Friday, November 16, 2012

Do you think about legacy?

When clearing out my parents' condo I was thrilled to find a copy of a short novel my Uncle Bob had written. It was typed on onion skin, and written as he started out a long career of teaching English—my guess is it's at least 50 years old. My aunt (his sister) told me that after submitting it to publishers he "papered the back of his bedroom door" with rejections before giving up.

Given that I could paper a house with the rejections I've received in the past decade of novel submissions, I was eager to read it. My uncle never knew me as a novelist—when he died, he knew me as a dance critic. I remember complaining to him once about how little money I made in this role. With a look of bewilderment he said, "Criticism isn't about money, it's the ability to influence. You have that."

Does a novelist have the ability to influence? I think my lit-loving uncle would say yes, but I'll never get a chance to talk to him about it. So this manuscript he'd never mentioned, read by the niece novelist he'd never known, felt like a secret conversation.

When sharing work at the writing retreats I host for women in northern New York State, at the lake where my uncle and other extended family members spent summers throughout our lives, we explore the ways writing always reveals things about its author. This novel was no different in the ways it revealed my uncle.

Teaching was more than employment for my uncle; it was a way of being. He befriended his students, and often hosted groups of teenaged male students on his island during the summer. The practice inspired lifelong friendships; one former student and frequent lake visitor delivered the eulogy at his funeral, recalling the wonder of coming to the lake for the first time and seeing so many stars. My uncle's novel evokes such a mentorship between a college creative writing teacher and a student whose reclusive demeanor, coupled with his writing assignments centered on boat repair, suggests a troubled soul. The teacher, like my uncle, goes above and beyond the dictates of his role as teacher to see if he can reach this student.

One of the troubling attributes the student shares is too keen an interest in making a quick buck, the teacher discovers when visiting him at his summer job on a large lake whose shoreline is riddled with commercial interests. While the teacher wants the student to stay in college so he might find rewarding work that will support him, he fears for his student's soul with regard to money. This is where our family's lake roots make a cameo appearance. My uncle wrote:

Bob's island

With summer coming on, Cam thought of the lake in the mountains where he had spent every summer of his life. It was a small lake, filled with islands, and lost in a great forest far from the noises and confusions of civilization. Life there was simple and earthy, full of sunlight and the smell of pine needles by day, and the sound of whip-poor-wills and bullfrogs at night to sing and squawk one to sleep. There was absolutely nothing to do of itself—no amusement parks, no power boats, no Hilltops—but the summers were always full of fabricated joys, made from the love of being with other people and laughing and enjoying their company, and keeping busy together dreaming up things to do. Cam couldn't picture Jim in such a society, where he would be completely dependent upon friendship with others for sustenance. Yet he felt that if Jim were introduced to such a way of life, and was nurtured, he might find in it what he didn't have—he might find that a sense of humor was priceless, that a good laugh could wipe away the memory of many tears, that knowing many people and being accepted by them was the only real victory in life, and brought out all one's unknown, unguessed possibilities. Cam wished he could show Jim a new standard of values. It was so difficult to sell such things sight unseen.

The way my uncle wrote of our family's legacy at the lake moved me. Since his death, my husband and I extended that legacy considerably by tearing down the rotting, hundred-year-old camp and rebuilding it in a way that should ensure it will outlive its predecessor. I have broadened the legacy by inviting women writers to join me there, and many of them have chosen to come back year after year. My uncle left his island, pictured above, to my cousin named Bob—as if to perpetuate the sense of timelessness he valued there, he ensured that it would still be "Bob's island" long after his death.

Maybe it's this background that impels me to think about legacy, spurred on perhaps by my first husband's suicide. But I wonder: how will the world be a different place due to my presence here, and due to my choice to be a writer? The answers will never be mine to know, but the question itself is enough to inspire me to strive to make a difference.

How about you?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

How do you get back up there? Part 2

Today is the one-year anniversary of my triple ankle fracture. In an 18-month period that has included my father's death, moving my mother into assisted living against her will, taking on her power of attorney and health care duties, the sudden death of my 21-year-old nephew in a car crash, and the selling and clearing out of my parents' condo—all while trying to meet volunteer commitments and edit for paying clients, of course—this was the single most stressful event.

So I did what I always do—wrote my way out of it. Here, at this blog. It helped, but as physical therapy began it became increasingly difficult to fit in blogging. I had to reassess.

My number one concern was to get back to novel writing. I was so close to the next level of success with my novel; an editor at a major publishing had taken interest and an agent seemed truly interested. I couldn't turn my back on it now. But with what time, exactly, would I pursue this? Doctor appointments and family obligations were seriously biting into my days. A friend suggested I put the blogging on the back burner for now.

I did just that, which is why you see such a date gap between this and my last post. Yet especially on this one-year anniversary of Hurricane Irene, while sitting in the camp where just outside I had lain for a half-hour awaiting the ambulance, I felt nostalgic. I wanted to finish sharing my journey.

After I moved back to Doylestown I transferred to a new orthopedic surgeon, who opened my bandages to inspect the leg. This meant that I would see my foot for the first time in four weeks.

I did not recognize this leg. Look at that calf muscle atrophy! The skin on my calf was wrinkled. I couldn't even will it to contract. Nothing. It hung there like pudding in a skin sack.

The color was remarkable. Guess which one was broken?

