Tag Archives: transformation

I’m not myself when I’m not at home. For which I am grateful.

Fresco from Spanish Romanesque church

Fresco from Spanish Romanesque church

I had the good fortune to spend eight days in Spain for family vacation this June, the latter four in Madrid, a Big City with the expected hordes of tourists like ourselves, and the Prado, and churros, and late-night dining at outdoor tables. Madrid was hot, but “it’s a dry heat,” said the tour guide.

I will testify: it was a dry heat. So dry that toweling off after a shower was hardly necessary. So dry that I bought an extra tube of body lotion and depleted it. So dry that my curly hair didn’t curl.

At the risk of seeming weirdly obsessed with my hair, let me note that for better and for worse, while I was growing up (my formative years!) the reactions of strangers and friends to my unruly curls heightened my already-extreme self-consciousness of adolescence to a point of mild hysteria about the frizzes — I didn’t see another caucasian person with hair like mine ’til I was 25 years old.

But I digress: my hair changed, dramatically, in the dry heat of Madrid. I’ve been to deserts, lived in one for three months during a field study program, but never had it go so straight. By the afternoon, it dangled, limp and disinterested, into my eyes. Obscuring my view of Spanish men society.

While stumbling about thus blinded, I nonetheless caught glimpses of the locals talking, eating and drinking on a wildly different schedule from my American one. They have a light breakfast of espresso and maybe a pastry, because they were up late the night before. They work a bit (those lucky enough to be employed — Spain’s unemployment rate hovers around 25%), have another espresso and snack at 11, then break at two for lunch and/or siesta. They return to work from 4-7 PM, and eat dinner after that. Itty-bitty toddlers stroll with their parents until 10 or 11 in the evening; those without children head to clubs or bars. As my 16 y.o. put it, “up late at night, nap in the afternoon: this is a great schedule for a teenager, Mom!”

I’d read the guidebooks about Spain before going and knew what to expect. Being in and amongst that daily routine, however, was like standing next to the speakers at a live concert instead of listening through earbuds. Anyone who’s traveled or lived in a non-American country has probably shared this experience.

At the risk of stating the obvious, watching myself slip into a different lifestyle, be it for only a few days and only during vacation, I tiptoed into my brain’s quiet little side room of “what if.” What if I’d been born in a country less hell-bent on self-improvement and less interested in acquiring stuff? What if my hair hadn’t been that big a deal during those formative years?!

Grandma's espresso cup

Grandma’s espresso cup

I’m old enough now, and enough at peace with my life, to indulge in speculation without triggering regret that will in turn trigger life-choices-analysis-paralysis. Thus, I noted in my journal those elements of Spain that nurtured me. Some are vacation-dependent: It’s easy to manage siesta time without daily life, simple to stay out late when the dogs don’t need to be walked. But I found a short, doable ritual to bring home, too.

In the morning now, I sit in quiet with a (teeny tiny) cup of scalding-hot espresso, without reading the paper, listening to the news, or even reading a book. Just sipping, tasting, and swallowing. It takes five minutes (10-12 if you include espresso-making, which is not as snooty-patooty as it sounds and does NOT have to cost a thousand dollars for a snooty-patooty machine!). I use my Gramma’s pretty espresso cup. I stir in a scant spoonful of sugar. I finish, rinse the cup and spoon and I’m done.

Perhaps this is a ridiculously small new habit; perhaps if I had been born into a different time and place I would be weirdly obsessed about a non-hair aspect of my physical self; perhaps if I weren’t born into this time and place and culture I’d never travel and never know the difference ANYway so what does it matter?

Gaudi's church. I bet he had espresso every morning.

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church. I bet he had espresso every morning.

I believe it matters to be taken out of our normal routines and shown different approaches to everything because we are so interestingly, almost infinitely different. Because it’s fun.

Because when we are reminded that our habits are creations of time and space and place and not, in fact, Deep Truths, the door of possibilities is cracked just that little bit wider. You never know when that bit-wider is going to let in a big amazing don’t-know-what-it-is-yet that will blow the door off its hinges and change everything.

