Monday, December 31, 2012

Can WE Do It?

Final thoughts as the year ends:

Last night I went to see The Hobbit.  It was not The Hobbit of my teenage imagination. It was violent and gory and to the young children in the next row, I imagined, the stuff of nightmares.

"How did you like the movie?" my husband asked as we exited the theater.

"I couldn't stop thinking about those small kids behind us," I said.  It was totally distracting.  Every fang, every scream, everything flying from the screen in 3D seemed too much for them. And if it wasn't too much for them, if they weren't sensitive to the horror, that was even more distressing.

I talked for a few minutes about the way the motion picture association and movie makers manipulate movies and ratings to gain the most profit from them.  How parents don't preview movies, ignorantly send their children to see things they shouldn't see. I would have probably sent mine to The Hobbit with a babysitter or gone with them from reading it years ago.

I don't do war movies, but I love war novels.  When I read, I am limited by my imagination whether innately or deliberately.  In movies it isn't like that.

I came back to those children in Newtown and the boy that killed them.  What can I do? I keep asking myself, feeling small and helpless in the face of the media and their lust for money, the gun people with their powerful lobbies and big money, the decreasing funding for mental healthcare.  What can I do? I asked my husband.

"You have a blog," he said.

Yes, I do have a blog.  I've posted every week in 2012 and fifteen hundred people have read my posts.  Not a huge amount - I know bloggers who have that many visitors in a day - but that's fifteen hundred people I think are thoughtful and concerned.

I go back to the title of this blog: Can I Do It?

In 2013, I'm going to ask CAN WE DO IT?  I'm going to do research about the big issues that surround tragedies like Newtown and find ways to make small changes that will have a big impact. I'm going to put together town meetings at my local bookstore. I may ask people to guest write; my daughter who was a schoolteacher has strong opinions.  I'll post at least twice a month about what I've learned.

In the theater, I found myself thinking, "In my day...." and it made me feel old.  But the truth is, in my day, nobody came into the schools and shot classrooms of young children.  The worst you faced in the theater was people spitting on you from the balcony.  There weren't any malls, but I could ride the bus downtown and spend the day window shopping with my friend and come home with nothing worse than clothing lust. I want some of that back.

I hope you'll be an active participant in this undertaking. There's real power in the WE of CAN WE DO IT?

A sense of safety for everyone.  Prosperous in the ways that count. Working to change what's not working. Lucky in '13.  My wishes for us in the coming year.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas 2012

I've spent a lot of time with friends and family over the past few days and hope all of you have done the same.  I continue to think of the families of Newtown and others who have lost loved ones during the past year.

I plan one more post before the end of the 2012.  Talk to you then.

Love and peace.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Next week I want to get back to my last post about the doctor and the soldier, but not tonight.

I've thought all day about what to write here.  It seemed ridiculous that I would post about anything except what happened in Newtown last Friday.  And yet I couldn't think of a single pithy thing to say.  I've looked in the faces of those children and adults who were murdered that day, I've cried like all the rest of us. I've felt helpless, blamed guns and video games and lack of funding for mental health just like everyone else.

I decided to turn to you. I wonder if you would comment here about how you feel changed by what happened and if you feel called to take any action on a personal, local, or national level.

I'll go first: I'm going to see if our local bookstore will help me put together a town meeting to discuss how we can work on the local level to make some changes.  I'm going to educate myself about the issues.  I'm going to keep looking at the faces of the brave people who died trying to prevent deaths and the children who could not be saved.

And now you....RSVP.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

From the WTF Department

I was in the car when I first heard of the rescue of Dr. Dilip Joseph and the death of Petty Officer 1st Class Nicolas Checque. My immediate reaction was, "We lost one to gain one. WTF good was that?"

The facts are that Dr. Joseph has worked for Morning Star Development for three years. During that three years he has made numerous trips to Afghanistan. He is not a volunteer; this is his job. He was captured with two others who were subsequently released. He is sixty-seven years old..

The facts are that Petty Officer Checque, 28, was a highly decorated Navy Seal who enlisted right out of high school. He had served for ten years, some of them in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was the third Seal to lose his life in the past few weeks, all of them under thirty years old.

Dr. Joseph was a man of intelligence, I assume. He chose to go into a situation fraught with peril. Over and over he made the decision to go into Afghanistan. 

Petty Officer Checque chose his job too. But I believe that we sacrificed this young man for something that was not his job. We had no right to risk the lives of him and his company of elite forces to bring a man out who was voluntarily putting himself in harm's way.

I appreciate the fact that Dr. Joseph, and others like him, do our dirty work. These international workers are to be commended. But I believe that they--and their organizations--must assume the responsibility for the safety and risk of their employees.

Of Checque's death, President Obama said, "He gave his life for his fellow Americans, and he and his teammates remind us once more of the selfless service that allows our nation to stay strong, safe, and free."


He gave his life for one American, and I am no safer, stronger, or freer because we sent this young man to meet his end to rescue Dr. Joseph.  

It is a perfect example of the way we have justified for the past several years--since the Vietnam War--the sacrificial deaths of our young servicemen and women under the auspices of making the world safer, stronger, and freer.

Rest in peace, Nicolas Checque. You went above and beyond the call of duty in every way.  

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Good Gifts

Here is my list of gift suggestions for 2012.

1.  Book store gift certificates or books (suggestions here)

2.  Handmade and local things

3,  A card with a note saying that a donation has been made in one's honor or in memory of a loved one lost during the year, for instance to Stop Hunger Now

4.  Calling cards, return address labels, or just about anything from Felix Doolittle

5.  Materials to make personalized cards.  One of my favorite places to shop for those is Paper Source or French Paper

6.  A subscription to Lumosity to keep your brain from freezing

7.  A load of firewood (this is what my sister-in-law gives us and we love it).

Feel free to add your suggestions (or requests!) in the comment section.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

I leaped first

Some of you might remember back in August when I posted about this little project I dreamed up.  I've been working steadily on it, organizing a workshop with author and UNC-CH professor Randall Kenan, getting writers to write, scanning old photographs, and doing all the million little things that need to be done for the January 4, 2013 exhibit.

