Going to Work

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work… There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
– Toni Morrison 

A few Sundays ago I woke up to the sound of my daughter rustling in her room. I glanced at the window. Dark. Not a drop of light.

I crept next door and handed her my phone. “See you at seven,” I said reminding her about our deal. After a quick kiss, I closed the door softly behind me.

Coffee was waiting. The house silent and still. It was already 6:45, my time limited. I began to write.

When my daughter came downstairs, the sun had risen. The backyard was bathed in watery autumn light. It was 7:30. I had written almost 500 words.

Full disclosure: I began this post before the election. Before the world seemed more unhinged than ever (to me). Before Standing Rock, before Trump’s appointments, each one just as bad (if not worse) than the one before.

It’s hard to write during times like this. Write my own story, I mean. How can it compete with the global stories happening right now?

Well, it can’t. But writing is what I do, it’s how I survive. In times of struggle, my own and the world’s. My other work, helping to create a community that is inclusive and safe for all people is something I will continue to do. But I must also write. I can’t let myself be paralyzed or muted by my own feelings of helplessness, despair, or fear.

It’s easier, so much easier, to stay in bed. When the world feels safe, and even more so when it doesn’t.

staying-in-bed

But I won’t. I’ll get up instead.

I’ll go downstairs and write. Watch the birds at the feeder, maybe catch a glimpse of my favorite red fox, or watch the squirrels and bunnies nibble on leftover clover. I’ll be grateful for my privilege to do this.

I used to think I needed hours to write, but it’s not true. Becoming a mother turned me (by necessity) into an incredibly efficient writer. I have no time to waste, so I wring out every available minute. I’ll write in scraps when I must. Scraps add up to hours. Hours add up to pages. Pages to manuscripts.

It’s taken me years to understand what is most crucial in my writing practice – staying present. Not leaping ahead to the unknown.

The only thing I can do is wake up. Sit at my desk. Greet the screen. Put my fingers on the keys. Follow my story for as long as I can.

We all have our own version of this, whether we are artists or not. Being human is enough to make this vital choice. To see light when the world seems so, so dark.

 

I’m pleased to be linking up with Writing Bubble’s What I’m Writing 

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Transitions

Summer is over. Not technically of course, but once school begins something in the air shifts even before the temperature drops.

We’re still adjusting here. My daughter to her new school, my son to his fuller schedule, and me, to longer stretches of time alone.

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First day of 3rd grade and pre-K

The first day of school, I sat at my desk and felt the emptiness of the house echo in my bones. My son was having his first full day, which meant, so was I. This was what I wanted, and yet I felt a pang of melancholy, and received a flash into the future when my children grow up and leave home.

Is it me, or does time seem to go faster the older we get? During our second annual vacation to Cape May in August, I tried to hold onto the hours and days, but it felt as futile as watching my son clutch a fistful of sand. The tighter the grip, the faster the flow.

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Now that we’re into the second week of school, I feel the beginning of a rhythm, though shaky. My natural impulse is to rush headlong into fall and not look back. I’m done with summer, I told my husband as we debated about going to the pool last week.

He looked surprised. I’m not, he said, and I suddenly realized I’m not either. My sadness about summer’s end is what makes me harden and give it the cold shoulder.

This is how I deal with change, with transition. When it’s uncomfortable – and it always is – my natural inclination is to hurry through it. I liken it to the Band-Aid metaphor: rip it off or peel back slowly.

I want to rip it off. I want to toss it in the trash and not look back. But my heart gently reminds me to care for my wounds, no matter how small they are, and what I really need to do in moments like these is feel. Even when it hurts. Especially when it hurts.

My mother’s death was the first time I truly understood the futility of hurrying through a transition. Grief is like a boulder. It’s not easily moved aside. You can fight and struggle against it, you can close your eyes, but it’s still there. Waiting for you.

stone-statue

It’s similar when a person is struggling with their health or has a disease. There is no ignoring sickness. You feel it in your body. You’re reminded of it every day when you wake, every night when you go to sleep, and many hours in between.

Recently, I went for my annual physical and my doctor was concerned about the sound of my heart. She heard a murmur, the whooshing sound of blood going back and forth through one of the valves instead of just forward. To be on the safe side, she sent me for an echocardiogram.

Mostly, I was calm, but I felt a tiny sliver of fear. This is the heart we’re talking about, my heart. The life force of an organ that kept my mother alive even when everything else in her body was ready to quit. What if there is something wrong with my heart?

The (sort of) joke in my marriage is that I’m the healthy one. I don’t have allergies or celiac, I’m apparently immune to poison ivy, and I haven’t had the flu since childhood. I’m rarely sick. I think it surprised us both that something might be wrong with me.

