Sparked by Words

Archive for the ‘writer’s life’ Category

From Ack to Zap and Back Again

At first I was nothing more than ack. Holy mother of all things holy, it’s a baby, and he’s a – wait – oh boy – it’s a girl! ACK.

First mistake.

Because this is a story about how I came to write stories.

I wasn’t always a writer. This is an important distinction between me and others who write. Many authors claim they’ve always been a writer. Not me. First I was a nothing, a sea sponge sucking up salt and brine, sputtering to breathe. Rose to the top of the swells, opened my lungs for oxygen, and wailed. Like a starfish, I grew arms. Ears, actually, eyes, a tummy, a mouth, tongue, hands and feet. I learned to listen, to see, to hurt when hungry, to taste, to cry, to grasp and kick.

Eventually I learned I was not the whole world. Mother, father, bird mobile, shiny things, puppies, other people, cold or warm air, blankets, linoleum floor, grass. Thunderous noises (scared the hell out of me,) barely perceptible warning sirens (hurt my infant ears,) music, speech. Sensed anger and mystery. Understood neither though both gave me colic. Light that blinded, darkness that prevented sight. Rocking motion let me sleep.

Bitter, sweet, salty, sour – hardly anything prevented me from trying to eat stuff even if the sensation was distasteful. Rain dripping on my face, snow burning my fingers, ocean waves tumbling me into sand, rocks tripping my wobbly steps, grass cushioning my falls.

Not even aware of that momentous first step though I must have championed the skill. Not on camera. They actually had cameras back when I was born but not cell phones capturing every single moment and lots you wish they hadn’t. So, no photo of my very first land-on-my-punim step. I still walk, sometimes dance, hike, run, trip, fall, get up and walk again.

Listened for a year until I began to speak. Language, a world unto itself. Not even sure why I first spoke English. Could have chosen Chinese or Spanish, nearly useless on the East Coast of the US in the 1950s, but so convenient in today’s world. I would have been presciently prepared. Stupid baby girl.

Drew squiggles and shapes, then letters. Then words, sentences, paragraphs. Story.

First stories were not stories at all. Write what you know. This is me. This is mommy. This is daddy. Here is our house. Between identification of the landmarks of my world was a story about all those already intricate relationships, but I had no ability to organize them into a plot.

Around second grade my first real stories began to take shape. Fantastical, loosely organized, lacking internal logic, peopled with bizarre characters. All the primal experiences of me sensing me, and then the separation of me from the world led to stories.

The magic began. From nebulous impressions of how the world should be – nice, neat, sweet, kind – to how it really was – dirty, nasty, unfair, unpredictable – I wrote. My wand was a yellow number 2 Dixon Ticonderoga, zipping along the lines of a blank sheet of paper. In the margins I drew illustrations – early graphic novels.

Once in a while a teacher read my stories aloud. If the rest of the class wasn’t awed by my skills, I was still thrilled at my minute in the limelight. My efforts earned A grades and I’m relieved that none have survived. Around fourth grade I started hearing the word writer and – ZAP! – I knew that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up.

School got tough, my social life tougher, distractions and obligations led me along the typical adolescent/young adult trajectory. I schooled for a long time, in classrooms, over hill and dale, sequestered in my room. College diploma finally in hand (actually in a drawer somewhere), married with children, working a Chinese menu of jobs, the stories dwindled to ideas I had no time to write.

Until one day I began again and wrote for the next six months, producing what I was certain was a masterful children’s book. I sent it off to an agent and got back my first rejection notice. Should have known, I’d been warned, that the book wasn’t polished enough to clean the table, much less make it to print. The brief note convinced me I’d wasted everyone’s time and brought me to a full stop. What was I thinking? I could write a shopping list. I could not write a book.

So I put away the yellow pencil and set on a course as an art teacher. Nearly three decades of teaching kids, a career I’m proud of. Until the writing bug nudged me again. Now I had a really fancy pencil: a computer. In the past fifteen years, I’ve written four novels. Women’s commercial literature, if you have to know. I dislike the genre name but detest the more common title: chick lit. That’s a prickly discussion for another time.