One of my more ambitious undertakings has been to put together a catalog of the photographs and stories to sell at the reception.  I know there's no way people will have time to read twenty-two stories during the three-hour event. Add to that the fact that each of these amazing pieces is a tight package of literary art, meant to be read and re-read.

I'm not trying to make any money on the catalogs, just give people an opportunity to experience the fullness of the writing, re-coup some of the materials expenses, and maybe have a little left over to donate to a charity like Books for Kids out of Raleigh.

But remember when I've said I was put on earth this go-round to learn patience?

"Measure twice; cut once."
"Look before you leap."
"How many times are you going to...?"
"Haste makes waste."
"Patience is a virtue. Patience is a virtue. Patience is a virtue...."

Yep, all of the above statements have been running through my mind the past eighteen hours.  In my haste to save a few dollars in printing so I could keep the cost down, I sent the file off to be printed before it was really finished (to take advantage of Cyber Monday which was extended to Tuesday).  And now I'm stuck with fifty copies of the catalog, complete with errors.  I didn't save a dime.  I would have been better off waiting and ordering at the full price.

All of this has been a learning experience for me.  I've learned about the need for deadlines and expecting people to meet them.  I've learned a little more about self-publishing (including cancellation policies). I've learned that a one-page story from a found photograph can be the most powerful story I've read in a week.  I've learned about mounting the stories and photos for the gallery in a way that is aesthetically pleasing.  And I've used a lot of knowledge that I've acquired in other workshops, cooperative projects, and gallery events.

And guess what? I've had another lesson in patience.  One day, I'm absolutely sure, it's going to stick for good. If I can just wait....

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Holidays Loom Large

I'm thankful, you're thankful, we're all thankful.  This week we especially think about giving thanks for our loved ones, our groaning tables, our ease of life compared to everybody else in the world.  Yep, we sure know how to be thankful at Thanksgiving, don't we?

So after you've been thankful for a while, give some real thought to people you know who have lost someone they loved this year.  The holidays, birthdays, the Hallmark moments are really tough.

Do those friends a favor: Send an email, or better yet, sit for a moment and really think about what it means to be them right now.  Then write them a note.  Say, "I'm thinking about you," and mean it. Call them up and tell them you're available if they'd like to talk about their loved one and holidays past.  Give them a tidbit of memory about their loved one from your stash.  Make them laugh. Do it again next year because even if most people have moved on, they are still hurting.

They'll be thankful.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Tang of Emotions

Yesterday I was driving to work and looking at the incredible beauty of the trees.  For a while I thought fall was going to bomb out - the leaves were dull and lying brown on the ground.  But suddenly it was as though every tree I saw was brilliant red, coral, orange, and yellow.  I kept slowing down to look; I wanted to enjoy each and every one. I felt high on the amazingness of it all.

A few blocks from work, I saw an older man by the side of the road.  He was holding a gas can; his car had obviously run out of gas. I felt teary, thinking about older people and their vulnerability, how so many of them are living hand to mouth, how some are sick with no one to take care of them or help them maneuver the intricacies of doctors and insurance and Medicare.

I went from happy to sad.  Just like that.

Toward the end of his life, my father cried quite a bit.  He would be talking on the phone about something in the news, maybe a child being hurt, and the phone would go silent.  I would hear a sharp intake of breath and then he would start talking hesitantly about what had happened.  Many things could reduce him to tears.

I've been thinking a lot about that this week. When we lose someone we love, two things happen.  One, the sadness around the loss is added to the sadness of all other losses we've suffered.  It's exponential.  Secondly, every loss we suffer makes us more empathetic to the losses of others, so we feel theirs more keenly.

At eighty-eight years old, my father had lost his mother and father, his wife, two sisters, and all but about three or four of his good friends.  Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins.  The amount of sadness he had felt in his life is hard to imagine.  It must have weighed a ton.

My father knew how to laugh too.  He laughed heartily at a good joke or grandchild's antic.  He loved a clever cartoon.  His laugh was loud and tears ran down his cheeks sometimes when he couldn't stop the hilarity from roiling up.

What I decided after all this thinking is that as we get older, some things do become duller.  Maybe our eyes get cloudy, we say "Huh?" more because we don't hear as well, our knees and shoulders creak when we move.  But what gets sharper is our ability to feel deep emotion, to empathize from a place of our own cumulative sadness and happiness.

Someone behind me on the road to work may have thought, "I wish that old woman would just go on."  But the glory of those trees and the poignancy of that elderly man by the side of the road stopped me yesterday and I needed to feel the tang of emotions that welled up.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What It's All About. Yeah.

You're not going to believe this, but that election we just finished?  That ain't what it's all about, folks.  In fact it wasn't even a little bit important to some people in this world.

While the rest of us have been posting vitriol on Facebook and wishing a pox on our enemies, bemoaning the overkill of campaign ads and doorknockers, some people have been suffering.  Suffering loss of home and life, loss of dignity and the means to support themselves, sitting at the bedsides of loved ones and saying the ultimate goodbye.  Asking what the heck happened and what did they do to deserve it. And maybe worst of all, there are people who have despaired of finding hope and the strength to face it all.  I know a few of them myself, and the past few months have been pure hell for those people.  Real hell, not just campaign hell.

To them, I send my love and support and share this beautiful song by Whitney Houston. Listen if you can take the time; read the lyrics too.  Then go let somebody know you've been thinking about them. Write a note, email, or make a phone call.  Go visit your parent in the nursing home.  Take a meal to a friend who hasn't been feeling well.  Look the person talking to you in the eye and listen. Hug your husband or your kids or your cat. Write a check to a charity or take some food to the Food Bank. Send your compassion out in as many ways as you can think of.  Because maudlin as it may seem, that's what it's all about.

The people to whom these lyrics speak need you. Badly.

