What Keeps Your Door Closed?

Today I’m over at The Gift of Writing with a guest post about the challenges of excavating our past, of choosing to sift through painful memories and then writing them down for all to see.

gift of writing

I’ve been a fan of Claire De Boer and her site ever since I first came across a guest post she wrote about the importance of writing your personal story. At the time, I was primarily writing fiction, but it reminded me that the more intimately we know ourselves, the more authentically we can write about others.

I’m honored to be one of Claire’s regular contributors and I hope you will visit The Gift of Writing to read my post, “What Keeps Your Door Closed?”

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Fighting the Mid Novel Slump

I never knew there was a such a thing. But a few weeks ago it happened to me. At first I thought it was just a moment of frustration. I hit a wall with my novel and had to take an unexpected detour, a longer way with a treacherous incline.

Suddenly, the idea that I was inches away from coasting downhill toward my novel’s ending disappeared. Poof, gone. I looked around, trying to orient myself, and realized I was halfway up a snowy peak with holes in my boots and dwindling supplies.

I started to wonder… was I wasting my time toiling away at a crap first novel? Should I cut my losses now and start something new, or shake off the doubt and trudge ahead?

Photo Credit: AraiUSA via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: AraiUSA via Compfight cc

(I’m writing this during a snowstorm, which is clearly influencing my choice of imagery, so I apologize in advance for hitting you over the head with my metaphorical shovel; but seriously, it’s a blizzard out there.)

So, I did what any rational person does during times of stress and indecision: I looked for signs.

Someone, other than myself, to tell me WHAT TO DO. Of course, this is ridiculous and a form of procrastination, not to mention self-sabatoge, but I looked, and of course I found plenty online. I was haunted by articles with headlines like, “Why We Write, Why We Stop…” and “In Praise of Quitting”. The first article by Julianna Baggot turned out to be uplifting (and filled with tangible advice, check it out), but the second nearly gutted me.

Photo Credit: coppirider via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: coppirider via Compfight cc

I know sometimes it might be better to quit a project that isn’t going anywhere, but the question that keeps me (and I’m sure, many writers) up at night is this: How do you differentiate between doubt and honest assessment? 

This crisis of faith made me a horribly grumpy person to be around (sorry family), and catching my son’s cold did NOT help matters, but fortunately I happened across another sign soon after:

Janice Graham on the Writer’s Midway Crisis

On the – Wha???

I didn’t know Janice, but I loved her immediately for giving a name to my problem. Midway crisis, yes, that’s exactly what was happening! Like so many problems (if not all), mine turned out to be completely unoriginal.

This made me giddy with relief. Whatever my decision, I wasn’t the only one stuck in this godforsaken place. Others had traveled a similar path and survived. Including Neil Gaiman, who wrote this wonderfully uplifting piece for National Novel Writing Month. Apparently, he feels this same malaise at the midpoint of ALL his novels. (Note to self, move The Ocean at the End of the Lane up to the top of my to-read list.)

In her article, Janice references Steven Pressman’s The War of Art, a book I had heard of but not yet read. He calls this particular ailment, and all its odious relatives, by one name: resistance. YES. A repelling energy that pushes writers, artists, creators, entrepreneurs to quiver with doubt and ultimately retreat. Resistance, or more specifically our surrender to it, is what makes us fail.

Soon after I read Janice’s article, my sense of equilibrium returned. I checked the window of my soul in regards to my novel-in-progress. The snow had lightened and the mist seemed to be thinning. My boots were still soggy and the path jagged and steep, but I knew now what I had to do.

Take a step at a time. In one direction. UP.

Photo Credit: zzzoz via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: zzzoz via Compfight cc

Now, I have some questions for you. Feel free to answer one, none, or all…

Have you any experience with the mid-novel slump/crisis?

Has their been a time when cutting your losses *was* the right choice for a project? How did you make that decision?

What is your experience with resistance or doubt, and how do deal with it?

I’m currently devouring, and loving, Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art. The first two sections have really resonated with me, but I’m having a little, ahem, resistance, with the last section which is about muses and angels (where he believes inspiration comes from). If you’ve read the book, I’m curious to know what you think.

 

typewriter-butterflies-badge-small

The Power of Poetry

inside cookie box poem 1

Over the holidays, we received a lovely gift basket from my husband’s aunt. It was beautifully wrapped and overflowing with cookies, crackers, pasta, popcorn, and the most delicious salted caramels. This was not something she picked up at a supermarket or specialty store. She had to make it herself because we are gluten free.

