My mother believed

My mother always believed in me.

The past few days I have been on a cabin-fever mission to clean out files. I have a lot of files. Today, contained in a file I labeled “bits and pieces” which I recall creating to store future writing ideas, I found a manila envelope with “Christine Writings” written on it in my mother’s handwriting.

I wasn’t surprised. I knew my mother, who rarely saved anything sentimental, had saved some of the things I wrote when I was younger. There is a three-page handwritten essay on “Childcare and Babysitting.” I was probably in junior high.

“When a girl gets to a certain age she needs more money of her own and needs more responsibility. Babysitting gives you both. It also gives you in a roundabout way lessons for homemaking and childcare. Although you have to know some basics and important facts before you start, each time in some way, a new experience occurs.

The age that I find easiest to handle is around seven to ten . . .”

In it, I spelled “allowed” as “aloud.”

There is a sheet torn from a school newsletter we put together in 8th grade. The type is a script and is purple. Remember the smell of mimeograph copies and how they were a little damp at first? I wrote a poem about the snowflakes.

“. . .They drift on sometimes furiously, sometimes serenely, but always beautifully, ever journeying on to the end where they finally rest on even the smallest twig. And the twig is proud.”

I remember sitting in science class beside the window, watching the snow fall and composing this poem in my head. I did a lot of day-dreaming in grade school. I probably should have been paying attention.

My mom kept an essay I wrote in freshman English class, period 6 entitled “My Favorite Place” about the beach. My teacher wrote on the top, in red pencil, “Check some spots for awkward structure. Watch modifiers.” But he gave me a 4.5 out of 5.0 anyway. I got a 5.0 on “The Typical Mixed-Up Teenage Girl.”

“Carefree is her name and rule to live by; or often she wishes it were so. Actually insouciance (insouciance? Where did I come up with that word?) is one virtue she lacks. It would be so easy for my friend if she didn’t take things to heart so hard.”

I have a feeling I was writing about myself here.

Then there is the short story, “The Power of Giving” that I wrote in December of 1971. I think I might have been a better fiction writer then than I am now. I knew how to write a hook in the first sentence.

“The memory of it all is still as fresh in my mind as it was the first few days after the accident, and probably always will be.”

It’s a sentimental story, written in first person (I guess I liked first person even back then). A young girl gets in a car wreck right before Christmas and ends up in the hospital. She’s self-centered, and feels sorry for herself that she won’t be home for Christmas and throws a tantrum of major proportions. Later a little old lady named Auntie May visits her.  They strike up a friendship and spend a lot of time talking. The girl knits Auntie May a scarf for Christmas. Auntie May has no home to go to and is headed to a nursing home. The narrator gives her the gift she made. “That was the first real Christmas I ever had,” the narrator says, “For that was the year I discovered the power of giving.” The teacher liked it. He asked me to read it out loud to the class and I couldn’t get through it without crying. That’s still true of some of my writing.

My mom kept a poem I wrote in 1975 about our neighbor who was from Germany. I illustrated it with a drawing I made of the little old man with his cane, walking down a sidewalk under a big branching tree with bare limbs. Convincing me yet again, lest there be any doubt, to stick to writing and not drawing.

“. . .
Wonder if
While walking down the street
He yearns to be
Where he is not
Out of place;
Lonely for his home,
A place to understand,
That understands
Him.”

His name was Mr. Gronauer and he did not speak English well. My dad used to go over and visit him from time to time to talk about Germany. One day my two sisters and I went over, maybe to give him and his wife Christmas cookies or something. They used to give us those gigantic Hershey’s chocolate bars. I’m not sure Hershey’s makes them anymore. On this particular occasion, they invited us in to have a seat on the sofa and they poured each of us a little glass, maybe about a shot, of liqueur. It might have been brandy. I took one sip and wondered how I was ever going to be able to drink it all. My oldest sister didn’t seem to be having any difficulty with it. I think Carol and I surreptitiously pawned ours off on her. I might still be sitting there today otherwise.

Yes. My mom believed in me. When I’m doubting myself and wondering what to do next, my mom’s belief, in the form of a manila envelope, calls me forward, still.

