Being Here

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I’m having some trouble being here. Not here on the blog, but here in my life.

Over the past few months I’ve started a new blog (this one!), rejoined Instagram and Goodreads, signed up for Twitter (yes, I know I’m late), and after years of holding out, I’ve joined the ranks of every other person I know and opened a Facebook account.

Initially, I tried to ignore Facebook because it seemed like an online high school reunion, which I had no interest in taking part in (still don’t). But also because it reminds me of yearbook culture [shudder].

I still get sweaty palms thinking about middle school yearbook season. I remember trying to act all blasé, like I didn’t care about how many signatures I collected, or which boy scribbled his name on top of his grinning snapshot, and then the next thing you know I’m sprinting down the hall with every other seventh grade girl, collecting as many signatures as possible.

Fortunately, because I’m so late in the game, the competitive feeling has subsided and most of my high school alumni have already (perhaps) tried and failed to find me. It’s quite possible I’m overestimating myself. At any rate, I’m happily cultivating a small and genuine group of “friends.” It’s also been an unexpected delight to reconnect with those I’ve lost touch with over the years.

But all this online involvement comes at a cost.

My time. My attention. My focus.

There is pretty much NO reason at all to be alone in our lives, to be bored, or quiet, or still, ever. I know I reached rock bottom the other day when I was cooking dinner, and in between steps of the recipe, refreshed Twitter and checked my Facebook status.

UGH. This is why I hesitated to rush into the yearbook fray, because I know myself, I know how susceptible I am to distraction, to checking out.

We are all guilty of this, of course, but sometimes it comes at a cost higher than we’d like to pay.

Eight years ago I spent the afternoon with my mom, about a week before she lost consciousness forever. She sat in her usual reclining chair and we watched TV while my dad attended his company picnic, a celebration my mother hadn’t been able to attend in several years.

My mom seemed more out of sorts than usual. She kept asking me to help her stand up. Just let me put my feet on the floor, she kept saying, agitated at my reluctance.

At least let me try, she said, growing steadily more furious. I can’t do it, mom, I kept saying, I’m sorry. Please, I begged, stop asking me.

But she wouldn’t. Finally, I lowered her chair so her toes were grazing the floor. See, I said, helpless with despair, it’s not working.

Furious, she ripped her gaze away from me and stared at the TV leaving me feeling more alone than I had ever felt in her presence.

You need to understand, my mom was a paraplegic. She had a severe form of multiple sclerosis and hadn’t walked, let alone stood on her own, for at least a decade. Listening to desperate pleas to stand, as if we, her family, had been withholding this ability from her, tore at my heart.

This was years before smart phones, but I did have a laptop. I remember checking my email and staring at a ridiculous celebrity gossip site. Anything to create distance from my mother’s pain and my inability to help her.

It breaks my heart, even after all these years, that I tried to escape from her weeks before she left me forever.

Escape has its consequences. The price for checking out can be steep.

I’m not saying there isn’t a time and a place for the pleasure, guilty or otherwise, of reading say, the New Yorker, or E!

Technology is a brilliant way to stay in touch with friends, keep up with news around the world, and read beautifully written blogs filled with life and writerly advice.

But when all you do is click, when you can no longer bear to hear the noise of your life, it’s a problem.

Sometimes I think I stay online because I am so afraid of missing anything. But if I’m not careful, I will miss my life.

This isn’t news. There are – ahem – a bazillion blog posts, not to mention books, about the risks of living online instead of off. But this is my wake up call. I need to focus.

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I need to Be Here.

That’s the reason for my rock, the flip side of focus, to remind myself where I’m supposed to be. While cooking dinner, driving with my family (as a passenger!), playing with my kids, spending time with my husband, and writing.

So, if you wonder where I am, that is where. Here. In my life.

I’d love to hear from you, if you can spare a moment, to learn how you balance – or not balance – your online and offline lives. Do you schedule out your social media time? (Something I’m considering.) Do you put away your phone at certain times of the day? What is ONE thing you can do, right now, to be more present in your life? 

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Time to Unfurl

Though I haven’t yet spotted my first spring flower of the season, it’s coming, and fast.

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I’m ready for it now, but few weeks ago, I wasn’t. This is unusual for me. Normally I’m on high alert for the first signs of spring. But not this year. For some reason I was hanging onto winter – despite the freezing temperatures and towering drifts of snow – I didn’t want it to end. I wasn’t ready for the thaw, for the melt and the mud, for the sudden exposure and vulnerability.

There is a risk in being seen, and heard.

