Words and Phrases I Have Learned

Cricket on a leafDrowning in a Sea of Despair vs. Refusing to Drown in a Sea of Despair

These phrases loom in my thoughts as news of yet another outrageous development in Washington threatens the hard-won rights and freedoms I consider fundamental to life in a democratic country. My country, this one that I left and returned to, twice, because there is no other place on earth I want to live, seems to be under siege from within. The deep physical response of my body shocks me. What can I do to pull myself out of this Miasma of Misery?

I can write, of course. But I know that if I give myself free rein, I will only circle more rapidly down the Drain of Despair. I decided to find an apolitical topic that is at least mildly amusing, perhaps one I’ve discussed recently that made me laugh at myself. Like this one:

Crickets

The other day, while chatting in the car with my daughter Daniela about a recent medical appointment, I mentioned I hadn’t heard back from my doctor at Scripps.

“Crickets?” she said.

Why was she changing the subject? “Where?” I asked.  “On your patio?”

I knew she had a phobia of roaches infesting her downtown patio, but this was the first I’d heard about crickets. Personally, I’ve always liked crickets because I think the Chinese consider them lucky. They keep them in little bamboo cages where their perky chirping enlivens the home.

At the wheel, Daniela was shaking with laughter.

“Why are you laughing? What’s so funny about crickets?”

After my daughter caught her breath, she explained. “It’s the buzzword for when there is no answer to your question, no response. All you hear is the sound of crickets.”

Oh. Eye roll. Who knew? But people do because the very next day I heard it used on a talk show. Now that I am in the know, I’m sure I’ll hear it again soon.

I’m just waiting for a chance to use it.

Squirrel

A week after the crickets incident, I visited the same daughter and her one-year-old son Lucas. My youngest grandson tottered over to the couch where I sat and handed me a toy. A drop of saliva glistened on his protruding lower lip, his limpid eyes focused squarely on mine.

“Thank you, Lucas,” I said. Daniela explained the drool.

“He has a lower tooth coming in. I can see the little bud on his gum.”

I leaned forward and wiped away the droplet while trying to sneak a peek inside his mouth. In typical toddler style, he clamped it shut and pushed his face closer to mine, reaching for my glasses. I pulled away and laughed. “Nope, not the glasses.”

Deterred, he lost interest and darted away.

“Squirrel,” commented his mother with a chuckle.

I looked around the living room for a rogue rodent. All was quiet on the patio behind the screen door. No live squirrel. No stuffed squirrel among the toys in the play yard. No dead squirrel anywhere. Lucas was pulling apart a Lego construction that had not been a squirrel.

“Squirrel?” I wanted to know. “Where?”

And then she was laughing at me again, just like that other day in the car. Gasping for air, she explained:

“It just means his attention span is like a dog that sees a squirrel. Everybody says that.”

“Like crickets?” I asked.

“Yes. Like crickets.”

So, crickets and squirrels: who knew?

G.O.A.T.

In keeping with my renewed desire to stay current with the latest language developments regarding non-human references, I have come upon another one. It happened during the only sporting tournament I ever follow, the World Cup. I became a soccer fan during the twenty years I lived in Peru, where el futból is the only game in town.

Two weeks after the squirrel incident, I switched off the Peru/Australia match, sorting through my mixed emotions about Peru making two goals in this game against nil by the Aussies, but still going home empty-handed, and turned to the news.

In general World Cup coverage, CBS news showed a grinning and mostly clean-shaven Cristiano Ronaldo fingering a tuft of hair on his chin. His chiseled cheekbones and delicate mouth were turned at an angle to the camera; the Russian sun shone on the smooth, tanned skin of his face and neck, blessedly unmarred by tattoo ink, his haircut conservative and neat. Long, lean legs, flat abdomen, sculpted arms, a wicked gleam in his eyes….Full disclosure: In my opinion, this sexy Portuguese player is a perfect male physical specimen, on and off the pitch. Just saying.

With an impish grin, Ronaldo continued messing around with his new goatee for the camera, when the commentator’s words finally penetrated my brain. Something about GOAT as the reason for the goatee.

What? I considered his name: Cristiano means Christian—no goat reference there. Ronaldo is just a sir-name, as far as I know, and not the name of any famous goats, if, indeed, there are some.

As the reporting continued, a somber portrait filled the screen. In a beautiful ad for Adidas, an impeccably groomed Lionel Messi sat, regal and impassive, against a dark background, his burnished hair and short auburn beard neatly trimmed. In front of him loomed the head of a glowing russet-colored goat with delicately curled horns, steady gaze, and a full, flowing beard. And, wow, the beards matched! Same color!

