Tag Archives: writing

My Word for 2017

Last night when I had finished writing in my gratitude journal, I took the pen and scrawled one word on the back of my left hand: WRITE. By the time I rolled out of bed this morning, the word had already faded between my pillowcase and cheek, but there was enough of it left to give me that nudge. WRITE.

So natuarlly, I spent most of the day clearing four bags of donations and two bags of pure-T trash out of the kids’ rooms. I rearranged furniture and glued broken Christmas ornaments together. I finished a book (My Sunshine Away) and started the next one (Hillbilly Elegy). I ate the last of the Jordan almonds that I bought for Christmas because they were Daddy’s favorite. I bought dog food and folded laundry. I exfoliated and moisturized (eradicating that reminder to WRITE along the way). I wished G’s mom safe travels on her way back to Brasil. I took the kids to a movie. I even started a Facebook thread about choosing a word for 2017.

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Folderol–that should be my word. Because now it’s 11:28 p.m. and I’m still chasing my tail.

I thought about “act.” Or “speak.” I want to dedicate this year to action and speaking my truth and speaking up for what I believe in. Then Jenna suggested “listen.” Isn’t that even more important than speaking? Maybe I need to focus on listening this year. When Vivi and I were cleaning in her room, I found a picture she had drawn of G and me arguing while she and Carlos sat in a porthole on the cruise ship. Oof. Do I really need more Speak? I need more Listen.

Friends suggested many gentle words: present, open-hearted, patient, kindness, grace, peace, smile, hope, light.

I’m not feeling like it’s going to be a gentle year. They suggested some fighting words too: rise, resist, courage, strength, grit, going, fierce, tenacious, valiant, endure, stand, endeavor, persevere.

I pondered words while I folded laundry. You can’t be doing laundry on New Year’s Day–it’s bad luck. I considered words while I ran to the grocery store to buy greens and peas. Gotta eat some peas for luck and greens for money on New Year’s Day, right? I tried out words while I swept under around the kitchen. If you sweep on New Year’s Day, you’ll sweep someone out of your life.

I celebrate the new by following old superstitions. Even though I know it’s all silliness, I follow the traditions because they remind me of where I come from and they give me a little illusion that I can control where I’m going.

And the one New Year superstition that I hope does prove true is the idea that whatever you’re doing at midnight is what you’ll be doing for the rest of the year ahead. I’m tapping away on my keyboard. Writing is the thing that I do to rise, resist, keep going, persevere. It’s my way of being fierce, tenacious, and valiant.

Writing is also where I find peace, how I practice grace, how I remain present. My best writing is kind and open-hearted and light.

So my word for 2017? WRITE.

And the grandfather clock that my Daddy made for me is striking 12 bells. Happy New Year, y’all. Let’s go find our stories.

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She Simply Needed to Rest

On the second night of my adventure to the beach, I lay tucked into bed with a book and five pillows. The hotel fan was set on Hi but I left the sliding glass door open to listen to the sound of the ocean.

My rest ended abruptly with an ominous THUNK followed by a frenzy of flapping. I peeked over the edge of the bed in fear that a bird had blundered into my space. But I saw nothing, and the room was quiet again. Had I imagined it in a half dream, like that falling feeling that startles me awake sometimes?

Another flapflapflap led my eye to the source. One large orange butterfly clung to the bright white sheet of the hotel bed. Something gentle that had wandered into a different world.

Gulf Fritillary at Tybee Beach

Gulf Fritillary at Tybee Beach

I scooted my hand under her feet–I decide it’s a female right away for no reasonable reason–but she flees from my touch and hops onto the sofa. I try again to shoo her towards the open door and back out into the dark night. She flies to the curtain, then up to the white coffered ceiling.

Safely out of reach of my helpful blunderings, she folds her wings together to reveal brown and opalescent white patches. As I stand on the sofa below her perch, I witness the moment when the energy of her body stills completely, as if she has flipped a switch to OFF.

