NWB (The Group Formerly Known as NWC) Epistle #1

writing-resources

Resources for writing, including a Webster’s unabridged dictionary from 1937.

Ladies, we have discovered ourselves. We thought we were a club. And we are, but turns out ours is not just your usual club for lost souls, but is in fact a gathering in the bardo. Is this a step forward or backward? I think it’s neither – more like a clarification of purpose.

As an introvert, I have rarely been comfortable in group settings, so this is one of the few clubs I’ve felt at ease being a part of. I don’t want to knock clubs – I have been in a few book clubs and have found them rewarding, a great opportunity to read things I may never have found on my own, and to learn from different perspectives. We ourselves have been a book club, during times when writing took a back seat (mostly my fault I know, during my year-long hiatus), and we’ve read some wonderful books, the most memorable for me being “How to Be Both” by Ali Smith. A book that not only sparked amazing conversation about the story, but about how to approach writing from wildly novel angles. Even when we weren’t writing together, we were talking about writing.

Coinciding with this realization of our dwelling in the bardo, we’ve once again committed ourselves to writing, following the advice of a variety of books and writing friends that recommend you sit down and just write, no matter what it is, every day. We’re holding each other accountable, and after a bit of catching up each week, we write for one solid hour together. We don’t usually discuss what we write, we just write.

Last week, I didn’t have a topic already in mind (well, I could have worked on my sweater story, but was so tired from not sleeping the night before I didn’t have it in me), so my writing meandered aimlessly from things I ate last week (veggies, peanut butter) to the group of nearby firemen (whose hotness later inspired one of us – not saying who – to contemplate heading home to set something on fire), to puzzling over why the old “popcorn” ceilings I grew up with had sparkles in them and how much poison I likely absorbed from that bizarre confection. Not a productive session in many senses, but at least I was writing. And hey, I just used some of that writing…

Of course, we also discuss the art of writing and how we might learn its mysteries. I bring this up because yesterday I unearthed from a neglected corner of my room a book on writing I had picked up not long before my hiatus, whose covers I had never cracked:  “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Priscilla Long. I don’t recall where I heard of it, but I remember it was very well reviewed and recommended. Finding it again felt like one of those messages we get from the universe, if we’re paying attention.

After blowing the dust off of it, I started wading into it. Just reading the first chapter, my mind was already starting to race in a million directions, so I’m slowing it down a bit. I’m only going to focus at the moment on her advice to develop your own lexicon. This list can be words you like (“treacly”), words to replace words you use too often (“ruminations” instead of “thoughts”) or words specific to places & times that you inhabit (popcorn ceilings). You can also go out and catalog things you see, like types of plants and birds, or words related to a topic of interest (for example, plant-based dyes). Your lexicon becomes a resource for becoming a better, more descriptive writer.

Oh, and did I mention just plain reading the dictionary? In “The Way of the Writer,” Charles Johnson recommends reading the whole thing, a task he’s completed. Why didn’t I know, in my book-devouring youth, that lexicographer was an actual job? That’s part of how I ended up in this in-between place, I was too afraid to trust my inner voice and deepest passions.

I guess it’s better late than never, right? Abasia: inability to walk properly due to lack of coordination of the leg muscles. Wait, what happened to aardvark? Had they not yet been discovered?

Perhaps having our own lexicon is just one of the pieces we need to come out the other side of the bardo, transformed into our final state. Meanwhile, we can continue to give sustenance to each other, through laughter, ruminations, poetry, bawdy stories, reminiscences (including 70s television shows), grimaces over treacly (ha!) music at the cafe, discussing books we’ve read or have just added to the pile, sharing our writing attempts, and whatever else we can to bolster ourselves during times both good and bad. If that sounds like marriage, well, we’re not neurotic wives for nothing.

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Wellness and Self-Care for Writers

River in WashingtonMy planner this year did not list writing as a major priority for me. I also didn’t intend to take last year off from writing, but I did, whether to avoid dealing with tough emotions or just to focus on getting more things done around the house and yard (both, I think).