I do love every aspect of writing except for one. I really hate the murky territory of trying to find an agent. So, I’m back at ACK now, Leave her alone, she’s writing a book, and trying to find my way to ZAP, Well, would you look at that – she really did write a book, and here it is.

No, not there yet, but still trying. This time, I won’t give up until the words The End are printed at the bottom of my published novel. Take that, Harry Potter – ZAP!

 

Photo of little girl at Camp Lejeune getting a magic wand from magician Jeff Jones, courtesy Pfc. Joshua Grant

 

A Gesture of Butterflies

They’ve invaded – the butterflies

Drunk on thistles, the bounty of rain

Small as half a broken egg shell

The ordained compass of Painted Ladies

Flitting o’er fields, creeks, chaparral

Darting along air flight highways,

From the Mexico-California border

Migrating to the Pacific Northwest

Be still, they approach in silence

Their mission to journey north

For the sake of their future tribe

Flounced wings, orange and charcoal

Black-eyed scales of outside pennants

Guarding the route of tiny gypsies

If only they could guard those below

The ones on knee, in chants, in prayer

What crusted his heart with toxic hate

Who gave him the bullets and the gun

How turn holy words to curse and lie,

Why assault the gates of church, temple,

Synagogue, mosque, sacred ground

The fluttering echo of God on Earth

Ravaged by a beast who never paused

To see the holy gesture of butterflies

My heart goes out to the family and friends of those who were murdered in Christchurch, New Zealand; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Charleston, South Carolina; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and the many places of worship where innocent people have been attacked by terrorists who will not recognize the spark of God within all human life.

In honor of the innocents who were killed, I will not remember the names of the terrorists nor their hateful twist of words.

 

Just a thought 69

 

Painted Lady butterfly photos courtesy of Pixabay and Wikipedia

 

 

This is Where You’ll Find Me

I am not silent though you will not hear my words

My actions are as mundane as peeking through blinds

It is well into morning before I step out of the shower

But I was late to sleep last night and then could not rest

I lay down, my breath not deep enough for comfort

I paced again, exhausted but engorged with thoughts

 

My hours of darkness swaddled me as the sun lifted

Dirty plates pile on the countertop, waiting for soap

I should exercise but I eat, I should eat but I worry

The pages lie empty but the story beckons for attention

Its words thrum in my heart, hammering for speech

If I didn’t live in my books, I wouldn’t be breathing at all

 

Just a thought 68

 

 

Image of Eros sleeping, courtesy Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

Celebrate International Women’s Day

 

Everyday should be International Women’s Day, but if we need a day set aside to celebrate the achievements of women in order to let people everywhere know how wonderful we are, then I’m hopping on the bridge to help you cross from the side called Don’t Know Much to the other end marked This Is One Long List.

To acknowledge the many women all over the world who’ve contributed to the fields of:

animal (veterinary, daily care, groomers, companion and animal assistant training, aquarium, zoo, or rescue site employees)

architects (buildings, monuments, and bridges, city, suburban, commercial, landscape)

armed forces (all branches, every level, serving on U.S. soil or deployed abroad)

art (creating, exhibiting, curating in all fields of photography, painting, designing, drawing, sculpting, and ceramics)

banking (tellers, investment and accounting)

beauticians (hair cutting and styling, manicures, pedicures)

builders (carpenters, house builders, commercial builders, electricians, metal workers, repairmen, contractors, laborers, repairmen)

childcare (baby sitters, nannies, au pair)

cleaners and landscapers (housekeepers, gardeners, commercial maintenance workers)

culinary arts (chefs, cooks, waitresses, dish washers)

dance (choreography, those on their feet)

documentation and archival support (librarians, secretaries, clerks, researchers)

drivers (bus, taxi, limousine)

education (classroom teaching, administration, curriculum development, clerical support, assistants, substitute teachers, all fields and subjects, all levels from pre-school to university)