Had Adidas started a hair-coloring line? Is that goat a species endemic to Argentina and the name of a new shoe design in honor of the country’s most famous player?

Not exactly. It soon became clear that I was way off base. Again.

G.O.A.T. stands for Greatest Of All Time in the sports world and is used in lots of sports, not just this one. Messi and Ronaldo are currently the top contenders for this title in soccer.

I’ve added it to my list.

I feel better now. Crickets, squirrels, and goats have given me a reason to laugh at myself this month. I’ll need to dig deeper for the Fourth of July.

a photo of guest blogger Nancy VillalobosNancy has been a member of the San Diego writing community for the past seventeen years, taking multiple courses at UCSD Extension as well as attending Marni Freedman’s Thursday Read and Critique group in Encinitas. She lives in Carlsbad with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Coco. An excerpt from her memoir will be published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman, 2018.

 

Photo Credit: Nancy Villalobos and pixabay.com/796465

If Meditating Pisses You Off, Try Connecting

meditating, a flower floating in a pondMeditating pisses me off. Mostly because I feel like I’m failing every time I go to quiet my endlessly active monkey brain.

However, I know that getting quiet and accessing that meditative state is one of the most fruitful and rewarding experiences we writers can have.

The other day, while wandering through the Huffington Post, I came upon this quote:

“Mindfulness meditation is a great technique to help improve creativity. It … reduces the reactivity of the reptilian brain, increases resilience, stimulates the neocortex, as well as improves emotional intelligence. All these assist in getting ideas flowing directly to your best creative thinking brain: the neocortex.”—Bianca Rothschild, Huffington Post

Let me be clear: I have deep respect for successful meditators. I aspire to be one of those awesome people who can sit on a cushion with legs crossed, palms up and go deep for twenty minutes or more a day. But somehow when I’m on my second inhale of breathing deeply my cat always seems to puke or a pipe burst.

Why Is It Essential to Connect to That Meditative State?

Artists and writers have long attributed their creative inspiration from being able to access this state. Many look to it as a form of otherworldly guide. Some call it the hypnagogic state, which is the realm between sleep and wakefulness, where both the theta and the alpha waves are present. (Hypnagogia comes from the Greek words for “sleep” and “guide”). During this state, it seems that the brain is more open to finding unique connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. Many studies have shown a strong link between the waking-dream state and improved problem solving and increased creativity.

The Beatles shared that many melodies from their songs, including ‘Yesterday,’ came to them in that state or in their dreams. Mary Shelly described the story Frankenstein as having come to her in a waking dream. The Disney Company adopted meditation in the workplace early on. After employees meditated, they noticed a marked increase in creativity. The painter, Salvador Dali, described that his surreal paintings came directly from his dreams. Dali called this state “the slumber with a key.”

Finding a Way to Connect

So, suffice it to say that getting quiet and accessing this realm is chock full of good stuff for artists and writers. But what if you are like me, and sitting down to mediate only pisses you off? How do you connect, download and access that state of infinite possibilities?

For me, I noticed that at certain times in my daily routine, a steady flow of ideas would show up. As I investigated further, I realized that the ideas would most often flow while gardening, taking a long walk, or making a slow-cook soup.

What was happening?

In time, I found that when I was going about the more calming activities of my daily life, I had unconsciously taken the pressure off. A level of peace was traveling through my motions. I was garden-meditating. I was cooking-meditating.

I was connecting.

If traditional meditation feels just a little beyond your reach right now, don’t give up on accessing that magical realm.

A Path to Connecting:

  • Pick an activity that you find calming. See if you can perform it just a little slower than usual. Allow moments of complete stillness within that activity.
  • While you are performing that calming task, ask to connect. Ask for the information you are seeking to be downloaded.
  • Allow the information to drop in. No matter how kooky or wild the information might seem. Just take pen to paper and allow it into your consciousness.

Other ideas:

  • Stay a little longer in bed. Juice that time between sleep and wakefulness. (Permission to sleep late.)
  • Check in with the sky. Cloud watch or star gaze. (Permission to look like an idiot on the street.)
  • Connect your body to nature with ongoing nature dates. Stick your feet in the sand, get wet in the ocean or hold gardening soil. (Permission to hug a tree.)

Connecting, going within, meditating, accessing the hypnagogic state—call your practice whatever you want, but do it regularly. For me, calling it connecting took the pressure off. It also allowed me to understand that I didn’t have to perform some magical ritual to experience that that rich realm of creativity. That realm was never very far.

