Stephanie’s Blog

Posted in A Day In the Life

You Can Be Super Without Having to Be Superwoman!

One of the things that I remember from the 1980’s about being a strong, independent woman was this phrase: “you can have it all.” Turns out you really couldn’t have it all. What the phrase honestly meant was, “you can do it all.” You can raise kids, have a career, take care of a home, volunteer and have the time and energy to bake Martha Stewart cookies on the weekend .

My life looked more like this: work a 65 hour week, collapse on Friday night. Be grateful that I don’t have kids. Drag my yaya to the grocery store on Saturday morning. Sleep all day Sunday, then get up and do it again. Screw homemade cookies. And what was amazing was that around me were lots of women who did have kids and managed far better than I could without them. Most of the women I knew back then were always on the edge of burnout. Because, we wanted to have it all.

Fast forward to present time and another insidious phrase is clawing its way into the psyche of the culture and it’s STILL about “You can do it all.” It refers to superwoman and their superpowers. Seems like everyone has a breast-plate and a friggin’ super power. I think women today have it only slightly better than my generation did — if they’re with a partner, chances are the division of labor is more equitable than it was in the 1980’s. Except that you have to allow for a wave of women raising kids on their own without any physical or emotional support from the outside. We can call these women superwomen with super powers, but sometimes I fear that saying is just a way to make women feel bad that they can’t do everything and have any energy or balance left at all.

Could it be as simple as redefining the words and phrases that we use? Does strength and courage have to mean bad-ass? Or can it mean standing up when you get kicked down, even if your knees are skinned? Can independence mean saying “no” to some of the stuff you didn’t want to take on in the first place?

I’m retired now, but I haven’t let that stop me from grasping at the same kind of drive that I had in my thirties — the one that told me I could have it all. Though I now have the time to write, read and study, I do so with a ferocious discipline that puts me back in a time and a place where I believed that I was supposed to WANT it all, let alone, have it all.

Recently I’ve begun to think that if I really could have it all; if one day I was awarded it all, would I know what to do with it? That thought gives me pause and makes me consider my Labrador retriever: if you catch the squirrel buddy, what are you going to do with it?

I have to remind myself . . . a lot . . . that life is never meant to be one giant “To Do’ list. It’s meant to be an experience of the senses and an enlivening of the heart — if I could remember that, I think that the rest would probably just fall into place. Maybe that’s what courage really is.

Posted in memories

The Size of a Parakeet’s Heart

Budgerigar in the its cage. Budgie

Breakfast happened in a sunny corner of the kitchen on a plastic tablecloth whose flowered print had faded in spots from the sun and the plates that scraped across its surface. The table was pushed against the windows, and looked over a struggling garden in which I had once planted the watermelon seeds saved from a late summer afternoon. When the green shoots found their way up into the light, turning into vines, I imagined opening a watermelon stand and selling pieces of fresh watermelon to all of my neighbors. My enterprise was cut short, however, when something ate the vines, shredding their leaves into skinny, little pieces.

My mother kept a row of potted geraniums on the table. Red flowers bloomed almost year round in a world that was mostly bright colors and sunshine. Part of that brightness was Penny. She was my first true love, my first true friend, a parakeet dressed in exotic green, accented by dark veins of blue feathers. Each morning my mother would open the door to Penny’s cage, and the little bird would fly a couple of times around the room, lighting onto the table in front of my breakfast plate, chirping while she waited for me to feed her bits of unbuttered toast. Sometimes she would hop onto my shoulder as I ate.

Every day when I got home from school, I checked to make sure that she had birdseed and clean water. I wasn’t allowed to let her out unless my mom was there, but I gave her what felt like a lot of my six-year-old attention, crooning, whistling and singing to her. During the times that she was free to fly around, she would always make her way to me, resting upon my hand and hopping up and down the length of my arm. We had our own special way of telling each other: I love you.

One day my mom and I came home to the smell of paint. I knew that the landlord was having all of the kitchens in our row of duplexes painted. We had shopped the week before for new dishtowels and potholders to go with the freshly painted kitchen. I hadn’t realized that the paint would smell so bad though, and I held my nose as I went to check on Penny. But something was wrong. Penny didn’t move. She sat motionless on her perch with her head resting inside of a bell that hung off of the mirror in her cage. “Penny?” I shook the cage and she fell. “NO!”

I heard my mother’s sad voice as she rushed to see what was wrong: “Oh, Penny,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

“What happened to her?” I asked.

“I think the paint fumes were too much for her,” she said. “The painters didn’t think to put her cage outside and she died.”

No one in my life had ever died before. I knew other children who’d told me that their grandma or grandpa died, or that their dog died, but I didn’t understand what it meant. Something pierced my heart, a feeling of absence so fierce that my whole body hurt.

