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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

 

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

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!!

I’ve Missed You!

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I miss you. It’s been months since I’ve written here, by far the longest silent stretch since I started Writing with Spirit six-plus years ago. I can’t explain it, it just is what it is. For a few weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get back in, but I haven’t found an obvious doorway.

It’s Lent, I always write during Lent. And there have been lots of mass shootings — I always rage and offer prayers after one of those. The person in the White House continues to be an embarrassment, a danger, and an outrage. What’s new? Why waste the ink on him? Why contribute to the negativity? America made a huge mistake and it may take us down; take the planet down. We all know that.

At last count there were approximately 323 Democrats or sort-of Democrats vowing to take on the monster in 2020. In the past, I would have had plenty to say about all of them.

And yesterday the Mueller report came out – now there’s something to write about! But no. No words for any of that.

Am I a Pastor or Am I a Lap?

One reason I think I have not written is that I had news to share but I did not know how to share it. I stepped down from my pastoral role at church in the fall. It was a difficult decision that played out over the summer, during which time I lost both my cats. (I think I told you that part.) I don’t know quite why that was relevant, but it was. Perspective, I guess. Life is short, live in the moment.

I remember at one point thinking, “The most important role I have in life right now is to sit in this chair with this sweet dying cat in my lap.” That’s it. I realized I was just a lap. A loving lap.

Mostly it had to do with space. I was supposed to be the Pastor of Prayer and Healing, leading people into silence and contemplative practices, preaching about making space for God in your life. And there was no space in my life. I wasn’t practicing what I preached. And as long as there was no space, I could not sense God nudging me into different paths, or whispering to me about who I am meant to become. It’s always uncomfortable to step away from one thing before you know exactly (or even vaguely) where you are headed next, but sometimes it’s wise.

Anyway, I’m still leading retreats and groups and occasionally helping with worship and so on, but the burden is less. It was a good choice. Maybe I’ll write more about it in the future, but I just wanted to get it out there, because I felt a big part of my identity had shifted and it seemed disingenuous not to share that. Maybe now I can move on and write more regularly.

Entering the Desert for Lent

Most years, Lent is a busy season for me, while at the same time being reflective. This year I simply skipped town. I went into the desert for Lent, which is appropriate, since the season is meant to reflect the forty days Jesus spent in the desert wilderness before he began his ministry.

But I didn’t spend much time in self-examination and repentance. No ashes on my forehead for Ash Wednesday. Instead, I flew out to Albuquerque with a girlfriend and spent two weeks cruising around the New Mexican desert in a rental car. We collected cool desert rocks, visited museums, parks, and wildlife refuges, wandered through the ruins of Spanish missions and Pueblo Indian villages, drank margueritas, bought turquoise and silver, and soaked in the same hot springs that Geronimo is said to have frequented.

We gazed at distant horizons instead of computer screens. I read only books about New Mexico: no politics, spiritual growth, or fiction. Living in the moment. We drove for what seemed hours without seeing another car. At night the starfields left us speechless, which is perfectly comfortable when you’ve known someone for sixty years, as E and I have.

In short, I’m practicing “living life to the full,” as Jesus recommended.

There — now I’ve slipped back into the blogosphere. More pictures and stories from New Mexico to come.

Yucca at White Sands National Monument

E wandering in the desert

Native American petroglyph of the Easter Bunny (Petroglyphs National Monument)

Bee in Apricot Blossom

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.)

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.

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.

In Honor of National Coming Out Day

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I want to recognize and celebrate National Coming Out Day, even if I don’t seem to be able to string together two sentences lately. I used to get stressed out when I had nothing to offer the empty page or the blank blog, but these days I am being kind to myself.

It is what it is (or isn’t).

Like many Americans, I am alternatively depressed, angry, stunned, or terrified by the raging chaos in the White House that has spewed onto the international stage. The result of the jarring tug-of-war in my head is a kind of creative paralysis. I’m not even writing in my personal journal, which is pretty unusual. It’s almost as if any type of reflection is dangerous — I need to be detached at the moment.

Still, on some occasions we must rise above, and I deem National Coming Out Day to be one of those occasions.

The pain and confusion experienced by most LGBTQ people at some time in their lives has deeply affected me in ways that I won’t go into right now. I have seen the utter misery of someone who is unable to come out of the closet, and I have witnessed the ebullient joy of someone finally being true to who they are.

I honor the courage of my friends and family who have struggled, and I salute you today — in or out of the closet. May there come a day when all feel safe being themselves.

Today and everyday I reject judgment, intolerance, hatred, and bigotry, most especially when it purports to be connected with Jesus Christ. That spirit does not come from the Jesus I know.

“The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (The Bible, Galatians 5:22-23.)

Period. And amen.

I Want To Write About Charlottesville

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I want to write about Charlottesville. About watching my Twitter feed in horror as scene after scene scrolled by — swastikas, confederate flags, t-shirts emblazoned with Hitler slogans, torches of hate surrounding a church full of peaceful praying people, a black boy being beaten with poles, and finally the car — the car crashing into living, breathing, beautiful human beings.

I want to say Heather Heyer’s name.

But I can’t seem to gather the words.

I want to write about how I wonder if even just a few trump voters are thinking, “Oops.”

If they might see the teensiest connection between the largest gathering of white supremacists in modern history and the election of a man who encouraged his supporters to commit violence and pledged to pay their legal bills, expressed regret that he couldn’t punch a protester in the face, yearned for the good old days when people were carried out on stretchers, and just the other day advised the police to rough up people in their custody.

But there simply aren’t words.

I want to write about the nameless fear and deep sickness and vast emptiness that must be devouring those raging white men who chant “We will not be replaced.” What is that? Whatever happens with healthcare, can we at least get these people some therapy?

I want to write about how I smirked at the images of the little boys with their tiki-torches and the fact that the Tiki-Torch company actually had to disavow nazism — I mean, it’s all so ridiculous — but then I remembered how much evil a bunch of “boys” with a simple loop of rope can do.

There aren’t words.

I want to write about the feeling of solidarity at the rally yesterday, thousands and thousands of us marching purposefully, signs aloft, our chants booming off the hulking federal buildings that line the roads in the nation’s capitol and then rising to a thunderous crescendo of “SHAME, SHAME, SHAME, SHAME” as we passed the trump hotel.

And my further feelings of love and gratitude when I got home and found dozens of Twitter photos of demonstrations and vigils in Philly, New York, Boston, Baltimore, Las Vegas, Orlando, Atlanta, Durham, Vancouver . . . and virtually all of my Facebook friends expressing grief, determination, love, and commitment to fighting for justice in whatever ways they can.

My friends didn’t post pictures of their cats and appetizers this weekend.

But all of these feelings are too much. There aren’t the words.

So although I want to write about Charlottesville but am unable, I will instead leave you with a quote from Anne Frank, which I must believe or I would perish.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

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