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Why Am I Not Writing?

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I’m not a big believer in writer’s block, despite the fact that I’ve had it for over a year. I’m supposed to be writing a memoir about an intriguing woman’s various addictions, her career in environmental politics on Capitol Hill, and her ongoing search for God. I haven’t written a chapter in — I don’t even know. Last fall, maybe? 

Writing group deadlines are the only thing that keep me writing at all. Recently I’ve been dashing off essays on random topics like food justice and grieving after COVID (if we ever actually get to AFTER). I revised these essays based on the group’s feedback, submitted them to one publication each, was rejected, and went back to writing grocery lists on sticky notes. 

I thought this solitary pandemic time would result in multiple completed manuscripts and possibly a book contract or two. In reality, I’ve barely produced a blog. 

The Poetry of Avoidance 

I’ve come to realize that taking classes is one of my favorite ways to avoid actually writing a book. I’ve taken at least six classes in the past year, for which I write short, one-off pieces connected to nothing meaningful. Little challenge, little reward. 

I got a few poems published, which was nice. At one point, though, a memoir teacher asserted that when writing a memoir, one shouldn’t distract oneself by doing things such as signing up for poetry classes. This is just a way to avoid commitment, she said. I don’t know if she could see me blushing on Zoom: I had already registered for her poetry class the following week. Regardless, none of the classes resulted in a new paragraph appearing in my memoir.

COVID Sucks

Maybe it’s too convenient, but I do blame COVID. I have lost three friends to the virus so far, including my very close friend Bill, whom I’ve been grieving deeply since March. Watching his wife Shobha — just as dear a friend — bear her grief, and not being able to carry it for her is excruciating.

Bill & Shobha: where my heart is

Bill was one of my blog’s biggest fans. Like me, he immersed himself in politics, environmental policy, and spiritual transformation. He read every blog I wrote, and often sent me encouraging notes or commented on my posts in our conversations. So writing a blog without the promise of his appreciative reception is a challenge. In fact, I haven’t written a blog since Bill left us. It feels more than ever like sending out words into an empty universe. 

But I guess I can’t blame my lack of words entirely on Bill’s passing. It’s been going on the whole bloody pandemic. I mean, I’ve nearly stopped reading actual books, as I have zero attention span for anything. (Thank God for audiobooks.) Anxiety looms, moving from the background to the foreground, depending on the news or who is sick and how sick they are. Or whether a crazed mob has tried to take over the Capitol.

After getting vaccinated this spring, I began to entertain the idea of an end to isolation and anxiety, but then WHAM! — three friends of mine (one family) got COVID despite being fully vaccinated. And I had just spent an entire day with one of them unmasked, riding in a car, and sharing meals! Needless to say, I am masked up again.

Piecing It All Together

As I did last summer, I have hauled dozens of old journals up here to my New Hampshire “writing” retreat, as fodder for my memoir. I also brought along a jigsaw puzzle I was simply unable to focus on last year. Seems silly, but this really bothered me, because jigsaw puzzles are one of my favorite ways to relax; to declare, “this is truly leisure time.” And COVID took even that simple pleasure away from me.

I’ve had some luck with the puzzle recently — at least I have the border together.

Life is a Puzzle

Maybe that’s a sign. Perhaps I’m ready to take another shot at piecing together various scenes from my life into a meaningful whole. One memory, one word, one prayer at a time. And perhaps it will all come together into a story Bill would have loved. 

Make This History: “Do You Have Children?”

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Happy Women’s History Month.

Let me start by saying I’m extremely irritable right now, having just lost a dear friend to COVID a few days ago. I’m edging into the angry part of the grief cycle, which I know will come and go for a time. Meanwhile, people in Idaho are staging photo ops of their children burning life-saving masks. Innocent people are dying and others are acting like drunken teenagers careening down the road of life threatening all the rest of us. So there’s stuff to be truly angry about. But that’s not what I’m writing about.

