Tuesday, July 7, 2020

July and the Simple Life—A Pandemic Journal


Reflecting on how to reinvent, to conjure new dreams within the framework we are living, is pandemic life. I prize solitude, but some days, I feel weariness as time hangs heavy like the humid air outside my window. Friends tell me they also grapple with finding meaning. Independent as they are, this time challenges their self-sufficiency. I feel very isolated, one woman said. Another walks in the woods by herself, calling it her outdoor church. 

Purple hydrangea, blue-green hosta. When I cannot garden, I write. When I cannot write, I read. Before the heat of the day, I take Lily for a drive. A goal, a purpose, a little adventure, anything, consumes my days. At the park, Lily and I follow the path leading to a church cemetery. Small American flags by granite tombstones flutter in summer breezes. One headstone reads. You left us far too soon. Ours is not to question why. Only God knows.
When I return home, my copy of Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author, aviator and champion of women's concerns, catches my eye. Its cover of sea water and sand appeals on a hot summer day. I page through it. One passage stands out. Lindbergh writes: I mean to lead a simple life, to choose a simple shell I can carry easily—like a hermit crab. But I do not. I find that my frame of life does not foster simplicity. She goes on to lament the endless commitments, duties and errands of wife, mother and friend. Although the book was written more than sixty years ago in another time and place, the words resonate with philosophical meditation. 
Now, with this pandemic, many of us face fewer commitments. In Julys past, I traveled. Now, my dream to see the world is on hold. Publishing my new memoir feels less urgent in a Zoom-world. I taught in public libraries and held workshops. Not such a good idea right now. Virtual lacks intimacy. 
Simplify means to breathe easier, reduce stress. Buying clothes? Not needed except for the basics. Doing more with less. Lilies on a pond and sunlight in green water offer reflection this summer. My simple shell and its bare beauty tell me to cherish this strange time. As Lindbergh writes: "In my periods of retreat, perhaps I can learn something to carry back into my worldly life."

July is bittersweet. I was born in July and memories abound. I remember childhood July 4th celebrations. We kids decorated our bicycles with red, white and blue crepe paper. Playing cards attached by clothespins to the spokes of our wheels made a neat flapping sound as we pedaled in parade to the elementary school playground and open fields of Queen Anne's lace. Potato sack races, awards for the best decorated bike, my mother in her bright yellow sleeveless dress, all pass in the rear view mirror of time.
This July a friend emails. I want a refund on 2020, she jokes. Haha, me too, I respond. Except, there are no refunds on time. Time is what we make of it. If ever there was a moment to carry the simple, bare shell, this is it, I suppose. The neighbor and I chat about our love for dogs and her longed-for getaway with family, coming up this week. I don’t care if it rains. I just need to get away, she sighs. No restaurants, no beach, we have a pool at the house, we’re cooking each night. The simple is bliss.
Each day brings new challenges, new relationships, new memories. I look up at a summer sky with billowy clouds and take it in. Family, friendship, faith, moments of being. The tides shift and change. Nothing is permanent. I carry my simple shell. I remind myself to appreciate its bare beauty with gratitude and acceptance.






Monday, June 8, 2020

A Little Girl Remembers Church and A Woman's Life

As a little girl I wore a hat and white gloves to church. Everyone dressed up for church in those days. There was my dad in suit and tie, his Phi Beta Kappa key tucked into his vest pocket. My mother in stockings and heels, a skirt and silk blouse, held my hand as we walked into the cool sanctuary.

Sometimes on special occasions like Palm Sunday or Easter, my grandparents came out from Germantown, along with my Aunt Edna. She lived with them and years later, after her parents died and her schizophrenia spun out of control, she ended up in Norristown State Hospital. Edna had lovely pale-yellow hair, and she wore velvet roses pinned to her coat lapels and rhinestone bracelets on her skinny wrists. She led a tragic life. She was my first experience in questioning whether or not there is a God. 


My grandparents were Lutherans, but in my family, my parents became Episcopalians and so did I. This sounds like a mere recounting, but in a way, it makes me realize how my family always went to church, not that we were devout Christians, rather, Christians by birth and by routine passed down from generation to generation. 

We went to church not questioning the patriarchy or the liturgy, the Our Father, never the Our Mother. It wasn’t until later—much later when I was in my mid-thirties and had two small children and was teaching Sunday School with my husband that I became acutely aware of the politics that run through a congregation. It was at an Episcopal church that the controversy centered around disapproval of the ordination of women—and, of course, homosexuality and ordaining gay priests and marrying same sex couples. But politics in church often went deeper than the controversial issues of the day. I felt it at all levels, right down to the sermons. I remember one male priest preaching about a woman’s place being in the kitchen, baking apple pie. He and his wife had four boys and I wondered who those boys would grow up to be, would they respect women with a father like that and a mother who allowed that message. 

When it comes to politics, gender and race, people’s views are stubborn. Change must come from within. No arguing, persuasion, facts or information alter how a person feels. No sensitivity training is the answer, for, as one priest told me, they tried that in the inner city and it doesn't work. Biases are like intricate wrought iron, intractable and unyielding. Communities often remain insular. 

It wasn’t until I was in my late forties that I began to ponder the value of church. Not the message of the Gospels, certainly not that, but the institution that was the church and the people who ran the various congregations—both ministry and lay people. A lot of this converged at a time when as a widowed woman and a writer, I began noticing women in the clergy shying away from words like “empowerment” and “feminism”—as one woman priest told me—they were "buzz words". It made me wonder how I might keep my faith and attending church compatible. It was tricky because I felt I needed a community and practicing Christianity solo felt like climbing a very narrow passageway to nowhere. I’m Christian. Not Buddhist. Gazing at a blade of grass and seeing in it the eternal, doesn’t work for me. 

I couldn’t talk to the priests that their message that bringing up feminism and misogyny were best left unspoken, discourteous to others of a different mindset. I have always listened to others. I ran a writing group for ten years and the importance of listening with an open heart to another’s story is sacred to me. My feeling that I should remain almost voiceless, out of decorum and courtesy, left me bewildered. I tried to separate the priests from their sermons, focus on a universal message ...  the least among us must come first, the here and now is merely passing ... keep your sights on the eternal. 


Once again, in church we face times of political turmoil
. Who is on this side politically? Who is on that side? How much do we say? How much is left unsaid? As I write this, I have come to believe that my own spiritual journey must focus on learning more about the Gospels, as well as giving back to the church through teaching and writing, as well as monetary donations, both here and internationally. I admit I’m struggling with the American Protestant Church. The work lay and religious people are doing with children in Africa inspires me and gives me hope.

I remain faithful to the teachings of love and renewal, to my own instincts of what is right and wrong. I attend church, virtually. When church reopens its physical doors, I will once again try and be there in mind and spirit. I remember that little girl, holding her mother's hand as they walked into a sanctuary of people and prayer. I remember the wife and mother teaching Sunday School. I remember the widow, who one day stumbled inside a church and saw sunlight shining on the altar through stained glass windows and stopped questioning why, as much as how. I remind myself that maybe church needs me, as much as I need it, now more than ever.





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?