Go in Peace

I was introduced to Louise Erdrich’s work in an interesting way. One of my brothers told me about The Night Watchman, so I downloaded a sample and was immediately drawn into the story. But there were already several books in my queue, so I procrastinated adding another.

But the universe had other plans for me. The next morning I recognized Erdrich’s name on a book already on one of my bookshelves. Curious, I took the book down and looked inside. Out fell a business card belonging to the son of someone in my writing group. Strange, I thought. He’d never been in my home. His mom had, though, and unbeknownst to me, she’d left the book for me a few weeks prior. It was LaRose.

What could I do but read the first chapter? With a scene so well written, intriguing, and almost beyond belief, Erdrich had my attention right away. Little did I know what a fan I would become after meeting LaRose and the lives of two families intertwined with each other and with the larger community…and with many who’d come before.

After reading LaRose, I read several other of Erdrich’s books, the most recent being The Sentence. Different in tone from the other novels, I think it might be my favorite. It was easier to follow, humorous in many sections, and filled with fascinating, well-described characters whose lives intersect with meaning…even a ghost name Flora.

I reviewed it on on Amazon and am sharing it here. Meanwhile, I’m pondering the many themes of social injustice, socio-cultural differences, and the world of spirits.

“Here’s how much I enjoyed The Sentence: I found myself thinking so much about Tookie, Pollux, Hetta, Jarvis, Asema, Flora, jingle dresses, and fry bread that I downloaded the Audible version too. Read by the author, the “spoken word” was particularly meaningful, even fun at times, because of Erdrich’s voice inflection, speech rhythm, and emphasis she placed on certain passages. After listening, I often went back to the Kindle version to reread entire sections, especially those relating to the George Floyd protests, bookstore experiences with Flora, and several about nature, Pollux, and Jarvis.

“Because of having read several of Erdrich’s books, I was prepared for the first chapter. Like the others, it was a bit unsettling and set the reader up for what was to follow.  Tookie, the main character, agreed to do a favor for a friend (big mistake) and ended up serving time in prison. She’s released early and marries the man who arrested her, Pollux. They’re Native Americans living in Minnesota who seem to be living somewhat ordinary lives and then Wham! There’s Covid, a Presidential election, the murder of George Floyd, and protests relating to his death. About this time, Pollux’s daughter Hetta and her newborn come to live with them for a while. Life happens.

“Here are a few of the things I particularly liked about The Sentence:

• Experiencing these major events through the perspective of Tookie and others increased my insight about other people’s struggles especially those of color. “Indian after Indian and Black after Black and brown after brown person….”

• There’s some backstory, but for the most part, the action of the novel takes place within a year’s time. Plus, every reader could identify with one or all of the major themes and/or  happenings. Is there anyone who hasn’t been touched by COVID-19 in some way?

• I learned some new words and terms, i.e., deliquesce and the difference between All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. I also learned more about Native American culture.

• Her description of people, places, and things: “I’m a little sad when the shapes of the trees are revealed.” And how about another short phrase: “There was the residue of joy in their tattered yard.” I’ve seen yards like that.

• My consciousness was raised. I love reading novels in which I learn something. I’d heard of Philando Castile, but not Zachary Bearheels, Bad River Ojibwe, Charles Lone Eagle, or Jason Pero (among others).

• The relationships and ties that bind people to one another, both past and present, the material world and the spirit world. There’s even a ghost involved, Flora. Or was she a spirit–as Pollux might think?

“Things I dislike about The Sentence: 0, nada, nothing. I liked everything. I hope you will, too.” Until I get my muse mojo going, I’m re-reading and other people’s work and feeling inspired and edified by their words and ability.”

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Connections, Past and Present

While the title might sound like a sweet post about loved ones gathering for a family reunion complete with hugs, memories of beloved grandmothers and crotchety uncles, and a plethora of calorie-laden casseroles and rich desserts, it’s not. It’s a review of another one of Louise Erdrich’s novels, The Plague of Doves. Though different in format and tone, some of the characters are the same, and so is Erdrich’s brilliant prose. The quotation marks are there because I copied and pasted the review from Amazon (couldn’t get the link to copy).

