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Mr. Zinsser’s Wisdom

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When I decided to “become a writer” a few years ago, the first person I accosted was my brother Biff, who —although he didn’t publish much after his big splash in the eighties — remained a writer until 2013, when he joined our bookish parents in the Great Library Upstairs. (He left boxfuls of scribblings when he died, including an entire book manuscript.)

Biff and I were on the phone one evening, and I was rattling off the titles of the twelve books I’d chosen from the approximately 24,813 tomes on writing available through Amazon, when he interrupted me.

“Don’t waste your money,” he said. “You only need one: William Zinsser, On Writing Well.” On further thought, he suggested I get a Strunk and White, too, because a real writer must have that iconic grammar volume on her shelf.

Otherwise, just Zinsser.

This conversation came back to me this week when I heard that Mr. Zinsser had also gone to the Great Library Upstairs. I imagine he is enjoying a glass of tawny port and a jolly good laugh with my brother right about now. They are wearing writerly tweed jackets with leather elbow patches.

William Zinsser Rest in Peace

William Zinsser
Rest in Peace

Here in the present, though, I’m pondering William Zinsser’s timeless wisdom. He was a prolific guy, though I’ve only read a small percentage of his work. He often wrote for the American Scholar, which I enjoy when I’m in the occasional tweedy, portish mood.

One of my favorite pieces appeared in the Scholar in the spring of 2006. With his usual direct style, Zinsser entitled it “How to Write a Memoir.” His recommendations? Be yourself, speak freely, and think small.

It strikes me that this is more than good writing advice: it is wise counsel for living a genuine, happy, and satisfying life.

  • Don’t try to be anything you are not — authenticity is a rare gift of great value. You are the only you.
  • Don’t worry about what others think — say what you need to say, say it just once, and say it kindly.
  • Avoid grandiosity — keep your britches right-sized. You’ll have more friends that way.

So here’s a toast to Mr. Zinsser. He will be missed for his wisdom, scholarly aptitude, and compelling storytelling, and also for his dry-as-tweed humor. I leave you with a few quotes:

  • “There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”
  • “I think a sentence is a fine thing to put a preposition at the end of.”
  • “Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty, and the sentences become longer and longer as they fill up with stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons.”
  • And my personal favorite: “Not every oak has to be gnarled.”

Further reading: The Writer Who Taught

Forces of Nature

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“Every now and again take a good look at something not made with hands — a mountain, a star, the turn of a stream. There will come to you wisdom and patience and solace and, above all, the assurance that you are not alone in the world.”   Sidney Lovett

 

Of all the fierce energy that makes up the natural world — tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis — I believe that the greatest force of nature is her ability to heal our souls and bestow on us the gift of belonging. You belong — are there sweeter words?

Humans may have betrayed nature, scraped and beaten and chopped her until she is raw and bleeding, but she endures and she provides for us. We are a part of her.

I first discovered the divine company of nature among the evergreens, ferns, and moss of a New England forest. That’s where I met God. But here in my little corner of suburbia, if I take the time to pay attention to “something not made with hands,” I am reminded every day: I am not alone. I belong.

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The patterns, balance, and beauty of the natural world — the assurance that sweet, delicate, winsome spring flowers will overtake the icy, harsh, and deadly serious winter — these great forces of nature reassure my soul.

 

This post is in response to the WordPress Photo Challenge: Forces of Nature

My First Protest: May 6th, 1970

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I was scared, of course. We all were. Just a few days before, four kids had been shot dead and nine wounded by the National Guard on the campus of Kent State in Ohio, and nothing seemed safe anymore. Our nation and our family dinner tables were in complete chaos.

May 4th, 1970. Photo courtesy of Kent State

May 4th, 1970. Photo courtesy of Kent State

I had just turned fifteen and probably wasn’t in much danger of being shot on the steps of Kensington Junior High School, but my pulse was pounding and I felt sick as our group moved down the yellow-tiled hall. We were mostly the “good kids,” certainly not the type to walk out in the middle of a school day without permission.

But those pictures from Kent State haunted us — they looked like our older brothers and sisters. I remember wanting desperately to show solidarity with my big brother who was at college in Texas. I knew he was marching.