But then I felt called back to it, literally and figuratively. Literally by Peg Cheng, as noted in the post linked above, and figuratively because it felt right and good again. I’m not trying to escape anything, nor am I trying to solve all my problems, or decipher all of life’s riddles; I’m just seeing where the process takes me. That’s a big step forward for me.

To celebrate this progress and to push myself a bit outside my comfort zone, I signed up for Peg’s Writers Wellness Retreat, which took place a week ago. Getting up early on the first day of daylight savings time to attend a writing workshop – you know I had to be excited. This was my first writing workshop ever, but I knew it would be a rewarding experience with Peg running it, even though I don’t really see myself as a “writer.”

(I actually had a laugh talking about this with my therapist a few days ago, when I described how I introduced myself at the retreat, that I occasionally blogged about being a stroke survivor caregiver as my entry into the writerly club, but that I wasn’t really a blogger, just someone who posts things on a blog. After pointing out the illogic of what I’d said (in a kind way, truly), my therapist said it’s a very common tactic to not see ourselves as [fill in the blank] until we are being paid to do it. Her suggestion was to do what actors in Hollywood do, introduce yourself as an actor who is currently employed as a barista. I’m not quite there yet, but will keep thinking it over.)

During the workshop, Peg read to us from books on creativity, self-care, and writing (it was amazing to sit in a group and be read to, something most of us haven’t experienced since we were kids). After listening, we did 10 minute meditations, followed by writing based on prompts Peg gave us. We only got 2 minutes to write on each prompt, and it was interesting how some of these intervals went by like a flash while others seemed to drag on. The draggy ones tended to raise issues I really didn’t feel like thinking about, like what it means if I focus only on my needs. After writing on four or five prompts, we had the opportunity to share our responses. I typically find this a completely horrifying idea, but there was no feedback involved, we all just listened to one another. There were three cycles following this format throughout the day, with each segment having a different focus:  self-care, fear & creativity, and priorities. Toward the end of the day, we all did qigong together, another first for me, which I really enjoyed.

So it was a wonderful and fulfilling day, and I can’t thank Peg enough for organizing it and doing such a great job of leading it. Oh, and she gave us stickers and chocolate bars with pop-rocks in them, both of which my inner kid just loved.

After reviewing all my responses as a collection later, I realized that having introduced myself as a caregiver, I mostly wrote about my caregiver life and responsibilities. Obviously, this event and its aftermath changed our lives dramatically, but I realized how much I’ve allowed it to define me and our lives. It’s not that I shouldn’t talk about such a momentous part of our lives, but that I need not let it be THE focus, as though it’s the only thing about me and us that matters. Doug’s health and my changed role have created new limitations, but not necessarily boundaries. It’s as though I reached the shore of a river and decided there’s just no way across, so might as well stay on this side forever.

Taking that in was hard. It opened up a lot of emotions that took me several days to process. I found myself missing our dogs in a physical and palpable way – I swear I could close my eyes and smell their doggy smells. Going to work on Tuesday was hard, because I wanted to stay in my shell and not have to engage with others. But part of my promise to myself this year was that I would stay open, be curious and have compassion for myself, try not to allow myself to shut down completely. So I made notes in my planner, found things to be grateful for, went for walks in the very rare moments without rain, emailed friends, and had a relaxing happy hour with some of my colleagues one evening.

One of the greatest takeaways from the retreat was not just how important it is to take care of yourself and nurture your creativity (and put fear in its place), but also that self-care doesn’t only mean getting a massage or taking a bath (both wonderful things, of course), but that self-care can mean paying attention to your emotions and how you handle them. By paying attention to what I wrote last weekend, and how it made me feel, I realized that I want to broaden my definition of myself and what is possible.

Now I just need to figure out if I jump in the river, hop from one boulder to the next, or find a log bridge to balance my way across.

