Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I wrote recently about all the emotional turmoil life was sending my way – or rather, that I was snatching out of the universal ebb and flow and clinging to unnecessarily. At the end of those musings, I even thought I had a handle on things, that I’d mentally resolved all the painful issues I tried to help friends deal with, being patient with my own feelings along the way, and was ready to move on mindfully.


My body rebelled against my unwise attachment to the status quo by felling me with a multi-day migraine; equanimity promptly went south…and left me gasping, literally, in the dark of early morning when night terrors wrenched me from a restless not-quite-sleep shot through with lingering but unrecallable dreams.

As is so often the case, writing came to my rescue. A 900+ word meandering sob-on-screen poured out during a weekly morning session with a fellow writer will likely never see the light of day (or a pair of eyes other than my own), but it helped clarify my thoughts – even the ones I didn’t know I had – by doing as French writer Maurice Blanchot says: “There can be this point, at least, to writing: to wear out errors.” I certainly wore myself out physically, mentally, and emotionally.

When Hubby came home from work and looked into my eyes, he knew, as he always does. He held me and comforted me, but he also gave me the emotional space I needed to work through the turmoil I couldn’t begin to explain. After a few quiet hours home alone together puttering around the yard, it hit me: the logical, analytical side of my brain was battling to make sense of feelings it had no business trying to explain. Pain just is; it’s a part of life, like eating and breathing. Beating myself up because I can’t find answers to questions I don’t need to be asking is an exercise in futility that only creates more pain. It’s a vicious cycle, one the Buddha tells us to avoid by letting go and simply living in the moment, accepting and experiencing every moment on its own terms before releasing it and moving on to the next.

In a book I reviewed recently called The Psychology of Spirituality,  author Larry Culliford says, “When a loss is fully accepted, and only then, something is completed and the process can move on…painful emotions do not disappear but are transformed by the ‘catharsis,’ the release of energy, into their pain-free counterparts (anger/acceptance, shame/worth, etc.).” That day, from the nightmares, to the writing purge, to the Aha! moment in the garden, was my catharsis. I released the negative energy I’d been clinging to, all the pain my friends and I were experiencing, and flowed into acceptance.

I won’t be quite so cavalier this time and claim to have conquered the emotions, but I have learned a valuable lesson. It’s good to stop thinking occasionally, because while the unexamined life is not worth living, too much examination can make that same life unlivable.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Thank you Fire Dog Lake for hosting an online chat interview with Terri Spahr Nelson, editor of the Reflections from Women anthology series, and contributors to the soon-to-be-released second volume, The Moment I Knew: Reflections from Women on Life’s Defining Moments – including me! My essay “Powerful Eyes of Love” joins personal stories and poems collected from thirty women in six countries in what is sure to be an inspirational collection with practical and far-reaching benefits. The publisher’s website notes, “In the spirit of empowering and supporting women, a portion of all of our profits go to agencies providing assistance to women and girls.”

The Moment I Knew will be off the presses any day now; advance copies can be ordered through the Sugati Press website.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…


From the moment we awake each day, we’re faced with countless choices. Red blouse or black shirt? Hair up or down? Green tea or café mocha? Most we make unconsciously, out of habit more than decisiveness, which is probably a good thing or we could find ourselves constantly facing what science now calls decision paralysis. When faced with too many choices (do we really need fourteen varieties of peanut butter on the grocery shelf?), it becomes easier to simply not choose – which, of course, in itself is a choice.

And then there are the big choices, with larger consequences. What to study in school; when and if to marry, and whom; where to live. Enlist in the military, buy that new car, accept that job offer. If and when we become parents (another choice!), it’s our job to teach our children to make wise decisions. Tough to do if we’re still in the process of learning that difficult lesson ourselves, and painful when we watch them follow our trial-and-error path. But if we’re lucky, we learn together and maybe they won’t make quite as many mistakes as we did along the way.

Society relishes watching people stumble over bad choices, whether it be celebrities – she married the guy how many hours after they met? – or politicians – he sent what kind of message from his congressional phone? – or the hapless people who display themselves on America’s Funniest Videoswhat did that goof expect to have happen when he rode his bike off the roof of the garden shed?

And it’s far too easy to Monday-morning-quarterback the decisions of others, to make that determination of wisdom, or lack thereof, from a distance and after the fact when things fall apart. Too often we forget that even the most carefully thought out plan of action can lead to unexpected results. And while “it was meant to be” might salve the wounds for some, it shouldn’t be allowed to relieve us of responsibility for the choices we make.

It’s harder when the ones facing the painful consequences of poor decisions are loved ones. Then we have more choices of our own: when to (gently) point out logical expectations in the hopes of preventing another disaster; when to help bail them out of the often devastating results without enabling further thoughtless choices; when to simply be there to pick up the pieces and hold them when they cry.

