Lessons Learned

Writing’s one condition: honesty

For more than 4 years, I’ve maintained this blog, some stretches more regularly than others. My stated intent was to embark on a journey of self-discovery and claim my own voice and place in the world.

Looking back, I think I’ve done that. With each post, I’ve taken an idea, a feeling, an experience and given it flesh. I’ve explored the question “Who am I?” by sharing glimpses from my life. Now, having been at my craft for some time, I want to share some lessons learned.

• Writing takes courage. It’s like boring an augur to one’s heart, even when it hurts. As self-evident as it may seem, this was a revelation to me. I had long written for organizations and been the voice of others while keeping my own voice and opinions silent. I had long played it safe by standing on the sidelines and not entering the conversation.

• Writing is hard. Most days I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve done. Giving birth pales to the effort of bringing an idea into being, at least for me. Often the gestation period for a draft I’m slogging through is much longer. Still, I wouldn’t trade my writing time for anything.

• Writing leads to new understanding. As many writers have said before me, I write to make sense of the world and to find out who I am. But writing also draws me into the unknown. My mother is more central to my memoir than I originally imagined. Yes, she was the sun around which my childhood orbited. Yes, I cared for her during the last 10 years of her life. But the place she occupies in my story is even more essential. She instilled values that shaped me—kindness, generosity,  faithfulness, humility. She also struggled with a sense of unworthiness that migrated to my own self-understanding. Exploring her felt presence in my life has helped me acknowledge aspects of myself I’ve long avoided or tried to mask.

• Writing demands feeling. My writing coach excels at asking the probing, necessary questions. What is the overarching emotion driving my story? Without that prompt, I might not have eventually been able to say, “I’ve always felt different, alienated from the world, which has led to a deep longing to belong and be loved for who I am.”

• Writing has one condition: honesty. If done with real intent, writing leads to the truth beyond the truth, or Truth with a capital “T.” More than scientific proof, more than the inarguable sum of 2 numbers, writing yields a consequential power that both embodies and transcends us. Writing transforms. It brings us to a place of resurrection and new life.

The stakes are high in writing. Sometimes they feel impossibly high. What if I say something that is controversial? What if I break open the notion I’ve cultivated about myself and let others see the “real” me? By its very nature, writing must have stakes. It doggedly pursues the “what ifs” down labyrinthian paths, with no promised end.

Writing is like entering a practice room every day, a room where a musician goes to play or sing a passage over and over again to get it right. Writing is like yoga (as I’ve said before), demanding singular focus—a willingness to push the boundaries of what we think we know or can do in order to  strengthen our very purpose.

Substitute “life” for “writing” in the bulleted list above and the same lessons apply.

This Is Us

A giant selfie that makes me like myself a little bit more

It was an auspicious start to the new year.

At a small gathering where facial care products were being promoted and, like a biblical miracle, my wine glass stayed full, I won a drawing. I never win drawings, contests, or competitions. Even when there’s a giveaway, I seem to step up to claim my free sample just as the last one has been handed out.

Then, I heard my number called out. (I can’t reveal it because it is now my lucky number, one I will use in all passwords and contests going forward.) Granted, only four numbers were in the hat, but I was still shocked, if not momentarily giddy. Who me?

My prize was a selfie light. A few of you know that I have no talent for taking selfies, largely due to a complete lack of interest or practice. The very few times I’ve attempted a selfie, I captured all of the forehead and not much else, or got to the pore level of my face. Ew. Guaranteed, my selfies will flatten your face.

The second auspicious event of 2018 was attending a Super Bowl party. Well, actually, it was a game night with girlfriends with the “big” game decidedly in the background. (We even discussed whether to turn on the TV.) Too busy talking and eating and talking, we never did play any games. When I left the party around 9 p.m., I had no idea what the score was.

But I did remember what one of the women said. “You’ve got to see This Is Us.’ ”

I had not turned my TV on for six weeks. January and much of February I protested winter evenings in my own way—recovering from bronchitis, reading, and doing jigsaw puzzles while listening to podcasts.

I take recommendations from girlfriends seriously. After some false tech starts, I signed up for Hulu so I could watch a series that began in 2016 and was already well into Season 2. I had a lot of catching up to do.

I love this show.

