"I write so that my handful of pebbles, cast into still waters, will create a ripple."

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Fireside Chat


The fog enshrouded woods outside my window brings a melancholy reminder of my own mortality. I respond by drawing the drapes and sitting in front of the fire, mug in hand, staring out past the empty porch swing where I spent most summer evenings. The wintery day calls for reflection. 

People my age complain that life has passed too quickly, but I don’t agree. That’s what I’m thinking about today—how full the years have been. No speeding flight, it’s taken me a lifetime to arrive. I recall past decades by their main accomplishments—the twenties, mothering years of little sleep, trying to fit the responsibilities of Mate, Mother and Material Girl into Career and Spiritual Life—in that order, I confess.

The thirties were more of the same, except that Mother took precedence over Mate. My husband was a periphery object I fitted in when our schedules and inclinations allowed. “Living single” is a phrase that comes to mind. I read a lot of romance novels and wondered where mine had gone.

In my forties I began a preoccupation with health and body issues. My weight started to climb. Mammograms and root canals entered my vernacular. For the first time I felt my life had reached a plateau—mid-life—and the rest would be down hill. I doubled my efforts. In came the gym, hair color, daily walks, self-awareness groups, massage sessions.

The fifties surprised me—a renaissance of physical and emotional energy driven by pheromones and testosterone bloom that created in me a fearless and productive period of writing. I wrote two memoirs, including Ordinary Aphrodite, my boomer woman’s journey of small steps. I will be forever grateful for the surge of energy that produced this work.

My sixties are a surprise, too. At forty I thought the party would be over by now. I’m grateful that it’s not. My husband still looks at me “that way.” We tackle projects that would probably kill off younger people—including this past year, three months of tearing out and burning blackberries, taking down old fences and restringing new ones along half of our ten acres. We cleaned up a can and bottle dump in a ravine and filled it with dirt.

We travel and explore and hike to the end of the road and back.

But there was a moment last year. One of our Dexter calves, a 250-pounder, broke into the garden and managed to impale its horn nubs in a deer basket from one of the roses. We penned it and roped it, and soon it was whipping us around the pasture, spewing snot and foaming with thirst. We managed to free it without harm to calf or human, but it was a moment if reckoning. Time to rethink my priorities.

So here I am, contemplating my life. So much left to do, so little time. This morning I signed a publishing contract for a historical western novel I penned over the last three years. I will serve as President Elect of Women Writing the West next year. I bought my Christmas gifts in local shops this year, cut a Christmas tree from our woodlot. I sport a really bad haircut from a new stylist who didn’t notice the shape of my Norwegian blockhead and I hardly even care. It will grow out and we’ll try again in a few months. No worries. (Wish I could have said that in my forties.)

So the fire crackles (actually, it pings. It’s a pellet stove.) The mug grows tepid. I find myself grateful for everything—the past and what is yet to come. And this surprises me because at thirty, I would have expected to be sad. Instead, I’m sort of sad about my thirties.        

 Thoughts? Please share yours. I'd love to hear from you.          

Thursday, July 4, 2013

God in the Details-- Random Apologies and the Soul

What is it there about an apology? 

Today  I opened my email and there it was, a totally random note of apology for a long-ago slight. Did I mention it was wholly unexpected? I started reading and felt the awesomeness of the writer's words soothing my injured places. Some of what she wrote, I agreed with (the part where she said she’d been snotty,) but upon second reading, what struck me most was realizing that she felt worse about the event than I did. I read her note to the end and I was smiling. My heart was smiling. My blood pressure lowered and my body felt at peace.

My next thought was, Nice lady. Followed by the suspicion that she was being too hard on herself.   

I didn’t need an apology, but reading her words, I realized she did. The note was for her more than for me. She had offended her standards and her conscience had given her a niggling kick in the butt because that’s what consciences do. She needed to forgive herself, and writing to me was the best way.

Mea culpa, mea maximus culpa—arguably the most healing syllables man (or woman) can utter. Only eleven syllables, but trust God to do it in ten; You are forgiven. Go and sin no more.

