What will you do with your one wild and precious life? - Mary Oliver

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

There is Room For All in the Manger

"There is room for all at the manger."  ~ Beth A. Richardson 

I ran across this quote this morning in Weavings magazine in an article on holiday grief. There's something very comforting in the knowledge that every single one of us could crawl up in that manger with the baby Jesus and snuggle against him while his mother and father look on. Accepting. Loving. Soothing. The image of this idea would make a good sermon piece.  As a clergy-preacher-type person, I can envision how this might bring comfort to those who mourn, are ill, homebound, or lonely. This image also brings me great comfort.  This time of year, I find myself going in circles and trying to keep up with myself.  Naps help.  I had a three hour nap this afternoon that I believe was a catchup from this past weekend and a marathon of Lessons & Carols and outreach projects and home visits and pastoral conversations and cookie making.

Ministers are not immune to holiday blues. We try to visit those who are ill, homebound or grief-stricken and we come away a mite gloomy ourselves. Not from the visits mind you, because most of those I visit are quite uplifting in spirit! But from the sometimes overwhelming schedules as we keep our personal commitments to serve others. Some clergy say it’s a “time management problem” when others of us get that feeling of exhaustion that creeps up on us this time of year.  I say balderdash to that. If ministers are not visiting those who are hungry, homeless, imprisoned, sad, sick or moribund this time of year I say they are not living into their calling.

No, I’m not saying every single one of us, people pleasers that we are, must overwork ourselves to fill some psychosis or unconscious need.  What I’m saying is that the job of a minister is a hard life. So after all the baking, the shopping, the visiting and the church services, crawling up into that manger, resting in the feathery comfort of the lamb's skin, is an image I will keep close. And this time of year, I am relieved to know that the hope of Christ will be born anew in every heart.  Including mine.  

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Story I Really Want to Tell

The Color of Justice

The murder occurred
Only a mile or two from
My bedroom window.
Hattiesburg, small town
And comfort-laden
Had become a seat
Of violence. 
I didn’t know
The fire was set
I didn’t know
White men did this
I didn’t know
who Vernon Dahmer was.
I didn’t know.
I am part of a family
Of people, so involved
In survival, so involved
In day-to-day living,
So involved with other
Concerns, like my mother’s
Alcoholism, my father’s
Pride, that the event may as well
have happened
on the other side of the world
As I played with torn out
paper dolls with white faces.
I didn’t know.

I wrote this poem in 1966. I was 16 years old.  Hattiesburg Mississippi is my birthplace, and my world revolved around school, my friends, and my after-school job at a dry cleaners.  Even so, I was quite isolated because of the culture of the time.  There was a television in our house, most of the time. My father repaired them and would bring one home "just to make sure it would stay tuned up," he said.  These television sets always held a place of honor in the middle of the dining room table, plugged into the overhead socket. 

When he finally delivered the TV to its owner, we would be setless until he brought home another newly repaired set, usually within a day or two.  In the interim, we missed several big news stories.  One of the stories I did not miss was the shocking story of the burning of Vernon Dahmer.  

Photo from Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

My father knew Mr. Dahmer.  He had repaired his television (or could have been a radio) about a year before.  I rode with my father out to deliver that TV to the Dahmer home, and sat in the truck while he went in the colorful Dahmer store (which was next door to their home, I think) to collect from Vernon Dahmer.  Several light-skinned boys sat on the porch of the store.  I almost got out of the truck to purchase a soft drink, solely on the influence of the Barq's Root Beer sign on the front of the store, when I saw my father coming out the door. 

Several months after that, I remember standing with my father in front of another loaner TV perched on our dining room table watching the photo of Vernon Dahmer and hearing the news that he had been murdered, his store and home fire-bombed.  Mr. Dahmer was assisting in voter registration drives and had a voter signup in his store. Up until that moment, I did not know Vernon Dahmer was black.
More about this story here: Justice is done.

This story is only one of the stories of my growing up years.  We were not middle class America, but we did not know that we weren't. We were too busy existing day to day. These and many other stories are still bumping around in my head. I am trying as fast as I can to write them down so I won't forget them.

One such story I have turned into fiction.  And that story is now a 300 page novel manuscript based in part on the fascinating history of the Dahmer family. I've incorporated countless true events in my fiction stories. And you do not always have to base a story on a traumatic event.  The best fiction I've read lately are every-day event-type stories, like meeting someone for coffee, and the dialogue that takes place where a secret is revealed or a person has a sudden awareness. I'm certain these stories are based on the writers' true life events, or things he/she has heard or read about.

I recently heard a story about a writer talking to an agent about a fiction manuscript that was not finished, and that he was struggling with completing the novel, but he just couldn't get an ending. The Agent told the writer to put the entire project aside, and "to write the story he really wanted to tell."  I don't know who the writer was, but according to the teller of the tale the writer began to write creative non-fiction stories about his life and his world was changed forever. But I thought this to be very powerful advice. What draws us to write fiction, when the truths of our own lives are far more interesting?

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Paradox of a New Place: Geographic Change Influences Creativity

My daughter Jennifer and her family have recently moved to New Orleans. When my daughters were small we traveled down to New Orleans from Jackson, MS, occasionally. We would stroll around Jackson Square and Jennifer always said she wanted to sell paintings like the other artists who hung their wares on the iron fence across from Cafe du Monde.  Her entire life she's wanted to be with the tarot card readers, the fortune tellers and the street musicians.

