Monday, December 8, 2008

Stroke by stroke

I've been waiting to share this fun photo until winter, when readers might feel far removed from the way a sweltering summer sun inspires the desire to cool off in a spring-fed lake. That's me in the photo, swimming the length of Trout Lake, in northern New York. My husband Dave is trailing behind in a canoe with a life preserver—you know, just in case. Off to the left is a loon that both of us saw at the same time. Dave was thrilled that it swam close enough to photograph—the wide-angle view here distorts the distance, it was only about 20 feet away. As you might be able to see by the look on my face, I was a bit less thrilled. After diving beneath the surface, loons can use their large webbed feet and streamlined bodies to propel themselves quickly underwater. You never know where they've gotten to until they bob back to the surface. This is how they hunt for their dinner of fish. Or toes? I was not too eager to see what that spear-shaped beak felt like!

This was the second time I'd swum the 1.6-mile length of Trout Lake. The first was five years ago, when I was 47. Distance swimming might sound like an odd thing to take up late in life. Truth is, I would not have been able to do it before then. 

I remember when I was a teenager and my father rowed the half-mile width of the lake while my three sisters and I swam behind the boat. At the time I was physically active in dance, cheerleading, waterskiing and snow skiing, and should have had every reason to believe I could do it. Much to my shame, however, I couldn't keep up. My Dad had to help me climb into the boat to ride the rest of the way. I dripped onto its floor in defeat; my sisters got the glory. Now, decades later, I can swim more than three times as far. Believe me, it's not because I've applied the last 35 years of my life to practice. I am no better of a swimmer now than I was in my youth. It's not more fierce competitiveness, either—as you can see from the photograph, no sisters. It's just me and the loon.

So how is it that I can do in my 50s what I couldn't physically achieve in my athletic prime? The answer has more to do with patience and self-confidence than heart beats per minute. After surviving my first husband's suicide and slogging through the healing process, I just figured I could do it. I finally understood the way the accumulative nature of effort applies to all disciplines: if I kept my arms moving and my legs kicking, and continue to breathe in and out, I will eventually reach my destination. The metaphor works for any long process, whether renovating a house, writing a novel, or doing grief work.

You'll get there, stroke by stroke.

I like "one stroke at a time" better than "one step at a time" because water molecules have more heft than air; not only am I moving forward, I am physically creating a path for myself by applying my muscles and willpower to part a medium that resists me. I seek change by pushing aside self-pity and denial and any other obstacles standing between me and a joyous reunion with my authentic path in life. Swimming is taxing but so is change; productive change is never achieved without a significant application of effort. In swimming as in healing as in writing, I am using the very medium through which I must move to help me move through it. The water through which I swim buoys me as my legs and arms press against it; the very experiences my grief work requires me to face will help demystify all that frightens me and weighs me down; the words and sentences and paragraphs of my writing will contribute enough meaning and structure to hold me up. 

Swimming, my focus alternates above and below the surface, separating that which is easily seen from that which is hidden. I fear that which is hidden; after all, there are those legends of the Trout Lake monster... but then up pops a beautiful loon. Turns out he wishes me no harm, but simply wants to join the blue sky and ever-green pines and my patient, understanding husband in witnessing my journey.

Grief work isn't a sprint. You won't achieve the same effect if you close your eyes, hold your breath, and make a mad splash to "the other side." I laughed when I found out the Olympic athletes were swimming a mile in 14 minutes; I swim twice as slowly. But with one purposeful stroke at a time, at my own pace and with my eyes open to note the changing scenery along the way, I could eventually turn around and see that I'd gained distance from my starting point, and could appreciate it with new perspective. Its details, once so sharp they could bite, had blurred. Renewed to my task I turned toward the future, reaching for the other side, knowing in my heart that I am capable of reaching my destination...but now wondering if maybe I should slow down a bit, because the journey is so incredibly beautiful.

I think about this picture now as the days grow short. I must walk in frigid weather instead of swim, and when I come home, the cursor blinks at me from a still-empty page. The words are fractious and refuse to be tamed. Yet I know I can do this, stroke by stroke, because my achievements sing to me. I have swum the lake! Not once, but twice, and will no doubt do it again. I will do it to once again experience the grace that comes from facing adversity, the grace that whispers in my ear: "Keep swimming, we're almost there." 

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Borrowed Joy, Daily Hope

Ever since I was old enough to reach the mailbox I have always loved checking the mail. It's a little Christmas every day: whose special message awaits inside those envelopes? Since the advent of e-mail, personal mail seems a thing of the past—I'm lucky to get a handwritten signature on a computer generated Christmas card— yet hope endures. Anticipation burbles within me each day as I walk down to the end of my long drive to see what the postman has brought.  

The other day, sandwiched between our bills, a new manuscript to be edited (always a treat!), and the typical influx of holiday catalogs, was an unexpected gift: a 9 x 12 white envelope from the University of Mississippi, addressed to a young woman named Alexis. This was a mistake—her address placed her just over the hill from me, about two miles by road. I had put the envelope back in the box and was raising the flag when red words at the bottom corner of the envelope caught my attention. Important Documents Enclosed: Letter of Admission, Housing Application...

