Category Archives: Essays

Permission Granted.

Today, intermittent rain spots the sidewalk; I am caught up on bills and laundry and General Tidying and finally read Suzi Banks Baum’s marvelous post of ten+ days ago–a post I didn’t read because I was doing dishes and laundry and catching up on bills.

As you’ll see when you read her words, or, even better, watch her video, the reasons for my delay is extremely ironic. Note: for those of us who have been the primary caretaker for children, please pee before watching. It has several moments that will bring you the howling laughter of recognition.

So today I will open my collage journal and make something new.

After I write.

May it be so for you, too.

It’s been a year + …

… since I’ve posted a blog. My silence due to a combination of overwhelm logistically, personally, professionally, with a dollop of self-doubt on all fronts.

My last post, about being kind to ourselves and giving ourselves permission to disengage from situations and individuals that damage us, received an ugly anonymous response (I don’t allow anonymous and/or hate-full comments). Since then, I’ve heard that some experience my reflections about my difficult experiences as “white woman tears” and thus not worth considering.

And I bought into that. I thought: I’m a person of privileged social, economic and educational class. I don’t really suffer. I don’t have anything to offer to the unfolding bedlam. I put my head down, finished my MFA, quit blogging here, and prioritized family and personal matters.

That withdrawal put me back in a headset that I’ll call “juvenile,” reflecting that stage of development when we have inklings of our gifts, but not much mastery over them, or power in the world.

Reading Women

As when I was an actual juvenile, chronologically, I’ve spent a lot of this withdrawal reading. Muriel Spark and Zora Neale Hurston and Mavis Gallant; Deborah Levy and Penelope Fitzgerald and Zadie Smith. All writers who happened to be women, all writing despite bedlam of various degrees, all writers who tell Truth and truth.

I’ve been reminded by their Truth and truth that it’s not what others think that’s important, it’s the showing-up-and-writing that’s important. Maybe my stories will be meaningful, maybe they won’t; maybe they’ll be beautiful, maybe they won’t. But it’s not for me to say: it’s for me to write and publish.

Why have I needed to go through this cycle of self-doubt and -awareness, again? I don’t know. I wish it didn’t suck up so much of my time. But it has, and so far as I can tell, there’s nothing to be gained by lamenting what has been.

So I’m taking my own advice and sitting down and writing. Trusting the stories will show up if I do. Remembering these words from Alexandra Stoddard (note hole at the top: I’ve pinned this card to many bulletin boards in front of many writing desks):

Slow down calm down

May it be so.

Manifesting Kind Words–to ourselves

I recently told a friend that I no longer go to some community meetings because several of my neighbors have said things to me that I’ve experienced as deeply hurtful. “Really?” she said. “You don’t go?”

I felt off-balance for a moment: after all, shouldn’t I turn the other cheek? Extend empathy? Isn’t that what being in community is all about?

I used to think so. I used to work really really REALLY hard for community. Hours of volunteer time: physical labor, facilitation, writing and editing, organizational development. And then . . . I got a lotta what I’ll term bat-sh^t crazy hate* flung my way.

And instead of turning the other cheek and extending empathy, the habits our culture holds up as Good, I’m breaking those habits. I’m minimizing the time I spend in the same room with these folks. That’s all–I’m not sending hateful vibes or emails, and I don’t wish misfortune upon anyone. But I’m not doing what I’ve always done before. I’m trying a different response — as Amy McTear says, I’m “determin[ing] the quality and conditions of my life.”

IMG_1724

Writers treating each other with kindness . . . note the warm drinks and tasty treats 🙂

 

This is my real-life application of what I preach about writing. Just as our stories need audiences that honor and respect them, so do we, as people.

Treat your writing with kindness and compassion.

Treat yourself with kindness and compassion, too.

Danielle LaPorte takes this a step further: she says pleasure is power.

When you’re in your pleasure you think more clearly, you’re more efficient, you’re most certainly more creative, and you’re more loving. Your pleasure states are good for your immune system. Mmmhmm.

It can be really difficult to make pleasure a priority when we’ve got so many ingrained habits based on distraction (numbing out) and performance (pleasing others). For a lot of us, choosing pleasure would be a major life turn around. I get it.

Isn’t this all very white-privilege? Easy to talk about pleasure when you have extra resources. But what good will come of NOT moving toward pleasure? Is anyone spared suffering, is any injustice ameliorated, when we go to meetings and feel miserable before, during and after? Nope.

IMG_1769But when the people we’re working with light us up, are willing to goof around and goof up and say “sorry!” — when the people we’re working with are, in short, a pleasure to be around, then we’re on the side of positive change. (A short list of things that happened when I had fun with other people: we established the New River Land Trust; a youth group; a grassroots leadership program; a co-housing neighborhood; The Joyful Quill; New River Valley Voices; and A Fiercely Kind Word.)

