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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…

I’m Not a Writer, But I Play One at Cocktail Parties

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I took a writing workshop from author Nora Gallagher this weekend, and she pointed out that people who aren’t writers ought not to teach writing. Her tongue-in-cheek comment made me shudder. Is that where I’m headed?

After three years of blogging, a handful of published pieces, and a shiny new be-ribboned diploma from Hopkins, I am only just beginning to accept the moniker “writer,” and I think it’s because people are asking me to teach writing workshops. So I must be a writer, right?

As Nora painfully reminded me, it ain’t necessarily so. {For you non-writers, this is a “literary allusion,” a technique whereby an author references something like an idea or an artistic work, and it’s up to the reader to make the “connection.” In case your brain synapses are too youthful to make that connection: “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is a song from George and Ira’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess.}

The technique I employed immediately after employing the “literary allusion” is referred to as “literary hubris,” whereby an author uses lots of random “quotation marks” and tosses around words like “whereby” and draws distinctions between writers and non-writers, and calls famous authors by their first names. Nonchalant laughter: “I’d like to get Sylvia’s take on that.” If you attend cocktail parties with “Writers” who “Network,” you may be familiar with this literary device. (Note: never ask who Sylvia might be. It’s the poet, Plath.)

How To Avoid Becoming a Poseur

How I hate the idea of being a poseur, someone who lives a writer’s life but feels like a fake. I’m not so much worried about what others think, as I am about coming to disrespect myself. What must I do to escape this fate? Should I decline teaching opportunities in order to avoid becoming Nora’s dreaded non-writing writing teacher?

No! I lead workshops because I like leading workshops. I take writing classes because I like writing classes. I read books about writing because I like books about writing. I even embarrass myself by reading at open mic poetry nights because I like reading my poetry, unsophisticated as it may be.

The thing I’m missing is the writing. I haven’t been writing. I can barely get a blog post together.

I should write. Every day. Blogging counts, but it’s more like warming up for the “real” thing — I know this sentiment probably annoys some bloggers. Sorry. But I see true writing as a marathon. Blogging is the warming up, the keeping in shape. The long race takes discipline and endurance and perseverance and strategy and real tough stuff like structure and pacing and cohesive narrative arcs. And something worth saying.

Because I’m not sure I can pull all that off, I don’t start. Well, not true. I start quite frequently. I just don’t keep going. I skip the discipline and perseverance part.

But somehow, I still think I’m a writer.

That’s new. That’s good. That’s a start. Now I just need to write.

Me, posing as a writer doing a book signing. It's actually an anthology, which means it's really someone else's book; I'm just in it.

Me, posing as a writer doing a book signing. It’s actually an anthology, which means it’s really someone else’s book; I just have an essay in it.

That’s a Strange Post for Martin Luther King Day

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Ignominious. Isn’t that a marvelous word? I thought it might be fun to pull a favorite word out of my gray matter once in a while and write about it. Kind of stream of consciousness, but not entirely because that’s hard to do without sounding ignominiously affected. Virginia Woolf, I am not.

Anyway, ignominious is an adjective that means “deserving or causing public disgrace or shame.” Some synonyms include humiliating, undignified, embarrassing, and mortifying. I’m not sure why the word popped into my head this morning. Perhaps it’s because some friends and I were talking about family alcoholism and drug addiction, and stories of shame and disgrace naturally came up.

I’ve been thinking about alcoholism a lot lately, I guess because of the drunken fiasco in the streets of Philadelphia that I witnessed on New Year’s Eve, and because a friend of mine’s husband just died from the disease. I drafted a blog about alcoholism, but it’s on hold, along with yet another one about differing views on God, this one brought on when my atheist neighbor passed away last week.

I’m not writing about those things, though, I’m writing about ignominiousness. Ooo – it’s even better in the form of a noun, isn’t it? It somehow brings to mind the sound a spider might make skittering along it’s web to bind up fresh prey. Ignominiousness, ignominiousness . . .

I read in the Oxford dictionary that there are few words that rhyme fully with ignominious. The name Phineas, as in, “The dirty dancing of Phineas was ignominious.” And another word — new to me — consanguineous, which denotes people descended from the same ancestor: “My attempt to prove that Virginia Woolf and I are consanguineous was ignominious.”

And my favorite ignominious-rhyming word, which probably deserves a whole blog post of its own: sanguineous. I’ve always loved the word sanguine, meaning optimistic or positive, especially in the face of a bad situation. I love what it means, and I love how it sounds.

And what about the noun, sanguineousness? That sounds nothing at all like skittering spiders — more like a sea otter gliding across the ocean on its back with a pup on its tummy.

