Monday, January 14, 2019

The Writer's Task: Reimaging Possibility in the Year Ahead


Our writing prompt in the Women’s Writing Circle this month: She knows the task ahead. Ask yourself. What is the task? A minute, five minutes...an hour a day? Just write. Over a month’s time, your voice, your style emerges. Magic. A map to meaning. A reimagining.

We all bring a certain mindset to our work based on past experiences, our upbringing. Our confessions and testimonials take shape on the blank page. We come to conclusions. What is right? What is ethical?  We make choices.

This—for lack of a better word—becomes our truth.

Reimagine possibility, no matter what happens.

I live in the garden. I just sleep in the house.



Writers are great lovers. They love to write, tell stories adding colorful details, read great books. This is how they find their authenticity, their voice. To quote Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones, find joy in your writing; "don't do battle with it."

Make this the year to focus, to commit, to write with intention, openness and expansion; learn to step out of the comfort zone and think about this—the world is not always how we thought it was or were taught to believe it was. Breathe in all that is around you, share stories with friends, test drive your voice, stand up for your own thoughts. Be assertive. Something unexpectedly wonderful might happen.... She knows the task ahead.

Prompts to get started on writing:
  • Write what most irritates you.
  • Write what haunts you.
  • Write what inspires you.
  • Give yourself an “artist's date” (to quote Julia Cameron) and write about what you did and where you went. 
  • Take a risk—travel by yourself, bike a new destination, study a new language—and write about it.
  • Write about an animal that you love.
  • Take a writing workshop and write about what you learned.
  • Do something to help another person and write how that feels.
  • Look at an old photograph of a family member and write about him or her.
  • Write about the day you decided to quit your job and what transition means.
  • Write why you want to focus on and prioritize your writing life.

    How about you? What is the task you have set for yourself this year? What are some of your favorite writing prompts?

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Remembering Darlene: Stories Which Death Cannot Steal


As I write this on a chilly winter morning, my heart is heavy. Last night I learned that a dear member of our Women’s Writing Circle took her own life the week before Christmas.

As the facilitator of the Women’s Writing Circle, I have long understood that my role is one of conveyor for women to come together and share their truths through writing. This passion came to me late in life. I’m not sure why, but this I know—it is a sacred mission and the Circle a spiritual container. When we light the candle, we shut out the distractions of the outside world and for the next two and a half hours concentrate on our writing, our creative lives, sharing and absorbing each other’s pains, triumphs and tragedies. I honor the stories and I know the "caves we enter hold the treasures we seek." In doing so, hopefully, we lift the burdens dragging us down and find in words a release and the solace of our collective journey.

***

When Darlene first came to the Circle five years ago, we still met at the bookstore. She showed up in a pair of light blue jeans, a tee-shirt with sparkles and long brown hair hanging below her shoulders. This gal was different and unique, a self-described “motorcycle Marlboro smoking Mama,” who wrote fiction in third person from the point of view of a woman named Rose. When she came to my house for our writing workshops, she took a seat outside on my deck during writing time and I noticed how the smoking calmed her, as she contemplated her words and put pen to paper in a worn journal. She told me she wrote at night and I don’t believe she ever used a computer.


In our Circle readarounds she usually sat to my left and wanted to read first. Her hands shook and she admitted she “was nervous and wanted to go first to get it over with,” a testament to how hard it was for her to come to the writing group. But her courage prevailed and she stood out, not only as one of our strongest wordsmiths, although to my knowledge she had never studied writing, but as the voice that all of us NEEDED to hear…that voice being pure vulnerability and honesty, no artifice whatsoever. This is why we will miss her so much. Darlene was a touchstone to our hearts.



Darlene (second from right) with our writers.
I remember the last time she came to the Circle; a bright and warm November day and I joined her outside during our break. A bit shy, she rarely, if ever, voiced her thoughts on what the other women had written. She often texted me late at night the morning before the Circle met to say she would be there, as if she knew she needed to gird herself to do this thing called writing. She had a terrific, throaty laugh and that November day spoke how proud she was of her son and daughter. She cherished a child’s story written by her daughter in grade school, the main character a cow named “Cowie”—a humorous tale she wanted to see published and attended our publishing workshop in August to learn more. She had found a new relationship and apologized for not attending our September writing workshop because of a planned camping trip with him. Two years before on the Fourth of July, she sat alone in a chair, reading a paperback book on the field where the fireworks were held. We chatted briefly that July evening, I don’t remember what we said, but I always found her smart, engaging...her beautiful smile radiated warmth, a smile which now I know belied a deep despair over the abuse she wrote of and suffered in her life—the betrayals that even writing could not heal.


