Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

A Life In Letters

Wax seal and old lettersWith the advancement of new technology, there is also loss. Today I mourn the demise of the letter. Yes, I know that email is faster and more efficient. I also know that you can get easily addicted to checking your phone every 10 minutes to see if someone has contacted you. Facebook has replaced the intimate chat once provided by letters with a very public façade of the personal life. Facebook and other social media have become the mask of happiness and rainbows that we wear for the world.

A few days ago an old friend, Kitty, emailed me that she was cleaning out a file cabinet and had found several of my letters. She scanned and attached two of them. And when I read them, I cried. It was a glimpse into the anticipation we held in our younger selves, and of course now, I knew how all of it had turned out.

I was punched in the emotional gut by those letters written in 1989. I’d just moved from Los Angeles to Boulder, Colorado. I was the in my thirties and in the midst of two enormous life-changing events. I’d become a college student, finishing up what I’d left behind. It was making me into a different person. AND I was falling in love with the man who would become my husband. Simultaneously my best friend, Kitty had recently given birth to a son. Her life was in a great state of change too.

The record and account of all this was documented in a series of long-distance letters in which Kitty expressed to me the fears and joys of being a first-time parent, the angst of wanting to do it right and how the ups and downs of all of that was affecting her.

I wrote about how getting a college education in my mid-thirties was giving me a sense of confidence, a sense of pride for going back and turning around something that for the longest time I didn’t believe I could fix. And then there was the tenuous narrative of my love life, words revealing the most cautious of hopes. I was in a relationship that I desperately wanted to work and feared might not, so I tiptoed around how I wrote about it. Of course looking back, I can see how much was said in what I chose not to write down.

Checking the mailbox to find a letter from Kitty brought me a rush of excitement. Her musings were a thoughtful deliberation on life, often accented by newspaper clippings and photographs from days when we were much more cavalier. I sent her short stories I’d written in school and a running commentary on my adjustment to Colorado. The letters reveal the depths of a friendship between two young women growing into their potential and purpose.

I appreciate that I can email a friend across the country and get a response in the same day, but emails are never as thoughtful as my letters once were. The anticipation of an email is more habitual than the delight of the ongoing dialogue contained in letters which were more emotionally honest. I miss that.

I am fortunate to have received many letters in my lifetime. I believe that their legacy can be found in my heart-felt love for stories. As a child traveling between divorced parents, my affection for the one I wasn’t with found expression in letters. And the connection I had from the absent parent was made up by hand printed reassurances. In my jewelry drawer, I still keep a letter from my husband, written to me one anniversary. It is a meaningful conveyance of his love and unwavering devotion to me. That he took the time to commit it to paper makes it a treasure.

When did Kitty and I stop writing letters to each other? It wasn’t a decision. It just unfolded that way. We are still in touch all of the time, but there is a sense of rush and hurry that was never in our letters. Our email sentences are shorter, and there is no longer the salutation of “Dear.” Many of our sign-offs are a promise to talk soon, knowing that the email was squeezed into a too-busy-day and that what needs to be said, what wants to be said does not exist in the paragraph on the screen.

I miss the letter. I fear that it is an art form that has met its death. I can’t imagine a title like Rilke’s Emails To A Young Poet ever gracing my bookshelf.

What about you? Have you kept letters from a friend or family member that you revisit from time to time? Do you still write letters? And like me, do you miss the delight of a letter in your mailbox? I’d like to know. Please share with me in the comment section.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Inspire or Perspire, Thoughts From An Old Determined Rookie

istock_000017878764xsmallThere were lots of Facebook messages this birthday. I enjoyed each one of them. It was part of the celebration, a veritable cyberspace party. And, I was surprised when I read that someone thought I was inspiring. Obviously they had just run out of verbs and that was the only one left. But then a couple more people wrote, “You inspire me.” Inspire? Me? Is this because I’m old or because it’s my birthday? It certainly can’t be because of some level of attainment. What is it that I do that inspires you? It got me thinking about where or how I might be inspirational in my life.

My writing journey is pretty inspirational, at least to me. For the past four years, I have been doing what musicians call “woodshedding,” the process of locking yourself in the woodshed and practicing until you can’t stand yourself anymore. That’s what I think it takes to become a good writer, and in my case a good novelist. I probably threw away more than half the words I wrote last year. So, is this what people mean by inspiring? Or is it possibly the definition of crazy? But I digress.

In January of 2016, I signed with my first ever-literary agent, and a really good one too. I thought, piece of cake. She’ll sell my book to a publishing house. My book will be released to thrilling accolades. Tom Hanks will call me and want to do lunch and I will wash, rinse, repeat and move on to my next novel.

It didn’t happen that way.