Jennifer and her husband have yearned for years to move to the Crescent City. Now they live in the inner-city in an old second-floor walkup with a claw-foot bathtub and window air conditioning units just a stone's throw from the Maple Street Bookstore. He's a chef. She's always been an artist. But somehow since the move her work has gotten better, and she's moved toward a more independent lifestyle.  They have four children, so life has always been a little chaotic and I've wondered how she manages to find time to paint and write while caring for a pre-schooler and an infant.  I know. You just do it. Now she's part of a New Orleans Art Collective and is selling her artwork in the French Quarter. And working on illustrations for her first children's book.
When my husband and I moved to Memphis four years ago (and yes, time has moved too fast), I took a self-imposed sabbatical of sorts to get to know my new hometown.  I visited Elmwood, the Memphis Botanic Garden, The Brooks, Civil Rights Museum, Stax, Soulsville, and dozens of other sites, and of course the riverfront.  I've watched many sunsets from Mud Island.  And I cannot count our visits to Shelby Farms, probably dozens and dozens. Each one of these visits has inspired me in many ways. I began to paint for the first time in my life. I've written more, created more, in this new place.

What struck me most about Memphis is its diversity.  I read letters to the editor in the newspaper from residents who complain about Memphis, then the next day there are letters of praise.  It's never consistent one way or the other, and there seems to be no consensus. The feeling residents have about their hometown of Memphis is a deeply personal thing.

What I've noticed about geographic moves is that generally, if a person is relatively content, then they are content everywhere.  If they are unhappy, they'll be unhappy where ever they go. If the person is hostile and lives in fear, then they will be hostile and fearful everywhere. We must have passion about what we do in life, and I believe it is within that that we find meaning. If we have no meaning in our lives we will not have much happiness and contentment. There is no person, place, job or thing that will give us permanent joy. Find meaning, and you'll find your joy.  Life is like that.

Jennifer's book, Hot Moon, is now published, and available on Amazon.com.

Friday, August 12, 2011

What Do You Do While You Wait?

One of my novel manuscripts has received 79 agent and/or publisher rejections. I should change that to read 6 agent and/or publisher rejections and 73 ignores.

The ignores are the most difficult. I’d rather have a firm “no” than nothing at all. I lovingly send something off with high expectations, then I never hear back. Did they ever receive the package or email, I wonder? The actual rejections have arrived either via email, a form letter, or a self-addressed stamped postcard that I paid for.

While my shorter pieces have been published, there’s been no action on this particular manuscript. I think it’s a good story.  My readers think it is a good story.  But the publishing industry is not in a gambling mood; they want a sure thing.  If it was chick lit or young adult fiction or anything with vampires some agents say it might have a better chance. But here’s the thing, I can’t and don’t write in those genres. I've tried, but I have no passion for that. 

I’ve almost come to enjoy these rejections and ignores, these little efforts to force me into doing better or different work, because when you win there’s no incentive for improvement.  When you receive a rejection, or even an ignore, at least there is a reason to go back and look at your pieces over and over again and make them better.  I decided to engage the services of a professional editor to review this one manuscript.  I know I will learn something from her, even if it means re-writing this novel for the upteenth time.

So what to do while I wait for those acceptances, those affirmations for my life as a writer?  I keep doing it.  Every day. Writing is a solitary activity.  I am usually alone when writing, as are most writers.  I sometimes sit all day and write. I will miss meals and work in my slouchy clothes all day if given the chance, because story material appears every day.  Just this morning I read about an 11-foot alligator caught by wildlife officials walking down the street in Greenville, Mississippi.  That was after the wedding in the convenience store between the Cheez Whiz and the toothpaste. And then there was the grandmother in Florida who tried to sell her infant grandchild. What motivates people to do what they do is the basis of fiction.  What are those internal or external conflicts that we all bump up against? Was the alligator hungry? Was the grandmother? What about the couple who married in that store? Did their eyes meet, did the ringing of the cash register sound like rolling thunder in their hearts? Did they honeymoon at Talladega?

Writers are compelled to write. I carry these stories forward to see what they want to express to the world. There are myriads of opportunities in Memphis to pursue this avenue of artistic expression, especially in the inner city, and especially with our young people. They all have stories to tell.

Writers have an artistic gift, and we need to cast it out into the universe, not keep it to ourselves.  There’s a young man in the Beltline neighborhood that enjoys writing so much that he wrote a play and his mentor helped him enter it in a local contest. He didn’t win.  But he’s still writing. He wants to be a better writer.

If you enjoy writing and want to carry your story forward, helping young people like the young man in the Beltline neighborhood, consider facilitating a writing group for WriteMemphis, a literacy program I started because I wanted to do more than hold my gift tightly to myself. I am compelled to share this gift with the world, and I hope you are as well.  Visit the website at http://www.writememphis.org, and we’ll put you to work while you wait.  

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

House on Fire

Burning Bush painting I did several
years ago and donated to
a fund-raising auction.
"It burns but it is not consumed."
Over at theburninghouse.com is the following question: 
If your house was burning, what would you take with you? 

It's a conflict between what's practical, valuable and sentimental. What you would take reflects your interests, background and priorities. Think of it as an interview condensed into one question.

So I asked myself what I would take.  Actually, I've thought about this question before.  Many times. I've thought about it when I lived in a two-story house and thought about how I would escape if my house caught fire.  All the windows were painted shut.  I had the chair picked out that I would smash a window with - the window that overlooked my deck in the back of my house.  I could jump down from there and maybe break a leg or two but that would be better than a smoke inhalation demise. 

And I thought about what I would save.  Would I have time to save anything? What would I grab after I smashed that window with that old dining chair from my childhood? The one at the foot of my bed that has been at the foot of my bed for all the years I've lived away from the homeplace. The chair with the avocado green damask seat that's so out of style it's back in fashion. So after I smashed the window with my childhood dining chair, and after I grabbed my car keys that I so wisely placed by the side of my bed, and after I snatched my purse with my photo IDs and my cell phone to call the fire department - what then? 

I decide to prepare a mental box, just in case. In that box I place a photo album with my children's old report cards and pictures from their childhood. But perhaps I should just give them those old trophies and their report cards and their childhood photographs and let them store them for a change.  

