Monday, May 25, 2020

Tattoos, A Baby and Broken Sky: A Pandemic Journal


Life is passing and with it comes the hope to make each day meaningful, even in a world trafficking in crisis and fear. Although it might have occurred in another universe of time—a time before the pandemic―the memory returns.


.


It was a Friday morning devoted to getting my hair cut and colored―a chance to keep looking somewhat young for $140. An extravagance. My stylist Meredith used her magic potions and foil strips to fashion streaks and wash away the gray. “It will give your hair depth,” she said of the streaks.

Everywhere I go, I see women of all ages ... platinum and blond streaks, a plethora of Jennifer Aniston streaks, purple and blue, pink and green hues and streaks. 

Meredith has a tapestry of blue roses and bird tattoos adorning her right arm. I admire her arm because it’s a statement, a style all her own. Tattoos were frowned on in my house, just like pierced ears. My mother would hardly recognize this world, if she were alive today. Take Judith, the sixty-something woman in my exercise class. Judith has a greenish-blue tree tattoo with long roots running down to her wrist. She married her partner in January, who is now her wife. 

I had been going to Meredith for two years. In all that time she tried to get pregnant. Now on this Friday morning, she shared that her eggs were harvested and two implanted with her husband’s sperm. She confessed the surgery was painful. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” she said. She was twenty-eight and childless and her life focused on having a baby. 

I wished her good luck, that I would pray for her surgery to be a success. “Have a Happy Mother’s Day with your boys,” she said. I had shared stories with her about my sons; that they have been my joy. As I drove home, I remembered thinking how I took getting pregnant for granted, how easy it was for me. It seemed so unfair. I remembered changing diapers, longing to get back to work, so unaware that my life as a young mother would never come again. Practicing a little patience and what they now call mindfulness would have been wise. But I was so young then and wise was not a part of my vocabulary. And no one talked about mindfulness.

***

Before the world changed and the pandemic engulfed us, I went back to the salon. It was another Friday morning. Gray, rainy. Meredith was pregnant with twins. A boy and a girl. We embraced.

***

Crimson geraniums grace the kitchen windowsill and a warm breeze ruffles the white azaleas outside my front door. I take a deep breath. A moment of grace and contentment to be savored. A phrase comes to mind. I heard it when I traveled to Costa Rica: Broken Sky.” Here’s the way it was explained to me. Gray sky and clouds part and a shimmering patch of blue shines and breaks through, high about the volcanoes. 

There is the brokenness and the unexpected in our lives. Then the clouds part. The sky opens. That’s the joy of connecting, of sharing our stories and our lives. That’s the joy of the writing life. The days of gray, the blank page waits, and then without warning, a shimmering patch of blue. 



“I write because I am alone and move through the world alone. No one will know what has passed through me ... I write because there are stories that people have forgotten to tell, because I am a woman trying to stand up in my life ... I write out of hurt and how to make hurt okay; how to make myself strong and come home, and it may be the only real home I'll ever have.” ~ Natalie Goldberg, American author.

Author's Note: This blog post is an excerpt from A Woman Alone, my new memoir.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Reconciling Social Media: Guest Post By Novelist Claire Fullerton


