Be True Blue

A few days ago, I shared my impressions of two books I’ve recently read, Educated by Tara Westover and Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. Both books are marvelous; both are about strength, determination, and becoming.

Educated is a memoir, and Tiny Beautiful Things is a compilation of advice columns–sort sort of. Strayed’s letters are more like what our writing group calls “pieces,” thoughtful and unique ones.  Tonight I’m focusing on the letters to and from Sugar. Regardless of the topic, Strayed doesn’t candy coat her responses or pull any punches. And yet…and yet, no one who reads them could dispute her genuine concern and compassion for her advice seekers.

Cheryl Strayed is a writer, not a therapist, and says she’s “totally unqualified for this gig.” Don’t believe it. Strayed knows the power of story, and in most of her messages, she includes a story about herself or someone she knows. And the writing is soooo good! In one column, she quotes Italian writer Carlo Levi who said, “The future has an ancient heart,” and while I was pondering what that meant, Strayed wrote, “…that who we become is born of what we most primitively are; that we both know and cannot possibly know what it is we’ve yet to make manifest in our lives.”

Every page is filled with sound advice written in a no-nonsense manner that forces the reader to sit up and take notice. There’s humor. But mostly there’s support and insight. Of all the chapters, the most heartrending is “The Obliterated Place.” Like many (most) of the columns, it can (and should be) read again and again. The most encouraging is “The Other End of the Pool,” a must-read for parents struggling to help their children launch.

Both books inspired and enlightened me. Educated reminded me of the reality of a transitional person, someone who breaks the cycle of negative behavior and/or harmful practices that get passed from generation to generation. One person who says, “No more,” and walks away from a background of abuse, drugs, and poverty can change the future of an entire family. Education and encouragement can help, and so can a strong sense of self and the determination to keep walking toward the light. 

Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things reminded me of the prevalence of human suffering and the part we can play in easing one another’s burdens. “Nobody will protect you from your suffering,” Strayed says. “Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue.”

 

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Don’t Give Up

I’ve done more reading than writing lately. Part of it is because I love reading and learning, and part of it is because my muse mojo has gone into hiding.

I’ve read bits and pieces of several interesting and fascinating books, and the two I’ve devoured most recently are Educated by Tara Westover and tiny beautiful things by Cheryl Strayed. Both are nonfiction, and both are honest, powerful, and engaging. That’s where the similarity ends. Westover’s book is a memoir; Strayed’s is a compilation of advice columns by Sugar.

A writer friend recommended Educated to our writing group a few weeks ago, but when she mentioned that the author was Mormon, my guard went up. Remembering my religious affiliation, she said that perhaps Westover’s family was part of a fundamentalist group and then moved on to share a few details of the book.

The writer and her siblings worked for their father in a scrapyard, and she never saw a doctor or attended school. While homeschooling is popular today, this was decades ago, and their mother wasn’t as structured or diligent as parents are today. And Tara Westover had never been vaccinated until she needed a passport to travel to England. She had no birth certificate either. Both were needed so that she could attend Cambridge. Yes, Cambridge.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Strong-willed, Tara overcame daunting obstacles that would deter most people, me included. Accepted to BYU at age 17, she didn’t even understand what a “text” was; nor had she heard of the Holocaust or the Civil Rights Movement. When she saw films in her history class portraying scenes of civil unrest (understatement) in the 1960’s, she became confused. Didn’t Lincoln free the slaves 100 years earlier? 

Westover studied and became enlightened, not just about social injustice but also about art, music, religion, philosophy, literature, trigonometry, psychology, history, and all the other courses required for a basic undergraduate degree. She was introduced to topics such as hegemonic masculinity, positive and negative liberty, and the subjection of women. Westover began to construct her own truth, something that would cause problems with her family.

Encouraged and helped by many individuals, Westover earned an MPhil and a PhD from Cambridge. She was also a visiting fellow at Harvard.

Westover’s education came at a cost. At the end of the memoir, she is estranged from her parents and three of her siblings, not because of her education per se but because of her unwillingness to lose custody of her own mind.What is a person to do, I asked, when their obligations to their family conflict with other obligations—to friends, to society, to themselves?”

Educated is not about Mormonism, junkyards, or homeschooling. It’s about resilience and determination. It’s about a young woman overcoming tremendous odds by learning that the most powerful determinant of who we become is inside us.