If I give those items away, what goes in the house-on-fire box? Thinking of course that my husband and our dogs are already outside, what would I really and truly feel the most sentimental about?  

Definitely my computer and my backup hard drive would have to be saved. Everything fictional I've ever written lives there. My twenty journals  have to be saved. I've written in those journals so much creative non-fiction, all about my dreams, visions and synchronistic events that have occurred over the vast years of my life. Can't let those be burned up. To destroy those writings would be akin to dying for me. 

More and more items are piled into that box so that there is no way it would fit through that window now.  What if I did not have time to grab all those things? What if I only had time to save myself (after my husband and dogs have made it outside)? How much do material things really mean to me? Can I re-create all my fiction? Will I be able to re-create the stories and events I wrote about in my journals so long ago? Where do all those memories live? What good would they be if I was gone, but my fiction and my journals lived on? Would anyone take them and read them, or publish them?

On my refrigerator is a black and white magnet that reads . . . Barn's burnt down, now I can see the moon.

This causes me to contemplate what is in the way of truly living? Do we really need all this 'stuff'? 

After I obsess over all of this, I realize to have life is the ultimate gift.  Cherish it.  Save yourself and your creative energies will live on. They will be re-kindled. 

What would you save?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Writer's of the South: John Rose

I've become part of a group called Writers of the South and for the next few days we are showcasing each other's blogs, author pages, etc.   Today's focus is on John Rose, a Mississippi writer. I find it fascinating the diversity of Southern writers, and John represents a unique perspective from the Mississippi Delta.
Click here to see John Rose's info.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

An Introvert in an Extrovert World

When I was a child, I thought I was abnormal because I enjoyed being alone and making up stories in my head. In my first marriage, my now ex-husband would try to change me into an extrovert my putting me into what I experienced as embarrassing situations, and often asked, "What's wrong with you?", or "Why don't you come out of your shell?" when I was reluctant to party all night or be the center of attention. Needless to say, he is an extreme extrovert. 

Several years into that marriage I discovered my personality type (INFP on the Myers-Briggs) and suddenly understood that I was not what society considered 'normal' (INFPs being only a small percent of the population), but that being an Introvert is not abnormal at all.  Finally understanding who I am has freed me to be the person I was created to be.  I grew to appreciate my "differentness".  

As we live and move toward the stages of our lives, usually introverts move toward extroversion, and extroverts move toward introversion. 

According to Elizabeth Wagele, "
Introversion is a turning within. It is a pilgrimage to one’s own mind and being; a journey that all people must take at various times throughout our lives. We turn within for greater clarity, for new perspectives, for creative inspiration, for the joys and solace of solitude itself. Every person will have some such moments in life of turning within."

Have you ever read something and it's as if that person bored inside your head and pulled the very words out that you wanted to say, but did not know how? Today's post is one of those, and is Carl King's response to the book, 
The Introvert Advantage: How To Thrive in an Extrovert World, by Marti Laney, Psy.D. I found this post on King's website and found his Top Ten Myths very familiar.  King says:

"Unfortunately, according to [Laney's] book, only about 25% of people are Introverts. There are even fewer that are as extreme as I am. This leads to a lot of misunderstandings, since society doesn’t have very much experience with my people. (I love being able to say that.)

So here are a few common misconceptions about Introverts (I put this list together myself, some of them are things I actually believed):
Myth #1 – Introverts don’t like to talk.
This is not true. Introverts just don’t talk unless they have something to say. They hate small talk. Get an introvert talking about something they are interested in, and they won’t shut up for days.
Myth #2 – Introverts are shy.
Shyness has nothing to do with being an Introvert. Introverts are not necessarily afraid of people. What they need is a reason to interact. They don’t interact for the sake of interacting. If you want to talk to an Introvert, just start talking. Don’t worry about being polite.
Myth #3 – Introverts are rude.
Introverts often don’t see a reason for beating around the bush with social pleasantries. They want everyone to just be real and honest. Unfortunately, this is not acceptable in most settings, so Introverts can feel a lot of pressure to fit in, which they find exhausting.
Myth #4 – Introverts don’t like people.
On the contrary, Introverts intensely value the few friends they have. They can count their close friends on one hand. If you are lucky enough for an introvert to consider you a friend, you probably have a loyal ally for life. Once you have earned their respect as being a person of substance, you’re in.
Myth #5 – Introverts don’t like to go out in public.
Nonsense. Introverts just don’t like to go out in public FOR AS LONG. They also like to avoid the complications that are involved in public activities. They take in data and experiences very quickly, and as a result, don’t need to be there for long to “get it.” They’re ready to go home, recharge, and process it all. In fact, recharging is absolutely crucial for Introverts.
Myth #6 – Introverts always want to be alone.
Introverts are perfectly comfortable with their own thoughts. They think a lot. They daydream. They like to have problems to work on, puzzles to solve. But they can also get incredibly lonely if they don’t have anyone to share their discoveries with. They crave an authentic and sincere connection with ONE PERSON at a time.
Myth #7 – Introverts are weird.
Introverts are often individualists. They don’t follow the crowd. They’d prefer to be valued for their novel ways of living. They think for themselves and because of that, they often challenge the norm. They don’t make most decisions based on what is popular or trendy.
Myth #8 – Introverts are aloof nerds.
Introverts are people who primarily look inward, paying close attention to their thoughts and emotions. It’s not that they are incapable of paying attention to what is going on around them, it’s just that their inner world is much more stimulating and rewarding to them.
Myth #9 – Introverts don’t know how to relax and have fun.
Introverts typically relax at home or in nature, not in busy public places. Introverts are not thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies. If there is too much talking and noise going on, they shut down. Their brains are too sensitive to the neurotransmitter called Dopamine. Introverts and Extroverts have different dominant neuro-pathways. Just look it up.
Myth #10 – Introverts can fix themselves and become Extroverts.
A world without Introverts would be a world with few scientists, musicians, artists, poets, filmmakers, doctors, mathematicians, writers, and philosophers. That being said, there are still plenty of techniques an Extrovert can learn in order to interact with Introverts. (Yes, I reversed these two terms on purpose to show you how biased our society is.) Introverts cannot “fix themselves” and deserve respect for their natural temperament and contributions to the human race. In fact, one study (Silverman, 1986) showed that the percentage of Introverts increases with IQ.
“You cannot escape us, and to change us would lead to your demise.” - Carl King
"It can be terribly destructive for an Introvert to deny themselves in order to get along in an Extrovert-Dominant World. Like other minorities, Introverts can end up hating themselves and others because of the differences. If you think you are an Introvert, I recommend you research the topic and seek out other Introverts to compare notes. The burden is not entirely on Introverts to try and become "normal." Extroverts need to recognize and respect us, and we also need to respect ourselves.
Let me know your thoughts.
Let me hear from the Introverts out there! (and from the Extroverts who love them.)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Super Dad!