“I didn’t get to say goodbye.” I said.

I wasn’t sure where Penny had gone, only that she wasn’t in her bird body anymore. My mother helped me to give Penny a funeral, wrapping her in a scarf and burying her in the garden outside the kitchen window. I marked her little grave with rocks that I placed in a careful circle around the newly turned earth.

For days, I tried to cry the ache away, and then one day the loss no longer consumed me. Eventually we put up the new dishtowels and potholders. We moved to another duplex, another apartment, another town. The years between Penny and I grew wide with the passing of time.  Now, as my hands and feet begin to wizen, I recall this story and write it down. I  still have tears left for Penny and the life lesson that she imparted:  Love, even the size of a parakeet’s heart is eternal.

Posted in A Day In the Life

A Birthday Selfie – Reflections on 66!

IMG_1852Today I’m 66 years old. The number seems wrong. It can’t possibly be true that the group of people with grayer hair and deeper lines are the same ones who walked with me out of childhood. Wasn’t it just last week that we were in Topanga Canyon? Last week that we were listening to The Eagles new album and drinking margaritas?

My friends are precious to me, some known for 40 and 50 years. They’re the source of birthday cards and calls, emails and birthday lunches. Gestures of love scatter like almond blossoms across a well-worn path, and I feel blessed that it’s the small, heart-felt things that have come to mark the years.

The past and the future colloid: I’m rooted in the longhaired, idealistic girl with bare feet and poetry on her lips; now the serious writer, with wool socks and messy pages, trying to tell “the” story, because honestly, I’ve only ever written one story. My life has grown out of that place where idealism and reality crash into each other, and the current takes you.  Marriage, career, divorce, marriage again happened in a kind of planned chaos, but let me live to tell the tale.

I’m 66 years old and keenly aware of how life recedes as the numbers increase, aware of wavering significance and limited hours. So many things fall away, and what remains is the fullness of the experience; the gratitude alive in the heart, the old friends from a certain time and place who remind me of where I’ve been.

Today my true companion, my one great love, will sing to me. We’ll wander the aisles of the gardening center and gather flowering plants for the empty containers on our deck. We’ll hold hands. We are that older couple that makes young people sigh, envying the kind of love that survives the journey.

This morning, as I drink my tea and muse about the years, I reach an easy conclusion: I love my life. I love my friends. I’m grateful for each turning of the wheel, for each memory, for each deep line etched into the map on my face, telling a story of so much joy, so much pain, so much living . . . I’m blessed to able to say, “this is a very happy birthday, indeed.”

Posted in A Day In the Life

What We Say and How We Say It, Matters

The courage to speak out is not reserved for leaders and warriors, business people or celebrity. Sometimes the message comes from a common individual, who is willing to push back against the norm to shed light on what is wrong and troubling.

At least, that’s the pep talk I’ve been giving myself. Recently, I summoned the courage to confront someone about their hateful words. I believe in free speech, but I also believe that we should be vigilant in our businesses and organizations to encourage kind speech, and discourage hateful speech. Words can be used to communicate and uplift, or they can be used to hurt and destroy.

You don’t have to look too far in this country to see the creeping normalcy of name-calling and insults used to describe fellow humans. Worse, you don’t have to look too far to see that people will condone this kind of behavior with excuses like “he’s just passionate” or she’s just being authentic.” And what of silence and inaction? Isn’t that condoning too?

We live in coarse times where “please” and “thank you” are little remembered relics of a distant past. And what about “I’m sorry?” Does anyone pause anymore to reflect upon his or her own behavior, reconsider and apologize? It seems like doubling down is more the order of the day and that it comes with no regard for conscience. I don’t know how I would have celebrated 30 years of marriage without an apology readied on my lips, but I digress. . .

This short piece could be about our political climate, but really it’s about a microcosm of that climate in my personal life.  Harsh and hateful language caused me  to call out someone I worked with in a volunteer organization. The words were not directed at me. They were used to describe and elderly couple who had volunteered for our organization. The couple hadn’t committed any crime other than being at the low-end of the economic ladder. What they were called and how they were described would cause me embarrassment to write.

In speaking up I realized that I was not going to be able to rise to the occasion of the organization’s mission being more important to me than basic human decency, so I left. I quit. And it’s in the aftermath of my decision of doing what I believed was the right thing, that I now grieve the loss that comes with such a choice.

Courage is not born of emotional or physical strength. It’s often demonstrated in the throes of fear. It includes the element of loss, because speaking out for what you believe sometimes leaves little choice but to separate yourself from the offender.  I believe that words have power and that how we speak to each other determines the quality of our society. I am not without a stain in my interaction with the person who used such hateful language. In a moment of shock, I told him that he should be ashamed of himself. There was undoubtedly a better way that I could have handled it, and for that I am sorry. When I look back, however, I wonder if any word choice would have caused him to pause, or if he would have doubled down anyway.