Here’s to paying attention to small actions every day, and opening ourselves up. Here’s to doing so in our writing, too. May it be so.


Fear and salvation

Unknown-1I am heading to a week’s training in the Amherst Writers and Artists writing workshop method. Aka the Pat Schneider workshop method.  We’ll be working with Schneider’s book Writing Alone and with Others. I cannot recommend this highly enough! Buy it today if you can! The “Five Essential Affirmations” she articulates in this text resonate deeply with me:

1. Everyone has a strong, unique voice.

2. Everyone is born with creative genius.

3. Writing as an art form belongs to all people, regardless of economic class or educational level.

4. The teaching of craft can be done without damage to a writers original voice or artistic self-esteem.

5. A writer is someone who writes.

Ah. That last one. A writer is someone who writes.

I am afraid I have not been writing. I have been fussing with stuff in my house, liberating books and tchotchkes to create a clear writing space.

I have not been writing.  I have been telling myself everything else is more important than my writing: the college visits for the older son, the dog walks, the volunteer work for my faith community, the exercise to whittle the extra five pounds from my belly.

I have not been writing for a couple of months, since I gave a very rough (as in, splintery!) draft of a story to a writers group without a clear request for the type of feedback that would be most supportive for my writing.

Unsurprisingly, the feedback was uneven; there were positive and negative responses. Somewhat surprisingly, the less-than-positive responses really got under my skin. I ranted and raged and cried and whimpered my way through Julia Cameron‘s recommended three longhand “Morning Pages” for a couple of weeks. Then for another couple of weeks I donned the TaskMasterLesley hat in my Morning Pages: you know full well how to handle this! Buck up! But I can’t, I whined, scrawling my heart’s distress across the pages. I just can’t write anymore. I’m dried up. I’m barren. I’m a wasteland.

You can imagine the gaping abyss of terror that my squirrel brain has come up with. In fact, if you’ve read any of my previous posts, you are probably overly familiar with my squirrel brain.

But this morning, seven weeks since that critique, my Morning Pages delivered me to a new place. My squirrel brain … bored me. When it started its high-pitched chatter, today I simply noted: h’mm, there’s that squirrel, desperate for nuts. And I strode forward past the tree it perched in. I did not engage in a loud chattery chirrupy shouting match while flicking my tail in wild anxiety and circling the tree trunk like a maniac.

Creative Commons




I wound up in a clearing wherein I laid out a plan for how to find the sandpaper to begin to smooth my story’s splinters. And furthermore, the Morning Pages said, look at how much you’ve written! You’ve written your Morning Pages every day. It’s whiney writing, non-brilliant writing, repetitive writing, prosaic writing.

But it’s writing.

Saved again.






Do you hear what I hear?

Our two dogs are of varying intelligence and thus responsiveness to our commands. One “off” moves the smart gal from my lap, while the oh-so-lovable-but-slow canine continues to warm my thighs until dumped to the ground.

Their barking has become annoying:  yapYAPyapYAP until the source of  inspiration either disappears from view (other dogs out for a walk, meandering cat, saucy squirrel) or has been thoroughly sniffed (friends who come to the door). Our lovely neighbors, cyclists who pedal up and down the Virginia mountains for dozens of miles, suggested using their “dazzer” to control the barking.

The Dazzer emits an unpleasant sound, audible only in the doggie range. One zap and the smart dog understood and now ceases barking promptly when told, “no bark.” The other dog continues to bark despite the command — and will do so until the Dazzer is used. Which of course is unfair to the dog that was already quiet.

And, as it turns out, also a bit unfair to my younger son, whose youthful ears register the Dazzer. “Don’t you hear that little squeak when you press the button, mom?”

