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A Writing Conundrum

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A WRITING CONUNDRUM

Today I wrote for three hours. it was tortuous. The whole time I heard a voice in my head saying, “You have no idea what you’re doing, you have no idea what you’re doing.”

And I replied, “I’m writing. I’m writing.” At this point, that is all that matters.

It’s crap. It makes no sense. It probably does not even meet author Anne Lamott’s idea of a “shitty first draft.” But it is written. Fifteen hundred words in some sort of order.

The problem is that I do not know what this book is about. It is a memoir, so it is about me. (Yawning already? Me, too.)

The issue, I think, is parameters, boundaries. What’s in the story frame, what’s out? Why am I writing this anyway?

What belongs inside the frame?

Some things are in, for sure, like this old house in New Hampshire. Quiet Hills is my muse. It seems most integral threads of my story pass through this sacred space. She belongs.

My dearly departed brother probably belongs, although whenever he shows himself, the narrative starts to become about him, which if you knew him you’d agree was par for the course. Only it’s not about him. At certain times in my life, my story did become about him. Not anymore.

They say that the human brain tries to make meaning, tries to find patterns, and that’s never more true for me than when I attempt memoir. “What was all that about anyway? What did it MEAN?”

The story is really about a particular woman becoming herself and the life events that contributed to her evolution. But the older I get, the more I agree with Franciscan author Father Richard Rohr when he says “everything belongs.”

This does not solve my conundrum.

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Winter Writing

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I’ve just arrived at my beloved New Hampshire house, where ghosts and God abound. My writing muse is usually quite active here, and I’m hoping that’ll she’ll be romping around the place over the next two weeks. Lots to do to close up the house for winter, but I’m looking forward to quality writing time.

I usually bring a stack of books about writing, but I’ve limited myself to just one so that if I put pen to paper, I’m not just underlining someone else’s words about writing!

I’m excited about reading the copy of If You Want to Write that I recently found at a used bookstore in Vermont, because although the book is one of my faves, I have only listened to it on audio. Brenda Ueland first published this little treasure in 1938 and it was re-released by her estate in 1987. My favorite chapter is entitled, “Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It for Their Writing.”

While you are awaiting my glorious prose, I will share one of my favorite poems from Joyce Rupp:

Winter’s Cloak

This year I do not want
the dark to leave me.
I need its wrap
of silent stillness,
its cloak
of long lasting embrace.
Too much light
has pulled me away
from the chamber
of gestation.

Let the dawns
come late,
let the sunsets
arrive early,
let the evenings
extend themselves
while I lean into
the abyss of my being.

Let me lie in the cave
of my soul,
for too much light
blinds me,
steals the source
of revelation.

Let me seek solace
in the empty places
of winter’s passage,
those vast dark nights
that never fail to shelter me.

A Peek into My New Hampshire Journal #1

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A PEEK INTO MY NEW HAMPSHIRE JOURNAL #1

Here for your reading pleasure is the latest in my “too-random-to-be-called-a-series” series of snippets from my journal — always some of my most popular posts! Everyone’s a voyeur, right? Plus, I don’t have to edit or revise. ♥

  • August 23 – Quiet Hills

I am here. Here where there is courage and rest and centeredness. I had an excellent drive, just 8 1/2 hours with stops. The house is horribly musty and the mice have been active, so here I sit, windows and doors open, fans going. It’s only 9:30, so I have a few hours to let it air. I’m going to sit on the deck and look at the stars — lovely clear night, and I didn’t notice too many bugs while I was unloading.

Deep breaths. Up here I can pretend that Donald Trump is not president if I stay off the computer. He gave another unhinged speech last night, trashing journalists (“I don’t think they like our country”), threatening to shut down the government to build his damn wall. Really sounded nuts. Very much the way a dictator begins, trying to discredit anyone who disagrees with him. The good news is, the GOP is in total chaos. The bad news is, so is the country.

I get to choose a new novel tonight. I finished Daddy’s old “The Strange Death of Manny Square.” I loved seeing his handwriting in the margins. What a wonderful connection.