Writing together in the Circle.

Darlene went off alone to die in her car, from what I heard. Suicide has become far too common, especially among the creative and tenderhearted. Still, I have a hard time wrapping my head around it and I cannot imagine how terrifying it must have been for Darlene or how terrible this is for her family. Darlene's unexpected death makes me realize how important it is to reach out to others during their times of duress and offer whatever help I can give.


In the end, all I can do is hope that the Women’s Writing Circle provides relief and respite from the world, if only for one morning a month.  When we blow out the candle and close the circle, all of us leave a bit richer than before we came. But then it is back to real life—and what awaits out there can be dangerous, terrifying, monstrous. Like wind whispering through barren tree branches in the dead of winter, life is fragile and fleeting and gone in a heartbeat. Yet our words, our stories, live on in each other’s hearts. So, I am here, writing this, remembering Darlene. I rejoice that our paths crossed, not in some superficial way of the world, but in the most deeply meaningful and profound connection, which is sharing our stories—a gift that even death cannot steal.



Monday, December 17, 2018

In This Town Where I Grew Up and Thoughts on Writing


This week I was talking to an artist friend. She put her heart and soul into her artwork and wasn’t selected for a juried show—“It’s okay and I understand,” she said—but coupled with how much time and effort over the years she spent creating original work and how difficult it was to sell had congealed into “a feeling of rejection and being beaten down that I don't like,” she said.

We weren’t able to finish the conversation, but planned to catch up over lunch. I got to thinking about what she said. All the work, all the planning, yet I’m just a voice like so many others out there brimming with hopes and dreams, a dash of arrogance and self-deprecation thrown in. Am I good enough? I hope so because I've seen what's out there and know my work is as good or better, but finding the acceptance, the place to be heard and seen is often illusive.

I think many of us are facing transitions in our lives. Where do we go from here? It seems the old rules don’t apply. The truth is not the truth. But I like to think there’s a silver lining beyond the doubts and insecurities. There’s the changing publishing landscape, for one, which opened up creative vistas for anyone who wants to share their art. Whoever heard of the internet when I was growing up, let alone Kindle or Amazon?

Not many—maybe most of us who call ourselves writers—ever wanted to work a nine-to-five job; still, as we age, the hours weigh heavy, along with the knowledge that much of the unexpected magic of the blank page has already been written. Time is sweet and short. We can blog it, write it, tweet it, author our atonement for the world to see. The ghosts are along for the ride, their voices stronger than memory, echoing through our work. 

I grew up in a small town of people who belonged to country clubs; some even owned horse stables and three-car garages where antique cars were polished and burnished to a brilliant sheen. My dad was a teacher, an avid reader, a scholar of Latin and English and we weren't wealthy, but we weren't poor, either, and Dad's work was cerebral. He never knew back-breaking labor. Surrounded by books as a child, I intuited early on the power, the magic of the great authors. They influenced me from adolescence and into adulthood. I wanted to join their ranks. I interviewed countless people, wrote the stories, labored over my books and I’ve loved it and I’m willing to keep doing it because no matter how many books I sell or don’t sell, how many people come to my writing circles, it’s who I am...one woman on a quest, keeping the hope and dream alive under a starry December night. 

The thirst for romance and adventure filled me living on Philadelphia’s Main Line, a place where towns along the railroad tracks offer rich complexity, where doctors and lawyers and educators live behind ornate and heavy oak doors of privilege and ancestry dating back to the early days of the city. Heavy drinking and suicide and the way money can pervert all melded into one. It's overwhelming, so you escape into fantasy, into art, into telling stories, yours and theirs, which is a way to make sense of it all. 

Where we grow up, the places we call our hometown set us on a trajectory and so begins our search for an answer to the question Who am I? Who was my father? My mother? My husband? How did becoming a parent change me?

Going back to the beginning, we locate a key to unlocking the secrets. 

Here’s something I wrote, which was published this week in Story Circle Network’s December Journal, about the town where I grew up; Wayne, Pennsylvania, named after that stalwart young Revolutionary War Hero, Mad Anthony Wayne. SCN, like our Women's Writing Circle, is a fine group and offers opportunities for writers to share and be heard. So, with that, I wish you and yours the blessings of a very happy holiday.

