Monday, January 18, 2021

A Writer Waits to Find the Words: A Memoir Moment

Writing is my work, my pastime, my job. With writing, all the rest falls into place. Lately, though, finding words to describe what I feel remains elusive. 

There is no velocity to the days, no urgency to get anywhere. As one day blends into another, I attempt a few creative tasks―finish a chapter in my novel, read a book, take a long walk in the brisk January air as ravens caw from barren trees.

The sameness of the days, the twisted chaos on the news, the lack of face-to-face encounters, the virtual workshops and events planned well into the year make me feel something is amiss. I can’t figure out what comes next.

Maybe I’ll get new flooring. I have this old tile kitchen floor and wall-to-wall carpets that could use an upgrade. There’s a sale on at this place a few exits up the turnpike. It’s like every other place right now ... should I risk it? I read about the new COVID-19 variants, the South African and Brazilian variants, perhaps more deadly and immune to the vaccine. And then there is the UK variant, more contagious.

Last week I dined on mushroom stuffed ravioli and asparagus tips. The restaurant bar area resembled a ghost town out of "Twilight Zone", although my sons and I struck up a lively conversation with our waiter who said he pondered retirement. From the window next to our table, I looked out on the gray day … folks huddled in winter coats next to heat lamps. What planet had we landed on?

We have a vaccine and people are dying by the thousands daily. I’m on a waiting list. Who knows when or where I get my vaccine? A while ago, my friend said there should be a lottery. How do you prioritize one life over another, he asked?

Yesterday, my church held a Zoom coffee hour fellowship. The conversation turned to how faith sustains us. When did we first believe, the pastor asked? I don’t remember the exact moment, I say. I just know that it all came together sometime in my forties, although that's not to say I don't have moments of doubt. I've written a chapter in my new book about spirituality. The protagonist, Ava, says of her journey:

On Sundays I attend the 19th century Episcopal church, once a way station on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. The little white church looks out on a highway where cattle drivers drove their herds to the marketplaces in Lancaster County and beyond when the land was no more than farms and open fields.

It was several years after Jay died before I again started attending church. Early one Sunday before a 10 a.m. service, I walked into a church up the road from my house. I don’t know why, but I do remember a gold crucifix on the altar glowing in sunlight streaming through a stained-glass window depicting Jesus as a shepherd, holding a lamb. A coming home, a sense of peace in the embrace of my Christian faith enveloped me. 

My son left his puppy with me, actually, she’s now seven months old, a beautiful German Shepherd named Rin. I turned from the Zoom computer screen and looked out the window. Rin and my dog, Lily, ran with abandon in the backyard, barking at those walking on the other side of my old rickety wood fence. It’s good watching them play, doing their “jobs”, protecting their turf. When the Zoom fellowship ended and after my son had picked up his dog, I went upstairs. I dusted, threw out some mismatched socks, tended to a Christmas cactus ready to burst into bloom.

Despite the weariness, writing this gives me a spurt of glad energy. As Julia Cameron writes in The Artist’s Way
As gray, as controlled, as dreamless as we may strive to be, the fire of our dreams will not stay buried. The embers are always there, stirring in our frozen souls like winter leaves.
Maybe it’s not so important to worry about what comes next. Instead, a writer waits, knowing and believing she will find the words in time.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Season of Grace—What a Wonderful Life

As this year draws to a close, we celebrate the light at the end of the long, bleak tunnel that has been 2020. As much as the extraordinary breakthrough of a vaccine, reminders of another miraculous occurrence one ordinary night are everywhere. We see them in the sun’s winter light slanting through barren branches, in the gift of a holly and evergreen arrangement left on the doorstep by a friend, in the soft muzzle of a dog. The Advent season teaches us that when we least expect it, something extraordinary can and does happen. 

As we await Christmas, my thoughts turn to grace. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to put aside the division of politics? Wouldn’t it be amazing to see the Twitter trolls go silent? And how about treating each other with respect and kindness, and understanding we have more in common than what divides us?