When did we become so inept at general kindness? When did we become so harsh in our rhetoric? Are “please” and “thank you” really dead? Do we waste our time and our breath in calling out vitriolic, hateful speech or should we simply be living by example? When are our silences about such things a wise choice and when are they complicit? And most of all, how do we nurture the collective heart of human kindness so that we stop talking like school yard bullies and start talking as if life and love mattered?

Posted in Thoughts on Writing

The Writing Pep-Talk Rant -a-Rama!

This is a pep-talk sort of rant that is as much for me as it is for anyone. Be forewarned: I speak of some unsavory aspects of writing that most of us dare not consider out loud!

Recently a very sweet friend of mine started a group on Facebook for writers. It was filled with support and goodwill, certainly a well-intended endeavor. She is a positive person who is always looking for ways to help others.

Sometimes I think it would be lovely to be that kind of person, but I’m not. When someone first told that I have an edge, I took it as a compliment. But I digress. . . after being in the group for a couple of weeks, I realized that writing memes and caffeine posters will never nurture my writing life, and I left the group. I didn’t want to share my word count or my struggle with scene structure. Why? It was such a supportive, loving environment . . .

The simple answer is, I prefer to be alone with my writing, and groups can (not always) become an excuse for not getting your yaya into the chair and writing. It’s so much easier to talk about the problems of writing in a group than it is to be alone with the problems of writing inside of yourself. But being alone with your writing problems and working through them can push that growing edge that allows you to improve. I believe that serious writers should always be improving.

I Am a Selfish Writer: My writing time is sacred. I hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on my door because I really don’t want to talk to you — even if you’re my husband. Even if you’re my dog. I don’t want to be a selfish person, but I do want to be a selfish writer.

Routine and Ritual: I’m a ritualistic creature. I do things out of habit and a need for order. Each morning the ritual is the same: Put water on for tea. Feed the dog. Drink the tea . . . And here’s where it can get tricky: I can either get online and visit Facebook, the news or my email, or I can open my laptop and write. If I go for the first plan, I never really recover. I can never re-capture that moment of raw, morning creativity again. It’s gone until the next day, lost to the news and the Internet. I must stay true to the ritual in order to create.

A Writing Prayer: Start here. Here is a little meditation that I found (author unknown). I edited and changed it slightly to make it my own. I recite it before I write. It calms me. It makes me feel good about myself. It’s easier to write for few hours if you feel good about yourself. It’s harder to write if you are thinking, “What the eff do I have to say, anyway? What makes me think I can write?” The second scenario is my default setting, so I have to deliberately do something that soothes the beast of self-doubt before I begin.

May I welcome my creativity with the curiosity of a child.

May I own my voice and trust my experiences.

May I practice mercy in the gap between what I want to create and what comes out.

May I remember nothing can eat me.

May I live with a creative heart.

May I appreciate the gift.

Do The Work: My favorite Robert McKee quote is this: “Do the work. Tell the truth. The results will follow.” Do the work seems to be the hardest part. It’s easy to set intentions. It’s easy to talk about ideas. It’s easy to write a first chapter. What’s hard is a hundred pages into a novel. What’s hard is sitting down and creating a scene and living with the uncertainty of whether or not it’s any good. When I get too hung up on wondering whether or not what I’ve written is good, it’s paralyzing. Do the work. Eventually your work becomes better, but only if you sit down and do it. That’s the other part of the meditation.

Everything Changes: I write articles for one of the local newspapers. I write guest post for two fairly well-known blogs, StoryFix and Sixty and Me. Sometimes I hit it just right and the articles or posts are wonderful and other times they are so-so. But I turn in my work no matter what. And I write novels. My first novel didn’t sell. Now I’m writing a second novel and I am afraid of giving it to my agent for fear that I will have the same experience of rejection. But I get up and write every day anyway. Here’s a truth: Everything changes. Your work today may be brilliant, and tomorrow not so hot. Your failure today may be just the stepping-stone you need for your success tomorrow. Life is not static. Writing is not static. Everything changes.

For the Love of the Life: What remains the constant grace in all of this mess is that I love the writing life. I may be a success one day and I may not. I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t care about the outcome of my efforts. Hey, we’d all like to succeed. On the other hand, if I fail, I will fail spectacularly and no one will ever fault me for a lack of commitment or effort. Those qualities are part of striving for personal excellence. And that, in some sort of weird and wonderful writing way, is what I love the most. That and all those blogs, articles and guest posts that break up the slog of writing in long-form.

And that’s the rant-a-rama for today.  What are you working on?  Please share with me in the comment section.