I think this is a large part of why I enjoy writing fiction. Mostly, I hate making decisions in real life. You don’t want to dine with me at a new restaurant with a multiple-page menu; we could be there for hours while I decide. But when I write, I have something life rarely offers: control of the outcome. Decision paralysis isn’t a problem when I know where my characters’ choices will lead. Entering that dimly lit room alone with only a fireplace poker to investigate strange noises at midnight makes perfect sense to an author. I know who the bad guy is (okay, unless the characters get particularly obstinate and take matters into their own hands…fellow writers, you understand!).

Sometimes it’s good to take the road less traveled by; it does make all the difference. But do it with eyes wide open, not blindly or thoughtlessly, damn the torpedoes full speed ahead. Identify potential consequences and be prepared to face them with equanimity. It’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way, and continue to learn every day.

And that’s not a choice I take lightly.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Change is inevitable, except from vending machines. ~ Robert Gallagher

Why is it the universe seems determined to keep me off-balance? As soon as I’ve accepted that I’ll never find a ‘real’ job in the current economy and finally settled into a reasonably productive writing routine, a contract job appeared which required regular hours and real clothes every day. After a week or so I adjusted, found where writing best fit around the newly imposed schedule, and even acclimated the dogs to surviving without me for most of the day. Then for no particular reason, the contract was yanked out from under me with less than four hours notice and I was floundering again.

But I moved on, back to the discarded writing routine, with a few modifications learned during the contract (write first thing in the morning, after tea and toast but before email and Facebook), focused on new words early in the day when my mind is fresh, and saved research and the business end of things for later in the day when I shift from the desk to something other than housework or the possibility of a nap.

Then Hubby left town for a week on business and life is upside-down again. I thought I’d get even more writing done while he was gone; instead, I spent the week preparing for houseguests, obsessing over grubby floor tile and dingy carpets. He came home, the guests came and went, and another week of writing time was lost.

Once more I tried for the butt-in-chair regular writing time. I managed for a few days, only to be distracted by life again. A close friend needed my support when he lost a family member; another friend, not as close but much too young, died tragically. Five deaths in our extended circle in less than six weeks – and I expect to be able to concentrate?

I realized this morning during a rather frustrating attempt at restorative meditation that while I’ve been counseling those closest to me to be patient with their grief, I, too, need time to grieve. Maybe my sense of loss isn’t the same as they’re experiencing; maybe I’m simply being too empathic and absorbing their pain because I want them to feel better, but my emotions are real, too. I need to accept them, work through them in my own time, and then move on. No rush. No ‘shoulds’ about what I feel or when. But no denial, either.

Ego. Self. Attachment. All lessons I’ve been faced with again during these experiences. My ego took a beating when the contract was pulled; my irrational, approval-seeking self was on display for our guests, who really didn’t notice or care if the windows were streaked; my attachment to those I care about, and those who have died, has been shown for the ephemeral thing it is. The feelings are all real, but they are also to be faced, and accepted, and moved beyond.

I guess the universe is in synch better than I realized. Now to ease back into that flow myself, instead of fighting it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention. ~ William Shakespeare
What is it about fire? Humanity as a whole marks the beginning of civilization with the harnessing of fire. It warms us, cooks our food, and in its wild, flaming state – preferably contained in a campfire ring – entrances us for hours.

But it also terrifies us. Uncontained, fire is a horrifying menace. Wildfires in the forests of California and the plains of Arizona and New Mexico have devastated countless lives this season, scorching untold acres of land. We load our homes and businesses with smoke detectors to enable us to escape its fury. Furniture and clothing are often drenched with fire-retardant solutions of questionable safety that we’re willing to overlook if they save us from the blaze.

Yet even as it burns through our communities, we are attracted to its flames, mesmerized by the flicker and gleam of indescribable colors. We have a condition named for the more extreme fascination: pyromania – fire madness.

Shakespeare had it right, as he so often did, when he yearned for a muse of fire. As writers, we need that spark of creativity, a gleam of horrifying reality, almost uncontrollable, whenever we embarked on a new project. It gives us impetus to do battle with our self-doubts; enchants us with possibility while terrifying us with fear of failure; and draws us into the deepest recesses of ourselves from which the best writing springs.

I generally prefer my muse to be a bit calmer, easier to control, but as a fellow writer noted in last night’s critique group, maybe we need to write in the throes of fiery emotion more often. That’s when bold, gripping, and powerful words explode onto the page.

And with the right kind of fire, we can also make s’mores.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

"It is the other who exposes me to unity.”*

Because Hubby’s grandfather emigrated from Schuivers Kapelle, Belgium, in 1920, our family has always had an affinity for things Belgian, even while not quite understanding what that meant. All I’d ever learned about the country over the years was the capital (Brussels), the two-language split (French and a form of Dutch called Flemish), and that they were really good at making beer and chocolate. This weekend, we were fortunate to learn more.