Like my selfies, it zooms in on the lives of triplets and their parents. “This Is Us” is an intimate family drama that doesn’t need violence, sex, or profanity to be good. Better than good. The close-ups allow you to get to know the characters well. At pore level. You see them at their best and worst, doubting and confident, triumphant and broken. And everything in between. Their longings, loves, addictions, disappointments, and joys. Incidentally, the triplets are conceived the night of Super Bowl XIV.

The show portrays the human condition in all its complexities. The characters—Jack and Rebecca, Kevin, Kate, and Randall—are rendered so authentically that it’s nearly impossible not to take the emotional ride with them. As Dan Fogelman, the creator and executive producer said, “the show makes you cry but also makes you feel good.”

Unlike the current environment, defined by a 24-hour news cycle, the series plays out in a world where everything else is mere backdrop. The funky clothes and classic cars tell us we’re in the seventies. A reference to “Hamilton” places the scene in the present. We learn, briefly, that Jack is a Vietnam vet. Otherwise, each episode is about us, the collective, flawed, resilient face of humanity. One reviewer described the show as “a meditation on the true and expansive meaning of Family.”

In every episode, the characters face the full range of experience, sometimes bravely, sometimes reluctantly, and sometimes not at all. This is us. When I’m done watching for the evening, I feel the kind of peace that follows recognition, connection, and acceptance. I come away liking myself a little bit more.

Living As Revision

A journey of heart and mind and spirit

Talking with an 8-year-old can be instructive. At dinner last week, my niece, who pays close attention to what adults are saying when she herself isn’t talking, put her elbows on the table, rested her chin in her hands and sighed under the weight of the sentiment she was about to share: “I wish Donald Trump wasn’t the president.”

Her mother calmly replied, “I know you feel that way. So do I. And that’s why we were part of the Women’s March and why we are working to elect good people who will bring about change.” The reframing was clever and spot on. If it wasn’t the wine on that cold January night, I was sure I felt a shift in the fault line running through our country.

Intentional or not, my work on the memoir coincides with the calendar. Early in a year I’m launching into a revision, full of ideas and energy. By fall, as the earth slips into a long quiet and I’m ready for a comedy, I fancy the word “done” leaping across my desk. I suspect at some point I will declare the manuscript finished. I may even believe it’s ready to be sent out into the world.

But here’s the curious thing. Life goes on. Which means “revision” of a higher order continues, necessarily so. If you’re God, you can create the world and everything in it in 6 days and consider it good or very good. If you’re not, fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the ride.

I’ve been rereading Homer’s The Odyssey. A new English translation—the first by a woman, Emily Wilson—recently came out. It’s described as fresh and authoritative, written in “a vivid, contemporary idiom.” Wilson has tapped into the emotional currents that flow through the story perhaps better than her predecessors. As you may recall from freshman English, Odysseus has been trying to return home for 20 years but has encountered one obstacle after another. He represents the archetypal heroine’s or hero’s journey—the very journey we are each on. Yes, there’s the actual journey of going from one place to another, but there’s also an inward journey, one of the heart and mind and spirit. The heroine grows and changes along the way. Hers is a journey from one way of being to the next. In the case of my niece, from mournful sentiment to decisive action.

I’d bet I was one of thousands of freshmen across the country who didn’t quite “get” Odysseus’ struggle. I was bored by one over-the-top feast after another, the endless flow of wine, and, fundamentally, the fact that it took him 400 pages and 24 books to make it home. Now I think I see why. The version of life my parents taught me and expected I would follow (I did not disappoint) left out the journey. It didn’t honor the longing to answer the question “Who am I?” for myself. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to appreciate Odysseus’ quest and understand it as my own.

In her wonderful new book, Living Revision, Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew offers a refreshing take on the dreaded aspect of writing: revising. Instead of subtitling her book “a guide to creating a bestseller,” Andrew asserts that the painstaking process of revising our work is a spiritual practice. “Our capacity to transform our writing is intricately connected to our willingness to change how we see our subjects and the world . . . For your writing to change, you must change.” (Introduction, xviii)

So when people ask me how my writing is going, I’m honest. I tell them I’m in the midst of a revision. Even when the memoir is done and has found an audience, and another project is underway, my answer will be the same. Living is revision. The journey continues.