No, I do not. I barely hear Engineer Hubby when he asks me to pass the cream for the coffee. I know I’m not hearing the whining about soup and sandwiches for dinner again, right?

imagesSo yet again I discover the very real limits of my (aging) human senses, and, all kidding aside, am momentarily quieted. I wasn’t in awe of the 13 y.o.’s hearing, but it was in the neighborhood (see I know nothing for a dog-taught lesson in humility). I was awe-struck last Sunday when, twenty yards into the woods, both dogs sniffed snuffled snorted snurkled the leaves — speckled with bird poop, huh, look at that, my dull human brain noted — and then both mutts looked straight up and above us turkey vultures were circling, settling on branches, all with their wide, whispery wings. I know they’re carrion feeders and their heads are weirdly bald-looking but still: they are awe-some.

Then I read about the the concept of rewilding — as articulated by George Monbiot in this interview in the fine magazine Orion. He notes that humans are perhaps the most domesticated of all animals, living out our days in relative comfort despite having been designed to survive in a world bloody in fang and claw. We do not often experience the heart-stopping awe that is ours when we wade into the world sans civilized expectations and protections.

I don’t disagree, and/but I when I pause to look at my now-almost-six-foot son, who started as a mere eight pounds; when I see my Grandfather’s wild hair atop my younger son’s head; when I notice EH’s eyes look like his father’s, then I am momentarily awed.

These small details are invisible in the scope of things (the new Cosmos illustrated this for me: I had no idea we (think) we know as much as we do about the universe. The Local Group?) We are, relatively speaking, so very very very tiny. Eensy-weensy. How awe-some is that?

As I near fifty years old* (fifty years! A microscopic pinhead of days in the universe!), I find it easier to remind myself to switch from the daily-annoyances-perspective to the holy-cow-isn’t-this-amazing-perspective, especially when the dogs are pointing out the limits of my nervous system or the scientists my lack of knowledge. (Full disclosure: my family will disagree that I *ever* switch out of annoyed mode, as I nag them nigh unto death about putting away dishes, clothes, shoes, homework, etcetera.)

NASA photo

NASA photo

But what a wonder! What a happenstance to be alive in this time (whenever it may be), in this place (wherever it may be), with this consciousness (however it may be limited by no-dog-nose capacities).

All I can do is write it down. Badly, baldly, awe-struck-ed-ly, make-up-words-ily. What a ride. Buckle up and look to the heavens and tell us what you see.

* This post dovetails nicely with WordPress’s weekly writing challenge, about “The Golden Years” at their site, The Daily Post

How a fat beagle relates to creative practice

Image via Wikipedia

Music will change the world ...

Today’s post is about  the why of writing, or painting, or composing or collage-ing or whatever your creative practice is. It harks back to Karl Paulnak’s words about how music is going to change the world. I still believe that.

Fair warning: here comes the “Judging” part of my ISTJ personality. There is some art that doesn’t transform us. That might, in fact, be … not worthwhile.

O, blasphemy. For have I not been preaching the gospel of self-expression, and the self-care necessary for said expression? Expression, even amidst the laundry and cello lessons and ginormous collection of dog and cat fur that accumulates in the corners of the stairs that I’m thinking of carpeting solely for the purpose of camouflaging said fur ‘cuz that stuff is GROSS?

Yes, I have preached that gospel. For lo, I believe it is true.


This past week I allowed myself the huge privilege of a tremendous amount of self-care at the Porches Writing Retreat in Norwood, VA. Both boys were away at camp, the Engineer Husband’s nose was in the process of being shorn off by application to the grindstone and Trudy had an opening, so there I was … struggling in a lovely room with a view of the James River outside.

Image by futileboy via Flickr

Sugar is my drug.

I’ve been in the doldrums with my writing, dissatisfied with my  novel, contemplating the Meaning of It All while trying to escape my sugar addiction blahblahblah an assortment of very “high class” problems.

To shake it up a bit, I fell back on 1000 word writes, longhand, from my tin of “story prompts.” These are phrases and images I’ve saved for kickstarting my muse when I’m … in the doldrums. They are written on scrap paper and folded into teeny tiny squares. They live in an erstwhile “dark chocolate mint” tin (see note above re: sugar addiction).

I opened the tin and closed my eyes and let my hand pick one out. I opened it. “Sadie’s velvety soft floppy ears.”