I’ve spent the past year learning to revise and rewrite my novel so that it is better. During that year there were some members of my writing community who told me “if the agent doesn’t like it this time, you should just stop.” But I couldn’t stop. How can you turn down the advise of someone who has been in the business for thirty years when you’ve just walked through the door? So I slogged away. I wrote, rewrote and revised, painstakingly correcting the rookie mistakes I’d made in my book. By the end of the year I was exhausted, but the last round of revisions finally made the agent’s cut.

I sometimes get frustrated with this culture of instant gratification, quick results and “it’s good enough” mediocrity. I think there is a special place in hell for self-help gurus whose only success criteria is money and things. And while I have never been a particularly patient person, I scoff at promises to write and publish your novel in 90 days, replete with revisions that take us mere mortals six months to a year to complete. What’s the old adage? Anything worth doing, is worth doing well, and I will add to that, to do it well, you need to slow the fuck down. 

And you know what I find really inspiring? The determination to be a viable writer at 65-years-old; making writing a second chapter career and coming face to face almost daily with 30-somethings who can get up earlier than me, write longer than me and have twenty years a head of them to work out the kinks in their craft. That being said, I’ve just started another novel.

Having mulled over the you inspire me comments written on my birthday timeline, I have come to this conclusion: We are all inspired by hard work, tenacity and the striving for personal best, regardless of age or anything else. I will never be a savant. I’m one of those poor schmucks who have to earn every page, every scene, and every chapter that I write. I don’t often get things right the first time, it takes me several. I’ve had to learn to be humble in the face of the competition, become a perpetual student and keep an upbeat attitude of gratitude throughout. Is it the positive attitude juxtaposed to unrelenting hard work that is inspiring to others?

I find deep satisfaction and purposfulness in doing the work of writing to the best of my ability and then pushing myself to do better work. Either I’m a masochist or maybe that narrative is what is inspiring to others.

What’s your take? Do you inspire? Does it happen by accident or is it deliberate? Please share your thoughts with me in the comment section.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

The Story You Are In

iStock_000006392253XSmallThe train whistle slices through the edge of the night, a low rumble of metal on metal, weight on weight making its way across miles that are pulled tight against horizon and sky. I lay unmoving on my bed, slouched into pillows and quilts, playing the scenes of the day through my head, stirred by the sound. Suddenly I am back someplace I know but have never been: my mother told a story of being a child at the convent, swinging on a swing, hearing the sound of the train and trying to pump higher and higher so that she could see over the convent wall, all the while wondering where the train was going and wanting to go there too. Now I am in her story, a piece of history shared from when I was a little girl, a piece of story that I remember when the train goes by, pulling the twilight into dark.

Sometimes it seems so clear; where I am and who I am and what story is unfolding. I had grandparents that slept in separate bedrooms; that spat and grunted communications that were interlaced with whiskey bottles and wooden rosary beads. I vowed to never be like them. My husband and I dance a different dance. We will not, cannot sleep apart. I love this story. It is punctuated by small acts of tenderness that reach out like vines into shared cups of warm ginger tea, someone to fetch the mail; “oh, wait, I’ll get that for you…” check the oil in your car, drive with you to a doctor’s appointment so that you will not have to sit alone. This is my story of the ever after that happened after youth rode into the sunset.

Remember the Catholic schoolgirl who smoked pot behind the high school gym, who wanted to help the poor, but also enjoyed a good make-out session? Can’t you be it all? Can’t you do it all? That was me. I remember feeling forced to choose, and as a result began to see life in a small and shrinking way, squeezing myself into something I thought I was supposed to be, but never really could be. Then one day I woke up with a dry mouth, symptoms and sorrow for what might have been.

I wish I could gather all of my nieces and nephews into one place. I would bring us around a large fire, where we would sit late into the night. I would tell them stories among the crackle and hiss of leaping flames. Stories about Viet Nam and how Brent came back with only part of a hand and couldn’t sit with his back to any door, anywhere, ever again; stories of how I learned to grow impatience and ferns in a shaded flower bed and would sit there for hours reading; stories of walking in snow under a full moon. I would tell them stories, because it feels like that is what I am meant to do now. Instead, we text—we call—we make dinner plans in lives that are over scheduled and tired.

I reflect upon what has been as I lean forward into age, that for this time affords me strong legs and the desire to keep walking and filling my lungs with fresh air and my heart with the beauty of the natural world; learning that the stories themselves are like thick, wonderful murals, layered with paint that portrays the laughter and the wounds, the celebrations and grief. But the files in which I place those stories in my mind… the labels that I write onto each one, those are dangerous. Those make the story less important than how they are categorized. I am too organized for my own good sometimes.–alphabetizing spices and filing memories. You cannot continue to do that. It’s really just one big story and we are all connected by it. I should go mess up that spice drawer just to take in the aroma of each dish they have inspired in my kitchen. What was that wonderful quote I read somewhere, that now seems so appropriate? “Life is like licking honey off of a thorn.”