“If you want to feel every emotion known to man, read this book. The opening section, “Solo,” is absolutely harrowing. I gasped.

“If you’re looking for something light with an uncomplicated plot, don’t read this. At first, I thought it was a book of short stories, but then I made myself pay closer attention to names and timelines and discovered connecting threads, not only within the novel but also between at least one other Erdrich book, The Round House. I wondered for the umpteenth time how something like this work could come from someone’s mind.

“Although confusing at times, The Plague of Doves is guaranteed to make the reader think and feel. No doubt about it—he or she will learn about life among a group of indigenous people whose lives are related, past and present, while pondering the mysterious “whodunit” aspects of a murder that takes place at beginning of the book. Four people were believed to be responsible for the murder of a family, but only three were hanged. Why is that? And who really did it?

“What I liked about the the novel is what I admire in all of Erdrich’s books: her writing. It’s rich in the sense that so much detailed information about people, events, and places seems to flow so naturally and easily onto the page. Plus, I got to meet some characters from other books (like Mooshum, Clemence, and Geraldine).

“What I didn’t like about the novel was its complexity. But deliberate engagement with the “story” and links between people and their history clarified just about everything. Amazing book!”

Confession: I still don’t know who killed the family. If you’ve read the book and know who the murderers are, let me know.

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Liminal Spaces

Do you feel it? A bit of anxiety about what the next chapter in the Corona Saga holds in store for you? I’m ready to step forward, sometimes tiptoeing and sometimes stomping across an imagined line in the sand threshold. Thresholds, those liminal spaces between what is and what will be, can be intimidating.

I sense change and awakenings all around me. But can I say goodbye to all that’s been the way of life for the past eighteen months? When sheltering in place began, I leapt into it, mainly because of necessity and fear. A high school friend was one of the first casualties, a man with resources to provide any and every medical treatment needed to survive.  When I read that his doctors planned to try proning in the hope of helping his lungs better function, I needed no other evidence to know the virus was a serious one.

That same month, March, I missed my grandson’s baptism. Rephrase: I missed the up-close-and-personal event, but because of Zoom technology, I was able to look, listen and even interact with everyone present, including people in other states. Soon thereafter, I attended conferences and meetings virtually. A close group of friends who’d met once a month for years was hesitant about meeting in person. Being senior citizens, we opted to skip lunch and keep the meeting—virtually. Church was different, too. No meetings except at-home ones and then gradually, doors were opened, and masked people were ushered to their seats in ensure social distancing.  Now people sing using hymnals instead of electronic devices. Sunday I sat in a chapel and felt a different vibe around me. What’s that noise? I wondered and realized it was the sound of people greeting each other and chatting a bit.

When I look back over the past eighteen months, I realize how different life became in a relatively short period of time. Many restaurants went out of business, some because of lack of sufficient staff, other because of so few customers, and still others because of unknown (to me) reasons. We tried Chili’s pickup option, and although the process worked well, it felt weird to walk in a side door and huddle there in near darkness with other masked and distanced diners, especially when glancing at a quiet, empty space that in earlier days would have been filled with sounds of laugher and conversation. One of my brothers had a hip replacement—and no visitors. His sweet wife, a retired nurse, left clothes and toiletries with a security guard. Schools and their routines were upended, leaving many children behind in the process.

By the time May, 2021 arrived, people began feeling safer. Until the Delta Variant arrived, that is. Still, knowing that the vaccine offered a certain layer of protection, we began venturing out beyond our comfort zone. In July, we went to three days of a weeklong national barrel racing competition with thousands of others, and truthfully, I felt as safe there as I did on the afternoon we got away for a few hours in quiet, sleepy Plains, GA. Was I getting careless…or just more at ease? We even stayed in a motel and ate out in restaurants, crowded ones.

Now it’s mid-November, and the holiday season is upon us. We’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner for seventeen at our home, ages ranging from six to ninety-seven. Despite vaccinations, I’m still a little worried, anxiously excited or excitedly anxious. At some point, we have to take tentative steps toward the future, yet I find myself more timid about walking forward than I was in early summer. I’m peeking out from behind a door, trying to figure out how to navigate the threshold.