If you want to try gaining some juicy tidbits from the slumber with the key:

Slow down, pay attention and ask the stars. And keep your notebook handy.

 

Photo by J A N U P R A S A D on Unsplash

Read and Critique

emoji scale from angry to happyReading my work aloud, followed by a peppering of critiques, sounded like a college hazing to me. Minus the alcohol. However, I had agreed with my writing coach, published author and ridiculously talented playwright (her most recent work—A Jewish Joke—is moving east, Off Broadway), that my work was ripe for fresh ears. Her group convenes at a California seaside cottage belonging to a creative artist named Barbara.

A First Impression

On that first day—my blind date with this scholarly firing squad—I cradled the introduction of my non-fiction self-help book under my arm as I opened the gate to Barbara’s property. Her garden telegraphed Henri Rousseau—towering birds of paradise, pebbled paths, a lush green backdrop.

I opened the cottage door to a cozy living room. Women of all ages greeted me with smiles and welcoming noises. Their chorus of “Hi, come on in!” did nothing to calm my nerves. These writers looked harmless, but I feared the worst. After all, my flimsy introduction made no sense. My writing lacked clarity, relevance, and imagery. The perfect expression of my work had eluded me despite my years of on-again, off-again attempts.

Thanks to the heavy lifting of my writing coach and my years of indentured servitude to my own determination, I held the semblance of a rough draft. Despite my misgivings, in the recesses of my soul, I held onto the faint hope that my writing was pretty darned good. That I was “almost finished.” I imagined the group’s hints about grammar or sequence. But the realistic part of me suspected that I had “miles to go before I would sleep.”

As we mingled, I wandered through Barbara’s home. I admired the colorful mugs on her kitchen counter, the tangerines, and almonds offered as snacks, the bold oil paintings on her dining room walls.

Shaking the hands of my fellow creatives, I warmed to the idea that reading might be fun.

Then we convened. Our leader, my beloved writing coach, began with her hilarious and warm introduction. Personal stories were shared, reports on projects bandied about. Then the invitation, would I like to read? I cleared my throat, and read in my best professional voice.

Having conducted workshops for my counselor peers, having taught for decades, having counseled belligerent parents whose violence required a police presence, NONE of these experiences prepared me for the sharing of my written words. Feeling equal parts faint and nauseated, I read my introduction to the listening audience.

Later That Night

Arriving home after that first dive, I told my husband, “Maybe I’m not ready for this read and critique challenge.” He asked me to elaborate.

“They’re all very encouraging. Lots of ‘this process will help people’ and ‘your message is good,’ but I could feel my words dying as they left my mouth. Each sentence felt like torture. I HATED my own work.”

I explained that the group did offer editing nuggets: structural advice, conceptual criticism, grammar tips. But all this help would force  me back to the page in a way that made my head spin. I had SO hoped to be nearing the finish line. Instead, I was just hearing a starting gun.

Of course, other members had arrived with their hot-off-the-press prose. I’d acted as a beta-reader for one of the authors. The sharing of her hilarious romp through China had us hooting with laughter. Pitch perfect comedy. Her work is destined for the big screen.

Then the amazing memoirists—their ability to lift their personal plights to compelling narrative—brilliance. And a travel writer who had us salivating for our next adventure. Every single writer at the top of her game. Oh, and the witty journalist whose intelligence shines through her every muscular sentence. Not fair!

One of our authors is a playwright. Our collective jaws dropped when she re-enacted one woman’s experience of the Nuremberg trials, props and flawless German accent included. Dazzling talent, destined for greatness.

I reminded myself that I was not competing. It was an honor to be among these creative creatures.

I cried on my husband’s shoulder for a few more moments, but then I HAD to make an attempt. Bitten by the bug of creative compulsion, I locked myself in the study. I cut, tore and soldered words onto the page. Every day for a week, I entered
that study with grim determination. Then a return performance.

Nevertheless, I Persisted

Back to the garden of verses, my revised introduction in my sweaty hands. I began. My words flowed easily. The body and fender work had paid off. They laughed; they applauded; I blushed.

Now, months later, I still feel a frisson of excitement each time I open the gate to Barbara’s garden. I live for Thursday mornings.

I can hardly wait for the unfolding of each writer’s next chapter. And, of course, for their responses to whatever I managed to whittle into a block of writing for my next reading.

 

Phyllis Olins headshotPhyllis Olins holds a master’s degree in counseling and has trained extensively

in conflict mediation. She has had over 20 years of experience in applying conflict-mediation

strategies to dilemmas in all walks of life.

 

Phyllis’ book, The Conflict Crunch, will be released in the spring of 2019.