As God taught us, grace is undeserved. A sacred gift, it is simply ours for the taking. I remember a day not long before the pandemic when I felt the power of grace. I had returned to the town where I grew up, Wayne, Pennsylvania, and sat in a coffee shop, killing time before a writers’ meeting started at the bookstore up the street. The coffee shop was next to the movie theater where I went to matinees as a young girl. Some things come full circle—being back in that town sipping a cappuccino—remembering the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still

Fifty years was a long time, although in the scheme of things just a whisper on the wind. I looked down at my open notebook at a short story I was writing about a woman whose dreams were, paradoxically, less interesting than her life.

Up the street from the coffee shop was the Presbyterian church where on a June day, my husband, 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, John 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.

The memory of his voice, his touch, returned with striking clarity that afternoon in the coffee shop. I had done nothing to deserve the love of this honorable man I met one ordinary day under white dogwood trees. He changed my life forever. As I wrote in my memoir: John came to me when I least expected it. 

I think of what the French author Colette once wrote. “What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner!”

I choose not to be a person who believes her life has been anything less than extraordinary. This year I have written about the people and the experiences, the gratitude walks, the moments of contemplation. My friends and fellow writers have shared their words and their voices during the pandemic. These testimonials and life lessons add up to a wonderful life, one of undeserved grace. 

We’re all special and miracles do happen. Science, after all, is merely an extension of God’s divinity within us. When we have almost given up hope, love finds us. I’ve learned that time is sweet and it is short. It’s all gone in a heartbeat. So, make haste. Now is the season to soak up the glory of God’s grace, the gift of Christmas.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. ~ 
Ephesians 2:8-9

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Comfort of Memories in An Age of Anxiety

Walking in the brisk sunshine chill of a December afternoon, my friend and I shared how this Christmas would be different from years past. The annual Christmas Eve party she had hosted going on three decades for my family and hers wouldn't happen. A nephew was flying home from the West Coast and since her husband was recovering from a hospital stay and planes and airports posed risks, he wouldn't feel comfortable. 

Despite the setbacks, people I know try to put an upbeat spin on things, especially those of us who are retired. We had our Social Security checks deposited monthly, owned our homes, didn't need a paycheck anymore. The don't-have-to work lifestyle came in handy these days.

Still, the brisk walk as antidote to anxiety felt desperately needed—a way to feel healthy in the wilderness that is Covid and the balancing act I’d been walking ... having friends over, but no more than a couple at a time, accompanying my son to the hospital for outpatient surgery but wearing a mask and keeping my distance from others, all the while refusing to constantly stay home because it’s no way to live. Still, I miss the impromptu trip to the coffee shop in a village above French Creek with its rushing water over antediluvian boulders ... sitting indoors with dried lavender on the table, surrounded by people whose conversation I eavesdrop.

After the walk, it felt good to come home. A brilliant red poinsettia in front of the fireplace and a mantle decorated with twinkling lights and pinecones made my little house feel cozy and safe. And, of course, Lily, my Yellow Lab, waited. 

As a friend once said to me, “There is poverty and then there is poverty, if you know what I mean.” I did. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up but I never felt deprived either. My parents weren’t perfect, but they did their best raising my brother and me. We lived comfortably, nothing fancy, Mother penny pinched at the food stores to get the best price on a cut of meat, bemoaned at times living on my father’s salary as a private school teacher and administrator, but it was a good life, a nice home, a cocker spaniel offering unconditional love. My parents even had a little nest egg in bonds and CDs. They offered love and security, that ineffable feeling of shelter from the storm where every year Dad put up a live Christmas tree and Mother sang ‘Oh Tannenbaum’ in her warbling soprano voice, accompanying herself on the upright piano. 

Mother and Dad on vacation

There was no acquisition for acquisition sake ... just necessities and little luxuries of Friday and Saturday night dinners out so Mother didn't have to cook ... a vacation to Nassau when I was sixteen but every other year the Jersey Shore or the Poconos. The lessons my father and, later, my faith, taught were invaluable. A person only needed so much and the rest had to come from within because life is an anxious and stressful affair. The importance of resilience combined with feeling empathy for others is enough, as is letting go of control, stopping to reflect and contemplate, or for Dad, at least, working the daily newspaper crossword puzzle or rereading Thackery or Whitman.