After a while, I go back to my book and my bed, but I leave the door open all night so that she can return to the world if she needs to. I leave her unbothered so she can avoid the world if she needs to.

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In the morning, the butterfly is still suspended from the ceiling, still folded. As I pack my bags, I make a mental note to carry her out onto the balcony before I leave. I couldn’t stand the thought that a harried hotel maid might swat at her. Someone else, with more on their mind, might see a bug instead of a butterfly.

I slip off my flip flops to stand on the couch but before I can lift myself up to reach her, the butterfly turns the switch to ON. With an orange fluttery flash that startles me from my wobbly perch, we both go tumbling through the air toward the door. She lingers on the railing of the balcony then takes off in circles of flight, off towards the sunrise.

Just like me, that butterfly needed a place to rest, a safe place to be still and turn the switch to OFF.

I’ve been off work this whole week, as a birthday treat to myself. I can’t recommend it highly enough! But even with the prospect of a week to do whatever I needed to do, I burned the first two days with errands and to-do lists. I voted, I donated outgrown clothes, I washed the car, I sold it. The pool project got finished and paid for. I polished that bracelet that has been needing attention. I got my toenails painted for the first time since July 4th. I bought a new car and read the manual to learn how the radio works. I bought the right kind of snacks at the grocery store and made sure the kids would have clean clothes for the week. I busied myself with getting ready to relax.

After two delicious nights on Tybee Island and hour after hour of reading and writing and laughing with old friends and eating shrimp at every opportunity, and taking naps, and sitting in the sun…I got back on someone else’s schedule and got myself to the dock to catch a ride to Ossabaw Island for a writing retreat.

I didn’t think I had a lot of expectations, but apparently I did. The island was still cleaning up after Hurricane Matthew. The air hung thick with mosquitos. There was no breeze. After the lush hotel bed, I was reduced to a bunk bed in a room with nine other women. Our lunch had gotten wet on the trip over. Someone drank one of my Diet Cokes that I had lovingly packed. There were many nice people and a couple who annoyed me right off the dock with incessant chattering. There was no place to hide except behind my rigid smile.

Oh, and that teacher I’ve been excited about working with? He couldn’t make it. There’s someone else and he’s perfectly skilled and kind and here, but I need a moment to adjust. I hit the end of my equanimity and I felt myself begin to flap, to wheel in crazy mental circles.

Like that butterfly, I needed a minute to myself.

I tried to go for a walk in the direction of the old tabby cabins, but the mosquitos threatened to carry me away, one drop of blood at a time. I walked around the corner of the wrap-around porch to find a place to cry but every Brumby rocker might invite a conversation. Finally, I grabbed my pack and walked back down the quarter mile track to the dock, the only stretch of this 24,000 acre island that I had already seen.

Ossabaw Island, 2 p.m.

Ossabaw Island, 2 p.m.

Just like the butterfly, I blundered into exactly the place I needed to be. Out on the dock, there was a cool breeze. No mosquitos. A wide blue sky. Space to breathe. Silence. Except for something big in the water that surfaced, flopped, and disappeared before I could spot it. Peace and quiet, rippling across the water and across my worried mind.

I folded myself and tucked my wings together. I hung there in quiet, as DNR trucks unloaded, a kayaker paddled by, a couple pulled up to the dock and unloaded. The chatter passed and quiet returned, every time.

After a while, with my wings recharged by rest, I went back up the dirt road to join my people. Good people, curious people, brave people who crossed the water to find a community of writers. We each stretched our wings and began to see where they might take us.

My neighbor on the dock.

My neighbor on the dock.

Kinetic Energy and Potential Energy

Think back to elementary school science class. Remember learning about kinetic energy and potential energy? I was smitten with the word “kinetic” from the moment I heard it–that word is not one you bump into by accident. It is a book-learning, SAT kind of word. I’ve been thinking a lot about kinetic energy and potential energy this morning as I try to get myself packed to go to a writing retreat. I have re-organized our silverware drawer, talked to my insurance agent, folded everything that needs folding, and even done a few chores for other people because I am a bundle of nerves. I am downright kinetic.