 

Why Write?

a man on a mountaini holding his arm up while the sun is settingWhen struggling with a first draft, rewrite, edit, or final polish, do you ever ask yourself, why do I write? Why must I put myself through this excruciating exercise that I don’t have the time or energy for? I do. Sometimes writing feels Sisyphean, the interminable project-boulder keeps rolling back, nearly squishing me, and the moment I’m confirmed un-dead commands me in a Simon Cowell voice to DO IT BETTER.

How easily I forget the joy writing brings, the satisfaction, the peace. Which is why, during times like these, I must remind myself to ask this ever-important follow-up question: why did I start writing? This teases out the truth—it untangles the act of writing from the web of “things that make me busy” and reclaims its position at the forefront of “things that make me sane,” also known as, “self-care.”

Five Reasons We Write

If you, too, ask yourself why you started writing, I bet you’ll come back to one of these five reasons:

  • To make sense of something. Writing is one of the few ways to work out the tests we face and the choices we make, hopefully landing us on the positives in a sea of negatives.
  • To heal. Some of us heal by sharing our burden in hopes that people facing similar battles will feel less alone. We yearn to provide a balm for the next person in this struggle, in hopes their pain can be mitigated. In this way, writing is generous. And generosity heals both the writer and the reader.
  • To share a unique perspective. Maybe you saw a side of something that no one else had the opportunity to see. And maybe it bugs you that people are drawing conclusions without having the full story. This type of writing, though it may feel like a duty, also provides healing.
  • To provide a legacy. I wish my grandparents had written their stories; I’m so curious about their lives. I for one want to leave at least part of my history behind, from my perspective, for future curious progeny.
  • Because you don’t have a choice. Your story communicates to you in clear ways that it must be told, and you are the teller. Physical symptoms make it impossible not to write and tell you with certainty—your calling is not optional.

These reasons are distinct but also connected by their healing power, whether it be the healing of ourselves, our loved ones, our community, or humanity. And the best side-effect of the reasons our craft has hold of us—they force us to honor ourselves. Writing is our form of self-care, how we keep ourselves sane and show ourselves love. And when we do this, when we grant stories life, we also bestow an immense favor upon our world. We show, by example, that self-love comes first and then, with the energy that writing our truth breathes into us, our words have the opportunity to create change, soothe, heal, and share our love for humanity.

 

 Photo by Ian Stauffer on Unsplash

5 Ways Authors Can Pay It Forward

a person pulling another person up a mountainWe all know that nobody gets to where they are alone. There are a number of unsung heroes along the way that have given us a leg up so we can be who we are. In that spirit, it’s only appropriate that we help others on their way up.

How to Pay It Forward

Here are five mostly easy ways to pay it forward to other authors:

  1. Be a beta reader. Every author needs beta readers to help them identify the trouble spots in their manuscript at some point in their writing process. And you can help by reading their work and giving honest, true blue feedback. Not the “It was interesting” kind of bullshit, but the real stuff—you have a plot hole that needs patching, your stakes need to be higher, or “I was confused by that road trip.” Help fellow authors on their way to finishing. Bonus: You may also get to read an awesome story.
  2. Buy a copy of a finished book. Let’s face it: we writers buy a metric ton of books all the time. Why not spend $15 on someone you want to help? Heck, even just $5 for a Kindle version helps. And sometimes it’s not about the money their book brings in, but the warm fuzzy feeling that someone cares enough to buy their book is enough to keep them going on those tough days when writing feels impossible. Help someone keep writing.
  3. Write a review. For all that is good in the world, please write a damn review. Yes, it matters. It matters for every other person who lands on that book’s page with their finger hovering over the mouse key to take them to the next thing. Your review could be the difference between someone buying the book or buying socks instead. So it’s a win-win. The author sells a book, and you help someone make the right choice.
  4. Recommend the book. Did you just finish the most amazing book about a mystical book wizard living in Denver? And you happen to know someone who lives in Denver and loves wizards? Tell them! Books don’t recommend themselves. Word of mouth is one of the most powerful forms of advertising, so use it! It’s free for you to recommend a book that you loved, so why wouldn’t you? The bonus is that you’ll look like a smarty pants in the process, so by all means, push those glasses up the bridge of your nose and own it, brainiac.
  5. Teach someone. Yes, it’s labor intensive. Teaching any sort of class, whether it’s at the community center or a university, is hard work. It takes commitment, preparation, and know-how. But guess what? You already have the know-how, because you already fucking wrote something! And trust me, there are scores of writers out there dying to know how they can write better and finish what they’re working on. Sometimes, those classes are the difference between forging ahead and giving up. And YOU could be the person that helps them over those rough spots! While this is the most demanding way to pay it forward, it’s also the most rewarding and memorable. Plus, you can help multiple people at once, so now you’ve really paid it forward and deserve extra writer kudos.