If God forgives with such grace, would we not want to do the same?  

I wrote a quick, heartfelt reply because our casual friendship had survived a bump in the road. I told her how I admire the strength in her voice, the conviction of her beliefs. I let her know I was bothered by our rift, too, and that it should have been me who wrote the first note, but I’m glad she did.

And now we're friends.  

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Ten Ways to Stay Married That Don't Involve Dieting or Dressing Up

My swimming coach said something today that made me think. “What we’re doing here is The Impossible and making it Fun!”

I got what she was saying because sometime this month (I’m being coy here), my husband and I will celebrate our 45th Anniversary. Hard to believe! Up to this point I thought this particular wedding anniversary was celebrated by people with white hair and character marks on their wrinkled little faces.  

But, apparently not, because here the two of us, barely out of college and certainly not old enough to have a daughter who is technically a baby boomer herself (tail end), are celebrating forty-five years together—and a lot of those were quite good, indeed.

So what has kept us together—Love? Yeah, that’s part of it. But, we all know it’s more than that. In honor of the occasion, I’ve made a list of the TEN things I think are most important.

ONE—Inexpensive wedding. When he gave it to me I had to hold my engagement ring up to the light to see my diamond. Our wedding budget caused no drama, no wedding debt, no fights or hard feelings. No spoiled bride here. No queen-for a day, either, but that’s another story. (For the record, I think brides have gone over the top!)  

TWO—We talk nice to each other. In the first years we might have walked away and hit the wall, taken a walk, made a phone call to a sister or best friend, but we rarely said anything that jiggled the infrastructure of our marriage. IMHO, marriages fail because two members fail to honor and respect each other. No big, dramatic fights in our house. No broken dishes (although, once I threw his cell phone at him and broke the flip-top, but it wasn’t technically an anger-pitch. He wasn’t listening and I wanted him to pay attention—right now!) We give each other compliments every single day. Cute is a word we use a lot—Cute butt! Don’t you look cute! Cheesy? Maybe, but worth a try.    

We sent each other a lot of cards—cards with funny sayings when we weren’t feeling all that in love with each other, romantic ones when we were. I have a box of cards he’s written to me with such tender sentiments that I once said to him, “And I’m supposed to be the writer?”

 Here’s a fun link about marriage. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ceArY2DU2Zo

THREE —I kept my power. I made him promise that when I finished working him through college he’d do the same for me—and he did. Later on, I took a tax course so I would know what was up. I pay most of the bills. I know how to access our financial records. (You’d be surprised how many women are clueless about their family finances.) I check over everything before I sign it. I know he’s a good guy, but everyone needs someone to keep them on their toes, even me.  

I’ve had a little savings account from the time I was married, and I added to it even when we couldn’t afford to. Even having $100 made me feel like I had choices.

FOUR—get a life. He had a group of friends from before we met who rode motorcycles, hunted and backpacked. I started doing all of those things with him. That has been a lot of fun, but he also likes doing these things with his buddies, so I started to plan my own excursions. One year it was a trip to France with my daughter. Another year it was to Zihuatanejo with another daughter. Once it was to Santa Fe with a girlfriend. Writers conferences, weekends away. In forty-five years, they’ve added up to a lot of great memories for me—and no regrets over being a motorcycle or hunting widow.  

Oh yeah, a FIFTH thing—make work feel like play. We are happiest when we have projects we do together. Right now we’re fencing three acres for a cow and calf operation we’re starting. (Literally a cow and a calf (as in mama and baby make two.) My granddaughters named them Fifi and Poo-poo. I don’t know what’s going to happen when we have to eat Poo-Poo, but that’s a long way off. She’s a girl cow. Maybe we’ll just have a lot of calves.
Oh, I thought of another thing—SIX—Laugh a lot together. We’re not sophisticated. We’re not glamorous.  We’re just two people who find the bright spot in every situation. He boosts me up when I sag, and visa versa. It seems to get easier as we get older, so we’re getting more practice.  