I wouldn’t say I’m angry about today’s topic, just irritated. In recent days, I’ve had the opportunity to be in the (virtual) presence of a lot of lovely people I don’t know, praying and grieving and helping the family. As irrelevant as it seems to me in those situations, that perennial question still popped up: “Do you have children?”

As always, there was the awkward silence. Then I answered lightly, “No, I’m fancy free.” But then I added, “Why do you ask?” All of a sudden, the awkwardness was on her instead of me. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, “I just thought . . ., “ and trailed off. 

No, you did not think. That’s my point: please think before you ask a stranger that question. Some would say it’s not your business, but I won’t, because that sounds mean, and I know the question is not meant to hurt and is probably just your way of trying to connect, to make conversation, to know me. 

But you don’t know me, you don’t know my journey, you don’t know that I haven’t lost a child, that I didn’t try for decades to have a child, that I did not endure repeated miscarriages, that I did not pine my whole life for a husband who never came along. 

None of those things are true for me, blessedly. Your question is just a pinprick. But I know women in each of those categories and your mindless question is like a knife in the heart for many of them. Surely, you also know people for whom one or more of those things are true. So — please stop. If a woman has kids. you’re going to hear about them soon enough if she wants to talk about them. 

I’m not trying to be mean. Really. (If you want to see my mean face, start telling me why you choose not to wear a mask.) It’s just a matter of thinking about what you say. Nearly half of all women of childbearing age do not have children. In women beyond childbearing years like me, 1 in 7 don’t have kids. There are all different reasons for this, but none of them count as “small talk.” 

Coping with COVID, Cocaine, and a Cat

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COVID is Happening

I’m having a hard time right now. But who isn’t, right? I mean Donald Trump is president, so there’s that. And there’s the escalating pandemic that he has bungled so badly, there’s no relief in sight, short of escaping to another country — if any of them will have us.

I’ve already lost one friend to the virus, and another is intubated in an ICU in Baltimore, waiting for test results. So much grief and sadness in the world. The care-free summer months I always spend here at my family home in New Hampshire are hardly care-free this year. Nevertheless, I’m glad to be here where COVID cases are 1/1000 instead of 1/45, as they are in my Maryland county. But most of my friends are still there!

Still, there is so much beauty and quiet here. My grandmother named our place Quiet Hills, and except for the fact that one of my neighbors is a gun nut and was firing his rifle all morning, it’s mostly the chittering of birds and the breeze in the trees. At night, the racket of bugs munching on leaves is tremendous. I’m not kidding.

Cocaine Happened

I’m struggling with my memoir, but in a good way. Having a writer’s group gives me deadlines, so I’ve been cranking this week, writing up to two thousand words a day. The struggle comes with the memories, trying to remember what withdrawal was like when I quit cocaine, what it felt like to find my drug dealer in my bathtub with a loaded rifle. Trying to remember a night I’ve tried very hard to forget, when one (ex) friend got so ripped he raped another friend, after which the guy’s girlfriend beat the poor woman up. And of course being afraid to write all of that because certain people will be mighty ticked off if they ever read it. Memoir is really, really hard.

A Cat Happened By

My biggest news is that I’ve been adopted by a feline. Hooray and haroo! It’s been two long years (heck, the past four months alone have lasted at least a year) since my two elderly kitties went to the catnip farm in the sky, so I was beyond ready. But I never took the initiative to find a new kitten because they always seem to find me. I knew destiny had mine picked out, preferably two sisters, one calico and one black & white. I’m not particular.

But no, destiny chose a grown tabby, and if I had my doubts when she showed up at the door the first night I arrived, she did not. She was quite certain she belonged inside with me.

 

And she felt the same way the next morning.

I’m still here!

 

I told her that she was not the one I had ordered, being neither calico nor black & white. But persistence paid off, and she’s settling in.

Home

So life is doing what life does. It’s passing. Sometimes in trauma and sometimes in beauty, but always with love beneath it all.