Though totally different, tiny beautiful things is a marvelous book, too. Based on an advice column titled “Dear Sugar,” it’s filled with letters to Sugar asking for advice on love, heartache, disappointment, and suffering. From cancer to adultery and death to Christmas, Sugar responds with tough, shrewd compassion. She doesn’t candy coat her responses or pull any punches. And yet…and yet, no one who reads her replies could dispute her genuine concern and compassion for her advice seekers. She calls them “sweet pea” and signs her letters, “Yours, Sugar.”

More on Sugar and tiny beautiful things tomorrow. Until then, take her advice and remember that “every last one of us can do better than give up.”

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An October Sunday

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Last weekend I attended the annual conference of the South Carolina Writers’ Association, and I’m still processing all the information I learned. This afternoon, I’m thinking of something Therese Fowler, keynote speaker and author of A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, taught during an afternoon session on point of view.

I got confused. Or I thought I was confused, but a friend reassured me that I wasn’t as ignorant as I thought when she said, “You already know this. You just don’t know that you know.”

“Oh” I said. “How do you know that I know?”

“Because I’ve read your work.”

In her session, Fowler suggested using a photograph as a prompt to spark a memory. Since she was presenting information on effectively using point of view, she said to look at the picture and, using first person present, ask ourselves these questions:

I’m standing, sitting, kneeling, crouching swimming, hiking, etc.
I’m wearing
I’m with
She’s looking at me (or something like that)
I feel
I wonder

After jotting the ends of the above sentences, Fowler instructed, then go to first person past, what she referred to as the vantage point, and respond to the same prompts. The  past you is going to narrate the scene so we feel like we’re (whoever the reader is) there through the sensory details. The narrator you has the wisdom gained from that experience. That person is on the other side looking back.

Heavy. But not as heavy as I  thought it would be. As luck would have it, earlier that week, two photographs had fallen from a book, one of them taken in October 1989. I know that because of my mother’s beautiful handwriting on the back.  Below are my preliminary responses to the open-ended statements.

First Person Present

I’m standing on the front porch of 511 Chesnut, happy to have had dinner (probably a Sunday) with parents, siblings, and everyone’s children. It’s October, and omg look at those huge brown leaves on the sidewalk.

I’m wearing jeans and a black turtleneck. My hair is in a French braid, something I’ve recently learned to do.

I’m with my parents, my siblings, our spouses, and our children.

She’s looking at me (or something like that). Seems like many are looking at something else and paying no heed to the camera. Lisa, Ann, Elizabeth, and Matthew are def preoccupied. Mama is looking straight ahead, happy to have her family around her.

I feel happy, at peace. I’m surrounded by the people I love and am well aware of my good fortune. I also feel a little anxious about getting home before dark.

I wonder what I have to do to get ready for tomorrow…not just for me and my classes but for the children. Do they have clean clothes? Do they have unfinished homework?

First Person Past

I was standing on the front steps of my parents’ home, a house that would later become mine.

I thought that everything would continue just the way it was (when I thought about it at all).

I wanted to hit the road for home because I knew what Mondays were like for all of us.

I was wearing black, my favorite color in those days. Still a good one. I hadn’t begun coloring my hair but started it a few years after this photo was snapped (by whom?). Because of the girls, I had begun to think of it as something fun and different instead of the negative connotations of aging.

I was with my family, including my youngest brother David and his family, and I suspect their being in SC was the reason for an October get-together.

I didn’t know that October would become the most beautiful and the saddest month of the year. Already experiencing effects of COPD, Daddy would be gone in nine Octobers and Mama in eleven.

I also didn’t know (or even dream) that twenty-three more people would be in the photo if taken today. That’s absolutely amazing to consider. Mama and Daddy knew none of those people except for Rich, and only Mama knew him since Daddy died in 1998, and Carrie and Rich met and married in 1999.

Your turn. Take out a photograph and try the exercise. To make the experience even richer, you might try getting different people in a photograph to respond to the same statements. Getting different perspectives might be quite illuminating.

 

 

 

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Are Names Important?

Being part of a writing group has increased my interest in the importance of names and how they fit a character–or not. Irma or Jezebel? Caleb or Timothy?