 

 

Posted in A Day In the Life

A Morning From A Child’s Page

It is 1957. My grandmother, Julia, sits at the kitchen table. She has filled the pot-belly with a bucket of coal and let me make a “house” on a quilt and pillows that I’ve set up in front of the stove, pulling the warmth into myself. I don’t know if today is the day that my mother will come back from wherever it is she goes. She always tells me that it’s work. I don’t believe her, and I still miss her in the aching place that owns my heart.

The morning is black and the days are slow to gather light. Winter hovers over us with piercing silence and the language of snow. A chipped ceramic statue of Mary lives on the dining room table and watches me play. I pray to her, asking her to bring my mother back.

The sound of a chair scrapping against the worn linoleum, and the creak of the floor against Julia’s shoes break the spell. I can smell biscuits and coffee and I get up from my warm place by the stove and sit down at the table, where I’m given a biscuit that steams when it is pulled apart. Julia’s shaking hands adds butter to the smooth open surface, along with a tablespoon of preserves made from summer berries. She pours me a cup of coffee, half of it milk. For a moment, I don’t think about being dropped off here again, content with the tastes of her winter kitchen.

Years later, when I remember her, her love still speaks to me in the small gestures of melting butter and coffee that is half milk, and in fires that are kept going so we won’t be cold. She was never someone who cuddled me or talked to me, but she smiled when she carefully stepped over the house I’d made in front of the pot-bellied stove and softly said “yes, yes, yes,” as if I’d somehow delighted her.

I dig and rut through these memory places sometimes, embracing the sorrow and its meaning; savoring the sweetness of love in her yes’s and my grief. I used to fear these recollections, but now I count them as blessings. All that changed was an understanding of what it took for cold hands to roll out dough on a floured sink board in the early, dark of day. Life has always been this good.

The shadow that invited me back here loosens its grip on the ghost of confusing emotions:  a small child left in farmhouse that sits in the vastness of prairie and sky. I taste again the feeling tone of the time, so grateful to have remembered. Rip it right from the heart of the matter, and keep it close by. This, I tell myself, is the light and darkness, which define you.

When the plates and cups sat empty upon her table, I saw through the window, light creeping into the day. Snow fell gently on fence posts and dried grasses and I jumped when I heard the sound of a car crunching gravel under its tires as it slowly made its way up to the farmhouse.

Posted in A Day In the Life, Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

The Year of Convictions

iStock_000005017548XSmall

I like the “new” in front of New Year. Other than that, there’s not really anything that I celebrate. New Year’s eve is my least favorite night of the year to be out and about. People are drinking and they are driving. Restaurants over charge for big meals and staying up until midnight to yell “Happy New Year,” holds absolutely no appeal. So, like most New Year’s, I was in bed and asleep by ten.

There are no New Year resolutions for me, because every time I make a resolution, I break it. Gym memberships and diets are the worst kinds of resolutions, followed by eschewing all negative thoughts and not cursing. I exercise enough. I eat well enough and I keep my curse words close at hand and don’t judge myself for it.

But this year, I want stuff. I want certain things to happen and I know that the old phrase: become the change you wish to see, applies. If I have made one resolution, it is this: to stand in the light of my truth.

I stand in the light of my truth. I am not afraid to identify bad behavior and rhetoric when I see it. If it looks like racism, misogyny and bigotry, then I will call it what it is. I will not support any leader or any human being that defiles another with slurs and policy. I advocate for a world of inclusiveness and civility. I hold these things as personal values and I intend to nurture my character by practicing them.

I stand in the light of my truth. I will not accept the white washing of divisive language by dressing it up and calling it “strong” language, locker room talk, or bar talk. As a writer, I know that words matter and they have power.

I stand in the light of my truth. I fully reject anyone who participates in racist, bigoted behavior or anyone who bears witness to racist, bigoted behavior by stating that they “do not recall.” Experience and age have taught me that we all know when we or someone else is behaving badly, and we do recall.

I stand in the light of my truth. You who bear witness and do nothing; you who participate in the slander of groups based on skin color, religion or sexual orientation; you who try to lie to yourself and to me by telling me that these things don’t matter, but making America great again does matter. I will not be swayed by your weak argument and I will let myself feel disgust and heartbreak so that I fight against you with my vote and my advocacy.

I stand in the light of my truth. I won’t be cowed. I will not waiver. I am not interested in supporting dysfunctional politics. I am interested in doing what I know in my heart is right. And I know the disparagement of targeted groups for the reasons I have stated is wrong. I am going to fight for what is right.

2018 – look out! This is the action that I take: I will not stick my head in the sand and ignore what is going on. And I am not alone. There are many of us. And we stand in the light of our truth, and the power of our convictions.

Happy New Year.