Sunday, January 23, 2011

Are your knuckles turning white?

Today I have a guest post up at the blog of my friend and colleague Jon Gibbs, the author of the young adult book Fur-Face. The theme of my post is the illusion of control—and why that can be a juicy topic for writers. Please stop by:

Kathryn's post at An Englishman in New Jersey.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Recycled effort

I believe an event such as a suicide, whether acknowledged or ignored, becomes a force on a family compass that pulls on the directional arrow. For me, it has influenced in some way almost every decision I've since made.

It was even the reason I switched waste management companies.

I regularly walked the hilly roads within four miles of our country home. Before the suicide it was a way of shaking off my dying marriage by tending to self; after the suicide it was a necessary metaphor for putting one foot in front of the other. I loved the views my walks afforded of woods and farm animals and rolling countryside, and tried to ignore the fact that the roads were lined with litter.

I became increasingly aware that this litter was not only the evidence of rowdy teens out for a joy ride, dumping beer can evidence before they got home.

My trash company, at the time, had recently raised its community consciousness by offering recycling services. One such service had a revolutionary twist: they took properly disposed of trash and recycled it into roadside litter.

One day I watched as the driver of the open-bin recycling truck tried to improve on his zero-to-60 record while barreling down a narrow road near my home. As the truck hit uneven surfaces, two-liter soda bottles popped out of the bins onto adjacent yards.

That made me angry enough. Then, it got personal.

Weeks later, I walked out to the curb on trash day to pick up my mail to find a busted bag of trash. It was raining, and the bag’s contents were smeared all over the road. Dirty diapers, bags of a dog food brand I didn’t use—this was not my trash. I thought of the resume client I was expecting to pull up my drive that afternoon—this would not do. I took pictures and called the trash company. I told them if they didn’t come immediately to pick it up, I was sending the pictures to the newspaper. Within the hour, the manager was out there in a dressy raincoat, shoveling the waste into a few plastic bags he placed in the trunk of his sedan.

Anyone can make a mistake or two, right? I tried to forget about it. In those first years after Ron's death, I had bigger things to worry about.

While I pushed forward through the first few months of dealing with Ron’s death—the mountains of paperwork, the therapy issues, taking his clothes to Goodwill—there was one task I didn’t relish, and that was going through his desk in the house. Especially its second drawer, where we had kept all of the cards we’d exchanged over the fifteen years of our marriage. Valentines, birthdays, anniversaries. Three years later, when I got engaged to another man, I knew I finally had to face this drawer.

I wrote poem about it.


Words of My Own

Years of greeting cards
lined the drawers of the old desk
Hallmark words
offered a hollow history
of spent emotion
in a failed marriage.

How long did I stand
in store after store
searching for “my words,”
instead of listening to what was
inside of me?

At the dawn of a new marriage,
a hunt for the perfect wedding poem
once again has me searching
through book after book,
hoping to tap someone else’s wisdom
to give voice to my thoughts.

But a need for genuine expression blossoms within me
and won’t let me resort to old tricks.
And from deep within I hear the alpha queen whisper,
“It’s time to use your own words.”


I went through the desk drawer, card after card, reading for the last time Ron’s handwritten promise that he would always love me. Then I filled two large trash bags, sealed them in the toter, and wheeled them to the curb.

The next morning, walking a quarter-mile from home, I found one of the bags broken at the side of the road. The driver must have taken the turn too fast after leaving my house, and lost it. I lost it, too, seeing those cards spilled all over the shoulder of the road. Intimate exclamations of misguided love, our names written all over them, hanging out for any passerby to see.

I walked home, got the car and a few new bags, and began once again the process of saying goodbye.

Then called my waste management service and canceled our contract.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

When there are no words

Perhaps it's odd to hear a writer say this—especially one like me, who loves nothing more than to tuck into a fine conversation with plenty of of verbal storytelling—but here I go:

Sometimes there are no words.

Especially when emotion runs high, or low, and I find myself reaching for hyperbole that will still fall short of the intensity of my experience.

It's been one of those weeks of emotional tumult for me, in relation to my writing. When pondering those final years of Ron's life, I see that it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us... oh never mind, Dickens has already perfectly described my experience.

Because I couldn't put any of it into words, I didn't put up a second post this week.

That brings me to Captain America.

Earlier this week Marvel Entertainment published a free issue of Captain America on the theme of suicide. You can link to it here, and I invite you to look at it before reading any further. "A Little Help" was written by psychologist Tim Ursiny and illustrated by Nick Dragotta.

In graphics alone, this issue shares the story of someone who is thinking of ending his life because of problems that, at the time, seem insurmountable. Yet its message is hopeful: it speaks to the life that hides within us even at times of extreme disappointment, loss, depression, and shock—life that still has the potential to be recalled to use.

(If the leap from Dickens to Captain America feels like expired literary license, I give you this: Book One of Tale of Two Cities is titled "Recalled to Life.")

I loved the comic, and I'm curious about your opinions of it. Its lack of words made me think of those early weeks after Ron's suicide, when television and reading would painfully overstimulate me, and all I could do after putting my children to bed was to sit in silence until sleep claimed me as well. Some things must simply be endured.

But I've gained an appreciation for countless acts that can be performed with perfect meaning even if no words are ever formed. Silence can even elevate their importance.

I would love to share some of them here. And if you would like to add some of your own, in the comment section, I'd appreciate the gift.

• praying

• lighting a candle

• petting an animal

• remembering

• meditating

• watching the snow fall

• painting a wall

• baking a pie

Your turn.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Gotta crow!