As I lay me down
Heaven hear me now
I'm lost without a cause
After giving it my all
Winter storms have come
And darkened my sun
After all that I've been through
Who on earth can I turn to?
I look to you  I look to you  After all my strength is gone  In you I can be strong
I look to you  I look to you  And when melodies are gone  In you I hear a song, I look to you

About to lose my breath
There's no more fighting left
Sinking to rise no more
Searching for that open door
And every road that I've taken
Led to my regret
And I don't know if I'm gonna make it
Nothing to do but lift my head
I look to you  I look to you  And when all my strength is gone  In you I can be strong
I look to you  I look to you  And when melodies are gone  In you I hear a song, I look to you
My levees have broken, my walls have come
Crumbling down on me
The rain is falling, defeat is calling
I need you to set me free
Take me far away from the battle
I need you, shine on me
I look to you  I look to you  After all my strength has gone  In you I can be strong
I look to you  I look to you  And when melodies are gone  In you I hear a song, I look to you
I look to you  I look to you

(Song by Whitney Houston)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

No Regrets

Some of my newer readers may not have read posts about our boat.  Times are tough, and it seems extravagant to have it, but we bought it when times were good.  It has been a gem of a boat.

One of the wonderful things about owning a boat is that it's always waterfront.  For the price of a slip, you can live anywhere in the world.  We've kept ours in North Carolina.  A couple of weekends ago we decided to move it from Southport to a new marina.

It takes much longer to float than drive so the first night we stayed at the original marina where we kept the boat.  A lot has changed at Wrightsville Marina since we bought the boat in 2001. Many of our boating friends have sold their boats, and most of the beautiful Carolina fishing boats don't go out much any more.  Normally this time of year the transient dock would be full of large yachts being moved south for the winter, but that weekend there were only a couple of boats from Holden Beach.

My husband took the boat and I took the car. I had time to visit with my aunt and uncle who live on Wrightsville Beach.  They have been boaters all their lives, living for a period of time on one, and it is the two of them who inspired us to try the boating life.  As we ate breakfast, I told them that I felt bad that we had been extravagant during the boom years instead of saving money for these lean times.  I expected my uncle to agree and was prepared to be contrite, but he surprised me by saying, "Aren't you glad you did it?"  I've thought about his question since that morning, and I have to say that I am glad we did it. That boat has given me a place to go where I can completely disconnect from my worries and obligations, and has taken me places I would never have seen had we not had it.

We are once again docked in Oriental NC, a place that I love.  I've said before that it has the feel of the 50's at the beach and there is so much water to explore in the area.

In an earlier post, right after 9/11, I told of going to the boat for a few days to get away from the television.  I was in shock - we all were - and one afternoon we went on a cruise down the waterway at Wrightsville Beach. I said, "God, give me a sign that it's all going to be all right," and when I looked up, there was a cross way over on the land. It was a tiny bit of hope in the great waters of the tragedy.

Soon, it may be time to sell the boat.  I'm going to enjoy every minute that I can on it, filled with gratitude that I have been able to use it all these years. That it has brought me comfort, that it has taken me to places so devoid of people that they felt primordial.That I have met people I might never have met, that I was able to share the adventure with friends and family. That I've danced with my husband on the back of the boat. That it has seen me through one crisis and another and another. That I've been rocked to sleep by rain and waves and that the sun has shone down on the Coatimundi and me.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Very Long Time

This past Saturday marked forty years since I went out on a blind date with my husband.  Like this year, it was a Saturday night.  I had had a blind date the night before, and when my sister and her friend called to ask if I would go out with him, at first I said no.  They pushed, told me I'd really like him, and I gave in.

He called me at the dorm, and after saying hello said something that I now know is very uncharacteristic for him:  "Let's boogie!"  Ooooo-kay, I thought.  He was a half-hour late.  But he was the cutest thing in the lobby that night so I put my anger aside.

We had a few dates over the fall semester but I was dating someone else too.  My husband's hometown was twenty minutes away from mine while the other guy's was four hours away.  That short distance proved to be an advantage for my husband over the Christmas holiday and when I got back, I broke up with the other guy.

He gave me Fleetwood Mac's "Bare Trees" album for Christmas.

We dated and then lived together for the next seven years.  When he took a job in my hometown, I said that we would need to get married to stay together.  So that's what we did.  And now it's forty years and three beautiful daughters later.  BAM!

We are almost complete opposites, but it all comes together in a very complementary way.  When I panic, he's cool as a cucumber.  When he looks on the dark side, I shine a light.  He's suave in a crowd while I'm self-conscious.  He's quick to see someone as shy and leave them alone while I see a shy person as a book to be opened.  With our daughters, he helped me loosen the reins when I wanted to pull in.  I like to get all the news from them while he just lets them know he's thinking about them and loves them.  He sings and plays instruments, I'm a great groupie.

In some ways we're more alike than we used to be.  He used to be the daring one, but once I realized that there are more ways than one to have courage, I realized that I am daring too.  I majored in history and political science and now he's a nut about how the past and politics form the present.  We both love being on the water and riding bikes.  We work together.  We love to travel, even just for the day.

I'll say this now:  It hasn't been easy.  There have been times when one or the other drove or walked away "for good" or said words that the other thought they would never forget.  There have been lean times and family crises and grief and all the things that people experience in this life.

For exactly two-thirds of my life, we have stayed together.  And though I'm not sure exactly what he meant when he said, "Let's boogie" that night, I do know that the past forty years have been a dance.  Thank you, Amanda and Vicki, for insisting I go on that blind date. You were right on the money:  I like him alot.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Today I remember a friend who should have turned 60 today.  We lost a lot. 

He left a lot too.  An incredible legacy of music and art and an example of how to face adversity.

You can honor him and carry a little piece of the beauty he left by ordering this amazing recording of his original music.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

My Best Ones (Books that is!)

It's getting to be that time.  You know, that time when we start thinking about Christmas, when the ornaments and tree lights sit right next to the costumes and fall leaf wreaths in the stores.

I'm all about giving books for presents.  And I'm all about trying to foist my choices for best books of the year on others!  So here are my recommendations for the best book presents of the year:

1. 2012 Pen/O'Henry Prize Stories:  I read this collection every year and I have to say that this is one of the finest of them all.  One of the stories, "The Hare's Mask," by Mark Slouka, will haunt me for years.

2.  Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed:  More than a collection of advice columns, Strayed's book is essays on life.  Every person on your list will see themselves in these columns.

3.  The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson:  Adam Johnson went to North Korea to research this novel about an anti-hero named Pak Jun Do.  This is a look into this country that will chill you, but Johnson also brings humor to the story.