A couple months ago I wrote about discovering my love for winter, and how in a way, my writing life has been in an extended winter since the birth of my daughter almost seven years ago.

It’s not as if I stopped writing. I blogged and journaled, I even published another short story, but writing was something I squeezed into the edges of my life.

When I read this passage in my favorite creative book, Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, I recognized myself:

“Women trick themselves this way. They’ve thrown away the treasure, whatever it may be, but they’re sneaking bits and pieces any way they can.”

Writing wasn’t a priority. My life as a writer was in hibernation.

I’ve been hesitating into spring for some time.

My daughter's attempt to hurry the season.

My daughter’s attempt to hurry the season.

Now that I’m finally ready to claim it, there is – of course – fear. Not just fear of failure, which is a familiar companion, but fear of keeping up.

The clock of my life is ticking away. I will be forty years old in a few months. I’m itching to begin and yet paralyzed by the task ahead of me.

Against my better judgement, I’ve been playing the dangerous game of comparison. Social media is not helping. Though I enjoy it for reconnecting with old friends and making new ones, there is a danger in falling down that rabbit hole. When I spend too much time there scrolling, clicking, commenting, favoriting, I grow exceedingly anxious.

It takes effort, such effort, to drag myself away and remember this truth:

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It helps to have friends. Ones who I’ve never met except online. Their words are like hands reaching out in the darkness, footholds in the cliff I scramble to climb.

There are many voices that I gravitate toward for guidance and grounding, but these two in particular rang out like bells this week, guiding me out of the shadows of winter into the green golden light of spring.

“Without the clutter, I feel the weight of my frailty, the extent of my lostness, and the possibility of newness. I put aside the striving of to-do lists and achievements, and the burst of energy comes.” studies in hope

YES. This is what I needed to hear. In a post inspired by Lent, which I know little about, the idea of making space, of clearing the path, and seeing what may filter in resonated with me.

Then there is this quote, from another wonderful site, Healing Your Grief:

“Our freedom is always in letting go, surrendering and allowing our life to unfold exactly as it is meant to be. This doesn’t mean we do not create and open or build doors towards our goals, it means we need to loosen our grip and stop holding on so tightly to our plans and dreams.”

This one I’m still untangling. What does it mean to loosen my grip, to let go of what I’ve been clutching for years? What might I accomplish if I let my gaze wander away from the prize?

I don’t know, but I’m ready to find out.

As I steady myself on this precipice of change, I know it’s imperative to turn down and tune out some of that noise. I must remember to focus, my word of 2015, and to trust myself.

focus rock

Are you ready for spring, or do you harbor some residual winter longing? (Clearly, this is not the case if you are a New Englander!) What season of your creative life are you in?

Listen to Your Mother

bracelets Driving to my Listen To Your Mother audition last week was like a mini vacation. Driving anywhere, even to the grocery store, without having to dole out Pirate’s Booty and tissues, negotiating radio station wars, and dealing with consecutive bathroom stops, is a treat.

I get to play music of my choice without complaint, and if I end up tearing up when John (Cougar) Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” comes on, I have plenty of tissues to hand to myself.

At eight-thirty am, after making pancakes (a mix, please), doing the dishes, and scooping the cat litter – to which my husband, still bleary-eyed, was like, you know you don’t need to do all that, I drove to my audition.

The sky was gray and bright, as if the sun was pressing against the clouds. Snow covered almost everything, but the temperature was rising and rivers of water cut paths into the dirty drifts.

I talked to myself, one of my favorite things to do, giving myself a pep talk for the audition. “Piece of cake,” I said, all bluster and pffft-like. “If I can read my mom’s eulogy, I can read this no problem.” I tried a technique I read about here, that Dani Shapiro used before going on Oprah. “Be curious… Curiosity and self-consciousness can’t occupy the same space.”

Clearly, this wasn’t Oprah or anything remotely close, but I was pretty nervous, so I asked all kind of curious questions about the producers, what they had for breakfast, if their kid helped them put on their make-up like mine had.

Then I thought about the other women coming to audition, anxiously driving, maybe crying to songs on the radio, thinking about what inspired their essay, watching the winter begin to thaw. One car seemed to be following me, and for a few miles before she turned, I wondered if we were heading to the same place.

A warmth spread across my chest and I felt a kinship with every woman on their way to the audition. Each one of us had made it a priority to do something a little bit scary, a little bit brave. As much as I wanted to be part of the cast, to read aloud the essay I wrote about my mother, about her labor toward death, I felt a genuine rush of pride for whoever ended up on that stage.

