I had a terrific time last night at Phoenix and Dragon bookstore, a really fun place to hangout. I was there for the monthly poetry reading. It was great to see my friend Cliff Brooks and hear some excellent poetry. I am always inspired when I attend an evening like that.
One thing that a good poem or a good sermon always evokes in me - reflection.
Here's one of the poems I read last night. It's a work in progress.
I was different from the moment I was born,
late and scrawny,
waiting until Independence Day,
until Mama was at a barbeque,
and the cord was choking me.
(Thank God the obstetrician threw the party.)
I liked to throw the baby bottles out the car window,
Sit on top of the swingset,
Bump down the stairs on my butt.
I snacked on Purina dog chow, and ran around the yard nekkid.
Only spanking threats got me into the ruffled dresses
and black patent leather Mary Janes on Sunday morning.
My brother’s 6th birthday party: Punky’s Ponies were hired. I spent the afternoon in a cowgirl outfit and pink wax lips.
I took off my shoes and shirt because I was hot.
That was always the small me: barefoot, shooting from the hip, demanding to ride the ponies.
Adolescence birthed several decades of Caring About What Others Think. I wish I could go back and slap some sense into that idiot Me.
I kept notes about all my outfits so I wouldn’t wear the same one too often.
As a teen and young woman, I jazzercised, aerobicized, raquetballed, speed walked.
I wore out half a dozen curling irons, and spent a fortune on pantyhose.
One Sunday afternoon I found myself riding down Peachtree Street, after the gym, drinking a Starbucks latte and listening to a CD on the car stereo, and I thought with great horror, I AM A YUPPIE!!
Somewhere inside me the cowgirl sneered.
Years of refusal sped by. Many things were offered that I refused - sorority membership, law school, Junior League, marriage.
I realized at age 34, after Dad died, I had never lived up to what my dad had wanted for me: husband, two children, the minivan, the country club membership. I spent my prime childbearing years in love with a man I later learned was gay.
After the fog lifted I began a long unfurling from the confines of the cubicle.
I smoked in public. Then I quit smoking.
I vacationed with friends.
I kept a loaded pistol under my bed.
I bought my first home.
I quit wearing pantyhose and threw out the curling iron.
I flew to Russia.
After that nothing was ever the same.
I asked God for a family and he gave me two traumatized orphans and my own mother.
Suddenly the days were very full.
I quit watching TV.
Once I realized I didn’t care about getting married, or what my hair looked like, or whether or not I was “normal,” life got better.
Despite ups and downs, illnesses, trips to the ER, estrangements, personal and professional losses -
Now… well, I like me.
My house is old and quirky and drafty. Nothing matches.
I only wear pants with elastic waistbands.
My son is 17, and has three piercings in his ears. He is saving up for a tattoo. He hates school more than I’ve ever hated anything in my life.
My bassett hound runs the house, and steals food off the kitchen counter as often as possible. We love her anyway.
I don’t own a curling iron or a pair of pantyhose.
My give-a-damn’s busted and it ain’t ever gonna get fixed.
This was posted on Facebook this morning by a friend of mine, and while I certainly understand it and there's a bit of cleverness to it, I fundamentally disagree with it:
"Don't look back. You're not going that way."
Well no, you're not. Human beings can only go forward, but I propose that people who don't look back are missing a lot of things, and they often stumble blindly into the future, unprepared and vulnerable.
Shelby Foote said [I'm paraphrasing] "The southern man doesn't live in the past. The past lives in him."
From our antiques, to our treasured old bibles, to the language that persists from grandparents to grandchildren ["swap" / "my people" / "y'all" etc.] - we are tethered to the past, and it lives within us, just as Shelby said. We re-visit battlefields, and talk about old linens, and name our children for great-grandmothers long dead. We are living sentinels of the past.
my great-great grandmother, Charlotte Wood
I spent most of my 20's trying to figure out "what just happened?!" - in terms of my childhood and teenaged years. There was a lot of turbulence in my family, a lot of it related to my Type-A personality dad. I also wondered what to do with my life. I couldn't really move forward until I really grappled with it all. It was when I started smoking. I got into a lot of arguments with my dad. I planned out my marriage and children and home and all those plans kept getting revised because none of it happened the way I thought it would. Those were the years when I questioned the existence of God, and tried to figure out how to be a writer, and wondered why nobody would fall in love with me.
By the time I hit my 30's, I was slowly starting to figure things out, or at least make peace with not knowing.