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1807524/

Three Reasons to Write About Things We Don’t Talk About

The logo for the San Diego Memoir ShowcaseWhen we were brainstorming ideas for themes for this year’s San Diego Memoir Showcase, one theme kept circling back: Things We Don’t Talk About. People loved the idea, except for one cranky writer who came up to me and asked, “I don’t get it, why in the world would we want to write about things we don’t talk about?”

The question made me think. I didn’t have an answer at that moment, so I let it percolate until I realized that for me, there are three reasons:

 

  1. It feels like setting a big bag of rocks down that you have been unknowingly lugging around for years.

    I have to admit; I am sort of addicted to the feeling now. I love to “let go” of rocks before they pile up and become too heavy. One writer described her experience to me a few weeks ago as a weight off her chest—as if she could more fully take an in breath, and more fully exhale—for no other reason than she put down in words what she thought she would never share.

  1. The fear of people knowing your deep, dark secret—of judging you, and blaming you—it all sort of dissipates.

    The truth is, yeah, others may know, and so what?  We all have stuff we think no one will understand. Either they will or they won’t, but by facing the faceless monster, you are taking away the monster’s power. It’s empowering as you realize you don’t need to run anymore, you can stand in the light of your truth.

  1. You are speaking for those who feel they have no voice. 

    I can’t tell you how many times when a writer has taken a risk and shared his or her truth that someone comes up to them and thanks them. I hear sentiments like, “Thank you for putting my experience into words,” or “I had something just like that happen to me—I thought it was just me,” or “I feel less alone after hearing what you wrote.”

These moments are such full circle moments—we hide because we think we are the only ones with that kind of pain, then we share it—to realize just how many have experienced a similar kind of pain. By sharing what we are most afraid to share, we create community, spark healing in others while we heal ourselves.

For submission guidelines, click here. I if you have any questions, please contact me at Marnifreedman18@gmail.com. Please put Memoir Showcase 2018 in the subject line. I can’t wait to hear your stories about writing what you thought you could not.

Photo Courtesy of San Diego Memoir Showcase

Harnessing the Power of Six-Word Memoirs

a lit fire in a fireplace with hearthSix years ago, I lost my job right around the same time I became an empty nester. Adrift without direction and needing inspiration, I decided to sign up for the TedX San Diego conference.  I was surprised to learn there was an application form to be turned in before being accepted as a participant.  Among the thought provoking questions was a requirement to write a six-word memoir. We would use these six-word memoirs as talking points with other participants. That gave me pause. It had been years since I had written and shared my writing with others. Could I even write a six-word memoir?

It turned out to be a powerful exercise, requiring me to discern what had been the most important and interesting theme or themes in my life thus far and pointing to what I knew best.  

After much debate, I settled on this:  Smoking-gun girl cooks from the hearth.

I hoped to stimulate conversation:  Why Smoking-gun girl? What’s important about cooking? Why the word “hearth?”

I had a reputation for being a “finder,” earning me the nickname, “Smoking-gun girl,” and I liked this about myself.  I was inherently tenacious and knew whether I was seeking a critical piece of evidence, the perfect family vacation, or enlightenment, I was going to keep at it, paying attention to patterns and ferreting out the keystone.  

I had also developed a passion for cooking—not gourmet cooking, mind you, but something closer to peasant cooking.  I made endless variations of stone soup and relished the sensual art of hand chopping ingredients and melding them together. To me the hearth was symbolic of gathering together and nourishing each other with good food and good stories.

This six-word memoir pleased me and, in fact, helped me shape the next phase of my life.  Most importantly, it got me writing again. At that TedX conference, as I was sharing my six-word memoir with others, my adrift and unfocused self suddenly saw a simple next step: I would start a cooking and storytelling blog. I wanted to use my favorite recipes as a springboard from which to tell stories.  My blog would be my cyber hearth.  

I revisit the idea of the six-word memoir from time to time. I still find it to be a powerful focusing exercise for my writing. A few years ago I was a “Zen Tantrika Witch Casting Writing Spells.” These days I am more of a “Devoted Rock-climbing Dakini Cooking Up Stories.”  

I hope you’ll track me down and ask me about it.  And if you do, I’m going to return the favor and ask you:  What is your six-word memoir?  Please, do tell!