The Kent State students shot on May 4th had been protesting Nixon’s announcement that he was expanding the Vietnam war by sending troops into Cambodia. It was now May 6th, and we were joining thousands of college students boycotting classes in a nationwide strike to protest Kent State and the Cambodian invasion. More than 500 campuses had been shut down, including the entire university system of California.

Confronting Authority

It was lunchtime when about a dozen of us ninth graders moved uncertainly towards the big man in the black suit whose outstretched arms blocked the front doors. He looked like a buzzard with his sharp nose and cold eyes and long arms. We had not anticipated the principal’s presence when we planned our walkout.

One brave girl spoke up. “We’re leaving, Mr. Gaub. Please let us pass.”

Mr. Gaub cleared his throat but did not lower his arms.

“It is my duty to tell you that if you walk out this door, you will have an unexcused absence. This will go on your permanent record and could affect your grades.”

We stood just a few feet from him and he looked each of us in the eyes. “I know who you are; I know your names,” he said. He cleared his throat again. “And I’m proud of you.” He dropped his arms and we marched past him into the sunlight.

We milled around in the parking lot for a while chanting “Out Now” and feeling very grown up. Then we walked up to the 7-11 store for cherry cokes and red licorice. After all, we were just kids.

A "good kid" finding her voice

A “good kid” finding her voice

In memory of Stanley Eugene Gaub, February 8, 1925 – January 6, 2009. Thank you and rest in peace.

mr gaub

Pilgrimage Day Two: Tears in the Desert

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If you’re prone tears as I am, you’ve got to expect that at some point on an eight-day spiritual pilgrimage in the desert, you’re going to dampen a few hankies. Especially when your one prayer for the pilgrimage is to open yourself to God. God is real and raw and authentic and takes no part in denial, false pride, or stiff upper lipping.

I see my emotions as part of who I am, gifts from God that help me understand what is going on in my soul and recognize areas in which I want to grow and heal. I used to stuff my emotions in a misguided effort to protect myself from pain, and then I tried simply hiding them so that I wouldn’t riffle anyone else’s pond. But now I’m a grown-up and allow myself to be fully me (mostly).

Mortification and Defeat

Nevertheless, I was mortified to find myself on the first full day of our pilgrimage, standing on a dusty trail in the middle of nowhere with ten virtual strangers, sobbing kindergarten tears onto a nearby shoulder. I knew none of these people and was pretty sure that none of them would want to know me after witnessing my wailing: “I’m so frustrated! I’m so tired of hurting!”

I had not been sure that I could make the hike, but thought I’d give it a try. Thrilled that I needed no cast on my recently fractured shoulder, I wanted to take full advantage of the beautiful surroundings at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. I’d taken care of myself and honored the limitations of my injured arm by skipping 7 a.m. body prayer yoga (always glad to have an excuse to smack the snooze button), and by resting after lunch, journaling and reading J. Brent Bill’s little Quaker book, Mind the Light.

Now I took a handful of Advil and responded to my father’s Texan voice in my head telling me to “Buck up! You can do this, you’re a Griffin.”

I laced up my hiking boots — a feat that would have been impossible just a week before — slung my daypack over my good arm, and headed to the trailhead to meet my fellow pilgrims. Our trip leader Tiffany had asked me to wear my arm brace for her own peace of mind and advised me to carry a walking stick for the steep trails.

I quickly fell behind the others, juggling my pack, stick, and clumsy brace. A sweet guy quoted some scripture about helping one another with our burdens and reached out to carry my pack. His kind gesture, coupled with my pain and the growing realization that I was already slowing everyone down, sapped my energy as surely as the altitude had sapped my breath.

When Tiffany said kindly, “I don’t think you should go on this hike,” I threw myself on her shoulder and moaned “I don’t either,” and the waterworks started.

I was face-to-face with my imperfection, my brokenness, my inability to do absolutely anything I put my mind to, and yes, my age (this trip being a sixtieth birthday present to myself). My familiar mantra, “I should be able to…” was crumbling like the red sandstone cliffs that surrounded us.

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Even rock cliffs crumble

Letting Go

That morning we had begun our main work of the pilgrimage, looking at the cycles of call — the phases and transitions in life — and reflecting on resistance and the need for release. What’s holding you back, and what do you need to release in order to move into the next calling in your life?