The phasing of that last line struck me. We are gluten free, as if we are what we eat, or rather what we don’t eat. But changing it to, we only eat gluten free, doesn’t sound quite right. The first rings more true. We ARE gluten free. We’re not trying it out to be trendy or lose weight (what a joke!), but because our daughter has celiac. It’s our life.

So, needless to say we were quite grateful. This box of cookies caught my eye right away…

best cookies

Bart & Judy’s The Best Sweet Potato Cookies In The World

Even before I tasted them, I loved the flavor combo, in part because I knew my kids wouldn’t touch them. They were mine, all mine, ha! Though I must admit a little wariness regarding their claim, “the best,” which is one of the most overused, and rather annoying, phrases on the web these days.

That said, these cookies are good. Really good. I love how they’re sweet, but not cloyingly so, how there is only a handful of ingredients, all natural. They are about as close to homemade as you can get, in a box. Plus they are so adorably petite, you don’t feel bad if you eat a dozen a couple.

As I happily munched away I checked out the box, whose surface was peppered with stories and quotes. As a kid my parents used to joke that I’d read anything, even the back of a cereal box. Some things don’t change. But what I never expected was what was inside… and I’m not talking about cookies.

Poems. POEMS!

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Poems printed on the inside of the box. Are you kidding me?! Bart, the cookie maker, is quite clear what he wants eaters to do:

arrow to read

He includes three poems: Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Billy Collins’ “Aristotle,” and John Donne’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

Later when we bought more flavors at HomeGoods – cinnamon sugar and chocolate chocolate chip – I’d hoped for different poems, but they were the same. Still. Poems with cookies. When does that happen?

Now before you shrug and say, well, I’m not that into poetry (because I’m assuming you’re into cookies, I mean, I hope so), you should know: neither am I.

In fact, I have a history of what I call SPI: severe poetry intimidation.

Of course I’ve read plenty of it; you have to when you major in English lit and get an MFA. But reading poetry always struck a nerve of self-doubt. Still does. Without the familiar footholds of narrative storytelling beneath me, I falter and lose my confidence. Often I start with the best of intentions, but my attention tends to wander at the first roadblock. A phrase I can’t unlock, an obscure reference. It’s kind of what happens when I try to meditate. I lose focus.

Well. Clearly, I need to work on this, because if it weren’t for this box of cookies, I’d never have read “Aristotle” by Billy Collins, now one of my favorite pieces of writing.

He spans a lifetime in a poem. I wept through it, and not only because we were in the midst of dealing with poor Mimi, our dearly departed cat.

Though I do believe reading poetry during times of grief can help. Now, come to think of it, that’s when I’ve been most drawn to poetry. After my mother’s death, a friend sent me W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” and I read it repeatedly, as did my father. My novel-in-progress (perhaps I should stop calling it an albatross?) has themes of death, grief, and survivor’s guilt, and I found this poem on Lindsey Mead’s wonderful blog, A Design So Vast.

Perhaps the answer for me, and anyone else suffering from poetry intimidation, is to take one poem at a time and release yourself from pressure to “get it” or even like it.

Maybe, if you’re feeling so inclined, check out some of my favorite lines from “Aristotle.”

From, This is the beginning.

Think of an egg, the letter A,

a woman ironing on a bare stage

as the heavy curtain rises.

As I read these lines, between bites of cookie, I thought, I can see that. I heard the hush of the audience as the curtain rose. The skin on my arms rose up and I continued.

From, This is the middle.

This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,

where the action suddenly reverses

or swerves off in an outrageous direction.

Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph

to why Miriam does not want Edward’s child.

I love how right this feels, the messy middle, when there is still possibility, though the shine of it has rubbed off.

From, And this is the end,

the car running out of road,

the river losing its name in an ocean…

This is the colophon, the last elephant in

the parade, the empty wheelchair,

and pigeons floating down in the evening.

I was understandably flattened by the wheelchair line, since my mother was in one for the last decade of her life, but I could barely get through this last section without weeping. It felt like The End, more than just the end of a poem.

But that, I’m realizing, is the power of poetry, one that has eluded me over the years. A phrase lights up in your mind, dives down and burrows in your heart, where it beats and bleeds.

Not every poem will have this effect, just like not every book or cookie will, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read lots of books or try lots of cookies.

I’d like to know if you consider yourself poetry fluent, averse, or somewhere in between. What poems have left their mark on you?

Word Up 2015

I’ve never been much of a resolution person, if only because I’m cynical and already know if I make them, I’ll break them. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to the One Word concept. You choose a word that resonates and you try (key word, try!) to hang onto it throughout the year. Since there’s no specific declarations involved, no one (but you) knows if you slack off.