Well, even a stream of consciousness post must have some sort of point. Since it’s Martin Luther King Day, let’s make it about racial justice. And here it is: despite many being in positions of power, despite some being armed to the teeth, despite having a legal system skewed their direction, opponents of racial justice in America will eventually go down in ignominious defeat.

Like the police who turned firehoses full-force on peaceful African-American marchers so many years ago and created for themselves an eternal, ignominious reputation, the systems of white privilege, which many white people are unable to see simply because they know nothing else, will — eventually — be nothing but an ignominious chapter in the history books.

And that’s not just sanguineousness. That’s the arc of history bending towards justice.

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Want to Know My Dream?

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The question makes me laugh: “You just inherited a dilapidated, crumbling-down grand mansion in the countryside — what do you do with it?” As it turns out, this is not a theoretical question for me. Today’s WordPress Daily Prompt is, in fact, a reality in my life.

All except the second part of the prompt, “Assuming money is no issue…” That part is definitely theoretical. Oh, and the part about it being a grand mansion. That’s not exactly true either.

What is true is that I have inherited the loveliest piece of real estate on the planet, named Quiet Hills by my grandmother Beedie who purchased the place in 1940. The old (1782) Cape Cod in the countryside of New Hampshire could probably be described as somewhat dilapidated, but I don’t see it that way. 

Quiet Hills

Quiet Hills

Because of the money issue, I don’t spend time dreaming of what it might become, I just enjoy it for what it is: a wildlife sanctuary of woods and meadows and a quaint house full of ghosts and massive old furniture, which I imagine house servants slathering with beeswax back in the day. It smells of lavender and witch hazel and my grandmother’s face powder. 

On still nights, I can hear the Ashuelot River rushing over boulders at the foot of the hill. The Hermit Thrush announces the setting of the sun, and the Great Horned Owl welcomes the falling of darkness. I can’t say what happens at dawn because that’s not my thing. I always stay up too late reading Beedie’s musty old novels to see the dawn.

But . . . but — what if I had money?

A Writer’s Haven

No question. Quiet Hills would be a retreat house for writers and nature lovers and spiritual seekers. I’d give classes in writing techniques and in contemplative spiritual practices like Centering Prayer and Lectio Divina (sacred reading). 

We would have silent retreats, too, and I’d have someone teach yoga  and tai chi. I’d set up nature trails on the property with prayer prompts along the way, and build a prayer labyrinth with benches and weeping birch trees around the edges. People would frequently have life-changing spiritual epiphanies there.

Prayer labyrinth

Prayer labyrinth

I’d run a bed & breakfast for my retreatants, and every morning my helper would get up early and make a humongous country breakfast. Our speciality would be blueberry muffins with berries from our fields and fresh butter from two dairy cows who roam the meadows and come into the old coach house for milking. And eggs, too, from my chickens who eat the pests in the vegetable garden where lush tomato vines are heavy with warm fruit and the aroma of sweet basil is overpowering. There would be no meat in our meals, and no one would miss it.

Eggs, not meat

Eggs, not meat

I’d fix up the massive barn; one end would be a huge picture window overlooking the woods — that’s where we would hold workshops, and there would be sleeping quarters in the lofts above. In the corners of the barn I’d have mounds of brightly colored handmade quilts for people to snuggle into each autumn and to spread out in the meadows for writing and naps in the summer. 

I’d get custom-made windows for the main house, and insulation, so I could be there in the winters, too. I’d build a big stone hearth and fireplace in the living room where the small wood-burning stove is now, and expand the kitchen to fit several long tables where people could eat together. Why not put a fireplace in the kitchen, too? And a big bay window with lots of hummingbird feeders just outside. Everyone would marvel at the constant comings and goings of the hovering jewels.

I’d have all new (but vintage) wallpaper and curtains and oriental rugs, and wall-to-ceiling bookcases in every room, because after all, this is a writer’s retreat. I’d have lots of bathrooms, and instead of the dug wells that run dry in August, there would be an artesian well sunk deep into cold, underground springs. There would be a jacuzzi. 

Best of all, Quiet Hills B&B retreat house would be free for those who couldn’t afford my already reasonable rates. Money should be no hindrance to dreams.

And that, WordPress Daily Prompt, is what I would do with my dilapidated inheritance if I had money. Now – please tell me that this is actually a contest, and I win, and the prize is that you’re going to fund my dream. 

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Musings on Hornet Sex, Snakes, and Being a Failed Writer

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I hate being a writer. I shouldn’t even call myself a writer. What am I doing on a writing retreat with actual writers? I suck.

The voice in my head prattles on, and now I realize there’s a new voice picking up the theme.

“My poetry sucks,” calls Sheila from the yard where she sits on a blanket in the sun, looking every bit a writer.

“No! You’re great. Keep going,” says Sarah from her perch on the front porch. She, too, looks like a writer, surrounded by books and papers riffling in the breeze.

