Of Bloody Moons and Purpose

During the Blood Wolf Moon in January, close observers witnessed a bright flare on the lower right quadrant. Astronomers hypothesize a small piece of a comet or an asteroid hit the surface. This one bright and blazing strike captured the imagination of earth-bound viewers. Still, the brief encounter probably won’t leave a mark visible to the naked eye. Who can say what the lasting impact will be?

Contemplating the brevity of moonstrikes,  I thought about how ideas appear as if out of nowhere, strike our mental moons, and disappear. Then I segued from thinking about the writing process to contemplating the writing purpose. What is it that calls me to put words on a page, to examine the motivations and desires of fictional characters, to sit silent at my computer for hours while the house clamors for attention and my interior nag reminds me I need to go to the gym? Although I aspire to win my stories a wider audience, I acknowledge the reality that that may never happen. So, humbly, my life is but a blip on the surface of time. How do I make this tiny flare count for more than a brief and fleeting moment?

I know I read more into the social climate these days than most people do. I suspect the majority are more concerned with their next meal or paycheck than they are with the moral implications of genetic manipulation or the consequences of a warming earth. In this current culture of celebrity, when consumerism drives the global economy and buying is king, the importance of virtue, the healing nature of art, the impact of compassion seem to cede space to the uglier side of human nature. I  ponder the rise of spectacle over substance and wonder how my personal fragment of space dust will find its intention amid the blare of the extraneous.

As a writer, I feel compelled to infuse my words with meaning, to create stories that combine wonder with revelation. My daily life, too, should reflect that deeper purpose. the raison d’etre, for being here in this precise galactic moment. My trajectory is uncharted, and perhaps that is the point. Each journey is a constant unfolding of that purpose. With a little luck, someone will be watching when I land.

An Unsilent Knight

The first snowfall of the season settles over the ground in the late November twilight. I stand at the window, dancing with the snowflakes and thinking about my mother, all those years ago pregnant with me, her due date passing as she, too, gazed out the window, wondering where my father was, if he still lived. World War II had ended, but danger continued to stalk the globe. Around her family’s store/home, winter promised to call, as it does today, and I, restless, waited until the third of December to venture into the storm.

It is impossible to escape the ubiquitous seasonal music, the barrage of advertisements urging us to spend, spend, spend, yet more important concerns intrude. At our borders, we witness the relentless assault on every value we pretend to espouse. Women and children are driven away from asylum, tear-gassed, vilified. In a season dedicated to peace, among people paying lip-service to a Savior, hate abounds.

History provides no solace, Through the ages, mankind has seen fit to use religion as a battering ram. Regardless of sect or creed, every doctrine has a story of destruction in its DNA. Tolerance dies when one group seeks to impose its beliefs on the ‘others.’ But somewhere, faint and far-off, a single voice whispers a silent night. Somewhere holiness takes root. One hand stretches toward another and we lift up our voices in chorus. The knights of harmony refuse to remain silent.

Will goodness and light ever triumph, or are we doomed to repeat again the deadly cycles? I believe it is only in remaining mute that evil wins. Each of us must walk a path of our own choosing. No one path serves all men and women, but there are signposts to guide us. Each great religion offers a roadmap, a way to be true to the best of our nature. You are free to select yours. I have made my choice — not to stand silent in the face of so much wrongness. That is the harness I will wear as 2018 fades to black and 2019 takes the stage. I will be an insolent knight, tilting those windmills and working for change. So, this holiday season — and it is a season as more than twenty-five individual holidays occur around the world during this six-week period, may you add your voice to those advocating reason and hope.

Although Dylan Thomas wrote his beautiful poem to his dying father, I often hear the refrain as a call to arms in every instance where reason and goodness are under attack. “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.”

Merry Christmas! Happy Hannukah! Happy Kwanzaa! Merry Holidays! May you walk in light, lift your voice in the service of what is right, and be the change you want to see in the world.

The Seasons of Our Lives

Early morning fog wafts across the highway. Dawn, like a fan dancer in nature’s club, waves her veils across the land. One more trip to PA to consult with my siblings about our mother’s delusional dementia. Earlier in the summer, she was still mostly Irma. Now when I arrive, she is mostly gone, living inside the weird, funny, sad, unbelievable story her brain is crocheting over her memories. These drives are not fun.

Along the way, I plug in my iPod and crank up my list of favorite tunes. Bob Seger rocks about night moves. Hall and Oates describe the method of modern love. The Dixie Chicks remind me how much I miss their honest lyrics. Then Stevie Nicks slips in beside me, observing the passing of time, asking, “Can I handle the seasons of my life?” Landslide. Right.