A brisk walk, a healthy meal, a good book, a writing space, cutting back on the wine, all  have become my survival tools. Mostly, though, comfort lies in the memories that return, now more than ever, the older I get. The memories of a day, a moment, a hint of tropical breeze, the soft muzzle of a sweet little dog help keep anxiety beyond my front door.

Mother and the cockers
Mother and the cocker spaniels

Monday, November 30, 2020

Contemplation on Solitude and A Creative Life

There's not a lot there to show the suffering that frigid winter of 1777-78, the men with bleeding feet wrapped in rags huddled around campfires. Just a few makeshift log cabins and monuments to Washington and Baron von Steuben remain. On this day fields flooded with afternoon light ... a small white ice house tucked below the curve of hillside. 

Beautiful, rustic, other-worldly.

Walking through Valley Forge National Park yesterday with a writing friend reminded me of my childhood experiences here. The Girl Scout hot dog roasts ... the evening four of us in high school got arrested for drinking beer, not having read the signs 'no alcohol permitted', as we looked across the barren beautiful vistas ... the landscape as it was in Washington's day, before the development of office parks, shopping centers and subdivisions. 

I remember thinking when I was young how much I needed to get away from this place. I went to college. American University. Washington DC still had the feel of a small town in those days, albeit with an Indian restaurant and a museum to explore around every corner. I needed to get away from the country roads, the farmhouses of Chester County and Valley Forge. I needed a change. I needed to grow.

Now almost half a century later, here I am back in the park. Watching a young couple pushing a baby stroller ... a woman walking her Golden retriever ... me and my friend, who also lives alone, talking about writing, about retirement, about the next act once the pandemic ends. A cliché, perhaps, but where has the time gone?

Solitude and the creative life. Hadn't this always been the life I longed to live? I thought of another writing friend. One who two years ago this coming month committed suicide. My friend and I knew the trauma she suffered, but the last time we saw her she seemed happy, she had just gotten her passport, her granddaughter delighted her. I don't judge people who commit suicide and I don't think others should either, my friend said. We agreed earlier in the conversation that we could never imagine sinking to such depths of despair. Living, though, isn't enough. It's how we live that makes it worthwhile or not. And on a day like this at Valley Forge, how worth it was to be alive. 

I realized, as I had before, that the pandemic, while a horror, hadn't been so bad for me. I was used to being alone and I had the luxury to pursue a creative life. I didn't want or need to be anywhere I didn't want to be. And that as the world slowed down, it suited me fine. I had never had a big family or a lot of social engagements over the years after John died, and retirement from the newspaper, followed up with a parttime career of creative writing and teaching suited me to a tee. Yes, I missed international travel, although even that had had its drawbacks. Airports and layovers ... meals in foreign places that made me sick for days on end.

As we drank coffee at a small outdoor table next to Washington Memorial Chapel, the carillon bells sounded across the brilliant blue sky. Here the ghosts of Revolutionary War soldiers remind us of a time long past but which resonates with the human experience of sacrifice and suffering. As my friend and I talked about our writing projects and our commitment to the creative life, I forgot the long winter yet before us. We agreed to meet again, before Christmas, to share a meal and to write.

Monday, November 9, 2020

My Grandmother and Strong Women as Role Models

I knew her as Nanny, that most British of words for grandmother. She immigrated to Pennsylvania from Manchester, England in the early 20th century. I have no diaries, no records, just sepia-toned photographs of a woman with pale brown hair, ebony beads and eyes which remind me of my own. 

This week I encourage you to remember and write about that strong woman in your life, the woman who made a difference in who you are today. Maybe read your story and hers to another, share it together.

For me, one woman comes to mind. My grandmother, Annie Beatrice Dean Weidener. Her influence was indirect. She died when I was five. But I know this. Nanny defied expectations, a woman fearless enough to cross a vast ocean and start a new life in Pennsylvania, whose wooded green spaces reminded her of England. She was the influence who made my father a man who believed that a woman could, and should, have every right to success as a man. She is the reason, as the daughter of an enlightened father, I married a man who believed in me and loved me unconditionally—who boasted about my accomplishments to anyone who would listen and encouraged me to be strong. I never could have married any less of a man than John. 