Sheryl sits next to me on the second floor porch, Mac Air open on her lap. She’s watching a pair of hornets. “Are they having sex?” They are, his furry rump rhythmically bouncing against the female’s smooth one. Sheryl and I comment that neither of us has ever envisioned bee sex, despite the proverbial birds & bees. The male hornet abruptly flies off and the female methodically wipes her hind parts with her back legs and departs in another direction.

“I had an idea for a new forward for my memoir, but now I can’t remember what it was.” Sheryl sighs, gets up, and goes inside.

I’m left sitting here with two dead-end memoir trails and two crappy poems that I’m embarrassed to even save on my computer after hearing Sheila and Sarah read their poetry last night.

I was excited about this trip to The Porches, a writer’s retreat in the foothills of southern Virginia. A few of us came last year, and I’ve thought of that trip with longing all year – Wow, can’t wait to get back to The Porches; I’m going to get so much done!

The Porches  Writing Retreat

The Porches
Writing Retreat

Now that I’m here, I begin to recall the painful false starts and fruitless scribbling I experienced on my last visit. Then, too, my harsh inner voice called “Failure!” I had brought along a file full of scenes and characters for a short story everyone said needed to be a novel. I was ready to launch my literary career.

I can’t remember what I ended up writing, but it wasn’t a famous novel. It wasn’t even fiction. As much as I wish I could write fiction, it rarely happens because there’s this little element called “plot” that completely escapes me.

I probably wrote a blog post about what a fraud I was, and how I wasn’t really a writer and what was I doing on a writing retreat anyway?

Maybe the muse will strike this afternoon. Maybe not. Maybe I’ll just spend the rest of the weekend reading a book I would never have glanced at a few years ago, but which I’m finding fascinating: The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters.

It’s much easier to read about writing than to actually write.

Still, it’s a lovely day – spring has fully arrived. The redbuds on the sides of the road boldly claim their moment, and the trees along the river are dusted mint green.

Quince Blossom

Quince Blossom

Narcissus and Violets

Narcissus and Violets

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I came across a lively black snake this morning celebrating the sunshine in a newly planted bed of pansies. Maybe she’s my muse . . .

Slithering Muse?

Slithering Muse?

The Books on my Doorstep

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Like many of you, I am a book addict, so although the arrival of two brown, rectangular packages on my front porch was far from unusual, it nevertheless occasioned a quick intake of breath and a widening of the eyes, if not an actual skip of my heartbeat.

The best part about such parcels is the element of surprise, in that I often don’t remember what I’ve ordered during my mad midnight searches for a satisfying read. The other best part, which is unique to this particular delivery, is that I have been stuck in William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 British satire “Vanity Fair” for nigh on four months, and I am a mere one hundred pages from the end of the eight-hundred-page tome. I can see the light of approaching freedom as sure as the days are (finally) getting longer!

William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray – Doesn’t he look like a jolly fellow?

I always read a long, dense novel during the winter, usually of the Russian variety but sometimes an Anthony Trollope, which are lighter but still qualify as dense by virtue of their length. But Thackeray — well, I don’t know if I’ll read another one. It’s not entirely the  book. This winter has been insufferably long and cold and dark and dreadful. It’s not Thackeray’s fault my brother died in December. Still, good riddance to both the book and the winter.

Presents to Myself

It was this anticipation of escape from England in the Napoleonic Age that imparted an extra dose of excitement as I tore into those rectangular packages yesterday. Here, because of your intense interest in my personal life and inner musings, is what I found:

  • Portofino by Frank Schaeffer: This is the first in a trilogy, recommended by one of my favorite friends who is also an author with a great nose for a great read. He used to be an English professor and he reads incessantly. If you don’t know Brian McLaren and his books, especially if you are spiritually inclined, you should visit his website. I was attracted to Portfino because it’s set in Italy, a country that won my heart in one two-week stay four years ago, and because the reviews call it “richly ironic and satirical . . . hilarious . . . laugh-out loud funny.” I need that. It pokes “gentle fun at the foibles of religious zealotry without disparaging the deep dedication behind it.” There’s apparently a character in it who always packs a ski sweater and a small Bible in case the Russians invade and send them to Siberia.
  • Elsewhere by Richard Russo: This is Russo’s recent memoir. I only just discovered him a few years ago, and I enjoy his novels for a light read. He’s amazing at creating characters and local color, and I figure those quirky folks and locales must come from his life experience; I want to meet them. Because I like writing memoir and would like to learn to write it in longer forms, I plan to read a lot of quality memoirs this summer. Do you have any suggestions for me? I’ve got quite a collection started, but am always open to recommendations.
  • Anna: A Daughter’s Life, by William Loizeaux: I am reading this out of a deep respect and fondness for the author, a writing professor I had at Johns Hopkins. This, too, is memoir, and no doubt memoir at its best. Bill taught memoir and personal essay, and this book is about the loss of his infant daughter. It is about grief, which will resonate with me, and it’s based on Bill’s journals, which also tracks with my journaling habit. “Stunning, clear-eyed, and lyrical . . . remarkable eloquence, passion, and honesty,” says the Washington Post (reviewed back when the Post had something useful to say). This sounds exactly like the Bill Loizeaux I know.
  • 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East by Naomi Shihab Nye: My appreciation for poetry is really quite new, so this is a big step for me. Nye’s is only the second book of poetry I’ve ever purchased. I once bought a book of Wendell Berry’s poems because it needed to be on my bookshelf – he’s an icon. I had read an excerpt from Nye’s poem “Different Ways to Pray” a year ago and found it very moving, so I put her book on my “to buy later when I like poetry better” list. The time was right.

