Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Help Me, Fellow Writers!

Fair warning: This is not a post with pretty pictures!

For the past two Wednesdays, and several days before that, I've been working on submitting some of my stories. I had no idea how complicated it would be when I made this sweet little notebook:

Inside, I put together a neat chart that showed Date, Title of Story, Publication. I was ready to get my work published.

First I took this wonderful 4 1/2 page list of publications that my writing teacher, Angela Davis-Gardner, gave me. She was kind enough to narrow the list down to some of the more promising of them.

Then I went on the internet, visited each publication's website and printed out their submission guidelines. Easy breezin', right? WRONG! It has taken me another two days to go through a small number of them, highlighting what they require. Some allow online submissions; some don't. Some want cover letters, your name, address and serial number (!) on every page, the editor's name in the address. Some don't want any of that. Reading periods vary drastically. Out of the twenty or so I got through, I didn't find two publications with the same guidelines. So I put sticky notes on them with the key requirements like specific reading periods, online or snail mail, and if they particularly like flash fiction. I write a lot of flash fiction.

On some of them, I noted on another sticky note if I had a story that I thought would especially fit the magazine. And every time I did that, all I could think of was the manuscript sitting in my writing room, looking like this:

Yep, needing revision before I could send it out anywhere.

Finally, the revisions were calling me loudly, saying, "I can't go out looking like this!" So I went and printed out a few of them and started in with the blue pen.

And now the day is done and my brain is mush.

If any of my writer friends are reading this, please give me hope and/or advice. I'm feeling like the mother of an unruly teenage daughter with a list of demands. I need to know that this is temporary, and that at the end of it, just as with my daughters, I'll have something that is smart, beautiful, and income-producing.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Writing Workshop!

The week my dad went back to the hospital for the last time, I was enrolled in a week-long writing workshop with our 2010 Writer Laureate, Zelda Lockhart. One day with her was enough to show me that she was an inspiring and innovative teacher.

I had to leave after Monday to go to Greensboro and never made it back to the workshop. I decided that I was going to find a way to work with Zelda again, and organized a weekend with her at my house. I put the word out and we ended up with eleven women.

Zelda asked us to bring a favorite book of poetry, a book of unposed photographs, and music. The first night we drew a museum of objects that represented various areas of our lives: obstacles, fears, inspirations, mentors, etc. We did a ten-minute free write, packed our stuff and ended for the night.

Saturday morning we started right in, reading our work from the previous night. One of Zelda's strengths is that she takes notes while we read and points out what she calls "opportunites" - places where we can expand our work.

Using randomly chosen words from our poetry books, photographs, and objects from our museum we wrote two more free-writes. I have some great raw material. I need constant inspiration for my writing to stay fresh. These workshops are crucial for that. Teachers like Zelda are vital to the process too.

I realized this weekend that my father's death has freed something in me. I was self-conscious of both my subject matter and ability. I worried that he would be offended by some of my stories, many of which have characters crafted around real people. Many of the characters are based on him.

Meeting with a magnificant facilitator like Zelda and an inspiring, talented group of women like those at my house is an awesome experience. I'm filled with gratitude for our two days together.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Meditating on Opposites

My "Can I Do It" challenge this year was to commit to an exercise program. Using The Kaizen Way, I asked myself what I could do that I wouldn't resist.

I signed up for two yoga classes, one beginning and one more advanced, and a meditation class. This was a lot of commitment, but I have stuck with it. The beginning class starts my week off with gentle exercise, and the advanced class pushes me.

The meditation class, though, has been the one I love the most. We have learned many forms of meditation - guided, counting, breathing, walking, chanting. Most of them I was familiar with, but last night we tried something new for me.

We were to start out with a word that might have negative connotations for us and then think of its opposite. Breathe a few times on each of them. Sit with them. Then move on. Naturally, with all that has gone on with me lately, the first word that came to my mind was "death". So I then thought, "Life". Next because of my dad, my cancer, and my friend's cancer, I thought, "Sickness," and of course, "health" came to mind.

But the last one didn't go exactly as one would have thought. The word "sorrow" popped into my head. And as I breathed into the word, "gratitude" arose big and important. And for the rest of the meditation time, I breathed into the fullness of how gratitude could be the opposite of sorrow.

In practicing that form of meditation, I experienced a situation where my rational mind wasn't in control anymore. I felt peaceful at the end of the meditation, and again gave thanks for where I am with all that has happened in the last few months.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Where Do We Go From Here?

I was thirty-one years old when my mother died at fifty-five. It was the occasion of my first real faith crisis: where was she now?

Heaven was my hope, and I weighed what I considered her goodness and her shortcomings, wondering if God would find her wanting. I wanted to believe that I would see her again, that she was sitting next to the heavenly throne surrounded by those loved ones who had gone before her. But I'll be honest: my religion wasn't all that reassuring that this was the case.

My thoughts around this are different as a fifty-nine year old. My faith has matured and been fed by myriad sources. I don't feel I'm dealing with just a heaven or hell option. The God of my understanding is Love personified and perfected. He is not judgmental - after all isn't this what was asked of us - and his adoration of me is unconditional. He knows that my essence, my heart, is good and that the rest of me is trying to catch up.

What I know is this: There is something that is uniquely me. I call it my spirit, but there are other names for it. And I know that the spirit that is me, the spirit that was my mother and father, the spirit that is my dying friend, will not die. That it will live on in some form or fashion. It may be only as a memory, it may be in another life form, or it may be in heaven. I don't have the "final answer". Nor do I have to anymore.

