Finding Time

I’ve been quiet in this space, but it’s been a busy few weeks in my life. Back to back birthday weekends (my daughter and husband) with a grand finale of Mother’s Day, which always stirs up my emotions. I’m relieved it’s over.

I prefer the quiet lulls between celebrations. Must be that introvert side of me, relishing the chance to duck back into my shell and recover.

Meanwhile, things in my brain haven’t been much quieter, but that kind of work I can manage better. I’ve been tearing through memoir and craft books, inhaling podcasts, and basically gorging on this new (to me) genre. I’m filling myself up with as much knowledge as I can before taking my own leap.

memoirs

 

I never thought I’d be doing this, writing a memoir, and yet here I am, about to begin, beginning. I bought a designated notebook, a special pen, and I’ve been taking notes, writing out scene ideas. I feel like a train, its engine rumbling, steam rising, the whistle about to blow.

But once I get going, how will I continue my momentum once summer begins? The two words “school’s out” used to bring on waves of panic, but this year I’m not feeling as concerned. In fact, I’m making goals.

What the heck?! Two new words spring to mind:

Early rising.

(Well, that’s the goal. I won’t make any promises since this is quite a departure for me.)

sunrise small

Now please understand, I always get up early. My kids still wake in the night, and at least one rises with the sun (since birth, since birth!) and her clomping steps to the bathroom (if she doesn’t stop to peek in my bedroom first) always rouses me. Even if I pretend to ignore it, the cat doesn’t.

My old way was to grouchily flop back into bed and squeeze out a little more sleep, even the restless kind, because getting up at dawn felt like admitting defeat. I’ve fantasized about being the kind of writer who sets the alarm at 5am to write, but after being deeply sleep deprived for eight years, it seems sacrilegious to wake before absolutely necessary.

But then Saturday happened. I slept poorly (thanks kids and cat) and woke in a foul mood. The whole day I felt off, grouchy. It wasn’t until later that I realized why. That morning I had a chance to get out of bed before my kids. I heard my daughter close her door and knew she had turned on her requisite morning show on her iPad, but I forced myself back to sleep. Yet, for the first time ever, I understood that sleep was no longer winning.  What I needed even more, at least in the hour of dawn, was solitude.

I read this post by a fellow writer-mama Sophie a couple weeks ago, Why Early Mornings Are Good For My Well Being As Well As My Word Count, and this line in particular struck a nerve.

“If I don’t take charge of my day, and instead fritter away the beginnings of it in broken sleep, then when I am finally forced out of bed by a hungry toddler I am way more weary than I would otherwise have been.”

I’m more pissy and grumpy, but same idea.

The sleep I get from 6-7am does NOTHING for me. So why not write, or read, or watch the birds flit around the feeder in peace, with no one clamoring for my attention?

I tried it on Sunday and it was like a miracle. Not only did I get some writing accomplished, but by the time my daughter appeared at 7am (as per my firm request and the assistance of Netflix) I was feeling generous and sated as opposed to annoyed and disgruntled. I may have been spotted humming while cleaning the bathroom later that morning, but that cannot be confirmed.

It’s been five days so far, and though I slept in a bit this morning (due to staying up too late writing this!), I’m going to keep on with this habit. There is something incredibly peaceful about being the only one awake and drinking my coffee in silence.

Will I ever set my alarm for 5 or 5:30am? I don’t know, but the idea no longer seems unattainable.

This summer instead of surrendering my writing time, I’ve decided to set some goals. Not small ones either:

  1. Record all 12 video lessons for my grief course (coming to The Gift of Writing in October 2016 if all goes well, click here to be put on the waiting list!)
  2. Write 50 pages of my memoir about me and my mother

mom watching me

The trick is walking the tightrope of trying to meet my goals and not beating myself up if I don’t. All I know for sure is that there is no certainty, not in parenthood, not in life. I can’t predict what this particular summer is going to look like. Can I rise at dawn and still have my wits about me to deal with my two (often sparring) children? Will a babysitter be able to wrangle them or will I have to intervene?

I want to enjoy summer – the laziness of it, the surrender – without stress. Well, without the added stress of deadlines. But at the same time, having a goal to lean toward could serve as my fuel, what gets me through the bickering and squabbles, knowing I have my mornings, whatever may come of them.

What are your summer plans, and do you make goals, or play it by ear? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soaring into the Unknown

“If we can find the courage to face the unknown, we can ‘mind’ our futures more gently. We can examine new ideas, go places we never expected to go…”

– Allison Carmen, Psychology Today

soar

Facing the unknown has never been my thing.