  • August 24 – Quiet Hills

Glorious afternoon, cool in the shade and warm in the sun. Just perfect. First mosquito — so few! I came out before bed last night and the coyotes started up their chorus; it felt as if they were welcoming me. Utterly cool. I gathered some flowers for the table this morning: goldenrod, phlox, stock, bee balm. So pretty. There’s a ton of poison ivy in the flowerbed. Lazy day today.

Grandmother’s Garden

  • August 25 – Quiet Hills

Late summer morning with a tinge of autumn already. Cloudless sky, save one flowing line of small white puffs in the north. To have time to watch clouds — imagine!

The seasons up here are much more pronounced. In Maryland it can be sweltering in Sept and even in April now. Here, nature knows what it’s meant to do. No confusion, no argument. When it’s fall, it is decidedly and brilliantly fall and then along comes a big rain with wind and boom!, only the browns are left and then soon a snow, and winter has come.

Today I am celebrating being here. Just being. Listening to the wind in the trees, watching the tired yellow apple leaves flutter down to the deck. The field is frosted with an airy layer of Queen Anne’s Lace. The birds are almost silent, just an occasional twitter. Crickets and grasshoppers.

  • August 26 – Quiet Hills

It was a quiet morning until Bill and the boys arrived on a tractor and bearing chainsaws. I had been writing a lyric poem (of sorts) about the quiet. Doing a little mindfulness practice from my book, Fifty Ways to Pray, and then here they came. The chainsaws are a-blazin’ — he’s cutting a fallen tree in my meadow.

3:30 p.m.

I had Bill cut a huge branch off the apple tree, the lovely one that reached out on the horizontal and framed the garden. It’s been dead a good while and I feared the rot or whatever it was would spread. So now I have a massive pile of logs and branches to deal with. Bill thinks I could sell it to someone who uses apple wood to smoke meat. Probably more trouble than it’s worth. Perhaps I’ll burn some of the smaller logs tonight. It’s going to be cold.

7 p.m.

This day. Just like this. I read for hours, made gazpacho after a run to the spring, and am now chilling on the deck with a glass of wine while perusing a cookbook. Another Moosewood one I found at a used bookstore up here and haven’t spent much time with. Soon the deer will be out — I saw them come from my woods into the meadow last night.

Deer’s Meadow

I’m very happy right now. I’ve been noticing this feeling quite often the past few months, and I’m grateful for it. I want grieving people to know: you will be happy again. I was all but shattered — stripped naked — just 3 1/2 years ago. I still get sad. I miss Biff, and Mom, too. Up here with the ghosts, I miss everyone. But I am happy. Thank you, God.

  • August 27 – Quiet Hills

I checked my computer only once today, I think. Up here, the spell can be broken, thank God. I feel as if I’m on vacation in every way, including from the internet.

The other night I got stuck for several hours watching storm chasers on Twitter during a massive hurricane that hit Texas. Terrifying and no doubt the worst is yet to come. As I write, there are multiple wildfires raging out west and deadly flooding going on in Texas, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Yemen, and Niger. But no, there’s no climate disruption. None at all.

Yesterday I began some notes and reading for a possible sermon on hope for the planet. Or for climate change. Not sure yet. Checking out some “green faith” books I’ve had for ages but never read. One is by some scientist/Christians; looks good.

If I can stay off the computer . . . no, let me re-phrase. Since I will be off the computer, I’ll have time to read, write, and submit. Reading Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Brian McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration, Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, and a couple of books on teaching.

How did I become such a book freak? Blessed, blessed, blessed.

Reverential Reading

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It is a sacred charge, being the last to read an aging book.

Each caramel-colored, brittle page detaches from the paperback binding with a whisper as I turn it, and I gently scotch tape the inner pages together before reading further.

I find myself pondering this simple little novel from the dollar-shelf with a meditative mindfulness that would more befit an ancient religious scroll.

Every book should be read with such reverence.

photo-book

The Way That You See

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Today is all about seeing, apparently. I didn’t choose this theme for the day, the universe did. Or God. Depending on how you look at it.

photo (78)

First, I read today’s entry from Frederick Buechner’s Listening to Your Life, my hands-down favorite of the dozen-plus “daily readers” that I own. He says you can learn a lot from “religious observances” like weddings, bar mitzvahs, and christenings if you are in a receptive state of mind:

“The word ‘observance’ itself suggests what is perhaps the most important thing about them . . . It is life going on. It is always going on, and it is always precious. It is God that is going on. It is you who are there that is going on. As Henry James advised writers, ‘be one on whom nothing is lost.’ OBSERVE!! There are few things as important, as religious, as that.”