 

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Bailing on the blog-a-day

Two weeks ago I took up the challenge to post a blog every day. I’ve lasted exactly two weeks. But I’ve learned a few things:

  1. I still enjoy blogging. I had forgotten.
  2. I really enjoy the online community of bloggers who read and comment on each other’s posts. This group, however, can quickly grow and get out of hand. At which point it becomes either a time-consuming burden, or a guilt-ridden neglect.
  3. Having a goal in mind, to post every day for example, does motivate me to think more, write more, shoot more photos, and enriches my life.
  4. On the other hand, posting every day causes me to write more drivel and less meaningful posts which is counter to my life’s beliefs and goals. See yesterday’s post.
  5. I had hoped that the pressure of writing something everyday might lead me to a theme that I could center on instead of the randomness I continue to pursue.
  6. I need to spend more time on my longer term goals (next book for example) and less on coming up with something, anything, to fill this page.

I could probably come up with a few more points, but won’t burden you with them.

So, my post-a-day challenge has come to an end. I’m going back to my willy-nilly, post on a whim approach. Best of wishes to the other women who continue to blog on and in particular to Joss Burnell, who sent out the challenge that I temporarily accepted. She wrote a thought-provoking and inspiring post today that is well worth the read: The Third Third.

As for my blogging future, I hope to settle into some kind of regularity that you and I can count on. Time will tell if I succeed.