Although repeat x-rays showed that all the hardware was still in place, my doctor was concerned when I told him the hospital's physical therapist had suggested that, while in my soft bandaging, I flex and point to the extent of my ability. This would help control swelling, the therapist said, and I did as I was told. As you can see, the swelling wasn't bad. This new doctor preferred complete rest and put me in a hard cast for the two remaining weeks of my six-week, non-weight-bearing immobilization.

I chose green, the color of renewal. I needed all the metaphor support I could get. I didn't realize how much I'd love the hard cast. It allowed me to do everything with less fear that I would twist my ankle inappropriately, from cruising around on crutches to turning over in bed. Here was my sweet editing set-up.

After two days of planning and dry runs, I even eased myself into a nice hot tub, the cast hanging out the side. My first moment of true comfort since the fracture.

But I was tired and more dependent on others than I ever care to be again. It took me half the day just to tend to basic needs. I felt shut out out of my former writing world.

So it was a real treat to have Dave drive me to Surf City to lead a three-hour workshop with the Long Beach Island Writers Group. After, Margaret Hawke hosted us overnight. I climbed their outside stairs on crutches and the inside stairs on my butt. The experience was restorative, reminding me of who I was—but the logistics and the effort to execute them were exhausting. Once I got home I slept on and off for two days.

Time came for the cast to be removed. They were going to use this. Dear god.

With complete rest my ankle was now healed—and as fat as a spaghetti squash. Even now I feel nauseous looking at this picture.

When I (gingerly) set my foot down, I found it was so swollen I couldn't get my toes to touch the floor.

I will not ask you to slog along through the painful weeks of physical therapy, where each new impossible task was eventually met. Let's skip to January, when I was able to resume my normal fitness center workouts with the elliptical and weightlifting. By late January I tolerated a three-mile walk. In general, though, my ankle hasn't enjoyed long walks—it gets sore and sloppy—so preventing weight gain has been a bit of a problem. Running, always a trick because of shin splints, will now forever be off the table.

But I have achieved other accomplishments that make me feel competent again:

• In December I signed with literary agent Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency! She is now trying to sell my novel while I write the next.

• In June I did an easy hour-and-a-half hike through the woods with my writing retreaters. Warning! Uneven surfaces!—but I triumphed.

• Last week I swam the 1-3/4 mile length of Trout Lake in northern NY State.

• Yesterday, the day before my one-year anniversary, I did a shorter but more difficult hike to the bluffs at nearby Cedar Lake.

I balanced on an unsecured log bridge.

My less-flexible ankle made it up—and down—rocks. The scar that covers the metal plate is fading.

In this past year I have regained strength. Flexibility. Balance. But most importantly, I've climbed back up to the place where perspective resides. From this vantage point I can look back at my life—even this past year—in gratitude; I can look forward with relish; all the while believing that in this very moment, I'm just fine.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

How do you get back up there? Part I

When I finally got back to my townhouse with my fractured ankle, this is what I encountered:

Anyone who’s had to step away from a vibrant life—to birth a child, to heal from illness or injury, to bury their dead—understands the metaphor this photo represents. My life as I’d known it was hidden at the top, out of reach, and I stood on one leg at the bottom. My energies had been diverted to concerns of human survival: how to get food and water. How to move safely from here to there in my vulnerable state. How to find some small enjoyment while managing the pain.

How to get to my third floor office and check my e-mail.

Reaching for any aspect of my former, happy life was a strain. My writing, teaching, retreat hosting, editing—that life was all about self-actualization. No wonder I wasn’t feeling like myself. My fall during Hurricane Irene shattered that life as well as my ankle. Circumstance now required that I hang out at the bottom of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Over the next few months, I’d have to find a way to climb back to the top of the pyramid. For now, however, the stairs were enough to face.

Fifteen risers, to be exact. Times two.

That first night home I handed my crutches to Dave, turned around to sit on the bottom stair, and went up on my bum. I made it halfway up before having to stop and catch my breath. As Dave hovered below, spotting me (more likely, should I have slipped, I would have clipped him in the knee and taken us both down), I muttered a quick prayer of gratitude for my general state of health and fitness before continuing up.

When I woke the next morning I did the math. If Dave brought me breakfast in bed, and if I only had to use the bathroom once during my morning computer work, and if I edited downstairs in the afternoons and stayed there until bedtime, I’d only have to do six sets of stairs per day. I’d leave the crutches at the bottom of the stairs to use on that floor, and the walker at the top for use on the second floor. When I got to the third, I’d crawl the fifteen feet to my computer.

My new life.

One morning while I was working in the loft my son Marty came for a visit, and Dave, downstairs fixing lunch, sent him up. We spoke for a few minutes and Dave called up that lunch was ready. An awkward moment passed—no one had yet witnessed my loft evacuation plan. I said, “Marty, I just want to warn you that I’m now going to sink out of my chair and crawl to the stairs.”

I couldn’t imagine the feelings it would stir in me if I’d ever had to watch my mother crawl.

I got better at doing stairs on my bum, over time; the human body and spirit have a capacity to adapt that never fails to amaze me. My triceps strengthened, my heart accommodated, and my palms hardened into a protective surface that eventually allowed 10-12 sets of stairs a day:

See those spots at the heel of my hand? Those are my rug calluses.

Have you ever had to adapt to new circumstances in a way that changed your body? Share your oddest sports injury or overuse syndrome.