In a recent Life Kit podcast, Suleika Jaouad, writer and motivational speaker, provided a novel way of approaching reentry into society. No stranger to isolation, Jaouad spoke of her complete isolation while suffering from leukemia. Once cured, she was released with no one to tell her which meds to take or when to take them, what foods she could or could not eat, when she was to rest or sleep. She was on her own and floundering. She decided to do go on a yearlong road trip as a way to move forward while keeping what lingers.

Jaouad knows existing in the in-between state where many live isn’t easy and advises people to ask what they want to carry forward from the experience—not just COVID but any kind of loss, trauma, or upheaval. People can’t just automatically dust themselves off and say, “Wow, that wasn’t fun. Sure glad it’s over.” They need time and space to imagine what life will look like going forward.

Right now I’m in a liminal space, right at the threshold of what’s next, feeling antsy and anxious and more than a little unsettled. Jaouad feels we’ll forever be marked by Covid-19, just as we’re forever marked by other unsettling life events. How will we handle it?

Knowing that you can’t go back, only forward, how will you manage a successful reentry into life after COVID?

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From a Baptism to a Baby Shower

Moving Forward

Before March of 2020, I thought of zooming as moving rapidly along a sidewalk or road, on foot or in an automobile. Sometimes I’d even zoom in for a close-up of a photograph. But that month, zooming took on a whole new meaning.

On the afternoon of March 21, 2020 I walked around my neighborhood with a dilemma: drive to Myrtle Beach the next morning to witness my grandson’s baptism or Zoom the event from my sunroom. Perplexed, I called a friend for advice. The grandmother of ten, she knew I should be there in person, yet she also knew COVID-19 precautions had been put into effect, not only at the church but in virtually all gathering places.

We finished our conversation, and I continued my walk, still uncertain about what to do. My son planned to set up Zoom, a virtual way of meeting that would allow me to participate in the event—and even give a talk. But I was unfamiliar with Zoom and found it threatening and scary. Nevertheless, the next morning found me sitting in front of my Mac, trying unsuccessfully to connect to the meeting. After a few stressful moments, I decided to use my iPhone, and within seconds I was in a church in Myrtle Beach, the only in-person individuals being my son and his family and the other three grandparents. Social distancing was in effect.

Since that was the first time I’d zoomed a meeting, I didn’t know I could access a gallery and see all the other attendees who were “present” in Utah, Georgia, and other locations in South Carolina. I could see only the aforementioned eight people sitting in the Myrtle Beach Ward. I witnessed the baptism and heard talks and prayers from homes in three states, though, and that was reward enough for me. Amazing, in fact.

It was a remarkable experience, sort of like a visual conference call, and I told Ethan, my grandson, that he’d probably made history as the first person baptized via Zoom in his ward. As spring turned to summer, church was held in members’ individual homes, and by mid-summer there was a tentative move back to church reopenings enforced with social distancing and mask wearing. And now, mid-November, things are almost back to pre-Covid status. Almost.

From April until the present, Zoom meetings have become regular occurrences. I’ve participated in conferences, classes, and meetings, and although it was awkward at first, Zooming was soon as common as Facetiming (if not more so).

But last week, I participated in a different kind of event using Zoom, a baby shower. The mom, her mother, the hostess, and a couple of other people sat in a living room in a nearby city. All other attendees showed up in a virtual gallery. As I played the games and watched the young mother open a few gifts, I thought of how wonderful it was to be able to celebrate the upcoming arrival of her baby. At the same time, I wondered if it was to be if not the last, then one of the last official virtual gatherings for me.

I’m ready for up close and personal comings-together, the kind when you can look around a room and see people interact, hear them laugh, ooh and aah over gifts without turning on a microphone or raising your hand.

That said, I’m finding myself a little anxious about reentering the real world. Are you?

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Does Justice Prevail?