The SEVENTH thing I know about staying married is –just don’t get divorced. You’d be surprised how that works. Weather one storm, another comes along. Weather that one, you start to get a rhythm. You start to know what to look out for—your trigger points.

EIGHT—Unless he’s a neat freak, don’t keep a spotless house. There’s no point in fighting about housekeeping standards. If it comes to that, drop yours. As I’m typing this, my husband came in with an inch of caked mud on his boots that dropped on the floor under his chair. He jiggled the recycling bin on the way out the door and spilled milk on the tile. He left three cabinet doors open. No problem. They’ll be there when he gets in later. To paraphrase the old adage, “A manic attack on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on mine.”      

NINE- Let him know early that getting fat is a hereditary thing. Who worries about a few pounds if you’re a good cook? Then stick to your resolve. There’s nothing wrong with a size 12 or even 14.

TEN- Have a spiritual component to your lives together. Play a Christian radio station, sing hymns while you vacuum, go to church, leave a Bible laying around. Say grace. Baby steps. Someone gave me a crucifix as a wedding gift and when I went to hang it in the bedroom, he complained. Not negotiable, I told him. My faith isn’t either. And the funny thing is, he rose to my level.

Bonus—In the great scheme of things, Ten Years is nothing. Have patience. Cultivate a happy attitude. Relax.   

How about it--any tips, regrets, comments?      

Friday, April 19, 2013

Spring and the Zen of Gardening

It took moving to Oregon to finally understand the meaning of spring.

In the area of California where I used to live, the days start getting warm in February. By March the days are gorgeous. Sometimes the first 80-degree day hits early, feeling like it's 100. By the time April 21 rolls around, the official start of spring seems like someone’s idea of a joke.

In Oregon, the spring equinox finally makes sense. On target, the earth explodes in the third week of April, its arrival celebrated with grand sales at the home improvement stores. Bags of soil amendment, seeds and flats of perennials go on sale along with everything one would possibly need to grow a garden. Stores hold drawings and giveaways, complete with hot dogs and balloons. Makes a person proud to own a hoe. I’ll be there this weekend, stocking up along with my neighbors. It’ll be like a 4th of July picnic, a harbinger of the season. A celebration of life. A small thing, but really, not. It’s a reminder that the dark months are over. We crawled out from the long sleep renewed and refreshed. We made it.

Spring reminds me that I’m capable of rebirth. I can still wield a hoe and rake and, and by all that's holy, I intend to use them. I have a long list of projects, completed in front of the fireplace last winter, and now I’m hitting the dirt with everything I've got. Being physically fit is the result of good habits and luck. I don’t take for granted that I can handle a hoe and rake for five hours, that I can unload a thirty-pound sack of amendment from the pickup. Many people can’t. For a lifetime gardener the loss of strength and agility is a terribly loss. It will come one day, but I want to hold that time at bay by working up a sweat while I still can.

The sunshine, the crisp spring air, the drizzle of rain that salutes my flowerbed after a morning’s work are miracles. My efforts are a form of prayer, a way of saying “Thanks” to the ultimate Gardener. It’s also a reminder that I need patience to love my enemies, dandelions among them. I tell myself we should be able to co-exist in harmony. Maybe use some of them in tea. I've read that every part of the dandelion is usable and I intend to try.  I don’t want to rage against my nemesis, just share the earth for a time. After all, they'll be around a lot longer than I will.

Yesterday my husband and I cleaned out the ravine previous farmers used as a household dump. With leather gloves we pulled bottles, car parts and pots and pans from their resting place and piled them into the trailer. We hauled them to the recycling and separated them. It feels really good, making one tiny area of the earth cleaner, safer, better.

The least we can do to honor spring.   

 What about you? Any plans?


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Some Quick Thoughts on Writing Before I Forget Them

I’m reading Thomas Moore’s little book, Meditations. One of those gems that delivers a bolt of enlightenment on every page. Like Anne Lamott if she were a monk.  

Small, intense books pave my path to sagehood. They would be my path to sainthood if I paid attention to all the lessons they teach. Instead, I’m cursed with a weakness that lets the world tear away my best intentions.  