I remembered waiting for my own sons' letters of acceptance to colleges a few short years ago. And before that, awaiting their SAT scores. Awaiting word from my own college applications 34 years ago, and before that hoping that re-taking my SAT had raised my score. But this is only November, I thought, and most schools don't notify until early spring. Mississippi might be one of those schools that markets themselves by sending out fake acceptance letters saying, "Dear High School Senior: This could be you!"

I couldn't help myself. It was just a flat white envelope, after all. Not that I had done anything like this before in my entire life, I pulled it back out of the box, pressed the envelope to the first page beneath, and held it at a slight angle so I could see through it better. 

"Dear Alexis," it began.


"We are pleased to be able to inform you..."

Ooh—it's good news!

"...that your application of admission to the University of Mississippi..."

Oh my gosh, she really applied...

"... has been accepted."

Woohoo! WE ARE IN!!!

I couldn't put that letter back in the box. If it ended up there once, where might it land the next time? How long would this exciting news be delayed?

I ran up the hill to the house and grabbed the phone book. Unfortunately Alexis had a common last name for this area and there were four columns I had to cross-reference for her address. In my excitement, I missed it the first time and had to go through them all again. My heart pounded as I made the call. A girl answered.

I was still panting from my run up the hill. (Note to self: get back to walking regularly.) "Hello, Alexis?"

"Lexie isn't here, she's at work." 

"May I speak with her mother, please?"

"Yeah." The phone clunked down. "MOMMY!!!"

It took the mother several minutes to get to the phone. I kept hearing an odd whacking sound in the background. I heard the woman interrogate her young daughter thoroughly about who it is and what they wanted. I almost hung up.

But it turned out Alexis' mother was thrilled I had called. "No, don't put it back in the mail. We've been waiting for this. Tell me how to get to your house and I'll be over as soon as I get my younger daughter out of her tap shoes."

I took the letter to the end of the driveway and paced until the minivan pulled up, as excited as if the university had flown me in to personally offer a full scholarship. I smiled, shook the mother's hand through the driver's side window, and handed over the letter. I asked where else Alexis had applied.

"University of Virginia and Penn State." As we spoke, the chubby girl in the back seat fought for a moment in the spotlight by lowering her electric window and trying to climb out of the car. Her mother told her to stay put.

"Alexis likes the south, then?"

"Not exactly. She wants to be a forensic scientist, and these schools have the best programs, according to our research. Mississippi is the last to accept her, and her number one choice. I don't know how I'll wait until she gets home."

Without saying a word I reached into the car, pressed the envelope to the page beneath, and tilted it just so before her—and watched my joy spread to a new face. 

Maybe I was so excited because, as a writer, I spend way too much time alone. Maybe it was the fact that the preponderance of my personal mail of late, due to a new flurry of submissions, has been rejection—but Alexis' news buoyed me through the rest of the day. Earlier that day I had never heard of her; now I'd met her mother and her chubby tap-dancing kid sister and I knew she lived just over the hill and worked at the local Wal-Mart. But most importantly, I had been allowed access to her dreams.

Because I have a good memory for emotional highlights I can almost always access remembered joy. And when my own dreams seem so far away that I have trouble sustaining hope, Alexis reminds me that I can latch on to someone else's as they enter one of the pure moments of unadulterated hope life offers us. Like marriage. Birth. Baptism. Graduation. Publication. College acceptance.

I believe that what I put out into the world will come back to me—and who knows, it might just arrive in my mailbox. From now on I'll always think of Alexis as I check my daily mail. The excitement it holds may not even be for me—but hope for one of us is hope for us all.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Do the Right Thing

Every now and then we are blessed with the awareness that we are stepping into our own small moment in history. That happened to me today, when for the first time I went to the polls with my entire family—among us both Republican and Democrat—unified in our intent to vote for Barack Obama.

Should he win, of course, we have taken a role on a much larger world stage. But as a mom trying to raise responsible citizens in the shadow of their father's alcoholism and suicide, it was a notable moment in our family history when today my two sons voted in their first presidential election by my side. These are the same little guys who ran their Matchbox cars down our dog's back and kept cool on Pennsylvania's wickedly humid summer days while belly-flopping in a plastic pool out in the side yard. Now they are 19 and 21, voting for president. Where has the time gone?

Marty is living at home while on co-op through Drexel University and Jackson drove home from Princeton, NJ last night after work so he could vote first thing this morning and get back to Westminster Choir College for class—despite my best efforts, he missed the absentee deadline. For once, however, missing a deadline was fine with me! Somehow it makes me feel more secure, knowing the great lengths (like a four-hour round trip in a car with a front bumper held on with Gorilla tape) people will go to to vote Obama.

Overheard at the polls this morning, as one man in line recognized another coming out of the booth: "Hey man, I hope you did the right thing."

A loaded question. I was pondering it when my husband Dave spoke up for all to hear:

"He did the right thing. He came out to vote."