4.  The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker:  In this dystopian novel, the earth begins spinning more slowly on its axis.  Days and nights lengthen and life changes in ways that no one could imagine.  

5.  The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka:  A fictionalized account of the journey of "picture brides" - women who were brought from Japan to San Francisco early in the last century.

6.  Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Meghan Mayhew Bergman:  Humans and nature are woven together to create these beautiful short stories. Bergman is a writer to watch.

7.  The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Roarke:  As compassionate a book on terminal illness and death and grief as you'll find these days.  I've given this book to more people than I can count, and they all are grateful.

8.  Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon:  One of my favorite writers, (his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is still high on my list too) Chabon has done it again!  Using a used record store called Brokeland Records and a quirky cast of characters, Chabon brings us into the world of Archy and Nat and their midwife wives.

9.  Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes:  Based on a true story, this novel reads like non-fiction.  One veteran of the war told me it was the most chilling and realistic novel he had read about Vietnam.

10.  And my #1 best book read this year is...TA DA...In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin. Helprin wrote another of my all-time favorite books and war novels, A Soldier of the Great War.  This new one is set in New York City after World War II.  I fell in love with every one of the characters and the setting of old New York was a fabulous backdrop for the story.

So, shop on and shop local, my reading friends, and if you decide to buy a book or two for yourself, just say yes when the salesperson asks if you want it gift-wrapped.  You can always use the paper for something else.

PS Mark Helprin, Karl Marlantes, Michael Chabon, Meghan Mayhew Bergman, Adam Johnson, Cheryl Strayed and some of the Pen/O'Henry editors have all read at my most wonderful local bookstore, Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh.  I am so fortunate to have them in my city!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Show and Tell

Anyone who has ever written a story has heard the admonishment, "Show; don't tell."  Don't say the person ran to the mailbox, show how she ran, what expression she had on her face; have her think about what she expects to find there.

The other day, another way of looking at "Show; don't tell" occurred to me.

I was sitting in a restaurant with a friend who had recently suffered a loss.  I asked her how she was doing and she told me.  I listened, but in the back of my mind and then out loud I shared an experience similar to hers.  My intention was to let her know that I knew how she felt.

After we went our separate ways, I realized that she probably didn't want to hear me talk about my loss.  She wanted to talk about hers.  And there were ways to show her that I empathized without butting in on her story.

One way is through body language.  I could look her in the eye, nod my head, touch her in a comforting way if I thought she would be comfortable with that.  I could ask questions from my deep knowledge of the type of sorrow she was experiencing that would show her that it was safe to talk because she was with someone who had been there.  Questions like, "That was hard, wasn't it?" and "It's different when you lose a parent/sibling/spouse when you're old/young, isn't it?"

I could find out what she needs from me and other friends, drawing on what I needed.  "Can we bring food, go out to dinner or a movie?" It wouldn't be too much "telling" if I said, "I loved getting cards/calls; do you find that comforting?"

The bottom line is this: who can really understand another's sorrow or illness?  If you were to ask the five children in my family to talk about my father's death and what it meant to them, you would get five different stories. You might even wonder if we're all talking about the same person!

Mostly I think that when people are having troubles--and they seem to be more common as I get older--they just want someone to listen. They want to talk about their loved ones months, years even, after they're gone. They want to enjoy the care and attention they felt during an illness when they're feeling better.  They want to think that what they feel is important.

I'll end with a wonderful quote on listening that I have on my refrigerator:

"Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.  The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward.  When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand."
                                                              -- Dr. Karl Augustus Menninger

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Anticipation, Part II

Two weeks ago I wrote this post that included a bit about the high of anticipation.  But there are other facets of anticipation.

We've all done a fair amount of waiting in our lives. The photograph in this post is from my father's hospital room; in another hospital room on another day we waited for him to breathe his last breath.  Anticipation then was dark and sad and filled with tension, and the outcome seemed impossible. It was anticipation of something we knew was inevitable. We were powerless in the face of it.

And then there was the earlier nebulous anticipation of the time my dad would die.  Even before he fell, I would spend time thinking about what it would be like, preparing myself for the loss. It seemed that I might think that he had lived a good life, be thankful for the time we were together, grieve and move on.  The first two things happened.  I was grateful for his life and our time together.  But I haven't really moved completely on from it.  Grief is bearable now, but not finished by any means.  So this was anticipation not based in reality.  

When I found out I had breast cancer and the doctor started talking about surgery and radiation treatment (I wasn't a candidate for chemo, which is good and bad), I freaked.  I won't even let my dentist take x-rays of my teeth unless I'm in pain; the thought of exposing my heart and lungs to killer rays scared the hell out of me.  Plus I was going to have to go every day except Saturday and Sunday for six weeks. And that doesn't even address the surgery (which ended up being two surgeries).  The anticipation was agonizing, but in the end it wasn't all that bad.  I got into a routine for the six weeks, the treatment was (seemingly) innocuous and took only minutes once I got settled on the body mold, the staff was pleasant, and the surgeries went well with a minimum of scarring. So this was anticipation in the form of fear of the unknown.  Fear makes you high, but it isn't healthy.

Sometimes when I had done something that I wasn't very proud of, like hiding my smoking from my family, anticipation was my constant companion. It was the anticipation of getting caught, of hurting my family, of being ashamed of myself.  I replay this getting caught scenario often in my dreams; did last night as a matter of fact.  This kind of anticipation is a high too, but not a good one.

When I was getting ready to quit smoking, I tried to anticipate what I would do when I couldn't go outside and blow off steam and smoke, relax and smoke, play cards and smoke.  I began slowly to substitute what I wanted my new behavior to be and in that way eased myself into better habits.  In this case, anticipation was of a preparatory nature like that around losing my father; I was able to make a significant change in my life by looking forward to a time when I didn't smoke.

Anticipation can be useful or detrimental. It can set you up for disappointment and it can cause undue worry.  It can make you high or it can make you physically ill. It can enhance an experience by prolonging the joy it will bring. Whatever role it plays, I believe it elongates time.  Waiting.