That’s it, in a nutshell.

My obstacle to perfection is that I’m two women. (I explore this in my memoir, Ordinary Aphrodite.)  The brainy me tends to over-think issues.  I read deep books and feel the author’s ideas fill my head. But that’s where everything stays. The other me is flighty. I ponder the book for a day or two and then it’s back to watching Nashville or Game of Thrones on TV with a bowl of popcorn in my lap. I’m a wannabe intellectual with an average IQ.

In a nutshell.

My writing group is discussing finding our Writer’s Voice, that illusive combination of phrasing and structure, personality and thinking that makes each writer’s work unique. Some writing gurus claim it comes after we’ve written 1,000,000 words. (I put this in numerals so it will look like a big number. Actually, I think I wrote that many words reworking my first novel.)

I envy writers who find their writer’s voice, their genre and their place in the commercial market. They write a mystery, sell it to New York and start another before the royalty check clears. I suspect they were born knowing who they are and are satisfied with that person. All the while I wander the earth searching for the true me.

This is what I know about my writer’s voice. My writing involves the heart. That’s why I love memoir. When I write about “Me,” the name I give the universal woman who occupies my brain, I let my heart tackle the hard stuff. My ego gets to sit on the fence and watch me share my thoughts with the world in a self-effacing manner that allows women to laugh at themselves as well. Afterwards I feel useful. I feel like I’ve taken a few steps along my path of enlightenment and brought along a few sisters to share the trek.

There is a downside to being both giddy and wise. It’s hard to define what I do. I write women’s fiction. Inspirational fiction that women will read and share with their husbands and boyfriends. Contemporary stories that resonate with modern readers. But, wait. I also write historical fiction set in the American West. And Mexico. I write short stories of the heart. I write for religious magazines. I wrote a dark story about mental illness. What each of them has in common is my writer’s voice, the way I define my path.  

Writing is a way of exploring the big questions. I pick up knowledge along the way, but I still have more questions than answers. I’m finding my spiritual path in a messy world. What’s to be done? I guess I’ll just keep writing. Reading and listening. Take quiet walks in the woods. Find inspiration in faces of strangers and friends. Work on being a better friend. Pray and ask for prayer from others.

Maybe that’s enough.

Any thoughts you’d like to share on your own journey? 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Stylist Wars

I know better than to be late for a hair appointment. After all, those ladies have to make a living, too. So if I had followed my own advice I wouldn’t be writing this sad story. I had a hair appointment today. New place, new town. I’d won a gift certificate to the shop in a charity auction event. I had no idea where I was going, but I had the name of the shopping center. How hard could it be?

I drove around the shopping center twice, three times, looking for the salon. Finally I found the certificate at the bottom of my purse and called for directions. Turned out it was at the back of the center, at the truck entrance.

I arrived six minutes late, panting to the stylist closest to the door, “I made every wrong turn I could make finding you.” She was busy blowing someone’s hair, but she smiled and said she did the same thing when she was new to the area. Just then my gal came around the corner and announced in a voice that would have carried in a wind storm. “You had a 12:00 o’clock appointment.  I thought you weren’t coming. You can wait until 12:30 or you can reschedule.”

Several women looked up, their curiosity branding me with shame. My face must have shown my humiliation because my gal added, "Sweetie” in that saccharine tone usually reserved for old ladies in wheelchairs—and they don’t like it either. My face was obviously set in a grim mask of shock because she complimented me on my cute top and called me “sweetie” again in an effort to rescue the appointment.

I murmured something about taking the 12:30 and slunk out. I was parked in front of the store, so I got into my car and drove off. Fury, aggrieved injustice and humiliation spun around in my head while I tried to decide how I felt. I wanted to call my lifeline number and ask for advice like they do on those reality shows, but this was too personal—a road-not-taken fork.  I’d be carrying the memory of this day to my grave

My blood pressure cooled and a semblance of reason returned. The honorable thing to do was to honor the 12:30 appointment. After all, she was right. I had been late. But it was easy to get hung up on the technical point that it had been only six minutes. And it was her fault for setting up shop in the parking lot.   