engineering (civil, industrial, mechanical, electrical, software)

entertainment (acting, directors, cameramen, off- or back stage support, stage, film, theater, video, commercials)

fire, police, sheriff, marshal, and security forces (first responders whose careers protect our lives)

industry (salesmen, retail and business of every kind on the ground, in the air, at sea, in space) environment (preserving and protecting animals, land, sea, and all natural resources)

historians (analysts, observers, researchers, diarists, writers, documentarians)

journalism (researchers, documenters, writers, editing, reporters in every media)

law (attorneys, judges, legal assistants, mediators, whether defense or prosecution, in courtrooms or not)

live performers (magicians, jugglers, comedians, stand-up comedians, revue, circus, chorus line)

mail service (delivery, post office)

medicine (medical care, surgeons, researchers, nurses, psychiatrists, dentists, opticians, ophthalmologists, clinical trial technicians, support and companion care, physical and occupational therapists)

music (playing, singing, directing, composing, writing in band, orchestra, symphony, or individual performer, whether touring or permanent location, professional or amateur

philosophy (thinkers, theorists, reflectors)

politics (policy crafters, elected officials at local, state, and federal levels)

religion (clergy, laymen, spiritual guides of all religions)

science (researchers, experimental and technical developmenters and innovators in all fields)

social activism (marchers, protestors, advocates, campaigners, speakers)

social work and mental health care (adoption, personal, marriage and family counseling, substance abuse, psychology, therapy)

sports (coaching, participation in professional, local, or individual teams, and personal health training and maintenance)

volunteering (every field  and task imaginable)

motherhood (everything – just everything)

 

If I left out the field closest to your heart, blame my lack of imagination and memory. I didn’t mean to forget or ignore you. And yes, plenty of men in these fields as well, and I thank you. But today we acknowledge women because not only do they do these jobs well, they had to fight like hungry sharks to get into many of these positions in the first place.

 

And now for the field closest to my heart:

Literature : poetry, memoir, and fiction of every genre and ilk.

A partial list of the authors –  geniuses, innovators, writers –  who have inspired me, along with one of their books that captivated me and made me want to write just like them.  If I left out your favorite author, please add in the comments section.

Enjoy celebrating women. No one would be here without us.

 

Alice Hoffman – The Marriage of Opposites

Alice Walker – The Color Purple

Amy Tan – The Joy Luck Club

Anita Diamant – The Red Tent

Ann Patchett – Bel Canto

Anne Frank – Diary of a Young Girl

Anne Lamott – Blue Shoe

Annie Proulx – The Shipping News

Audrey Niffenegger – The Time Traveler’s Wife

Barbara Kingsolver – The Poisonwood Bible

Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre

Chimamanda Ngochi Adechie – Americanah

Claire Messud – The Emperor’s Children

Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca

Dara Horn – The World to Come

Denise Levertov – Selected Poems

Diane Setterfield – The Thirteenth Tale

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

Edwidge Danticat – Breath, Eyes, Memory

Elizabeth Strout – The Burgess Boys

Emily Bronte – Wuthering Heights

Emily Dickenson – Complete Poems

Erica Jong – Fear of Flying

Geraldine Brooks – People of the Book

Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

Isabel Allende – The House of the Spirits

J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice

Jane Hirschfield – Given Sugar, Given Salt

Jean M. Auel – The Clan of the Cave Bear

Joan Didion – The Year of Magical Thinking

Joanne Harris – Five Quarters of the Orange

Jodi Picoult – The Storyteller

Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) – Out of Africa

Kate Atkinson – A God in Ruins

Katherine Paterson – Bridge to Terabithia

Kathryn Stockett – The Help

Laura Esquivel – Like Water for Chocolate

Lilian Nattel – The River Midnight

Lisa See – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Louisa May Alcott – Little Women