I like having an idea of what’s going to happen next, or knowing what the next step should be. The less surprises the better. Clearly, I’m no thrill seeker. At The Franklin Institute over the weekend we finally made our way into the Brain exhibit. I don’t know why we never ventured in there before. It’s fascinating, and we barely touched the surface.

brain

One thing that struck me was a section about why some people are more thrill seeking than others. Basically, it’s less about choice and preference, and more about the brain and how much of a “reward” we get from risky activities (i.e. dopamine). Looks like my dopamine surges must be minimal, because I’ve always sought the comforts of safety over danger.

The last few months I’ve been struggling over the fate of my novel-in-progress. Maybe struggling isn’t the right word, or I was struggling, and then after Florida I decided to surrender. Since then I’ve been letting my intuition lead, following the faded footsteps in the sand, picking up glittering rocks and shells that catch my eye.

I signed up for a local 4-week memoir class and dove into my own crash course on creative nonfiction, reading craft books and memoirs as I contemplated writing my own.

I let myself consider the “maybe” of trying something new. Of not knowing. Of taking a chance.

Then the other day I was scrolling through the bottomless pit of FB when I came across an article whose title made the back of my neck prickle with recognition. “Why Are We Always Looking for Certainty in Our Lives?”

Whoa. I read it and double whoa. The author honed in on my lifelong tendency to play it safe and assume a sense of control. Then I read this:

“But often we are ignoring new opportunities, stifling creativity and true desires for the sake of certainty.”

Oh, crap.

Fiction has been my comfort zone for my entire writing life; not just the writing of it, but the reading, too. I remember feeling vaguely annoyed that I had to spend one module on another genre during my MFA. I picked creative nonfiction not out of a genuine interest, but a lesser of evils, too terrified about the vulnerability of poetry to consider it.

Over the course of the module, something shifted within me as I realized that fiction and creative nonfiction weren’t as far apart as I had imagined. The piece I wrote for my (incredibly awesome) professor, Thomas E. Kennedy, was called House on the Hill, all about my childhood home and how our high perch offered protection and isolation. He gently but firmly encouraged me to further explore the bruises of memory, some old, others still fresh.

roots

All those exposed roots.

I’ve been thinking of the phrase, house on the hill, over these past weeks, maybe longer, as I contemplate digging more deeply into my past and present. Reflecting on my mother, and my own mothering. The choices I make about my life and art, the choices my mother’s body made for her. The house I grew up in looms large in my mind like a patient ghost, always lingering, waiting for me to return.

And now, finally, I’m ready to go back and see what it wants to tell me.

What side of the spectrum do you lean, toward adventure and risk, or comfort and safety? Do you shy away from the unknown or leap toward it?

I’m so pleased to be part of Writing Bubble’s wonderful link-up. Come by, take a look, and perhaps join in!

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The Small Backs of Children: Book Review

One word has exploded a world of new-to-me authors and books: podcasts.

That’s how I found out about Lidia Yuknavitch, author of two short story collections, the ground-quaking body-centric memoir, The Chronology of Water, a novel about Freud’s famous first patient, Dora: A Headcase, and her latest fiction, a heart shattering and language loving novel, The Small Backs of Children.

I don’t often review books on this blog (hey, maybe I will) but after reading my first Lidia I felt a shift, the seismic kind. So often, reading removes me from my body. You probably know what I mean, when immersed in a riveting story, you lose your physical self and float away in a time-space oblivion. But this time the opposite occurred. Reading The Small Backs of Children I was as fully aware of my body’s responses to her words as I was to my brain’s.

The book was intense and when I finished I felt shaken and stirred (sorry, but there’s a lot of drinking as well as violence and beauty). Shortly after, I began writing my first short story in two years. I know her influence left an impression on the choices I made in regards to language and the body.

Are you curious yet? My review is below, and shortly, I will be sending out a long-awaited newsletter with an exhaustive – but thrilling (!) podcast round-up. If you’re not a podcast convert yet, you may be by the end. Please consider signing up (CLICK HERE!) for my newsletter if you haven’t already. Believe me when I say you won’t be inundated. Maybe monthly, if the stars and planets align.

Now, finally…

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

This is a book about the body. Women and children’s bodies, and the violence inflicted on them during times of war and peace.

The Small Backs cover

Yuknavitch begins in the mind of an unnamed girl, in an unnamed Eastern European country, as she recalls the obliteration of her family home – and entire family – while walking in the snowy woods a year later.

