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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. 

My Writing Space

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If I were to design a writing space from scratch, I couldn’t create a space more perfect than the one my grandmother left to me. To top it off, it’s a chilly, rainy day and my tea is brewed. Amen.

“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write . . .”  — Virginia Woolf

 

“And there must be sunflowers and cats in her room . . .” Melanie Lynn Griffin

Am I procrastinating getting to work on my next memoir chapter? Why, yes. Yes I am. It’s nearly noon, and I have yet to ring my Tibetan singing bowl, the one that tells my head and heart it’s time to “center down,” time to seek memories and make meaning.

“How good it is to center down!

To sit quietly and see one’s self pass by!”

— Author and civil rights leader Howard Thurman

Instead I’m taking pictures of my cat.

And now I’ve started a blog post.

Happy Saturday to you.

Alice in Wonderland

 

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.

New Year’s Reflections of an Extremely Eclectic Blogger

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Happy new year, friends! I especially want to greet all you readers who’ve just recently wandered into my little patch of the virtual world, which I call Writing With Spirit. My guess is that you newbies followed WWS because of my travel/photo entries from New Zealand, my weight loss posts, or my musings in the Twitter #WritingCommunity.

I’d love to give you an introduction or overview of some sort, but like any semi-spiritual endeavor, Writing With Spirit is not linear and it’s not easy to characterize. Let’s just call it eclectic.

Psychology, Politics, and the Planet

It won’t take you long to discern that focus is not my forte. I originally intended to write about the spiritual & psychological aspects of de-cluttering, but since I’ve done very little decluttering in the eight years since I started blogging, that kind of fell by the wayside. Plus, it was an election year, and I quickly fell into politics, which I’m addicted to, for better or worse. Mostly worse, since the traumatic events of November 2016.

Those traumatic events also transformed my peaceful poems about mother nature into rants about environmental policy and the evils of greed and corporate power. OK, I probably ranted about those before trump, but now it’s, it’s . . . I mean, what can I say? Everything I worked for in my thirty years as a Sierra Club lobbyist in D.C. is being decimated. Who knew how fast all that progress could be reversed? Oh, and incidentally, the survival of humankind and countless other species is now under serious question.

This is what climate change looks like; Australia 2020

Addiction, Grief, and Pretty Pictures

But let’s talk about something more pleasant, like addiction and mental health. My Dad was an alcoholic, and some of my friends struggle as well. I used to have quite a taste for cocaine, myself. I spent eight years in therapy, and even more in twelve-step groups for people who love people with addictions. So sometimes I write about addiction or recovery or mental and emotional health.

Then there’s death. I lost my Mom, my brother, and several good friends in recent years, so there’s a lot of grief processing in this blog (though praise God, less than there used to be). As far as edification and practicality go, I think those blog posts are some of my best. You might want to use the search function to explore my musings on grief if you are in a dark place.

On a lighter note, I’m a writer and I love words, so sometimes I’ll do an entire post about one word that captures my attention. I’m currently wrestling with my memoir, so I write about writing (or not writing). I also lost forty pounds in 2019 by using the Noom weight-loss plan, and I’ve started to share about that experience. I love traveling and taking pictures, so my followers journey along with me. Last year we went to Seattle, British Columbia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and New Zealand.

Shell Shadow on Himatangi Beach, New Zealand

 

Tree Art near Seattle, Washington

 

Rose, Hamilton Gardens New Zealand

 

Cat Greets the Dawn in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Let Us Not Talk Falsely Now

At my core, I’m a God-seeker and a Jesus follower, hence the name Writing With Spirit. That is my center, because like the French philoshper-priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I believe “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

I suppose you would call me a progressive Christian, though I don’t care for the tag Christian, since it’s generally come to mean judgmental, mean-spirited, exclusionary, and not particularly thoughtful. My faith moves me to care deeply about social justice and the poor and especially dismantling racism. So I write about that stuff, too.

Because all that I hold dear is under attack, I often take jabs at the current president. I can’t help it. I try to be nice, but let’s be real.

“Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”

–Bob Dylan

So there you have it. An introduction and overview. Sort of. It’s not what I meant to write when I sat down. That was just supposed to be the first sentence or two. Anyway, various posts may or may not appeal to you, but I hope you’ll stick with me on this journey. And if you have any friends who might want to accompany us, please invite them. Cause check it out! I’m only two followers away from 5,000, and even though it’s only a number, and recognition and affirmation and all that rot isn’t important (and we’ve seen what happens when it reaches pathological levels), still — it’s kinda cool.

Thanks for your support for my ramblings in 2019!

Oh, have I mentioned I have Attention Deficit Disorder? Do I need to at this point? Sometimes I write about that, too.

Happy 2020!!

Snapshots: New Zealand Lessons in the Making

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It’s hard to believe my expedition to New Zealand is almost over. I suppose you could argue that the “expedition” part of my journey is already history, now that I’ve returned my camper van, had a hot shower and a few real meals, and am settled on my cousins’s comfy couch with a cup of tea. I am now simply traveling.

Yesterday I got a National Geographic newsletter entitled “What Do You Learn While Traveling Female?” I’m looking forward to the stories they referenced and may submit something myself — after I figure out the answer to that question. One friend referred to my travel blogs as “field notes,” and I like that concept. They are snapshots. The lessons, meanings, and new perspectives will come over time as my brain sorts through and categorizes my experiences and my heart decides what to embrace.

The National Geo article stated that “Travel is about defining our place in the world.” I might re-phrase that to say, “Travel is about allowing the world to define our place.” It’s not a directive, intentional defining on our part. If you are open-minded and hearted, you don’t “do travel,” so much as travel does you. It’s very humbling. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

I have begun the meaning-making and processing in my journal, but it’s not ready for these pages, let alone National Geo!

Although I avoided cities and even avoided people much of the time, I think I’ve learned a lot about human nature here, and it’s encouraging and hopeful, particularly in the areas that cause me pain and passion: confronting racism and climate change. Many words yet to come.

For now, a few photos from a coastal town on the South Island called Kaikoura. By the time I arrived there, I was in the process of pushing north to get back to Auckland and return my van, so I only got a little taste of what the place offers. With its whaling history and diverse wildlife, I could have spent several days exploring. Instead, I had my Thanksgiving meal of spinach-potato soup, salad, and local honey mead at Hislops Wholefood Cafe, took a walk along the coast for a few hours, and then got back into the van and drove north. Next time.

Shoreline at Kaikoura

Close the hatch, Captain, they’re trying to get in!

Seaweed dons its Christmas colors

 

I think she wanted me to leave

Rock Art

One of my fave NZ critters, the friendly Silvereye

This fur seal gave a tremendous bark and sent me scurrying right after I took this photo

Merry Christmas from the Maori community in Kaikoura!

Have I Mentioned I’m Going to New Zealand?

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One month from today, I should be somewhere over some ocean (my geography isn’t all that it could be), winging my way towards New Zealand. Yes! In case you missed the “big reveal” slipped in at the end of my recent post Courageous Middle Age, I am in the midst of planning a solo camper-van trip across the two islands known as “Land of the Long White Cloud,” or Aotearoa, in the indigenous Maori language.

Otago Peninsula (photo in public domain)

It’s All About Me!

Most people’s first response when they hear this is, “By yourself??” Why yes, by myself. It’s usually my favorite way to travel. Go where I want and do what I want when I want, be alone when I want, make friends if I want. See a theme here? It’s all about ME!

So yeah, solo. I wouldn’t go to Afghanistan or Yemen on my own, but this is New Zealand. They speak English, and it’s one of the safest places in the world. These people call themselves “Kiwis,” for heaven’s sake, how threatening can they be? I recently asked a Kiwi friend if there are dangerous animals I need to know about, like crocodiles or tree pythons or eight-inch spiders. He thought a minute and said, “Well, we have opossums.” 

This week I figure I’d better move beyond dreaming to serious planning. I am surrounded by travel books, maps, and random notes from conversations with Kiwis. My Chrome tabs are open to articles like The Best Secret Beaches in New Zealand; November in New Zealand: What to Pack and What to See; and A Guide to the Wellington/Picton Ferry. Even my leisure reading is all New Zealand, all the time: Janet Frame, Katherine Mansfield, Owen Marshall.