Sadie was a geriatric beagle we adopted when my boys were much younger. Long story short, we were going to only “try” her but with an eight- and five-year-old, who did I imagine I could fool? Of course we adopted her.

She was HUGE when we first took charge of her. Belly-dragging the ground huge. She couldn’t walk up our front steps.

Image by ailatan via Flickr

Sadie stayed in the doghouse.

She came with a bowl and a dog house. She spent the first three weeks in said dog house, under a tree in our back yard. I called my friend who’s as good as the dog whisperer. She diagnosed doggy PTSD. Give her time, treat her nicely.

Sadie was too PTSD, apparently, to let us know when she needed to go outdoors for an overfull bladder on those occasions she trusted us enough to come inside. She risked additional “T” by peeing on the floors. All of them. Many times over. She smelled bad. She did nothing the boys hoped she would do; fetch, roll over, sit, stay. Cuddle. Though her apparently infinite appetite did lead her to stand on the dishwasher door every time we opened it to put in dishes, snuffling enthusiastically for crumbs, juice, or soup droppings.

Her belly gradually diminished such that she could navigate the front porch steps unassisted. She and I went for walks – not long ones, she wheezed alarmingly after half a mile – and I enjoyed that ritual. She traveled with us to the Engineer’s Husband’s sister’s house for Christmas that year, where my brother-in-law declared her a sweet dog.

Huh? Sweet dog? She was a peeing pain-in-the-tush! But I looked at her anew. She’d emerged from her shell, though I’d not noticed, being too involved with the holiday mayhem. She enjoyed belly rubs from John, glowing up at him with gratitude. When I walked her that afternoon, I noted her lumbering gait was almost a modest trot, and her lovely soft beagle ears flapped in the wind.


Soft velvety ears in the breeze ...

It became a joy for me to look down and have her return my glance with her brown eyes. She became a mostly-beloved member of the household.

The weekend before the first day of kindergarten for son #2, she seemed a bit wheezier than usual, but it was, again, crazy-time: notebooks, paper, pencils, backpacks to buy; lunch boxes to test with picnics at the playground; etcetera. Engineer Husband was leaving for overseas business travel before school started and we decided the vet visit could wait until the boys were in school.  We bid Engineer Husband/Father farewell and the boys laid out their first-day-of-school clothes.

At two that morning, I heard Sadie struggle up the stairs to the second floor (she’d slimmed down, but not enough to make stairs easy for her and she weighed too much for me to bring her up and down easily), panting. Then suddenly there was a big ker-thump. Sadie, what the hell? I muttered and scrambled out of bed.

She was lying in the upstairs hallway, laboring to breathe.

I grew up with only gerbils and hamsters due to my dad’s allergy to dander. I’d had one cat since leaving home, and lost him suddenly to a late-night encounter with a car. My mom had passed away during my brother’s shift at the hospital. I’d never been with a dying creature before.

I stroked her floppy velvety ears. I whimpered a bit, I think, about oh, no, what now. Finally I leaned over and whispered in one of those soft ears, “You are a good dog, Sadie,” and she stopped breathing. Really. Right after I said those words, she left. My blind attempt at comfort had, apparently, worked to ease her passage. I guess.

I wrapped her in a towel, and put her on the back deck and wracked my brains to figure out whether to tell the boys, and if so, how to tell them, on their first day of school. Given that they’d notice her absence beneath the breakfast table, I told them. They were sad but being in-the-moment kids, their excitement about school overrode their grief, which came later.

Image by gcfairch via Flickr

Mimosas for Moms

I snapped their photo and walked them to the bus stop and I waved them off and I went to my friend’s house, where the Mommy Network was gathering for first-day-of-school mimosas (my friends know how to celebrate).

Mommy S., whose kids are older than mine, inquired about how the First Day departure had gone. I said, well, it was a little bumpy, our dog died last night, and her eyes filled with tears and she grabbed me in a hug and said, I am so, so sorry.