My father, James A. French,
age 5 or so
Warning: If you’re squeamish about bugs, read no further.

My father was a Super Dad. He was the exterminator, in more ways than one. He banished monsters from under the bed. He shooed ghosts away. He could rid our house of darkness by repairing one television set. Within hours we had light again. A poor family’s hunger was squashed flat because he brought them two of our chickens. With the threat of a dose of castor oil he fought away a dread disease that threatened to keep my brothers home from school, and miraculous healings occurred.

He was a master at magically fighting all.  But most amazing to me was the fact that he could rid our home of roaches. Now, these days this prolific and nasty insect is not that much of a problem with modern chemicals that promise to last for years. 

But back then, in the 1950’s and 1960s, roaches were like the plague. Especially in the part of town we lived in. They were huge beetle-like creatures. And they flew! A fly-swatter was sometimes the weapon of choice. Daddy sprayed them with something, perhaps it was DDT, I don’t know. But they would always come back after a few weeks. I suppose the chemical killed the live bugs but didn’t harm the eggs, so after the new hatchings became big enough to make their presence known, he would have to spray again. And again. Especially after Mama found a roach in the loaf of Sunbeam bread. Or lying belly-up in the pot of vegetable soup. Her screams called for immediate action. That would do it.  So Daddy brought home a new chemical that someone said would work better than the last thing he tried.  Always this magic liquid was praised as the new miracle. Something to save us at last from the creatures’ soft legs that skittered across our faces in the deep dark of night.

One of the most graphic true stories I ever read was in Don’t Quit Your Day Job, a collection of essays on writing by writers compiled by Sonny Brewer.  The piece was by Pat Conroy on his work as a youth sent out by Roman Catholic nuns to assist the indigent in a public housing complex. Conroy deftly describes his journey into this forbidden den of drugs and violence to help those in need. In his innocence, he has no fear, and he has faith that his help is needed and desired. He comes upon one of his assigned apartments where a woman lives who is blind. She is a prisoner in her apartment because of fear of being harmed by the vermin who prey on the less fortunate. Over time, and because of Conroy’s youthful tenacity, she finally opens her door to Conroy and he enters her less-than-spotless home. He takes in the scene and tells it so explicitly that I am there, looking over his shoulder. He describes the kitchen wall. It is black. And it is moving. He realizes the wall is covered in roaches.

A vintage metal pump sprayer. (from Etsy)
Our house was certainly never that bad growing up.  But I can certainly relate to that description. Just the sight of one of those critters and my imagination grew them out of proportion to their true size. They were giants. So my father would bring home the magic formula that promised to rid our abode of the beasts once and for all. The method was simple. The instructions called for mixing the insecticide with a certain percent of water before spraying.  I can only guess how my father mixed this – he was a stickler for following directions so I’m sure he did exactly as instructed. The sprayer was a simple metal canister attached to a hand-pumped sprayer. You filled the canister and re-attached it by screwing it onto the hand pump mechanism. By pulling back on the hand-pump, the liquid was sucked up into a tiny metal tube. By plunging the hand pump forward the liquid was sprayed out by the force of the air across that tiny metal tube. 

Over and over again, Daddy pumped and sprayed, pumped and sprayed. His face and wrinkled brow bore the look of determination to save his family. The rest of us would all be fast asleep as he sprayed along every baseboard in the house, around every door, in the closets, everywhere vermin could hide. 

The next morning they were gone.  And my father was his jovial self again, going off to work as usual. Thus the life of the exterminator, off to repair another television so the silence in our house would be eliminated after the phone bill was paid. 

How did your dad “save” your family? What are some memories of your father, as we approach this Father’s Day?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Douthat State Park, Virginia

Our Cabin at Douthat State Park
When I purchase something over the Internet, I’m never quite sure of how the real thing will look. The one-dimensional photograph never depicts the thing exactly as it is when you can see and touch it for real.  Thus it was so with our three-day stay at a state park in Virginia.
My husband and I are on our way to Washington DC to visit museums there and we are taking a three-week vacation in the process.  We are in no hurry, so decided to look on the Internet for a cabin in a national or state park. I put my finger on the map at about the halfway point and there was Shenandoah National Park in the heart of the Appalachian Mountians of Virginia. I called. They were booked up. My finger moved a tad to the left and there was Douthat State Park.  I called. They had a vacancy.

Robert reading, still in his
sleeping attire

So here we are for two nights and three days in a rustic pristine log cabin built in the 1930s by the CCC, on a tree-covered mountainside with sounds of a fern-lined creek plunging into a lake just below us. Hand-forged chunky doorknobs with iron levers operate the doors. 