Well. I totally bombed last year’s, which is to say, I can’t remember what I chose. Terrible! I see now it was “open,” which in theory, is a great word, but I didn’t practice it much beyond this post. Oops.

This year I’ve been on the fence. Every time I’m this close to nixing the whole pick-a-word thing, some blogger I love writes a post and I’m overcome with word envy. Here a few I’ve considered stealing and/or am just enjoying vicariously…

Believe (Minuscule Moments)

Reach (Little Lodestar)

Practice, runner up Moose (Tamara Like Camera)

Rise (The Gift of Writing)

I was this close to stealing Kath’s “Believe” because I could really use a hefty dose of confidence and/or magical thinking about finishing my novel.

Naturally, this led me to consider “Finish,” which I almost chose but it seemed kind of resolution-y rather than word-y since what else do I need to finish besides my writing projects? The only thing that came to mind is the enormous laundry pile that I pretend not to see every time I pass it, but the crap thing about laundry is that even when you don’t ignore it you’re never finished. Ever. So forget that.

One morning, after a particularly cranky child-wrangling session, I briefly toyed with the word “Yes.” Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, if I stopped yelling “NO” at my kids (amongst other things)? But then I scrapped it after pick up. Because how silly.

Then, sometime very late past my bedtime the other night when my brain is supposed to be quieting down but doesn’t, so I do the exact opposite of what I’m supposed to do and reach for my phone and scroll through Twitter, and then become disgusted with myself and delete the app, and then I check my email, which is ridiculous because no one but spam sends me emails at midnight and not even spam because even they are sleeping, so I put my phone face down and start to panic like I did when I was a kid and knew the night was getting on without me, and just then, a word drops in my brain with a thump, like a leftover holiday package that had been temporarily lost in the post office or the back corner of a UPS truck.

???????????????????????????????????????

(Of course I picked my phone right back up and wrote the word down because that’s how addled my brain is and also how addicted I am to my phone.)

So, yes. Focus. I really need more of this in my life. Often, I feel so wild-brained and scattered. I try and fail to multitask. One example that springs to mind is when I’m supposed to be playing/listening/being with my kids but I’m really on my phone. Horrible! I hate this! Sometimes I rationalize, well, he’s perfectly fine playing trains next to me while I read and comment on this blog post… or I say to my daughter for the zillionth time, just let me finish this last thing… Not good.

This year, I’d like to focus on ONE THING AT A TIME.

My writing. My family. Myself.

I may have to tattoo it on my wrist, or maybe just write it on. I used to draw hearts on the top of my daughter’s wrist to remind her of my love when she was in preschool. It’s funny, because now I’m wearing a heart on my wrist, one that she bought me at the gift fair at school.

heart on my wrist

I’m hoping if I can focus more, I will be more present (another good word) and more productive.

I will focus on finishing my novel.

I will focus on my writing as a career, not just a dream.

I will focus on my marriage.

I will focus on laughing more and yelling less.

And finally, I will focus on my children, who are growing up so fast, too fast, rising like beautiful weeds up toward the sun and out of my reach.

I’m sharing this post on Mum Turned Mom’s The Prompt, whose word this week happens to be, focus. Click here to see what other writers have been focusing on…

the prompt

Endings

Sometimes life taps you on the shoulder and whispers, take notice, this is important.

On Christmas Eve, my husband took our cat Mimi to the vet. She had a suspicious lump on the side of her face and a weepy eye. Looking back, it’s clear that this was not going to end well, but I was hopeful, or perhaps denial is the more appropriate word. Shortly after he sent me a text that sank my stomach to my knees. Call me right away. 

I sobbed quietly in the kitchen while he explained the vet’s explanation. My children sat unaware in the other room. Our two cats had been our first “babies,” now beloved by our actual babies more than us. Changing diapers and raising humans rubbed the shine off our feline affections, I’m sorry to say. However, nothing like a terminal diagnosis to release a dam of guilt and love.

In furtive whispers we decided to wait before telling our children, especially our daughter who is six and two thirds (her words) and highly sensitive. There was an off chance that this was a non malignant lump. We decided to make an appointment for surgery. I think we both knew in our hearts euthanizing might be the more humane (not to mention practical) course, but neither of us was willing to make that call despite years of complaining about cat litter and hairballs.

On Sunday after a weekend celebration filled with family, laughter, and of course gifts, my husband took our daughter aside and told her the news. I heard her cries from where the kitchen and felt the sting of her pain, a layer of her innocence peeled back, at this first intimate exposure to disease and death.

