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.