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1896745/

 

Would Shakespeare Tweet? #Maybe, Part 2, by Guest Blogger, Lisa Whalen

Bubba the cat hiding under a bookshelfLast month, I wrote about how my cat, Bubba, inspires me. Eighteen months after I adopted him from the Animal Humane Society, he continues overcoming fear and learning to trust despite past trauma. In fact, his playful batting of a stuffed mouse beneath a bookcase, as pictured, prompted me to overcome fear and learn to Tweet despite past (and present) introversion.

I discovered that Twitter doesn’t embody Othello’s famous line, “Chaos is come again.” It even provides benefits I hadn’t imagined. Here’s what I learned:  

  • Lurk. The same cacophony I dreaded allowed me to sit on Twitter’s banks and observe unnoticed while I figured out how its currents flowed and its rapids broke. I didn’t have to dive in unless and until I was ready. #soundandfury   #introvert

 

  • Make Twitter work for you. It is a tool, after all. Follow people you can learn from: writers, artists, editors, publishers. Check in on organizations that interest you, like nonprofits and hobbyist associations. #AWPW2W

 

  • Do you. If you don’t want to tweet, don’t. I started by thinking of Twitter as a device for professional development. Following writers and publishers exposed me to titles I could add to my reading list, writing tips I could apply, and associations I could join. Before I knew it, I was bobbing along on Twitter’s surface, making my way happily downstream.

 

  • Experiment. My low profile meant I didn’t have to get a tweet right the first time, as the perfectionist in me often demands. I could let go of the reserved professional I play at work. I could test out new personas and voices. Since I’m not Taylor Swift, no one would notice. And if, by random chance, someone does, well, then, I’ve accomplished what publishing industry insiders tell me I should. #TaylorSwift   #lookwhatyoumademedo

 

  • Accept help. Even if it’s inanimate (and grammatically incorrect). Twitter composed and offered to publish my first tweet, so I let it: “Hello Twitter! #myfirstTweet.” Silly? Yes. Unoriginal? Totally. Uninformative? Absolutely. But having someone (or somebot) launch me into the deep made releasing my grip on the shoreline easier.

 

  • Keep calm and carry on. The impulse to sprout feathers and squawk dire warnings faded when the sky remained intact after I composed my first tweet. Unless I land a network talk show like Ellen DeGeneres (highly unlikely) or run for political office (even less likely), nothing sky-shattering will result from what I tweet. Just like that, the pressure’s off. #chickenlittle    

 

  • Appreciate the benefits. Being confined to 140 characters has helped me work toward long-held goals: (1) write shorter, punchier sentences, (2) create catchier titles. Twitter’s push to rely on images also reconfigured my approach to other writing and teaching tasks.

 

  • Set limits. Twitter can be a time suck. It’s especially compelling when I want an excuse not to write: I’m building my platform. I’m learning how to promote my work. After 30 minutes? No. I’m procrastinating. I’ve decided I can only login when I can articulate a specific goal, such as finding and following an agent I want to query.Promote. Your writing, your causes, yourself. Everyone else is doing it; you might as well, too. Though uncomfortable at first, it gets easier. If you really squirm when typing a soliloquy, generate one tweet (or retweet) for a charitable cause to match every tweet you write for your own benefit.

 

  • Have fun. Once I got acclimated, I surfed bigger waves. Now I follow favorite entertainers and my celebrity crush, Stephen Colbert. Maybe one day I’ll grow brave enough to tweet @StephenAtHome. #stephencolbert  #colbertlateshow   #LSSC   #colbertnation

Take it from a reluctant social media swimmer: Come on in, the water’s fine! And if you follow me @LisaIrishWhalen, I can even show you the ropes.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/2430933/

Journey to the Cottage–A Guided Meditation to Start the New Year

the word, breathe, in a bunch of leavesI’d like you to settle down on the edge of your chair and close your eyes. Begin to consciously relax . . . Relax the muscles of your face. Take a deep breath, in through your nose and out through your nose or mouth. Scan your body for any tension. Are your shoulders hunched?

Pay attention in this moment to the feeling of the ground beneath your feet, to the feeling of your buttocks on the edge of the chair. Take another couple deep breaths, feeling the rise of your belly in and out as you breathe . . .

Now take a moment to bring to mind a word or phrase that evokes within you the feeling of awe. It could be something like Truth or Love or God or Sunsets. The only precaution is to not choose a word that has any negative baggage associated with it.

Mentally see that word resting in the center of your chest, warming you, protecting you, inspiring you as we go on this journey.