I left my writing group yesterday filled with resolve to beef up my blogging–or to at least get back to it. This summer, I’ve been reading a lot, writing a document titled Corona Chronicles (original, huh?), spending as much time with friends and family that these crazy times would allow, and watching the feeding habits of the birds in our backyard. Like you, I’ve had some glad experiences–the birth of a bonus grandchild–and sad ones like the passing of a young relative.

Before I ramble too much, I want to touch on reading, a pastime I see as foundational to writing. Of the books I’ve read this summer, three that have touched my heart, jerked me out of my naiveté, and taught me about Native American life among the Chippewa were written by Louise Erdrich: LaRose, The Round House, and Love Medicine. Last night I finally reviewed The Round House on Amazon and decided to share the review here.

“It’s been three weeks since I finished this novel, but I still remember how the opening grabbed me with its foreshadowing of events to come. It’s a Sunday afternoon on the reservation, and Joe, a young teen, and his father, a tribal judge, realize their mother and wife should be home. After receiving a phone call, she’d gone to meet someone about a file, and it was totally out of character for her to stay away so long without letting Joe or his father know her whereabouts. When the father says they’re going to find her mother, Joe feels encouraged; his father said find, not look for.

“Joe’s hope is short lived. His mother has been brutally attacked and raped and goes into a semi-conscious state, almost catatonic. This act of brutality and the search for the perpetrator is the underlying theme of The Round House. Although the Natives of the community know who attacked Joe’s mother, nothing can be done about the crime because of an antiquated law prohibiting punishment of whites.

“Throughout the novel, an interesting cast of characters enter the scene, my favorites being Joe’s buddies, especially Cappy, Sonja, and a compelling middle-aged woman named Linda Wishkob. Linda was born a twin whose parents, the Larks, were agreeable to letting her languish and die in the hospital. Her life was saved by a Native woman who raised her with her own children. Somehow the reader feels this fact must be important. And it is.

“The novel is suspenseful from the beginning, and the tension continues to build until the last page. There’s money involved—and social injustice, loyalty, friendship, and courage. Does justice prevail? Yes and no. You be the judge.”

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From Cookie to Oreo

Blame it on Kathryn and Brenda, two writer friends. At lunch today, we confessed to a shrinking desire to write and vowed to up our game. We chatted about a variety of topics to pursue, and mine was evolution of a person, culture, religion, pastimes….

A friend told me about Father Richard Rohr’s series of meditations Meditations@cac.org and encouraged me to subscribe to the site. “It’s right up your alley. You’ll love it,” she said. And she was right. I especially like the prayer that accompanies the daily reading. I’m sharing only the first two sentences today. I love them, and honestly, who hasn’t felt the truth of the second line about more of reality being revealed?

Loving God, you fill all things with a fullness and hope that we can never comprehend. Thank you for leading us into a time where more of reality is being unveiled for us all to see. 

A few weeks ago the meditations theme for the week was evolution. I thought Now that’s going to upset some people. But after I began reading, I realized it was not about our human origins but about how we evolve as individuals over our lifetimes…and the same for cultures. Everything changes. Words, literature, traditions, styles, occupations. Count on it. Nothing stays the same.

I thought of myself. I was a once a cute baby, and for a couple of years, my parents’ only child, the first of four. They were only nineteen when I was born, an age that seems crazy young from my vantage point today. While it’s true that there are plenty of young people that age who have children, but it’s rarer than it was a half century or more ago. Fewer babies are being born today, and interestingly, teen pregnancy has declined substantially (at least in the United States).

But that’s not what I meant to write about.

I want write a little about a person’s evolvement/evolution throughout life. We’re infants who can’t even get speak or get our own snacks. We can vocalize our discomfort by crying, and it’s pretty effective in the short run. At some point toward the end of the first year, infants begin using actual words, an achievement that makes our wants more specific. Following that, instead of saying cookie, we can say Oreo or Saltine. That happened to me. In my baby book (something mothers often kept decades ago), I read, “Jane says so many new words that I can’t write them all down.”

My mother enjoyed telling me about how Daddy would say, “Make her talk, Margie. Make her talk.” Apparently, I didn’t need too much encouragement because soon, he would say, “Make her hush, Margie.” Too late, Papalops. I learned the power of words at a young age, and although I’ve never been particularly loquacious, communicating and connecting are two of my favorite activities. This might be a good time to mention that generally speaking, girls speak sooner than boys and have larger vocabularies…something about language centers in the brain and how they’re wired differently according to gender.