I know we're supposed to live in the moment.  A devotion to that way of living would do away with all my anticipation, but I'm just not there yet. In the meantime, I can remind myself of the times my anticipation proved to be nothing, or that anticipation was useful, and cling to my habit of anticipating good things.

What forms has anticipation taken in your life?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Randall Kenan Workshop

This weekend an amazing group of writers met with author Randall Kenan to give new life to old photographs.  You might remember reading about it a few weeks ago. 

Not only did these people speak to us, but sometimes they didn't, and that was one of the more surprising developments.  In the beginning, I insisted that people randomly choose their prompt photos; some just could not connect to the faces.  We discovered that we brought who we are individually and historically to the writing pad, sometimes in ways that could not be overcome.

In the safe environment of a workshop, it's okay to explore these things, and we did.  We laughed a lot too.  But mostly we did some writing that will astound you at the January 2013 exhibit.  More about that as the time approaches.

Look at these photos and think about what you assume is the story.  It's my opinion that if we open ourselves to the expressions and setting and arrangement of photographs, we can find a tale in every one.  In my own family, I can take a photograph of the five children and read my father's mood from our expressions; so it's possible to tell something about the photographer too.

It was a weekend of growth for those of us who participated. We grew as writers as was expected in a writing workshop. I think we learned something about empathy too both from listening to our fellow participants and looking into the eyes of those captured on paper.

Next week I'm going to go back to the idea of anticipation, inspired by something my yoga teacher said last night.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Planting Seeds

I am a Capricorn which is an earth sign.  I like to garden some, but I'm not a fanatic about it.  It occurred to me this morning though that I love to plant seeds and see what comes up in a different way.

This planting can take many forms.  I might have an idea, mention it to someone or a group of people, and see what kind of reaction I get.  This might be compared to testing the soil.  Is the group ripe for growing the idea?  Is the person I'm collaborating with fertile with more ideas around mine?

I could be planning an event, setting the scene, roiling up my space to sow seeds of creativity.  I change sheets and clean bedrooms for guests, get out dishes to set a table for eight, pull in a fabulous facilitator, enroll some friends or acquaintances, make a circle of chairs.

I sign up for a class and anticipate the fertilizer it will provide for my future work.

This sowing of seeds has the same sort of anticipation of growth that real planting does.  The table is set, the idea is spoken, the rough draft is written, and now I have to wait to see what comes up. In fact, I might say that my new drug is anticipation.

It's the anticipation that the mail will come with a letter, anticipation that my family will call, anticipation of a workshop or a weekend trip with my husband.  Anticipation of my story being accepted (or even rejected).  Anticipation of nighttime when I grab a book that I've wanted to read all day.  Anticipation of reading my writing to my writing group and hearing their feedback.  Anticipation as the printer reveals one of my photographs on paper, anticipation of a friend receiving a card that I've mailed.

This is not frittering away the present for the future.  It is using the present to make the best of what is to come.  My stomach is kind of churning right now from writing this post.  I know it's because I'm nervously anticipating green shoots from my "garden."

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Louisville, Part II

This photograph of my mother and me was taken in 1982.  I was thirty years old and she was fifty-five.  I was pregnant with my second child.  A few months later, she died one morning of a heart attack.

It has taken the death of my father for the fact that I didn't really know my mom to slap me in the face.

My youngest sister and I took the trip to Louisville to see what we could find out about her.  I can't say it better than I said it to her friend, Lucy, in my thank you note to her:

August 28, 2012

Dearest Lucy,

When I talked to Nan [another sister] the Wednesday before we left for Louisville, she said, “Ask Lucy what Mom was like.”  I laughed—it seemed so vague—but that was really what we all wanted to know.  What was our mother like?

You told us this weekend.  She was kind and fun and everyone loved her.  She and my dad had their problems, but she never wanted to hurt him.  She looked after you when you moved to Carolina Beach and needed a friend. And you returned the favor when she needed a friend:  you checked on her often and finally paved the way for her to go to Fellowship Hall.  She suffered when her sister and mother died. She thought my dad was a good catch. She was vibrant and had a great personality.  She was there when people needed her.

I feel as though I am mourning her loss a second time.  I didn’t understand her at all, and wasn’t always very kind to her.  Kids act like that, I know, but it must have been very painful for her.  I wish I had known her as you knew her, had had more time with her, had seen her as I see you with your grandchildren, spending time at the holidays and in the summers. 

I wish I could tell her I’m sorry, that now I understand.  I understand not just because I’m a mother too, a wife with an imperfect marriage, a person who has suffered loss and knows that grief lasts a long time.  I wish I could say I understand the kind of pain that drives a person to the bottom of a liquor bottle, and the same pain that you can’t avoid once you give up the booze.  I would love to say I’m sorry I ganged up on her with my siblings and with my dad and regret that we teased her, that I could tell her that I loved her laugh and her ready smile.  I wish I could say “thank you” like I mean it.

I know that had she lived to be eighty-something, she would have been an elegant woman, just like you are, that she would still welcome Melissa [Lucy's daughter] to her home as you welcomed us into yours, that she would have lived every day of her life just as you do.  She would have been a doting grandmother.

Thank you for your graciousness, your honesty, your friendship with my mom through all those years, for sharing your knowledge of Louisville with us. I know we will see each other again before thirty years have passed!  I’m so glad we made the trip.  Thank you, thank you, thank you!


We asked Lucy some hard questions and she honestly answered them. It was nice to look at the answers with adult eyes; we felt totally non-judgmental.  We learned a lot about her relationship with my dad--not from his perspective, which was rose-colored to say the least--but from someone in whom my mom confided her deepest secrets.

I know my mother better today than I did the day she died.  And as I said, along with understanding comes regret. But it also comes with a whole lot of gratitude. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Louisville, Part I

This past weekend, my sister and I went to Louisville KY to see one of my mother's childhood friends, Lucy, and her daughter, Melissa.  I had no idea that Louisville was such a wonderful place to visit:  Churchill Downs, Cave Hill Cemetery, sheikhs' palaces and horse country, some of the best food I've eaten in a long time (something about more restaurants per capita than...).  Louisville is an architectural heaven; almost every street has interesting buildings and houses.  Even the shotgun houses were worth cruising by.