Monday, October 27, 2008

Integration Puzzle

Might we not say to the confused voices which sometimes arise from the depths of our being: Ladies, be so kind as to speak only four at a time?
~Anne-Sophie Swetchine

Reading from my yet-to-be-published novel The Girl Who Fell from the Sky at The Speckled Hen in Reading, PA last week was so much fun. The event was put together by Sue Lange with other Pennwriters Area 6 members including Liz Clarke, Pam Garlick, and Carol Haile. Yes, the food was great, yes, the room was packed to overflowing, and yes, I got a wonderful response from both friends and strangers. But beyond that, as I looked out into the audience to begin reading—and I had a long moment here, as a woman struggled to pry her four year-old daughter from the room against her will—the most amazing feeling washed over me. Of course this sensation wasn't random. While we can't always predict their arrival or intensity, feelings aren't buckets of water rigged by some prankster to wash over an unsuspecting stooge. Feelings have sources deep within our psyches that can usually be made available to those who seek them.

First came an awareness: Like many writers, I am not one woman. This was apparent to me in high school as I threw myself into gymnastics, cheerleading, dance, high school musicals, chorus, Russian club, student council, and a short and misguided stint in intramural basketball. I was painfully aware of the fact during my six attempts at choosing a college major that would lead to an outwardly desired career path, and even more so during subsequent years spent subconsciously avoiding said career path working low-paying jobs (in 1982 I was the highest-educated head waitress the Hotel Macungie ever had). Until my 40s, I never realized that as a writer, I can honor all my lives—on the page. I am a wife, a mother, a daughter, a stepmother, a neighbor, a co-author, a workshop leader, a book group leader, a former equestrian, a church member, an editor, a walking partner, and former dance critic. This kind of self-concept is the opposite of simple. On any given day, a little piece of me fits into a lot of other puzzles. Some days I feel spread so thin and yanked in so many directions my head starts to spin. But I love my multi-faceted life; it keeps all of my creative cylinders firing.

Then, an observation: The night of my reading, representatives from all of my various splinter lives were either with me in the room or with me in spirit to share in the first public reading of the project into which I've poured all that creative combustion for the past five years. For those 15 minutes, they offered pieces of themselves to me: they fit into my puzzle.

Oh, that feeling: I am no stranger to public speaking, and I have read several of my essays and short stories aloud to audiences of one sort or another. None of my previous experiences compared, though, to the feeling I had at The Speckled Hen on Tuesday as I shared part of my story with people from so many different aspects of my life. Familiar faces tilted up toward me in expectation, their bodies tipped ever so slightly forward as if offering themselves to the story. I felt a wave of glorious integration wash through me as I shared with them a project born of my passion and intellect, experience and imagination. That strangers connected with the material as well was motivation enough to keep slogging down the road to publication.

I re-read this entry and think perhaps I am making too much of it. Evidence of two more pieces of me—critic and child. But today I 'm going to let the child have her say. Part of being a writer is to recognize a "moment," and that's what I had on Tuesday. I know I'll be drinking from this replenished well of affirmation for quite some time, drawing from it inspiration and renewed determination to share my work.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Emergency anniversary

Eleven years ago today my first husband and the father of my children, Ron, committed suicide after a day-long stand-off that turned the trees and bushes and outbuildings on our pastoral gentleman's farm into hiding places for specially trained police dressed in camouflage and toting rifles with sniper scopes. It is choosing to move on after this event that inspired both the title of this blog and the memoir I am currently writing.

The memoir writing has resulted in some unexpected closure concerning Ron that was so powerful that despite the "stage being set" to recall his death (the October days shorter, the nights cooler, the fall sun growing more golden—all those details that subconsciously say, "It happened at this time of year, brace yourself") I honestly hadn't thought about it—until Thursday night, while following an ambulance to the hospital ER. It carried my husband Dave, critically ill with septic shock and blood pressure of only 65/48. There's something about those flashing lights that grabs you by the throat and won't let you go: Emergency. Emergency. Drop everything. Surrender: Life is not going to go the way you planned. It was that echo of trauma that brought the suicide anniversary to the fore.

I remember thinking on the way to the hospital: I can't do this. People say that all the time, right? Yet I have never figured out how to skid along the surface of an experience, let alone turn my back on it. Perhaps because of its very mysteries life sucks me deep into its unpredictable folds, where I must literally "feel" my way. "I can't do this" was a way of honoring my feelings at the moment—I didn't want to be frightened so deeply—but I knew as soon as the words formed in my mind that a truer expression would be, "I can't avoid this." Such is the risk of love, a risk for which I willingly re-enlisted, for my mature self loves Dave as deeply as my younger self loved Ron.

Today I am completely alone in the same house where the stand-off occurred. My children, who were both here that day, have moved on with their lives: one son is at college, the other is at the co-op job his college arranged. Once surrounded on this farm by chickens, horses, goats, and numerous domesticated animals, I no longer have even a dog or a cat to comfort or distract me. I will join Dave later at the hospital, where he is out of intensive care and holding his own. The emergency, it would seem, is over. And in its wake is a feeling I recall: jangled nerves still scanning for previously undetected clues of imminent danger. The heavy exhaustion of an adrenaline hangover. An inner peace that's hard to reckon with, given the circumstances; perhaps a side effect of swiping one's pre-planned activities to the side to live in the moment.