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So, in case you are having trouble finding that fourth grade science part of your brain, a refresher: imagine an archer, pulling back the string of a bow. Potential energy is “the energy possessed by a body by virtue of its position relative to others, stresses within itself, electric charge, and other factors.” So when the archer pulls back on the bowstring, the string possesses a great amount of potential energy, all derived from the force the archer’s muscles can pull, the tautness of the string itself, the angle at which the string is stretched, etc. When the archer’s fingers let slip, we are watching kinetic energy as the arrow is pushed forward by the released energy of the bowstring. Kinetic energy is the energy of being in motion.

For potential to move to kinetic, the archer has to LET GO.

Last week, when I wrote about the challenge I’m facing with writing, Margaret reminded me of something our boot camp coach Tami used to say: if you want to run faster, you have to run faster. Simple in words, but hard in dead…right? Margaret pushed through her PhD with those words. Tami moved herself from a nursing career to an interior design career. To achieve the thing you want, you have to DO the thing you dream of. The only way to train your body to run faster is to push it to run faster. Not to talk about running, watching Chariots of Fire every night, join a running list serv, or shop for new shoes. You get better at running by running.

That got me thinking (see how I’ve been doing allllll this thinking but no writing?) about Wise Heather. Heather has been training for MONTHS for the Marine Corps Marathon. It’s her first full marathon and it’s this weekend. She’s running in memory of her father. She has hit every mark of her training plan, mile after mile after mile. She’s run in wind and rain and heat and other cities and other races. She knows the course elevation. She knows the forecasted temperatures. She knows she has to “beat the bridge” at mile 18 and she has practiced running that far, that fast.

Then her training plan told her to quit running. Not quit altogether, but quit pushing herself higher. This is the dreaded “taper” that runners have to do before a race. Cut the mileage back, let your muscles rest, all with the aim of going farther and faster because you slowed down.

Heather is pulling the bowstring and it is HARD. Building up potential energy requires those stresses in oneself. Waiting to let the string go and see how far it can push the arrow, in the right direction, if the wind is right.

I am writing these words, right now, about her, and about math and science and Margaret and Tami and elementary school, because I really want to be writing a book and it is HARD. I think about writing and talk about writing and read books written by people who know how to write. But the only way to write more is to write more. In sun and wind and rain and in other cities.

So. My car is packed. The string is pulled. Now I just have to let go. Change potential into kinetic.

This Saturday, think of Heather and remind her that she can do this. At the same time she is running her race, I will be writing mine. We can do this. Potential to kinetic.

Let’s go.

bullseye

Opening the Book

Laocoon Group

Laocoon and his sons. Ancient statue unearthed in 1500s and now on display in Vatican.

This is what my writing ritual looked like this morning:

  1. Eat all the carbs left over from the Leukemia Society bake sale.
  2. And drink two Diet Cokes.
  3. Feel all the guilt for abandoning my beloved children for a few hours so I can go downstairs and write. (They were both staring contentedly at their respective electronics.)
  4. Gather more carbs, the computer, a 44oz plastic cup of ice water, and that book written by the guy I get to study with in a couple of weeks.
  5. Plug in computer, eat a caramel apple (simultaneously).
  6. Stand in the morning sun as it makes shadows of the heart-shaped redbud leaves and read the last 10 pages of The World’s Largest Man. It’s so good, I can’t sit down. So good, I want to stand in the sun.
  7. Snot up 5 tissues because it’s over, along with so many other things in this life. Cry for my daddy, cry for Richard, cry for all those chipmunks that Biscuits has brought to the back door this week. Cry for autumn. Cry for carbs. Cry because the kids might be up there right now eating the last of the fudge cake that is supposed to be my reward for writing. Cry for my kids because they have an awful selfish mother like me.
  8. Climb quietly up the basement stairs to listen to the family up above. I don’t want to go up there and have to explain the red face, but I need to get close enough to hear three sets of footsteps (or at least the buzz of three screens) to confirm that no beloveds have died while I took a few minutes to pursue my dream.
  9. Skulk back down to the office and wake up computer from Sleep mode. Beg Facebook friends to harangue me into writing.
  10. Look up Harrison Scott Key on Facebook then suffer mild panic attack because this uproarious and visceral memoir that he’s written has won the Thurber Prize for American Humor. I sent him 25 pages of my manuscript to critique about a week ago. He’s probably at the store to buy more red pencils.
  11. Pull up manuscript. Spot every obvious flaw. Gnash teeth.
  12. Put on some music. Shuffle lands on Counting Crows “Long December” just as I’m thinking about almost writing that part of the story from December 31 of that awful year when Richard called from Baltimore, heartbroken because a doctor had told him it was time to go home and die. I sat in the sun on the last day of that longest December and didn’t know what to say to him. But I knew that this year would not be better than the last.
  13. Pace around small office. Lean in corners to cry. Rest head on molding around door. Crawl into grandmother’s platform rocker and try to remember what it was like before life got big.
  14. Sit down at the fucking hateful computer again.
  15. Glance up to the bookshelves and spot the green Mead notebook that I wrote in when Richard first got diagnosed. Take it off the shelf and contemplate opening it for the first time in a decade.
  16. Chicken out.
  17. Chicken back in.
  18. Step back into July 4, 2014.
  19. Wish I hadn’t.
  20. Distract myself with googling images of the Laocoon group because MAN, I GET THAT GUY. He was a Trojan priest who tried to warn them that the Trojan Horse left by the Greeks shouldn’t be allowed into the city. Athena, protector of the Greeks, struck him and his two sons with serpents. Basically, he tried to tell the truth, he tried to expose the lie that would kill them all….and died for it. Some say that he didn’t die from the venom. He was left to live and carry the loss of his sons, his city, his position, his everything. Telling the truth gets you snakebit, kids.
  21. Conclude that maybe I’m being a bit grandiose and should just get back to writing the simple story of a woman who made it through a couple of snake fights and might have some teeny grains of wisdom to share with other, equally snake-grappling folks.
  22. Write two paragraphs.
  23. Erase one.
  24. Listen to Bonnie Raitt sing “Not the Only One.”
  25. Write another paragraph.
  26. Call it a day.
  27. Climb upstairs, broken but unbowed (maybe a little bowed).
  28. Kiss children on heads.
  29. Eat some cake.

Start With a Good Shove

The previous owner had neglected the yard for years, so when Richard and I bought this house, there were plenty of projects to keep us busy. He was happier than a pig in slop because his project-loving self had been cooped up in an apartment for many years.

One of the first projects he settled on was taking out a dead dogwood tree. It sat near the corner of the house, too close to the power lines for his reckoning.

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“I think we should call a tree surgeon.” He rolled his eyes at my suggestion. It wasn’t THAT big of a tree. But it was too big for a hand saw, so we went over to Home Depot and bought a little chain saw.

I made him buy eye protection too and he laughed at me.

Back in the front yard, he yanked ivy away from the base of the tree while I watched from the safety of the front steps.

“Have you ever used one of these before?”

“For cryin’ out loud, Ashley–yes, I know how to use a chain saw. We used one every summer at Camp Greenbriar.” When I still didn’t look convinced, he reminded me that the army allowed him to blow stuff up for many years, way bigger stuff than a dead tree. Still.

Before he pulled the cord to crank it, I yelled, “WAIT!” I ran inside the house and came back with the phone, so I could call 911 if anything horrible happened. Again with the eye rolling.

Richard studied the space between the tree limbs and the power lines and decided on the angle he needed to cut to get the tree to fall in the right direction. I clutched the phone and braced myself. He placed his hand on the crumbling bark gave it a little shove to make sure none of the branches were ready to fall right on his head.

The tree moved a good three inches. He looked up at me on the porch and grinned.

He put both hands on the trunk and gave it a good shove.

The tree fell flat over onto the lawn with a whump.