In this day and age of social media at the center of an author’s career, there is much to reconcile, and I wrestle with keeping a proper perspective. 
On the one hand—and you’d think this to meet me in person—I  am ridiculously extroverted; I have what author, Pat Conroy, labeled the “Southern sickness” of assuming everyone I meet is my best friend, yet on the other, I am intensely private. I don’t like showcasing myself because it feels like grandstanding, and quite frankly I’m not impressed with myself to the point that I think I have anything lofty over any other writer. We are all of us playing a long game, making our way in our chosen field. But sometimes it seems that one has to have an elevated sense of oneself in order to promote one’s work as an author. There’s a fine line these days, and it’s the one thing I didn’t realize going into “being” a writer. I’m probably like many people in their 50’s. We were the generation who woke up one day to discover the entire world was online and all over social media. When that realization dawned on me, it was a major hustle to catch up.
Then there is the concern of reconciling novel-writing as art and publishing a novel as a business. Once upon a time–as little as ten years ago—authors wrote books and turned them over to their publishing house to promote. If they had an audience to justify a book tour, the publisher paid for the author to travel from bookstore to library to book club to meet readers in person. This is still done, but on a small, discerning scale primarily intended for authors who have wide name recognition. 
As for authors with a small or independent press, when it comes to a book tour, it’s all out of pocket and they’re essentially on their own.  Because book publishing options have opened up and there are now thousands upon thousands of authors in the waters, the effort is geared toward keeping abreast of the tide and waving one’s hand above the noise. What’s more, in this day and age, the lion’s share of promotion falls to the author and is not only about promoting a book; authors are expected to promote themselves.
I’ve been torn over this for a while, now. I’ve promoted my novels on social media but limited myself in self-promotion by only going so far. I’ll take the opportunity here to add to Conroy’s definition of Southern sickness: friendly as we are, Southerners are an unflashy lot given to personal discretion. Too much going on about oneself is succinctly considered bad form.
I see it all on social media. People post all kinds of personal information from their family to their lifestyle to their political views. I’m not passing judgment, just making an observation, but I do know that too much online, personal information can put one in a vulnerable position and lead to an unintended consequence. It’s the downside of social media and it’s a struggle to strike a manageable balance.
So, how does an author effectively promote their book on social media?  I think an author has to arrive at a healthy balance. Much comes down to author etiquette, and at the center of this is author engagement. Beyond an author’s personal profile on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, there are legions of book groups on each. Following, liking, and adding encouraging comments in key. Sharing content from fellow authors is wonderfully appreciated; reading and reviewing a book goes a step further.
And it’s worth mentioning, should an author have something worth crowing about, that how one shares news is also a consideration. Prefacing news of a book award with gratitude is gracious. Thanking readers for being a part of the book’s journey is inclusive.
Above all, consistency on social media translates to sincerity. Though some authors use social media while promoting their book then disappear once word gets around, it is helpful for an author to remember they are part of an author’s community. Between book releases, supporting fellow authors keeps one involved.
Love of the written word and the power of story is what drives a writer to write in the first place. In my mind, it’s a privilege to have a book published and lends a great amount of verification that one is on the right path and, therefore, it motivates one to continue. A published book is well worth sharing on social media, but for those of us wrestling with how to best do this, I think the answer is found in seeking a balance.    

Claire Fullerton hails from Memphis, TN. and now lives in Malibu, CA. with her husband and 3 German shepherds. She is the author of Mourning Dove, a five-time award winner, including the Literary Classics Words on Wings for Book of the Year, and the Ippy Award silver medal in regional fiction ( Southeast.) Claire is also the author of Dancing to an Irish Reel, a Kindle Book Review and Readers' Favorite award winner that is set on the west coast of Ireland, where she once lived. Claire's first novel is a paranormal mystery set in two time periods titled, A Portal in Time. She is a contributor to the book, A Southern Season with her novella, Through an Autumn Window
Little Tea is Claire's 4th novel, released in May 2020 by Firefly Southern Fiction. Little Tea is the August selection of The Pulpwood Queens Book Club ( 785 chapters) a Faulkner Society finalist in the William Wisdom international competition, and a finalist in the Chanticleer Review's Somerset award. She is represented by Julie Gwinn of the Seymour Literary Agency.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Writing Through the Covid Blues: A Pandemic Journal


Week Eight of the Pandemic and not a lot has changed. Except 80,000 people have died in the two months since they began tracking the virus.


Here, thirty-five miles southwest of Philadelphia, we’ve stayed at home, worked hard to flatten the curve, according to cell phone tracking data reported yesterday in a national newspaper. We’re in lockdown until June 4. 