I am suddenly aware that I have witnessed Dave's own stand-off. But where Ron drowned himself in consciousness-numbing booze until the only thing standing between him and death was a short muscular action applied to a trigger, Dave fought to retain his consciousness, even as the odds and his own vital statistics stacked against him. His heart, strengthened by love and determination and attention to what he eats and some thirty years of running, prevailed. It was my privilege to witness Dave's struggle to survive. While Ron's death had many lessons for us, Dave's stand-off is a better story. Next year and in years to come, as the October days shorten and the nights cool and the fall sun grows more golden, I'm sure I will take time to remember Ron. But I no longer suspect that his death will take center stage. Thanks to Dave's brave fight, and my willingness to go with him wherever the dark night led us, the stage will now be set to honor life.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Should I smile?

Recognize me in this picture?

I thought not.

Thanks to my stepson's third Middle Eastern tour of duty in the United States Army, served in Afghanistan, I received an unusual present last Christmas: a burqa. Davy's wife Amanda delivered a message from him: "I figured you'd be the only one who would appreciate it."

Well, I did. Putting it on, and then looking in the mirror, was a profound experience: all physical manifestations of my "Kathryn-ness" were gone. I once read O magazine columnist Valerie Monroe say that when she had tried going for a week without looking in the mirror, she missed herself. No doubt going mirror-less is a good way to start defining yourself from the inside out. This was different, though, because I was looking in the mirror, yet felt severed from my image—and this was not a comfortable feeling.

The burqa is bright and pretty, but this is its common color, so every woman's garment in an Afghani marketplace looks the same. The satiny material slips easily so the part that fits down over your forehead to hold it in place is tight, causing "necessary discomfort" for the uninitiated like me, since the screen must be centered if you're to see at all where you're going. My eyelashes caught uncomfortably in the screen. You can see fairly well—I suppose your brain compensates for the woven threads that block part of your view—but your peripheral vision is lost. Should a little dog or child run in front of you as you walked down the street, down you'd go. 

While fenced in by the burqa I was keenly aware that I define myself by actions that extend my influence beyond the perimeter of my body: looks I give my husband that only he and I can decode. Watching others as they speak to show I care about what they have to say, and encouraging them with lifted brows and nods of my head. Smiling for the camera to let my spirit shine forth. 

While protected by the burqa, though, I suddenly had a greater sense of the power contained within me—a power rarely reflected in the mirror these days, as waning middle-aged attributes demand I rely more heavily on artful draping and cosmetics to perpetuate a visage I can recognize. The burqa removes the need for flirting in all ways, even with one's self. Exposed skin cells that typically interact with the very molecules in the room, now covered, radiated their energy toward my core, toward the place where baby ideas and feelings and dreams germinate. Like a child in the womb these were mine to nurture; I need not share them with the harsh elements of the world. I became more aware of my inner fire, and my skin as its protective barrier—important awareness for one who so highly values the right of personal expression. 

I thank Davy and the burqa for its lessons, which I have shared with people in my church and colleagues at a recent writer's event. But I'm happy to put it away now. While I would have been eager to don one in the painfully pimple-dotted years of my adolescence, it's no longer for me. I have found my voice, and it requires movement for support—so while I still can, I want to walk, run, and dance through my world unfettered to appreciate all its glory. 

Of course our culture has its conventions, too, so what I have previously done grudgingly I will now choose to do with newfound appreciation: I will drape this aging body artfully and willingly, in clothes that won't bind or restrict or contain, because I still need room to grow, to interact, to express. Through my actions and writing and spoken words, I will project my voice so others can hear me—not because an oppressive garment intended to stifle women's voices has taken lip-reading off the table, but because I live in a country where a woman's voice is valued.

Please join me in celebrating our freedoms on November 4 by getting out to vote! 

Monday, October 6, 2008

September's Writing Partner Retreat

Pictured above are the women who attended the inaugural Writing Partner Retreat for Women last month at my summer home on Trout Lake in northern New York. About to take a break from writing for a paddle on the lake, and modeling straw hats from the camp's collection, are (l to r) Fern Hill, Melanie Gold, me, Linda Glaser, and Amy Krause.

Just look at the mirror surface of that lake! Mother Nature blessed us with just the right weather for this event. 

Thursday: Fern, Melanie and Amy, driving together from Pennsylvania, arrived late afternoon in bright 70-degree weather. With the same mirrored surface pictured above, the lake showed off a perfect duplicate of the scenery it has to offer. Once everyone had found her room and unpacked we went for a walk to stretch out legs cramped from the 6-hour drive. I served dinner, then afterward we sat in the living room in front of a fire, drinking Sangria and getting to know one another better by sharing the nature of our current projects and our expectations of our writing time at the lake.

Friday: It poured all morning and I couldn't have been happier—what better excuse to stay in and write? After a breakfast of yogurt, granola, and fresh fruit, we met again in the living room to jump start our brains with a writing prompt. Rather than share right away, we kept the momentum going and wordlessly segued into our own writing projects. Linda arrived at noon, just as we were clearing the front porch of rockers and turning it into a studio by carpeting it with exercise mats. Amy, a yoga instructor, lead us in a series of stretches that simultaneously felt loving and empowering. 

It stopped raining during our smorgasbord lunch so afterward we took advantage of the opportunity to get out on the glassy lake pictured above in a canoe, a kayak, and two "Wee Lassies" (lightweight one-woman canoes). While on our paddle we saw a bald eagle take off from a dead tree with prey in its talons! We got back to shore without anyone tipping over and returned to our individual writing projects. After I served dinner we re-convened in front of the fire to share readings we had brought along with us.