My husband offered to take me to the appointment. I didn’t realize until we arrived at the hospital how grateful I was to have his company. He had already been to this hospital three times for his own tests, but this was my first.

The technician was kind and professional. She dimmed the lights and turned on music. Soft familiar strains of Enya floated through the invisible speakers. The gel was warm as she moved the instrument across my chest.

My head was turned away from the screen, but every now and then I caught a glimpse of the shadowy interior of my heart. I could hear it, too, the whooshing, and I was struck with how precarious life is, how fragile our bodies can be, and how miraculous.

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The Giant Heart at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia

In the days before getting the test results I mostly put it out of my mind, but the what if’s whispered on occasion. I thought about the research I did years ago for my MFA thesis, titled, The Night Side of Life: Illness in Fiction, which was inspired from a quote in Susan Sontag’s book Illness as Metaphor.

“Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

We toe the line between well and sick every single day we are alive. At any moment, we can be pushed or thrown to the other side. My mother found this out when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 40. One day her life was moving along as expected, and then, suddenly, it wasn’t.

My test results came back normal. Relief. Gratitude. I’m off the center line, back on the safe side, for now.

I can’t help thinking about how my doctor described the murmur in my heart. The blood not moving in a straight line, but whooshing back and forth. That is how I live my life. Dipping back before going forward, and back again. It’s painful at times, yes, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

***

I wonder how the transition into this new season has been for you. Do you also struggle to remain present inside discomfort? I’d love to hear from you in comments! I’ve missed you this summer, and now that school is back in session, I’ll be returning to my (mostly) regularly scheduled programming.

Also, as some of you know, I’ve spent many months preparing for my online journaling course, Crossing the River: Writing Through Grief, which is now scheduled to begin January 2017. 

If you’d like to be put on the mailing list for updates about the course, and the upcoming free (!) online seminar, click here

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[Please note, this course is NOT intended only for those suffering a loss from death, but ANY kind of grief. The scope or size does not matter, nor does how much time has passed.]

Grief Roar

Summer is flying by, and while my morning writing routine (#writinglikeamother) has slowed due to life and kids (also known as life with kids), I’ve managed to carve out time to work on my upcoming journaling course, Crossing the River: Writing Through Grief coming this Fall 2016 scheduling update: JANUARY 2017 on The Gift of Writing.

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I’ve filmed several lessons which has proved both humbling and inspiring. As a writer, I’m used to being hunched over my computer with a furrowed brow, not staring back at my face on a screen.

Despite my initial discomfort at being in front of the camera, I’m thrilled to facilitate a writing course I know would have helped me after my mother’s death. Since much of my mourning occurred in (self-imposed) isolation, I suspect having a community to share my emotions with, and my words, would have been a lifeline.

[Please note, this course is NOT intended only for those suffering a loss from death, but ANY kind of grief. The scope or size does not matter, nor does how much time has passed.]

Recently I returned to Jena Schwartz’s Roar Sessions with a guest post about muted grief, and what might happen if we open up our mouths and hearts. I’d be honored for you to head over there and check it out.

If you’d like to be put on the mailing list for information about my course, and the upcoming free (!) online seminar, click here.

Thank you for letting me chime in during the craze and haze of summer’s end. I hope you’re enjoying these finale weeks. I am, as always, feeling both bitter and sweet about it.

Dana xoxo

 

 

Summer Writing, Living

My eyes burned from exhaustion. The kids were bundled up in blankets watching Netflix already and it was barely 7am.

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There are just a few more days of school. Summer is barreling toward us. My daughter is eight years old and this fall she’ll begin third grade, which feels unbelievable. Wasn’t I just fretting on my old blog about her entry into elementary school?

Now it’s my son who is closing in on that milestone. Thanks to a November birthday, he has one more year of preschool, for which I’m grateful. One more year until both my kids are in full-time school. That is the dream. The light at the end of the tunnel, my writing time opening like a dam being lifted.

Hours of quiet pouring in. An empty house. It’s what I claim to want, what I do want, and yet, I know it will come at a cost to my heart. The passage of time always does, especially as it relates to my children.

I don’t want to hurry away the hours of summer, wishing, waiting, biding my time – but the struggle to write is real. I’ve been rising early for almost a month now, #writinglikeamother every day. It’s been life changing. If I can get in an hour or more of solitude and work, I am a better mother for the rest of the day. A happier person. The problem seems to be when I don’t.

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Like yesterday. Up at 5:40am I was so tired I considered going back to sleep until I heard my daughter’s thundering footsteps in the hall. I crept out of bed carefully, so as not to wake my nighttime visitor, my son, and handed her my phone before heading downstairs. In my mind I’m pleading, please stay in your room until 7, please don’t wake up your brother.