The days shift. Each Facebook post brings a smile or a new tremor. The road may go on forever, as Tolkien wrote, but we do not. Our stories have an ending, and the journey there is not always a pleasant one. How to handle the changes that arrive, book-ended by solstice nights, shelved between the C of compassion and the R of responsibility? Decisions loom like headlights, oncoming, shrouded, daring me to stay the course or veer into disaster.

Lifting my gaze to the rear view mirror, I notice my eyes, intent and anxious, checking for impatient drivers. Amid the press of appointments. the phone calls to doctors and lawyers, the weighing of my mother’s express desire to remain where she is against the need to ensure her safety, I find myself standing on Fleetwood Mac’s mountain, staring into the reflection of my own life and wondering how to do this thing called adulting.

The iPod shuffles through the albums. The Eagles fill the car with a new tune. “Do something,” they croon, and I put my foot on the gas and motor on. August is winding down, summer on the wane. Autumn beckons with leafy fingers, stained now with the colors of her time. I drive on, unable to turn back, sailing, along with Stevie, into the next ocean’s wave.

 

Family Matters…

When we set off in early June on our Mediterranean adventure, I had plans to write about the sailing ship, the ports of call, the new experiences. But when we returned, I found myself once more embroiled in elder care issues. My mother, still the life of the party wherever she goes, has slipped deeper into the hallucinatory dementia that has made inroads in her always-fertile imagination. One day back from the trip, I got back on the road and made the drive to Pennsylvania to deal with the need for more care.

As the oldest of seven children, my role has always been well-defined and set in blood. I am expected to make things happen. While the family dynamic revolves around discussion, a tactic my father encouraged and enabled, this does not always lead to resolution. Thus, I bring the hammer, corralling the varied opinions into cohesive action. My resolutions are not always greeted with cheers. Despite the disagreements, need outweighs dithering. ‘Git ‘er done’ is not just a southern rallying cry. It is also the basis for our family matters.

Case in point: When Mom decided she could no longer take care of the large house on Euclid Avenue in Sharon, the process stuttered along until I showed up with phone numbers of electricians, plumbers, and realtors. Five days later the repairs were mostly done and the house listed for sale. To be fair, several of my brothers helped out as much as they could with moving, but the impetus to make it happen came from me. I have accepted this role, settled in to the inevitable second-guessing that occurs after the fact. Like Caesar, I show up, I see what has to be done, and then I do it.

But at some point, I need to return to my life, to those chores and passions that lie on my path. I refuse to feel guilty about this. One does her best, than moves on. I do worry about the brother who has taken on the bulk of my mother’s care. With several siblings unwilling or unable to lend a hand, he bears the burden and the stress. While others may walk away, he has chosen not to do so.

Family matters. Despite the challenges, I continue to love, to care for and about, to worry over, and to encourage. The matters that arose as we grew out of that nuclear home and into the wider world complicate our attempts to provide for the mother who bore us. What bothers me most is how, as Yeats predicted, the center does not hold. No amount of love can offset the pull of illness, economics, distance, personality. Of course, for a writer, this is the stuff and substance of plot, theme, and character development. But it makes for some uneasy family gatherings.

My mother once told me a story about her childhood with the admonition, accompanied by serious finger pointing, that I couldn’t write about it until she passed. Well, at age 94, she is close to the end stage of this worldly journey. Hallucinations rule her mind, providing endless fodder for head-shaking and laughter. She is, she informs us one day, in love again…with a Scotsman. The next day he is displaced by a handsome Hungarian living in Poland. Her birth family members all turn into eight-inch fairies who boarded a plane and flew away. There are moths living in her mouth. The tales, as real to her as they are not to us, fascinate, but they also make us despair. Try as we might, we cannot return her to reality. Nor can we abandon her to the encroaching darkness. So, we argue, wring our hands, discuss ad nauseam the options ahead. And we pray…for guidance, for inspiration, for courage. When it comes to all these difficult times, family matters.

Sharing Space… Literary Citizenship and the era of Me

It’s so easy to be caught looking inward. Navel gazing has never been so attractive. The culture of entitlement that surrounds us paves a yellow brick road to the Emerald City of Envy and invites us to pamper ourselves, celebrate our own egos, and neglect that which doesn’t touch us. Me, me, me scream the ads. “We’re all deserving,” suggest the self-help gurus. Mine is better than yours, sniff the armchair critics. Narcissus would be proud.

Recently, one of my author friends posted a question regarding writers who trumpet their own books as ‘the best of the year.’ Should we, he asked, be so blatantly self-centered? I submit that a good literary citizen remembers that we are a community of writers, that none of us succeeds without the helping hand, the lift up, the constructive critique,and the shoulder to lean on when the burden becomes too much to carry alone.

