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On Writing…

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“No blogs?”, “Did you stop writing?”, “Too busy for your blog?”

Blogging seems an ungracious word for what it is that writers do.

I have been absent from my blog space for the last 100 days. And no, I did not stop writing. In fact, I have been writing at a breakneck pace for over three months. My audience shifted from the blogosphere to writers from all over the world.

When I entered a 100-day writing challenge, I expected to whip off a few blogs while churning out chapters of a book. There is an idiom for that sort of optimism: wearing rose colored glasses.

Here was the mantel set before me: 3,000 words per week, due by midnight each Friday. Because nothing has changed at my core in the last 35 plus years, come Wednesday the scramble began. I continue to be a last-minute crammer.

Some perspective:

3,000 words are double the count of a standard personal essay or opinion piece in a magazine.

The college essay limit is a paltry 650 words. As a College Counselor, I revel in prompting my students through the college essay. They approach it as though it were Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The average word count for the President’s State of the Union Address is 4,000 words. It takes a team of speechwriter’s months to prepare.

Five weeks: 45,000 words, and thoughtful critique of 750 pages of other people’s work. That’s about fifty pages per week and it was time-consuming. I am a better writer because of it.

I am often asked, “Why do you write?”

It’s a question I’ve heard since I started to blog and because I am writing a memoir. I suppose the subtext goes something like, “Why would you share personal details of your life?”

Aha…. good question!

I write to rumble with my life; to grapple with grief and loss. To find balance through examination of my soul. I write because it gets the swirling stuff inside of me to the outside of me. Once released it loses its power over me.

Before I reached middle-age I had no intrinsic sense of grief. My grandparents passed in the natural order of time, at ripe old ages. Those were sad moments, but they did not paralyze me.

My mother died when I was 43. On that day, the scaffolding of my life began to dissemble, piece by piece. Soul sucking, enormous grief became my constant companion. The losses mounted and eleven years later, as I prepared for the death of my dear Uncle Bobby, I began to write.

It helped.

Some people run, bike, do yoga, or seek therapy to manage life. Others paint, knit, sculpt, or get lost in their music. Some souls bury their hurt with a “move on” sort of bravado. They hold tight to the foolish notion that an unexamined ache will heal itself.

Wizard of Oz analogies are never far from my grasp. At 50, I found myself skipping along the Yellow Brick Road. In the wake of relentless grief, I found love and it was glorious. I smiled and sighed in the palm of it. It felt like home. The soul yearns for serendipity and for a year of my life I felt as though I had found it.

In my happiness, I forgot an important fact about the Yellow Brick Road; there is a Haunted Forest at its end and it is harrowing. One moment, I was skipping and laughing and, as I turned a corner, it took me by surprise. Before I knew it trees started heaving apples at me, and a witch appeared and tried to set my straw aflame. All the while, menacing monkeys ruled the darkened skies.

I ignored the caution signs posted along the way and that tormented me. It was my hardest grappling. Writing helped me find the answers.

When I look back at my early writing, written when I had lost all semblance of myself, it makes me ache for the me of then. When I reread early chapters of my book, I am astounded by my narrow perspective. I weep for the woman who allowed pebbles to cripple her.

I am rewriting from a new place where there are no heroes or villains. A place where I no longer try to forgive myself for what I did not know. Rather, I forgive myself for dismissing instinct; losing faith in my ability to navigate.  I forgive myself for accepting less than I deserved and allowing another to judge my worth. As a friend implored me then, “You don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm.” Indeed.

In remarkable fashion, at the nadir of my sadness, another man inserted himself in my life. I scrambled to rise to the arrival of my 88-year-old Uncle Bobby. I had no idea that in his weakening I would find my strength. The eighteen months I spent by his side exhausted and restored me. He became my muse, and the writing of it made the hard work of elder-care bearable.

My articulation of the universal experience of love and loss resonated and that moved me. It was a great joy to write about my Uncle, to give voice to his history. I felt like his personal curator and it was an honor to capture his remarkable spirit in words. My journey with Uncle Bobby helped me find my writer’s voice.

More than therapy, friends, or even Uncle Bobby, writing escorted me out of The Haunted Forest.

I write to rumble, to figure, to navigate.

During the 100-day challenge, other rumbling writers encouraged my story through constructive critique. They inspired me with their own dedication to the craft.