A Mystical Take on Masks, Racism, & the 4th of July

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As always, I have arrived at my family home in New Hampshire happily laden with books and full of dreams of writing. I intend to post here on Writing with Spirit more often, I’m working on a draft of my memoir, and I’ll begin a month-long online writing class next week. You will likely hear about some or all of these pursuits. Meanwhile, I have finished my first book of the trip, Richard Rohr’s “What The Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self.” I thought I’d share a short review because it’s rare that a “spiritual” book so completely jives with what we call “reality.”

And what a reality! As if things weren’t surreal enough lately, the President just celebrated Independence Day with a speech attacking what polls show is a majority of Americans who support the removal of confederate statues from places of honor. He aggressively stoked fear and hatred and division. But all this is nothing new. As he tries to distract us from the deadly pandemic that worsens daily, there will no doubt be more race-baiting and ugliness emanating from the White House.

Orange Fireworks

But back to the book:

I liked this little book. If you’ve read much Richard Rohr, you will find it familiar, with good reason: it’s a book of excerpts from his other writings. I could quibble with the structure of “Mystics;” the “seven pathways” seem forced and kind of random. This is probably because the editor who came up with the idea died part way through the writing, so I think the big picture may have been lost. But since the readings are in small bites, and the book doesn’t pretend to be a straight narrative, the structure isn’t too distracting, and there are plenty of wonderful Rohr nuggets throughout. This makes a fine daily reader for meditation and journaling, and I think I’ll be using it for years to come.

If you haven’t read Rohr, I recommend “Everything Belongs,” my favorite. But “Mystics” is a decent summary of his beliefs about spiritual growth and enlightenment, including growing out of our egoic self-preoccupations and into more compassionate non-dualistic thinking, less “othering” and judging.

It’s unusual for a “mystical” book to track so directly with the day’s headlines, but it’s impossible not to think about my fellow Americans refusing to wear masks because it “infringes on their freedom” when doing so would literally save the lives of others — talk about sick egos! Or about millions of white people yammering about their their precious “heritage” of slave-holding while demonizing black people being murdered in our streets and jails by law enforcement officials. Some seem more concerned about statues made of stone than their fellow citizens made of flesh and blood. Wrong color flesh, it seems.

Also timely, the last section of Father Rohr’s book centers on transforming others and society, and is hopeful but realistic. He recognizes that in North America, “our economy, our self-image, our very psyche have lived in a triumphalist and paranoid stance for so long that it will be hard to change to a positive and creative mode . . . a new way of living based on faith instead of fear, peacemaking instead of moneymaking, community instead of competition.”

May it be so!

 

Writing of Racism and Pandemics

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Everybody says I must write. It’s what writers do. Words help us make sense of the world. Words can comfort and calm or inspire and challenge, all of which are sorely needed in this moment.

It’s just that I’m having trouble writing. I write in my journal most days, as I have for fifty years (??!!) but I mean writing for consumption by others. I had written a nice, hopeful blog back in May, before all hell broke lose in the white world — because of course “all hell” has been lose in the black world for a long, long time. The blog was about how COVID-19 is teaching us to appreciate the simple things and to live in the present moment. It started out thusly:

“‘Plan Ahead with Confidence!’ shouts the red banner ad splashed across my screen. I laugh out loud. I remember planning. I have years of journals filled with various versions of it: What, when, how, with whom? Nowadays the only thing I’m able to plan is my grocery list, which feels outlandishly vital. I know exactly what I’m going to get (if the shelves aren’t bare) and it’s all written in aisle-order so that I don’t waste any time wandering around with all those scary masked vectors who used to be my innocuous neighbors.

My grocery list gives me a sense of control in this time when so little is in my control, least of all, the future. Of course, the future never was in my control, but somehow planning gave me the illusion of control. In reality, all we ever have is this present moment, but these COVID days have made us more aware of this truth.”

. . . And then I prattled on about the present moment, how lovely it is to bake bread, how walking is sweet therapy, how my neighbors probably started their new gardens out of a survival instinct, but are learning to love digging in the dirt and watching seedlings sprout. Etc. It was a “nice” blog, which now reeks of white privilege to me.

