Thank You, AWW!

Since I began to write seriously, I have been blessed by my association with a number of groups who supported, believed in, and encouraged me to pursue my writing dreams. My allegiance to those organizations has been unwavering. So, it is with a sad heart that I acknowledge the ending of one of my favorite workshops — the Antioch Writers Workshop.

Held in July in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for all but two of its 33-years, the workshop featured a unique schedule. Each morning authors of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry would present hour-long sessions on those genres, interspersed with presentations on query letters, small press publications, agent talks, and first-book talks by authors who attended the workshop. In 2017 I was privileged to be the first-book talk speaker. The afternoons were dedicated to small-group writing sessions. Attendees would read and critique each other’s submitted work with the guidance of established authors. As a participant, I immersed myself in the ambience of tiny Yellow Springs. During the early years, classes met in a number of local establishments and buildings. Lunch involved making the rounds of the great restaurants in the town. If one stayed late enough, you could listen to authors reading from their works and perhaps share a drink and conversation in one of the town’s drinking establishments.

After attending a few workshops, I applied to be a workfellow, eager to increase my involvement with the community and the dedicated members of the Board that organized and ran the workshop. I loved the behind-the-scenes activities — making airport runs to pick up presenters, copying handouts for morning classes, assisting the afternoon sessions with whatever last-minute changes occurred. As an attendee and as a workfellow, I had the honor of meeting and working with Silas House, Nahid Rachlin, Lucrecia Gerrero, Elizabeth Strout, Myrna Stone, Nikki Giovanni, and so many more talented and creative minds. Every piece I workshopped at Antioch ended up being published, which allowed me to apply for and win the Goddess Award for a piece that started at AWW and went on to publication. Many more ideas were birthed in the waters of the week-long writing stream.

But as the years passed, changes took place. The workshop moved from downtown Yellow Springs to the MacGregor Building on the edge of town and then to the University of Dayton. The number of participants dwindled. Despite all the added activities — mini workshops at Books & Co, a fall writing weekend, literary salons — the difficulty of financing the program became evident.

Now, the Board of Directors has decided that the workshop can no longer sustain itself. Like my writing group that dissolved under the pressures of time and interest, like the Ohio Writing Project that morphed from a teachers’ workshop to encourage teachers who teach to also write into a series of classes to be taken for CCUs, AWW has reached the end of its run. I am saddened by the loss of this quality conference close to my home, which made it accessible, affordable, and so very instrumental in my writing. Certainly, the proliferation of writing conferences held in every part of the world means I will not run out of choices. However, most of them entail a larger expenditure of money, time, and travel, and the formats of each tend more toward the nuts and bolts of writing than the actual writing itself.

I already miss the close comfort of a week spent with writers focused on writing, the long summer afternoons dedicated to reading fellow authors’ work and composing/revising my own. Already nostalgia rushes in to fill the space anticipation used to occupy. Thank you is not enough to let the Board, staff, and participants know how much this workshop has given me. Of course, like all things, on this earth, there is a time for each to prosper and a time for each to die. I wish it were not so for this pivotal event in my writing journey. Perhaps another local group will step in to fill the void. Perhaps, like the legendary phoenix, AWW will rise from the ashes, reborn from desire and dedication, and fly again.

Lion Or Lamb?

Folk adages suggest that March, that sly, greening mix of Ides and shamrocks, comes in like a lion. Roaring with wind and bluster, the days extend tendrils of promise as spring tints the undergrowth, then settles like a lamb just in time for April to glide in on soggy shoes. Hmmm…reality doesn’t always conform to this old saw, but we find comfort in the thought. Weary of wintry blasts, our hearts skip a little thinking about less restless days and milder temperatures.

Of course, this got me thinking about what kind of writer I choose to be. Am I a lion, bold, predatory, submitting and entering contests, willing to take bigger and bigger risks? Or am I a quieter soul, given to gambols across the word landscape, waiting for time and luck to change my course? Do I lead the pride, stalk, attack? Or do I follow the leader, easily herded and easy prey for stronger, fiercer writers? It is a fine line to follow, that knife-edge between abrasive and bold, yet I suspect each of us has, at our core, that instinct to hunt.

One of my 2019 commitments is to be more pro-active in sending out work. While this may appear on the surface to be an easy resolution, there are pitfalls. Editors typically take a long time to respond. Contests provide deadlines months out from the initial call. Agents fall into several categories: the ones who respond immediately (Thank you, dear ones!), those who tease with requests for full manuscripts and then seem to forget you, and those who provide no response at all. I can deal with the first two. It is the third that makes me crazy.