When our son Paul was about six months old, his sister Elizabeth asked me a simple question that I’ve never been able to answer. Watching her baby brother as he gazed at us and attempted his best to communicate with sweet, inarticulate coos, she asked “Mama, why do people have names that look like their faces?”

I can’t remember what I told her. I mean, really, what is the answer? Some parents name their children after movie stars, famous athletes, and characters in books. Others stick with family names while still others resort to biblical names, perhaps hoping the child will have some attributes of Peter, James, or John. My paternal grandfather’s first name was Abram, and I’ve often wondered why his mother chose that name instead of Abraham, the name God later gave him, the name that means “father of many nations.” To my knowledge, no one before or since (in the family) bears the name Abram. So why?

Back to Elizabeth’s question, although I still don’t have a  definitive answer, I know that people and their names often fit. Not always, but often. It could be because they grow into their monikers after hearing stories of ancestors from parents or teasing from others about the uniqueness of names like Arcadia and Rowan or the ordinariness of Jane or John. Do people become plain Janes and honest Abes?

In a prior post, I mentioned another story I read in Racing Home, an anthology by award-winning North Carolina writers. After reading “Namesake,” a delightful story by Anne C. Barnhill, I’ve pondered the significance of one’s moniker. Edwina, the protagonist in the story, finds herself considering “the sounds in a name, the power you call up when you declare a thing.” Yes, I thought. That’s it exactly.

Comparing herself to others, “An Edwina couldn’t be as dramatic as that. An Edwina would be a spinster and all that word implies. Nothing could grow on an Edwina, except thoughts, barbed jealousies of all the Clarissas and Juliannas that swirled across the ballroom floor while Edwina stands over the punch bowl and feigns fascination with sherbet.”

Edwina, actually Edwina Jane, likes her name and decides she must refuse a marriage proposal from Jack. How could she marry a man who called her Edie? “Any man who could sway me the way he had, who could think of me as ‘Edie’—such a man was dangerous.”

Poor Jack. For a time, Edwina had found him suitable company. In fact, upon first learning his name, “my heart pumped quickly. It was a fast name, one that promised advent true, maybe even danger. One bet and it was over—a single syllable you could spit out in anger or gasp in passion.”  But Jack’s last name was Applewhite, “a name as common as chicken feed.” Edwina’s was Carruthers.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the time and attention and thought that goes into deciding on a character’s name. Merilee or Merdedith? Dorothy or Deidre? Brett or Brian? Does it really matter? Yes. At twelve, I began spelling my name with a “y” to combat the Plain Jane connotation. Jane became Jayne, and surprisingly neither of my parents objected although I had been named after two great grandmothers.

What’s in a name? Do they define us? Do we grow into them?

 

 

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Nothing Lasts

Lucky me. Because of a project I’ve been working on, I was forced to read several short stories in some literary journals. Okay, that’s not completely accurate. I looked at the journals to become more familiar with various style sets, fonts, and well, layouts in general. Before I realized it, I was reading the stories, thus prolonging my “education” and immensely adding to my enjoyment. Within fifteen minutes, plots and settings overtook margins and headings.

Time prohibits a discussion of every story I read, so after great deliberation, I’m spotlighting  wee bits of two. Both came from a North Carolina award winning anthology, Racing Home. Confession: while reading these stories, I realized that I might as well give up. I will never be able to write fiction like these fabulous writers. Still, I can admire the way they use words to conjure up emotions, tell universal truths, develop plots, and describe settings.

In one story, Getting What You Wish For by Kathryn Etters Lovatt, I found myself smackdab in the middle of an emergency waiting room with three people waiting to see Shelton—husband, brother-in-law, and uncle. Having been there, done that recently, I was amazed at how the writer was able to incorporate the sounds and images of such an experience. The three “sat like stones under the evening news, talking in spurts….They listened as the Coke machine on the far wall swallowed coins, listed to cups dropping, sometimes not dropping, the spray of drink in the cup or down the drain, sprinkles of ice.” Yes,I thought. That’s exactly how it is!

As they wait in the “black coffee hours of real night,” the three reminisce and tell stories, all wondering why no one has come to talk to them about the patient. Hours later, the doctor delivers some grim news, and the two sisters and teenaged Benny visit the patient who’s in a room on the fourth floor, the floor where there’s no waiting room. “Fourth floor was the nut ward, everybody in town knew that.”

