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? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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!

What-Im-Writing-linky-badge

 

 

Living in Limbo

I’m reminded of why I love the ocean each time I return.

sunrise

We recently spent a week in Florida. With three days of travel, it wasn’t quite enough time to settle in, to get comfortable, feel at home. But then again, you’re not supposed to feel at home on vacation, are you?

This trip was a whirlwind, and hard in many ways. We went to Disney World first and then spent a few days in Ft. Lauderdale to unwind. But unwinding with kids is kind of an oxymoron. Or maybe just moronic?

Don’t get me wrong, there were highs as well as lows. Vacation is just another piece of life. Your worries and stressors don’t disappear once you step foot on a plane. If you’re like me, they multiply.

On the way to Ft. Lauderdale our brains sizzled in the sunny, claustrophobic car. My husband and I bickered, the kids fought. At one point in the drive I went silent.

By the time we arrived in Ft. Lauderdale I had calcified.

Even the beauty of the ocean couldn’t melt me, and neither did the chic and crowded hotel we were staying at. I felt like an alien around so many smiling and scantily clad people. I wanted to go home.

But we made it to our room, dropped our bags, and then hurried to the beach as the sun began to drop in the sky.

Once there the kids immediately dove into the still warm sand and splashed their feet in the turquoise waters. I stood with my arms wrapped across my chest, but there was a loosening. My husband called a truce. He hugged me and my anger began to uncoil as the ocean lapped onto my feet.

The next day we went back, despite the spotty weather, the ominous sky.

Together we forged into the beautiful sea glass blue ocean. I held onto my young son’s hand while my daughter splashed at my side. I get the sense that the current wants my children as much as I do, maybe more.

My daughter doesn’t need my hand, however, she can swim like a fish. Diving down to the clear shallow bottom and coming up with beautiful shells. She knows to be cautious about the ocean. I’ve taught her that much. But she’s not overly fearful. She leaves her anxiety behind as she dips and dives beneath the waves with a confidence I hope to one day see on land.

bunky on beach

When my husband took her out to deeper waters, I sat on the shore with my son. We played his favorite game. Build and destroy. First I buried him up to his waist with wet shell studded sand, and then he broke through, cracking like an egg, delight lighting up his face.

Then, castles. I built ten, twenty, small structures so he could crush them with his still chubby four-year-old feet.

I sensed a young couple nearby watching us. They smiled kindly at me when I glanced over. I had a moment of self-consciousness, as if I were posing in an advertisement for blissful parenthood. I had to suppress an urge to run over to them and tell the truth. It’s not always like this. You should’ve seen me yesterday. But of course I refrained. The secrets of parenthood have to be discovered firsthand, if at all.

The beach is my touchstone. Every time I sit in the sand and it sticks to every part of my body, I always feel the urge to brush it all away before remembering to surrender. To the mess of it, to any semblance of control. But surrender has never been easy for me. I struggle to find order in chaos. It’s hard for me to sit in discomfort.

Right now I’m at a crossroads with my writing. A kind of limbo. I have to decide whether to continue with my novel, which needs to be rewritten (again), or embark on the entirely unchartered course of memoir.

The question ping-pongs in my head relentlessly. I’m worried about making the wrong choice. About wasting (more) time writing something that will never reach eyes other than my own.

There is no “right” answer. I know this, and yet I posed the question on Facebook. The wise and supportive responses filled me with gratitude, but ultimately the decision is still mine to make.

So I remain here, for now, in limbo.

A place I’m quite vocal about not liking. But maybe my struggle against limbo is more futile than I thought – because what if life IS limbo – the place we all reside between birth and death? If so, then all we can do is surrender to what may come next. To feel our way, as best we can, through each day.

wall quote

If I surrender to uncertainty, in my writing, and in my life, I will move forward. If I surrender to the mess, like I did in the sand with my son, I don’t feel so worried about wasting time, I can smash down the castles I worked so hard to make, knowing I will rebuild. I can create something new on the base of all those broken, necessary, pieces.

Are you in limbo right now? Hovering between conflicting choices? How do you find your answers? 

 

Grief 3 Ways

As you may have noticed, there is a running theme here lately, about grief.

I didn’t intend to write so much about it, but that’s the thing about writing – you don’t always choose your subjects. Sometimes, they choose you.