Every article I’ve ever read on queries includes a caveat about being professional and courteous. Shouldn’t those admonitions apply to agents as well? A NO reply is temporarily ego-crushing. A NO RESPONSE is an on-going open wound. Did my query arrive? Did I pick the wrong agent? Did my sample end up formatted in some crazy, unreadable font? Most of all, when I hear nothing, I spend too much time pondering the final question — What did I do wrong? Yes, I know the number of queries received by agents makes their job difficult, but email provides an easy way to send a reply. I, for one, would deeply appreciate knowing definitively where I stand. But…the lion wastes little time on the one that got away, choosing instead to pursue the next one in view.

So, dear reader, have I wandered too far off topic or is the meandering spot on? Like the unpredictable month of March, a post can begin with one thought and segue sharply into another. It’s interesting to study my writer’s interior monologue, to follow the twists of my fevered mind! But, I insist on returning to the initial question. Which are you — lion or lamb? Which do you want to be?

Drop me a comment and tell me what you think…:)

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.

Snow Daze

I always wish for snow. I know it is not a popular wish. Most people welcome the warmer days, the dry roads, the sunny afternoons in January. But the child in me misses winter as I remember it: sledding down our street, carrying ice skates to Mill Creek Pond, stamping a giant pie in the back yard and chasing my sibs up and down the radii until our cheeks grew flushed and our hands tingled inside our mittens. I recall sitting in a classroom at St. Nicholas Elementary staring out at the flakes swirling down over the rosary garden and the sports fields beyond. I didn’t think about snow days off from school. To be honest, I’m not certain we had them then. But I knew that  snow meant outdoor play that ended with cold noses, wet feet, and hot chocolate made from scratch. We planned for these events as surely as we laid out our school clothes each night. Anticipation made the world spin.

My writing desk looks out over the side yard and the street that curves past our house. Each winter morning before I sit myself to write, I check to see if perhaps a miracle has happened, that snow has fallen and layered the grass and the garden beds, dusted the shorn prairie, skimmed the pond with ice. Hoping for snow, I bend to the tasks of the day, but the simple act of wishing gives me purpose. Beauty is always waiting in clouds laden with gray foreboding, in patterns traced in the grass by wind and rain, in the bright glimpse of a dog walker’s scarf set against the backdrop of January gloom.

I have two favorite quotes. One is by Khalil Gibran: We live to discover beauty. All else is a form of waiting. Each of us finds beauty in distinct and separate moments: the flutter of a baby’s eyelashes, the shimmer of a butterfly wing, the coda of a symphony, the bold colors of a Rothko print. In those special moments, we find a way to transcend the warts of society, the horrors of history, and to remember what makes life so acutely sacred. Each time I set a sentence down on the blank screen, I hope that scribing that computer ‘snow’ will result in some small measure of beauty.

My other favorite quote is by Ghandi: Be the change you wish to see in the world. This, too, sets the tenor of my days, for if I do not approach the future with hope, then all those gifts of beauty, those exquisite glimpses of life as it could be, will be lost, dissolved like snowflakes into grime and road salt.

It’s not snowing this morning. Weather reports for this tail end of 2018 and the initial days of 2019 in southwestern Ohio indicate a huge storm plans to roar across the nation, stranding travelers, wreaking havoc on the roads and airways. As I pack for a trip to Canada to see family that I miss, my secret heart keeps ticking off the chances for snow. I’d like to try out my new boots, a gift from my husband who knows only too well how much I wish for that white blessing.

May you find beauty around every corner and purpose in all you do.

Happy New Year!

 

Swimming Upstream

This is the time of year for it…the time when salmon, who spend their early lives in rivers before heading out to sea, return to those same rivers to spawn. Fueled by their ocean feedings, they are fortified for the arduous journey back to their birthplace to begin the cycle all over again. Driven by instinct, clear on where they belong, the fish fight currents, leap obstacles, evade bear claws and anglers as they stretch toward the goal. The marathon touches anyone lucky enough to observe it. There is such grace and strength in the run. Each salmon knows its purpose. Instinct compels them on. If you interviewed a sentient example of the species, asked it why it perseveres, I’m pretty sure the answer would be “because I have to.” The impulse hidden in the genetic makeup refuses to be ignored.

I think writers, indeed all artists, are the salmon equivalent of homo sapiens. We are driven to produce our art. Fueled by a desire often difficult to express, we endure long solo sessions typing or hand writing, pushing past the censor that shouts, ‘you’re no good’ or ‘you can’t write that.’ The interior command to ‘do it’ doesn’t come from a tennis shoe ad.Rather, like the salmon, the instructions are buried in our DNA. Ask a writer why she pursues this lonely, at times agonizing, at times subversive task, and the answer matches the salmon’s response: Because I have to.