The Letter Never Sent

My year in review

At least my brother was honest when he announced at the beginning of his Christmas letter, “This is the last year I’m writing one of these.” I had been thinking about mine for weeks, waiting for the moment of inspiration. That moment didn’t come. Instead (and before I could feel guilty about not sending a letter), I went online and created a photo card using four images I uploaded from my phone. Two hours later, my order was ready for pick-up.

Still, photo cards don’t tell the whole story. As a carefully curated version of the past 12 months, maybe they aren’t supposed to. They tend to feature the bright and happy faces and leave out the messy rest. Only one Christmas letter that I receive each year dares both. I’m always cautious when I open it up, always grateful when I’ve finished reading. Yes, the letter includes updates on their children and grandchildren, all doing well. But it also recounts the incredible bad luck (for that is what it seems) of a friend who, following a “simple” fall off the deck, has had one health setback after another. I read it and weep, yet am also reminded of the absolute fragility of life and the importance of celebrating all that we have, while we have it. Here is a woman who built playgrounds in Cuba long before the country was open to commercial travelers. A woman who has been a political force in her city and an advocate for justice through her church. A woman who now hangs on to life and hope in spite of overwhelming challenges.

When I refreshed my browser (read: searched my memory), I discovered a number of things that didn’t make it into my photo card. So here’s the unedited version of my year in review, the letter never sent.

Woke

In September the word “woke” was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. With roots in the dialect known as African American Vernacular English, the word has moved from urban slang to the mainstream. It means “awake,” and refers to a newly gained state of social awareness. I participated in the Women’s March of Minnesota last January 21. I walked from the grounds of St. Paul College to the State Capitol with 100,000 other people. It was my first publicly political act in years. It felt good. It felt necessary. It felt long overdue. I was woke to becoming a better informed citizen. I was woke to finding ways to stand up for the common good.

Lost and Found

On February 28, my beloved golden retriever Indie died of splenetic cancer. I know something about loss and grief, but I was unprepared for the aftermath of his death. I expected the tears, the sorrow, the twist in my gut when I saw another retriever on my walks. But I’d forgotten the chasm that opens up. I’d lost sight of the hole that loss of a loved one leaves in your heart, a hole that doesn’t close. Most days I write, often about the very people who have gone before me. That keeps them present during those few hours, but doesn’t fill the quiet of the house. And so I’ve begun to foster dogs that have been rescued or surrendered and help find them permanent homes. I had the extreme good fortune to foster a dog from Turkey that was identified in her passport as a golden retriever. A DNA test revealed she was predominantly Akbash, an ancient breed from the Mediterranean used to guard livestock. She was a beauty. “Isn’t it hard to get attached and then have to give them up?” people asked. Of course it is. But we can’t stop loving. And we can’t stop losing those we love. Poet Mary Oliver said it best. “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.” (from “In Blackwater Woods”)

The Eclipse

For about 3 minutes, depending on how close you were to the path of totality, the sun disappeared on August 21. A deep shadow fell across the land. Getting older is a bit like being eclipsed. A friend approaching 70 confessed, “I feel invisible.” As if her light, which still shines brightly, is being snuffed out or covered up by some dark force we call aging. Another woman who leads a vibrant life from a wheelchair spoke of how she is ignored when she goes out. “People don’t see me,” she complained. Who of us among the silver sneaker set hasn’t felt this, even once? We’re too gray, too slow, and mostly irrelevant. Our theme song might well be, “I’m mortal, invisible, God only knows.” Not to worry. There’s plenty to do while being eclipsed. We can busy ourselves with death cleaning, the Swedish practice of purging your belongings before you die, especially of items you’d rather not have your loved ones see. We can prepare to have “the talk” with our family about what they need to know when we die. I think I’d rather watch the eclipse than be one.

#metoo

This past year I’ve worked through a revision of my memoir, feeling incrementally closer to telling the story that wants to be told. I’ve been honestly shocked at how hard it has been to write, only to realize that a lifetime of silence may have something to do with my struggle. So I feel particular empathy for the women who are coming forward and sharing their stories of sexual harassment and abuse, some after 30 years. I understand their silence. I also understand the courage it takes to break the spell of guilt and shame and fear in order to speak about the painful past. Distance swimmer Diana Nyad said in an interview, “I’m angrier at being silenced than being touched.” Our culture, our families, our workplaces and places of worship have perpetuated a “don’t tell” code of conduct. Here’s to more women breaking their personal silence and claiming their voice.