Then I was 34 years old, and a week after my birthday, my dad died. Suddenly my entire life was jolted into a different groove, and I didn't like it. I had to re-calibrate, the way one always does when an important figure is jerked out of your life.
me, Dad, and my uncle Lewis
Once I became a parent, I stopped so much looking back. I quit trying to force people to come to big family reunions. I quit trying to write a novel or a screenplay. I became so engrossed in trying to help my daughter, and then manage a household that included my mom and a medically fragile dog, and work full time, that life just sort of crowded out everything else.
I think that happens for a lot of us. The day-to-day stops us from being reflective because we are simply too busy.
Now I am close to being an empty-nester. Michael has 2 more years of high school, but I know they are going to whiz by.
We talked some about his trip last night, and he said he loved skiing. This is good and bad. He may one day want to live in a place where you can ski in the winter, which is certainly not true of Atlanta.
So now I am having to re-imagine my life once again. I have some time to make the transition. It won't happen instantly.
But back to the original premise of this blog: looking back. Here is what I've learned about it, after half a century on earth.
It's OK to look back and try to understand things. In fact, it's vital. Sometimes life events happen so quickly, you're like a grain of sand on the beach, picked up, pummeled, and thrown onto the shore by forces that are huge and uncontrollable. One minute you're suspended in the warm sea, drifting along, and the next thing you know you're naked and baking under the hot sun.
OK, maybe I got a little carried away by the beach metaphor, but I think you see where I'm going with this.
I don't recall what we were discussing the other day, but my mother said "We are strong. We keep going." In other words, life knocks us down, but we get back up. I think it's behavioral, sure, but it's also genetic. Generations before me have faced hardships, and nobody has given up and/or run away. We women are strong and we pass that strength to our children.
This past year has been really bizarre, for me. I was meeting with a recruiter yesterday and trying to explain what happened in 2013, and it was almost impossible. The first part of the year I was a lame duck in a job that didn't fit. Then I was home for months and feeling horrible, and grappling with health issues. The summer was all about preparing for and recuperating from surgery. The fall was trying to re-energize my blog, and looking for more work, and then all the issues with my daughter coming home and leaving again.
So in 2013 I was the grain of sand, thrown around willy-nilly, and hating it. But I keep remembering two things.
1) However random everything felt last year, there was a plan, and God saw me through all of it. Faith is what keeps me getting up every morning.
2) I am not giving up.
I don't know what 2014 holds for me. I am still trying to work it out. I do know that for me, re-examining the forces that tossed me around last year is like picking up clothes off the floor, and folding them neatly and putting them away. If I don't pick them up, I may stumble over them and fall again.
I decided since it’s a rainy, cold, nasty Monday, I would post blogs on every one of the many personal blogs I write, just as an exercise. Some of them don't get anything posted on them very often, so this is a little personal challenge, but a fun one.
What most folks don't understand about blogging is that search engines like blogs that are refreshed often. So if you blog only occasionally, the search engines will not feature you very well. You may post wonderful content, but if it goes up only once every few months, not many folks are going to see it.
The easiest was my blog for southern poets, The Word Ocean. I posted one of my all-time favorite poems, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, and a gorgeous photo by my friend Lisa Amos. Here is the result. I am still looking for southern poets who would like to be features, so pass this along to anyone southern who loves to write poetry.
I gave some quick tips on how to improve your writing over at The Write Rainmaker. This is the blog for my business, but I also like to just discuss writing in general sometimes, and/or marketing.
Over on my funny dating website I wrote about The Breakup Ultimatum. I am aware of a dating situation regarding someone I know right now and I’d like to just shake them and say ULTIMATUMS DON’T WORK! I can’t really, though, because the Breakup Ultimatum worked for my mom, many years ago. However, the “don’t try this at home kids” admonishment is appropriate here…
I talked about one of my fave actors of all time, Christopher Walken over at Scribblerchick's Movie Dish. If I ever get a chance to watch a movie with him in it, I do, even if the movie isn’t great. Walken is always fun to watch.
Finally, just as an added bonus, if you want to watch something to get in the holiday mood, check out this awesome video:
Lots of things going on in my world, all of it good. Yay! Lots of new writing work coming down the pike, and that makes me very happy.
My most exciting announcement is the creation of a new blog featuring southern poets and poetry, The Word Ocean. My first featured poet is my friend Cliff Brooks. Check it out!
Michael asked a girl to the Homecoming Dance at his school, which is this Saturday. He is a wee bit excited, as you can imagine.We went shopping yesterday and ordered the corsage, and found him a couple of nice dress shirts and some dress shoes. He is looking so grown up and handsome!