So yeah, I’m moving toward people who will ask me about my intentions, as a person, as a writer, before telling me all the ways I’m wrong and bad, all the ways my words don’t convey the story I hope to tell. Because my soul feels better, and my writing gets better, when I’m with people who approach me and my words with kindness.

I hope you, too, will move toward people who are kind to you, to your stories — it’s good for you! And if moving toward kindness means moving away from unkindness, as my friend Mica Estrada explains in her “Kindness Experiment” article in Psychology Today  moving away from those who behave badly despite our best efforts does them a favor, too.

And come on over to A Fiercely Kind Word to get a dose of love for your writing.

 

*Hate is a strong term, and I don’t use it lightly here, nor am I gonna go into details of the words and actions that were sent my way; suffice it to say that a friend who’s an experienced psychologist alerted me to the possibility that these folks may be struggling with mental illness. She observed that their behaviors and the language of their communications is similar to that of people with borderline personality disorder. I’m currently doing a 100-day tonglen meditation practice to see if I can discern how to be kind to myself and those who may have mental illness — while it’s helpful to hear that the hate-flingers may not intend to be hurtful, the sh*t still stinks and stings when it’s flung.

 

 

 

A Fiercely Kind Word

OK, y’all, here’s the dealio. I’ve got a lovely new website, put together by the terrific folks at Tracking Wonder. It’s for writers who want to improve their writing craft with fiercely kind support, customized for their project, their writing challenges–because the writing process is messy, ambiguous, difficult, frustrating, exhilarating, elastic, forgiving and forbidding.

I’m a writer, so my engagement with writers through A Fiercely Kind Word will reflect my writer’s life. At this point (one more semester to complete my MFA), I’m not going to promise a koan of writerly wisdom every Wednesday. There’s no way I can guarantee a brilliant insight first thing Monday morning. Because: writing is messy, ambiguous, difficult, frustrating, exhilarating, forgiving and forbidding.

_C8A6964-Edit - Richard Mallory Allnutt photo - Lesley Howard - Blacksburg, VA - June 11, 2017

Richard Mallory Allnutt made me look good for A Fiercely Kind Word. Thank you, Richard!

When you hear from me, it will be the real dealio: my craft essays. My reflections on stories and novels. My practices. My stage of the journey, in all its messy, ambiguous, difficult, frustrating, exhilarating, forgiving and forbidding glory (or misery, depending). Sometimes, but not always, there will be a “craft frolic” at the end of my posts, giving you suggestions for how to play with whatever writerly craft element I’ve mused upon.

I’ve got a nifty manifesto you can download from A Fiercely Kind Word here; if you sign up for my Fiercely Kind Word prompts (at the bottom of this page), you’ll get five days of free writing prompts. And of course if you want to work with me, you can contact me through my . . . (drum roll!) contact page.

And I’ll still blog, occasionally, here, about the less-chronic chaos of having an half-empty nest and parenting the “baby adults” my sons have grown into since I started this blog five years ago.

Onward!

p.s. I’m still fine-tuning the behind-the-scenes components of A Fiercely Kind Word, so if you encounter any hiccups, please contact me at lesley@afiercelykindword.com and let me know.

 

 

 

 

 

Writing from an image . . .

. . . is an excellent way to jump-start a free-write, or explore a character, or launch a new piece. The estimable Janet St. John has used one my my images to do so as part of her intriguing series of “Art and Soul Shorts.” You can see it here.

May your weekend grant you some hours to linger in the late-spring blooming of your own writing–here are two very different images to get you going if you need inspiration.

Blog party: Mariela

17888076_1145165478961159_1779597627_nHere we are. It’s the end of the month. The final installment of our Blog Party has arrived already if you can believe it. We’ve so enjoyed working together and getting to know our respective audiences as a result. Hope you have too. Closing down our party is Mariela. Here’s how Mariela introduces herself at a [blog] party…

12819474_10110279046440424_7143565581058908509_oMariela: I have a passion for linguistics, culture and travel. Back in 2013, I started a blog to share my personal journey’s experiences with my family and friends, called El periplo de Mariela (or Mariela’s Journey). Although the blog’s name was in Spanish, posts were 99% in English. For the first couple of  years I wrote with certain frequency but then life took over and I eventually stopped. Fast forward to April 2017 and, after a 1-year hiatus from writing, I’m launching MarExplora. For now, its main feature is still the blog but this site will be an ever-evolving project..I’m excited to see what path it’ll take me!

CH-CH-CHANGES

One year and some change in transition mode: the company I work for will soon be centralizing all corporate functions related to the operations of its properties in the Americas in Miami and, therefore, they’ll be closing the Atlanta office.