Now, I have an interview to transcribe and notes to organize for my birth-mother project. More on this as it progresses.

~~~~~

 

Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown

Reading Steinbeck makes me yearn to write excellent fiction, and at the same time despair of ever doing so.

To a God Unknown is one of Steinbeck’s earliest novels. I don’t pretend to fully grasp all that the author intended to convey. But it did provide me with a lot of food for thought, primarily regarding mysticism; humanity’s desire to worship or commune with something larger than the here and now; and the struggle between changing worldviews, in this case between “pagan” ritual and Christianity. Always fascinating to think about.

We don’t write the way we used to, or at least the authors of the books I’m reading don’t. Maybe I’m not reading the right books. Steinbeck’s story is loaded with content, and concepts. Let’s face it, it’s not a fast car chase along Highway 1, a natural disaster, or a gripping tale of betrayal with guns blazing. A modern reader might think To a God Unknown is, frankly, slow.

We can’t read a novel by John Steinbeck with the same mindset as we read Dan Brown. Steinbeck writes, “Her crying was as satisfying and as luxurious as a morning’s yawn,” (37). Chew on that for a moment. The author achieves a lot of description and understanding with this simple 12-word sentence. There is nothing earth-shattering here, but there is a very clear portrayal or understanding of not only how it feels to unburden one’s heart with tears, but also to yawn—satisfying and luxurious.

Former school teacher, young wife and new mother, Elizabeth says to her husband, the protagonist Joseph Wayne, “I  used to think in terms of things I had read. I never do now. I don’t think at all. I just do things that occur to me,” (114). And when Joseph’s brother tells him, “You love the earth too much. You give no thought to the hereafter.” (117) These statements convey something rather profound about differences in the ways we live.

After Joseph’s wife tragically dies, he returns to his house:

“The clock wound by Elizabeth still ticked, storing in its spring the pressure of her hand, and the wool socks she had hung to dry over the stove screen were still damp. These were vital parts of Elizabeth that were not dead yet. Joseph pondered slowly over it—Life cannot be cut off quickly. One cannot be dead until the things he changed are dead. His effect is the only evidence of his life. While there remains even a plaintive memory, a person cannot be cut off, dead. And he thought, ‘It’s a long slow process for a human to die. We kill a cow, and it is dead as soon as the meat is eaten, but a man’s life dies as a commotion in a still pool dies, in little waves, spreading and growing towards stillness.'”(136)

To be a great writer requires more than a talent with words; it requires a great depth of thought.

Our attention-spans have grown shorter in the fast-paced computer age we live in. We don’t read the way we used to. We shouldn’t write the way we used to. But we should be pushing the boundaries of thought  forward. Taking time to observe. Contemplation. We can’t write and complete a John Steinbeck novel, a great novel, in the month of November.

Work cited:
Steinbeck, John. To a God Unknown. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

 

 

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Inspiration

Often I use my writing to inspire my photography. I’ll have a topic I want to write about and I’ll go find a picture. My editing post is a good example. I knew what I wanted to write about and I went in search of a photo. Granted, the clock photo is a bit of a stretch.

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Sometimes I use my photography to inspire my writing. And as I’m participating in the 365 Project where you take a photo everyday, I should be able to generate a lot of inspiration. Yesterday’s brilliant puzzling post is a good example. As is today’s post.

Now, you might expect I’m going to write about home and hearth, warmth, passion, or any other number of things a burning flame brings to mind, but no.

The fire inspired me to write about that illusive quality we call inspiration. Writing from my photographs can be just one more tool in my limited toolbox.

How do you find inspiration? Care to share your secrets?

 

A freebie for your bookshelf

storys triumphSome free advice is worth taking.

A good friend, teacher and mentor of mine who I’ve mentioned before, Jeffrey S. Hillard, has just published the e-book Story’s Triumph: Mining your creative writing for its deepest riches. I know many of you are writers as well as readers and bloggers.

Get this book.

Beginning tomorrow for two or three days, it will be free from Amazon on Kindle. It’s a short little book on writing that contains several gold nuggets of ideas to spark your creativity, and exercises to prompt you to practice. I read it in less than an hour, but intend to go back to it and use the exercises over and over again. I know Jeff personally. I know how talented he is. If you read this book, you will see for yourself how intuitive, insightful, and supportive he is.

Here is the review I just left on Amazon.com:

Finally—poet, author, and educator Jeffrey Hillard puts his experience, skill, and enthusiasm for writing down on paper for our benefit. In Story’s Triumph, the first in a planned Write-Up series, Hillard encourages us to take our writing, and creativity, to the next step. By sharing a few simple concepts like the use of details and recycling our mistakes, Hillard explores and explains techniques some of our most favored and successful writers have employed to bring the word on the page to life.

This short and entertaining book contains unique and fun exercises after each topic to encourage writers to stretch the boundaries of our imaginations and sharpen the impact of our writing.

One of my favorite lines from the book is “Your imagination can work wonders with things that you can’t yet fully envision.”

Hillard “gets it.” He understands the written word, the writing process, and the writer. His book is informative, encouraging, and will make you see your writing and its possibilities in a new light. His enthusiasm is contagious.

Story’s Triumph is a book to read slowly, practice with, and then keep close-by to re-read again and again.

I’m looking forward to the next book in Hillard’s Write-Up series.

I had to pay a lot of money to tap into Jeff’s writing experience and wisdom through college-level courses I took from him at the College of Mount St. Joseph. I bet you will find at least one idea in Story’s Triumph that will not only cause you to see your work-in-progress in a new light, but that will help you to improve it.

And hey. It’s free.

One thing’s clear — re-evaluating blogging

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Since Mom and Dad died in January I have undergone a lot of confusion and soul-searching about life—from large general philosophical questions like “What’s it all about?” “What’s the point?” to small particular practical questions like “What do I do with my Wednesdays now?”