Saturday: The morning schedule was the same as Friday's, with breakfast, prompts, individual writing, lunch, more individual writing. Stretches of time to write: that was the dream that pulled us together for this retreat and the reward for devoting ourselves to it. While Melanie was on an editing deadline and had to work, the rest of us met late that afternoon for a 3-mile hike to the bluffs of neighboring Cedar Lake. The loons had stayed out of sight during the retreat, but we heard that recognizable, mournful cry while hiking through the woods. The view from the bluffs was stellar: rocky, wooded cliffs, a blue sky thick with white clouds above us, dark blue water more than a hundred feet beneath us. We sat without speaking, listening to the insects and birds. The only sign of man was a canoe, tiny from our perspective, trolling soundlessly across the lake surface below. 

We had dinner when we returned. That evening in front of the fire, a bowl of hot buttered popcorn in hand, we reveled in one another's creativity by sharing the writing that resulted from our two morning prompts. (And I want to go on record, ladies: I did not intend to add a political charge to my sci-fi romance by naming my character "Algor," but subconscious thought can often lead us in unexpected directions. I haven't laughed that hard in ages!)

Sunday: Yoga before breakfast this day, with our final writing time after. I served apple cinnamon pancakes with New York State maple syrup for lunch, then participants packed up to head home.

I want to thank Fern, Melanie, Linda and Amy for being my guinea pigs—their presence and their feedback helped me fine-tune my retreat concept. I had such a great time getting to know them better through their interests, observations, and writing styles that I hope to continue to host retreats at the lake each May and September. If you're interested in furthering your writing by retreating from everyday chaos to an idyllic location where you can commune with nature, your inner voice, and other women writers, e-mail me and I'll send you a pdf brochure when the next retreat is scheduled.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Signature design

I was weary to the bone from closing up the camp and took a moment to sit and read what my friend had written in the Trout Lake Journal—a fancy name for the spiral notebook my sister designated for this use some quarter-century ago. Now nearing the close of its second volume, the journal has outlived my grandmother, Uncle Bob, Aunt Jane, Ron, several marriages, and the very camp in which it was housed.  I opened to the last entry, where Doug, the architect from Lifespan Design Studio who helped me design the new camp, had laid fresh ink on a musty page.

He referenced how stressful it had been for me as, one decision at a time, I left our old camp behind. Why copy it? he'd ask me. He wouldn't settle for a murky argument like "sentimental attachment." Slowly I came to see his point—that structure had never been designed in the first place, but patched together to meet new needs over a century of use. Envisioning the new camp required mimicking the very process that allowed personal growth after Ron's suicide: I needed to set aside "the way it had always been" and make purposeful new choices. This was not easy. Coping is in my blood, and readily accessible. I find it much harder to access the kind of deep knowing that can turn into a vision.

But that was old news. I was eager to know what it was like for an architect to walk into a building he had designed. Yes, he knew the floor plan, and yes, he had created a black and white sketch of the exterior, but what did it feel like to be surrounded by its 3-D surfaces, in living color? Doug wasn't just my architect; he and I had been friends for 36 years. I knew he wouldn't let me down. I scanned the entry until the following words, so loving in their intent, pulled me up short:

When I walked into the camp I immediately felt at home. I designed the camp for Kathy; it is her. 

I sought the truth in these words as I finished what I used to call "chores" but now regarded as a fitting expression of loving care for this place. I mopped surfaces that are practical and frugal and easy to care for; I'd no sooner spend money on a manicure than furniture wax. The pine paneling is new and strong and displays precious family heirlooms. The interior is open and welcoming, large windows making parts of it almost transparent. While the sleeping porch and open living room/kitchen area encourage togetherness, bedrooms with closing doors create needed boundaries. The kitchen and laundry room encourage optimism; the necessary work of daily living can be a joy. The simple line of rocking chairs on the porch allows the work of a writer—observing, dreaming. The building is protected by materials that compliment the natural setting, and while they may look old, they are plenty strong enough to deflect storms—the numerous pots placed around the old camp to catch the rain are now solely used for cooking. A new bird feeder and flowers in a rotted stump celebrate the surrounding nature.

Fond as I am of extended metaphors, these weren't the thoughts that brought tears to my eyes when I read Doug's entry. It was an immediate association to words I'd uttered time and again since the camp had been rebuilt; words many others unaware of this metaphor had echoed.

It is her, he wrote. Could this really be true? Because this was my gut reaction: It is beautiful.

Friday, August 15, 2008


Last night when I walked into the kitchen and flipped on the light something flew past my face. Using my diligently honed command of nuanced vocabulary to express myself, I screamed.

We had a bat in the house.

It had startled me, but even as the bat skimmed the ceiling above me I quickly calmed down and went to work assembling bat-catching items: a strainer with a handle and a cookie sheet.

