awesome singing groups that sings at our church - the Crazies for Jesus - was the music. This is a group of African men that have harmonies like angels. They sang the old gospel song, "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder, I'll Be There." I smiled the whole time.

The minister's message was around the book we're studying church-wide (and I'm doing with the Thursday night girls). As my sister-in-law said to me one time, "I can't always remember what he said, but I just feel good after he says it." That's how it was for me today. Since I attended both the 9 and 11 service, and since my minister doesn't read his sermon from written notes, I got a little different slant in each message.

I sat on a row full of people close to me - my sister-in-law, my husband, close friends, and...ta da...the prospective music director. I think he felt very welcomed.

After church one of the choir members came up to me. The choir has been circulating a growing list all week with the theme of what they want in a choir director. Evidently they got wind that we had interviewed someone and a few of them had looked him up on the internet. The person said that she could see that with his background we were going to have to resurrect the "lyrics police" and something in me went kerflooey. So after a long morning, I grabbed the minister for "five minutes" knowing that he and I were both hungry and wouldn't be able to think straight for long. You've gotten the message that I tend to go off (as the minister put it) half-cocked and he was able to help me calm down and put my thoughts into action that would have positive results. I sent the choir an email telling them that this interviewee was brought to us through some kind of intervention I didn't even understand and that when he comes to choir practice on Wednesday night I would like for them to leave their lists somewhere far away and welcome him with open hearts and closed expection.

I've tried to think why this is all so personal to me, and I know part of the reason is that his name came to me first and he seems so promising. But more than this I see incredible opportunities for all of us in the person of this talented man. And I hope that he will accept us. Accepting him is the first step.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Day of Love....NOT!!

Hallmark has completely set me up. Valentine's Day is the one day of the year that I can count on having a fight with my husband. This year it is because he was supposed to make reservations. When he didn't make them in an amount of time that I thought appropriate (ie he had not made any by 10:00 this morning), I got worried. Then things snowballed into an argument that involved a bunch of other people, and now I'm ready to forget dinner altogether. Even though he ended up getting reservations at one of my favorite restaurants. For eight people. At eight o'clock.


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Man walks into a room

Get this: A man walks into a room full of people. He immediately turns about half of them off. This half swears they will not spend another minute in his presence. The other half sits around admiringly and listens to him sing and play guitar.

Get this: A man walks into a room full of people. As he talks about writing and death and finding your muse and feeling doubt and writing shitty dialogue, the people hang on to his every word. They write things down and consider putting the words on banners and hanging them where they can see them every day as they try to write something meaningful. Words from the Bible, Chekhov, Kafka, Shakespeare. Poems and prose and jokes.

Get this: A man walks into a room full of people. He reads from a book called Peace and has the people wondering when they can read more of this intriguing book. He reads a short story about a man with a face people like to pummel and a lying woman, and the people laugh out loud. He tells jokes, answers questions, finds that his upper lip is sweating because he's nervous. Gets a question he can't answer. The people fall in love.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Thoughts become...

One of the links on my blog is to Tut.com. Every day I get a daily reading which includes my name, sometimes first AND last name. It feels, to a sucker like me, very personal. But this past week, I had something happen that convinced me that what the Tut guy promotes, that thoughts become things, is very true.

At my church, we had a choir director that was full of life. He had been there for five years and gradually developed some habits that the minister was having trouble dealing with. There were warnings and contracts and more warnings, but finally he and the board (that includes me) had to make a decision about whether to let the guy go. It was agonizing. Although this is not my usual way of dealing with things, nor my usual language, at one of the final meetings where we discussed this, I said that until we closed the door on the past, we would never be able to open the door to a new director.

A few days after the old choir director left, I went online and put in "best gospel choir director triangle" in the search line. Two or three results down there was one for the choir director of a Baptist church in Durham. I read about him and said, "Oh my gosh, this is the guy we want!" I sent the article via email to the minister.

The minister is not the best email responder and a few days later I asked him what he thought. He said he hadn't read the mail but for me to contact the man. I called the man's church; he was no longer there but the woman who answered said she would try to get in touch with him and have him call me. Fat chance of all of that going through I said to myself.

A day later, he called the minister. He made it clear that he was already working with five choirs and couldn't take on another. I emailed him and asked would he just come talk to us about finding someone, maybe giving us direction; he said yes.