She asked why, repeatedly, as she cried and we tried to answer her questions honestly, but also carefully because our girl suffers from anxiety, especially regarding illness. Not that surprising given she has celiac disease, but more than the average kid. We walked the line of truth on wobbly legs. We did our best, which ultimately, is all you can do as a parent, and really, as a human being.

At one point my husband said, “Death is an important part of life.” This phrasing seemed to agitate her. “Why important,” she asked looking confused.

I put my arm around her and pulled her close. “Death is part of life,” I said, removing the adjective before adding another. “And it’s very sad.”

After she dried her eyes, my husband asked if she wanted to spend the afternoon with Mimi, but she said no. Already I saw her edging back, in fear, but also as a form of self-protection. Adults do this, too. I saw it happen to my mother when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age forty. Some friends dropped back so far they disappeared. When she was dying, eighteen years later, I watched certain people approach her fearlessly, weeping at her bedside, resting their head against hers, while others remained on the periphery of the room, watching from a distance.

There is no right or wrong way to behave in the face of death. But my husband and I understood that this first introduction, the way we acted and reacted in the eye of this oncoming storm, would shape our daughter. At this point, death was a possibility not a certainty, so we didn’t push her. It was her idea to drive to Philadelphia and visit The Franklin Institute, one of our favorite museums. I asked her why even though I already knew. I already knew.

To see the heart, she said.

the-franklin-institute

Oh, the heart. I hid my tears behind a hand as I thought about hearts, that precious fist shaped organ, the quiet steady force of life. When I think about hearts I always think of my mother’s, how hers beat on even after her lungs failed. I was sitting at her bedside when she stopped breathing. Her face turned blue, but most surprisingly, she smiled.

Then, with a sharp gasp the smile disappeared and she was back. We later learned later it was because her heart was so strong, so young. A few days later, it stopped, and she died peacefully in her sleep. But I will always remember how it didn’t want to quit, and it seemed a fitting metaphor for such a loving woman.

We agreed to drive to the museum, all of us nodding our heads in unison. It’s a good idea, I said. Better to leave the house and not mope around. Besides, poor Mimi would be better served sleeping peacefully than being pursued by our worried children.

It was overcast, the kind of day when the passage of time is elusive, the sky knitted thick with clouds. I put away my phone and took out my notebook. I wrote about the sky and my daughter. I wrote about the sun shining like a pale coin, and how it seemed to struggle through the clouds, elbowing its way out before falling back again.

We had a nice day. We walked through the heart twice, its methodical pounding amplified in our ears. There’s the left ventricle, I pointed out to my son who held my hand and walked ahead of me. His big sister ran through, already an expert at the steep stairs and all the twists and turns. I called out to her, wait for us, I said, not wanting to lose sight of her. Often she’s five steps ahead of me, in the heart and in life. I’m learning to let go bit by bit, but it’s hard.

The next day Mimi took a turn for the worse. She vomited in a sudden and violent way. There was blood all over the floor. My husband and I looked at each other horrified, knowing what that meant. For once I was grateful for the endless episodes of Angelina Ballerina. It gave us time to clean up the blood, to compose ourselves. To prepare for the next conversation.

Our girl took it hard. I wept beside her as I witnessed this next level of understanding. Later, though, I realized how lucky we are, how lucky she was that this first brush with death was an animal’s, as dear as she was to us, and not a parent or sibling. I knew it could be much, much worse.

But still.

Mimi's last day.

Mimi’s last day, December 30, 2014

The next day we spent inside, biding our time. The appointment with the vet was at 4:30. For the first time in days, my daughter approached Mimi. She was still cautious, but offered to sit with her to “keep her company.” I gave her a pad of paper and she sketched a portrait. She wanted to get Mimi just right and I think she did.

bunky and mimi

When it was time to say goodbye, I was a wreck, but my dear daughter was composed and full of compassion. She stayed in the play room with her father when he put Mimi into the carrier. She offered to walk Mimi to the car, crouching low so the cat could see her face and “not be afraid.” I stood at the window stifling my sobs, so proud and so heavy hearted.

Rest in peace sweet kind Mimi, always the gentlest of cats, with the most beautiful coat of caramel striped fur I’ve ever seen. We will miss you.

mimi the cat w color

mimi cat

A cat of many names, given upon adoption as Nome

Shortened to Noemi, and renamed by our daughter, Mimi

Born 2005-Died 2014

Have you had to deal with a pet or family member’s death with your child? How did you handle it? Were there any books about grief that seemed to help?