Mommy S. is practical, smart, logical, reasonable, funny and beautiful, but she is not a sentimental mommy. She has had dogs all her life – she’s probably lost more than I’ll ever know, even if I cleared out the pound today – and she knew what our family had lost. But it wasn’t ‘’til she acknowledged the importance of Sadie’s death that I cried a little bit. That I noticed I was sad.

Image by Alexander@Ulm via Flickr

oxeye daisy

In fact, all of the Mommy Network seemed to know better than I how to handle the death of Sadie. They helped me bury her, digging a deeper hole than I’d managed and sharing oxeye daisies from their own gardens to plant atop her grave. My family hosted a dog wake when Engineer Husband returned. The house filled with neighbors and kids and we toasted her spirit and I got a little drunk and weepy.

I have tried to write a short story about this experience, and failed – perhaps this blog post is what I needed to do – but in my memory, this loss took place about the same time that I read a review in the New York Times of a one-woman show where she takes a sh*t in front of the audience.

Logo of The New York Times.

'nuff said.

The review wasn’t very long, maybe 300 words. It was scathing, eviscerating all the show’s components and mocking the artist when she wasn’t able to “move” the show along on time.

Good gawd in heaven, I thought. First, if the show isn’t any good, why write about it in the NYT?

Image via Wikipedia

Spending money on tickets for what?!

Second, since when do we delude ourselves into buying tickets for art that involves literal sh*t?! The emperor has no clothes!

But my reaction has nagged at me for the past five years since then. It didn’t fit with my “everyone should make their art” ethos and experience. My life is  shortening with each day and perhaps that is what has crystallized my thoughts: no matter the number of years we’ve lived on the earth, what we watch and read and listen to shapes us, informs us, moves us. I don’t want to fill my head, aka my artistic well, with crap. I don’t care anymore if I “should” extend others the grace of their own intentions being good and pure. I need those intentions to be manifest, for me, in a language I can understand.

This doesn’t mean I’m not willing to extend myself, learn the words of a new language. Or that I want only sweetness and light. Nope. I love Pulp Fiction, Good Fellas, the Sopranos, Blue Velvet, Ironweed, The Things they Carried – all kinds of movies and books that show bitter and ugly and sad and heartbroken.

And I know aesthetic sensibilities differ. One person’s yuck is another person’s yum. We tell our kids all the time: “don’t yuck someone else’s yum.”

But I think we owe to it ourselves and each other to consider, seriously, what we’re trying to say, and what we hope others will take away from it. Not because we can control others’ reactions —  – see my “Letting your freak flag fly” post  – nor do I think appreciating all art comes equally easily to us. I didn’t love Bach’s cello suites until I was repeatedly exposed to them, and began, slowly, to hear their resonating theme and structure. I doubt I would love Middlemarch as much as I do if it weren’t for the fine teaching of Gordon Thompson at Earlham College.

And if we expose ourselves repeatedly to art with sh*t in it, I believe that we will, perforce, begin to live that out. Day in and day out, it’s important who we’re with and what we see: a geriatric beagle’s loving glance, your friend’s spontaneous gesture, oxeye daisies re-blooming year after year.

Image by premasagar via Flickr

is it a journey without a worthwhile destination?

If my poop has a point and I need to get myself and hopefully an audience to that point via an uncomfortable journey, I go for it. But if the point is merely a graphic image, a shocking combination of ideas for its own sake, I’m not as interested.*

If we think about crap all the time, watch it all the time, listen to it all the time, then I don’t think we can expect to create anything different, to draw anything else out of ourselves. We need old fashioned love stories and we need new-fangled, digitally enhanced images of our hearts to frame and hang on our walls.

Image by Paulo Colacino via Flickr

Imagine our hearts ...

We need to imagine and then practice habits about being nice to our kids pre-coffee and we need to create a world where we stumble upon the right words with which to send each other off into that good night. A world where we can teach each other how to bury our dead and remember them years later.

I’m aiming for that place.

*This mantra expresses it:

thoughts become words # words become actions # actions become habit # habit becomes character # character becomes destiny #