Brought to You By the Letter S

IMG_20170319_132610_1920x1080Sheltered in the south-facing porch, prolonging the lunch break just enjoyed. Slumber tempting but dozing seems a waste of one day’s pause from the ceaseless rain.

Skies a clear cerulean, unbroken by cumulus or cirrus.

Squirrel high in the poplar, scrabbling around the trunk for mysterious squirrel purposes.

Swishing of the breeze through evergreens, and gently swinging chimes.

Sheets swaying on the line, projection screen for leaf-sprout shadows.

Seductive smell of daphne blossoms signaling sleepy insects.

Small shoots poking up through still cold earth.

Shy robins scratching hopefully through semi-rotted leaves, bright eyes on the lookout for telltale squiggles, while companion red-breasts trill  a joyful song from nearby stations.

Emerging from the Bardo

MonteVerde-butterfly

Taken in my previous life while visiting Costa Rica.

This is a meditation on a book I haven’t read yet. You’ll just have to keep reading to find out how that works.

A week or so ago, I went to Town Hall with the NWCs to hear George Saunders talk about and read from his new novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo.” I told M that I felt like a fangurl, I was so excited to hear Saunders, even though I’ve read a total of two of his stories (10th of December and The Falls). Both stories made huge impressions on me – so much humanity is evident in his way of capturing the thoughts of his characters, a rare and often funny empathy on display. In February, I read a New Yorker article about the new book and immediately knew I had to read it. So, when M found out he was coming to town, we all jumped at the chance to go. Our three tickets included two signed copies of the book, which I will be reading as soon as I can, given my usual embroilment in several books at once (slowly digesting Charles Johnson’s “The Way of the Writer,” commuting my way through “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith and just picked up a collection of James Baldwin’s writings yesterday at the library). I am running out of time to achieve my life goal to read all the books!

On the off chance I don’t attain this lofty peak, I will have to hope that my bardo is filled with books and I can stay there for a while. Oh, if you haven’t looked up bardo yet – it’s a space (or place?) in Tibetan Buddhism between death and your next life. A sort of limbo land.

At dinner before the lecture, we spent some time talking about the intriguing concept of the bardo. Even though it’s a post-death phenomenon, metaphorically we felt that it could be about any period of limbo. When you don’t move forward and aren’t sure you ever will. I feel like I spent three years in the bardo, going through the shock, anger and grief of Doug’s stroke. I’d have to learn more and maybe there’s not even an answer to how one leaves the bardo, but I feel like I have emerged from this in-between place. Which isn’t to say I’m “over it” now, it’s not the kind of thing you ever really get over, but I feel I’ve reached a point where I am ready to find out what’s next. This next life has writing, reading, resisting, joining with like-minded people to work for racial equity, working with Doug to make a new plan for the rest of our lives together. So I am now really thinking of the bardo as a chrysalis, because you emerge with your old self still there but in a new form, sipping nectar instead of munching on green leaves.

Getting back to the book, if Lincoln is in the bardo, he must be dead, right? Not really. It’s his son Willy who is dead and in the cemetery, where Lincoln visits him. Lincoln’s actions and thoughts are narrated by a bevy of ghosts, interspersed with historical snippets that provide snapshots of the ongoing Civil War. Given this unusual story telling device, the live reading was unlike anything I’ve seen for a novel before, a bit like watching a scene from a play involving five people (in the section we heard). It was exciting to see a reading as unique and creative as the book itself seems to be. I’m sure I’ll have a lot more things to say once I read it.

Before and after the reading, Saunders talked about this first novel and his life as a writer (and the many odd jobs he did before that). If I was a fangurl before seeing him, I’m now completely enamored. He’s down to earth, funny, creative, just like his writing, which he talks about as this fun thing he gets to do, as play. Even though I love to write, I have a hard time grasping this idea, but he made it seem so possible. What if writing could just be a room full of all your favorite things to tinker with?