Okay, yes, this image is a fun homage to my former life on the farm. But it's also a pretty accurate representation of how I'm feeling today, now that the first chapter of my memoir, modified as a stand-alone essay, has been published.

If you’d like to read my essay, you can get to it here.

If you already heard this news through other means, I apologize. My approach to public relations is basically to amass a whole lot of interpersonal relations, so sometimes there’s overlap. Last year for example, as chair of The Write Stuff, I spent 14 hours personally e-mailing everyone in my writing group's database to invite them to the conference. In addition, I sent out personal e-mails to contacts within other writing groups; this was in addition to our national advertising. It worked—we sold out the conference—but this was not the easy route, by any means.

But I’ve never really embraced the easy way. Even as a kid—do it just because my mom tells me to? No way. Use the formula just because the algebra teacher says to? Show me how to derive it first, Mrs. Arnold. That same depth of focus (okay, bull-headedness) would one day allow me—a teen who could never make it across the half-mile width of the lake while swimming with her sisters—to become a woman who, since turning 50, has several times swum its 2-mile length.

I would lean heavily upon that stick-to-it-iveness in life. There is nothing easy about healing from the suicide of a loved one. After reading my published essay, one writing friend was surprised to hear it had happened 13 years ago, because when she was reading it had felt so immediate.

I’m glad I captured that, because that’s the paradox that exists in my mind, as well—the events of that time are both distant and near. Ron’s suicide both repels my attention and seduces it; its power is both centrifugal and centripetal.

Given that the perception of time is not a constant, and the path forward is never uniformly groomed or even evident, I’m glad I didn’t leave my healing to time and distance alone. I’m not sure that would have done the trick.

Developing the skills to write about these events has been as effortful as the healing. Although I was published for 19 years as a journalist, creative writing is an entirely different challenge, and doing it well enough to get published has been no walk in the park. I sought publication for two reasons, really: like any writer I wanted the validation of my skills, but I also want to communicate—and because that requires both a speaker and a listener, writing is only the front half of the equation.

By extending my reach, the publication of the first chapter of Standoff at Ronnie’s Place has allowed me to find readers. But I found an unanticipated gift hidden in this process. The audience I’ve found isn’t just listening—it’s talking back. The comments and private notes from those who have read this piece, like the comments of those who have read this blog, are precious to me. Like building a conference, I am now building a readership—one interpersonal relationship at a time.

Thank you. My life is so much richer for this.

The way I see it: I triumph once by making my way through the dark forest of horrific events, sorting through and taming the brambles threatening to ensnare me. But I triumph again when publication shines its light on the many souls who surround me on this path. I am not alone. We are sisters and brothers all, finding one another.

That’s something to crow about.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The still small voice--that nags


I want to thank the readers who have been sending me private e-mails in response to my blog posts. It means so much to me to be connecting with others about matters that I find so important.

In this case I specifically want to thank Linda B. Glaser, whose response to the question posed in my last post was so brilliant I'd really rather use it than give the answer I had prepared! With her permission, I pass along her comments about how to recognize the voice of God:
I love what that insurance salesman said: “If you don’t think your life is worth recording, you aren’t taking your life seriously enough.”

Your mother’s words, on the other hand, essentially invalidate the value of the past. As the saying [by American philosopher George Santayana] goes, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Without looking backward, we’ll never know if the patterns unfolding are ones we are repeating over and over and over.

How does one know the voice of G-d? It resonates in our bones with the clarity of a ringing bell. It transforms our understanding and our outlook. As Yeats wrote, “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.” When we are privileged to hear that still, small voice, and we are honest with ourselves, we do recognize it.

Your mother’s words, on the other hand, sounded very human to me.
Linda exemplifies the process of listening for the voice of God in my story. She did not look for who was right and who was wrong in what Peter (the insurance salesman) or my mother said; she looked for what seemed divine and what seemed inexorably human.

Some context: My mother's father was an alcoholic; he committed suicide when she was seventeen. This happened before therapeutic support became commonplace, so "that was then, this is now” was the prevailing attitude toward “healing,” and it suited her disposition. I didn't know about my mother's father until I was sixteen, when I finally asked her how he died. Enter Linda's admonition that we are bound to repeat history if we fail to examine it: my mother was "coincidentally" stuck with me the full day of the standoff at the farm, when my own alcoholic husband committed suicide. My mother says she remembers nothing from that day.

With our psyches as with physical danger, human personalities exhibit the fight or flight sensibilities more prevalent in other animal species. To the casual observer, "fighting"—my choice—might seem harder. But it takes great energy to sustain a lifetime of flight away from the fact that, as Yeats said, "all changed," denying the unwanted ramifications of this choice, reaching for fantasies that evaporate in our grasp, and suppressing the still small voice that begs attention. I don't have the strength for that.

So I choose to keep my feet firmly rooted in life's realities, and seek its "terrible beauty." When the time comes that I must face death, I want to know that I have truly lived.

So to answer the quandary put forth in my previous post: in whose voice did I hear the voice of God?

Because I want to learn, because I want to be challenged and long to be transformed, because I believe we are all characters in a common story, and because I believe in the resiliency of the human spirit, the still small voice inside me—which has been nagging me ever since that insurance party to stop with Christmas break already and get back to work—resonated with Peter's statement.

I will honor the precious gift of my life by continuing to write the memoir.

I sense another voice, now, not quite so small. It's Linda, saying: "Get back to work."