Part of me wanted to drive home and never think of this day again. My gal's attitude spoke of a long career working with women. An ugly adjective that rhymed with "itch" kept coming to mind. I don’t usually have that thought. I considered my options. I could go back and get my free hair cut without saying anything. Claim the moral high-ground and reduce her to tears. I could leave a tip that would humble her. She would start to apologize, but I would cut her off.

I walked in and the stylist near the door offered me a cup of coffee in a soft, apologetic tone that made returning a whole lot easier. Then my gal called across the room, “They said you phoned that you were lost.  I’m sorry.” Yeah, I had. That was nice to hear.  

An hour later I had a great haircut. I left with something else, too, self-knowledge. I’m a better person than I was yesterday. I'll be a gentler, softer-spoken person in the future, a metaphoric server-of-coffee-to-stricken-strangers. My character got an up-do by the most unlikely of stylists. I'm grateful.

But if I go back to that shop again, it’ll be to the stylist near the door.  

Monday, January 14, 2013

15 Lessons about Playing Solitaire

Every writer I know plays Solitaire while they’re waiting for inspiration or coming down from the natural high of being “in the zone.” It occurred to me this morning that most of life’s lessons apply to Solitaire.

  1. Sit up straight, don’t slump.
  2. Don’t assume anything.
  3. Luck is passive. Winning because of our skill feels better.
  4. Don’t be greedy. Nobody wins every hand.  
  5. Be careful what you ask for. The hand that lets you use every single card in the initial lay-out will leave you out of options.
  6. Trust your instincts, but heighten them by living in the moment
  7. Don’t get pompous. More great hands are lost for lack of a low face card than a king.
  8. The round may start out easy, but every game has its rough patches.
  9. Forgive yourself for being an idiot.
  10. Sometimes you get a second chance.
  11. God doesn’t answer every prayer.
  12. The game isn’t over until it’s over.
  13. When you don’t feel elation over winning, it’s not a game anymore.
  14. It’s addiction if you have to hide it from others.  
  15. Try other games in the list  
I'm sure this list could go on forever. How about you? Do you have one to add? 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Writing with George

On the whole human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite
all the time. - George Orwell

I found this quote somewhere last week and it cracked me up. By coincidence, I’m working on a novel with this theme.

In my novel I channel a middle-age Mexican man with self-doubts. Preliminary readers say it works, and I’ll bask in the glow until my editor gets her copy. By implied consent she gets to say it doesn’t unless I can convince us both that my way works. One thing we never disagree about are the details I tuck into the story.   

My favorite part of writing is developing a character. It’s the same for actors, in that we become our characters. For me, the best part is asking myself the nuanced questions that go beyond the “who, what, where, why and how” that some writing books suggest. Fleshing out a character always happens after the first draft, like when I used to sit across a cafe table with Robert, a friend who reads my early iterations. He’d ask me things like, “What is the lighting like in Esquival’s cantina?”

I’d answer without taking time to think about it, “It’s an ancient wagon wheel from the wood hauler’s oxcart. After the ox died at the age of twenty-six, the owner had no further use for the cart. A week before he died, he bartered the wheel for a few day’s worth of pulque and drank himself into a place where old men could still find purpose.
My friend would blink, expressionless, and continue. “What does the front door look like?”

 “A heavy wooden door in the brilliant blue of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s robes, painted by the owner’s wife so everyone will know she is a righteous woman and a Catholic. Above the arch she added six gold stars that have kept their color even as the door has faded. Although it can no longer compete with the shouting lavender of the Jehovah’s Witness Hall at the edge of town, it is of no matter. The color satisfies her.”

Now Robert has moved away and the cafĂ© sessions are no more. Now I ask myself these questions as I write.  I’ve learned that the best details define the characters that own them. Every accessory serves the purpose of moving the story forward. Nothing gets in without carrying its own weight.

And, surprisingly, they all seem to have something to say about the struggle of man (or woman) to be good—but not too good and not all the time.