With nicer weather, people are starting to move around. They clamor for beaches and parks. A local state park four miles away was “mobbed” over a sunny weekend, my friend told me. People sunbathed without masks. A balancing act. I haven’t gone to a park yet and I don’t live near a beach, but I plan to meet up with a couple friends at a nearby park this weekend. Bring your binoculars, my friend, an avid bird watcher, said. We should also bring two pages about something we’ve written these last two months, I said. Stories are what hold us together. Now more than ever. Keeps us sane in an insane world. 


As I keep this pandemic journal, I think about the importance of community, of face-to-face interaction. I miss our Women’s Writing Circle read arounds. I miss those summer writing conferences I attended, all of which are canceled for 2020 and the foreseeable future. Women are stronger together.

I miss driving to the Brandywine River Museum, or Longwood Gardens, stopping afterwards at Hank’s for a cup of coffee and slice of apple pie, the iconic diner near Chadds Ford that Helga and the great American painter Andrew Wyeth frequented. These places reside in the mists of memory, of walking tulip-lined paths and sun-dappled conservatories, of savoring a strong cup of coffee I didn’t make myself.

Part of it was just getting out. Doing something. And then looking forward to coming back home and relaxing on the couch, reading.

We do what we can. We meet in twos or threes in the park and social distance at a park bench as we read our stories. We invite our family over for dinner, or, in my case, welcome my sons who cooked dinner on Mother’s Day. They barbecued chicken, steamed corn … I made deviled eggs. The sun shone and we eased the restrictions. We talked. We shared. We hugged. We watched the dogs cavorting through the backyard. We played "Magic Carpet Ride" by Steppenwolf on the wireless streaming device because I wanted to remember when I was young and they were gracious enough to put up with me. We acknowledged we are incredibly saddened; we feel our choices are limited.

 

Everything these days is a false choice. Stay in. Reopen. Be wary. Don’t let fear rule your life. Do it step-by-step. Build confidence. I can make it negative. I can make it positive. It’s the Covid Blues balancing act. 

I meet somewhere in the middle. I won’t be shamed for saying this isn’t working for me; that gratitude, while present, is not always my mantra, or that with Zoom and cell phones, what's the purpose of people anymore? 


I will celebrate every extraordinary moment in every ordinary day. Like the friend and fellow author I hadn't heard from since we were both in high school who reached out late one night through Facebook. I will acknowledge the pain and the despair. I won’t blame others for a lack of perfectionism when it comes to social distancing and restrictions. I won’t feel guilt because I have a beautiful home and food on the table.

I learned years ago the value of slowing down. I learned the value of staying busy and motivated. I’m lucky because I don’t have to work. I’m unlucky, I suppose, because I’m a woman alone, who has to do her own grocery shopping, rake the yard, clean her own house, make the hours profitable, not desolate.

As always, writing saves me. As always, reaching out by sharing my story saves me. As always, making a connection with you saves me. I hear my voice echoing in the chamber of my own quiet space. Trust my intuition. Trust that the narrative is mine to create. Keep writing through the Covid blues.




Monday, May 4, 2020

I Can Almost Hear Your Voice Again: Pandemic Journal


It was one of those days. The sun blazed in a perfect blue sky and the arborvitae cast long, cool shadows across the deck you built so long ago. I could almost hear your voice again. But, of course, it wasn’t your voice, just an imaginary conversation I was having with you about this insanity of bringing back a thousand cadets at West Point for a graduation ceremony during a pandemic.

Honor was your code, your credo, your reason for all that you did at West Point, which, you wrote about and I incorporated into “our novel” twenty years after your death. Honor was your guiding principle, even when it meant going against authority, the powers-that-be.

 As you wrote: I loved the honor system from the beginning because it seemed so black and white. Honor was the cornerstone of life at the Academy; like the priesthood. Sacred and noble. 

You wrote that before a time even you might not have imagined. A time when terror and a pandemic reign, lives lost surpassing the Vietnam War. A time when everything is black and white. A time when nothing is black and white.

There’s something about the sound of your voice echoing in the recesses of my mind. The sound I will never give up.