The trunk was so rotten that the ivy had been holding it up.

We laughed. God, how we laughed.

“Well, I’m glad we didn’t call the tree surgeon.” Then I went back inside and put the phone on the charger.

So much of my life has been like that episode with the tree–the hours spent in worry and planning, buying safety goggles and wondering if I shouldn’t leave it to a professional. When I finally get around to attacking the thing, it’s a whole lot easier than my mind has made it out to be.

I haven’t written in eleven days, because I didn’t know how to begin. How can I stop writing about my grief when I’ve barely scratched the surface? But how can I write again about grief when last night was Halloween and it was lovely to see my tiny Iron Man run from house to house? Today is All Souls’ Day or All Saints or Dia de los Muertos, depending on where you grew up. Terri is walking the labyrinth; Brantley and Luis built an altar in their home. The picture of our friend Spencer is right next to the photo of Lola the pup rescued from Taiwan. But I don’t want to write about that–I don’t even want to think about the ones who have passed through the door.

This little story about the tree seemed as good a way as any to get my fingers moving again. To get myself off the porch. To start with a good shove.

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Perfect Pointless Mornings

The dogs are back on the beach at St. Simon’s. They’re only allowed on the public beaches between Labor Day and Memorial Day. As I took my stroll from the Coast Guard Station towards Gould’s Inlet Sunday morning, tennis balls and frisbees flew through the air with suburban bird dogs hot on their tails.

Sunday Morning on St. Simon's Island

Sunday Morning on St. Simon’s Island

“Katie, get up here!” one woman hollered to a sopping wet spaniel when she wandered off to a tide pool. “Amber! Amber! Amber!” a man chanted to a Corgi with better things to do than listen. “Bella! Bella! Good girl!” and the chocolate lab got a treat for coming back from the sand dunes when she was called. “Archie! Get the ball! Archie!” The beach sounded like a playground 10 minutes before nap time when everyone gets worked up and worn out.

I wandered along the edge of the water, my eyes down looking for shells to put in the plastic cup I had brought along. It was already an hour later than I had planned to leave for home. But I couldn’t live with myself if I drove 700 miles to the seashore for a board retreat and didn’t at least get my feet wet. In a word, I was lolly-gagging.

The tide was almost at its low, so there were plenty of shells to be had, mostly plain old oysters and clams. I’d pick up a promising one and hold it up to the sun as it rose over the low brown ocean. I’m looking for shells with natural holes worn in them for a project I’m working on back home. If the sun shone through, I put the shell in my cup. I love the ones that have grown smooth and pocked with time as they’ve rolled back and forth along the bottom of the sea. I want to string them together and make a windchime for the screened porch.

On one side of me, the sandy expanse of beach rollicking with dogs. On the other side, the quiet brown ocean teeming with life and mystery and danger. Pelicans and power walkers and crabs and investment bankers all out to get what they needed from the morning. And me shuffling along the narrow line where all that activity comes together.

Where this meets that

Where this meets that

Story-telling is like that. While the whole wide world goes on around me, I’m sifting through the little broken leftover things. Picking up a gray one and tossing it back into the water. Holding another one up to the sun to see if a little light peeks through. Putting it in my pocket if it shows promise. I’ll take these home and mix them in with all the shells I’ve picked up this summer and last summer and the summers before that. I’ll rinse them off with a little water and leave them in the sun to bleach. Shells, like stories, reveal hidden colors and crannies, after you show them a little attention and let them sit for a while.

After an hour at the beach, I got back in the car with the sand still on my feet and pointed the car towards Griffin. My dad isn’t doing well and I wanted to go by and see him. His precarious health is the ocean-sized story I haven’t been writing about for a couple of months. The idea of life without a parent is dark and mysterious and dangerous and eternal like that quiet brown ocean I walked beside this morning. So I’ve been looking at the shells instead of at the sea.

Crabby on SSI

Crabby on SSI

With shells and stories rattling around in the car, I played The Cowboy Junkies “Open” CD on that first stretch of I-95 outside of Brunswick.