What Could Happen?

Until recently, I’ve been feeling confident and excited about my trip, except the part about driving on the left-hand side of the road. But as I wrote last week, anxiety has been worming its way into my brain. My misadventure with my financial planner has shaken my confidence, and things I thought were certain are not, like American Democracy.

I need to give myself a good talking to: I will not be governed by fear. I am a capable, experienced traveler, and what could happen? I mean, well, yes, I was robbed and lost everything including my passport in Costa Rica. And I sprained my ankle and could barely walk most of the time I was in Uganda. (Ice is hard to come by there.) I got lost hiking in a fog bank in the wilderness of Yosemite and was pretty sure I was going to have to spend the night with only bears and mountain lions to keep me warm.

Flying Solo

OK, so maybe asking “What could happen?” isn’t helpful. Instead I will envision myself tootling along an ocean-side cliff, Maori music on the radio, the turquoise waters of the South Pacific stretching out to infinity on my left, the Southern Alps looming on my right. 

One of the things I love most about traveling solo is the feeling that not a soul in the world knows where I am. I don’t know why that’s so compelling, but it gives me the same arms-outstretched feeling of unbearable freedom that I get from flying dreams. How I wish I still had flying dreams!!

Still, I guess it might be a good idea to inform someone about my whereabouts, once I plan my (very) flexible itinerary. I suppose if I drove off a cliff while gazing at Fiordland penguins or searching for blue whales, my camper-van company (aptly named Mad Campers) would eventually come looking for me.

OK, back to my maps. Thanks for reading today’s ruminations on my upcoming New Zealand adventure!

These aren’t Fiordland Penguins, but I love that New Zealand advertises a same-sex penguin couple (Thelma and Louise) on their tourism site.

 

Official Fiordland Crested Penguins (Photo: TravelWayOfLife)

Memoir Madness

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MEMOIR MADNESS

The good news is, today I wrote almost 1,300 words. I know that’s not much compared to the over-achieving masses who will participate in National Novel Writing Month in November, dashing off 1,667 words every day for 30 days in pursuit of a 50,000-word novel. But it’s pretty good for me. Yesterday was only 500 words, and it was crap.

The bad news is, only about 350 of today’s words have the slightest chance of contributing to my final word count because I went on a 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum (about which I will tell you), and because I got mired in shame.

The downside of searching for patterns and themes in your life is that when you find them — or they find you — they may not be the lovely themes and patterns you had imagined were the narrative of your life. Alarmingly, my redemptive spiritual coming-of-age story seems to be all about shame and secrecy. Mind you, neither “shame” nor “secrecy” appear anywhere in my chapter outlines (such as they are), yet every scene leads me there.

I knew that the alcoholic father/enabling mother business would produce a few sentences on shame, but when your alcoholic father is also an undercover CIA agent in Miami during the Cuban missile crisis, the secrets can multiply quickly. Next thing you know, you’re writing about stealing your friend’s stuffed mouse, and your sister’s souvenir coin, and the shiny set of keys dangling from the door of the shiny new Dodge at the dealership, and you’re thinking, “This isn’t what my memoir is about.”

So then you take a break from your memoir and you draft a blog post about shame, which you start thinking is not half-bad, and so you begin revising and playing with words and researching outlets that might publish something like that, but while you are doing this, you remember that last spring you were working on a piece for the New York Time’s Modern Love column and so you find that and start revising it, and then you are googling your dead ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend and so you stop.

At some point, I also searched “shame” in my blog archives and discovered that I’ve written 59 separate posts that at least mention it. This makes 60. I may soon have to acknowledge its existence.

Now about that 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum: As an ethical memoirist, if someone told you a story when you were a child and you have always believed it to be true but then you find out it’s not technically true, actually not even close, can you still use the story without fessing up that it’s not true after all? If everyone involved is long dead? I’m asking for a friend, of course.

And – BAM! Another 482 words, done.

 

Memoir Misery

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I keep reminding myself, I did this on purpose. I am sequestered at my solitary little house in New Hampshire for a month; whole days pass with no human contact except an occasional text message that’s somehow made its way over the rivers and through the woods to my grandmother’s house.