He tells me last night at 8:30 [!!] he has a test in English today, on Of Mice and Men. He admits he has not really read the entire book. I stifle the urge to wallop him, and instead we watch the movie, which is about all we can do. It's an excellent movie, but pretty depressing. I am not a big fan of Steinbeck. I hope Mike didn't flunk the test, though...
Here's the test run on his outfit for Saturday. He has a tie, which he is quickly learning how to tie himself, with one hand. His date's dress is beige and black, so I told him the khaki pants and dark coat would look right. I just hope it's not too miserably hot in the gym.
Tomorrow is Halloween! I'm trying to stay out of the candy...
I guess I have never been a person who worried too much about what was proper, except when it came to morals.
When I was small, I was the kid running around wearing my brother's old shirts, putting the cat in the tub with me, completely unconcerned about what shoes I wore, when I even wore them.
My friend Gary came over last night and we had a good visit. He used to do a lot of creative writing, but not in recent years, as he has a demanding job at UGA. "I don't want to start writing when I only have 10 minutes. That's not enough time to do it right," he said.
It reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with a longtime friend who chided me about not praying properly. "I wouldn't bother God with anything so trivial as a parking place," she had said.
I've always been impatient with that kind of thing.What's wrong with asking God for a good parking place? No matter what words I use, or where I am, I firmly believe God knows my heart, and nothing is out of bounds with him. He isn't some guy sitting up there in the sky. He's within me. Within us all.
Back to writing...
I don't write because I think everything I write is going to be perfect. I'd say probably less than 10% of anything I write creatively is even good, much less awesome, or important, or proper.
But here's the thing: if you get hung up too much on propriety, you will stagnate.You will quit moving forward.
The irony is that Gary and my friend who made that remark are both hugely intelligent folks, highly accomplished. Gary has a Ph.D.
In comparison, I have only an MA. My life is sometimes messy and I veer off in improper directions all.the.time. But I am not complacent. I charge ahead, even if it's in the wrong direction. I MOVE. I make some people quite uncomfortable, I know.
In my defense, I've always tried to remember my manners, and not hurt anyone else when I am blundering around.
I told Gary to just sit down and write for 15 minutes every day, even if he never shows anybody what he writes. The only real way to learn to write is to DO IT.
Since I've become friends with fellow poet Cliff Brooks, I've felt re-energized, in terms of my writing. I've been writing a lot of poems. They are not great. I will likely never get them published anywhere. Yet, they nourish me. I can't define how. There are things bubbling away in my subconscious sometimes that I'm not even aware of until I think about writing a new poem.
When I was chatting Friday with my surgeon and telling her about some of the leakage from one of my incisions, she said basically, if wounds don't drain they can become infected. Later, I realized there's a metaphor there, and it applies to all of life basically.
Sometimes Michael confides things in me and I realize, he is letting that wound drain. I can see the relief on his face as he speaks. To me, this is the most important part of being a parent. If your child can't confide in you the things closest to their heart, you are denying them the chance to heal. You are risking infection, perhaps even risking terrible consequences. Sometimes I feel that's what happened with my daughter, and I regret not being a better listener with her.
Then again, I never could get her to really trust me, no matter how hard I tried.
Oh well, I can only move forward...
I showed Gary a poem yesterday that I wrote recently. It's not a great poem [see below]. It won't win any prizes. But writing it helped me remember that my basic nature has always been to be fearless, to reach for things that others say are impossible or dangerous.
Sometimes I want to say to some of my very proper friends, just GO FOR IT. If you want to write, write. Don't worry about it being perfect. Don't worry about pleasing anyone but yourself.
My friend Lesleigh left last year to go back to school and learn a completely new profession. She did something incredibly scary BUT she followed her passion.
You cannot grow as a person if you are always comfortable, and proper. Get messy. Screw up. Try again. Don't let anyone trample your ideas.
"If we don't change, we don't grow. If we don't grow, we aren't really living."
Home By Dark [a work in progress, like my life]
I remember the formica countertop beneath my hands,
My wiry arm muscles bearing the brunt of it, swinging my leg up
To the countertop, the land of the cabinet.
I was a climber.
Nothing was out of reach.
I surveyed my kingdom, the back yard, from atop the swingset,
while still in diapers.
As a toddler, I grabbed a flat-bottomed cotton basket and rode it down
the front stairs.
At two, I hated clothes.
The bosses’ wife found me sitting atop the fridge, wearing nothing,
listening to party sounds from the den.
“Aren’t you cold up there, hon?”
Only the threat of a spanking got shoes on my feet in the warm months.
One day when I was 7, my brother and I hiked a long way down the
nearly-dry creek bed
without shirts. We were on safari in Africa, and our pack mules had
Some neighborhood boys saw us, pointed and laughed at me. Brother threw
me my shirt and we trudged home, slapping mosquitos.