Louise Erdrich – Love Medicine

Madeleine L’Engle – A Wrinkle in Time

Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale

Marge Piercy – He, She, and It

Chimamanda Ngochi Adechi

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings – The Yearling

Mary Oliver – Devotions

Mary Renault – The Persian Boy

Mary Stewart – The Crystal Cave

Maxine Hong Kingston – The Woman Warrior

Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Naomi Ragen – Sotah

Natalie Goldberg – Thunder and Lightning

Nicole Strauss – The History of Love

Paula McLain – Circling the Sun

Persia Woolley- Child of the Northern Spring

Rachel Kadish – The Weight of Ink

Rachel Kushner – The Flamethrowers

Sandra Cisneros – The House on Mango Street

Sarah Dunant – In the Company of the Courtesan

Sue Monk Kidd – The Invention of Wings

Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

Toni Morrison – Song of Solomon

Ursula Hegi – Stones from the River

Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse

Willa Cather – My Antonia

Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God

 

Painting: A Woman Writing a Letter by Johannes Vermeer

 

 

Silver Orbs

Tiptoeing between raindrops

Blessing every one of their

Silvery little orbs

Waiting for rain to pause

To rove among the wildflowers

Gathered on the hills in California

Golden, lavender, crimson buds

I will kneel before not to pick

But to embrace their lucence

Cradle the bowl of their petals

Manna between my palms

 

Capture now with camera lens

Tomorrow sketch in watercolors

Hoping that next winter

There will be raindrops to spare

Then dancing blossom heads

Of honey, plum, and scarlet hue

Roaming wild hills next spring

To stroll about their garden

We are all wanderers

Seeking earth, sun, clemency

The rain, the flowers, and I

 

Just a thought 67

 

Raindrop image courtesy Pixabay

California wildflower image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

 

Alzheimer’s DMZ

A DMZ, demilitarized zone, is intended to provide safe haven between conflicting powers where opposing parties can discuss possibilities for peace. Or not.

For someone entering the terminal stages of Alzheimer’s disease, a DMZ is an uncharted territory of one or more ill defined or utterly wretched options.

The border between doing all we can to save a life and following a POLST (Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment) that may reduce medical care for the terminally ill to providing only palliative needs is not a sharp edge. You don’t step from one sovereign nation loaded with physicians, nurses, pharmaceuticals, clinicians, therapists, and social workers into another sovereign nation occupied only by aspirin. Or worse, juju advice from Aunt Henny Penny’s Home Health Remedies for Everything from Alzheimer’s to Zits.

You, the advocate for the one you love who is a victim of Alzheimer’s, the one who is so ill they are suffering painfully with every breath, you walk into a demilitarized zone defined by hidden landmines. Will this treatment end their suffering or end their life? Will that one offer six more months of comfort and communication? Will doing nothing result in the miracle cure you’ve been seeking in tea leaf patterns and fervently uttered mantras? You don’t know where to turn, what to do, who to ask. Because no one really knows.

And that’s why being the Durable Power of Attorney is so damned difficult. You, the advocate, are making legal decisions about the life of another person. And they probably don’t know what you’re doing. And you’re both scared, and neither of you sleeps well.

Before the complicated, multi-optioned POLST, there was a DNR – Do Not Resuscitate. Don’t be a hero. Turn off the machine, lower the lights, let God do what’s natural.

Thing is, we don’t know what’s natural. We don’t know where God is in all this. If you think God is on your side, all I can say is, “Why this? Why let someone dog paddle desparately for years in the swamp of Alzheimer’s disease?”

I believe in God. You may put in your religion of choice here, it makes no difference to me. Even if you guess what religion I follow, you know nothing of how I worship or what I suspect about the Divine. I just don’t think God chooses to take sides, other than the original one of creating this world. Now it’s up to us.

So here we stand, lost in the quandary, trudging through a maze of options but unable to intuit for certain what happens next.  Choose your own adventure, but unlike reading a kid’s book, you get no do-overs. Worse, the choices you make may have a catastrophic outcome for the person you love – your spouse, your parent, your sibling – who suffers from a disease that prevents them from making an informed decision. You’d be asking a toddler in gray hair and aged body to choose between unhealthy and more unhealthy. One choice might hurt less, another might extend their life, another could plummet them into a no-man’s land of parboiled limbo. Not a choice you meant to make, but when dealing with the brain – who knows what’s right or wrong.