I am here to write, or at least to think about writing. I also had dreams of repairing broken windowpanes and painting mildew-pocked walls, but once I got here I realized that a month isn’t that long after all. I do need to find a way to keep the chipmunks from bringing all their belongings through the broken attic window and settling in for the winter, but otherwise, writing is enough.

More than enough, it seems. I’ve been messing about with this memoir for years and have now promised myself that by the end of this month, I will either have found the themes, patterns, and connections that give my life meaning, or I will stop pretending that I’m writing a memoir. Grandiose, right? Perhaps I need to narrow my scope a bit. (I’ve always loved an existential crisis.)

The Grand Endeavor

I’ve been reading books about writing memoir and I’ve been reading memoirs and I’ve been reflecting on memories. I’m not certain what type of memoir this is trying to be, but it has elements of coming-of-age and of a spiritual journey — and it’s hard to ignore my struggle with addiction. All of which require mining the past for often-painful memories.

This is why I’ve been here five days and only yesterday put pen to paper.

As Sven Birkerts says in his brilliant book, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, “The memoirist writes, above all else, to redeem experience, to reawaken the past, and to find its pattern; better yet {s}he writes to discover behind bygone events a dramatic explanatory narrative.”

Think about that. It’s kind of overwhelming!

Especially when you consider Virginia Woolf’s theory that what makes certain memories stand out is that they have in some way shocked our systems. So when you write memoir, you are nudging long-buried “shocks” back to the fore. Woolf, though, saw great value in this. “The shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it . . . it is or will become a revelation of some order.”

Her philosophy, she says, is that behind everything “is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the world is a work of art.” (This is a fine example of the universality that writers seek: Woolf called herself an atheist, yet this Jesus follower completely tracks with her philosophy of life.)

The Challenge Ahead

So here I sit, swinging from Virginia Woolf’s soaring philosophy to the more practical considerations of “Chapter One.” In their user-friendly book, Breaking Ground on Your Memoir: Craft, Inspiration, and Motivation for Memoir Writers, authors Myers and Warner lay out a step-by-step process of building a memoir. The first step is to identify turning points in your life, important “moments of change” that provide the hooks for your story. They may seem clearly significant, or they may not. You start by brainstorming freely.

The first turning point that came to my mind? The day I discovered my tiny toad Sally’s pale legs sticking out of my big toad Fred’s mouth and I chose to extricate her despite my poor mother standing behind me shrieking, “Melanie don’t, Melanie don’t!”

So you see what I’m working with here.

(To learn Sally’s fate, you have to buy the book. It should be out in about a decade.)

Memories of September 11, 2001

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MEMORIES OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

If you were alive and old enough to comprehend what was going on, you have your memories. Here are mine:

Hearing about the first plane strike on NPR as I got ready to leave for my office on Capitol Hill and thinking, “That wasn’t an accident.”

Arriving at work, turning on the TV, seeing the Pentagon in flames and thinking, “We are being attacked. This is a war.”

Huddling around the TV with a dozen others as we watched the tower fall, and saying over and over, uncomprehendingly, “Are there people in there? Are there people in that building?”

Standing on the deck outside our office and seeing a plume of smoke rise into the air beyond the Capitol building — the Pentagon burning.

Frantically trying to get my coworkers to move away from the windows, fearing that the Capitol would be next. They laughed at me, none of us realizing that at that moment, the heroes of Flight 93 were taking down the plane that was aimed at the beautiful dome just a few blocks away.

The weight of making the decision to send everyone home, even though we weren’t sure it was safe. Walking to my car and passing hundreds of congressional aides milling around dialing their useless cell phones. All systems were down.

Battling evacuating traffic and finally reaching my neighborhood just as the NPR reporter signed off his long and painful shift.  His voice was cracking and wavering with emotion.

Pulling over to the side of the road and wailing like a bereft child.

Stopping at the sub shop because I didn’t want to go home alone. Nobody speaking. An older woman looking at me and shaking her head, over and over, as if trying to expel the images.

A friend came over that night. I don’t remember much of what we said as we tried to process the day, but I remember telling her that I felt like I’d lost an innocence I hadn’t even known existed, and that I would never feel safe again.

In Memoriam

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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