The fall migration period of salmon roughly corresponds to the autumn calendar. From September through November, the rivers teem with fish determined to reach the headwaters, to grab the prize each seeks – the continuation of the species. For writers, the prize frequently equals publication. Nothing like seeing your work in print. Better yet, receiving payment for all those hours spent crafting a poem, an essay, a story worthy of replication in a journal, magazine, or book. But with NaNoWriMo, the annual write-a-fifty-thousand-word-novel in a month challenge, in full swing, other goals arise. The writer tests herself against the word count. Accepts the dare to finish or revise. Hopes for the chance to read in front of an audience. And more important for me, as a writer, I hope for the validation of my  peers, to be considered a good/great writer. In the end, through my words, I desire to touch a reader, to evoke emotion, to make him/her think more deeply about what it is to be human.

So here I am, sitting at my computer, banging out a blog post, thinking about a manuscript, outlining a new non-fiction piece. Sometimes I lose sight of the end game. Sometimes I tire of the rocky uphill climbs, listen to the boo bird on my shoulder. Once in a while I crash against the boulders of rejection. On occasion, the bear catches me. Still, as always, I insist on returning to the river where my ideas spawn, grateful for the chance to create again.

Happy Thanksgiving, writers and readers! I am grateful for your presence in my life.

Sailing the horizon…a cautionary tale

The ship unfurls seven sails. Music from the TV series “Victoria” plays over the deck. In the distance, the silhouette of Italy jumps up and down like one of those graphs for  height changes in the Tour de France. The houses shelter on the edge of cliffs, tile-roofed and shimmering like the watercolors in a Frederick Kubitz painting. Except Kubitz chose to depict the coast of Maine and these grace the Tuscan coastline. I’m in love with the past that settles across my vision like a field of flowers.

Our ship, the Windstar, carries us forward, channeling the horizon in a series of perfect photo ops. I lean on the rail and imagine the Phoenicians heading toward Spain, the Greeks facing the straits of Gibraltar, the Romans claiming territory with their tradesmen and their soldiers. History fills the clefts in the hills, marches upward on the cliffs, unfurls in the sea beneath the ship. Captivated by the rhythm of sea and sky, I become a time traveler, bridging past eras with present experience.

Is this not what writers do? Poets, essayists, novelists, memoirists…we stare at the horizon and craft narratives, sailing beside all those who wrote before us, captive to the urge to conquer story, to trade our goods for favorable terms — the esteem of readers, the recognition of our peers. Perhaps, in our eagerness to reach that horizon, we overlook the perils around us. Ships founder in a storm. Sea monsters lurk under the waves. Antagonists chew at our resolve. Naysayers, especially the censor inside us, repeat warnings.

Still, like the ship I ride, we sail on. The second week of June, 2018, when I sail, provides perfect weather. Blue skies, fair seas. Not a raindrop in sight. But in the distance, a storm gathers. In the way of all things natural, the tempest will come. Are we ready? Have we done our drills, measured our response to adversity, claimed space on a lifeboat? As I continue my writing journey, I like to think I am prepared to last the course, but just in case, I pack an emergency bag of ideas, rhymes, essays, and a compass to guide me on the trip.

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.

 

Old Paths, New Boots

I’m a walker. Every morning I lace up my boots, pull on my bug shirt, and head out along the paths behind my house. If I’m not at home, I search for the closest trail or forge a new one. Over the years I have hiked the mountains of British Columbia and the forests of Algonquin Provincial Park, the sandy belly of Bulls Island in South Carolina, the remote backcountry of Denali in Alaska. Most of these trails are rugged, but sometimes a paved path can provide a lesson or two. My boots have taken me from one Dayton Metro Park to the other and around the asphalt walkway at the Yankee Trace Golf Course. Show me a path to follow, or one to blaze, and I’m there. Broken-in, sturdy, my hikers have been constant companions for more than ten years, unyielding on the rocks of Maine, unintimidated by the climbs in France, unwavering through the boggy forests of northern Michigan.  They have carried me through heat, rain, and snow as I explore the wonder of the natural  world. Imagine, then, my sorrow when the footwear that accompanied me on these jaunts lost their soles. Oh, the humanity!

Mourning the loss of not one, but two pair, of comfortable, broken-in, stoic boots, I actually considered having them repaired. Then I took a closer look. One pair no longer repelled water. Every time I wore them, they made those weird squelching sounds, and my socks would be wet enough to wring out. The other pair simply sighed and separated at the seams, the right sole flapping awkwardly as I surveyed the wildflower garden at the end of my walk. To be fair, my boots had been warning me, the leather uppers creaking, the tread all but lost. For months I kept telling myself it wasn’t that bad, but the truth is, it was. Like all things man-made, my boots had reached their endpoint of usefulness.