***


This is week six of the quarantine and I have begun keeping a pandemic journal.
Germs, microbes, bacteria everywhere. There is a global fight going on. We’re all in this together. Or so they tell us.

It’s just Lily and me, no schedules, no appointments to keep, although I finished the memoir about my life as an aging woman, one rowing north. You would have found the cast of characters interesting and I imagine you would have even been a little sad for me that I had to endure so much alone. But, no matter. It is what is it, and, as you always said, “I played the hand I was dealt.” I agree with that. What other choice is there?

Inside the house there is quiet in the reflection of time and a world that seems to stand still, like living in a cathedral of despair.


When I ran the Women's Writing Circle,
I encouraged writers to pen a letter to a person living or dead. I guess this is mine to you.

***

I see you puttering around the house, building furniture, painting a landscape scene in watercolors, writing another book. I imagine that together we would have found solace, both of us ready to accept prayer and spirituality as integral to a meaningful life ... a path forward. 

We would have talked about the pandemic. The grim reaper. Making peace with death. You were ready to fight in a war. And you did. It was called cancer and you faced it head on with courage and bravery worthy of the battlefield.

You remembered a wonderful scene in the movie, Star Trek IV, The Voyage Home, where Doctor McCoy and Admiral Kirk are in a 20th century San Francisco hospital and overhear two residents conversing on an elevator. The residents are discussing cancer treatments ―radiation, chemotherapy, imaging when McCoy turns and remarks, “What is this, the goddamn Middle Ages? It sounds like the Spanish Inquisition.”

It's the same now. People undergoing experimental treatments, fake cures. We might as well be living in the Middle Ages.

This morning I accomplished an early-morning grocery run. The idea is to get there before the crowds, decreasing the chance of breathing in the microbe, touching the bacteria. 

I can almost hear your voice again. "You're an amazing woman." Yes, you said that to me often. And that's what I hear now on this beautiful and bittersweet spring morning. It's all I need to move forward.

What about you? Have you written a letter to someone no longer with you? What would you say? What did you say?


Monday, April 27, 2020

Writing As a Survival Tool: A Pandemic Journal


It was going to be a beautiful year.

A tour of Vietnam in March. A trip to Portugal in June to celebrate my birthday. Now Easter has come and gone. For the first time, I spent it alone. No family meal of spiral ham and scalloped potatoes, no prayer that comes with the promise of renewal and rebirth. I decorated a plate with brightly-colored artificial eggs and placed it on my living room coffee table, observing holiday tradition even for the holiday that wasn’t.

I listened to the pastor’s sermon on Facebook. It's good Thomas was skeptical, he says. Jesus would have approved.

Who wouldn't be skeptical these days?

Later in the day, I spread out the yoga mat in the living room. Downward dog, child's pose. The woman on YouTube cheerfully intones, "Do what you can. Your practice is your own."

I agree with that. Only do what you can. Skepticism and solitude have never been strangers. Where does this lead? Is it gratitude for what I have? Resignation for what is lost?

Fast forward a couple weeks. Outside my window, April’s loveliness can’t be denied. After a light rain, emerald green lawns glimmer in early morning haze. A mourning dove coos. Something is missing. I realize I can't hear the hum of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a highway which is right down the hill from my house, anymore. That's something to celebrate.


I go to the grocery store once a week. The cashier at the Acme, a boy who looks about high school age, says hello. We agree we hate wearing masks. I think I bring it up. But he agrees. I can see the despair in his eyes … what he is missing … his senior year, the prom?

On another grocery trip, a cashier at the Giant stands behind a plastic shield. It’s 6:30 a.m., the ‘senior hour’, the witching hour. The woman in front of me just bought $300 worth of groceries. I look at my cart and realize I have a lot. The cashier, a heavyset woman in her mid-fifties, tells me not to worry when I apologize for buying so much food. “Oh, everyone says that. You can never have too much food,” she says as she punches in prices with one latex-gloved finger. I admire her for being so cheerful and empathetic this early in the morning during a pandemic.