When my mom died, she was all I could think about, write about, but I kept it mostly private. This was almost nine years ago, when the blogging and online world was quite different. I wrote – as I’ve always done – to understand. It was more instinct than decision. Now, the journals I filled have become a reference for the work I’m doing now.

I’m almost done writing the content of my grief course which I’ll be facilitating on the site, The Gift of Writing, and it’s been quite a journey. Despite all the time that has passed, I’ve learned things about my mom and myself I didn’t know before. That is one of the hopes I have for the people who join my class. You don’t have to be a writer to sign up, you just have to be willing to write.

If you’re interested in receiving updates about the class, click here to add your name to the wait list and you’ll be notified when registration opens.

In the meantime…

grief 3 ways

I recently wrote a guest post on The Gift of Writing called, Every Grief Counts: How to Honor Your Grieving Experience. I feel strongly about the importance of this post because I think there can be a sense of competitiveness and comparison when it comes to grief.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that grief is extremely personal. But the questions still rise up. How long is it appropriate to grieve? Are some losses “worse” than others? Please take a look at the article if you haven’t seen it already, or pass it along to anyone you think may be interested.

I also wrote an essay about my mother and her caregiver, Lucie, and the different ways both women showed me their love. You can read that here, on the lovely site, Mothers Always Write.

Last, but not remotely least, I am so proud of my friend Anastasia for the second book in her Ordinary Terrible Things series, Death is Stupid, published by Feminist Press.

death is stupid

Using her gift of collage and her deep well of empathy, she has created a wholly original book about death – including all the nonsense (well meaning and otherwise) that people say to children when someone they love dies. I urge you to watch the book trailer, which will give you a glimpse at the magic she makes with words and art.

Just to assure you, despite all my grief-making work, I am not at all depressed. It’s spring, one of my favorite seasons, and I’ve seen enough daffodils and forsythia to prove it. Sure, the chilling temperatures are a bit of a downer (and I’m very sorry to my upstate and New England friends for SNOW, not cool), but sometimes I think we forget the capricious, fickle, and teasing nature of April.

It’s still early spring, nestled up against the cold cusp of winter, and maybe clinging to the old season a little more tightly than usual. I imagine a dozing bear, annoyed at being roused, and yearning for just a little more sleep before it lumbers out into the sunshine.

Here’s hoping it lumbers out sooner than later.

 

 

What’s in a Name

Last week, somehow, all my morning stars aligned.

While my son slept (in my bed) and my daughter snuggled in her bed (watching a show on my phone), I went downstairs and fixed myself a cup of coffee before settling down in front of the computer.

I was lucky, because minutes before my daughter hijacked my phone I saw the weekly prompt from The Inky Path and was immediately intrigued by the title: Your Name.

social security name

No one was asking me for breakfast – yet. I didn’t have to make lunches – yet. Birds floated gracefully around the feeder outside my office window while I wrote for ten blessed uninterrupted minutes.

Below is the inkling of the prompt (pun intended) and my response. I highly recommend heading over to The Inky Path and signing up for their FREE weekly newsletter and prompt. (They also have fabulous writing classes with reasonable fees. I’m not being compensated for saying such things, I just happen to believe them.)

Tell us about the name, or rather, your name. What is the story of your name? What is your relationship with the name that was given to you at birth? Do you use it as it is or in a shortened version? How has your name affected your life? Who would you have been with a different name? If you had the chance to choose your own name, what would it be?

I was never a big fan of my name. Dana Schwartz. It’s not as bad as my first (and last) Cabbage Patch Doll, Phyllis Hortensia (!), but it just didn’t mean anything. Well, that’s not true. Technically, Dana means from Denmark. But I’m not Danish.

I went through periods as a kid where I wanted to change my name. When I wished my parents had named me something else. Hailey was one of their choices. So was Robin. That was a close call. My father was concerned because he thought I looked a little like a bird when I was born. This was kind of true. He didn’t want anyone to make fun of me. My mom mentioned the name Summer once, and oh, I would’ve loved that. I was born in summer and I adore summer, so it would have fit.

How would my life be different if I were Summer Schwartz? It sounds kind of funny, but then most things do paired with Schwartz.

That’s another non-story. Schwartz was not my great grandfather’s last name. It was given to his family upon arrival at Ellis Island. Their name was Polanska. Too Polish? Too hard to pronounce? They gave them a new name, Schwartz, which means black in German, and that was that. An empty name. A placeholder.