The event of Mom and Dad’s death, and I call it a singular event because that’s how it feels to me, has been, and continues to be, a transformational one.

I know my life and times are changing, but I can’t always articulate exactly how.

Today one thing became clear.

I’m refocusing this blog and the title of it on Random Thoughts from Midlife. I had switched the main title of my blog to my name from advice I got online while trying to figure out how best to market my book. I’m heading back to my original inspiration and letting my other blog-website (such as it is, a mere stagnant skeleton waiting for me to return) bear the burden of my name.

I first started this blog in January of 2011. On my “About” page I wrote:

I have a father with Alzheimer’s, and a mother who is trying desperately hard to take care of him. I have two living sisters and one brother. We lost my younger sister Annie to cancer in August of 2009. She was permanently and severely disabled at birth. We loved her dearly.”

That’s what it still says today. It’s just one more thing about my life that needs to be updated now that Mom and Dad are gone.

I started my blog because I wrote Annie’s book. That’s the simple truth. I wrote a book and I was trying to figure out what to do with it. The online research I did continued to talk about how I needed to have a platform—a completely foreign concept to me at the time.

I knew a blog could be an important building block of the elusive “platform” so I thought about what I might possibly blog about. Several years prior to this I had the notion of writing a magazine with stories and photographs called Random Thoughts from Midlife. I went so far as to jot the title down on a scrap of paper and stuff it in a drawer. The fate of many of my ideas.

Forgive me if I’m rambling. I know some of you will stick through this to the end with me and others won’t. It’s something I need to do regardless. Thank you if you’re staying.

Since Mom and Dad died, writing has been one of the larger questions I’ve grappled with. Maybe I don’t need or want to do it anymore, I’d think. What am I doing with my blog? Does it need a more specific direction? Should I give it up altogether?

It really all boiled down to What do I want to do now? Some of my lack of direction came from the empty nest feelings that I directly transferred to the care of my parents. Dad had Alzheimer’s. Annie died in August. My youngest left for college in September. It was an easy shift to let the care of my parents fill the hole left behind by my children.

When I was in college, the second time, earning my English degree, I took every course in Women’s Studies that was available to me. Several of these courses used journal-type writings from women—not famous literature, just simple accounts of their lives. The slave narratives I studied in several courses were a similar inspiration to me. Just simple people, perhaps living complicated lives, who chose to tell or write about what they went through. I saw these stories as a gift to the rest of us who might now be able to see more clearly, understand more deeply.

In my view, and you might not agree, midlife is a time period that is undervalued by society at large. As we head out to pastures no one is interested in what we’re doing anymore. They’re all watching the three-year-old thoroughbred races.

I also think that technology has somehow undermined the perceived value of the experience of our more mature members of society. Who needs to ask Grandma how to make a pie crust when you can Google it and get expert advice from 4 or 5 individuals with their own television shows?

I think midlife is a fascinating time of life with many of life’s largest issues at the forefront. I think all of our lives are important even if our faces are not on Hollywood’s big screens or we aren’t a star athlete or the head of a major corporation. We all count. I believe that some of the greatest wisdom can be found in what society may consider the least of us. I am grateful for the technology, that on the one hand threatens to devalue us, yet gives us the opportunity to speak and have others hear our voice.

Some of the topics I’ve written about on this blog include:

Adult children
Being a grandparent
Physical problems of aging
Travel
Hobbies like photography, gardening, and genealogy
Taking care of aging parents
Alzheimer’s
Losing a parent
Long-term love of a spouse

Many of these are common things that those of us, in the middle of our lives, are concerned about, value, and live with.

I think my original idea was a good one.

Welcome back Random Thoughts.

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If you’re a blogger, I’d love to hear why you started your blog, why you continue, and what you try to do with it.

If you’re not a blogger, thanks for reading my blog. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this post.

The red on a blackbird’s wing

I’m finding it hard to write. My mind is so full of things it wants to say that it has created a logjam like the drainage stones I sometimes put in the bottom of a pot for a plant, the pressure of one against the others keeps them all captive and unable to slip through the hole.

So I make attempts to organize the information:

Letters to my mother—

Why did you have to leave when I wasn’t ready for you to go? Why was there so little time at the end, and that taken up by the necessities of life drawing down to an end like the last stingy trickle of shampoo squeezed from a bottle held upside down? I wish I would have known thirty years ago what I know today and then maybe I would have taken the time to really know who you were.

Observations on how the world has shifted, and why nothing seems the same.

Deliberations on what to do next to find meaning in what often feels like a purposeless life.

I could do a whole study on “things.”

Why do we have so many things? How can we just exit and leave everything behind? Should I begin to get rid of my prized possessions now so that my children won’t have to make heart-wrenching decisions as to whether my books get sold, donated, or stored in a box in someone’s basement? And is someone walking around today in my mother’s green spring sweater?  So many things. We buy because we think we need. We keep in case someday we might need. Or someone gave to us because they thought we needed or would like to have. Poof. We exit. And yet every thing that we kept, bought, were given, held dear, or merely tolerated, is left sitting on its shelf, in a cabinet, or in a drawer. Unclaimed freight.

Why do the things we leave behind plague me so?

Contemplations on the age-old question, what is it all about?

My world has shifted and my mind is full, yet I remain largely speechless.

But the crimson on the wing of the blackbird shines red in the sun to me. Still.

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Reposted from ChristineMGrote-author.