We met Larry, Melissa's husband.  Larry was a wonderful host too and took us on a couple of driving tours of the city.  He works with the governor of Kentucky, and I can say that they are lucky to have such a friendly and gracious guy working for them.  Among other things, Larry is a Vietnam vet. I was interested to hear about his experience there and to talk about books we've read like Matterhorn and The Things They Carried and how truthfully they depict the war.

 At Churchill Downs, we saw the amazing hat exhibit, watched one of the family's horses come from behind to win the Derby in 2009 on the screen that had replays of past races.  We sat in a surround sound theater and I cried when the horses pounded around our heads for the two minute race.  I asked Melissa if the races are that intense in person and she said, "More than that."  Wow!

We stayed at the historic Brown Hotel.  Somehow we got put on the club floor and in the mornings there was breakfast and coffee and in the afternoons wonderful appetizers two doors down from our room.  Not that we wasted any time hanging around in the Club Room; we had places to go and good food to eat!

The real purpose of our visit, though, didn't have anything to do with the city of Louisville.  It had to do with our mother and this friend of hers.  And that is the post for next week.  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, here's a photo of the very beautiful friend and her very beautiful daughter, the best finest people in the best finest most famous, wonderful place in the world! :)  It was a terrific trip.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Whose Bravery?

I'm struck every day by how we judge others by our personal standards.  Oh.  You've noticed too?

This past weekend, my husband and I were staying at a place where they furnish bikes.  There were two of them and both of them felt uncomfortable for me.  The seats were too high and I didn't feel like I could stop with any stability.  My husband called me a wimp for not agreeing to get on one even though I didn't want to.  The discussion moved forward in that way of discussions and soon I was being accused of not ever wanting to take chances or push my physical limits.

In the old days this type of 'discussion' would have deteriorated rapidly.  But on that day I took a minute to think about what he was saying.  He was saying that he liked to take chances and push himself physically and that if I didn't there was something wrong with me.

"Okay. I get what you're saying," I said.  "So, I tell you what.  I'm going to give you a piece of paper and in five minutes I want you to write the beginning of a story.  Then I want you to read it to a group of people, some of whom you barely know."  He looked at me like I was crazy.  "Then," I went on, "I want you to spend hours expanding it and revising it and after you feel like you have something worthwhile, I want you to send it to a dozen literary magazines and wait for them to reject it. And if you don't do this, I"ll tell you I think you're a wimp.  Or stupid."

Hmmm.  Something started to sink in maybe?

"In the past seven years, I've been brave in ways I never thought possible," I told him beginning to get emotional.  "They aren't your ways of being brave, but they were acts of courage nonetheless.  For you to hold me to your standards of bravery is patently unfair."

He got it. And I appreciate it. 

What I took away from the discussion is that he would like for me to do more things with him that are physically challenging.  He has certainly put himself in situations at my urging where he wasn't all that comfortable.  So I'm going to work on it.

Is there a place where you're holding people to your standards without respect for their strengths?  Where are some places where you might stretch yourself, be courageous where you haven't been?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dreams Are the Food the Soul Must Have to Survive

I'm trying to lighten my load a little every day in a lot of different ways.  I'm making lists of things that I need to do and marking them "DONE!"  I'm cleaning out my home work space (again - an on-going job), and making some organizational changes to my office space.

I'm working on changing my way of thinking about things too.  When I need something, I ask myself if I already have it, or is there something that I might use instead of what I have in mind.

I'm cleaning out my books, too, a little every few days.  It's hard to part with them; I know I'll read them some day, right?

Today I came across a book of pithy sayings that I accumulated in a journal in college. One of the pieces has held me like no other and today I want to share it with you.  I've tried over the years to find the original source of the piece but can't. I do know that it was written by Brad Nilles and came from a book called Dreams From the Road. I hope you enjoy it.

Dreams are the food the soul must have to survive.  We all have our dreams; some of them shared, some of them secret, and some of them unbelievable.  Part of growing up is getting ready to share the responsibility of the world.  And to accomplish this, we must have hope based on a clear idea of what the world and life have to offer.  Probably the most difficult lesson the road teaches us is that life is often less, sometimes more, but almost always different from what you thought it was before you took a first-hand look.  You see beauty and sadness and insanity that were in front of you all along, but you never got around to noticing them. And in those new realizations, new pains, and new joys, you see yourself--differently, but in a way that you must accept, because you find that you are the center of it all.  You and everything you see in the world blend together into a dream that is yourself.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Heart Song

Something's afoot in my life that is bringing me great joy!

It involves the Universe and the way it works in mysterious ways.  It has to do with this box of found photographs. I think of the person who is going to be a part of this project for a minute or so, and have one of the photographs choose that person to write the story that the picture tells.

It involves giving wrapped gifts and sending mail, the delicious anticipation that I feel as I drop the photograph in the mail and think about the recipient opening it, seeing the photograph, beginning to sense the story.

It involves the challenge of writing short fiction--three hundred words or less--making every word count.  One page.  One powerful page.

It involves black and white photography, the way we interact with the photographer's eye, read expressions, and become compassionate, empathetic observers.

It involves the beautiful 1880 Gallery at the Long View Center where the photographs and stories will come together to become exponentially effective in bringing new life to forgotten people.

It involves this room, writers sitting together with the most amazing Randall Kenan, and choosing photographs, working up stories, sharing our writing while our adrenaline hums, eating good food prepared by my friend, Mark Hardy.

The thought of this project makes me want to cry.  It makes me want to dance around the room.  I want to do it over and over, bringing life to forgotten people, writing with other writers, letting the cosmos rule my choices.

Hurray for things that make our hearts sing!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

To CMC: A Life Lived

I went to a funeral yesterday of yet another person whose life has been cut short.

It was on property that she had lived on all her life and everything she did to it expanded and beautified it.  It was a place where young people had their lives changed forever, where teenagers found love, where family returned again and again.  I heard stories from those family members about the adventures they had there when they were young; they had glowing faces as they remembered.