"Looks like you've done this before," Dave noted. I have—bats have played a recurring role in my 26 years living in the country. We also had several in the camp while growing up. My father would catch them with the antique corn popper, a screen contraption with a sliding lid meant for use in the fireplace (I never saw it used that way, though—in my mind we kept it to catch bats). My grandmother would do her part by shouting for my sisters and me to bend down and cover our heads, since the bats would surely get their toes caught in our hair and then deliver so many bites we'd be dead before we could untangle them. 

While I have grown to feel competent in my own bat-catching ways, that lovely image never really left my mind. Thus, the scream. I did my share of ducking last night before nabbing our furry visitor. While he took a breather on our living room curtains I covered him with the strainer and had Dave slip the cookie sheet beneath. Effectively trapped, he was soon back outside where he no doubt longed to be.

I'm not necessarily a screamer, but that was the second time this week that I was shocked to the point of shrieking. On the earlier occasion I'd been working on my computer when my son told me it had suddenly started raining. We heard a rumble so I took an "Accu-look" out the window—a dark cloud hovered above but I could see blue sky on the horizon in each direction. Although this didn't look too threatening I decided to disconnect my computers just in case. 

I was leaning over my computer shutting it down when I heard what sounded like a rifle shot beside my left ear—a direct lightning hit through the DSL line. I screamed. As soon as I realized I was fine I called up to my son to tell him what had happened—he had felt the concussion through the floor. In that one explosive surge we permanently lost two phones, a modem, a router, the USB connection to my printer, the internal modem on my husband's computer upstairs, and the old computer on which I had just completed a large page layout job. Of more importance to me was what I had lost temporarily: the sense of safety that has grown as each of the ten years passed since my first husband Ron shot and killed himself. The sound of the lightning—that I had immediately thought of as a gunshot—brought it all back into the moment. 

I felt fragile for a couple of days. I wanted to talk to everyone I knew, hold Dave's hand, stay close. The next day was Saturday, so when he drove to town on his errands I tagged along. We took a walk in the warm sunshine, visited the new farmer's market to pick up some fresh tomatoes, and listened to the singer/songwriter performing there. We stopped by the new coffeehouse and had lunch at one of the outdoor tables on their covered porch. Later that night we thoroughly enjoyed seeing the new Batman movie (have you ever noticed that the universe can have a perverse sense of humor?).

I didn't bother grieving for the work I'd lost; with the heavy use of help menus I rebuilt the Quark document from the ground up on my husband's PC in Microsoft Publisher. Within a few days I re-established Internet connections, replaced the phones, and circumvented the connectivity issues with Dave's computer and my printer. My work is now caught up and I am ready to leave for a week at the lake tomorrow as planned. 

But as surely as bats are still nesting in the chimney high above the walk-in fireplace I can see just ten feet beyond my computer monitor, I am more aware than ever that the trauma I sustained at the time of Ron's death still has life within me.

I thought Dave was pretty brave to marry me three years after Ron's death—I mean, a first husband committing suicide after fifteen years of marriage isn't the best advertisement for a woman' s enduring charms. When I asked him what he thought about that, he said, "I think Ron's death is something you're going to carry around with you for the rest of your life."

That Dave. A pretty smart guy.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Healing through rejection

You might be thinking, Okay, there's a weird title. She must have meant healing from rejection.

I don't.

Many have experienced the healing power of writing in a journal. Spilling carefully guarded emotions onto the page can be frightening at first, but once you have survived doing so you feel stronger. More yourself. Reading your truest thoughts is fortifying; like drinking your own blood. 

Building deeply felt emotions into a story and then submitting it for publication is a whole new level of scary. The agents you submit to are not only industry professionals with informed opinions as to what will sell, but as passionate and voracious readers they are your ideal audience. So when you meet with rejection it's hard to know which is worse--getting a form rejection letter stating your project wasn't right for their agency or a personalized letter stating why the public won't embrace it. Either way, it felt like you slit a vein in public and the agent didn't connect with your blood type. It can make the most heath conscious among us want to curl up on the couch with a gallon of Häagen Dazs and say to hell with it all.

Yet an inner voice nags: you feel that you do have something to say that's worth sharing. What to do?
  • Make sure that your panic concerning publication failure isn't premature. Leave no stone unturned. Your best prospects may be used up, but do you have a second tier of agents to submit to? A third? Have you submitted to new agents in your genre without a track record? Have you contacted every agent who has ever represented a book remotely similar to yours?
  • Have you made the book the very best it can be? Have you attempted to decode personal messages within personalized rejection letters for ways you might be able to improve it? (I grant that this is useful in a limited number of instances, because the notes are hastily written after the agent has decided not to represent you.)
  • Many books are rejected because the agent can't figure out where this book fits on the bookseller's shelves. Are you willing to make changes to better fit the market? There's no one right answer to this question, it's just a matter of knowing yourself. If you make concessions you might move farther along the path to publication. If you can't force yourself to make the changes, then you are happy on the path your writing is taking you down, publication or no.
  • Remember that each project stands on its own. Your writing is a journey but each project is judged on its own merits. Try to erase the tally on the rejection chalkboard with the submission of each project—it is the project they are rejecting, not you. 
  • If you want to be published traditionally—meaning you've decided against self-publishing—you can't "make" it happen. You must wait your turn, whatever that entails. There are economic pressures at play that you cannot control.
If you are a submitting writer, stuck in the nether region between form rejection and infrequent personal rejection—or perhaps you've been told you're a good writer but just can't seal the deal—keep in mind that thousands of writers will seek publication this year and never receive the courtesy of a form rejection letter.