One wrote to me, “We have little in common. I am a 35-year-old bachelor on the other side of the country.  Yet, when I read your chapters, I find myself contemplating my own life.  I want to read your writing with a glass wine and my feet set on an ottoman.”

There is a writer who does the same for me. A dog-eared copy of her collection of essays, This Is A Happy Marriage, sits on my bedside table. Ann Patchett’s soul is present in her writing.  She is achingly honest and when I read her work, she feels like a friend.

I write because I hope that one day, on the night of a full moon when sleep is but a dream, a struggling soul will reach for a dog-eared copy of my book on her bedside table… and not feel so alone.

 

 

From The Sublime To The …

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Joanne and I made a stop at My Wednesday Place en route to an epic Halloween Party several weekends ago.  We wanted to share our transformation with our bartender friend.  The mustache was the only sticking point. The damn thing just wouldn’t stay stuck.  When Alan made us laugh, it popped out of place.  That wouldn’t do, I planned to laugh all night.

“You two should paint mustaches on.  Do you have the eyeliner?”  This suggestion came after he made a valiant attempt to wrestle square patches of Scotch tape on the fake mustaches without success.

Eyeliner?   Eureka!  Joanne and I hastened to the bathroom and voila:  Two Charlie Chaplin’s replete with bamboo canes, bowler hats and unfettered by ill-fitting mustaches.

Earlier that evening, in the privacy of my bedroom, I slipped on the impossibly comfortable trousers I had found at Good Will; men’s trousers, of course.  What a revelation!  The waist did not taper and the pants hung on my hips without a tug.  The flaws of a middle-aged woman’s body disappear in trousers, no worry of middle section, or buttocks, or designers who try to convince you that you’re never too old for the skinny jean. Katherine Hepburn and Diane Keaton knew the secret of men-style trousers!

The white, cotton, men’s dress shirt felt clean and crisp on my skin, and the tweed vest, when buttoned,  gave me a hint of waist and bound my ample chest. No concerns tonight that a breast might peak out of a cup just because I danced. The blazer topped it all and slid on, its’silken lining a feminine secret stashed in a man’s jacket. Who knew?

Next came the shoes. When you select a transgender costume, the shoes are tricky business.  For $10, I found the perfect pair of barely worn size 8 ½  oxford tie black shoes.  Here’s a secret – with the exception of flip-flops they are the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn.  No wonder Cinderella lost that glass slipper. You could dance all night in men’s oxfords.

The makeup was imprecise, white base and smokey grays to evoke silent films and black liner, smudged around the lids to accentuate Chaplin’s forlorn innocence.  Rather than tweeze eyebrows into submission, Chaplin’s face called for us to add volume.  What a concept,  more hair, not less!

My night as Chaplin was pure delight. I danced often and my stride away from the band was downright jaunty! My feet never tired and the oxfords did not squeeze my toes. I gave no thought to my imperfect face or aging body.  It occurred to me, as I said goodnight to a wonderful evening, that, well… It’s a man’s world, baby!

Tuesday, we elected a new President.  Two elections ago, I supported Barack Obama.  I was taken with his countenance, soaring rhetoric and, yes, his hopeful vision for this country.  He has been imperfect, but I still believe he is a good man.  History will ultimately weigh in on his tenure.  I am old enough to know that snap judgments on a Presidency are pure folly.  The dust needs to settle before the history books are written.

I did vote for Hillary Clinton last Tuesday.

The day after the Halloween party, I saw a bumper sticker on a car in my hometown.

It read:  “Trump That Bitch.”

It stole my Chaplin afterglow

That following morning I was dismayed when a news commentator suggested this,  “If Hillary could just find that person in her, who got teary in New Hampshire in 2008….”

He trailed off.

“Well,”  he went on,”Her popularity soared after that.” 

Suddenly, my Ralph Lauren boots felt tighter.

I happen to come from a curious background which foils the political divide in this country. I was adopted at 6-months-old, and my Irish Catholic father was a dyed-in-the-wool Eisenhower Republican.  He loved Ronald Reagan and disdained anything Kennedy. He was a World War II veteran with racist tendencies, saved mostly for Asians.  He was a product of his time, having served in China and never forgot Pearl Harbor.  At his funeral, there were a surprising number of people of color.  My father calibrated over his lifetime.  He was not perfect, but he evolved.

Of this I am certain; he believed that I could accomplish anything.  My father saw no glass ceiling for his daughter. He was a Republican and I loved him.  He was a gentleman who respected women. At his funeral, I gave a eulogy.  It ended thus;  I will miss my greatest cheerleader.