A placeholder for what? A husband? I always considered, despite my feminist leanings, changing my name when I got married. But then I met a lovely man named Steven Plac. His last name is actually pronounced “Platz” in Poland, but here in America, they say, “Plack.” A name reminiscent of tooth decay. Sigh. What a waste.

Despite my husband’s wishes, I chose not to become Dana Plac. But it wasn’t just the sound of the name that made me hesitate, there was another reason I held onto Schwartz. It was my name. It belonged to me. Even though it had no bearing on my cultural background, even though I never liked how it sounded, garbled in the mouth, it was mine. I held it since I was born and giving it up felt like losing something.

Oh, but what about Summer? That sounds like a carefree girl. Someone who is not so uptight or worried or anxious. The kind of name of a girl who takes off her top at parties maybe, after too many drinks? The kind of hippie girl who dances around half naked around bonfires on the beach? Sorry, Summer, maybe you’re not like that. But there are worse things to be than carefree. Maybe it would’ve been nice not to be so damn self-conscious and concerned about what others think. Summer might not have cared. She might have danced right beside the fire and felt the warmth.

I don’t know who I would’ve been if my mom named me Summer. It comes down to mothers, somehow. I think my mother was the one to have the final say. It should be that way. We women do carry the babies. We know them before they emerge, we know about their secret selves.

As a child I held onto the idea that I could change my name. Maybe I could become Summer after all. I told my mother, when I’m 18, I’ll do it. But 18 came and went, oh boy, did it go, and here I am, forty years old, still holding onto my name, Dana. Two syllables, like Summer, but more solid, tethered to the ground, hearty, like a plant that digs in, takes root, and tilts its head toward the sun, feeling the warmth that way.

What do you think of your name? Did you ever consider changing it? I’d love to hear your story in comments.

Old Wounds

A few weeks ago, I dug out the stack of journals I wrote when my mom died. I filled almost 6 books from the end of June to the end of April. Ten months of grieving, nine months of carrying my baby. Two more journals written sporadically after the birth. New moms have limited time, as you can imagine.

journals

Opening old wounds is like peeling off a scab and watching the blood rise in tiny glossy beads. It stings, but also feels strangely satisfying.

Rereading these journals brings me right back to those early days. After only a few words, the tears that have seemingly dried up, or gone into hibernation, pour out. I welcome them, as painful as it is, because grief connects me to my mother.

It maintains and strengthens our tenuous connection, the invisible string that binds us together, from womb to body, from life to death.

I’m reading these old journals not simply for connection, but for research. As some of you know, I’m creating an online grief course for my friend Claire De Boer’s site, The Gift of Writing. The course, (tentatively) called Crossing the River, is about writing through grief. Not as a means to an end, but as a way to connect and integrate (healthy) grief into life.

This course isn’t just for those who are mourning a death. You can grieve the end of a relationship, whether it’s a break-up, divorce, estrangement, or abandonment. You can grieve infertility, the loss of a lifestyle, or a dream. In a podcast with Rob Bell, author and grief expert, David Kessler explains that grief is about change. Death is a big one, of course, but grief is how we deal and process any major change in our lives.

While writing this course, my grief has returned to me in fresh waves, but instead of rawness and confusion, it’s a release. The tears come and go and so do I. Moving forward in my life, grief is my shadow. Not a dark or scary one, but a companion that I find comfort in knowing is always there.

What are you grieving, right now?

I’ll keep you updated on the course, but if you have any questions or would like to be notified when it goes live, send me a note in comments or here: writingatthetable@gmail.com

The Art of Finishing: Guest Post

You have treasures hidden within you – extraordinary treasures… And bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion, and the clock is ticking. – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

I’m so pleased to be up on The Gift of Writing with my latest guest post, The Art of Finishing: Manifest Your Writing Goals.

I’ve mentioned my struggle with my novel-in-progress more than a few times here on the blog, and it’s a challenge I suspect many can relate to whether or not you write. In my post I offer three simple ways to move past your own resistance, which can be defined as any thing, thought, or person that keeps you from achieving your goals.

Writing the essay helped clarify my own plan and I hope it helps others who find themselves stuck or sidetracked in any aspect of life, artistic or otherwise.

Please click here if you’re interested in reading the article. As always I’m honored by your support in whatever form it arrives!

P.S. If you haven’t already, consider signing up for my newsletter. You don’t want to miss my  upcoming Valentine’s Day inspired theme – Falling in Love with Podcasts: The Literary Edition!