Hundreds of thousands of writers will seek publication this year and never be told that they are good writers.

Hundreds of thousands of people will seek publication this year and never be the recipient of a brief analysis of why the book didn't work for this one particular agent.

Many will abandon their dream in a huff.

Most will not have the grace to allow for indeterminate variables and fail to preserve hope by allowing for the outside chance that the publisher may not be looking for something just like their project at this time, and they will do so because cynicism is just a whole lot easier.

Some will take a good hard look at the pros and cons of seeking publication and have to admit that the cons are growing and that they are no longer happy—a good reason to redirect focus.

A determined handful will heal through rejection. They will eat that gallon of ice cream, return to the keyboard, and continue with the writing that gives their life meaning. They will look to their writing friends who are in a more hopeful part of the submission/rejection cycle to lift them up. They will live life trying to bring their publication dream to fruition. They will become strong in themselves in both a private and public way. They will become better writers.

I believe that in this world there is one resource that is always renewable.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Motivation Game

My younger son just finished his freshman year at Drexel. Despite finishing eleventh in a high school class of over 500, there were times I didn't think he'd make it. He never really bought in to college life, choosing instead to come home every weekend and hang out with local buddies. When asked how school was going, he threw the word "hate" around a lot. So when he got home last month and immediately got on the phone to line up interviews for his fall/winter co-op experience, I was compelled to comment.

"I'm impressed with your initiative."

"My only motivation is that I'm going to the shore with my friends and I don't want to have to come home for any interviews," he said. "So I'm trying to line up as many this week as possible, then finish up when I get home."

I didn't care. In my book he was still showing initiative. Going to the shore is as good a motivation as any, as long as it worked for him. It's one variation of a game he'll need to play the rest of his life.

As someone who's self-employed, I know this game all too well. If I write for three hours I can have some tea. If I finish editing this manuscript by Tuesday I can go to lunch with a friend on Wednesday. If I meet my income goal this month I'll allow myself to buy those capri pants I've wanted. The demanding employer and the lazy employee, having it out in my head.

But it's not just work-related. I play this game in every aspect of my life, anteing up exercise hours against a sweet reward (which in my case typically has something to do with dark chocolate), or hours mowing the lawn against a good long soak in the bath while reading a good novel. I have grieved deeply so the pain wouldn't drag me down my whole life long. 

I built such behavior into our early family life as well, through a game I'd play with the boys that would motivate us to clean the house. I'd look at a room and assess how much time it would take us to straighten it up and clean it—at top speed. 

"Your room's a wreck, guys. Fifteen minutes. Think we can do it?" "Yeah!" Then I'd set a kitchen timer and off we'd go. One square foot at a time the wood floor would clear as they tossed toys back into cupboards and re-stacked books, with me following behind to mop up their footprints. If we were finished to my satisfaction before the buzzer went off, we'd each get a reward—a couple of peanut M & M's would do—and then we'd be off to the next room.

So it wasn't a perfect plan. I now need to think of ways to reward myself for NOT eating the M & M's. But at least I understand the methodology for doing so. And so, apparently, does my son.

Motivation doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to work.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Before I go...

It was ten o'clock the night before our 6-1/2 hour drive to our summer home and what I really needed to be doing was sleeping. Of course I also needed my bags packed and the car loaded and the dishes washed but was I tending to these things? No. I was doing what any self-respecting writer would do: knocking out a last-minute press release.

For me, one of the joys of being a writer is finding opportunities to use my skills to help other people: in this case, an awesome young tenor named Orin Strunk. This is not the kind of guy who has enough swagger to brag about the fact that he was tapped for The Juilliard School's prestigious Pre-College Division, which is the opportunity of a lifetime. He is a shy, sweet kid who adopted his overachieving ways to satisfy an itch for constant growth—but when he opens his mouth, he just happens to sound like a young Pavarotti. Unfortunately, his parents can't afford to send him.

I am helping to organize a benefit concert for Orin to help defray the cost of attending the New York City program, to which he will commute every Saturday of his senior year in order to prepare for a career in the opera. At the benefit, professional musicians and exceptionally talented Boyertown graduates will be performing in a range of musical genres, as well as Orin (and my son, baritone Jackson Williams) at 7 pm, Saturday, July 26, Boyertown Area Senior High School auditorium, 120 N. Monroe Street, Boyertown, PA 19512. Suggested donation: $20.

If you love music or want to support a talented young artist in need or simply love a good "small town boy makes good" story, please contact me and I'll gladly e-mail you a copy of the full press release. It includes a way to contribute even if you can't attend the concert, and I know I can say, on behalf of his humbled and overwhelmed family, that any amount would be so appreciated. This is not the kind of opportunity any aspiring performer can afford to turn down. And it's an opportunity for the rest of us to make something beautiful happen in the world.