And now, I’d like you to imagine that you are standing on the sidewalk of a busy city street. It’s full of shops and businesses, and you can see crowds of people hurrying from one place to another, wearing suits, carrying briefcases. You hear the sounds of high heels and polished boots clicking on the pavement. In the distance a child is crying, a dog barking. Traffic is rushing by. Someone is honking his or her horn. And while you are standing on the street in all of the rush and energy, amidst the cacophony of a busy city, of life, you decide to take a walk away from the hustle and bustle.

You begin walking down a side street and slowly the sounds of the downtown area begin to recede somewhat. You notice for a moment that you feel slightly more relaxed. You feel your shoulders drop and you breathe a little deeper, a little easier.

You keep walking until you reach the edge of town. At the edge of town you notice there is small dirt road to one side, a country lane of sorts, lined with Jacaranda trees. You admire for a moment their beautiful purple flowers.

You set off down this country lane and as the sounds of the city continue to fade, you begin to notice other sights and sounds. You hear birds chirping nearby and trees rustling in the slight breeze; you notice the sound of a river rushing nearby. You see a rabbit scamper across the road and squirrel dash up a tree. A hawk circles overhead.

You keep walking down the lane a little slower now. At the end, the lane opens up into a beautiful grassy field. In the center of the field is small stone cottage. To the left of the cottage is a towering Oak tree offering a bit of shade. And to the right is a trellis covered in climbing fragrant jasmine. Not too far away from the trellis a stream meanders by.  You stop for a moment and look at the cottage. It evokes something deep within you.  A feeling of curiosity, of anticipation creeps in. It looks so enticing sitting there. You wonder what is inside. You wonder what it would be like to live there. You approach the door with some reverence. The wooden door is beautifully carved with intricate floral scrolls, but you notice it doesn’t appear to have a handle or knob. Instead there is an odd contraption that you don’t recognize, and the word “Release” appears on the door. You are not sure what to make of that, but there does not appear to be an obvious way to open that door.

Your attention is drawn to the side where a bench sits next to the little stream. You make your way over to the bench and sit in the warm sun and light breeze, listening for a moment to the sounds of the babbling brook next to you, taking in the scenery all about. You take off your shoes and wriggle your toes in the fresh grass.

At your feet is a basket filled with twigs and leaves. There is a note pinned to the basket. You pick up the note and read, “Release these into the stream; accept all that is, and a Way will open.” You pick up the first leaf and notice it is inscribed with the word “Shoulds.” You think of all the “shoulds” you carry with you daily. “I should be doing the laundry.” “I should be nicer to so and so.” “I should eat less and exercise more.” “I should meditate.” And with a sudden appreciation of the burden of all your shoulds, you toss the leaf into the river and watch it flow away.

You pick up another leaf and on it is written “Shouldn’t.” “I shouldn’t be wasting my day here doing nothing,” you might think. “I shouldn’t put off writing.” But you feel the weight of the shouldn’ts too, and you toss the leaf in. You pick up a twig and on it is written “Worry.” You think about all the different worries that inadvertently consume you. You might be worried there is not enough time to do what you want to do. You might be worried that you have let someone down. You might be worried about hurting somebody. You take a deep breath and toss that twig into the stream too. Right now, in this moment, there is nothing you need to worry about. Worry is only a distraction.

Another twig bears the words “wants and needs” and you think about all the things you want or think you need to do or have in order to be content and you realize that you can be content right here, right now with no further embellishment. So you toss that into the creek too.  At the bottom of the basket is a small forked branch bearing on one limb the word “Fear” and on the other the word “Shame.” You understand that fear and shame also hold you back. Maybe you fear that you are not good enough, or that you are unworthy or incapable or inadequate.  Maybe you fear failure or perhaps success. Perhaps you carry some inescapable feeling of shame. Whatever you feel ashamed about, whatever you feel, in this moment with a touch of childlike abandon, you take a chance and release the last branch into the river.

As you let it go and watch it drift down the moving water, you feel a kind of lightness in your being. You are free for the moment of the voices of self-hate and self-doubt.  You feel a hint of curiosity—what’s next? You wonder. Then a sound captures your attention, and you turn to see that the contraption on the door of the cottage is swirling.  The door swings open. A warm light glows from inside. A hint of a smile crosses your face. You get up from the bench and step inside the cottage.