***

Solace comes down to this. Writing is my survival tool. 

I wrote in my diary when I was ten years old. Wind chimes at my bedroom window tinkled in evening breezes, conjuring dreams of romance and happily-ever-afters.

I wrote in the white oncology office, a despairing young wife and mother.

I wrote in the Kathmandu airport in a small orange notebook with peacock feather, its pages made of handmade Nepalese paper.

I write in my living room on my laptop, silence punctuated only by the ping of an email message from my cellphone.



Writing has limitations. Some days it's hard to focus. I no longer have the support of our Women’s Writing Circle, the camaraderie of smiles and heartfelt stories read in a room with lighted candle giving off scents of vanilla and spice. After all, it was supposed to be a beautiful year of travel and finishing the memoir, so I put the Circle on hiatus. Just as well. We never could have met, anyway.

Unlike some writer friends who share on social media news of their groups meeting through Zoom, I can’t grasp the idea of readaround on a screen. It's like church. A sacred space, not suited for the screen.

***

When I can’t write, I resort to television. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is a virtual visitor. He talks about imagining a time when we can reopen and get on with our lives.Things must move gradually, in “phases,” he says. He ponders a Yankees game with no people in attendance, where the players can be compensated through television ad revenue, not paid seats.



Yesterday, I potted pink and red geraniums to adorn my front walkway. I needed to feel one small sense of accomplishment, although I am happy the memoir is done. I wait for my family to sign off. Bookstores look to be in greater trouble than ever. I ponder whether to publish A Woman Alone just as an ebook. Will book signings return?

A friend from down the street calls. She asks if I want to take a walk, an invitation I leap on like a dying woman. Yes! Company and conversation, even centered around the trauma of the virus, comes like a tall glass of cool water after a dry spell.

This morning, I am in the house with Lily, writing. I am feeling pretty good. The words begin to fill the blank pages of my little pandemic journal. Lockdown, quarantine, who cares?


Monday, April 6, 2020

Keeping Community Alive in A Time of Isolation



Like many older women, I have built my life around community. From my church, to our Women’s Writing Circle, from the freedom to take day trips where I meet people and strike up unlikely conversations, I am dependent on community. Isolation is tantamount to stagnation. And so, it is that these times bring about special challenges for a woman alone, like me, no partner, but, fortunately, one with a healthy network of longstanding friends and, my family, my sons

I have turned to watching church services virtually. I post my comments in the share section, as do others, as we listen to "The Passion" being read or the pastor’s homilies about staying strong and having heart to weather storms.

I have revved up my old Kindle, which I hadn’t turned on in years because I prefer reading by holding a book in my hand, not reading on a screen, but all the libraries are closed. I have begun reading Educated by Tara Westover and Women Rowing North by Mary Pipher. The reading eases the hours of quiet here in my house where Lily and I pass our days. It also eases me away from the horror of the news stories coming like hand grenades, each one more dangerous and explosive than the last. The stories do not foster any sense of peace, only fear of apocalypse, and the older I get, I hardly need reminders of illness, infirmity and death.

I talk to my women friends on the phone. Either they reach out to me, or I to them and we share this time of quarantine. Some have partners, others are widowed like me, but what all of us have in common, it seems, is a sense of resilience. Whether watching Hallmark romances on TV, or working in the garden, there is a “this too shall pass” mentality that I find comforting as days morph into weeks. There is no longer the urge to make every blessed hour count, either through work or projects, as in our youth, but, rather a commitment to finding opportunities in this time of isolation. Those opportunities might be reaching out to someone we haven't spoken to in years, reading a book, trying out a new recipe.

Recently, I ran into one of my neighbors. She was on her afternoon jog when she stopped and we talked about this strange time in which we live. She has two young boys at home and when she isn’t helping them with schoolwork and homework, she worries about her mother who is eighty-one. “I don’t want her going to the grocery store,” the young woman told me. Her mother has preexisting conditions, of course, as many in their eighties do, so the woman grocery shops for her mother. When she gets home from the store, she wipes everything down with Clorox and rinses vegetables in soap and water. Maybe this is the joy of aging, I think, in that I do not have to caretake any longer and instead can relax a bit. While I wipe down countertops with Clorox, I do my own shopping, still visit with my sons, although we try to keep "social distancing", which is hard, since my son got a new puppy.