Priscilla, sister-in-law to the patient, and her son leave the hospital, walking toward the car in a beautifully described scene…moon, trees, pole lights, dogwoods trying to flower…

Here’s my favorite part, the part the whole story has been leading up to, the words I’ve always known and have recently been spouting off to anyone who will listen. Benny is waiting for his mother to tell him a story and has asked for the bad news first.

“His mother leaned against the car, looking beyond the great beyond, the night written all over her face.”

“Nothing lasts,” she told him, her voice brimming with apology.

“Nothing lasts?” He stalled, committing the image of her at that moment, pale and groggy, full of secrets she would never tell, to memory. “Okay,” he said “So is that your good news, too—nothing lasts?”

Everything changes—the good and the bad and the blah. Nothing lasts. If life is good, savor it. Enjoy the red velvet cake, dance with your sweetheart(s), go ahead and cry with happiness at the sound of a flute, memorize faces and features of those you love, turn your face to the gentle breeze. If life is bad and sad, it won’t be ever thus. Sooner or later, storms pass; it’s nature’s way.

I’m decent at nonfiction and a novice, a kindergartner at conveying messages like nothing lasts in fiction. Seriously, I’m a two on a scale of ten…but I’m willing to learn. And I’m thankful to have such good models to follow. Tomorrow or Wednesday, I’ll write a little about the other writer/story referenced in the beginning.

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Penelope’s Ghost

 

I’ve never been much of a fiction writer. The truth: I’ve never been a fiction writer at all.

But then something happened after I became part of a writing group. Everyone else wrote short stories, novels, poems, and music. They all had such vivid imaginations and could create characters, settings, and dialogues in their minds while driving a car or listening to a sermon. I wasn’t envious, just in awe. I wanted to be like them.

I’m learning.

Recently I’ve come to know a woman who has a ghost living in her house. She’s not “real,” at least not in the physical sense. She (Penelope) is a fictitious character created by a member of my writing group. Since the first time I was introduced to Penelope, she’s developed a likeable, realistic persona. Or should I say, my writer friend has developed it for her.

At one time, Penelope was a successful retiree who had been spooked by a ghost living upstairs in a home she’d just purchased. Since then, the location of the haunted house has changed, and I’ve met several of Penelope’s family members…and I don’t just mean that I’ve learned their names. I’ve learned about some of their quirks, looks, and history. I’ve also learned about their relationships and the often tenuous ties that bind.

Many of my writer friend’s family members have ghosts living in their houses, too—including her. It’s inevitable, she insists, when people live in old homes. Most of the invisible inhabitants are friendly, that is to say they mind their own business and don’t create havoc or scare humans. They do make noise though, mostly by moving things around. And sometimes they might create a little mischief by overturning paint cans or scaring away unwanted guests.

In critiquing the writer’s work, members asked a lot of questions and then offered suggestions about how to make her good story even better. How long had Penelope been living there? Why had the ghost just recently begun to act in such a contrary way? Was the ghost female or male? What did the ghost want? Was there some unresolved business that needed to be taken care of before it left?

Here’s something I learned early on upon joining the group. Even in fiction, facts are important. Get them straight/right. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The United States has an individualistic culture; Japan favors collectivism. Juneau, not Anchorage, is the capital of Alaska. This ghost talked, but group members agreed that was unusual. They might talk, though not in a conversational way. And they never eat. Why would they?

What? They were talking about Penelope as if she and her ghost were real. Are there ghosts? Some say a deceased person’s energy goes into environment, but so far no ghost hunting detecting devices have detected any “bodily energy” that survives after death.

When I doubted the reality of spirits or presences, my writer friend said, “Don’t tell that to my mother. This ghost lived upstairs in her house.”

“Her house? I thought this was Penelope’s house.”

Seven pairs of eyes looked at me, all communicating something vital: Penelope’s ghost and house were fictions based on facts. The writer’s mother’s ghost provided the seed for Penelope’s character and dilemma

“Ooooo, I see.” And after a moment, “How do you guys do that? How do you create people and who seem real?”

They all spoke up and offered a little something for me to mull over. Observe life. Watch others and see how they move and dress and how they interact with each other. Pick up story ideas from the newspaper—or from Facebook. In addition to reading more fiction, actually study it to discover how the author uses words to set scenes, describe people, or evoke emotions. “Got it,” I said, still amazed at their creative gifts yet feeling a little less ignorant.