“What needs to break is often our competence,” warned our pilgrimage leader Marjory, clearly prophesying my afternoon breakdown. “Call often comes after suffering.” Moses had lost everything before he was “called” by a burning bush in the desert, and Jesus spent forty days in the desert suffering trials and temptations before he was ready for his earthly ministry.

The desert is a great place for suffering. It’s a harsh place, a place that reminds us of our mortality. Droughts, razor sharp foliage, whipping winds, and killing sun. One doesn’t look to the desert for mercy.

No mercy here

No mercy here

Now I headed back the way our group had come, my broken competence stowed in my daypack and my broken shoulder throbbing. I turned to watch the other scrambling up the rocky trail and felt humiliation and defeat.

Desert Mercies

After I’d walked a while, I sat down by a narrow creek and took my water bottle out of my pack. As I leaned my head back to drink, I noticed that the branches of the cottonwoods lining the creek were bursting with tiny buds, reaching fuzzy chartreuse fingers into the brilliant blue sky. I wiped the dusty red tears from my cheeks.

Two robins arrived, tilted their heads at me, decided I was safe, and then hopped into the creek and began to splash exuberantly, creating haloes of sparkling water in the air above them. The juxtaposition between their mood and mine made me laugh out loud.

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I pulled out my binoculars, camera, and notebook and settled in for an afternoon of desert mercies. As She so often does, God was speaking to me through the natural world. I realized that I was now feeling intense relief — relief that I did not have to prove anything to myself or to anyone else. I could just be, like the robins . . . Day two.

Desert Pilgrimage — Arrival

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“What’s the difference between a pilgrimage and a retreat?” I’ve been on spiritual retreats, but have no idea what to expect from a pilgrimage.

Marjory rarely answers a question without giving it a bit of thought, so I’m familiar with the dreamy, unfocused look that comes into her blue eyes, as if she’s pondering some far-off, imaginary mountain range. Except that today she’s gazing at an actual mountain range that I can see, too.

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Pedernal Mountain

I wait.

Marjory is the closest thing I’ve found to a personal spiritual director, and I’m glad to have a day with her before the rest of the group arrives for our eight-day desert pilgrimage. We’ve just finished a more-than-adequate lunch and are sitting at a splintery picnic table outside the dining hall at Ghost Ranch in the red rock canyonlands of northern New Mexico.

“Usually on pilgrimage you go away someplace,” she says at last. “You put yourself in a different context. A retreat is more like a Sabbath for rest and reflection, where you just step back from life for a breather. But it takes work to go on a pilgrimage, and it’s for a long enough time that you can expect to come away changed.”

Under New Management

Her answer intrigues me, but it also unnerves me. Generally when I take a weekend retreat, I have some intention or agenda, a question or a difficulty or a request for God’s help. In other words, I feel I have some control.

That’s not the case here at Ghost Ranch. As I journaled this morning, I had trouble identifying a goal for this trip:

I do not know what I want from this trip. I would like this to be a time when I can simply “repent” — become willing to change, willing to think of myself differently. I just want to be open to what God has for me now. It is hard to let go of “control,” to surrender the notion that this is my life to plan and direct. Of course it is in one sense, but I never know when I’ll crash to the floor and break my arm, or when my brother will go nuts and die, or when the funding for my job will end. I don’t always get to dictate who or what comes into my life. I have a lot of choices, though, and perhaps this is what I’m aiming for — being open to seeking and choosing God’s way every time. But here I am, trying to manage my experience on pilgrimage, to dictate outcome. I will leave it all open for the Spirit to work, to open my eyes, mind, and heart.

Coming to Center

After lunch, I walk the dusty path to the labyrinth, strolling slowly beneath red and ochre sandstone cliffs, stopping often to catch my breath and slow my racing heart as my body tries to adjust to the altitude.

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People have walked labyrinths for thousands of years in search of spiritual centeredness. My church in Maryland has one, and I walk it often, sometimes receiving clarity about a particular question, sometimes receiving a deep sense of peace, sometimes receiving nothing except the knowledge that I am seeking God.