A couple of weeks before my second birthday, my brother Mike was born, an event that changed the family dynamic. Two years later, Ann joined our family, and three years after her birth, another brother, David, came along and completed the circle. We still had lots of evolving ahead.

Years passed, and I went to elementary school and learned to read like most other American kids. Made friends. Went through the lunch line in an orderly fashion. Wore skirts and dresses since girls couldn’t wear pants to school then. Except on the coldest of winter days, that is. Then we could wear corduroy slacks beneath our skirts. I was, like all the kids I knew, clumped together with the same group of students for a whole year, all day. But then middle school came along, and we attended classes with different people. You might have English with Buddy but not math, biology, or history. Plus, the teachers differed as did the classrooms. But that dress code—it didn’t change.

I’m already over my self-imposed word limit of 600 words so I’m closing my laptop. But you know something? I’m into this evolution concept. As the grandmother of children all the ages I have been, I can easily see their physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and spiritual growth and enjoy speculating about their tomorrows.

What about you? How have you evolved? Can you see it happening?

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Unhealed Wounds

I’ve been accused of having a Pollyanna outlook, and that’s okay by me. No one in my circle(s) said he or she actually enjoyed COVID-19, and nor did I. At the same time, since many usual activities were nipped in the bud, I spent more time alone reading and enjoying nature–even watched a few Netflix movies.

The break from the busyness forced an outward perspective, an awareness of others who were having a rougher time than I…and who always had and likely always would. Quick example: we never ran out of apples, bread, or granola bars; we were never lonely (though the ache to see my children and grandchildren was visceral at times); and we were never too cold or too hot. I sensed that even if we got sick, we’d survive. In the meantime, there was no sense to kick against the pricks. Shoulders straight, we thought this too shall pass and used the time to learn about the world around us–nature, people, cultures, music, rodeos, writing, and so forth.

Specifically, I learned about memoir writing–what it is and isn’t–and about the real lives people live. One such memoir was Memorial Drive, a book I highly recommend. Here’s the review I posted on Amazon in the hope of encouraging others to read it.

Memorial Drive, a memoir by Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Tretheway is one of those books that’s going to live with me for a long, long time. Caught up in an increasingly awareness of social and racial injustice, I immediately became immersed in Trethewey’s book to the exclusion of all other reading.

Beautifully written, the memoir begins with her parents, a white father and black mother, and how they met, and what a happy family they were—for a while. Despite the legality of their marriage, the Tretheweys weren’t protected from the darts and slings and downright malice that prejudice can bring, and ultimately, they divorced. Little Natasha moved with her mother to Atlanta to begin a new life, a life away from her grandmother, Uncle Son, and others of her supportive environment in Gulfport. Her mother eventually remarries, and another chapter of Natasha’s life begins, a sad one leading to tragedy.

While this book is a memoir, its structure isn’t linear in the sense that “this happened and then this and then that.” Rather, it’s organized according to memories of important incidents that carry weighty insight, especially some that seem to foretell the future. I particularly enjoyed her Trethewey’s description of a photograph of her standing between her parents as her mother sat on the arm of a chair her father, Eric Trethewey was sitting. Those were good moments where she felt safe and loved by both parents, moments too good to last that ironically prepared her to endure the difficulties ahead.

Memorial Drive is a about love and the ties that bind that last despite separation, even the separation of death. It’s also about endurance and survival.

As I typed this post, I kept thinking of how all of the major players that affected Trethewey’s life, are probably deceased. And yet, their influence lives on, even in those who never met them–like me and other readers. Read the memoir, and you’ll see what I mean.

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The Candy Man

I’ve never been able to shake the memory of a man I met eleven years ago in an Atlanta hospital. “Met” is probably not the best verb to describe our encounter. Geez. It wasn’t even an encounter, but what do you call it when two people sit side by side on a couch for thirty to forty minutes without speaking and one party’s (his) demeanor and appearance leaves an indelible impression?