Things Aren’t Nice Anymore

Since the week of May 25th, when George Floyd was slowly, tortuously murdered by a policeman in front of the whole world and we witnessed intentional, vicious white privilege in the form of a safe, professional white-lady-dog-walker, things aren’t so nice. The thin veneer of niceness that separated white reality from black reality has, at long last, been splintered into sharp shards. The President of the United States is using those shards to slash whatever vestige of American unity might have remained.

Local artist’s portrayal of George Floyd

Sitting in my living room tapping on my laptop keys seems pointless.

Instead, I’ve been on Zoom calls about systemic racism and white privilege, I’ve ordered books and more books, I’ve joined Facebook groups that help white people understand that their reality is not the only reality. I’ve had honest and uncomfortable conversations with my black friends. I’ve attended four socially distanced, masked protest vigils in my community and at my church, not wanting to risk COVID at the protests in D.C. 

Writing a New Story

 

I’m taking an online class called The New Story Community, about imagining a new human story based not on power and domination, but on community and cooperation. A speaker named Melvin Bray really resonated with me (if you click on that link, begin at 10:05). Melvin teaches that simply trying to change minds and hearts won’t dismantle racism. By the time you get to the emotional stage, it’s too late. Because racism started for reasons of gain and profit, not hatred or fear. Once you’ve enslaved a bunch of people and committed genocide against some others, you have to backfill with a rationale for your actions. So you conclude that those people are “less than . . . sub-human . . . beasts . . . need to be civilized,” or better yet, “saved” by your religion. From that rationale is created your society’s myth, the story that dictates how you live, and your emotions and beliefs. Hence, if you start with emotions and beliefs like white hatred and fear, you’re way too late. You have to start with action —  a “doing” — because that’s what started the cycle of racism.

 

These are not times for inaction or silence, and I feel restless and impatient. I pray and I meditate and I implore the cosmos, “What’s my part, what’s my role, what am I to DO?” And two words keep coming back to me: truth and write.

Writing Truth

Truth is a hard one, especially when we are experiencing a pandemic of lying, concealment, and “alternative facts.” Real truth, though, is an inner thing. It only comes when you still yourself, open your grasping hands, and sit with the grief and pain of losing whatever myths you believed about yourself and/or the world. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” I believe this, and I also believe that when anyone escapes their fearful, ego-centered thinking and opens their heart to true oneness and compassion, they are connecting with the same spirit I find in Jesus, no matter what they label it. 

So getting to truth is complicated, and confused with “reality” and “right and wrong” and “proof” and all the rest. 

But writing? Writing I can do. It’s what I’m called to do. I pray that my words and the spirit behind them will add mercy and kindness and truth to the world. I also pray that grief, confusion, cynicism, fear, outrage, guilt, and despair do not keep me from being who I’m meant to be and doing what I’m meant to do. Amen.

Amen

Lenten “Silent Saturday” in the Time of COVID-19

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I’ve never quite known what to do with the “Silent Saturday” in between Good Friday and Easter. The day between the darkness of unspeakable evil and the dawn of a new life and hope for humanity. In the time of Jesus, his friends and family gathered together in grief, fear, uncertainty, and confusion. This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. Jesus was supposed to lead a revolution against the oppressive power of the Roman Empire, he was supposed to usher in an era of justice and peace for all. And instead, he was dead and here they were, huddled together, hiding out from the authorities and praying desperately for — what? They didn’t even know.

The followers of Jesus didn’t know what was to come, and it wasn’t looking good.

Not Looking Good

This whole COVID-19 period feels like a long, drawn-out Silent Saturday. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. We can’t trust our government, and it even seems to be working against us. We can’t trust their numbers, their plans, or their motives. We huddle together on Zoom, uncertain and powerless, some of us grieving, some of us afraid. Some of us pray; some of us simply hope because we can’t believe in prayer. We know this is an in-between time, but we don’t know what’s next.