This land embraced her even as we were celebrating her life.  Twice a flock of geese flew by behind the podium.  A hawk circled for several minutes, its cry a cross between protest and mourning.  A dog wandered down the center aisle; her horses and those of others grazed beside the road we took to get there.  What had been a gray day turned sunny.  The most beautiful flower arrangements I've ever seen graced signs and altars and tables.

The minister had ministered her through her illness, the musician had been her friend since childhood.  Her sister and twin brother told stories and read letters and poems.  One of her dear friends took several deep breaths and smiled nervously as she paid her homage; a state politician spoke of her personal and professional greatness.

But the most astounding thing that I heard yesterday was this: "She accomplished everything she wanted to in this lifetime."  At fifty-eight years old, five months from being diagnosed with cancer, living on a piece of paradise doing what she loved, she died, and yet she felt she had accomplished everything she wanted in this lifetime.

My god.  To be able to say that at the end of my life, whenever it may be, is enough.  Let it be.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Parent Grows Up

This month all three of my daughters came for a visit.  I loved having them here one at a time.

I'm walking a fine balance with them though, between treating them like children and treating them like adults.  And that creates tension.  Over and over I heard versions of "I'm a grown-up now; you don't have to worry about that."

We talked some about this during our time together, and it made me start thinking about how things were with my own parents.  My mother died when I was thirty.  I had a baby, and she wanted to help me while I didn't think she (who had had five children!) knew a damn thing about how people took care of babies now.  We weren't friends or equals at all.  And that's how it ended:  she was my mother and I was her child.

With my father, things were different.  Over the years we developed a relationship of a more equal nature.  We talked about books and music, he gave advice when asked but never at any other time. I felt he respected me as an adult and approved of me.  He provided space where I could go for comfort.

I want to "help" my kids in the same way my mother helped me. I want to give them things, especially advice, that will keep them from making mistakes or getting hurt.  I want them to have everything they need and some things they want.  I want to suggest good books and music.  I want their boyfriends to treat them right. And of course I want that nebulous thing: for them to be happy.

Now that I've started thinking about it and talking about it, I can see that the relationship I had with my dad would be best.  I can give up the idea that I have any control over their lives, that for the most part my job now is to be there when they call or visit, to listen and not advise unless asked.  And finally, to provide for them what my dad provided for me, a place--whether physical or emotional--where they can come and recharge their batteries, be respected as an adult, and feel loved.

I've liked being needed in the old ways, but it's time to put that aside now.  There are new ways to relate to my adult children and I'm going to learn those new ways with their help.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Power of Words

You've heard this all before on this blog, but I've been typing up some essays from Nancy Peacock's writing class at Meredith.  This was written from a prompt, "I believe in the power of words...."  How would you finish that sentence?

I believe in the power of words to heal.  When I write notes to people, I often sit and meditate for a few minutes about their illness, their dying loved one, their love for each other, the day they were born.  I put my pen to the paper as soon as I’m finished with the meditation; I want my words to matter.
            I choose a card carefully. Sometimes it is one of my photo cards. A photograph of a place we’ve been together, one of the sky or water for a somber message.  A photograph of a billboard with a funny saying for someone who needs cheering up.  A shop window with funky wigs for a friend undergoing chemo for cancer. 
            I might buy a card at the book store or a craft fair—one that is a collage with a meaningful quote.  Sometimes I go to my workroom and make a card using beautiful paper or stamps my daughter has carved.
            I know the power of words to heal because of the ones that come to my own mailbox when I need them.  Words from friends who let me know that they are thinking of me, that they remember my birthday or my anniversary.  I save the good ones and the ones from my children with their love scribbled across the page of a card they chose just for me.
            Yesterday I sent a card to a friend whose sister died last year.  Her sister’s birthday is the same day as my father’s.  “I will take a few minutes on Friday to think of you and your family.  I hope you will be remembering the happy times with your sister, and that those memories will comfort you.” 
            I wonder as I write this if anyone made a note when they read his obituary that Friday would be my father’s ninetieth birthday.  Are they right now thinking of me as they sort through their card collection or bend the corners of those at the store, looking for one that says just the right words, words that will bring a smile to my face or a tear to my eye?
            Will a card come tomorrow as I remember his last birthday, how I went to the grocery store and ordered a cake—white with red roses—and had the woman write, “Happy 88th Birthday, Dad;” how my dad was in a coma from which he never woke up; how the five of us, his children, waited, watching his labored breath, tense, irritable, unbearably sad, trying to figure out if staying or leaving or whispering the right words in his ear would give him permission to die; how two days later he breathed a ragged breath and died with a tiny smile on his face?
            How comforting it would be to be remembered with words thoughtfully penned on a carefully chosen card.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Photo surprises

Last week we put up a new exhibit at the 1880 Gallery.  The theme was "Visions of Freedom" and for the first time I planned a couple of photographs.  

I am not an expert on cameras.  When instructors start talking about F-stops and shutter speed, my head starts swimming.  It all seems backwards and upside down to me.  Mostly I put my camera on the Program setting and shoot away.  The setting is forgiving in low light and I am usually very happy with my photographs.

Two of the shots for this exhibit had surprises in them.  The first, my daughter noticed.  Here's the photograph:

I got my neighbor's son to play around in his father's old (but very red and shiny) convertible.  He and his sister were the perfect subjects, fun and accommodating.  I chose this shot because he looks like he is on the road to somewhere and getting away with it.  My daughter though noticed a small detail that I had missed:  he has on what looks like a hospital bracelet!  He's not just driving; he's escaping!

The second planned shot was of my mother-in-law.  She is amazingly beautiful and very photogenic.  I handed her a book I had brought her and told her I wanted to take her picture looking at the book.  I chose this particular image because of the angle and background details:

But when I blew the photograph up to 11x14 for the exhibit, I noticed two details that I had missed.  First, the page she is looking at says, "Monet in Normandy."  Normandy, of course, being a decisive arena of World War II.  Then I noticed that the focus of the picture is on her hand, every detail of it crystal clear.

I love the way a photograph taken one way with one objective can have things that were unintended but add spice to the story it tells.  And there can be depth and art to a photograph taken without regard to the intricacies of the camera, only listening for the beep that signals the camera is ready to speak.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

god bless america

This Friday night we are changing out the 1880 Gallery at the Long View Center with a new exhibit, Visions of Freedom.  The group made a collective decision not to use this as our official poster because some felt the 'made in China' was too politically charged, but I'm posting it here because I think it says a lot of what I'm feeling about our country right now.

