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.

An Eclipse like One Other

I may be the only person who drove 400 miles not to see the eclipse.

To family and friends I billed my spur-of-the-moment trip as an adventure, a late summer vacation. To myself, I needed to step into the freedom and risk of the unknown. The Great American Eclipse was my excuse to do so.

A total solar eclipse is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime experience almost unavoidably shared because its path is so narrow. It brings people together like few things do anymore.

When they learned I was alone, several kind strangers invited me to follow them to the line of totality. Plenty of towns along that path had eclipse-related events I could join. I politely declined. I wanted nothing, no one, to obscure the experience.

My first “eclipse” was in 1961. I was an 8-year-old walking home from school. Suddenly the familiar houses and the elm-lined streets of LaGrange blurred. Even the steady hum of cars from Ogden Avenue faded. The green canopy of trees swayed in the light and I with it.

As in a trance, I was drawn into a cosmic theater, absolutely alone. It was a moment of totality I was completely unprepared for. The sun didn’t disappear, but I saw nothing, as if I stood in utter darkness.

That was when I felt it—a dizzying sense of self. That first moment when I realized, No one sees the world as I doNo one says the world as I do. I was meant to be. I touched my arm, never more sure of who I was.

Sunday afternoon I arrived in Jamesport, Missouri, population 505, where, thanks to a cancellation, I snagged a room. In Jamesport, nearly every house was in need of repair or the wrecking ball. Only the Mennonites seemed to be thriving. They ran the one café and bakery that offered a special eclipse buffet for $7.99. They operated a gourmet coffee shop down from a shop that sold hand-dipped candles. They offered horse-drawn carriage tours, though of what I wasn’t sure. Just south of town was another Mennonite-run bakery where long-time resident Blanche Archer told me, “I’ve never had anything I didn’t like.”

Only one road in town was paved. This was the road, which split south, that Blanche suggested I take to Chillicothe, a town 30 miles away, where I’d decided to view the eclipse. The vistas of farmland swelling and rolling to the horizon in early light rivaled any drive I’ve ever taken.

When I got to Chillicothe, with four hours to spare, I sat in my car by the high school and read as a wall of clouds, followed by a thunderstorm, moved in. Later the sheriff saw me and said I couldn’t park there because students would be arriving soon.

I drove to a bank parking lot. A few other cars pulled in. We didn’t huddle together. The young woman next to me spent most of the time looking at her phone. Most days I wonder if we haven’t lost our way. How many of us privately hoped the eclipse would bring this crazy world to its knees and make us believers again?

Moments before the totality, the rain stopped and the sky cleared just enough so I caught glimpses of the eclipse. I saw a lip of disappearing sun before clouds obscured the totality. I saw a thin band of red on the horizon and felt the temperature drop as the sky turned a deep blue gray. Somewhere a group of young viewers laughed. One woman shouted, “I saw it!”

Then a thin curve of light, like a new moon, glowed. The bigger the curve, the yellower it became. I wanted it to be gold, but the color was neon and garish. As the moon’s shadow slid by, the curve bloated until it became the sun again. I saw no ring of fire. I didn’t witness a cape of darkness hurtling across the land.

“Go out and stand on the mountain, for the Lord is about to pass by,” came the word of God to Elijah, who was hiding in a cave. It took wind, an earthquake, fire, and then sheer silence before Elijah emerged.

The mountain we stand on or the cave we hide in is our own. The Great American Eclipse called me out of my cave. Often too comfortable, too in control, too safe, I needed to go far away and stand among strangers to be reminded that risks are worth taking because more often than not, they bring us closer to our essential selves.

I leaned against the car, my neck tipped awkwardly back, and peered through special glasses to see what, if anything, I could see. Mainly I felt the earth, solid and sure, beneath me. I heard a mourning dove. With the certainty of a child I knew that who I was created to be and what I believe matter more than anything my eyes will ever behold.

Omens and Amens

When we don’t think we know where we’re going

There is no mistaking a fox. One crossed my path on a recent early morning bike ride along the river bluff. Through a narrow opening in the chain link fence it came. It looked both ways, saw me, and still onto the paved trail it came. I may have slowed. But on it came, flagrant and orange. The fox presented itself in profile, held the pose, then loped just ahead of me before turning, with no haste, up into the brush.

Four years ago I set out to write a memoir about overcoming the silence that has dogged me much of my life. I admit I didn’t know this at the time, or for a long while. I had a general notion that I would write a book following the proximate deaths of my husband and mother. At first I focused on loss and grief. In another draft, I seemed to be telling their stories. Then there were experiments with structure. None of these attempts felt quite right.

The one piece of every draft that never changed was the ending. It seemed I knew where I needed to go, even though I lacked a clear path for getting there. Neuroscientists are beginning to recognize that what distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability to consider the future. Foresight is our brain’s central function. Instead of merely recording and storing memories, we are continually rewriting history. I had projected the ending, even articulated it, without perhaps realizing this was where I was headed. Other chapters I could always refine or rewrite, but the ending I left alone.

Finally I let the ending guide my way.

I recently read through my latest (last?) revision. Whenever I stumbled over a sentence, I flagged the page. By the end, I easily had 50 yellow post-its reminding me of places I still needed to revisit. Many I resolved quickly. Soon I was down to 4. But these places stubbornly resisted my attempts to clarify.

Days went by. Company came and left. The hyacinth vine grew, patches of lawn turned brown. Then I saw the fox. My first thought when I saw its long body and tipped tail? A pencil. Yes, a pencil. In a writer’s world, a pencil, especially a red one, is used for editing. Within a day I’d made the final changes. I’d said what I set out to say, not fully realizing it until I was there.