I’m putting part of the story in the blog and have shared it with my writing group on several occasions. We all feel something’s missing, but what? Perhaps it’s not worth remembering, much less writing about. Except that it is. The segment below takes place when I’m at Northside to visit a newborn grandson two years after my initial experience with the candy man. 

Help me. What do I need to do to make this better? Stronger?

“I quickly mounted the circular staircase of the atrium, and when I reached the top, I spotted a dozen or more people, most of them middle-aged, sitting on green vinyl couches. I was immediately transported to a morning nearly two years previous. On that day, several family members had gathered to await the birth of Olivia Jayne, my son and daughter-in-law’s first child. I remembered the excitement of that spring morning, mine bordering on giddiness, as we spent the day on those same couches and chairs arranged to encourage conversation.

“On that Saturday in May, we had walked and talked and snacked and waited. And then we waited some more. We grandparents were allowed in and out of Amanda’s room for part of the day, and then the medical personnel shooed us out. As Teri, Amanda’s mother, and the rest of us made small talk in the huge waiting area, a feeling of anxious anticipation permeated the atmosphere. What could be taking so long?

“Camus said all human wisdom could be summed up in two words, wait and hope,” I quipped, hoping to ease the tension. Tight, anxious smiles greeted the remark. We knew the moment was close, and yet there was nothing the four adults could do. It was in the hands of the doctor and Amanda. And God.

“Life teemed all around us. At least two groups of expectant parents came for the tour. Led by a member of the hospital staff, the excited parents-to-be were given instructions on where everything was and what they could expect on delivery day. The group stopped just short of the double doors that led to the labor and birthing rooms, and we listened as their guide informed them about what went on behind the entry. Securely locked, the doors were sacred portals beyond which no one could pass without permission and a security code.

“Several medical personnel, clad mostly in white coats, bustled about with clipboards and pagers, all busily intent on their missions. I watched the scurrying doctors, nurses, and orderlies and recalled Annie Dillard’s poignant passage in For the Time Being about an obstetrical ward in a busy city hospital. As Dillard described the activity level, she said there “might well be a rough angel guarding this ward, or a dragon, or an upwelling current that dashes boats on rocks.” She then asks if we, her readers, should perhaps “remove our shoes, drink potions, and take baths?” Because, Dillard writes, “This is where the people come out.”

“Chitchatting about various topics, none of them too serious, we scarcely noticed the quiet arrival of an older man who came to join our group. Truthfully, he didn’t so much join us as he filled an empty seat for a few minutes. We had grown accustomed to sharing our space with an assortment of people as the day progressed. The latest arrival was just another seat filler, someone with whom we’d share small talk and commiserate about the waiting…or so I thought.

“Cap pulled halfway down his forehead, his coal black eyes stared straight ahead. On the frail side, his downcast demeanor made him appear even more shrunken as he sat still and silent on the sage green sofa, his dark face immobile and unreadable. He appeared to be around 60, but frankly, it was hard to determine his age. Serious sorrow, rather than his age, could have been responsible for the deep lines etched beside his mouth and the empty look in his eyes.

“The four grandparents-in-waiting continued to talk, and hoping to bring him into our conversation, I tried to establish some eye contact with the newest member of our cluster. My friendly overtures were to no avail, and I could tell from my furtive glances at his face that to him we might as well be pieces of furniture. He seemed oblivious to his surroundings as he dealt with some inner turmoil or heartache. Still and silent, he created a sacred inviolate space around him that no one could enter.

“Looking straight ahead, the quiet man pulled a brown bag of plain M & M’s from his shirt pocket, and for the entire time he sat amongst us, he slowly and methodically ate the chocolate pieces. He didn’t tilt his head back and jiggle several at a time out of the bag. Nor did he spill a few in one hand and examine the multi-colored morsels before popping them into his mouth. He ate them unhurriedly, one by one, not savoring–merely chewing. Did he even notice their sweetness?