Role models offer a template for accomplishment, fortitude and bravery. Through my work as a journalist and writing teacher and author, I've met many strong women. Women who ran school districts, wrote books and traveled extensively to help the poor, the disenfranchised. I interviewed the first woman ordained as an Episcopal priest ... a grieving mother who started a nonprofit after the death of her child from a rare disease. Role models shape us in a way that we, too, can become role models.

Maybe Nanny was proof to me, in my own family, that woman can defy the odds, or, perhaps, as her only granddaughter, I romanticize her story. I view my grandmother as an early-day feminist, supporting herself and running a small business. Although I grew up in an era where women would not see the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and would endure the defeat of the most experienced presidential candidate in modern history because she was a woman, I see progress. Against the roar of a thousand voices saying ‘no’ and an even louder roar saying ‘yes’, we have a female vice president. 

Nanny married my grandfather Andrew Weidener and bore her only child, a son, my father, also named Andrew. I vaguely remember her brick twin house on Maplewood Avenue in the Germantown section of Philadelphia ... the lace doilies on the pie-crust mahogany table in her sitting room with a view of rhododendron and azaleas. In my mind’s eyes, I see china tea cups decorated with roses and a tabby cat purring on the windowsill. She crossed the Atlantic with her aunt, a woman who never married. Her name was Mary and she also helped raise my father. 

My grandfather, Nanny’s husband, traveled as a salesman and left home for long stretches. Stress and cigarettes killed him at fifty-nine. Nanny raised her son and after her husband died took in boarders. She had to earn a living. She taught my father to believe that a woman can survive on her own; a lesson he bequeathed to me.

As a final postscript: When Nanny was about to come and live with my parents, she met a man named Jones, a widower, who lived on Maplewood Avenue. She was seventy-four. He courted her. He proposed. She said 'yes'. Shortly after they announced their engagement, my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Dad held her hand when she died.

When people ask if there is one person you could have dinner with—living or dead—I think of Nanny. Had she found happiness with Mr. Jones or was she simply tired of being alone? Had she, against all the odds, discovered love right around the corner, a companion to admire and comfort her in old age? I imagine us laughing about life and love and the trials and triumphs of widowhood, sipping lemon-flavored tea in rose teacups, her cats purring on the windowsill in the house on Maplewood Avenue. 

How about you? Can you share a memory of a female role model, a strong woman who helped shape you?

Friday, October 30, 2020

A Woman Alone in 'Where the Crawdads Sing'

The premise of a girl living alone in the marshes along a North Carolina seaside town didn't motivate me to want to read Where the Crawdads Sing. Then, like many, with pandemic life upon us and ample time to read, after weeks of being on the wait list I was able to borrow it through the library. I wanted to understand how one book, a first novel written by a woman in her late sixties, had remained on the bestseller list for over a year. Now I know.

I found the novel a surprisingly beautiful read. The evocative descriptions Delia Owens, an award-winning nature writer, entwines throughout every scene envelops the reader. The intricate and programmed dance of nature and its species, including us humans, makes for an educational and moving page turner. This description, for example, of hummingbirds offers spiritual moments: “Ordinary light is shattered by microscopic prisms in the feathers of hummingbirds, creating the iridescence of its golden-red throat." 

While the plot never could have worked in the present day due to the Internet and the ability to Google people and learn their whereabouts, it was a relief to be taken back to a simpler time. Owens sets her story in the 1950s and 1960s. Kya, the main character, has been abandoned by her parents and siblings and learns to live alone, first as a child then a young woman. The unfolding tale of a woman whose constant companion, other than birds and tidal rhythms, is loneliness was poignant and timely. 

Despised by the people of her village as “marsh trash”, except for Jumpin’ Jack and Mabel, who live in “colored town,” Kya confronts deep-seated discrimination and shunning. Her one friend, Tate, the man she comes to love, but who betrays her trust, teaches her to read and mentors her growing talent to understand, paint and write of the marsh.