The floors creak. Rocking chairs guard the stone front porch. A small fire chases away the 50 degree morning chill. In the afternoon, in this bucolic setting, the air is very warm, maybe 80 degrees or so. Robert sets out first thing on a bike ride through the mountainside park. I set out on a hike down the path to the creek for a wade. I take off my shoes and socks and put my feet into the iciest water I’ve ever felt. Quite shocking, and intensely refreshing.  

The feel of that water propels me into a state of consciousness that I have not felt in a long time. One in which I know in my deepest bones that my mind is clear of work, of stress, of lists and of concerns other than the chill of the water and the sounds of the birds in this particular place and time. 

Downstream, a patient father shows his small son how to fly-fish. The water is so clear I see rainbow trout swimming in the deeper pools below where I stand. The creek flows into a lake further down.  The lake is very deep – 40-50 feet at its center. 

On the second day I take a four-mile hike through the mountains and around the lake, as canoeists float in the distance. The lakeshore is lined with river rocks to prevent erosion, and most of these rocks are large. I see one in the shade and decide to dip my toes in the icy water again.  In my peripheral vision, I see a quick movement. A four-foot long water snake senses my presence and darts from under the rock I’m about to sit upon, then swims elsewhere to find its small minnow and bug breakfast.  Sorry, snake. But I’d rather see a snake than a bear.

Reading, writing, eating and walking. That’s about it. The sounds of the water rushing over large boulders and river rocks, and the lush green that surrounds us, lull us at last into restfulness. And naps. Plenty of naps.

What do you do - where do you go - to get away?

The creek below our cabin

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Culture Induced Panic and Anxiety

Emma, Abbey and Sophie
on the Mississippi
In Memphis, we've been having severe thunderstorms the past several days. Our dog, Abbey, an Irish Setter, suffers from severe anxiety attacks whenever she hears a rumble. It can be a train, a truck passing by, or a jet overhead. But when she hears thunder and sees lightning, she goes into full-blown panic mode. Her heart races, her breathing speeds, her eyes dart back and forth and she paces the floor looking for somewhere to hide. She cannot even bark. Her emotions are almost frozen with fear. Last night as loud thunderclaps roared, this beautiful red-haired 60 lb. dog jumped up on the bed and landed on my head. Nothing like waking at 3:00am to a mouthful of dog fur. No amount of soothing will calm her down. The bathroom is her "safe place" - she puts her head behind the toilet and stays there until the storm is over or when she can see sunlight.

I cannot imagine what happened to her in her past that causes this reaction. We got Abbey when she was four years old, a rescue dog. She had been kept in a cage for four years. That would be enough to cause panic in me.

With people, sometimes it's the same reaction (well, maybe not to the extent of hiding behind the toilet) to a circumstance or environment. We are compelled to protect ourselves. Fear and anxiety are basic instincts, and without fear we would do even more of the foolish things we humans do. Statistics report that one out of every 75 people will experience anxiety or panic attacks at some point in their life. There was a point in my own life, a period of about three or four years, when I experienced panic attacks. Now it's the sweaty palms reaction. Happens every time I am scheduled to preach, or speak before a group.

I am a writer of fiction and non-fiction. I've submitted several novel manuscripts to countless agents and small presses, and one of the novels even made the first cut of 1000 in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest this year. Several of my essays have been published, and a story has been a finalist in a contest.  I have no problem reading my work in my writing critique group, but the truth is, I would need serious courage to read before an audience if asked.

I remember the first time one of my stories was read aloud to the entire class. It was in the ninth grade in a very warm Hawkins Junior High classroom that smelled of sweat, chalk dust and old books. The English teacher read my story, out loud, putting in little check marks with her red pencil as she went along. To the snickers of my classmates, I sank down lower and lower in my desk with each tic of that red pencil. I vowed never to write anything again. I continued to write in my journals, but that was for myself only - I let no other eyes read my words.

Ten years later, with three children and an abusive husband, writing in my journals was how I survived. I wrote poetry, short stories and brief descriptions of events. My husband at the time thought I was writing about him, and after I filed for divorce he snatched up all 30 journals and dumped them in the Barnett Reservoir. He never read them. I know this because the writings were not about him. They were about survival. We do what we have to do.

In the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, it is the role of the Deacon to sing the Exultet. I was expected to learn this and sing it at the Easter Vigil three years ago. Now, those of you who know what this is, and if you're a musician, you know that this is a difficult piece for anyone, even those who can read music. It is especially so for a novice who cannot read a note of music and has a voice like a frog. With sweaty palms and a quickened heart, I did it. And I've done it three times since.  With gratitude to Geoff Ward, the organist and choirmaster at St. John's, who has extreme patience with this non-musician, my fear was calmed.

What is it about our culture that instills fear in us, and causes so much anxiety? People can be mean-spirited, and one criticism can shut off a voice that could change the world. There is  much criticism of certain writers, celebrities, our president, of congress, of religious leaders, and of folks who are just trying to make a difference in the world. Politicians are the worst about trying to hurt each other with calculated and timed attacks on character. What would happen if we really thought about what we are saying before we say it? Who are we really trying to hurt by saying hurtful things? We are the ones who are hurt most - the 'sayers'. There is a line that we should not cross.  But we do come close.

If we searched down into our soul, we should all be asking some questions of ourselves. Are we trying to right a wrong? Or pull the other person down? Or is our ego merely trying to elevate ourselves? And how important is it that this supposed criticism get out into the world? Will it change public opinion? Will it make the world better? I know, there are folks who will say they are just telling the truth, and are compelled to do it no matter if someone gets hurt.  I do not disagree with that goal. I believe certain behaviors need to be criticized.  But that is my truth, and my truth is not everyone's truth. Added to that, each person sees a person or event from their own perspective, interpreted through their own past experiences. One person's truth can be another person's skewed and unproven innuendo.  Something seen on a website somewhere. Or in a news report, or magazine, or in horror or horrors - an email message. 