Plus, then you'll know more about what I do in my "spare" time! Whether the last day of vacation or the last day of my life, I hope to be dashing off one more story before I go.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Reaching out through memoir

Roger stood on the shore of the lake and dug a toe in the sand. He was a lifelong friend, a loving family man, and as a vigorous fundamentalist, was known to lose no opportunity to proselytize for Christ. It had been a year since my first husband committed suicide and Roger hadn't even sent me a card. I was pretty sure this was because he thought my husband had taken a shortcut to hell, but unlike some others he kept this sentiment to himself. He simply said, "I just didn't know what to say." 

I thought of the card his parents sent me, which in its first two words seemed to say it all: "Oh Kathy."

I suggested to Roger that an expression like "I'm so sorry, I don't know what to say" would have been welcomed, but that I understood. All death is difficult, suicide even more so. The suicide of someone you knew and liked calls into question everything you think you knew about life.

I'm glad Roger and I were able to have that conversation; in a few short years he would be dead at the age of 46 from multiple myeloma, a cancer rarely treatable. Experience had taught me not to put off my expressions of concern for his difficult situation. I kept up contact, and drove to see him at the beautiful home he'd designed and built for his family. When I got there he was lying on the bed in his room. He had tumors the size of walnuts on his cheek and chest. He was hurting; he and his wife were weighing the struggle of getting him down the stairs against the hope that more radiation therapy might shrink the ever-growing tumors enough to relieve some pain. I was able to reach over his bed and hold him in my arms and press my hand to his bald head just days before his passing. I'll never forget what he whispered in my ear: "Oh Kathy."

To date I have never known a writer to be struck dumb by tragedy. I think all writers have an appreciation for tough life situations, because they are the stuff of great story. I sensed this at the recent Philadelphia Writers' Conference, which offered a class on memoir. As fellow attendees asked questions, bits and pieces of our stories leaked out, creating a pool of compassion that connected us as a community. Stories of growing up poor in tough neighborhoods, of child sexual abuse, of difficult health challenges—we had all been dealt tough circumstances, faced them down, and carried on. After hearing that my boys and I had lived through a full day standoff at our farm the day Ron killed himself, more than one approached to say, "I can't imagine what you went through."

No one can imagine what we went through. That's why I'm setting down my story. Others imagine the horrors, but I can help them move beyond them—the way we did. We survived and are striving to create meaning and are reaching for glory. I believe in memoir because we create community by witnessing pain, but also because our healing journeys should be shared. 

I can't imagine what the others in that memoir class went through, either—and I can't wait to read about it. In sharing our stories, we feel less profoundly alone.

Monday, June 2, 2008


I can't think of any form of healing that doesn't make use of retreat. Retreat is not cowardice; it is a wise reallocation and renewal of resources. Let's face it: sometimes it's just too much to heal the body and feed the spirit while waging the battles of everyday life. Through retreat we can protect and restore the sacred.

I just got back from a solo writing retreat at our summer home in the foothills of the Adirondacks in northern New York state. See the left-hand corner of the camp in the picture above—not the porch, but the corner behind and to the left of the porch steps, framed on the right and left by six-foot vertical windows? That's where I set up my computer—on a writing desk angled across those windows. Next to the window on my right was the wood-burning fireplace that kept me warm during my seven chilly days alone (the windowless vertical element is its chimney). I was working on a memoir about how my sons—just eight and ten at the time—and I healed after my first husband's suicide. 

It's been ten years since Ron pulled the trigger at the end of a full-day standoff at the pastoral farm where I still live. The massive police presence signaled the media to turn his personal hell into headline news, complete with a handy aerial map of how to find our house. I declined a reporter's request to comment at the time. I did not yet know what to say. Since then, events have accumulated that suggest a beginning-middle-end to the arc of our story, and I am ready to make public comment.

Why do that, when the scandalized memoir market is sagging, fewer people are reading, I have no celebrity to create interest, and the economy is driving the book publishing industry into a deeper slump? I write because I was a writer before it happened, and I am a writer still, and this is what writers do: we identify good stories and tell them. I cannot control commercial success, I can only show up to fulfill the purpose of my life. The alternative was illustrated for my sons and I all too graphically. I must sort through the chaos and find meaning; it is my way.

Work on the first draft hums along when I am into it, but once I break away, re-entry can be almost physically painful, and I can be quite creative in finding ways to avoid sitting down to the work. My solution was to get away for a week and dive in.

The total: I was able to write 39,329 words in seven days, roughly 143 pages. My highest daily total was 7,126 words—I've had higher daily totals in a former NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) contest, but never on a topic this draining.

The danger in immersing yourself so deeply in traumatic events of the past, of course, is losing touch with the buffer of time—and that's what made my location so magical. All I had to do was look off to the left to see a loon bob to the lake surface with a fish in its mouth or a mallard and his mate fly toward our beach and skid in for a comical landing; to the right I could see a great blue heron soar over the water with its crooked neck and six-foot wingspan, or watch a red-headed woodpecker shop for dinner on a majestic pine. Thanks to a new Adirondacks-happy cell plan, I was only moments away from all of my boys: the two college-age ones and my wonderful Dave, whose love and support for my life's work and healing allow such retreat.

Do you need to retreat? If so, add a comment. I hope to open this magical place to other writers by organizing Writing Partner Retreats on long weekends. I can already sense the fire-warmed camaraderie, smell the buttered popcorn, and feel the power of the amazing stories we'll share...