During Silent Saturday, we wait.

In the Christian tradition, after that desperate Saturday came redemption and resurrection on Easter Sunday. I have faith that now as then, the love of God is too great to allow darkness and death to prevail, that love will win. I don’t think that the means or the timeline are always God’s will — I won’t get into theology — but I do believe that love is stronger than all the excrement the world can throw at it.

It is true that a whole lot of people are going to die, especially if the president is stupid enough to “open up America” in the middle of this pandemic and send his true-believers out into the streets to spread infection.

But how’s this for a resurrection story? Most sensible people will continue to stay home. Competent governors and health officials will work with civic-minded businesses to pull together a reality-based plan and non-mythical resources that gradually turn around the infection and death rates.

Then there’s an election in November. The majority of Americans were not fooled by the misinformation in trump’s daily “press conference” rallies and hold him responsible for the testing/resources fiasco. He loses, bigly.

With the economy and our health care system in shambles, President Joe Biden and Vice President Michelle Obama (I know, I know, but just imagine!) have a clean slate. Together with younger progressive leaders, they end voter suppression so this never happens again, and we build a more just, equitable America from the ground up. A Green New Deal creates a massive jobs program, and we become a world leader in climate solutions.

Happy Easter, a day early!

Light in the Darkness

Grocery Shopping in the Time of COVID-19

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Who would ever have imagined that grocery shopping could be such a stressful experience? Or that there would be a dozen articles published with conflicting advice about how to do it?

Go now, quick, before there are more cases!

Wait as long as you possibly can.

Wear a mask, don’t wear a mask.

Run in, grab a few things, make a dash for the exit. Stock up with enough to last you for an age.

Disinfect your groceries, don’t disinfect your groceries.

Just making my list this morning was harrowing. Putting it all in order so that I can make a direct run down every aisle, not retracing my steps, not pondering brands or quantity, avoiding other humans at all costs. How fast can I select a mango? Will there even be mangos? If there aren’t mangos, should I go for pineapple or oranges? Will there even be pineapples or oranges?

And marshmallows. Where do they keep the marshmallows? I never buy marshmallows. Do I really need them? My neighbor and I had a fire pit the other night, and we roasted the rock-hard ones she found in the back of her pantry. Actually, we had two separate fire pits, eight feet apart so neither one of us would be the cause of the other’s death.

Strange Times, Indeed

The last time I went grocery shopping, I stood in front of the honey jars and cried. I couldn’t decide which kind to buy, and I was scared. I was taking too long. Every other shopper looked like a landmine. A safe and familiar place had become a dangerous battleground.

Today I’m especially nervous because I hadn’t planned to go, so I’m not mentally prepared. Though some of my neighbors are shopping every few days, it’s been two-plus weeks for me, and I could easily make it another week. But my prescription has run out, so I’ve got to enter the combat zone anyway. May as well suck it up and do this thing.

I’m going to wear a mask, even though it’ll make me feel silly. Plus they seem to have become controversial, as has everything since the ascension of the Divider in Chief. I don’t want to get into the politics of masks here, I’ll just note that it’s criminally obscene that our government cannot equip our hospitals — at least not if a particular governor isn’t bowing down to the man who fancies himself King of America.

Right now, I cannot even think about that man’s incompetence and purposeful viciousness. I need all my energy to confront the produce aisle.

What To Do On A Rainy Monday In The Time of COVID-19

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A rainy Monday in the time of COVID-19. The perfect day for some quiet reflection. I’m finding a lot of comfort in nature and try to get outside a bit every day. Being under the open sky and listening to bird song reminds me that life goes on, that God’s other creatures are carrying on, and that this current crisis will pass. Please, if you’re hunkering down and think you can’t step outside the house, think again. It just might save your mental health. Simply stay six feet from other people.

I’ve been sharing nature-based contemplative practices with some of my church friends, and today’s is an inside activity because it’s raining where we are. I’ve adapted it so it’s more accessible to people who don’t connect with God.