In This Town Where I Grew Up

In the town where I grew up I am in a coffee shop, killing time before a writers’ meeting starts at the bookstore up the street. The coffee shop is next to the movie theater. I went to matinees there as a young girl. Some things come full circle—being back here in this town sipping a cappuccino—remembering The Day the Earth Stood Still. 
Fifty years is a long time, although in the scheme of things just a whisper on the wind. I look down at my open notebook and see a short story I’m writing about a woman whose dreams are paradoxically less interesting than her life.

After days of rain, it’s finally sunny. “We should go home so I can clean the pool,” I hear the man at the next table say to his wife. I wonder what it’s like to go home with someone. Someone I want to clean the swimming pool with, someone to make love to, or read to in bed.

This town makes me feel like I’m gazing into a lake, watching the ripples of my life ease from the shoreline toward a vast horizon where the final destination waits. What it is, I don’t know, but I’m sure it has something to do with writing. I left this town with dreams of writing the Great American Novel.

Up the street is the Presbyterian church where on a June day, John and I married. I worked for a small newspaper then; a newspaper long out of business, the building now a brewpub. When we first met, he said to me, “You’re a good writer.” I fell in love with John, not because he said that, but because of who he was…and who I might become with him by my side.

Outside, young women stroll by, the vision of summer in short, colorful dresses and high cork-heeled sandals. I’m here—still writing, fifty years later—still in this town where I grew up. Some things come full circle.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Falling Out of Love With Boy-Meets-Girl Holiday Movies




It’s that time of year again when Netflix and the Hallmark and Lifetime Channels flood us with the “boy-meets-girl” holiday movies. From the prince-meets-commoner take on Harry and Meghan Markle, to the saucy woman proclaiming her career comes first—until she meets that guy at her grandmother’s candy shop in New England who helps save the candy shop and the town—it’s all the same.

Men rescue women from their loneliness and their inadequacies in a world which makes being single about as appealing as traveling to the North Pole. While the “heroines” are feisty and kind, they are also very confused as to what they want out of life—until, of course—Mr. Right walks in.

Wouldn’t it seem in this age of #MeToo and women’s rights they would have lost appeal? Like too much tinsel on the tree, they lack the charm of Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney duetting “White Christmas” at the piano with a fire crackling in the background. Although that was ANOTHER FANTASY, it seemed more artfully done, considering the times. Movies have always been ripe with manipulation and marketing, but good music and Danny Kaye and Crosby wisecracking with each made for entertainment.



Instead, the contemporary holiday romance offers one dour message—neither boy nor girl is fulfilled without the other, and all—if you believe the fairy tale—end up living happily ever after in that quaint New England town, or on the throne of Aldovia, a fictitious country that resembles Monte Carlo. (Grace Kelly anyone?)

It’s easy to say that watching them is little more than a harmless pastime, background noise while checking the Instagram feed, Facebook postings, or zoning out after a long day. But are they more? Are they sugar overload like eating too many cookies and licking too many candy canes? Can they “rot” us inside and out? And, if so, why watch? I admit I’m guilty of tuning on and off over the years, although this year I found their banality and manipulation even more than a woman who prides herself on being a silly overly sentimental romantic could stomach.


Perhaps, it’s that they are mind candy for women believing all will be right if Prince Charming rides up on his white charger? I expected that too—forty years ago. So, I wrote about it. A man could save me, offer security—and then Prince Charming made an untimely exit.



I’ve never had a daughter, but, if I did, I would hope she and I could have a good laugh over these ornamentally bland fairy tales. I do have sons and the dating world they describe is light years from the drivel in these plotlines.

I mentioned to someone this weekend how cool it was that Margaret Atwood was writing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. “I never read the book…too dark for me,” she said. I had heard this before. “Well,” I said, “it was a feminist watershed novel…” and stopped. Maybe people don’t want that either.

Yes, there is no elixir in life more potent than falling in love. I remember the moment. His eyelashes, his earnestness, his pale blue sweater complemented his dark good looks. 

After he died, I found writing. Writing puts us in touch with this moment…this falling in love…this indefinable something that races the heart and embraces at the end of the day. We find ourselves…our artistry, our expression as creatives. We need the writing to make sense of it all. And then we fall in love all over again with ourselves.

Meanwhile, holiday movies garner huge audiences. There are no murders, no domestic violence assaults, no men paying off women they’ve had affairs with. As for me, I’m tuning out and putting pen to paper and listening to "White Christmas." Oh. And rereading The Handmaid's Tale.