Get Over It

Change is in the air—this year, this holiday season, and the year ahead. When my son Andrew got married in May, I celebrated his union to a wonderful woman. I also had to accept that I was no longer the most important woman in his life. Yet when we talk, and even when we don’t, I know I’ll always be his mom.

For the first time, I am not hosting Christmas Eve but will join my daughter and family Christmas morning to witness the holy chaos of an almost 4-year-old and 2-1/2-year old tear into packages. At first, I was stunned. What, not plan a big dinner, bake too much, clean, and run endless errands? Then I got used to the idea. Very used to this change. When nap time rolls around on Dec. 25, I will go home to a clean, quiet house and be glad that the next generation is carrying the torch and doing it so well. Let them direct and produce the festivities; I’ll be happy to show up with a side dish. Best Christmas gift ever!

As for the future, next year I turn 65, go onto Medicare, and make my last mortgage payment. It’s gotta be better than 2017, right?

Getting it Right

Revising our stories opens us to transformation

The stories keep surfacing.

There’s the story Alias Grace that I just finished streaming on Netflix. It’s the second Margaret Atwood novel to be serialized for TV. Whereas A Handmaid’s Tale presented a dystopian world in which women are used as breeding machines, Alias Grace goes back in time. The story is set in Canada in the mid-1800s. A young servant girl, Grace, has been sentenced to death for the murder of her master and his housekeeper.

As she recounts her life and the circumstances that led up to the crimes to a Dr. Jordan, we begin to see how Grace has been preyed upon throughout her life, from her own father to previous employers and the doctors who “treat” her at the insane asylum. Even Dr. Jordan fantasizes about her in ways that threaten to cloud his judgment. I couldn’t watch this without thinking of the many women who daily are coming forward to share their stories of being victimized.

Then there’s the story that runs throughout Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new collection of essays, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. He wrote one essay for each year of Obama’s presidency, but they tell the same sad truth. American democracy was built on slavery, and slavery is at the root of our country’s ills. In his piece on reparations, Coates writes:

“We may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion—and this is perhaps what scares us . . . What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.” (201-202)

So it struck me last night as I sat in a room of about 150 people to celebrate the launch of a teacher and friend’s book, Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice. Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew shared how she came to understand revising not as an onerous task but a freeing process that opens her heart to a new way of seeing.

Her insight was just what I needed as I return, once again, to my own story. I thought I was done with it, but have learned this past month that it is not done with me. The story is still asking something from me, and now I must discover what that is. No less than a personal reckoning, revision will, thanks to the wisdom of Elizabeth and Coates and others, help me listen more deeply and be open to transformation.

Stories serve many purposes, but fundamentally, they define us. They tell us who and whose we are. They recall how and why our ancestors came to America. They contain the joy of the day we were born. They remind us of how we met our partner or dear friend and where we were on 9/11. They reflect moments of courage and fear.

It’s not always easy to get the story right. But get it right we must if we ever hope for renewal.

The Telltale Heart

My notion of time gets whacky in the Fall. 

During a walk I saw suspended in midair a golden maple leaf, caught on some invisible thread connecting this world and the next. I’ve come to call October my tender time because of loved ones lost this month yet still brilliantly before me.

As much as the Fall draws me to the past, it also creates a sense of urgency as I prepare for the coming cold. Leaves to rake and bag. Spent plants to cut back. Hoses to drain and bring in. The canna and elephant ears to dig up and store. Fireplace wood to order. Storm windows to wash and put in. The furnace filter to replace.

And despite my refrain, “I don’t want a dog,” Eloise has made the present fuller with her steady companionship. I linger in these moments even as I know she needs a permanent home before we are so attached that I will have to buy a bumper sticker that reads “Proud Foster Failure.”

Against this ever-shifting notion of time is Lela Gore, my childhood piano teacher. If I learned one thing from her, it was the absolute steadiness of time. Her metronome was the corrective to my varying tempos as I managed a few good measures before hesitating to find my next notes.

I wasn’t diligent about practicing between lessons. So when I walked down the block to her dreary house (a rental that the wealthy landlords were too stingy to fix up), my dread mounted. Like Poe’s telltale heart, her metronome became my terror.

When she wasn’t teaching, Miss Gore lived in the past, or at least in a world that suggested more dignity than her current circumstances. She often spoke of her training at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, her mother, and her travels to England and Scotland as she served me tea and shortbread still warm from the oven.