I don’t sleep most nights,
Just lie awake and count my blessings.

I’ll take this endless life
Of perfect pointless mornings.

I’ll hold you till the morning comes
’cause it’s all that I can do.

I’m so open. I’m so open.

I don’t like these last goodbyes.
I don’t like goodbyes.

I’ll take this endless life of perfect pointless mornings. It’s all that I can do.

Have a listen.

Hello, Friend. I Am Afraid of You.

Me on Day One of my first BlogHer!

Me on Day One of my first BlogHer!

Two years ago, when I went to BlogHer for the first time, I didn’t expect much. I’d only been writing for a few months and I knew that I knew pea turkey squat about the world of blogging. I met this one really cool woman, Heather, who was starting a blog, too. When I asked her what she wrote about, she said, “Well, I’m not really sure what my niche will be…” I looked at her with my gob hanging open and replied, “You’re a lesbian vegan parent of multiples, one of whom has special needs…and YOU can’t find a niche? I’m screwed.” Heather and I were standing on the Expo floor, surrounded by sponsors who wanted to establish relationships with bloggers–maybe like us?– who could generate content about their products. Air freshening candles, tapioca pudding, car seats, vibrators, seltzer water, hair care products from Best Buy…what the ever lovin hell?

I couldn’t figure out where I fit in. Then on Friday night, the Voice of the Year keynote blew me away. In the midst of all the expo noise and the SEO tips and the social media optimization strategies, these women were recognized for getting up on stage with a microphone and telling stories. I had found my niche. Telling stories.

20140725_210343So last year, I went for it. And I got a spot on that stage with that microphone. The entire trip to BlogHer14 in San Jose centered around that seven minutes on the stage. By that time, I knew I could sustain my blog. I knew I could tweek widgets and self-host and run ad code and learned even more about those things at the conference. But the whole conference was pre-VOTY nerves and post-VOTY high.

Something different happened after last summer’s conference. I kept my place at the blogger table on social media. I friended other writers and I followed people so I can learn from them. My friend, Dee, said, “Why are you liking stuff on a site about natural hair for Black women?” Because Patrice at Afrobella is a pro. I’ve been watching how these women build community by participating in their communities on line.

In the days leading up to BlogHer15 in NYC, I’ve found myself more anxious than I have been at the previous trips. And that’s completely weird because I know far more about blogging and branding than I ever have before. I’m not looking for a niche, or the spotlight this year.

I’m looking to meet my friends.

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I want to hug A’Driane’s neck because for a year I’ve been learning from her about how to raise boys with quirks. I want to see what shoes Luvvie will be wearing and I want to vote for her Red Pump Project HIV charity to win The Pitch. I can’t wait to see the dress that Alexandra ordered from China–it’s a gem of a clustercuss. I want to talk happiness with August and books with Thien-Kim and parenting with Vikki. I’ll listen and learn from women who aren’t like me. I’ll go to the Queerosphere party and I’m going to dance at killer karaoke like a white woman who learned her moves from Molly Ringwald sometime in the mid-80s. I want to hug the ones who are hurting and promise them that they will be OK.

All of those connections that we’ve been building over the interwebz for 12 months will have to step out into the light of day. I don’t know what anyone’s voice sounds like. I don’t recall who is tall (well, Arnebya is) and who is short (Queen of Side Eye…ahem). I know Casey is handsome and her daughter is fancy. I’ll find these dear people in a crowd and then…

I’ll be me. Simply me. And I’ll be present. And I’ll be OK, too.

Because what I realized today is that this anxiety stems from some whack idea that when I am seen in the light, I will be revealed as that awful person that the voice inside my head sometimes tells me that I am. Even if that person isn’t real, if they don’t exist anywhere except inside my head. I might be the sum total of the worst parts of me instead of the best parts of me.

Hello friends. I am afraid of you because of how I might judge myself in your presence. But I have found my niche among this band of storytellers and I am thankful for the place at the table.

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The good fortune I took to San Jose