A story about Aunt Neill in 1938 
Family Circle magazine.
I've been reading lately about the world of creative non-fiction, when memoir-writers create fictionalized accounts of their life experiences. Two examples are Alice Munro's The View From Castle Rock, and Jeannette Walls's Half-Broke Horses. The authors have the command of language and detail that makes these stories almost mythological. Walls writes that she considers her book less of a novel and more of an “oral history, a retelling of stories handed down by my family through the years." 

I have a project that I've been working on for years involving my great aunt, Neill James.  I began to write about her life, but at some point a voice took over and began to write about the effect of her life upon my own - about how her courage gave me courage, and about how her experiences opened a world of travel to me.  When I realized that this project was moving towards a memoir-type work, I let a family member know.  That family member's reaction was, "I didn't think this was going to be about you, I thought it was going to be about Neill. I don't think people want to read about you."  
Aunt Neill in her
Reindeer Herder costume.

With a little anxiety, I will persevere, but I won't be hiding behind the toilet - I'll tell my truths out in the open.  It's a story worth telling - even if it's for my own reading.  It is a story of transformation.  And it will be my truth, sweaty palms and all. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What Happens When We Pray for Strangers?

This past Thursday evening was a Holy Thing.  As I sat with Susan Cushman listening to River Jordan read from her new book, Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit, there was an effortless spirit of peace that surrounded the event. This spirit I can only identify as the Great Creator, the controller of the Universe. 

River Jordan, Susan Cushman,
& Emma Connolly
When a fiction writer plots a story, she or he must have some idea of where the story is going.  I admit, I have written many stories that almost wrote themselves and I had no idea where they were headed when I set pen to page.  But most of the time we have an idea, then it may (or may not) bloom into something.  When an idea hits us out of the blue, and we answer the call, and that idea begins to be attractive to publishers . . . well, then it's out of our hands. Such was the case with River Jordan.  I will not repeat what planted the seeds of inspiration for Jordan to write this book, and at dinner with her later that evening I learned more.  You can visit her site and then read this book to gather your own seeds.  Take my word for it . . . this idea can change your life in some way, just as Jordan says her life was changed.

I am basically an extreme introvert, although as I get older I have lost some of my shyness. It is an effort for me to speak to a stranger.  I do speak to grocery clerks when they say something like, "Hello, how are you?", I answer them and ask about their day. Most of the time they seem surprised.  But that is about as far as I usually go. I rarely speak to folks in line at the grocery store or post office, and almost never in a restaurant. When I began to read this book, something sparked inside me that I needed to make a better effort.  How much I enjoy someone speaking to me, and asking about MY life! And everyone needs to know that someone cares, someone loves them. Could I possibly do this? Would it make a difference in my life by being bold? I made no decision on whether or not to try reaching out to pray for a stranger.  I didn't have to.

I went to Target the next evening.  As usual, the clerk asked how I was and I responded and asked her how her day had gone.  On her name tag was "Erika"* in big letters. She yawned, it's been a long day.  When do you get off, I asked. One more hour, she said. This is my second job - I go to my first job at 8am to noon, then come here.  Oh my, I said - what is your first job?  Taking pictures of newborns at the hospital.  Oh, that seems like a wonderful job to have, I said.  Yes, most of the time. But today it was different.

She told me that that morning she was sent to photograph a newborn with a cleft palate, and the parents were apprehensive.  It's always the parents' choice to have a photo made. They told her the baby would soon have surgery to have the facial feature repaired and they could not decide if they wanted a 'before' picture, until Erika explained that she could do a shot from the side so that it was not face-on like most newborn photos, and she could do several and the parents could decide if they wanted to keep them or not.   They decided to do it, so Erika angled the camera so that the infants facial feature could be seen but it was not the center of the photo.  When the parents looked at the digital image, they began to weep and Erika did too. The parents thanked her and said they hadn't realized how truly beautiful their baby was until they saw the photos. She left them weeping and holding their beautiful baby.

I looked at Erika and said I want to pray for you and that infant and parents that their hearts will be uplifted.  Erika's eyes were glistening, as were mine, as I left the store for home.

The next day I had a dental appointment first thing in the morning.  As I held the nitrous oxide to my nose and tried to breathe normally, the dental assistants were talking and waiting for me to get comfortable so the dentist could begin the procedure. One young lady said to the other, "Let me tell you about this dream I had last night . . .", and she told her co-worker about this wonderful archetypal dream.  Being under the influence of laughing gas, I had no inhibitions of being shy.  I grabbed the nosepiece and pulled it away.  "I do dreamwork, come to the Dream Group tomorrow evening!"  She grabbed my arm, "Get outta here!" and was very excited to learn there was a safe and welcoming place to tell her dreams.  As soon as the procedure was finished and the nitrous oxide wore off, she was standing beside me with a pen and paper asking for my name and phone number and the address of the Dream Group meeting place.  She was very concerned about her dreams, and I have prayed daily for her dream life since that day.

On day three, my husband and I took his mother to watch the sunset over the river and have dinner out on Mud Island. We had a lovely table outside. As we ate and chatted, we noticed a young couple sit on the other side of the aisle from us. The young man had a tattoo the full length of his leg, and it appeared the girl was carrying an infant in a snuggly.  They sat down and looked exhausted.  I could hear their conversation and the words sounded French.  The music was playing softly a tune that my husband and I both recognized, but we couldn't remember the artist.  I guessed the Beatles, and he guessed other artists but none were correct. The young man leaned toward our table, held up his iphone and said, "Excuse me, I know it is rude to interrupt another's conversation, but I was wondering the same thing and it's David Bowie."  We all laughed and I asked if they were visiting Memphis.  They were from Montreal, and they both worked for the circus - Cirque du Soleil, which is based in Montreal. The baby was two months old, and was born in Texas where they had been working for four months.  They were on their way back home to Montreal until the late Summer, when they would begin traveling all over again. We had a fascinating conversation about life in the "circus".  As we were leaving I asked the baby's name.  "Eva," the mother answered.  I offered to say prayers for Eva* and her parents, and they thanked me and we left.

