Tag Archives: writing

The Pivot

This is the stairwell between the first floor of my hospital and the basement, the route that leads to the cafeteria. In 20 years, I’ve been down these stairs thousands of times. They get repainted every few years and the non-skid safety strips are checked and replaced. This stairwell is mostly used by staff, so it’s not the prettiest–all fluorescent lights and workaday beige.

Maybe it was because I’ve been so contemplative lately, or maybe just that I was walking to lunch alone instead of talking to a friend, but today I had to stop and….stare. Notice anything?

It's OK to stair.

It’s OK to stair.

Every bottom stair has a worn out place. Why is that ONE SPOT worn away when the rest of the stairs are fine?

Couple of reasons:

It’s the lowest point. No matter if you start out at the top of the stairs walking to the left or right, if you’re in a crowd or alone, if you stop to hold the door for others, by the time you get to that lowest step, you’re in single file. Nobody’s swinging wide to go around a blind corner. Like cows in a chute, we arrange ourselves into an orderly pace and space to take that corner. We draw closer to the wall, to make ourselves safe from whatever might be barreling around the blind turn. Or we make ourselves small to keep from barreling around the corner.

It’s the spot where you pivot. Halfway down the stairwell, you have to switchback. One hundred and eighty degree turn in the opposite direction. Our graceful bodies teeter on that narrow bottom step, then without even thinking about it, all our weight shifts onto the ball of the foot and with an elegant little swing of the hips we change direction. But pivoting our entire body weight on about a 1-inch spot in the sole creates a lot of pressure. It’s far more pressure to change the direction in which we’re moving.

Everybody’s doing it. Every foot that takes those stairs hits THAT spot. Over a few weeks, hundreds of thousands of feet use that stairwell and because we are creatures of habit, every foot hits that spot. THAT SPOT. The total surface area of the stairs is irrelevant, because not every square inch is used equally. It’s that ONE SPOT that takes the beating.

And I guess I had to stop myself from crying in the stairwell because that little worn-out spot called to me. We have so much in common right now, that little spot and me. I’ve been at my lowest for the last few months, clinging to the wall and hesitant about going around the corner. Life is forcing me to pivot. I’m going in one direction then BAM…a 180 is required. And it seems that everybody’s doing that. Raise your hand if you’re feeling ground down and a little dizzy from the switching back and forth.

Even with 195 drafts in my folder, I couldn’t bring myself to write for an entire month. And this story right here might be in the bottom 10% of my output over the last four years. Look at that photo…terrible! How am I going to SEO this post about hospital basement linoleum and depression?

I tried to learn more about the idea behind the worn out pivot, but that led me down a rabbit hole of Newtonian mechanics and Pinterest boards for best patterned carpets to hide wear on your stairs.

So this drab picture of a scuffed up spot on a basement stairwell is what I’ve got for today. I wrote about it because it made me feel something. If you’ve read this far, please accept my apologies. I’m sorry that I made you read this drivel, and I’m even more sorry that I haven’t trusted you with the stuff that’s clanging around in my head. But here we are at the bottom, so it’s time to pivot.

See you soon.

 

 

 

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.

word-of-the-year

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.

15826390_10209980013489957_7938348581327501787_n

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.

resting-butterfly

 

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.

archer-299498_1920

 

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.

old-791454_1920

“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.

button-623174_1920

 

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.