In the book and the movie based on Cheryl Strayed’s novel “Wild,” when her footwear gave out, she simply ordered a new pair from the outfitter and they appeared at a check point. Oh, that such restoration were available to casual but committed hikers like me. Anyway, you know where this going. I liberated the laces, tossed the old boots, not without trepidation, and went on the hunt for a new pair. But I sought not just any boots. The new ones needed to be just like the old ones. High tops to give my ankles support on rugged terrain. Laces just the right size for double knots, made of fabric that didn’t  untied halfway along the route. My new boots needed to have arch support to match the configuration of my feet. In other words, reincarnation! Except no one makes the exact same kind of boots now. I prowled the Internet, used the brand name to narrow my search, Googled and Amazoned and L.L. Beaned. Each retailer had a good selection to offer, but no way was I leaving this choice to chance.

I prefer to try boots on. Fit is everything when you’re miles out from your base. Will they breathe with me? Keep my feet dry? Are they too heavy? Do they flex over difficult terrain? Will the new boots carry me along those old paths, grow into comfort, ease concerns during difficult passages? Will the new boots sustain me as I continue to rack up miles and memories? After scouring the local markets, I end up at Field & Stream, where a delicious dark-brown ankle-high pair of Timberlands catch my eye. They slide on easily, glide over the fitting area floor, and steal my heart. Just to be certain, I try on other brands, but the Timbies win out.

Stepping out on the trail, feet snug in the new boots, I ponder the connection between walking and writing. My literal boots carry me forward. How about my literary boots? What supports me as I follow this literary journey? Am I writing through familiar territory or exploring new lands? Am I following an old path or charting the untrod trail? Since I have added poetry to the mix of things I write, am I tightening the laces of my desire? Will I stay on the familiar until I reach the spot where the known trail ends and the unknown begins? The joy is in the journey, they say. I’m inclined to agree.

Perhaps you, too, stand there, boots laced, walking/writing stick in hand, deciding whether to go on or go back. Trust those new boots and plunge ahead. Beauty waits. Discovery beckons. You and your new boots were made for this.

A Post-July 4th OpEd

Now that the firecracker sky has paled to morning mist, I take a deep breath to process why I felt so sad yesterday. The answer requires little rumination. As a nation, over the course of the last eighteen months, we have become less than we could be, and I am heartbroken. The battles we fought as women, as people of color, as union workers, as environmentalists, as patriots, must now be waged all over again.

This is not a partisan rant. This is a deep-seated cry for all of us to wake up to what is happening. The alarm is sounding, people. We can ill afford to hit the snooze button.The pond scum has risen to the top of the food chain. Men and women with no expertise, no concern for anything other than their own deep pockets, have been placed in charge of the most critical departments of our administration. The speeches given by our president echo those of the most notorious madmen to occupy the world stage. A promise to make the nation great again smacks of Germany pre-World War. Don’t believe me? Do yourself a favor and read the addresses given by Hitler. Better yet, read the fiction novel White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey. “Enemies of the state” is not a term invented by our contemporary president. The press was vilified prior to the cataclysm that threatened the entire world. Scapegoats were created. Mass rallies where people chanted slogans intended to inflame and incite took place much as these ‘campaign rallies’ do today. The rise of ICE as a police force reminds one of the rise of the Gestapo. It is not enough to wring your hands, or bury your head. Every citizen is called upon to be vigilant in the face of this onslaught. Our Constitution demands that we hold government accountable to us.

Every American who understands that freedom doesn’t exist just in the moment, but exists as a legacy we pass on to future generations is tasked with defending our freedoms. Therefore, in the spirit of Independence Day, I call upon all legislators to examine their very souls, find the courage to stand up for their convictions, put aside the one-issue politics, and defend our values. Will we agree on everything? Of course not. But the essence of our nation is compromise. The document we hold most dear evolved out of a congress of compromise.

I have tasked myself with the following, and I ask you to consider doing the same:

  1. I will not stand silent in the face of injustice. I will lift my voice in defense of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses.
  2. I will work to register voters. The laws being passed make it increasingly difficult for even the most adept of us to stay registered. I must help those who cannot navigate these new requirements.
  3. I will work the polls. There are never enough volunteers to man the stations. It’s only one long day. You can do it! Businesses: I suggest you offer time off without consequence for employees willing to serve in this patriotic process.
  4. I will VOTE in every election. I only have one vote, but it matters. One plus one plus one adds up to a groundswell of support.

P.S. To each party – Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian – I ask that you abandon the negative ads and tell us what positive actions you will take to make good change happen.

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.