Call it intuition or experience, this corporate decision didn’t take me by surprise. I had considered it might eventually happen, that it was just a matter of time. The majority of my co-workers did not see it coming, though. Confusion and sadness describe the very first days following the announcement last May. Although we were all given the option to continue with the company if we relocated to Miami, most of us decided not to, for different reasons.

In my case, as much as I’m always open to challenges, moving my residence to South Florida was not the direction I wanted my life to go. Being clear on what I didn’t want was a good first step, but what was next for me?

When something of this nature happens you have a great opportunity to take a step back and think what you want to do, where you want to be, what your purpose in life is, etc. I decided I’d take full advantage of being in that position and focus my energy on assessing all options. I’ve spent the last months doing exactly that.

I’ve explored and revisited plans I had earlier in my life that never materialized. I’ve returned to projects I had abandoned, including my blog site. I’ve even gone back to school to work on certain skills I wasn’t confident about. Along the way, I’m learning about many possibilities I hadn’t given a thought to before…and it’s exciting!

I’m still not sure what future lies ahead for me, but I know the changes in my life will all be for the better.

Blog Party: Shannon

17888076_1145165478961159_1779597627_nSince we’ve been at this for a while, you probably remember what “Blog Party” refers to, but in case you bonked your head like a cartoon character, or are just late to the party, read this post.

This guest post is by Shannon. Here’s how Shannon first introduced herself when she got to the Blog Party:

DSC_2205Shannon:  Greetings! I’m a storyteller and story coach living in Atlanta, GA. I’ve been blogging since 2006. My current blog is embedded in my website. I tend to write irregular reflections on storytelling, projects, and my journey. My subscribers are almost entirely a part of my personal network, so I’d love to have a chance to grow beyond the people who just want to make sure I don’t starve. 

Seeing & Not Seeing

I recently went to the memorial service of a guy I worked with at Buffalo Mountain Camp. The following day I went for a long hike in the Great Smoky Mountain National Forest, terrain very similar to the mountainside on which our camp resided. As nostalgia is one of my favorite places to be, I went there.

18472457_10158704605475224_1836321784_oConrad the Snake was one of the long-time residents of Buffalo Mountain Camp in the mid-nineties. He was a rat snake, not to be confused with a rattle snake, though they look frighteningly similar. Rat snake = loves to eat rats. One of my less desirable jobs for a time as the camp’s assistant director was to go to town and buy mice for Conrad. To. Eat.

Really hated that part of my job.

One day, through circumstances I can’t quite remember ~ someone left the lid off the cage? ~ Conrad escaped. After he was gone for a few days, we began to mourn. You see, a domesticated animal cannot go back into the wild. Tim, our resident guru, explained that Conrad would only last a little while on the mountainside. Surely he’d starve or be eaten by another predator.

18472594_10158704604345224_225846036_oA week later, I led first aid orientation with new staff. I stood over this large plastic bin full of the fanny packs I’d lovingly made with all of their supplies. Counselors were to carry their emergency first aid fanny packs with them at all times. I opened and went through a sample fanny pack, like an alternate-universe Vannah White, showing the various pockets and Ziplock bags full of bandaids, creams, and ointments. I stood over the tub for like 20 minutes.

I’m sure you already know where I’m going with this story, but, before I get there, let me justify this moment to you a little bit.

Camp is a multi-sensory experience, y’all. There are “little altars everywhere”: feathers and stones placed lovingly for your secret pal to find; sloughed off snake skins are offerings of God’s creation made manifest here and there on hearths and in window sills. I’m not saying this totally excuses what I was so oblivious to, seeing and not seeing at the same time, but I was indeed distracted by my very important first aid business.

So, of course, the big reveal: Presentation over, as I bent forward to begin distributing the fanny packs to the less than eager hands ~ because let’s face it, even in the 90s, even at camp, which is its own society, who wants to be forced to wear a fanny pack day in and day out? ~ I finally understood that Conrad was right there at my feet. He was nestled up amongst the fanny packs, all shades of brown and black amongst the neon pink and blue. It took me a while to realize what I saw, even reaching my hand into the bin…until he adjusted himself ever so slightly.

That’s when I went into shock.

“Um, guys…” I think is what I said. “You know what?…”

Trailing off, I walked away, sat down on a rusted folding chair for a really long time, completely speechless after that. Just rubbed my hands up and down my legs, like I was trying to keep warm, despite it being a humid summer day. Amazingly, Tim, aforementioned camp guru, knew exactly what was happening in that moment and sprung into action. He gently lifted Conrad from his home-away-from-home and took him for emergency food and water.