The plot centers around an unsolved murder of the town’s football hero, Chase Andrews, which the Marsh Girl is ultimately accused of committing. Here’s where every woman can identify with the ‘heart is a lonely hunter’ theme of loneliness and longing for romance and love. Too bad that Chase is a liar and a womanizer, especially when he runs into a formidable female like Kya who he uses and then casts aside as so much trash. Whether he loves her or is merely infatuated with her, is not the point. She's not ever going to be allowed into his inner circle of  'respectable' society. The reader is tipped off early that this is a woman’s story of revenge when Owens writes about the female firefly’s changing signals given to the male firefly, first to lure them in and then eat them. “The females got what they wanted—first a mate, then a meal—just by changing their signals.”

The author has more to say about men and their nature. She writes of the alpha males and the weaker males who linger around the edges hoping for the scraps (females) he leaves behind. In the case of bullfrogs, “they parade their smaller forms around in pumped-up postures or shout frequently—even if in shrill voices ... pint-sized bullfrogs in the grass hide near an alpha male who is croaking with great gusto to call in mates. By relying on pretense and false signals, they manage to grab a copulation here or there.”

Of the male peacock, Owens writes: “Over eons of time, the males’ feathers got larger and larger to attract females, till the point the males can barely lift off the ground. Can’t hardly fly anymore.”  The narcissism of the male is unmistakable.

The ending to Where the Crawdads Sing is unsurprising considering what we know about Kya. She is the wildest of the wild ... of that place where the crawdads sing. The story couldn’t have ended any other way since this novel is ultimately, at least to this reader, tribute to a woman alone. A  woman scorned, who treads carefully after rejection and abandonment, a woman who is no man’s fool, who takes no prisoners in her quest to survive. It is what it is. “Judgement,” the author writes, “had no place here. Evil was not in play, just life pulsing on, even at the expense of some of the players. Biology sees right and wrong as the same color in different light.”

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Zoom Calls Us To a 'Dark Winter' Of Despair

A rainy day, crows caw and a damp chill steeps the last Tuesday in October with dreariness. This weekend we push the clocks back an hour. A dark winter lies ahead. That's what we hear, anyway. Poets have written about winters of despair. In “Snowdrops” Louise Gluck writes:

Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light

of earliest spring–

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world. 

(Two weeks ago the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Louise Gluck. She received it “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”)

In “the raw wind of the new world" we're now living, a world none of us has ever before lived, the news media tells us one in four young adults has considered the possibility of suicide. A friend recently returned from visiting a loved one at the hospital where nurses say they have been overwhelmed by people incapacitated from drug and alcohol abuse. Still, I believe that with a purpose to our days, making the small moments count, we stay sane and healthy. The ordinary days infused with a touch, a smile, lunch with a friend ....

I appeared on a local author’s Zoom call organized by the library. It was the first time this year I had the chance to connect with my readers, other than through this blog, which is why I accepted the invitation. As I talked on Zoom to those little squares of faces listening to me share my thoughts about writing fiction and memoir, I noticed that my eyeglasses looked like headlights. They had caught the reflection from my dining room chandelier. I hadn't been prepared for my eyeglasses looking like headlights. Had it distracted my listeners, few as they were? Looking back, it was actually pretty funny. I’d show you a picture of me with the headlights for eyes but the librarian forgot to tape the interview, which is just as well.

Fire up the laptop. Hop on Zoom. Talk to your doctor and financial advisor on Zoom. (Unfortunately, Zoom spelled the ruination of legal analyst, author and journalist Jeffrey Toobin's career.)

The church I attend apparently received a grant to install audio equipment and cameras in the sanctuary to expand its Sunday Facebook audience. Maybe this is the way it will go now, I think. This is how we find God. Online. No one has to dress the kids for Sunday School. The memory returns ... him and me teaching Bible Study to preschoolers in a sunlit room with crayon-colored pictures of Jesus surrounded by children taped to the walls. At the church, Zoom is the preferred method to discuss the pressing issue of racism as it relates to our spiritual journey.

Writing allows us to make “individual existence universal.” It offers intimacy with others through sharing our stories. Our stories form a collective. We experience much the same. We are in this together.

The acknowledgement in Gluck's poem is that we all experience despair. It's what we do with that, what we learn from it and how we survive, despite it, that tells our story. When this is over, will we take the risk to 'open again'? Will we survive the 'raw wind of the new world' and find the intimacy that brings joy?