Today the Ghost Ranch labyrinth seems decorated for spring, with tiny purple and yellow flowers lining the rock pathways. I enter and begin circling, turning inward and outward, round and round, trying to empty my head of the chattering thoughts that followed me from the east coast.

Ghost Ranch Labyrinth

Ghost Ranch Labyrinth

A raven’s call echoes off the canyon wall. I stop to watch the black shape circling its own invisible labyrinth against the layered cliffs. The towering rock face reminds me of human flesh, with striations of variegated red muscle and yellow fat and purple arteries. Living rock.

I feel this desert landscape is breathing, and I’m breathing with it. I have a sense of grounded love and feel more than hear the words, “You are doing just fine, Mel.”

I go back to circling.

Day one.

Lessons From the Fall: Saying Yes

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The woman walked slowly across the parking lot, clearly not caring that her wrinkled blue scrubs were getting soaked with rain. She seemed bone tired, like she had just come off a twenty-four hour shift. Still, when she saw me wrangling a grocery cart with my left hand, trying not to involve my broken and braced right arm in the maneuvering, she didn’t hesitate.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

I looked her straight in her tired eyes and said, “Yes.”

This may not sound like much to you, but I think I felt the sidewalk tremble under my feet. You see, I never, ever answer yes to that question.

I haven’t completely figured out where my inability to accept help comes from, despite discussing this with my therapist numerous times. I am independent to a fault — there’s a fierceness to it that’s not healthy.

Back off, I got this!

Back off, I got this!

My therapist suggests that growing up in an alcoholic home meant I did not get what I needed, and so I learned to fend for myself and stopped asking for help. Maybe.

Or it could be in my blood.

My dad was a Texan, and I was taught that having Texan ancestry meant I could do anything I put my mind to. By myself. (The Alamo and all that.) Then there’s the British blood from Mom’s side, which signals my psyche that any sign of “weakness” is cause for embarrassment.

Somewhere I picked up the notion that there’s shame in needing help . . . that I should be able to do everything by myself and that there must be something fundamentally flawed in me if I can’t.

My discomfort may also be left over from olden days, when my self-esteem was nonexistent. I couldn’t believe anybody would truly want to help me, worthless as I was. Perhaps at some level I’m afraid if I “trouble” someone to help me, they might not like me — ah, those hobgoblins of old.

Do you find it hard to accept help, or am I alone in my neurosis here? If you can relate, have you ever wondered why you are like that? It doesn’t make sense to me — we are communal creatures, biologically made to thrive in help-groups.

Funny thing is, I like helping people. It makes me happy. So why would I withhold that pleasure from others? Maybe it was my imagination, but I think that the tired woman in the blue scrubs was walking with a little spring in her step after she helped me to my car.

Lesson number two from my fall: practice saying yes once in a while.

Related: You can find lesson number one about the illusion of control at this link.

Lessons From the Fall: The Illusion of Control

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Here I sit reading a book, sipping green tea, without a thing on my absolutely-must-do list for days to come. And man, am I pissed about it. Why? Because I did not choose this lazy afternoon; it chose me.

For reasons that I hope will one day become clear, the Universal Narrative decided it might be a fun plot twist for me to fracture the shoulder of my right, dominant arm.

I am typing this with the index finger of my left hand, so it will be short.

This was to have been a week of house cleaning. I have friends coming from Florida next week to help celebrate my sixtieth birthday, and I wanted to at least clear a path through the clutter in my house so they could visit. In fact, it was a well-placed vacuum cleaner cord that led to my fall in the hallway last week. (I’m not used to the thing being out of the closet.)

There is to be a party, which involves chairs and food platters and coolers, none of which I can move.

There is my planned pilgrimage to New Mexico, less than two weeks away, which will involve yoga and pottery wheels and body prayer, none of which I can do.

There is taking a shower, brushing my teeth, putting on my socks, opening a can of soup, fastening my seatbelt — everything is a challenge now.

All of these things, I thought I controlled. I do not. I never did. All our ideas of control are an illusion. This is why there are so many angry people in the world — they have not yet surrendered to this truth.

When it’s time for a plot twist, all you can do is trust that there’s a larger story going on and that your present circumstance will contribute to your personal growth.You turn the page and keep reading from a new perspective.

Lesson number one: I am not in control. Stay tuned.

flowers and Dayspring 039

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