I have come to the conclusion that what will be will be. There is only so much I can do to stave off the specter of virus. More importantly is staving off the specter of isolation, of loneliness, of a lack of meaning to my days.

So, I walk Lily, breathe in the smell of the magnolias whose peach and cream colored petals have begun dropping to the ground, stop and look at tulips now blooming in riotous colors of red and yellow. I try to stay calm. I have weathered storms before, I tell myself. I have grieved the loss of a spouse and parents, of a best friend with Alzheimer's. Like my friends, I believe this too shall pass.

I remember seeing a hand-stitched work that said 'Happiness is Something We Create." Corny, but true. There is joy in the unexpected, there is learning in loss, there is time to be kind to myself and forgive myself for my imperfections. Isolation must be denied and community nurtured, both inside and outside, virtually or in person. I write, I reach out. I do the best I can. I hope and believe all will be well. And I do it with others, who reach out to me.







Monday, March 16, 2020

Solitude During Trying Times While Spring Beckons


The sun is shining, the magnolia blossoms ready to burst forth, but I go outside rarely unless it is to walk the dog, pull up crabgrass or other small yard work. Lily is patient and understanding of my moods, my need to sleep a little later in the morning before getting out of bed to face a day empty of all routines and contact with others.

This is the life of the woman alone, only with a deeper, more profound challenge. I work toward finding a new rhythm, being resilient and grateful, but, for now, like everyone, my life has been upended by the virus. A long anticipated 17-day tour of Vietnam came to crashing cancellation less than 72 hours before we were scheduled to depart.

Isolation, disappointment in the crushing load of cancellations from church services to a teaching seminar, to the shutdown of parks, libraries and gardens is the new norm.

A much-needed break alleviated this stress Saturday night. I met two women writing friends for dinner (before the edict came down that all bars and restaurants were to be closed for at least fourteen days, beginning today).

We shared over white wine and Thai cuisine concerns, despairs and frustrations. We miss the camaraderie of the read around in our Women’s Writing Circle, which is on hiatus this year. I wish I could call an impromptu read around now in my home to break the isolation, but it doesn't seem wise.

We shared our love of writing. One friend said virus, or no, she dutifully journals every morning. As for me, my new memoir, A Woman Alone, was shipped off a week ago to an editor living in the San Francisco Bay area. I spoke by phone with her, after she was recommended to me by another writing friend, and was delighted with her understanding and appreciation of the rigors involved in memoir writing—how we wrest all we have both personal and professional—molding something that transcends ourselves and reaches a larger audience. I look forward to receiving her critique, (a bit apprehensive, too)  as well as the critique of two writing friends who have agreed to be beta readers.


I find it hard to put all of this down in a cogent way on the computer; the writing is not easy to come by, but the writing also drives away the despair, the chaos.

Reading does too. I have found respite reading Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid's Tale. The novel is provocative feminist writing at its best. I imagine Atwood had great fun writing it, the sarcasm, the nod to the absurd, but also the deeply profound story of women of all stripes and persuasions in the grip of a cruel and violent patriarchy with obvious parallels to the present.

How we cope with the loss of income, of companionship, of life savings on the line, truly are the times that try men and women’s souls. But spring beckons. We are all in this together.

When I went downstairs this morning to make coffee, I spotted those magnolia buds outside my kitchen window about to pop through their brown shell coverings. In the corner of my yard, I saw the forsythia ready to bloom in gold splendor. John planted those bushes so long ago, yet every spring they offer renewal and memories of my love for him. I keep those memories close now in these difficult times. I keep the memory of love close. And I keep writing.




How about you? How are you pausing, thinking, coping?