Along those lines – and this is going to sound ridiculous, since it is called fiction after all – although I love playing with words, I tend to get very dull and unimaginative when trying to write anything fictional. After reading The Falls, I had this sudden realization that if you want to put unconventional, funny, trippy, even inaccurate words into your characters’ mouths (or minds), you can just DO that. They can say all the wacky stuff you want them to, you aren’t bound by any rules. I’ve always been a rule follower, in life and in grammar, and this was just such a liberating moment. Even the beloved NWCs gave me astonished chortles at that confession, so I won’t hold it against you if you are laughing right now.

Saunders (who wrote for the New Yorker in 2016 while reporting on Trump rallies) wrapped up the evening with a Trump resistance poem he wrote in Seussian style (this link goes to the DC reading, which I think is slightly different from what we heard, but it will give you the idea). It starts out with him answering a question on the importance of art and artists in these politically challenging times. Perhaps this period of our country’s history is another bardo, and we will all emerge from it transformed, for the better one can only hope. More than hope – continue to work toward.

About a Podcast About a Blog About a Poem about Dusting

That’s a mouthful, I know. Let me explain.

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A book I may never have picked up if not for our many ways of getting information.

When I’m not able to read – while cleaning, gardening, cooking, wedged on the train in a way that prohibits even phone reading – I often turn to podcasts. I have a long list of them I like to listen to, ranging from football (Sea Hawkers) to learning (Stuff You Should Know) to word nerdy (A Way with Words).

I was listening to the podcast “On Being” the other day, when she interviewed poet Marilyn Nelson. I had not heard of her before, but my knowledge of poetry is limited to mostly white guys from the distant past. During the interview, the host mentioned a blog post she’d read by a professor on returning to her university office after a year-long sabbatical. While dusting, the professor was reminded of one of Ms. Nelson’s poems named after that very activity. How dust is made up of so many fragments of things of the earth and of life, through all of time – from “particles of ocean salt” and “winged protozoans” to “algae spores” that create “these eternal seeds of rain” – and it made her feel so appreciative of the dust that she almost wanted to stop dusting. (The reminder that we wouldn’t have rain without dust was a fact I’d forgotten, lost in the dusty corners of my mind.)

I bring this up for a couple of reasons. It made me realize that artists see the world in so many interesting ways and inspiration may come from anywhere. I’ve never looked at dust and thought ‘I’m going to write a beautiful poem about that.’ Perhaps next time I am doing some mundane chore, I’ll be moved to look at it differently. I could even expand on that and think about how we might view events, both good and bad, differently. The perspective of dust (i.e., it exists in a time span we can’t really grasp, as does the Earth and the universe) may serve as a reminder of how short a moment we have in this life. We are, after all, destined to become dust ourselves, contributing to the life cycle in another way.

On a less morbid and more mundane level, I am not a very great housekeeper; my house is usually cleanish but far from immaculate. I don’t hate to clean, but I’d much rather do other things. I often feel like I have to justify reading or writing when the house is a mess. This poem, the professor who blogged about it, and the podcast where I was blessed to learn of them, reminded me that our observations and thoughts (and sharing them) are so much more important than whether the house is clean. I did happen to be cleaning while listening to this podcast, so there’s some irony for you.

These are moments that make me realize how lucky we are to have so much information at our fingertips, how much more there is to discover and how seeking out new things can reward us greatly. Especially if the reward is feeling less guilty about spending time reading and writing in lieu of dusting.

Marilyn Johnson said that when she was 13, she prayed to God to “give me a message I can give the world.” I am grateful for her prayer and for the answer she received, because she is a brilliant poet and thinker. In its own circuitous way, one of her messages found its way to me and it gave me inspiration, comfort and motivation to keep doing the work of the mind. It goes to show you that you never know how your message might help somebody somewhere, if you just believe in yourself and keep going.