I have spent a significant amount of time, effort and money practicing my craft. As much as possible, I strive to be that good literary citizen for my fellow practicioners. Often, when I need that hand or shoulder, the pickings grow slim and the road long. But, still, I persist! 😉 To keep myself on track as I plod along, I have constructed a checklist of good lit citizen qualities. Forthwith, a path to achieve that most precious of status cards…the Good Literary Citizen Award.

1. Offer to mentor. What a gift to have someone point out the pitfalls, provide a road map and listen as you try out ideas. New and/or aspiring writers benefit from this. I only wish I had been fortunate enough to have a mentor early on.

2. Share information…about conferences, opportunities, meetings, workshops. No one knows everything, and what may not work for you may be just the thing for another writer.

3. Support writers, especially on social media and web sites but also in person. How flattering to be recommended, invited, included, applauded.  Nurture a network you may use someday. Vote for their books, mention their work, attend readings and launches.

4. Be generous. Offer to read and critique, without monetary reward when possible. The paying gigs will come later. Provide honest, constructive criticism. Speaking for myself, I won’t get better if I don’t know what needs to be improved.

5. Find a writing group where you can use your talents to promote yourself and others. We’re not all good at everything, but we are all good at something. If you’re a strong editor, offer that skill to others.

6. Be enthusiastic. Writers share a passion not easily explainable to non-writers. We all experience rejection. My computer file folder is filled with those NO emails. But, you know what? It only takes a word and a hug to pick me up and set me back on the path.

7. It’s easy to get lost in our own ambition. I remind myself that my greatest accomplishment may not be the best-seller I want to write, but the one I champion in another writer’s life.

I have witnessed the jealousy of writers, the tendency to find fault in others as a way to promote one’s own writing. It’s not pretty. I prefer to think that, as someone wiser than me suggested, a rising tide lifts all boats. Here’s to achieving the impossible dream…may you earn your card, as I hope to do, one small step at a time.

A Discourse On Loss

“No man is an island.” John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

As 2017 closes out its run, I struggle through the immensity of unmooring that the year has brought.  My bubble life of structure and belief in the common decency of man has suffered a knock-out punch. As a child of the sixties, I am no stranger to turmoil. However, the bouts of political insanity that rock the country strain my belief that goodness will triumph. A minority should never determine the course of the ship of state, yet this is exactly what has occurred. The loudest voice, the vilest attacks, have set adrift the progress of our nation. I am no quitter, but I despair. Even the best of fighters hangs up the gloves eventually. That sick feeling in my stomach caused by tremors beneath the bedrock of our democracy lingers. Despite the efforts to raise my voice  – the phone calls made, the petitions signed, the marches joined – those in power are not listening. I am not an island. Connected by history and inclination to the best that we can be, I mourn for us.

“Grief is a plastic surgeon.” Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me

This old year passing has brought personal loss that I did not anticipated. Two dear friends and kindred souls passed away in the fall within a month of each other. The grief rises with me each day, rides my shoulder as I clean and bake and pray. It does, as Alexie suggests, carve new patterns in the grain of life. What once was treasured together-time has morphed into pictures in an album and memories already slipping through time’s erosive hand. Although I did not take for granted the road trips, critique sessions and working lunches, I see now how fleeting those moments were.

“Sorrow floats.”  John  Irving, Hotel New Hampshire

The last twelve months have required more patience than I ever imagined I had. My mother-in-law, 96 on the cusp of 97, and my mother, 94 this coming March, suffer the ravages of physical and mental ailments. I juggle visits to the nursing home with power-of-attorney requirements and long-distance discussions with trips to the emergency room. Each day brings a new challenge, not the least of which is the knowledge and expectation that this, too, shall pass as they do. Grief isn’t finished with me yet.

I know I am not alone. The world suffers. Death visits us all. How do we find strength, hope, and grace amid the emotional debris? One source for me is books. Reading the words of others who have entered this arena gives me courage. Recognizing the vast sweep of human emotion assists in placing my own grief in perspective. Although my post this month is grim, the promise of peace rises, like Picasso’s flower in the painting “Guernica,” from the wounded heart.

A child laughs. A woman decides to run for office…and wins. The dough rises in the pan, spreading the yeasty smell of home and hearth and hospitality. Words cover the page, sometimes in abundance, but more often in quiet runs.

A new year walks beside me, buoyant and full of expectation. I must make it count.

A December Manifesto: 2017

One.

I am only one, but I have a voice.