“After a few moments, I noticed a lone tear streaking down his cheek, and then another and another. From my vantage point, I could see only his right profile, but I’m certain the tears were coursing down both sides of his face. Despite his sorrow, the candy man’s demeanor was one of dignity and restraint. The juxtaposition between our emotions and his couldn’t have been more obvious. Seeing his pain almost made me feel guilty for feeling so much hope and happiness.

“What had happened to cause him such distress? Had he lost a wife or a daughter? Had one of the women in his life given birth to a stillborn child? At that time, Northside delivered more than 18,000 babies per year, but that’s not all the Women’s Center does. It’s a full-care facility and handles just about any women’s issue imaginable. From surgery to seminars, females from 12 to 100 are treated. The area where we sat was right outside of the labor and delivery area, but there were other sets of doors radiating from the waiting area, all leading to some mystery-shrouded ward. Which ward had he come from?

“I’d like to say that someone offered him a tissue and that we became shoulders to cry on. But no, that didn’t happen. Subdued by the newcomer’s obvious anguish, we grew quieter, and after a few moments we gave up our feeble attempts to continue our earlier lighthearted banter. We all tried to ignore him, not because we didn’t care but rather because we respected him and his distress. We too had experienced punctured hearts.

“After that May day, I couldn’t get the silently weeping M & M-eating man out of my mind and brought him up to all who would listen. “What’s the meaning?” I’d ask, never receiving a satisfactory answer. No one seemed to understand the gravity the scene held for me, and I gave up looking for significance when someone glibly suggested a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

“Two years later, as I breezed by the waiting area filled with another set of people awaiting news, I paused for a moment and remembered the candy man whose memory continued to haunt me. What was he doing on this March evening? Had his tears dried? If we’d been sitting together in one of the seating areas tonight, would he talk to me? And if so, what would he say?

“I think he’d remind me that while there is suffering, there is also joy. Maybe pain serves to make us more aware of life’s exquisite sweetness.

“Turning away, I hastened along a maze of corridors until I found Amanda’s room. Anxious to see Ethan, I pushed the door open and saw him stretched out on a small table, all 8 pounds, 9 ounces of him. My son was leaning over him, gently speaking to the baby. After touching Ethan’s warm, velvety face, I turned my attention to Amanda, the lovely and tired young mother. Her labor had been long and arduous, and across the room lay a perfect child. There was that juxtaposition again, pain and happiness.

“Soon, a nurse came in and gave the infant a bath, put drops in his eyes, and dressed him. Wailing loudly, Ethan let everyone know that he did not enjoy this treatment. His life had been so much more comfortable within his mother’s womb. Nevertheless, the nurse’s actions were vital, as was his screaming, painful entrance into the world. Moments later, the little one was cradled in his mother’s arms, calm and asleep, his tiny ear pressed against her heart.”

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Six People, No More and No Less

A couple of years ago, I wrote and self-published a family history of sorts. I say “of sorts” because the focus is on my parents, their siblings, and my grandparents. Mention is made of great grandparents, but it’s skimpy and not that interesting, not because those ancestors were boring but rather because most of the folks who knew them were deceased. With no original sources, I had little to work with.

And when I say, “I wrote,” that’s only partly accurate. Two of my siblings contributed their life events following high school until the present, and all I had to do was plop their documents into the narrative in the right places. After proofreading about fourteen times, I ordered a few copies and immediately saw some pesky errors. Alas, I tried again…and then again to get things just right, including a few extra photos and a snapshot of my parents’ marriage license. Oh, and there was this love note written from John to Margie on a packet of matches that I felt inspired to add.

All that to say, the undertaking was a labor of love, and when I was done, I was Done with a capital D.

But now, well now, I’m thinking of either changing it up or writing a totally new book, this one more of a memoir. The impetus comes from Cinelle Barnes, a memoirist, essayist, and educator from Manila. Her books include Monsoon Mansion, Malaya: Essays on Freedom, and A Measure of Belonging. I had the opportunity to hear Cinelle speak at the South Carolina Writers Association annual conference Saturday, and her words touched me deeply and spurred me to action.