Don't misunderstand me.  I am grateful beyond measure that I live in the United States.  But I'm pretty darn disgusted with what promises to be a long and acrimonious political campaign.  I am disappointed in my state and my country for some poor decision-making that has taken place lately.  I want to see some politicians who are honest, dependable, and not in the pockets of big money.

I want to believe that we are a nation of people who care about all nations but that we aren't bossy or dogmatic about it, that we aren't selfish and greedy and smug in our comfort, that we take care of our own - our own for god sakes - and then take care of others in the same enveloping way.

I'm tired of everything I pick up in a store being made in China and seeing empty brick buildings in every small town I pass through.  I'm tired of sacrificing good men and women to useless wars.  I'm tired of politicians sticking their noses where they have no business being.  I'm tired of divisiveness and name-calling and finger-pointing.

We're the luckiest people in the world, in some ways, but we've forgotten our manners.  It's time to start using them again.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The First Half of the Week

This week I'm taking a creative non-fiction class with author Nancy Peacock at Meredith College.  I've learned so much, beginning with the fact that I totally misunderstood what creative non-fiction was.  I thought that it meant taking liberties with the truth to write a story.  Being creative with the facts.  Not so.  As one participant in the class said, "It's writing the truth creatively."  (I paraphrase.) I've learned that the essay, or memoir, has to have the same elements as a good story.  

Okay.  Some of you seasoned writers may be saying, "DUH!" but I'm a relative newbie to the art of writing!

I've almost always written fiction.  Many of my stories have lots of truth embedded in the story, but I guess I thought that by fictionalizing the characters, changing a few names, etc., I would be freer to explore my (or others') stories.

But today, I took the idea of a story that I wrote a few years back and used it in response to a prompt to write about something we carried.  Nancy read from one of my favorite books, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien to get us thinking.  She and I had, coincidentally, both given the book out for World Book Night!

So I wrote this story as honestly as I could.  I believe the essay that emerged has it all over the short story that preceded it, and I intend to move forward with it and put the old story in a file drawer.

For an hour after lunch, we do what Nancy calls "independent study."  Writing on demand and reading it out to people you've only known a short while is demanding and somewhat exhausting.  Add that to the fact that on Friday, my father would have turned ninety, should have turned ninety except for that day when he fell down the stairs (you can read my fictionalized version of that day here.)  So yesterday my brain was very tired and instead of writing during that hour, I took my camera around the beautiful Meredith campus.  I was walking down the sidewalk and looked over and saw the origami crane in a leaf, pictured above.  It seemed to represent the workshop and the cosmic discoveries I've been making there.

PS:  There are still a couple of spaces in the Bookbinding class.  Let me know if you're interested.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bookbinding Class

Over the years, I have collected many books by this fine artist who also happens to be my daughter.  I have journals, datebooks, photo albums, book art.  They are carefully wrapped in tissue and stored on my bookshelf.

"Use them!" she says each time she sees them.  But I can't bear to.

When my youngest sister turned a certain milestone age, all the women in my family gathered at my house for a spa weekend.  We pampered ourselves, laughed, enjoyed each others' company.  As part of the activities of the weekend, my daughter led us all in a bookbinding class and everyone took home a beautiful little masterpiece!  She was a patient and knowledgeable teacher.

On July 21, she will lead a beginning bookbinding class for six lucky people.  If you're interested, please email me.

If you want to see more of her books and get an idea of what you'll take away from the class, please visit her website Rockpile Bindery.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Grist for the Mill

This past weekend I went to New York to visit family.  We had tickets to go to the 9/11 Memorial site.  There are two pools there where the two towers stood.

When I first started writing a few years ago, I took a class at Meredith College with Angela Davis-Gardner.  My initial attempt at a story was based on a PostSecret postcard.  It read:  "All those who knew me before 9/11 believe I'm dead."  I could not stop thinking about what that person's story was, and began to write my ideas.

The story has some strong sections, but this weekend I realized that it captures none of the real terror of that day.  I had just finished reading Don Delillo's book, Falling Man, which did a beautiful job of getting inside the head of two people who escaped from the towers that day.  The image of the Falling Man, a stunt person who reinacted someone falling from the towers, especially sticks with me.  I looked at the Brooklyn Bridge and thought of all those people running horrified away from the island.  Women must have been in heels; people were covered in dust; hearts must have been racing, loved ones in their thoughts.

I know that 9/11 is the defining event of my lifetime.  I hope we never see anything as horrifying as that on our soil, and that we are more compassionate and sensitive to those who live with terror and fear every day for having witnessed the day.

The atmosphere around the reflecting pools is still electric with what happened.  I saw people crying and I know that the emotions were not just felt by those who found names engraved on the stone around the pools.

As a writer, I will draw on my emotions from my visit this weekend and go back to my story and revise.  My character, Annalyn, hasn't been sent to the depths of disappearing yet, and I'm more prepared now to take her there.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Word of the Month is...

It all started when I picked up the latest issue of  The Sun Magazine.  The Readers Write section was called "Good Advice."  It was a longer than usual section; everyone wanted to tell their experience with following or rejecting advice.

Then a family member called.  "I need to talk about something.  I don't want any advice.  I just want you to listen."

Day before yesterday I met with some people about how to raise funds for an organization.  "Ask for (and listen to) advice from people who raise and dispense money."

Last night I had dinner with a writer friend.  We both needed advice and took turns asking and giving..

Advice is a tricky thing.  We all want to give it.  A few of us want to get it.  Some of us don't want to get it but do anyway.  And a very few of us, like my family member, know how to let you know they don't want it.

In a very short while I've been told how to listen to advice and use it to my advantage.  I've asked outright for it, been asked to refrain from giving it, refrained from giving it.

Tomorrow I'm going to ask a friend for some more advice, and if anybody asks me for some, I'll be only too happy to give it.  But I'm also going to be more aware that it's not always what someone wants when he or she comes to me with a problem, and I'll try to listen with my heart open, keeping my good advice to myself!