Then I turn on my computer and in my inbox is a daily meditation from Father Richard Rohr called “Nondual Consciousness.” This is his favorite subject, but it’s not as wonky as it sounds. It’s really about how we see ourselves and each other. Which is to say, it’s about love. Here’s an excerpt:

“You give a piece of yourself to the other. You see a piece of yourself in the other (usually unconsciously). This allows the other to do the same in return. You do not need or demand anything back from them, because you know that you are both participating in a single, Bigger Gazing and Loving  . . . You accept being accepted — for no reason and by no criteria whatsoever! . . .

To put it another way, what I let God see and accept in me also becomes what I can see and accept in myself. And even more, it becomes that whereby I see everything else. This is why it is crucial to allow God, and at least one other person, to see us in our imperfection and nakedness, as we are — rather than as we ideally wish to be. It is also why we must give others this same experience of being looked upon in their imperfection; otherwise, they will never know the essential and utterly transformative mystery of grace. This is the glue that binds the universe of persons together.

Such utterly free and gratuitous love is the only love that validates, transforms, and changes us at the deepest levels of consciousness. It is what we all desire and what we were created for. Once you allow and accept God’s love for yourself, you will almost naturally become a conduit of the same for others.”

Richard Rohr is best in small doses, like rich chocolate cake. If you liked that bit, I highly recommend reading his book, Everything Belongs. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it changed my life. It certainly changed how I see.

The Eyes of the Heart

Then I pick up my bible, which has been ever by my side lately as I work on two sermons simultaneously — remind me never to do that again! My head is a complete muddle and I have two messes on my hands, one of which is to be delivered in a week. Anyway, I come across a wonderful prayer from the apostle Paul to his friends in Ephesus, present-day Turkey. He prays that “the eyes of their hearts” would be enlightened so that they can see the hope and abundance in which they’re living. What a timely prayer for today!

Also a good reminder not spend too much time watching or reading about Donald Trump, lest my heart be filled with negativity and darkness — lest his anger and contempt seep into my heart and fill me with hate and fear. Elsewhere in the Bible, you’ll read: “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness.”

Watch what you see!

Back in my email, I find the daily word prompt from WordPress is “Eyes.” Of course it is.

eye

I leave you with the words of one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite songsters, Bruce Cockburn.

It’s a verse from Child of the Wind:

Little round planet

In a big universe

Sometimes it looks blessed

Sometimes it looks cursed

Depends on what you look at obviously

But even more it depends on the way that you see

Festival of Faith & Writing: Day One

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Here I am in Michigan at the biennial Festival of Faith & Writing, living the life of a real writer. I had intended to craft a catchy but insightful blog post every day of the festival – you know, “reporting live, here with honest-to-God authors and editors and publishers; here I am, a literary citizen of the world sharing my exciting life with you, etc. etc.”

Except that after one day of wandering the campus of Calvin College from keynotes to panels to workshops to lecture halls, my head is about to explode, and that’s a hindrance to writing. I took copious notes for you, but it turns out that most of them are illegible or half-sentences. So I’m going to give you just a taste.

photo (63)

Tobias Wolff, who wrote This Boy’s Life — a book that helped me realize what an art-form memoir can be — started off the day by warning against being too certain of ourselves as writers of faith. “You cannot write without faith,” he said. “It’s too hard. But doubt is also with us when we write, and we try to leave doubt out of the room for that little time to get our writing done.” Toby left us with a question that I think might confound many of today’s Christian writers: “Is it possible to live a life of authentic faith without the arrogant certainty that can come with it?”

Next up, Dani Shapiro, another author I’ve only recently discovered. I thought she was going to be my new hero, until I heard Zadie Smith talk this evening.

But I must digress for a moment to explain that my long-time literary hero Annie Lamott has lately fallen from grace because she can’t seem to rave about Hillary Clinton without trashing Bernie supporters, which I think is unwise because I imagine that many of her fans are Bernie people like myself. Anyway, I’m mad at her and I’ve told her so on Twitter. So there.