Your thoughts and comments are welcome.



Monday, December 3, 2018

Old Horses Past Their Prime: A Memoir Moment



They say old horses should be put out to pasture. Their glory days are long over. What use are they? When the local horse retirement farm held its annual holiday open house for aged equines yesterday, I decided to go. I love horses. I do. Aging. I can’t quite wrap my head around it. Some days I still see myself as the younger version of who I am now. Running—if not galloping—through the fields.

I drive up a long mud-drenched roadway. The horse farm sits atop 400 acres of rolling hillside and pastureland. It’s Christmas and I want to get into the spirit, plus I like experiencing new things to write about. A dreary rain, temperatures registering in the mid-50s. Volunteers wave us over, gesturing where to park. One woman’s van gets stuck in the muck and two men run over with wooden planks to slip under her tires for traction, that’s how much rain has fallen.

After parking, I step inside the welcoming entry/office. Girls in Santa caps serve hot chocolate, hold cans of Reddi Wip. We all pretend it's snowy and frigid, not spring in December.

Still, I want to see the horses. As a little girl, china horses graced my bedroom bookcase. Like most children growing up in the suburbs on the perimeter of horse country, I read Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka. I follow the others to the barn. The odor of hay and horse accosts me. A long line of numbered stalls festooned with red ribbons and Santa caps. Heads and snouts push out in search of treats. Huge brown eyes implore. Their days of racing and dressage long over, plaques with their names and histories…Bella and Dancing Diablo…some had spent more than a decade at the farm, many rescued from abusive situations. Old horses past their prime dependent on the kindness of strangers.



Feasting on apple slices and carrots proffered by children and adults alike, they live out their remaining time, which on this day was pretty much a petting zoo for equines. One big old gelding had been born in 1989. How long do horses live? According to what I read, the average life span of a horse is between twenty-five and thirty years. But one named Old Billy, born in England, was 62 years-old when he died in 1822. Poor Old Billy! How ancient he must have felt in his bones.


The minimum age to retire at Ryerss Horse Farm in Chester County is 20 years old. These are the rescued senior citizens of the horse world here in my little corner of the world where roads named Horseshoe Trail abut woods and fields. Echoes of fox hunts give way now to the buzz of bulldozers, grinding the earth for half a million-dollar carriage homes for the 55-and-up set.

Who knows what horses dream? Maybe it’s not a big deal. Relaxing in stalls with other horses? Or maybe the aftershocks of no longer being “useful”—of riding trails and serving masters—they dream of galloping the fields of Elysian. In Homer’s writings the Elysian Plain was a land of perfect happiness at the end of the Earth.

I want to feel happy, I want to get into the holiday spirit. Either the dreary weather or the hoards of people and their kids who have to be told not to take more than two cookies from trays in the office area where the hot chocolate flows, leave my spirit a bit deflated.

Am I sad for these beautiful creatures or for myself? I go home and write:


So many Christmases now in the rearview mirror of memory. The boys in pajamas and bathrobes racing downstairs to unwrap Christmas presents under the tree. Mother in bright red wool blazer and skirt, wearing gold holly berry earrings. Dad in dapper coat and bow tie. 

Whatever my fate, whatever “retirement” holds, I’m one of the lucky ones. Who could deserve more than I who has lived the love of an amazing man, two strong sons, parents who never abused me? 

I’m not ready to retire, but I’m not ready to gallop full bore through the fields anymore. I turn off the computer. Time to get into my pajamas and go to sleep.

For more information about Ryerss Farm for Aged Equines and to help, visit their website at: http://ryerssfarm.org/

Monday, November 26, 2018

In An Age of Overwhelmedness, Writing Is Enough

In an age of overwhelmedness, the daily diet is 24/7 news, carnage, disease and disasters. What is the definition of 'overwhelmedness'? Simply stated, it is the state of being overwhelmed. 

Here's a thought for consideration. Writing is enough. Enough for what? Enough for one life? Enough to get through one day? Enough to move beyond feeling drowned in the overwhelming? Yes. Writing is enough.

But who has time? Where can I cut back, free up time to pursue my creative life? Can I shelve the anxieties, the stress, at least long enough to write this? 

And when I find the time, do I have the strength to mine those caves we fear to enter which hold the treasure we seek? 

In his book, Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most, Christian theologian Marcus Borg writes, whether you’re searching for God or not, hope and transformation serve as the pathway to meaning. Much the same could be said about writing. When we engage with others in meaningful and uplifting pursuit, hope and transformation naturally follow.