As long as we spoke of other things, another time, I could forget her metronome sitting on her Steinway in the living room. But when I sat on the bench under the bright single lamp and she set the metronome’s arm swinging at the tempo I was to match, I couldn’t keep up. Undoubtedly there was a pedagogical reason for using a metronome, but to me it was an instrument of torture. When my hands stopped and my shoulders dropped in defeat, she sighed and adjusted the beat. But by then, any tempo felt impossible.

I think I would have confessed to anything if she’d only stopped the telltale tick-tick-ticking. Yes, I should have practiced more. No, I wasn’t the prodigy she had hoped I would be, just another student whose mother thought I should have some musical training.

My career as a concert pianist never took off. Instead, I became my mother. There were many things I vowed I would do differently, but this wasn’t one of them. As soon as my kids turned four, I signed them up for piano lessons. To ensure it was a better investment, I sat with them when they practiced, my own relentless “one more time” on a difficult passage acting as a kind of metronome that must have been equally irritating to them. They too eventually quit. They too survived.

Fall feels like life without a metronome. Fleeting, transient, and unsettling. I have the past tugging at me. I have my list of chores, my monthly blog post, a manuscript to promote, a web site to update, agents to research filling each day. And I have the future, whose shadows lengthen with each year.

I found a much-needed steadiness recently when I came across Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Let Evening Come.” Her pace is measured and the truth doesn’t falter. The last stanza reads:

Let it come, as it will, and don’t

be afraid. God does not leave us

comfortless, so let evening come.

How I want to believe that this is so.

The Other

When I was in 8th grade, I went to a coed party. There was a girl whose friendship I was desperately seeking. So desperately, that I made a loud show to get her attention. She finally turned to me and said, “Shut up!”

In an instant I became the “other,” the social misfit, the one who didn’t belong.

Several things this past week have reminded of what that painful moment felt like.

I went to see “Almost Equal To” at the Pillsbury House Theatre by Swedish writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri. The play is a commentary on the consequences of capitalism. The characters constantly measure themselves against each other in an attempt to gain or retain power, status, and wealth. Their greed and suspicions propel them to treat people differently while justifying their own behavior.

The recent election in Germany has seen the rise of a third party, the Alternative for Deutschland (AFD). Its stance is anti-immigration, particularly anti-Muslim. But behind the party’s rhetoric I hear a broader narrative. Anyone who isn’t “German” isn’t welcome. When asked to explain what it means to be “German,” a party spokesperson mentioned, among other things, punctuality, as if Germans have exclusive rights to this trait. (Here I thought the Swedes owned it!)

Research done by Cecilia Conrad, the head of the MacArthur Fellowship Program, reveals that immigrants are overrepresented in receiving MacArthur Genius Grants. The immigrants who come here, she explains, are “risk takers. And their thinking and discoveries are nourished by the experience of dislocation, of navigating a new culture and a new set of norms. They come with a sort of hunger and a kind of gaze that don’t subtract from what those of us already here have but, instead, add to it.”

Even Ken Burns’s documentary “The Vietnam War” shows the grim affects of colonialism, arbitrary divisions of a country, trumped up rhetoric about the threat of communism—all resulting in an us vs. them, good guy-bad guy situation that drew the U.S. into a protracted, ultimately failed conflict.

All because we insist on creating “the other.”

And then there’s Eloise, who I am fostering. She is one of a dozen golden retrievers rescued from the streets and forests around Istanbul. Organizations in Turkey and Minnesota coordinated efforts to fly the dogs here, where they will have permanent homes. I won’t forget the moment when they emerged from their crates after 22 hours of being transported across the ocean to a whole new world. They were all wagging tails, curiosity, and hope.

Finally, and poignantly, I heard this notion of “the other” touched on at the memorial service for an elderly woman who deeply valued a sense of home yet lost that secure feeling as a result of her dementia. “At some point in our lives,” the pastor said, “every one of us is displaced in some way.”

The “other” go by many names: refugees, immigrants, people displaced by flooding, widows and orphans, veterans, people who don’t look like you or me, the person lost in the confusion of her mind, the retiree questioning his purpose, the abandoned animal, the insecure 8th grader.

But, like Eloise, we also all have names. Names that link us to each other. Names that at once remind us of our uniqueness and our rightful place in the world.