In many ways, the girl is the focal point of the story, the sun which all the other characters orbit. None of these characters have names. They are a band of artists identified only by their work: writer, photographer, painter, poet, playwright, and filmmaker. When the writer of the group falls ill, unable to come back from the oceanic grief of losing her stillborn child, her friends rally to help.

The intersection of the girl and these artists make up the plot, but the idea of “plot” is used loosely as this book defies conventions on every level. Early on, Yuknavitch plays with the translucence of fiction and memoir by including biographical information in the story. The Writer even says, “Every self is a novel in progress. Every novel is a lie that hides the self.”

Is the Writer a thinly veiled Yuknavitch, an echo of her lived experience? Is she playing with us in this passage? How much of the book is based on fact and how much is fiction?

But this wonder is soon set aside. There are more pressing issues at hand. Sweeping philosophical questions with no definitive answers arise, including – how is motherhood defined, can art save lives, and what responsibility does an artist have to her subjects? All this is juxtaposed alongside explicit sequences of torture and sex (sometimes consensually, sometimes not).

Yuknavitch writes with ferocity, as if she’s daring the reader to look away. As she explains in an interview with The Rumpus, the goal of this book isn’t to entertain or comfort; the point is to agitate.

Agitation may be an understatement for some readers. Despite being deeply invested in the book, even I had some moments of discomfort, but I kept reading. Maybe it’s like a highway car accident, how other drivers slow down to look. Once viewed there is no un-seeing the carnage, and that is the point of this book. Yuknavitch wants readers to be changed, and I imagine many will.

One thing that struck me about this book was how acutely aware I was of my own body while reading it. Usually when reading fiction, I lose myself. I become unaware of the passage of time and my own physicality. But instead of disappearing, my body was complicit, cringing and humming along with the characters’ experiences.

This novel is not for the fainthearted. Trigger warnings abound. There is blood, lots of it, but as the narrator says toward the end, “You wish I would stop speaking about all this blood, but I’m afraid it’s the point.”

Yes, it is, because this is a novel about the body, about pain inflicted, but also pleasures amassed. Despite all the horror, Yuknavitch celebrates the resilience and strength of bodies. How sometimes, with luck, the heart will continue to pump despite the scars, despite the weight of grief we all carry.

(Highly) Suggested pairing: Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water.

Chronology of Water cover

What books and/or authors have you stumbled upon that have changed your life/rocked your literary world? Please share in comments. I’d love to know.

Edible Memories: Laughter

Sometimes I leap first.

When my online writing friend Stacey asked me to consider signing up for a 14-day writing group via the Inky Path, my first instinct was to say no. I barely have enough time to work on my novel, not to mention the grief course I’m creating, let alone the safety skills class I’m organizing – oh, and then there’s that whole mother/wife gig, plus my nemesis, the bottomless laundry basket.

But I couldn’t get it out of my mind. A tell-tale sign. As I kept tabs on the rising enrollment, I felt an itch, a twinge, but couldn’t tell if it was a competitive-fear-of-missing-out or the I-need-to-do-this kind of feeling. Looking back, it was probably a little of both.

One week into the Winter Joy Retreat: Edible Memories, and I’m fully immersed. It’s pretty impossible to keep up with the group’s Facebook posts (over 100 people registered, though not all post daily) but I’m trying to hold fast to my own commitment, one writing prompt each day. This isn’t easy – my kids are young and life is full, but I’m delighted to say that – so far at least – I’m making it happen. I’ve always felt like my memory is kind of bad, but each prompt seems to unlock one, two, more scenes in my mind, and I’m taking notes like mad, for both the prompts and the possibility of memoir.

I’d like to share with you my most recent prompt. The theme was Laughter (with an emphasis always on food) yet somehow I managed to turn it around to sadness (just like the character on Inside Out!). But that’s how I’ve always been. Drawn to the bittersweet, both in food and life.

Winter Joy Retreat: Edible Memories

Laughter

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday. As a kid we took turns having it at our house, but after my mother’s MS diagnosis, we always hosted. My uncle, king of turkey and CEO of stuffing, would come to our house in the morning with bags of supplies, plus a bonus bag filled with appetizers from Zabar’s: salami, cheeses, crackers, olives, lox spread, and bagels.

He’d pop the prepared turkey in the oven and it would cook all day while we snacked and cracked jokes. When it came time to eat, my father would hoist my mother into her scooter and drive her into the dining room after she could no longer do so herself. We’d eat and laugh, and when all us kids were of legal age, or close enough, drink some wine.