Why this story? What is my story? I share these words in the Women's Writing Circle. Everything is crafted from memories of my family, encounters with friends, politics, the woman's journey. I look for a line that doesn’t exist.

The writer chronicles the inner and the outer life...her faults and fears, observations and reflections. As we age, memory is intricate, shape-shifting. I think about memory and how to break through to what May Sarton calls "its rough, rocky depths." To work through the complexities of life, I have my writing to dig deep, unearth the secrets, learn more.

In order to get people to understand, you must slow time, go back and portray what you are seeing and feeling. My heart was open. I loved seeing myself through your eyes. We had seventeen years. Twilight evenings of lovemaking; a blizzard that winter I was miserable and pregnant; August by the shore, the sea stretching beyond the farthest horizon toward a future never to be.

***

Writing a book is exhausting and ninety-nine percent of them are going nowhere. Just look at Amazon and something like a million new books published in 2017 alone. But that’s not the reason we write—to get published. Still, it is easy to shrug our shoulders, give up, move on; we're all overwhelmed. Yet, for me, writing offers a place between the secular and the sacred, especially when done in community. 

One on top of the other, we build our stories.

Sultry summers and shimmering autumns…two dogs you will never know, faithful companions and sources of comfort and joy. Crises large and small, the suffering…all pass through the window of time.

You have to understand the terrain before you write a love story. Love is a terrain like no other. Our little boys are men now. They travel in their father’s footsteps, quietly, silently in moments when your spirit brushes theirs with a whisper of your name­─John─and you and they become one. Part of me felt rearranged after you died. Your death forever changed my life, my journey...society’s crushing expectations of the single mother, the widow…the woman alone. Widowhood has shaped my belief that out of great loss comes great abundance, if we―if I―allow it.

Now…a rose in bloom, the coo of a mourning dove, my dog’s velvet blond muzzle, a word artfully arranged here and there.
I write this and something akin to satisfactory acceptance that this is life, my life, overwhelms me. Writing is enough.


How about you? Does writing lead away from feeling overwhelmed?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Thoughts on the Popularity of Writing Memoir




This past week at the writing circle, a woman approached me. “Why do you think memoir is so popular?” I knew, like many in the group, she wrote life stories carved out of vivid memories. A writing prompt, or just listening to others read their stories, was all the nudge needed to put pen to paper.


I gave her a stock answer. Memoir is popular because people love true stories, I said. The popularity of memoir writing—not including celebrity memoir—has also been due to women feeling this was their time to find voice and embrace their stories before it is too late.


What I didn’t say and only thought of afterward was that we write memoir because it is a grieving process, a way of letting go. When someone we love dies, divorces us, denies us or moves on, we lose a part of ourselves. We have our memories, but the experiences, the history we had together, is no more. Who were we with that person? So, we write, I think.


One thing is clear. Life is about searching for meaningful connections. There are people who represent the ‘what’ in our lives (what they do for me)…and then there are those representing the ‘who’…. In other words, you don’t expect the same relationship from the bank teller or your hair dresser that you do from your husband or wife, your son or daughter, or a cherished friend. These are the relationships—built on trust—that offer the great gift of digging deep and discovering who we are.


As the philosopher Martin Buber once said, “All actual life is encounter.”


As writers, we record the “encounters.” It is foolishness to think any of us will be remembered after we die because everyone we know will die too; but in the meantime, the best we can hope for lies in connecting with each other through stories, which is why I love the writing circles. A writer takes a talking stone…possessing words like ‘hope’ and ‘brave’ and all our attention is focused on her as she reads.

***
I don’t have a big family, so my Thanksgiving will be a quiet affair, albeit with good food—a turkey cooked by my sons on the smoker (which Lily loves because we do it outdoors) and side dishes of macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes garnished with cranberries. The best part is that I get to spend Thanksgiving with the two people in the world I love the most—my sons. Together we dig deep into our feelings and, truthfully, there are few, if any, secrets between us—at least that I am aware. We remember with gratitude the man who made it all possible—my late husband and their father, John M. Cavalieri, who inspired my memoirs. 

For many, though, Thanksgiving can be ruthless. The curmudgeons, the people who make life difficult are far too many. The betrayals that bring out hurt and anger. The truth is, that’s another reason we write memoir. There’s grief in those encounters too. But by writing about them, we can let go of the pain.

How about you? Why do you think memoir is so popular?