Today I’m considering fire, one of the most attention-grabbing creations. Even if you’re not spiritually inclined, it’s not hard to see the powerful and divine nature of fire: If you’ve ever lost track of time staring into a fire, you know how compelling it can be — and if you’ve ever been around an out-of-control fire, you know how frightening it can be. A famous Bible story says that when God seriously needed Moses to listen up, he set a bush on fire!

At some point today, set aside time to reflect on fire. Grab your journal or some writing paper, and light a candle. You may want to take off your shoes, signifying that you are coming as you are and that you’re willing to be honest with yourself.

Sit quietly, take a few deep breaths, slowly breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. As you breathe, watch the flame of your candle, and consider:

Fire is essential to the natural world. It kills diseases and insects that damage trees, clears away undergrowth, and provides nutrients to enrich soil. Fire purifies the landscape and makes way for new growth and diversity. Reflect and journal about what needs to be cleared out of your mind and heart, what needs purifying. What needs to be stripped away to allow for new growth and diversity? Write about this as long as you like.

Now consider the pine cone. There are certain pine cones (like the lodgepole pine) that literally cannot reproduce without fire. You’ve probably seen them — the kind that are closed up tight, almost glued together. Such cones can hang in a tree for fifty years, just waiting for a passing fire to melt the resin that glues them shut and release their seeds. Journal some more, considering what parts of you are “glued shut.” What beliefs or fears keep you closed up tight to the world, never releasing your energy to new ways of being?

After you’ve finished journaling, if you are the hearty type, why not grab a raincoat and umbrella and go out for short walk in the rain? Don’t forget to blow out your candle! Maybe you can find a pine cone to bring home to remind you to keep your heart and mind open to the flame of purification and new growth.

Be safe, be well, be open.

The Wearing of the Green During COVID-19

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Happy Saint Patty’s Day!! It feels wrong to use the word “happy” or “!!” marks during these stressful and uncertain times. The COVID 19 virus seems to have zapped our happiness and enthusiasm. It surely has mine. I’m working on another post about that, but I’m going to share this in the meantime because it’s ready to go.

I wrote this reflection for a church group that’s been meeting outside during Lent to connect with God through nature. Since “social distancing” dictates that we can’t meet together anymore, we are doing daily outdoor practices like this instead. Because social distancing doesn’t mean you have to stay inside!

As we keep away from other people, it’s also good time to come closer to a Higher Power, “whom some of us choose to call God,” as they say in the Twelve Step program.

Natural Spirits

Sometimes when we think of the “natural world,” we leave ourselves out of it, as if we are somehow separate from the rest of nature. Yet our bodies are made of the same stardust as the rest of creation, and we need air and water to live just as the other creatures do. Likewise, we may think of our bodies and spirits as separate from each other. Yet our bodies are the vessels in which we carry our little sparks of the divine, and they are instruments of service to the world.

The Celtic Christians of Saint Patrick’s time understood these connections and made them an important part of their worship. Today’s spiritual practice is inspired by the Celtic “breastplate prayer” of St. Patrick, but I’ve changed the word “Christ” to “Love,” in order to make it more accessible and inclusive. After all, the Bible tells us that God is Love. Feel free to adapt it any way you like.

This body prayer is meant to be done outside where you can stretch out and breathe deeply. Don’t worry, your neighbors will just think you’re doing yoga 🙂

Welcoming Love

Take your time, stretching your arms up over your head, to the sides, bending over, tip-toeing — however seems fitting for each phrase. Say the words out loud. Afterwards, go for a nice walk, remembering that Love is all around you and in you, just waiting to be recognized and welcomed. Make your whole walk a prayer and end it with a hearty, “Amen!”

Love be with me – (open your hands)

Love within me – (hands on heart)

Love behind me

Love before me

Love beside me

Love beneath me

Love above me

Love in my mind

Love in my mouth

Love in my hands

Love in my heart                

Amen and amen!

 

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