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Here is the opening of Naomi Nye’s poem “Different Ways to Pray”:

∠∠∠

“There was the method of kneeling,

a fine method, if you lived in a country

where stones were smooth.

Women dreamed wistfully of

hidden corners where knee fit rock.

Their prayers, weathered rib bones,

small calcium words uttered in sequence,

as if this shedding of syllables could

fuse them to the sky.

∠∠∠

There were men who had been shepherds so long

they walked like sheep.

Under the olive trees, they raised their arms –

Hear us! We have pain on earth!

We have so much pain there is no place to store it!

But the olives bobbed peacefully

in fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.

At night the men ate heartily, flat bread

and white cheese,

and were happy in spite of the pain,

because there was also happiness.”

 

Lovely as her poetry is, I will not allow myself to begin any of these new literary adventures until I make peace with Mr. Thackeray. The daffodils are blooming, and it’s time to leave my winter read behind. Way behind.

What are you reading that’s good? Don’t forget to recommend a memoir for me! Happy Spring.

 

Related Posts:

https://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/for-book-lovers-only/

Other bookish blogs I like:

http://emilyjanuary.wordpress.com/best-of-my-bookshelf/

http://teabooksthoughts.wordpress.com/

Although I’m not a huge beer-drinker, check out my friend Oliver’s blog Literature and Libation. He’s a talented writer.

A Fourteen-Sentence Glimpse into My Journal

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Why not? I’ll give you treasured readers a glimpse into my treasured pages – I’ve been keeping a journal since I was fifteen. A while. While much of it is drivel, if you make like a butterfly and just flit across the pages alighting here and there, you’ll find my life.

So here, in single sentences, is my recent two-week trip to my retreat in New Hampshire:

NH Nov2012 002b

Nov 7th: The visit started with a dent in my force shield, with the discovery that X had been here and stolen Bambi from the entryway.

Nov 8th: And it was evening and it was morning, a second day.

Nov 9th: Laugh for the morning: I’m reading about four qualities that often go with living with alcoholism — martyrdom, management, manipulation, and mothering, and I find myself thinking, “Oh my God, with this situation with X, my default has been to feel like a martyr, to try to figure out his motivations so I can manipulate him, and to manage his behavior – hmmmm, maybe I should try mothering him.”

Nov 10th: After four years of this, I’ve finally called a lawyer; so now there’s nothing else to be done except homicide, and that’s frowned upon.

Nov 11th: My tailbone is bruised from a twelve-hour-sit in a straight-backed wooden chair – I’ve got to get this thesis done!

Nov 12th: Just the sense of being thoroughly present at this kitchen table is pure joy, although out the window the field needs mowing badly – but there’s nothing I can do about that today.

Nov 13th: I dropped too much money at the Monadnock Co-op, but there’s no use crying over spilled walnuts, olives, and organic cheese curls.

Nov 14th: I’ll light a fire early today – haven’t had one in a few nights.

Nov 15th: I slept in this morning because I stayed up too late reading and drowsing by the fire; then woke to find the kitchen pipes froze last night – hope they’ll thaw without excitement!

Nov 16th: It gets dark so early now – the sun has gone behind the mountain at 4:30 and it’s cold and I’m sad.

Nov 17th: I sent my last essay to S and she says it’s FABULOUS and I’ve done great work – so there you have it, I HAVE FINISHED MY THESIS: This is happening, folks!

Nov 18th: Two days behind schedule, gotta put up the storm windows, clean out the fireplace, haul in the picnic table, vacuum, scrub mildew, visit T and ask him to shut off the water . . .

Nov 19th: No entry

Nov 20th: It’s very good to be home and done with travel for the year.

Nov 21st: Today is another day: I have tea, I have cats, life is good – my plan is to unpack, clean, and prep for the upcoming Advent spiritual retreat.

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