Back to Dani Shapiro. Like Wolff, she praised uncertainty. “When I begin writing, it is an act of faith. The only thing I’m certain of is my profound uncertainty,” she said. “I never know what I know until I’ve spent a lot of time with the page.” She writes to find the answer to her questions, and sometimes simply to clarify the questions through “inner investigative journalism.” Much of her fiction and memoir writing has the goal, she says, of “insisting that sorrow not be meaningless,” of finding patterns and connecting with others who have suffered. I get that.

Dani Shapi

Dani Shapiro

In the afternoon I attended a panel which was interesting mostly in that it was offered at all. You wouldn’t find a panel at most writing conferences entitled, “Surrendering our Need for Status.” This was a group of young women bloggers and authors who talked about their needs “to be special” or “to be admired” or to be “the most clever or the most spiritual,” and then suggested spiritual practices that had helped them battle their pride and envy. I appreciated their honesty, although I did feel I was more clever and more spiritual than they were.

One final panel at 4:30 was probably fine, but my brain had shut down. I ate dark chocolate, that’s about all I can offer — except for one wise quote from a woman author: “To learn to write a book, you have to write a book.” Sad, but true.

The final keynote was from Zadie Smith, whose name I’ve heard forever but whom I have never read. I am going to go home and get all her books. I am going to tape her picture to the wall over my computer. I might have to start stalking her. She is brilliant. Absolutely. I tried to take notes, but her discourse on creativity and the writer’s evolving role in society was so bursting with brilliance that I had to stop.

When it was over, I felt stunned. I turned to the woman next to me and said, “My God, she’s brilliant. That was awesome.”

The woman replied, and I’m not kidding: “Well, yeah, if you could remove all those big words.”

Oh. My. God.

Day one.

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith – Blurred Brilliance

Reading, Writing, and Stargazing

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Kim Davis and car cameras, Serena Williams and Syrian refugees, Donald’s hair and Clinton’s emails . . . and September 11th, of course. Opinions and predictions, rages and laments. Words, words, and more words. Aren’t you sick of them? I sure am.

You might have noticed that I’ve taken a little break from blogging lately, after three years of being fairly faithful about it. Why add to the noise and hub-bub, when I have nothing insightful to say at the moment? And I’m hoping that my creative energies might build up to dramatic and explosive levels if I put a cap on the well and quit releasing little blips of creativity every week through my blog.

No great bursts of brilliance yet, but I’m certain there’s one bubbling up. Or not.

During this blogging hiatus, I have started writing Morning Pages again, the thirty-minute stream-of-consciousness-just-keep-your-hand-moving practice extolled by author Julia Cameron and other writing mentors as a way to access your subconscious and release your creativity. There might be something to it: I’ve recently drafted two personal essays that have potential, assuming I can muster the discipline to slog through the editing and polishing process. Attention Deficit Disorder lends itself to blogging, but not as much to focused writing projects requiring multiple revisions. My master’s thesis nearly killed me.

Julia Cameron also recommends a whole week of abstaining from all forms of reading, but I’ve always thought that impossible, if not outright insane. Who would do that? And why would that help my creativity? Every time I get to that chapter in Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I conveniently misplace the book. (ADD helps with that, too.)

Hence, I was surprised a few weeks ago when I got a strong inclination to quit reading fiction for a time. It’s torture, really, but it feels like the right thing. I get lost in novels, which is wonderful and relaxing and healthy, but it can be taken to the extreme. Right now I need to be more disciplined and intentional about my time and my reading. I want to focus on my new pastoral role at church, and I’ve been teaching some challenging writing workshops. So it’s strictly non-fiction for now, mostly spiritual, but also an outstanding memoir by Tobias Wolfe, This Boy’s Life.

I’ve been reading about prayer (I suppose some might call this fiction), and am learning a lot. But I can get trapped in my brain, and there’s a danger of my spending too much time studying prayer and forgetting to actually pray. So I’m also setting aside contemplative time for meditation and labyrinth walking and star gazing. Rough life, right?

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to. I’ve missed you guys this past month. I’ll touch base again when I have some words worth saying. Peace to you.

Whiling away the time...

Whiling away the time…

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