I get comfort from this belief. I don't worry about how life adds up, whether the good outweighs the bad. This is good for my grieving, good for my living, and it'll be good for my dying.

Thanks be.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Going Away Party

I drove to the grocery store today, that most mundane of tasks. On the way I passed a teenage boy yawningly walking his dog, a few runners, children playing in the park. I passed a church where people stood in the door hugging and greeting each other, anticipating their spirits being lifted. The lines at the store were so long, people buying chips and beer and wings in preparation for the Super Bowl. I bought convenience foods and fruit and milk. Eggs and bread. Ho hum.

Meanwhile my friend is dying.

We went to see her today. At her house, she was holding court. She is always the person living life to the fullest. When my husband's band plays, it's not a party until she runs into the room and on the dance floor where she and her husband dance with proverbial wild abandon until the last song plays. She rides horses, reads book after book, sails and sits on the porch of her beach house. On New Year's Eve we are among a tableful of guests that she treats to a catered dinner. At midnight we all kiss each other on the lips and laugh and dance.

I shared with her daughter that my mom died when I was young too, and she said, "Yeah, we've been robbed." I remember her son, one of my favorite children in Mother's Morning Out. My friend would drop him off with a huge hug and kiss and let him know she'd be back soon. He would sit quietly for a few minutes, not crying, but tears falling down his cheeks. God he loves his mama.

Over the course of her illness, I've sent her many cards, called and emailed. I didn't realize how she'd come to expect this reaching out until she told me the other day that she was upset when she didn't hear from me "on Monday". Turns out I'd inadvertently gotten in touch most Mondays. And luckily for both of us, the mail had come late Monday, and one of my cards was in the mail. It mattered, she said in her email to me that night.

I've cried as much in the past eight months as I've cried as an adult. My heart is breaking that I'm losing this dearest of friends. I don't think the party can go on without her.

Friday, February 4, 2011

A Smile

There's something I can't get off my mind about the moments before my dad died. We were all standing around his bed, listening to the steady in and out of his breath. The pace of the breathing had not changed for days; it was the same as when he was on the respirator, in and out, labored. It was the only constant in the room as we moved in and out ourselves, going to get coffee or make a phone call, grabbing some fresh air or a cigarette. Our emotions were ragged and over-worked.

The doctor had said that all of his brain function was dead, only those things controlled by the brain stem kept going. This is what I found on the internet about brain stem function:

Activity in the brain stem is important for:
- bodily activities essential to survival, such as changes in heartbeat and breathing,
- initiation of a set of reflexes;
- the focusing of attention;
- patterns of arousal (that is sleeping versus waking).
If the brain stem is damaged, a person may lapse into a coma or even die because of its control of functions essential to survival.

Finally, as loud as any noise, the breathing stopped. We all stood there thinking, Is this it? And then he breathed a few more of those rhythmic breaths. In and out. In and out. And I'm not sure when in the time that he breathed some more and the time that his breathing stopped forever that this happened, but I looked at him and the smallest smile was on his face. The same smile that is in this picture.

I've only asked one sister if she saw this smile. It was much later, days or weeks or maybe even months after his death, but she says she didn't see it. There were other things, distressing things that happened right away to his body, and she remembers those things clearly.

It's corny, I know, but I like to think that in the seconds before his death, he sensed or saw something that made him happy. It comforts me that he was looking forward as we were saying goodbye.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Letter Writing

I'm trying to be more consistent about posting, and meant to write this yesterday. I'm having a writing workshop at my house next weekend, though, and a houseguest as a bonus, and was busy getting things ready. The time slipped away, and soon it was time for meditation and yoga classes, both of which wear me out!

I keep a notebook of cards and letters that I send. On Tuesday, I counted how many I'd sent in 2010 and it came to over 200. This doesn't include thank you notes I sent for the many kindnesses done to me and my family after my father's death.

I love to send correspondence by US Mail. There's an anticipation between the time I drop the letter in the box (I'm very picky about which mailbox; there's one in particular where things seem to be delivered in a more timely fashion) and the time the recipient finds it in their mailbox.

There are three kinds of cards I usually send. The first are store-bought. They range from funny to solemn. I love going into gift stores - Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, and Accipiter, a local store - and picking out funky packs of cards. I love letter-press cards. Here's one from a pack of R Crumb's art that I bought recently:

I also make cards. I use Japanese paper, magazines, punches, books of sayings, and stamps to create cards that are either particular to a situation (like a birthday) or can be used in a more general way. This card was made using one of a pack of leather frames I found in Tuesday Morning and a magazine picture:

And of course, I have my photographs. I put them in Strathmore Photo Frames. I might choose a sunflower if I want to send get well greetings, or a peaceful coastal scene for a sympathy note. This particular photograph is a favorite of my friend Nancy Olson of Quail Ridge Books. Nancy is kind enough to carry my cards also.

I send cards for birthdays, sympathy, encouragement, special occasions like graduations and anniversaries, thank you notes. I use a nice card to send donations. There are some people I write every couple of weeks to let them know I'm thinking about them.

All of this is not to pat myself on the back. Writing these notes makes me feel good. And in going through my father's stuff, I know that the letters are one of the most valuable things we've found. They tell stories of young love between our parents, relate encouraging words to us as teenagers and young adults, demonstrate remembrances of birthdays and holidays. My children's notes and letters to me are plastered on bulletin boards and stuffed in cabinets and plastic containers. My middle daughter makes art cards and these are on my refrigerator and in drawers for safekeeping.

Email has almost replaced snail mail. I'm personally trying to keep the art of letter-writing alive. It seems important, vital, crucial even, to keeping our history something tangible to be passed from generation to generation.