The moral and ethical dilemmas are even more volcanic territory to explore. You walk on lava. It follows its own underground river and explodes in fissures you thought were gardens. You may think God expects you to impose a particular medical protocol for the person you love. I bet it’s just the roar of the crowd you hear and the loudest voices are not holy but human. And they don’t know either.

It is something close to a sacred task to accept being a DPOA for another person. I kneel before you as you make choices. Because I was that person for almost ten years, and I know how lonely you are. I know you look at the face of the one you love and hope you chose correctly. It’s the best you can do, and I trust that you made the best choice under the circumstances.

The POLST is a piece of paper of legal statements meant to protect you as you decide what to do next that will best protect the life of the one you love. Now hold their hand, tell them how much they mean to you, how well they guided your life, and try to sleep at night. I wish you well on this journey.

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s disease inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are eighteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Hope painting, 1886, by George Frederic Watts, courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blue Succulent

Touched a succulent with lavender-blue tips

Fractal beauty. I wanted to absorb its presence

It stung me. Invisible spiny tips crown

The edges of those violet-cheek leaves

I yelped, rubbed my fingers together

Trying to dull the pain, mellow the attack

 

But you, you flex your thorns, and I mine

Indignant power bound with furied muscle

Maybe just brushing our bodies skin to skin

Will slough off the hackles of our tempers

As for the snappish blue succulent

I left it in its pearly pot to sulk alone

 

I have bled enough and so have you

Time for us to sit side by side

Pull in our prickles, expose our tender flesh

Blindly surrender into each other

Knowing the one will break the other’s fall

Such comfort in this. At hazard to love

 

Just  thought 64

 

Image courtesy Pixabay

 

 

 

 

The Best Little Kid in Class

I finally found my calling in my senior year of college. Of course I intended to be a writer but before I started signing autographs in copies of my runaway best seller, I needed a job to pay the bills. I’d suffered enough soul scorching gigs to know I didn’t want to wait tables, work the phones on an answering system switchboard, burn plates for a printing company, or even manage a tiny art store on a street no one ever walked so no one ever entered. I’d done all those and a few more, earning enough to pay for plates of fried rice and cups of stale coffee.

So when my university offered a temporary teaching assistant position for students in their last semester of college, I took it. And there I found kids. Lots of sweet but very poor and sometimes very hungry kids. I hated the school system, a plodding curriculum that was certain to deaden any glimmer of affection for learning in any child, but I loved the kids. I’d found it, thank heaven, a goal for a career.

A few more divots snagged my steps along the way to teacherhood. I found myself newly married and working in a Detroit podiatry office (oh my God,) then newly pregnant and working in a Denver computer center (oh my Lord.) As a mom of two young sons, I supplemented our family’s meager income as an art teacher in the city recreation program, teaching little kids to paint pictures of trees and turtles and tide pools (oh yes.) I became an assistant resource teacher in an elementary school (on the right path,) then an artist in a commercial fabric design company (oh no.) Finally my chance came to gather my skills, invent a few others, and serve as the art specialist at a tiny private elementary school.  I’d arrived: I was a teacher.

No one, especially school administrators, knows what an art curriculum should look like so I was entrusted to create my own. Fortunately for every school where I ever worked, I was ambitious. I took more college classes, intending to earn a master degree in studio art and a teaching credential. From all these experiences I built an art curriculum that exposed my students to a range of media and techniques and taught them that the journey was everything, the finished artwork merely a byproduct of their explorations.

Despite all the skills I learned and all the classes I taught, every day was a frontier of unexplored territory. One of a small school’s best assets is that a teacher gets to work with the same students year after year, helping them find their strengths and interests, developing their proficiency. As a teacher I got to know the kids as individuals, to encourage their talents and dreams, sometimes to witness their foibles and peccadilloes.