I wanted to hug every person I might see at the audition and wish them well. I knew I’d be disappointed if I wasn’t selected, that’s a given, but in that moment I felt something like grace and knew whatever happened would be okay.

My good luck charms, a pair of bracelets, and these two jokers, may have helped, because…

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“Good luck!” a text and pic from my husband.

I am truly honored, elated, stunned, and grateful to be one of 13 people slated to be on stage for the inaugural Lehigh Valley Listen to Your Mother Show. I’m in wonderful company, with the three awesome women running the show, their production team, and all of the other readers.

In the car ride home I wept, not to any song in particular, but to the image of my mother, sitting on her reclining chair in my childhood home, beaming at me, her eyes shining with tears, pride and love written all over her beautiful face.

me and my mom

Me and my mom, circa 1977

Starting Again

I’m honored to be over at Literary Mama today as a guest blogger for their “After Page One” column.

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“After Page One” is a section devoted to short but sweet essays intended to motivate, inspire, and encourage fellow writing mamas. I wrote about how I managed to scratch my way out of the deep writing hole I found myself in after having my first child.

Below is a brief excerpt:

“Starting Again”

In the months leading up to my daughter’s birth, I wrote my first novel. That makes it sound so easy, doesn’t it? But it was as much of a labor as the one I was about to have. My belly bulged as I walked down the sidewalk clutching my freshly printed manuscript to my chest. I had three weeks until my due date. Plenty of time to read it. Or so I thought. Two nights later I went into labor and by morning I was a new mother.

Click here to read the rest… Thank you!

 

Mining the Wounds

Last week was a slow one for writing. I’d like to believe this has more to do with the snowy weather than my brain, but probably both were responsible.

Life gets in the way. I don’t know why I seem to forget this.

My life. Love these guys.

My life. Love these guys.

There was a two-hour school delay Wednesday, and then no school for the rest of the week, but somehow I managed to scratch out a few pages of my novel despite hitting another wall (made of brick, rather high) and almost letting it get the best of me.

I’m two-thirds of the way through this draft, and while I have a general sense where I need to end up, how I get there is blurry.

I’m trying to take it one step/scene at a time and not hyperventilate, but there is this nudging voice that says I ought to have a better plan.

That voice says LOTS of jerky stuff and I know I’m supposed to ignore it, and most days I do, but sometimes it gets a little bit loud and makes me cranky. Thank goodness for the bird feeder outside my office window and the gorgeous cardinal that makes frequent appearances. I am so grateful to my husband for what I think is the best Valentine’s present ever.

If you squint, you can see the cardinal's red tail feathers.

If you squint, you can see the cardinal’s red tail feathers.

Another thing that helps get me through winter and novel writing blahs is reading an AWESOME book. The nudgy voice tried to interrupt, of course, insinuating that my book can’t possibly compare, but I squashed it with my boot and kept on reading.

all my puny sorrows

The author writes in an almost manic style, winding these gorgeous and wrenching sentences around and around like an endless skein of yarn, which makes me a bit anxious, but that is, partly, the point.

The book is about sisters, one sane, one less so, and the lengths we go to keep someone we love alive, even when that person would much rather be dead.

But there’s humor in the pathos, which makes it bearable. Which makes life bearable.

In between bouts of novel angst and laugh-crying my way through “All My Puny Sorrows,” I somehow managed to write a draft of a new essay about reading, and writing, my mother’s eulogy.

It started out as a blog post, but as I gained momentum I could feel the roots shooting down, expanding. This was going to be bigger.

It makes sense that my mom’s eulogy was on my mind, because I was also practicing my audition essay for the Lehigh Valley Listen to Your Mother show (a live performance in 39 cities across the US) which happens to be about her death.

As I was getting “all nerved up,” to use one of my mom’s expressions, I realized with a jolt that the hardest performance of my life had already occurred. Reading my audition essay, as vulnerable as I might feel, could not compare to reading my mom’s eulogy.

The dress I wore to my mom's funeral, and to my audition.

The dress I wore to my mom’s funeral, and to my Listen to Your Mother audition.

This June will be eight years since her death. Despite the passage of time, scars remain. Misshapen ridges mark my heart, a topography of grief. Sometimes they break open and bleed.

But that’s what writing is for, to honor our wounds, to face the joy and pain of life, both real and imagined. To not look away. To scratch at the scars if they warrant another chance to heal.

What have you been writing and reading lately? Do you have any scars itching to be reopened?

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On Tuesday I’ll be joining Maddy over at Writing Bubble for her weekly link up, What I’m Writing. Check it out and perhaps add your own link. I love hearing what others are up to in their work.