Through the auspices of the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake, Michigan, and the local organizing efforts of the hard-working Brent and Rachel, we hosted a pair of musicians associated with Concert Band Maasmechelen from Maasmechelen, Belgium. For three days, we were privileged to immerse ourselves in their culture while sharing ours with receptive participants. The United Nations should be so successful.
Our guests Bart and Marijke (it took me a day-and-a-half to pronounce her name correctly) were delightful. From our first meeting in the parking lot of Wright State University’s Center for Creative Arts at two-thirty Friday morning (the group had transportation problems out of Chicago), we continually found common ground from our love of nature and hiking to a shared sense of  being overwhelmed by too many choices in restaurants, supermarkets and bookstores. The four of us talked for hours about daily life, education, food, family gatherings and of course, music. Bart plays euphonium (baritone, for most of us Westerners, although there are subtle differences) and trombone; Marijke plays violin, viola, and cello, although not on this tour. For the U.S. trip, she is part of the organizing staff. We chuckled together over her task of asking each member, “Do you have your papers?” before boarding the bus to head north to the second of four concert stops.

We knew immediately upon our arrival home in the wee hours of Friday morning that things would go well because our dogs loved them, and they loved the dogs. We spent the day (after sleeping off their jet lag) strolling through downtown Yellow Springs and lunching on the patio at Peach’s Grill. American meal portion sizes stunned them; Marijke took lots of pictures of food and beverages, along with the scenery. We learned quickly to counsel them on when to share an entrée to avoid difficulties. The practice of taking leftovers home in a doggie bag amazed them, as did the standard glass of water served gratis at each meal.

Following Friday’s rehearsal at Wright State, we went to Abuelo’s for dinner (Mexican food is so American, isn’t it?). Saturday included a trip to the Yellow Springs farmers’ market and a visit to the Glen Helen Raptor Center. In the afternoon, we attended an informal wedding reception for friends in Waynesville where Bart and Marijke became the main attraction, graciously answering the same questions over and over as they were introduced to each new arrival.

Concert Band Maasmechelen’s performance Saturday evening at Young’s Jersey Dairy was woefully under-attended, but the musicians played like they were at Carnegie Hall. Enthusiasm, passion, and talent were evident in every piece from Bert Appermont’s “Saga Candida” to “Soul Bossa Nova” by Quincy Jones. In a nod to their American hosts, the band ended with a spectacular “Stars and Stripes Forever,” complete with a talented piccolo solo. And naturally Young’s provided the visitors with ice cream after the show.

In keeping with the international flavor of the visit, on Sunday the four of us attended the Celtic Festival at RiverScape Metropark. After enjoying a typically rousing concert, our Belgians went home with a CD of Dayton’s own Dulahan.

All fifty-eight members of the tour and their host families gathered at John Bryan State Park for a potluck picnic Sunday afternoon. Organizers managed to crowd nearly everyone onto the bridge over the Little Miami River for a group photo before we scattered for one last evening at home. We ended our visit with a campfire in the backyard where Bart and Marijke experienced their first taste of s’mores. Nothing like Belgian chocolate, of course (their parting gift to us – yum!), but memorable just the same.

Monday morning brought a sad parting, back in the Wright State parking lot where our adventure began. The group moved on to Frankfort, Michigan; Strongsville, Ohio; and Dowagiac, Michigan, before returning home August 10th. Follow their journey at their tour blog – you’ll need Google Translate (it’s in Dutch), and technology provides an interesting perspective with unintentionally humorous results.

I’m still processing much of what I learned during our cultural exchange, about Belgium and about us, having been given the opportunity to see our world through another’s eyes. It’s not always a comfortable vision. Bart and Marijke take for granted many things we as a country are just recognizing as important: government supported recycling and composting programs, quality affordable medical care, alternative energies – their solar programs have been so successful, government subsidies are being phased out. In contrast, we take for granted our over-consuming, commercially-focused lifestyle. They were astounded at the wastefulness we surround ourselves with every day, from excess packaging to enormous food serving sizes where much of what is served goes into the trash. “Everything here is so big,” Marijke noted more than once.

But more important was how much we have in common with Bart and Marijke. From our love of animals, to family traditions, to Star Trek and the Franco-Belgian comics of Asterix et Obelix, our cultural differences faded away into camaraderie. We shared jokes and laughter, quiet times and intense conversation. And I’ll never look at a truck labeled “Penske” (Dutch = “little belly”) in the same way again!

It was an experience we will long remember, even as the lessons learned may not be realized for some time. I hope the exchange was mutually beneficial, and I’m reasonably certain they weren’t bored with our quiet lifestyle and not just being polite when we didn’t visit the Air Force Museum, the malls or a zoo. We parted with sharing email addresses and promises to meet again. They’ve invited us to Belgium for a Scottish games festival in September, and we want them to come back to Yellow Springs. I want to cook for them. I want to take them to the theatre and introduce them to our adult children. I want our friendship to grow.

Our Belgian family has two new members, and we couldn’t be more delighted.

*Maurice Blanchot in The Writing of the Disaster