My memories of Thanksgiving were almost always punctuated by laughter. Especially in the earlier years, before my mother’s pain became unbearable.

This was from Passover, but same crew, without the matzoh.

This was from Passover, but the same characters.

The house was always filled with warmth and smelled of roasting turkey and marshmallow topped yams. My uncle would always cook the main meal. My cousin Pia would always bring dessert. My mom always insisted on making, or instructing me how to make, her favorite side dish, green bean casserole. And I always had to have a slice (or two, three) of pumpkin pie topped with Cool Whip.

Maybe that’s what I loved most about Thanksgiving – the “always’s,” the traditions we had curated and nurtured over the years. We were Jewish and didn’t have the show stopper of Christmas to look forward to, so I banked all my love and hope on Thanksgiving.

Things weren’t always so rosy, of course. There were fights and tantrums, angry words and slammed doors, more so as the years edged on to darker times, but mostly I remember the laughter.

The time when my cousin Ari and I stumbled upon a very strange AOL chat room in the late 90s. Don’t ask me why or how this happened, but let’s just say we were beside ourselves with hilarity when we ended up in a conversation about fruit fetishes, among other things.

Then there was the time my grandmother got drunk. Alcohol was pretty minimal at our house, even on the holidays, but somehow she had gotten her glass refilled one time too many and ended up divulging a bizarre genetic glitch afflicting several relatives. I’m almost positive somebody spit out their mashed potatoes, or at least choked on their soda.

Laughter filled the rooms and rang through the kitchen and seeped into the walls, so that when it ended, I could feel its echo.

My mother’s last Thanksgiving was hard. There was little laughter. The mood was dour, tense. My husband and I thought it might be helpful to order dinner from Fresh Direct and bring it from Brooklyn, rather than have my uncle cook in the house since my mom was feeling worse. The king of turkey did not take kindly to what felt like a personal affront. He sulked in the kitchen eating his “take-out” meal while the rest of us sat in the family room with my mother, who was too uncomfortable to transfer from her reclining chair.

I remember feeling desperate for some levity, anything to lighten the mood, to coax my uncle out of the kitchen, to ease the tension with my brother, to make my mother laugh. But nothing worked. We sat on the couch for what felt like an uncomfortable amount of time, and I rolled my eyes at my cousin Pia when our brothers began talking of sports, not with any vigor or enthusiasm, but dully, as if they had nothing else to say. Perhaps because they didn’t.

When everyone finally left, I felt a heavy weight settle around my shoulders as I dumped the leftovers in the trash. Looking back, I wonder if my sadness was actually a sign, a warning. It left me uncomfortable. A sense of foreboding prickled up my spine.

I thought, next year will be better. Next year has to be better.

But it wasn’t, because my mother was dead.

 

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Thank you to Maddy over at Writing Bubble for hosting her What I’m Writing link-up. Check it out for more wonderful words.

Own Your Story

I never thought I’d consider writing a memoir.

Fiction is my genre. It always has been, ever since I was a little girl crafting “books” out of construction paper and crayons. When I declared myself a writer at some point in elementary school, I wanted to write stories. I wanted to make stuff up.

There’s a safety in fiction that doesn’t exist for memoir.

Maybe that’s why I kept myself firmly planted there for so long. I never had to be held accountable. I could always say, it’s just a story, if anyone bothered me about autobiographical details.

Of course every writer, no matter the genre, weaves in elements of themselves, their lives, in their work. If not things that happened to them directly, then things they observed, sensed, or felt. Creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. But fiction writers can hide behind a cloak of invisibility – or at least, pretend to do so – while memoirists are stark naked.

Over the last couple years, I’ve been taking some different kinds of chances. I wrote about witnessing my mother’s death and the birth of my first child, about postpartum depression and my daughter’s celiac diagnosis. Stories that belong to me, but also, in a way, to my family.

The part of me that values privacy – and secrets – wanted to muffle this new tendency. But something shifted inside me, a curiosity began to unfold.

Recently, a writer friend left a comment on my blog post that flung the door open wide open (thank you Julie Gardner).

“You have a memoir in there.”

Her words stopped me in my tracks. They sunk in and took root, even when I tried to brush them away.

They were part of what inspired my recent guest post on The Gift of Writing.

Own Your Story: Overcoming Fear About Writing Memoir is about my journey, which is still in progress, but also contains universal truths that I discovered in my research about common themes that hold people back from telling their stories.

Please take a look if you’re interested in the topic. Thank you as always for reading my words, here and beyond.