This afternoon I’m thinking maybe scientists could prove the existence of ghosts, ghouls, and spirits if they had more sophisticated ghost-busting methods.

 

 

 

 

 

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Yesterday’s Sun is Set

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A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to share the title of a favorite novel for seven days and to nominate someone else to do the same. Fun, I thought. But then I realized the assignment wasn’t quite as much fun or as easy as I’d originally thought. How could I choose just seven? Still, I accepted his challenge and came up with a few dozen books—and then narrowed them down to seven: Ramona, The Road, Lila, Scarlet Sister Mary, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, State of Wonder, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Unless I get involved in another project, my intent is to share a little something about each book, something that makes each memorable.

Back in the 1980s, I was at a meeting with some English professors at Coastal Carolina University, and an unfamiliar term kept surfacing: DWEM. Curious about the term but not comfortable enough to admit my ignorance, I was glad when a colleague asked for me. Someone replied, “Oh, that’s our acronym for Dead White European Male (or of European heritage). We’ve come to realize that we’ve been neglectful of writers like Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, and Amy Tan and a little heavy with Dickens, Hawthorne, and Steinbeck.”

It as an Aha moment for me. I had sensed a shift in literature by men and women of different ethnicities and races, and after that night I embraced the change with great anticipation. The next afternoon found me in the Conway Library browsing for non-DWEM authors, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was at the first one I found.

Although I read the fictionalized autobiography over thirty years ago, I still recall the deep sadness I felt when learning of the injustice, abandonment, racism, and sexual abuse. I no longer possess the book, but I’m 99 percent certain that this volume, the first of seven, is the one describing the indignity she and her grandmother endured when the local white dentist refused to treat little Maya for a toothache. As I recall, he said he’d rather put his hand into the mouth of a rabid dog than the mouth of a black child. T

If Caged Bird woke me up to injustice, Scarlet Sister Mary gave me a view of plantation life in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.Written by Julia Peterkin in 1928, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel  focuses on the lives of slaves on Peterkin’s plantation, especially Mary. While Peterkin was a Caucasian, her characters are not.

It’s not my intent to review the book but rather to say how masterful Peterkin is in using the dialect of the Gullah people and in portraying their emotions, wisdom, and behavior. About the dialect, here is part of a conversation between Mary and Maum Hannah, the woman who raised her. The conversation is about July, Mary’s husband who has left her and their baby, Unex, for another woman.

“Gawd laid a heavy hand on you, fo-true, gal, but you better be careful. E might knock you harder next time. Gawd is a strange Gawd. You better pray to Him instead o fretting so hard fo July. ‘Stead of looking down, you better look up. Git out and work. Sweat some evy day. It’ll help you to shed a lot o misery.”

The next day Budda Ben, Maum Hannah’s crippled son, comes to talk to Mary about the same thing and begins his message with, “I come to talk some stiff words, gal.” I loved that line right away and often use it to preface difficult conversations with my children. Stiff words–the perfect description of how to converse with someone who needs a reality check.

Mary wants to die and tells him so, but Budda Ben is hearing none of that. He tells her there “ain’ no use to be a-trying to die.We got to stay here till our time is out.”

There’s a lot more to their somewhat one-sided conversation, but here’s my favorite piece of advice from Budda Ben. He might have been a famous psychologist if the time and location had been different.

“You hold up you head, gal, an’ quit a-draggin you feet. Fo Gawd’s sake wash you face an’ wrap you hair nice an’ put on a clean dress an’ apron. Yesterday’s sun is set, Si May-e. Last year’s rain is dry. It’s better to let old sorrows sleep an’ think on what’s a-coming to-morrow. Plenty o to-morrows is ahead of you. Plenty of good to-morrows too, if you listen at what I’m a-tellin you.”

Scarlet Sister Mary is too rich and vibrant a book to do it justice in this blog. It’s a story about love, community, grief, heartache, disappointment, disillusionment, sadness, jealousy, and a myriad of other emotions. The characters are Gullah people who live on a plantation, and yet their trials and triumphs are like those of people everywhere.

Both books touched my psyche and expanded my awareness in ways that  mountains of sociological and psychological material never will. The sociocultural element is apparent in both books, and so are the strong traits of perseverance, determination, and courage.