The cottage is a beautiful little candlelit library with soft chairs to each side and a writing desk in the middle. On the desk is a steaming mug of tea. As you move toward the desk you see a book lying there as well. A sense of anticipation and happiness spreads from within, and you smile as you see it is your favorite kind of book. There is something just right about it. The kind of book you can curl up with. Is it by my favorite author you wonder? I like that writer. I trust that writer. You pick it up feeling for a moment the weight of it in your hands, caressing it a little. You open up the book and you find all the pages are blank except for one word on the top of the first page.  That word is your word—your awe word. In the stillness of that cottage, all shoulds and shouldn’ts, worries, needs, fear and shame released, book in hand, you experience a profound feeling of appreciation and acceptance of your own life, your own journey. You feel your own essence alive in that space and in a moment of brilliant clarity reflect: I am a writer. I have something to say that no one else can say in quite the same way. My voice is unique.

I am inherently perfect just the way I am, you realize.

You sit for a moment in gratitude, feeling your breath move easily through your body. In through your nose, down your throat, filling your belly and out again. Breathe in . . . breathe out.  You place your hands on your chest and breathe in again deeply and then exhale, and with the exhale you feel your awe word; you feel your own unencumbered Self resonate in the center of your chest.

 

Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

Scared to Write the Full Truth About Your Family Members? I Hear You

The Power of AND When It Comes to Writing the People in Your Life

a woman with two faces on either side of her head

I’m going to write a sentence that shocks even me: 

My father was both a racist and not a racist.  

When I go to write about him, I find I can’t write one without the other. Writing about one would be only half the picture. It is only when I capture both that I capture my father.  

Let me explain a bit more.  

My father struggled with people of color. He also fought in the Civil Rights era. In 1964, he stood with a baseball bat outside polling places and made sure that black people were allowed to vote safely.  

He sometimes said disparaging things about Mexicans. Yet, at his funeral, the Mexican waiters from his retirement home came and cried over his casket. He had become their champion, sent them cards or money for college, and cheered on their victories. One of them held my hand as we placed dirt on the grave, and he said, “I will never forget him, he helped me see what I could be.”

But how can this be, you wonder? How can someone be both a racist and not a racist? Or a sexist in some situations and not a sexist in others? Or wildly selfish and also unselfish?

The reason is that we are complex beings who live in the real world of “and.” We travel in the light, and we travel in the dark.

In my experience, we are often afraid of the “and.”

We often have a hard time reconciling that people may be multi-faceted, contradictory, and complex because we yearn for simplicity. We yearn to understand, to have real and true clarity. We want our good guys to be good guys and our bad guys to be bad.

We hold people up in the public eye as good or bad, innocent or guilty, compassionate or cold, angry or calm. Then when we see the other side, we are shocked, saddened, or dismayed. Our worlds don’t make sense anymore. “But I thought he was one of the good guys…” I sometimes hear people say.

I believe the main reason we do this is because our own primal, darker side scares us. Maybe it’s because we have been ostracized, condemned, shamed, or shunned when we have shown these sides. Maybe it’s because we fear the consequences if we show these sides. Maybe it’s because we were never taught how to hold both parts of the self—the dark and the light—and be okay with the whole package.

I’m continually inspired by one of my bold and brave writers, Donna, who is capturing the complex picture of her husband in her new memoir. Her husband was a problem gambler who spent all of their money and ended up taking his own life. But, as we read the book, we see the full picture. He was a good man and a loving father. He was bright and hard working. He provided respite, sanity, and support in the places her family of origin never could. For many years, he was a strong partner and an excellent provider. In the end, he was both a gambling addict and a really good man.

Or Kelly, who writes about her drug-addicted parents who were always one step away from homelessness or jail, and who used their food stamps only on themselves while Kelly worked three jobs as a 16-year-old just to get by. Yet, when I read her first draft, I realized the book was a love letter to her parents. Free-spirited and full of life, her parents taught Kelly the joy of now. They loved her fiercely, danced with her, shared their love of nature with her and instilled a sense of adventure within her spirit that shines to this day. Her parents were both self-absorbed drug addicts and loving magic makers.

My advice?

Don’t shy away from the “and” of it all. I mean within yourself and your writing. If your dark side comes a calling, acknowledge it—give it a voice. You don’t have to act from that place, but allowing the space for it can be amazingly healing. You are not sick, twisted, messed up, or worthless because you have a dark side. You are human. And the chances are that if you start providing tolerant compassion to yourself, it might extend to others in your life.

And get this:

If you can appreciate the complexity of the human experience and strive to capture it on the page, then you will be offering your reader the nectar they have been most thirsty for—understanding that they are not alone.

When you capture a person or a character that lives in both the light and the dark places, just as your reader does, they will see a reflection of themselves, of their own human experience.

By writing in this way, you are lifting the veil that reveals that not one of us is truly alone—but in fact, we are all living in this complex, confusing, and beautiful land together.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/3017747/