Cinelle’s work is about discovery, discovery about characters with desires that are often contradictory. What does each character want, and how do those desires change over time? Who or what is standing in the way of a character getting those desires met? Honesty, I never thought of those questions while pecking out my family history. It was more like this happened and then this and then that. The characters, my relatives, seem one dimensional and flat, not the living, breathing, laughing, sobbing, skipping, dancing, hopeful people they were.

The entire session was helpful, and yet what tugs at me today are six people, no more and no less, that Cinelle told her listeners to choose—the individuals who know things you don’t know, those who will inform you and keep you writing. As I listened, I wondered why I hadn’t asked my mother more questions when I had the chance. I also thought of a great grandmother who died before I was born; she haunts me. When I look into her eyes in the few photographs I have (that’s her wearing the white blouse in the photograph below), I feel a bond, a longing to know this person. What does she want to tell me? 

Interestingly, as I thought of my six people, I thought of my three siblings and my three children first, not Minnie Laney Padgett, a woman whose life has fascinated me since I first saw a tombstone for “Darling Daughter Lillie,” child of Sidney and Minnie L. Padgett who died at five years old. But then Cinelle said something that I latched onto: one or several of your six people could be a deceased person. Ghosts are part of her story, and they’re part of mine, too. And yours. Should I add Lillie, the five-year-old child who died, to my list, or just stick with her mother Minnie? But then, I can’t leave out my sweet mama. Decisions, decisions.

I’m still working on my list of six. Their selection is important since these six people will keep me writing. What is Minnie longing to say? What’s something she wants me to know? Who would your list of six include?

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Move, Learn, Eat, Connect, and Rest

I’ve been writing, yes. And this blog is supposed to be geared toward writing, yes again.

But good readers make good writers, and since I’ve been doing some heavy duty reading lately, I’m taking the time to share a little something about Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s Keep Sharp.

I thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Gupta’s book on keeping our brains aware and sharp. At first, I thought Yeah, yeah, I already know about amyloid plaques and tangles in the brain, but open to new information, I kept reading and am so glad I did. There was a wealth of recent research that I didn’t know, including more information on how the brain functions, changes, and responds throughout life. In addition, Dr. Gupta provides dozens of sites and references for the reader/listener.

The five pillars of brain health reminded me of truths that I knew to be valid and reinforced my diligence in attaining each. They’re crucial, all of them, and I’ve been preaching about their importance to friends and family for the last two weeks. I’m amazed at the responses, including, “I get plenty of sleep, but I don’t like to exercise,” or “I enjoy walking, but I don’t want to connect with people. I won’t even answer my phone most of the time.”

All pillars are important:

1) Exercise. Just move. Depending on age, physical condition, and interests, you might enjoy going to the gym while your friend prefers a brisk walk around the neighborhood.

2) Discover something new each day. This could be a fact, a skill……….just something you didn’t know before. Just be sure it’s something you’re interested in and/or have the aptitude for. My sister enjoys skimming calculus textbooks. Me, not so much. Not at all.

And about learning, you might consider taking up a new hobby, developing a talent, or getting crafty. Again, make sure it’s something you enjoy. Confession: I purchased a 1,000 piece puzzle of an Angela Harding print a couple of weeks ago, and yesterday, I finally took it out of the box. I think fear of failure is keeping me from picking up a piece of the purple flower; maybe I chose the wrong pursuit.

3) Eat right. There’s nothing I can write that you don’t already know, yet it bears repeating that fruits and vegetables reign supreme. Dr. Gupta recommends drinking a lot of water, too. And no caffeine after two in the afternoon.

4) Connect with others, even if it’s by phone, email, or snail mail. As an aside, today I listened to the beginning of Jordan Peterson’s new book, Beyond Order, in which he mentions the importance of others in the development of a persona.

5) Get sufficient sleep and rest (7-8 hours per night). This can be challenging.

For each pillar, Dr. Gupta provides plenty of facts to back up his claims. I thought of the many people who might be inclined to dismiss his advice. But then, I heard him quote Daniel Moynihan and chuckled: “You are entitled to your own opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”

Dr. Gupta, a neurosurgeon, has the facts AND the street creds. Presented in an easy-to-follow format, the author’s sound advice is based on research and experience.  

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