I still sat where I’d landed for a while. If you’ve ever experienced shock, then you know this phenomenon. Generally, in a crisis, I’m your Jenny-on-the-spot. I’m the one to spring into action, think with absolute clarity, and get things done. But, just a couple of times in my life, I have been so taken aback in the moment that my reaction turned out to be quite different.

I think the more remarkable aspect of the story of Conrad-the-Snake-turned-Houdini, though, is my moment of seeing/not seeing. Think of how stubborn my senses had to be in order to completely miss that snake at my feet! I refused to connect the dots in my mind.

Today, it’s become a kind of allegory to me in more than just the following ways:

    1. Climate change deniers. With each passing year, we experience strangely warm winters and fiercer, more frequent, more frightening storms. I think about the cognitive dissonance people have to stuff down in order to pretend we are not having a devastating and direct impact on our planet’s ecology. I truly wish there were a way to help people stop seeing the matter as something politicized or out of their own hands. If we all could know this is our legacy, our responsibility, and something that’s very much real–acknowledge that we are indeed seeing what we’re seeing and feeling what we’re feeling–how much closer would we be to solving the problem?
    2. Mental illness. As you may know, I just spent a period of time back at Virginia Tech doing storytelling work for the 10-year anniversary of the 2007 shooting. I often think about Cho’s 23 years of life that came before he killed 32 people, shot 17 others, and then killed himself. At every point along the way, he had presented as a deeply troubled person. As a little boy he refused to speak. In high school he wrote a paper stating that he’d like to commit violence on the level of Columbine. He’d been placed on a 24-hour psych hold, which meant he should have never have been able to buy a gun. His teachers noticed the warning signs and even reported him to the administration. Our system–and individual people–let him down all along the way.  In retrospect, it’s terribly sad that he was able to do what he did because people were seeing–but not seeing–what he tried to show them.
    3. Systemic racism and white privilege. White people. Those of us walking around in pinkish skin, who are melanin-challenged (as my friend Kathie D says), have this tendency to bury our heads in the sand. This head-sand-burying problem is to our convenience. We like to claim that racism ended around 1968, as though Martin Luther King, Jr. was a second Messiah who cleansed our sins with his assassination. Of course that’s not true. We willfully ignore, remain oblivious. We look, look away at police brutality and assassinations of black children. Look, look away from the overly large numbers of incarcerations and state-sponsored killings (executions) of people of color. Poverty rates. Children who are punished and expelled from classrooms in imbalanced rates. Environmental racism is revealed as we build pipelines through places we don’t want to live. We dump toxic waste in communities of color and sit idly by but make sure to watch the made-for-TV movie about Detroit’s water crisis. Look. Look away.
    4. New love found in an old friendship. (This! This, of course, is my favorite one to write about.) I have this dear friend who’s been friends with a certain gentleman for a very long time. He had a crush on her for years, but she just sort of tolerated it and basically ignored him until late last year. When she visited in the fall, quite unexpectedly, she saw him in a different light. He’d been doing a lot of work on himself both physically and emotionally–had been in love with someone else for a while, done a lot of yoga, grown a beard–and blammo! Magic! It was like when you were a kid, playing with magnets, pushing them around by their opposites, and then suddenly they flip around and stick to each other. She’d probably be the first to tell you some of what had changed was the work she’d been doing on herself as well. This story is not yet far enough along to know exactly where it’s gonna go, but I’d be willing to guess it’s going to remain as epic and sweet as its beginnings. It’ll be worthy of a Modern Love essay one day, which is apropos, since my friend is who introduced me to that wonderful column.

Tim, the now legendary camp guru of this story, had a funny way with words. He could turn a phrase with the best of them, and I’m quite certain his daughter now rolls her eyes at his jokes like, “The only thing worse than pneumonia is OLDmonia.” One of his favorite sayings was, “If it had been a snake, it would have…crawled away and hid from ya!” His point being that most snakes are not hiding in hopes for the chance to jump up and bite you as the more famous euphemism goes. Their markings are there to protect them; they’d rather stay hidden.

I guess my point is, it’s our collective responsibility to keep our eyes open. In essence, to be woke, but as a white person, I don’t really get to claim that term. To understand what it is we are observing and to make meaning of it as we must. My plan, and my dearest hope, is not to miss the next opportunity, the next observation, the next sensory experience, and especially the next potential love I’m given, that’s for goldarned certain.

Epilogue. A word about fanny packs and the camp counselor mentality. They evolve. I have now become infamous for always having bandaids, ibuprofen, an umbrella, sunscreen, and, of course, a reusable water bottle/coffee cup. The Boy Scouts didn’t land the market in the Always Be Prepared mentality. Good Methodist camp counselors had that too.

Epilogue, Epilogue. Please, let’s not talk about the escaped pythons in Florida. We’ll not think about that!