I don't know if I would have spoken out to any of these people before reading Praying for Strangers.  I can certainly say that Jordan has inspired me, and my life has been uplifted by the fact that I spoke to these strangers.  The amazing fact is that I have not gone looking for these strangers - they just appeared. I look forward to meeting other strangers who may cross my path.

Read this book. Pray for Strangers. Pass it on.

* These names and places are pseudonyms to protect the privacy of these "strangers".

Thursday, March 24, 2011

R.I.P. Sophie

Sophie when she was diagnosed, about March 1, 2011
Sophie ready for her final journey this morning.
Our pets become family members in so many ways. We can’t leave home for any length of time without having someone look after them. We clean up puke off the good rug when they eat something they shouldn’t. We put up with their smelly beds when they’ve taken a quick swim in the mud hole because they hate baths. And we understand fully that every day is the best day of their lives. Especially when going for a walk.  Every walk is the best walk.  Every meal is the last meal they will ever eat so they scarf it down too fast and gag and cough part of it back up, in whole pieces no less.

Then we feel the warmth of their bodies as they struggle to get as near to us as they can, and we feel frustrated because we are trying to work, or write, and a nose is creeping onto the keyboard and pressing phantom keys into unwanted words. Anger never creeps in, just mild frustration.  And even that glides away when those eyes, those pleading eyes, look up to us for a hand to rub behind the ears, or a pat on a full belly, or a paw held up for a pawshake.

When put behind the pet gate in the sunroom, they sit and whine because they want to be where we are. They fully believe, and accurately, they are part of us, part of the human family. When we moved to Memphis four years ago, Sophie was our only dog. She was lonely.  So we began to foster dogs and the first two we took in we could not give up, so we somehow would up with three rescue dogs.  And today we are one less.

The vet told us about three weeks ago that Sophie, our 12 year old boxer, had lymphoma.  She had had skin cancer several times, and it too had come back. The vet said she was in the last stage and would live perhaps another month.  She was given prednisone for several days and came into a “second spring” of life for those few days. She ate everything in site, wagged her nub tail wildly, and ran through the high grass at Shelby Farms, splashing in the ponds, mud up to her eyeballs. Her last hurrah.

Then the past few days we knew she was failing. She began to avoid eating.  She coughed constantly until she gagged.  And her last day on earth was particularly painful for her. She coughed until her eyes bulged out and her face filled with fluid and I called the vet.  It’s time, she said.  So we scheduled the final journey for 8:00am Thursday morning.  

Robert and I recalled the first time we met Sophie. Our first boxer, Greta, had died of a heart attack and soon afterward we found Sophie. We rescued her from a puppy mill in south Mississippi.  She was less than a year old, and had been mistreated and did not trust anyone.  She learned to trust us, slowly, and of course had a distinct aloof personality.  And today we were asking her to trust us one more time.
All three dogs at Shelby Farms March 18

Sophie with our grandson Oliver on March 18.
At Shelby Farms on March 18, 2011.
Sophie went willingly. Her eyes revealed she was afraid, at first, and I began to backslide on the decision.  But after the past 24 hours, we knew we were doing the right thing.  Her tail still wagged in love for us. She trusted us. We put her on the lab table at the vet’s. Dr. Jo was kind and loving and said goodbye to our “baby girl” along with us.  Sophie went willingly onto the high table. I took off her collar and Robert pocketed it. I held onto her and felt her cough and shiver as Dr. Jo injected the anesthetic into her front leg. Immediately, Sophie relaxed, and rested down onto the surface. Robert reached around and put her back legs together so she would be comfortable. 

We rubbed her and massaged her behind her ears.  She was more fully relaxed than we had ever seen her.  She is a boxer, after all, and wagged and twisted her entire body every time we came near. She wagged into the excited jelly-bean quiver every time we walked in the door at home.  But not this time. She lay there looking straight ahead at the wall, and took a deep breath. I nodded to Dr. Jo, who had the syringe ready and waiting. She gently injected the euthanasia drug. Within one minute Sophie’s heart stopped beating.  She was at peace at last. No more pain, no more coughing, no more suffering. Forever running through the grass at Shelby Farms, and forever wagging and twisting her tailless body in jelly bean shape, glad to see her friends, running together toward the sun. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Invisible Woman

On the SheWrites Blog, Kamy Wicoff writes about The Invisible Woman.  This post triggered a memory from childhood, and the Invisible Man. When I was a little kid, around 1958 or '59, my brothers and I loved to watch the TV series The Invisible Man based loosely on the 1933 novel by H.G. Wells. The main character walked around with this mummy-like wrapping on his head, hands, and any visible appendage, and sunglasses so we could not stare into his empty eyes. You see, he was invisible underneath all the wrappings and clothing. Some scientific experiment gone awry, I believe.  This man was powerful, a force to be reckoned with.  We never once thought about his not having a brain or a heart. Fodder for nightmares in children. But we felt drawn to watch it anyway.

There was never a series about The Invisible Woman. Perhaps because women are too easily invisible in our culture, and that has been an accepted stance, until Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique stirred the crock pot with her silver spoon. Yes, there has been improvement, but not enough, especially in the publishing industry. From what I have found, 60% of published books and stories are by men and only 40% by women. Historically I imagine that is a great improvement. But is this acceptible?  Wicoff's post is about women, and how they/we become invisible.  Wicoff says, "What happens when women don't tell their own stories?  Their stories are told for them -- or more often, about them -- and the narratives that result are partial at best, and demeaning, damaging or downright dangerous at worst." 