As a human being, as a citizen, as a child of the Creator, I must use that voice to speak out for good.

Evil cannot be ignored or excused.

Not for political gain. Not for corporate greed. Not out of apathy.

In this season of peace, when all religions share hope, I must nourish the flame of that hope.

More alike than we are different,  a cut bleeds red on all our skins.

A light illuminates the deepest shadow.

If I shine my light, I illuminate a circle in the dark.

Two.

If you join me…

Two together  can enlarge the circle.

Two together can dispel those shadows.

Ghandi said be the change you wish to see in the world.

Martin Luther King called us to lift every voice to the mountaintop.

Change I must be. No excuse to pass the torch, to wait for another to do the work.

I am only one. If you hold my hand, we become two, then four, then ten and a thousand.

If I carry my candle to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial to stand in silent vigil, will you join me?

No protests. No violence. Only silence and light and a voice raised in thanks and blessing, in concern and caring.

We will sing together. We will carry all our children on our shoulders and in our hearts.

Together, we will brave the perils of the journey.

Each of us is one, but merged we become a force for change.

I am only one, but I have a voice.

Stand with me. You, too, are only one, with a voice that can move the world.

Let us raise those voices together.

Allelujah…

Honing the Harvest…

Listen. Do you hear that? The rustling of autumn grasses, the chirring of locust wings, the goodbye calls of flocking birds as the earth turns to bounty and binds itself to a new season. I have spent the summer planting, tending, filling the freezer with vegetable goodies, preparing for the months when the soil slumbers. As I put my garden to bed, the fertile blank spaces of my writing await a different kind of harvest…words, phrases, plots, themes and, above all, hope.

This month I send out queries for my newest manuscript, one I have weeded with special care, watered with conviction and fertilized with research. Now, I must offer it to others, this lovely growth of stem and flower. Like a table filled with farm produce at the market, my wares will splay themselves on someone’s desk, waiting to be purchased, shucked and served to hungry readers.

Okay, that paints a pretty picture, but it fails to reveal all the sweat equity invested in both my literal and my figurative garden. I’ve removed the props from my beans and tomatoes, chopped the once-laden plants into mulch. So, too, I’ve gathered the fruits of my prose, inspected them for insects and blight, stored the notes and revision cards, and practiced patience, perhaps the most important tool in the gardener’s and the writer’s box. I have also cultivated my writers’ groups, who protect, support, defend, nurture and prod me to go on. The willingness of fellow writers to critique, inspire, suggest, encourage cannot be overstated. Without them, my writing would never flourish.

I don’t know where you are in your writer’s garden. I do know that in the soil garden, there are blights and insect deprivations and too much heat, too much rain. With writing, there is always a lack of time or attention or inspiration or focus. Yet the planting goes on, so we can reach the harvest, savor the bounty and hone our harvest skills for the next great adventure. Prepare the soil, lay the compost and wait for the seeds to sprout.

 

Saving Space For Sorrow…

When I’m immersed in a plot, one of my favorite lines to ponder is a quote from a John Irving novel The Hotel New Hampshire, I believe: “Sorrow floats.” Of course, in the novel, Sorrow is a stuffed dog, but in my experience, personal now as well as professional, sorrow is that emotion that sneaks up on you when you least expect it, scares the shit out of you and then begs for attention. There isn’t a doggy treat in the world that will satisfy the chap.

I’ve been reading an eclectic mix of books this summer: dystopian, paranormal, fantasy, literary, non-fiction. The one thing they all have in common is an inordinate amount of inexpressible sorrow. Art imitating life. And, reading the news from around the world,  that truth continues to batter into us. Many mornings I wake up with a fair amount of  dysfunctional anxiety, courtesy of our current government and society in general. No wonder old-timers refer, with profound sadness, to the “good old days.”  Maybe they weren’t so good, but they didn’t seem to harbor the precise amount of terror that we face today. Or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking and faulty memory.

See, sorrow is that visitor who usually arrives unannounced, although there are times when we can anticipate that arrival. Which is worse? The sorrow you see coming or the one that blindsides you? Is there any way to prepare for that crush of loss, that unfair tumble into the dark side? If you could tell the future, would you really want to know?

Where am I going with all of this? Well, my two current manuscripts both deal with sorrow in different ways, so I suppose this is a plea for a philosophical outburst of comprehension and acceptance. We anticipate joy, plan for pain, pursue happiness, accept suffering. But we put sorrow in a box and stuff it under a cushion, unaware of its longevity, oblivious to its nuanced intrusion into our lives. If we set aside a space and a place for it, would we deal better with the aftereffects?