 

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Little Moments

What have you been writing lately? Are you working on anything? Those are questions I hear frequently. I’m always writing something, even if it’s a gratitude list, some journal entries, a blog post, or a reply to a student’s discussion post. But then, there are times that I get more involved with something, a project that consumes my time and thinking.

In my last post I wrote about some advice shared in my writing group a couple of weeks ago. The gist of it came from Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks, and my writer friend who shared the information encouraged all of us to take moments each day and record them later. Moments can be turned into stories, or they might simply have gotten your attention because of an inherent lesson.

After hearing this advice, I ordered the book and have been jotting down key words to help me recall memories later. The author suggests creating an Excel sheet with the date and a few key words. I tried this but soon fell off the bandwagon. It’s easier for me to journal about events than to store them in Excel. The point is to get them down.

For the past week, I’ve been diligently working on a booklet (14 pages) titled Reflections. In it are seventy things I’ve learned from living almost seventy years (gulp) and many of the items on the list have a moment I’ve experienced beside them.

Here are two:

#24. Education is the ticket for a better life. This is true not only in terms of more job choices but also in exposure to ideas and people you might never have known.

As I’m writing this, I’m remembering one day a couple of decades or more ago when I stood washing my hands in a restroom at HGTC (Horry-Georgetown Technical College). One of my former students rushed in and excitedly began  to tell me that because of a new program we had begun at the college (Early Childhood Education), she was at last going to make her dream of becoming a teacher come true.

I reached behind her to grab a paper towel, and as I dried my hands, I explained that the program was a two-year one. It was a good thing, yes, but it would not quality her to be an elementary school teacher. She’d need to transfer to CCU (Coastal Carolina University) after graduation and  then take the PRAXIS to make that happen.

Her reaction was a combination of anger, distrust, and disappointment when she said, “That’s can’t be true! And if it is, I’m not doing it. That’ll take forever!” Decades later, I still remember that moment and wonder what happened to her and to others unwilling to go the distance.

#40. Suffer the children to come unto you. You can learn a lot from little ones. One evening I was dining with Paul and Amanda and their children, and as Olivia and Ethan told us about their busy day at school, three-year-old Amelia sat quietly listening. She then said she had a booboo on her tummy.

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“Really?” I asked. In reply, she pulled up her shirt and showed me her belly button and gave me a look that dared me to call her out on it. When I asked her how it happened, she said she fell down on the ground and hurt her tummy. I can’t remember my reply, probably something like, “Oh my goodness!” I know that little children have vivid imaginations and are trying to figure things out. I also know that they too want to be noticed and included.

It’s mind boggling to consider how many moments we all have, moments that are lost forever unless we take the time to jot them down. What’s a moment you could share that occurred today?

 

 

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Moments

A couple of weeks ago, we stopped in a delightful little town on our way to Yellowstone National Park, Livingston, Montana. From the moment the Gate 1 Travel tour bus turned down that wide main street, I sat at attention. Everything looked so fresh, so clean and brand new. It could have been the early morning hour, or it could have been the train depot or the mountain vista. Whatever the reason, Livingston cast a spell on us, and we tumbled out of the bus, our minds set on soaking up the ambience of the area.

Following the lead of others in our merry band of travelers, we went to the Conoco station to get sandwiches and chips for a noon picnic in the park. While there, we were treated to a happy and quite animated dance by one of the employees. It was her birthday, and when her favorite tune came on the radio, she announced that since it was her birthday, it was okay to dance. What could we do except agree? Her joie de vivre set the tone for the rest of the day, and we were all smiles as we sauntered out to the sidewalk.

We saw others in our group coming out of a coffee shop with beverages, bagels, and cookies and decided we needed monster cookies for our picnic. Once inside, I passed on the oatmeal raisin cookie and opted for a Zinga bar. When I asked about the ingredients, the smiling employee slipping it into a bag laughed and said, “I really don’t know. A little bit of everything, I think—mangoes for sure.”

Once outside, we saw some youngish women wearing athleisure getting set up at a table to the right of the front door. As we walked by, they were getting themselves and their goodies situated, and their camaraderie added to our delight. Wouldn’t it be nice to have friends and a place to meet and share treats and conversation in the beautiful outdoors?

Fast forward to last Thursday’s writing group meeting.