Of course my wishes were not granted.

I slammed down my coffee and dashed upstairs to my son’s cries and my daughter popped out of her room like a jack-in-the-box.

My mood was grumbly. I felt frayed and irritable. Angry, that my time was interrupted.

This is what I feared when I made the commitment to early risings, but life with kids is never predictable. Things change. It’s the one thing you can count on. The only thing.

What I need to do is adjust, adapt. To accept the inevitability of shortened writing sessions, and to be grateful for the ones that last.

When it happened again today, I cursed (more quietly) before running up the stairs. I made jokes about their early rising instead of threats. I put on the rest of The Sound of Music and let myself fall between my babies as we watched, using the computer to pull up a map of Europe so I could show my curious daughter the proximity of Switzerland to Austria as we watched the von Trapp children sing and hike across the Alps to freedom.

Things will be quiet on the blog over the summer, for obvious reasons. I have big goals that I will try not to stress over, like filming lessons for my upcoming grief course, working on my memoir, and living my life.

The summer will fly by, as always, and I want to make sure I’m fully present for all of it, not simply wishing the time away. That will happen on its own, soon enough.

Hope we all have the summers we want, or at least the grace to surrender peacefully to the ones we end up having.

See you in the fall!

xoxo Dana

 

 

Write Like A Mother

Over the weekend I posted this picture on Instagram.

writing desk

It was taken at 7am on Sunday of last week after being woken up at 5:45am by my kid and cat. They often do a tag team on me in the morning, and after years of attempting to fall back asleep, only to rise grumpily an hour or less later, I decided to just get up and write.

I’ve been doing it for over a week now and it’s been kind of life changing. I don’t set an alarm (because I don’t need to, thank you kid and cat) and some days I “oversleep,” which means I get up a little past 6am, but regardless of the time, I stumble out of bed, grab some coffee, and head to my office. My daughter knows not to enter until 7am (thank you Netflix) and when she does I greet her with a smile.

But this post isn’t about advocating early rising, though don’t knock it till you try it.

This post is about being seen.

Getting back to my Instagram photo, I wrote a brief caption describing my new routine and even threw in a hashtag, #writinglikeamother – a big departure for me since hashtags usually stress me out. I have a hard enough time coming up with catchy titles for my short stories and essays.

Shortly after posting, I received a comment from a writer and teacher I admire, Jena Schwartz, co-founder of The Inky Path (where I’m currently enrolled in an incredible 14-day writing prompt course). She responded with, “Love love love love love.”

I stopped where I was in my kitchen and just felt such warmth, and this phrase popped in my head: I’m not alone.

Writing is such a solitary act, well, most of the time, and it’s easy to feel invisible, unseen. Sending out my photo was a way of connecting, of reaching out. The comments I received on Instagram and Facebook made me feel less alone. This is why I do this: blogging, social media, and posting pictures of my desk for crying out loud.

But let’s be real here – there’s a fine line between seeking support and falling into the black hole of Facebook. I know (ahem) from personal experience. The key for me has been finding balance and knowing my triggers.

It’s pretty obvious when I’ve spent too much time online. I start getting twitchy and anxious. Suddenly, people’s announcements about essays and publishing deals make me feel edgy and competitive. That’s when I step away and remind myself about the wisdom I gleaned from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, which is: there is enough for all of us

I believe in that, wholeheartedly, and yet I find myself whispering those words out loud every few days. I’m currently working on a book length project, and there is no immediate recognition or acknowledgment in that, and if I’m completely honest, there may never be. I can’t know or control what will happen to my work, but I know I must do it regardless.

So, my question is, will you do it with me? Will you write like a mother? You don’t even have to be a literal mother, just a writer or an artist with other obligations that pile up in the summer months. Let’s face it, we all have other obligations, it’s called LIFE.

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My life, my summer.

I already know my summer solo time is going to be minimal, and I’m okay with that, but I want to make the most of the time I can squeeze out. Like mornings. Maybe for you it’s after work, or late at night.

If you’re not too hashtag averse (like I was), consider taking a picture of your workspace before, during, or after you put in some time and tag it #writinglikeamother and I will send whatever support I can (hearts, likes, kind words) your way.

There’s no competition here. This isn’t one of those write-every-day challenges (which for me is a set up for failure) and there’s no need to log in word counts or even describe what you’re working on (unless you want to).

If you want to follow me on blah blah social media, the links are on the right sidebar, or send me a note with your info and I’ll follow you, writingatthetable@gmail.com.

How about we hold each other up when we need holding. Let’s be witnesses for the work we’re doing, even when no one else is looking. Let’s be seen together.

Dana xoxo

 

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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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

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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.

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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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