Uncle Bobby, as well, eschewed liberalism and clung to Fox News.  He knew I was a Democrat, but approached our differences with respect.  He watched this presidential nomination cycle with great interest in the last year of his life.  He didn’t much like Hillary Clinton, but never spoke of her with disdain.  For a time, he liked Ben Carson, and then “That Kasich fella seems good.”  He said this of Donald Trump, “Oh, him? He’s a clown.” Then, he leaned forward and whispered, “He’s a cuss.”  Uncle Bobby found our President-elect distasteful. 

In my fifties. I have come to know misogyny more intimately, though its forms are as amorphous to me as Chaplin’s makeup and as stealthy as his fluid movements.

Misogyny: Dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.

It can be hard to recognize. Sometimes it comes at you like a lamb, all soft and needy of nurturing, until you realize the giving is a one-way street.  When the jig is up, it moves on without compunction, like a parasite that has depleted its host.

Sometimes it comes as a labrador; a pal, a punch in the arm which anoints you as “one of the guys”.   Sometimes you get to hear the “locker room” talk, but be careful not to disapprove. With a wink and a smile, you might be reminded not to be too sensitive.   

In this Presidential election, misogyny came out like a tiger.  It was so obvious, it was nearly unbelievable.

It appears a lot of folks just don’t like Hillary Clinton or believe that she is  a “crook.” How  I wish I had not been so complacent before the elections.  I would have helped some folks out with a simple google search, and they could have unearthed in print and on video the President-elect’s quotes about women.  I would have told anyone who might listen to insert the name of their daughter,  wife,  mother, sister, or female friend.

If our African American President had said any of these things about women, I am sure he would never have been elected.  If Hillary Clinton had uttered the same kind of pejoratives against men I am certain she would not have been the Democratic Nominee.

My friends who voted for Mr. Trump are quick to tell me to relax, that this not a big deal. They tell me that it’s politics, a political divide between us, or that this is about the economy or a need for change. They tell me that he won’t be like that as President?  It’s just Donald, you know?  As though he is some irascible character in a prime time sitcom who just doesn’t have a darn edit button.

In 2016, I guess we still believe that boys will be boys.

They go round and round and round about emails and home servers in basements, and when they can’t quite drum up a character issue there, they pull out the big guns: Bill Clinton. It appears the  President-elect doesn’t have to take one iota of responsibility for his history of abhorrent behavior toward women. In stark contrast, Hillary Clinton has to be responsible, ad infinitum, for her husband’s egregious mistakes, for which he was impeached nearly 20 years ago.  She must be exhausted.

President-elect Trump now gets his chance. I love Democracy and everyone’s right to support whomever they choose.   I have not once protested the election of a Republican President, and I won’t protest this one.  

In the meantime, won’t you help me explain to my very strong, independent, opinionated 17-year-old daughter, why misogyny just didn’t seem to matter in this Presidential election? Let her know that respect for her gender isn’t part of the litmus test in Presidential elections.  Boys will be boys, you know.  Just a fact of life here in the United States of America. 

Life felt lighter to me just weeks ago, on a crisp, clear Halloween weekend.  I’ll find it again I am sure.  In the meantime, be patient with me while I try to wrap my head around a great disappointment.

A friend sent me this stunning Charlie Chaplin Clip which is pure irony.  Enjoy.

My Wednesday Place…

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I have a Wednesday place.  I didn’t choose it.  Candidly, I was sort of go along to get along at the suggestion.  I feared that a ghost from another time might make it a place better left alone. Not engaging ghosts is tricky business in my small swath of world.  I gave up a local tennis venue and regular supermarket. Short of moving away, I had little choice but to brave it.  And so I did, one winter Wednesday night ten months ago.

In the muddle of last year’s Rubik’s Cube of heartache and Uncle Bobby’s precipitous decline, weekdays felt no different than weekends.  Days raced and crawled into weeks and months and I had nothing in me that resembled mindfulness.  Getting through without dropping a spinning plate was all I could muster. I wanted to settle deep into my couch and shut the world away. Somehow, in the middle of each week, my world found its pace.

In the midst of The Januarys, my beloved, incorrigible Russian friend offered a midweek answer to the doldrums.