Rhys was a beautiful child, at seven all giant eyes and peachy cheeks. He was also a handful, the center of every fracas. Gia was another little seven-year-old beauty, all long curls and sweet grin. She was the classroom angel, no matter what room she was in. At seven it’s hard to find a child who isn’t a baby-faced beauty, snaggletoothed smiles, matted hair, and all.

One day the commotion in art class centered on Rhys and Gia, a mess of paper, brushes, and pencils strewn on the floor around them. I called both kids to the front of the room and asked Gia what had happened.

She pointed at Rhys, her injured feelings as palpable on her face as the red juice stain on her blouse. “He threw all my stuff on the floor.”

I turned to Rhys and asked if he had dumped Gia’s art supplies on the floor. He nodded. Struggling to keep the irritation out of my voice, I asked why he’d done such a thing.

“Because she threw my things on the floor first.”

I asked Gia if she was the provocateur. Innocence blazing on her face, she nodded. Little Miss Angel had made the first naughty move, and Rhys the Imp had simply responded in kind. I told them to apologize to each other and then clean up the mess.

Rhys and Gia taught me something that day. The best little kid in class misbehaves at times, the little troublemaker gets labeled with an undeserved indelible mark if we’re not careful, and a seven-year-old is an adorable, endearing, mischievous person who benefits from adult moderation. Sometimes they point fingers at each other; sometimes they tell the incriminating truth. We teachers had best be alert.

There’s a lesson in all that: the little surprises we bring to our stories, making them true at heart.

 

Photo of child creating art courtesy Pixabay

 

Who Tells Your Story

Everyone has a story to tell. To traverse across a chasm while balanced on a thin silver string. Gaping crowds below, pearlescent clouds above, the wire shuddering in the wind. Few have touched down safely on the other side.

But you have. With pluck, determination, and courage. That’s your story.

Not everyone knows how to write. It isn’t just paragraph and spelling knowledge. It’s character development, plot construction, writing craftsmanship. Sequence, judgment, vision.

Some may be able to learn. Schools, online courses, writers’ conferences, self-help books all offer opportunities. Computer programs and lined paper pages stay open late. Practice and critical review always meet deadlines.

Probability of failure despite effort.

Possibility of an audience.

Others must learn to be grateful to share their story with those who can write. A minute on a high wire is a moment to contemplate. The one trembling on the wire, those on the ground looking up.

The choice is to insist on writing your story so poorly that few will read and praise it, or to hand the idea to the master who will craft your story so that many will turn the pages.

Or a third choice. Learn to write well, a demanding journey of effort and failure and potential success, its own act on a high wire. The ultimate achievement.

Probability of story well written.

Possibility of glittering stars on Goodreads.

Brilliance evolves when someone reads the story and is transformed. Yes, it began with you, your ballet on the silver string.

Whose life is important? Whose balance on the wire is exciting enough to write it in a story?

Maybe anyone’s. Probably everyone’s. Possibly yours.

 

Says she who has yet to be published.

 

Just a thought 62

 

Painting Seiltanzerin* 1913 by August Macke, courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; *Tightrope Walker

This file has been identified as being free of known restrictions under copyright law, including all related and neighboring rights.

 

How to Make Cupcakes

You can blend cabbage with horseradish till the cows come home, wander out to the pasture again, and finally lumber down among the clover – you will never get cupcakes.

Best to start with the right ingredients. Fresh imagination, sprinkles of fun, a dollop of elbow grease, a cup of sunshine, Bubbie’s secret family recipe generously shared, and a baking partner or two. Especially if they’re of the childhood persuasion.

Mix with giggles, taste the affection and adjust for optimum flavor, bake long enough to read poetry, cool while jitterbugging around the moon, frost using all fingers while telling funny stories. Serve to the whole family. Relish happiness.

Bake a few more. Offer to the world. Everyone deserves sweet.

That’s how you make cupcakes.

 

Just a thought 61

 

Painting of the artist’s son with Gabrielle Renard, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, courtesy Wikipedia