I think about the women in my life, and how they may have been invisible. I read somewhere that  when psychotherapist Maureen Murdock asked Joseph Campbell (author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth) about the heroine's journey he told her that women don't have such a journey, since "the woman is there." I have never felt there, although I have some ideas on where there might be.  Murdock went on to write her own book, The Heroine's Journey.  This calls me to question, who is telling the stories of the heroines in my life?  I've got some thinking (and writing) to do about this . . . More later on The Invisible Woman!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Novels, Body Hair and Taking Chances

I know folks are gearing up for Sunday’s Super Bowl. I'm no sports fan, except that I always root for the underdog. 

After a month of painful (only because of deadline stress) rewrites and edits, I decided to throw my new novel into the pot for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest, and got tremendous help from some past winners in the CreateSpace (Amazon’s contest management site) on sifting down my pitch to a very tight few sentences. There are community pages there with offers to assist in steps along the way. Several authors and editors helped me with my preview and samples. I am amazed at how generous they were with their time. My final version was saved to the site just 30 seconds prior to the deadline (they lock all entries at the 5000 entry point).  After reading so much about “you have one in 100,000 chance of getting your novel published” (or one in a million, or whatever), I thought 1 in 5000 was much better odds.  And even if you become a quarter finalist you receive a book offer.    Some folks say, yeah but it's only for ebook deals. And I'm such a diehard hardback fan. We’ll see how it goes.

I also wanted to remind you of the AWP call for submissions – I’m sending off a ms this weekend, here’s their site: AWP. Richard Bausch encouraged me to send one of my manuscripts to them last year, and I did so. But nothing. I’ll try again this year – deadline is Feb. 28th. Hope is a thing with feathers . . .

And, Susan Cushman suggested I try small presses like Algonquin so I did get a ms off to them yesterday as well.

Writing is a full time job. I’m plotting how to retire early and still survive. So far I can’t figure out how to succeed. ;-)

Some have likened to working on a story to the feeling that the words have hold on every hair of your body. 
Sometimes when I've completed a piece I feel as if I've had all my body hair removed. Or given birth. And then I sleep. The following is from the blog Novel Matters
I’ve worked on a step-by-step list of how to write a novel. Perhaps you might find it useful.

Step 1
Please choose one of the following options:
a) Give birth multiple times. (You may also choose to give birth to multiples. Triplets work well)
b) Have all of your body hair waxed off in one afternoon. (It is preferable that you have this preformed by a person who does not speak your language) Repeat weekly for one year.
(This step ensures you have vast experience with pain, AND attempting to reason with characters who are indifferent to your needs.)
Step 2:
Commit acts of Random Bizarre Behavior (RBBs) in public places. Record people’s reactions to your behavior in a purple notebook.
Examples of possible RBBs:
- Enter a crowded elevator and begin singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic at the top of your lungs. Be sure to flail your arms around, especially during the chorus. Interrupt yourself often by asking others in the elevator to give you more room.
- Enter a busy shopping mall. Shake hands with everyone you see and thank them for their excellent customer service.
- Approach a female stranger. Address this stranger as “Aunt Bea”. Demand to see pictures of the new baby.
- If you are approached by a police officer: calmly and patiently explain that you voted for ‘the other guy’. If this fails, claim you are Canadian and don’t know better (this only works if you are in the US).
(This step exposes you to the full range of natural, spontaneous human reactions and emotions needed to create believable characters.)
Step 3:
Invent a perpetual motion machine. Give it a catchy name. Then, hide it in a closet for at least one year. After the appropriate amount of time has past, take the machine out of the closet, tinker with it until it moves at double the speed.
(This step ensures you are able to do the impossible – at least twice.)
Step 4:
Knock on a stranger’s door. Tell the stranger you are the love child they gave up for adoption. Mention you are unemployed. Repeat this several times until you are numb to all rejection.
(This step ensures – well, you know what it ensures.)
Step 5:
Take all of these experiences and divide them into chapters. Give it a plot and a catchy name. If possible, include vampires.

It’s possible to be on more than one step at the same time. So, which step are you on? Do share!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Fear of Being Found Out: I Am An Imposter!

Pat Schneider is one of my heroes. She is a writer, poet, teacher, and wise woman. I found her book, Writing Alone and With Others, in 2004 when I was facilitating a writing group in a women's shelter in Jackson, MS.  I read the entire thing in two days.  It was exactly what I had been looking for. Even though I compiled writing prompts and had a loose structure for the group, she gave a name and structure to the method I was already using.

“Fear is close to the center of the first stories we will want to tell….Fear has a good reason for being; understanding it can make all the difference.” (Page 3)

In her book, Schneider quotes a piece by Sister Milagros Sanchez titled If I Succeed:
“If I succeed, my work will be public; I will be public. My work will be viewed by people…who will pry deeper, as if what I have revealed is not enough. They will demand more, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to deliver. They will find out what a big fake I am; I, myself, will find out that I am not THAT deep, THAT profound.” (Pages 15–16)

I have other fears as well.  That people may find that I'm not THAT good a writer.

Or even more fear that they will find that I am.

Have you ever seen something, witnessed an event or an action or a news photo that stirs up your emotions so profoundly that you have a visceral reaction to it? And you wrote about it?  Well I have. And it won a prize in the Memphis Magazine Fiction Contest last year. I entered two pieces and I really didn't think that story was the best one of the two.  But someone did. And paid me money for it.

What I saw that affected me deeply was a story in the New York Times and the photo that you see here. In the photo in the Times, two people are carrying an old beat up and patched mattress and all you can see are their legs.  In the background is a 1950's version American car sans engine, and people are watching from the balconies of run-down tenements. Envy in their eyes. I was so touched by that photo that I ran to my keyboard and wrote a story about a young couple carrying their marriage bed through the streets.

The story focused entirely on the young couple's yearning, the envy of their friends, and their fear of being found out.

Have you ever witnessed, heard, or read something that stirred your emotions to the point that you had to do something? And you wrote about it?