I made mud pies, buried green plastic soldiers,
Fashioned masterpieces with light brites and Legos,
Cheated at Operation and Candyland,
Coveted slingshots and bikes.
Beat all the boys at
Front yard football, kickball, and hide and go seek.
We had to be home by dark, or when called for supper.
I was always home
Before the moon shone high and
Gary and me, around 2001
"Friendship marks a life even more deeply than love. Love risks degenerating into obsession. Friendship is never anything but sharing."
I don't write a whole lot about the fact that I am a writer, because it seems self-indulgent and kinda creepy, but every so often I read something and get really inspired.
A few weeks ago, I finished a novel so huge and heavy that I had to prop it on a pillow to read it. I had not read a lot of Stephen King's books, but several of them were really enjoyable. I recently joined a book club, and soI read 11/22/63. Then I missed the meeting, because it was a day after I got out of the hospital, but so be it. I am still really glad I read it.
This New York Times intervew of the entire King family is a long read, but if you are interested in King, or in writing in general, you will likely enjoy it.
What the article reminded me is that what turns on a writer of fiction is the notion of story. You may think that's too simplistic. Fine. But it's true.
All writing is about STORY.
I was trying to help a client recently and we got into an argument about this very thing. If you communicate with a lot of terminology that's not immediately accessible to your audience, your story is lost. I don't care if it's a 250 word blog post or a 500 page novel, the goal is to communicate.
When I was in graduate school I was pretty unpopular with the professors because I steadfastly maintained that telling a story shrouded in obscure or incomprehensible language was simply wrong and I wanted no part of it. So when I took a course on Wallace Stevens I clashed a lot with the professor. He thought Stevens was brilliant. I thought he failed to communicate clearly or meaningfully.
Here's an example:
Anecdote of the Jar
By Wallace Stevens
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
It still amazes me that we spent 2 or 3 class periods endlessly discussing that poem. I had the thought that if I set my hair on fire it would have been more fun. Certainly would've helped me stay awake.
My refusal to worship Stevens was just one of the many indicators that told me I should not pursue a Ph.D. - well, and the fact that I couldn't afford the tuition. I am pretty glad now I didn't even try, because I couldn't deal with the politics of a university. I had an uncle who taught at a small college for many years, and I know something of that world.
Anyway, I am not a literary snob. I am also not a rube. The fact that I firmly believe that the function of all writing is to communicate clearly, and/or to tell stories, is viewed as immature by a lot of highly educated folks.
What I also find irritating is that teachers don't take the time to teach kids how to write. Teach them how to do research and WRITE. It will be the best preparation you can give them for life. When I was a sophomore at Farragut High School, I had to write a well-researched and footnoted research paper. It was the main focus of the sophomore year. I viewed it as a huge headache and resented it. However, I realized much later how valuable it was. [My paper, BTW, was about female spies during the Civil War.] No other class was as valuable to me once I got to college.
If you want to communicate something and have it remembered, you need to tell a story.You also need to use language that's clear.
When I was trying to help Michael with Biology last year, we found that finding well-crafted videos on YouTube about the topic was a great way to help him learn. Just spewing out information in a textbook doesn't help a child remember. STORIES are the way to go, even if it's seemingly silly, like Phoebe the Photosynthesis Shirker.
"We know that we can activate our brains better if
we listen to stories. The still unanswered question is: Why is that? Why
does the format of a story, where events unfold one after the other,
have such a profound impact on our learning?
The simple answer is this: We are wired that way. A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect.
And that is exactly how we think. We think in narratives all day long,
no matter if it is about buying groceries, whether we think about work
or our spouse at home. We make up (short) stories in our heads for every
action and conversation."
When I finished college, I got an ear infection the day I was supposed to be packed up and driving home. I had rented a huge Uhaul trailer and loaded all my old furniture from my little apartment into it, and I was trying to finish cleaning out the place, and my ear started throbbing. My dad was able to come to Athens with a friend, and drive me home, for about 6 hours. My ear was killing me, it was 100 degrees outside in an un-air conditioned car, and I needed to be distracted. So he told me stories, all the way home.
It was one of the most terrible days of my life, and conversely one of the best days of my life. Thank God my father was a great storyteller.
When I was pondering all the issues that might arise after I adopted my son, I realized that I wanted to tell him a story about what it was like to live in an American family. Thus, I wrote Jack's New Family, so he would have a better understanding. He understood it in Russian, and later we read it in English. Stories are powerful.
Stories are life. Tell good ones. Tell stories that are understandable and meaningful.