The place is not really the story.  It is dimly lit and there is a maze of rooms to navigate. At its center is a wonderful, weighty, oak, wrap-around bar whose equally heavy, tall chairs invite you to sit for a spell.  On the far side is a dance floor and small stage.  My only other time there was spent on that crowded dance floor celebrating a love unexpectedly returned. It left again before I even had time to catch my breath.

Like with people, I am not so much for flash.  I crave the comfort that comes with knowing something or someone over time.  I am skeptical of nouveau. The feel of a well-worn moccasin will forever outpace the thrill of immediate infatuation with anything, human or not.  Too many of us seek freshness. Familiar and flawed is where I find my bliss. It is where interesting lives.

As I walk in each Wednesday night, it is reassuring to see that the cracked window at the entrance remains unrepaired.  Damaged but not broken resonates with me. I am equally glad to see the faces that make the core of us.  There is Andrei, of course, the de facto center of our group.  I often only see him on Wednesday and he never disappoints in enthusiasm. When he has a story to tell, he animates in extremis, all talking hands and punctuated speech.

Tina is there, too. Blonde and beautiful, she embodies the elusive confidence of 30 somethings. I remember that surety in myself.  I love her bravado and candor.  She is Russian as well, and I laughed aloud one day while reading a text from her announcing our Wednesday place as “consistently inconsistent.” Those Russians love to craft their second language with cleverness.  She nailed it.

My Wednesday place began as we three.

My writer friend, Joanne, was a come lately addition. Intrigued by my unbreakable Wednesday appointment, she is now a warm staple;  like apple pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a crisp Autumn night. She came just to see and hasn’t missed a Wednesday since.  Joanne trumps us all in warmth.

Dana, too, does not disappoint in commitment.  A mother of four, one doesn’t have to be prescient to know that she is also trying to find her life’s rhythm. One week she’ll grab the Karaoke mic, and the next she might quietly observe.  Mostly, I think she likes the promise of gathering with trusted souls.

Week by week our Wednesday place found its traction and others began to come, curious about our commitment to a well-worn place that promises little more than a finely poured beer.  The other cast of characters are “consistently inconsistent” in devotion. Some we already knew; some we are coming to know.  If life were a sitcom, my Wednesday place would have a continuum of guest stars, each one adding a different dynamic; their often unexpected appearances adding to the shenanigans.

The left corner of the bar is our weekly goal.  Unlike weekends, when this place is packed, Wednesday is rarely crowded. Still, commandeering the left corner is never a given, more like a gift. It guarantees a flow of conversation and the best angle from which to observe the usually mediocre, but sometimes spectacularly great karaoke which takes place in the vast space on the other side of the bar.  And yes, on occasion I lend my voice to the mediocrity. There have been epic failures like “Love Shack”, and a nearly acceptable rendition of “California Dreaming.”  The former all empty flash; the success of the latter owed to low register and subtle octave change. The B-52’s makes me edgy.  The Mama’s and Papa’s are comfortable personified.

Speaking of comfort, I have one more piece to add to the mosaic.  There is a bartender at my Wednesday place who is the most consistent of us all.  He is an Irishman with boyish charm; a peer for us in a place where a majority of the clientele need proper I.D. Over months, in small drips of conversation and revelation, he has become a part of us. He is an ear for the serious and the silly.  He has an intangible gift we all know, but struggle to incorporate. When he talks to you, you feel like you are the only person in the room, like what you might be saying is important.

While tending to his work, he always finds a way back to our corner. There’s often a wink or a smile emanating from his warm, comfortable face and that tells me that he “gets’ our motley crew.  Perhaps, I romanticize the place. If I do, he’s part of the fairy tale.  There is no satisfactory substitute.

My favorite Wednesday night of the many was the first after the death of Uncle Bobby.  I extended my reach to invite friends to join me in Memorium  They came, and I traded my Stella for the Uncle Bobby preferred Guinness.  We toasted his journey, urged on by my friend’s patience for stories of him.  Uncle Bobby would have loved my Wednesday night place and all the people who make it so. Like the brown plaid blanket he placed across his lap, he would have worn this place with comfort.

Ten months have passed since Andrei’s suggestion.  He could not know then that his intuition would help heal a heart that felt like shattered glass or sustain me through the difficult walk I faced with Uncle Bobby.  I have no idea how long the Wednesday night ritual will continue. Life seems so expansive to me now, so filled with limitless possibility, that I can make no promises.

But, tonight I will be there; comfortable and grateful for friends and an unexpectedly special place.