Last Thursday the minister and I met with this man. He is over six feet tall and has dreadlocks. He has the face of a mighty angel. And as we talked, we realized that he is at a crossroads with his faith. He was very interested in our church's philosophy and my minister took a lot of time to tell him what we believe. After we talked, we walked into the sanctuary so he could see the space. He sat down at the piano and started playing and singing the song "My Life is in Your Hands" and by the time he was finished the minister and I and the cleaning woman were all in tears.
Here are the lyrics:

You don't have to worry
and don't you be afraid
joy comes in the morning
troubles they don't last always
for there's a friend name Jesus
who will wipe your tears away
and if your heart is broken
just lift your hands and say

Oh, I know that I can make it
I know that I can stand
no matter what may come my way
my life is in your hands

You don't have to worry
and don't you be afraid
joy comes in the morning
troubles they don't last always
for there's a friend name Jesus
who will wipe your tears away
and if your heart is broken
just lift your hands and say

Oh, I know that I can make it
I know that I can stand
no matter what may come my way
my life is in your hands
with Jesus I can take it
with him, I know I can stand
no matter what may come my way
my life is in your hands

So learn your tests and trials
they seem to get you down
and all your friends and loved ones
are nowhere to be found
remember there's a friend named Jesus
who will wipe your tears away
and if your heart is broken
just lift your hands and say

Oh, I know that I can make it
I know that I can stand
no matter what may come my way
my life is in your hands
with Jesus I can take it
with him, I know I can stand
no matter what may come my way
my life is in your hands

A few other things were discussed, one of which brought the man to tears. He promised to go home and pray about the situation and get back to us.

I was so high on my way home from this meeting. I'm impulsive and wanted to call him and email him and badger him until he said YES YES YES to my church. But the words to "Let it Be," "There will be an answer, let it be" came into my head and I knew I was going to have to let this develop on its own schedule.

Today he was in church, checking things out, and his mere presence made my heart sing. Thoughts become things.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


I have told my dad before that it's not his age that's depressing him, it's mine. How does he feel when he says that he has a fifty-six year old daughter? Old, maybe?? Today my youngest daughter is twenty-three. And yes, that makes me feel old.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


The original intention (yesterday) of this post was to write something light-hearted that I was going to call "I Crack Myself Up." So I want to start with this.

The other day, I said something funny to my 23 year old daughter. After saying it, I laughed so hard that I felt lightheaded, like I was going to faint. In the playfully disdainful way that she has, my daughter looked at me and said, "You crack yourself up, don't you, Mom?" And I realized, that yes, I do crack myself up. I love to laugh at my own jokes (why would I say them if I didn't think they were hilarious??). But this self-appreciation goes even farther. I love to look at my photographs. I love to read my own writing. I love to pick up my handmade cards and admire them. Really, it gives me a seratonin lift, I believe, to like what I create. And I like to share all of this with other people, giving my cards to people, framing photographs as gifts, having people read my writing and laugh at my jokes.

But there is a dark side to this, and here's where I took a little detour from the original intention of this post. I don't like it when something I create turns out to be less than perfect.

Last night was critique night for me in my short story class. I was paired with two incredible writers--one I knew was great and one I figured out was great after reading her story. I went first.

I have had this image in my head of how a person looks during the critique process. First the good things about the story (person smiling, turning red with pleasure, puffing up). Then the suggestions for improvement (person getting serious look on his or her face, turning red with embarrassment, deflating). After the class, on my way home and later, I began to have serious doubts about my ability to write. There was a lot of work to be done on this story, and I felt overwhelmed at the task. I even thought, "Well, I'm just going to scrap that story and do another one." But that ain't how it works in this class. The point is to write a shitty first draft (mission accomplished) and then rework it into something readable.

This morning, when I got up to do yoga and free-write, I began writing about my feelings surrounding all of this. And then, the amazing thing that has happened since I decided to learn to write: I had a revelation. I realized that I was experiencing the same thing that the character in my short story was experiencing: DOUBT. Whoa. Soooo...the timer went off to signal the end of the free-write period and I went to the next clean, blank page. At the top of the page I wrote, DOUBT-THINK ABOUT IT. And that's where I'm going to start my free-write tomorrow morning.

Now I have to go back to cracking myself up. I'm going to need all the laughs and self-admiration I can muster up to get me through this process of learning to write!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Goodbye, Wrightsville; Hello, Oriental

Wrightsville Marina, where we've had our boat for the last eight years. It was sad having to say good-bye to our friends at the marina.
Durham realized that the heater on the boat isn't working. Should we stay or should we go? Go, he says...
It's a beautiful day.
I was able to make a huge dent in my reading for class - Richard Bausch is an awesome short story writer.
As the day gets cooler and later, we pull into the Oriental Harbor Marina, our new home for a few months. It takes Durham a long time to tie us up because there aren't any cleats and we have to tie up to the pilings.
As the sun sets on our new boat home, we head off to meet our friends for dinner.