At the meeting, a member shared some information about a book titled Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks. Since his comments were directed at something I had submitted for critique, I listened carefully and knew this information was something I could use and pass on to others. To me, the major takeaway was to take note of moments each day and record them later. Yes, I know that sounds obvious, but there’s more.

Writer, teacher, and speaker, Dicks found himself concentrating on the BIG moments of his life like getting robbed at gunpoint or having a near death experience, but he soon realized that he needed new material. He also realized that most people can’t identify with getting  robbed, but they can identify with small moments that end up being meaningful in some way.

Dicks’ advice is to take a few minutes at the end of each day and jot down at least one moment that you want to remember. Later, a moment can be developed into a story, or several such moments could be fleshed out into something larger.

Just write the moments, making sure they’re your moments. Can you see a theme emerging? A lesson?

During the critique meeting at Books on Broad, I kept noticing some women sitting outside at a table near the front door. Until my writer friend shared the “moments advice” from Matthew Dicks, my observance of the conversation between the woman had been casual, something done in a peripheral, distanced kind of way. Suddenly, the moments came together.

I don’t have to be in Livingston, Montana to enjoy meeting with friends. There are no mountain views here, but there are lots of trees and lush greenness. There are outside places to dine, too. And who knows? Passersby could actually cruise by and think What a good time those people are having.

My lesson from remembering the Livingston moment and noticing the Camden one? To paraphrase Kathy Mattea’s song, I’ve been standing knee-deep in a river dying of thirst.

Think of some recent moments in your life. Is there a theme? A lesson?

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Afraid of the Dark?

One Sunday night twenty years ago, my mother and I were talking on the phone when she said, “Your father wants to talk to you. Says it’s important.”

“Sure,” I said, wondering what to expect. While many of my friends had chatty, talkative, and interactive dads, I did not. Mine was quiet, detached, and observant—very observant. He had his finger on the pulse, so to speak, of every member of the family and knew their idiosyncrasies, needs, fears, proclivities, and favorite foods. BUT, he wasn’t much of a talker.

During our Sunday night chats, always at 6:00 sharp, my mother would say, “Your father this or your father that,” when filling me in on the details of their lives, and after our conversation ended, she would convey the news from my corner of the world to him. To have him ask to speak to me that evening was rare. Nonetheless, in a couple of seconds I heard his voice saying, “Hello Honey.” My sister Ann and I were always Honey, and both of my brothers were Son.

We didn’t talk long, but the gist of the conversation was that he was concerned that I didn’t know enough about that complicated thing called life. And the closer he approached three score and ten, he thought it was well-nigh time to correct matters. Although I don’t recall him listing specific worries, I think they could all probably fit under:

  • Do you know where to go to find peace?
  • Do you know how to navigate the waters of contention, betrayal, and disillusionment?
  • Are you brave enough for whatever’s ahead for you?

It was a strange but amazing conversation, strange because we’d never talked so directly and openly about these topics and amazing because although I was caught off guard, I felt perfectly at ease. I loved responding with these words (paraphrase): “You don’t have to worry about me, Daddy. You and Mama have given all of us enough love and confidence and know-how to tackle whatever’s ahead. And no, I don’t know the answers to everything (who does, right?), but I’ve always known the importance of asking, looking, pondering, and praying.”

I don’t know whether my mini-speech satisfied him, but he handed the phone back to Mama, hopefully secure that I’d be just fine. And most of the time I am. Whenever I have doubts, experience the doldrums, or feel darkness, I know how to find the light.

A few weeks ago, I read and reviewed Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet. While there are so many positive things I could say about it, this evening I’m sharing something she wrote about children being afraid of the dark. If only it were simple enough to get them a nightlight! But it isn’t. She even admitted that she was afraid of the dark, especially when one thinks about the things darkness connotes, things like evil, cruelty, and uncertainty. She’s afraid of “the shadows of another kind of dark, the darkness of nothingness, of hate, of evil.” Are you?

How can we help children get over their fear of darkness? L’Engle asks. How can we help adults? Books can serve as candles; so can music and friendship. And although she doesn’t specially spell it out for her readers, so can love. Whether spoken in those three little words or expressed by acts of kindness, queries about health and well-being, or questions from a usually reticent father, love brings light.

How do you deal with darkness, your own or that of others? A friend who feels special compassion for children says, “You know, all little children want someone to hold their hand.” I agree. And I think adults want the same thing.

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